Brazilian Gold Rush

by Andy Hahn

As the 14 foot aluminum boat slowly motored upstream, I was lost in the natural beauty that surrounded us: herons, eagles, macaws and toucans flew among the palms on the riverbank, sidelit by the rising sun. At a point where the river narrowed and formed a series of riffles, our guide, speaking Portuguese, said it would be a good place to start trolling.

I selected a Rapala Shad Rap #9 and tied it on for my wife, Ligia, who promptly fed out 20 meters of line as the boat moved against the current. Reaching toward my tackle box to get a lure for myself, I was interrupted by Ligia’s shout, "Stop the boat, my lure is stuck!"

It certainly was. I lifted my head to see her rod forming a deep arc, when her lure suddenly came flying up out of the river - stuck firmly in the jaw of a very angry fish.

"Is it a dorado? I can’t believe it! It was so heavy that I thought my line was snagged," she cried.

"It’s a dorado, a beautiful dorado. Keep the rod tip up. That’s right. Good. Let him take line if he wants to. Reel in line when you can, but don’t force the fish too much." I coached Ligia as she fought the dorado, but she really didn’t need my advice. She was doing fine, keeping the fish under control as it jumped and made several short, strong runs. I suppose I was talking just to calm my own nerves.

The tired fish came to boatside and our guide slipped the gaff under its jaw and swung the 8 pounder aboard while Ligia bubbled excitedly about the fish’s strength and beautiful coloration. I could only mumble unintelligibly, pointing at the lure in the dorado’s mouth. Or, more precisely, what was left of the lure. The fish’s sharp teeth and powerful jaws had destroyed the Shad Rap, grinding away half of its wooden body and leaving the wire frame exposed.

That episode marked my first encounter with the golden dorado, one of Brazil’s most sought after gamefish. We were fishing near the Bolivian border in a region of western Brazil known as Pantanal, which means, literally, "Great Swamp". Pantanal is a vast wetlands ecosystem formed by the Rio Paraguai and its numerous tributaries, covering more than 200,000 square kilometers in the Brazilian states of Mato Grosso and Mato Grosso do Sul. Its waters, and especially the fish that abound there, attract thousands of anglers each year.

We spent the rest of the day trolling and casting artificials, and despite the good number of fish that we hooked, I have to say that the dorado got the best of us. They mangled my lures, bit through my wire leaders and straightened my treble hooks - and before the trip I had replaced the factory trebles on my lures with reinforced ones. By midafternoon all of my Shad Raps had been rendered useless by the dorados’ destructive dental hardware. In an act of desperation I put single 7/0 hooks on some Bagley’s diving plugs and immediately saw an increase in my rate of solid hookups because the dorado couldn’t straighten out the steel.

When To Fish In Pantanal

Timing is important when fishing in Pantanal because the rivers follow seasonal patterns of high and low water. From January through May the rivers overflow their banks and invade the surrounding low lying plains, scattering the dorado and making them difficult to locate. With luck, you can find dorado bunched up in ambush points where the water is flowing out of the flooded fields. During the low water season, from June through October, the dorado are concentrated in the river channels. One advantage to fishing at this time of year is that Pantanal’s abundant wildlife is much more visible. During a typical day of fishing the angler will see alligators, iguanas, capybara, otters, herons, eagles, toucans, and many other species of birds.

Because they are restless and move about in schools, it is often necessary to travel some distance up or downriver from your lodge before encountering any dorado. But when you do find them, you had better be prepared.

The dorado (Salminus maxillosus) resembles a golden trout that drank Dr. Jekyll’s formula and was transformed into an aggressive, toothy monster with a bad attitude. Its precious golden color disguises its ferocity: this fish could teach Mike Tyson how to be mean and disrespectful. A native of South American river systems, the dorado is found in Colombia, Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay and Brazil, but it does not occur in the Amazon basin. Several large rivers in Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay hold dorado that frequently top 30 pounds, but in Pantanal they run smaller, usually averaging under ten pounds. Scientists believe that several subspecies exist, thus explaining this regional difference in sizes.

TACKLE AND TECHNIQUES

Based on what happened to my wife and I on our first outing for dorado, I have come up with a method to pretest your tackle to see if it will withstand the punishment that these brutes can dish out. Take your lures and leaders down to your neighborhood butcher shop and send them through the meatgrinder. Twice. If everything comes out intact, then there is a good chance (but no guarantee) that your gear will hold up under the dorado’s abuse.

I may be exaggerating a bit with this example, but truthfully, you will have to bolster your tackle before taking on the hard-fighting golden dorado. These voracious predators have very sharp teeth, incredibly strong jaws and hard, bony mouths. They make short work of standard, out-of-the-box lures. Replace all trebles with 3X or 4X strong trebles or, if possible, with strong single hooks sized 4/0 or larger. Some lures may be thrown off-balance if single hooks are used instead of trebles, so you should test your lures in the water. Use reinforced split rings. Hooks must be as sharp as possible and you should use heavy duty snap swivels. Wire leaders (traces) of 20 to 30 pound test are also a necessity.

Like all predatory fish, golden dorado can be caught on live bait or artificial lures. Standard baitfishing gear includes a stout, stiff-tipped "Musky" type rod, a baitcasting or spinning reel with 20 to 30 pound test line, egg sinkers, 20 cm wire leaders and hooks in sizes 6/0, 7/0 or 8/0. One reason that such heavy equipment is needed is the fact that the live baits are rather large. The angler may use iscas brancas ("white baits"), the common term for baitfish that are about 12 cm in length, or tuvira, another type of baitfish that looks more like a small eel.

With the boat anchored or tied off to overhanging tree branches, baits are cast to points where water flows out of small bays into the main river channel, or near weedy growth along the riverbank. Another popular method is to let the boat drift downstream with the current, bouncing the baits along the bottom. Live bait fishing for dorado is often spiced up when other species of fish are hooked. Pantanal’s waters are home to a variety of fish, including piranha, pacu, and several types of catfish that can exceed 50 pounds.

Casting lures to a school of dorado leads to fast and exciting action. These gamesters hit hard and leap often when hooked. Productive lures include shallow diving plugs in sizes from 15 to 22 cm, such as Rapala Magnum and Bomber Long A 16, deep diving plugs, large spoons and spinners. Spinning or baitcasting tackle can be used with 10 to 20 pound test line. Line capacity need not exceed 150 meters because dorado do not make long, reel stripping runs. The rod must have plenty of backbone in order to set the hook in the dorado’s bony mouth, and remember to use extra strong treble hooks on your lures. Dorado prefer moving water, so cast your artificials in riffles and curves in the river where the water flows more quickly.

The dorado is a fantastic gamefish that has all the qualities the angler could wish for: it is big, strong, aggressive, and it takes lures readily. It is a strikingly beautiful fish that is found in an exotic South American setting, and it has led to the "discovery" of Pantanal by anglers from all over the world. These fishermen come in search of an angling adventure and end up discovering gold - the golden dorado.