Tsimane, Bolivia - How It All Started

Ken Morrish October 18, 2023

In today’s world of sophisticated international angling travel, the emergence of a truly new, exotic, unexplored world-class fishery is a special event.

This is the story of one such event. It began with an email and a half dozen images we received from Argentine outfitter Marcelo Perez in 2007. We were not to speak of it publicly, but between my partner Brian Gies and myself, it was hard to talk about anything else. The boulder-strewn rivers were exquisite jade green, and the virgin jungle, with its elegant canopy, framed them in a way we could only describe as poetic. These images reminded us of the remote trout streams in the southwest portion of New Zealand’s South Island and also of the smaller, far-from-the-road winter steelhead rivers of coastal Oregon and Washington. But these images were from a remote region of Bolivia, and the fish were the brilliant and brutal golden dorado that every traveling angler can’t help but want to hold. In 2008, Marcelo and I met in Buenos Aires, and I saw even more images and received an update on their grand plans. I told him that either Brian or I would visit as soon as possible and in the meantime, we would fidget like five-year-olds waiting for Christmas morning. In August of 2009, Brian was among the first to visit, and from that point forward, we were forever changed by what we consider possibly the most dynamic new fishery of the decade.

Flash forward roughly 15 years later to 2021 and the first helicopter exploratory trips began fishing tributaries that had never seen fly anglers before. If you’ve ever fished to large, wary predatory gamefish, you can imagine how much fun it can be to toss a 10” streamer into a run with several of these fish that have never seen an artificial fly or lure before. The bottom line is, you better hang on tight.

Mormons, Tribes and Traffickers

The story of how the Tsimane operation came together is almost as crazy as hooking a 25-pound dorado on a short line. In the beginning, there were just the Tsimane and the Yuracare people living simple hunting and fishing lives in a portion of Bolivia where the base of the Andes meets the lowlands, and the rivers flow north into the Amazon. Then, in the 1980s, as the demand for cocaine soared in the northern hemisphere, intrepid narco-traffickers boldly made their way up a very special river to an ultra-remote Tsimane community. Once there, they somehow enlisted the tribe to hack a primitive airstrip out of the jungle. Upon completion, they landed planes loaded with raw coca leaves and through a process of bathing the leaves in diesel, made raw cocaine. They did this for many years but ultimately, through tracking diesel purchases, the little lab in Tsimane territory was shut down by the authorities, and the locals returned to life as normal. The only real difference was that they now had a secret airstrip. In time, an ambitious young Mormon missionary learned of this band living in the Asunta region and their airstrip and headed in for a visit. He liked the place and the people and saw it as an opportunity. He must have also liked to fish because word spread of what he saw in the river; packs of big bright golden dorado mercilessly tearing through schools of unsuspecting baitfish. These rumors made it back to the Argentine dorado fishing intelligentsia, and soon Marcelo Perez and his contemporaries at Untamed Angling were on their way to creating the Tsimane operation and making Bolivian fly fishing history. Today the Tsimane program is a multifaceted collaborative effort that works closely with the Isiboro Secure Indian Territory and National Park, its tribal leaders, and over 70 local families that help support three unique lodges: Pluma, Agua Negra, and Secure.

The Ultimate Game Fish

The golden dorado (Salminus brasiliensis) is, without question, one of the world’s greatest game fish. With massive, powerful jaws, razor-sharp teeth, vicious predatory instincts, and wild aerial displays, they represent one of the ultimate target species for adventuresome fly anglers. Indigenous to Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, Argentina, and Bolivia, they often hunt in packs, chasing down their favorite baitfish, the sabalo. They can grow to over 60 pounds, and while most are in the 10-to 25-pound class, they are all too happy to attack baitfish in the six to eight-pound class. While fishing dorado at Tsimane, it is common to hook a four or five-pound fish only to have it attacked and, in some cases, completely swallowed by a larger dorado. Sometimes, you get half of your fish back; other times, it's just a shredded mess that looks like pasta with red sauce. It is equally as common to observe aggressive dorado trying to steal or eat the fly hanging out of the mouth of the fish you are fighting. Generally speaking, they display very poor manners.

Were one to take the best elements of a tarpon, a steelhead and something nasty, like a barracuda, spray paint it brilliant gold, and highlight it with black pinstripes, you would have a golden dorado. If you put that fish in the most pristine jungle environment imaginable, with untouched freestone rivers, massive log jams, incredible wildlife, countless bird species, and kind, fascinating native peoples, you would have Tsimane. While the Tsimane systems have resident dorado year-round, they also have a strong migratory population. Each season, typically in late May and June, millions of baitfish migrate up the greater Secure system, and with them come schools of large, aggressively feeding dorado. Here, it is common to see packs of fierce dorado herding baitfish into the shallows and mercilessly ripping through them. From a great distance, you can see the frothing commotion as the bait leaps into the air in a desperate effort to escape. From a quarter mile away, the raining down of sabalo sounds like a dump truck dropping 20 yards of gravel. When you find yourself in the midst of this carnage, frantically casting a six-inch fly into a fray of shark-like yellow fins and tails, you will have arrived in the Tsimane Zone

Tackle and Techniques

There is something special about targeting fish that are inherently mean and aggressive. Tentative soft takes or nipping at the tail of a long fly is not part of the program. When these fish come for your offering, they come hard and fast and no matter if your fly is three inches long or eight inches long with the hook way up at the head, they hammer the entire offering virtually every time. My preferred outfit is fast action nine-foot 8 or 9-weight rod. Pair that with a good saltwater reel and a weight forward line designed to throw big flies (like the Rio Elite Warmwater Predator line); a seven foot section of straight 40-pound mono and two feet of 40-pound wire attached with an Albright knot and you are set for 90 percent of the fishing situations that you will encounter.

When it comes to flies, the favored bets tend to be four to ten inches long and tied on 3/0 - 5/0 hooks. The most common designs are based on brush flies and saltwater streamers. Rio’s King Kinky Muddler, Big Baitfish and the Brammer Imposter all produced this past season. Additionally, large poppers, mice and sliders, can provide explosive top-water action.

All in all, there are few, if any, trips that I get more excited about than Tsimane. With great guides, accommodations, natural beauty, and wildlife, as well as the high likelihood of tangling with multiple fish in the ten-plus pound range every day, I see this as a true must-see destination for all serious adventure anglers. 

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Our Bolivia Destination Mangager is Anil Srivastava