The Quest for the Golden Dorado
For years, Bob Shacochis was obsessed with a fish, South America's fighting golden dorado. But when he followed that dream to Argentina's Iberá Marsh, he found that he wasn't the only one with a vision that could pull him under.
We each have our dreams and if they are meant to mean anything at all you hold tight and don't let them go. You can dream of love or money or fame or something much more grand than a fish, but if a fish swims into your imagination and never swims out it will grow into an obsession and the obsession might drag you anywhere, up to the metaphysical heights or down into an ass-busting nightmare, and the quest for my dream fish—South America's dorado—seems to run in both directions.
Of course the dream is never just about a fish but about a place as well, an unknown landscape and its habitat of active wonders, populated by creatures looming around the primal edges of our civilized selves. A place like the ancestral homeland of the Guaraní Indians at the headwaters of the Río Paraná, near where Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay come together. In the Guaraní language, pirá means “fish,” and this fish, the legendary dorado, is called pirajú, the affix meaning “yellow.” In my dreams the pirajú skyrockets out of its watery underworld, a piece of shrapnel from a submerged sun, like a shank of gold an archaeologist might find in the tomb of an Incan king.
After years of unrequited dorado lust, last spring I seized the dream by the gills and finally took off for the Southern Hemisphere. I would be hooking up with a guide known worldwide as the king of dorado, Noel Pollak, the best person wired into the fish and its latitudes, the guarantor of the dream and your insertion into its depths. Six months earlier we had schemed to meet in Bolivia at a Pollak-discovered location that had become renowned as dorado nirvana, but we had not been able to manage that trip, for reasons I'll get to in a moment. Instead, we were now connecting at the end of what should have been the fair-weather season somewhere in Argentina's Iberá Wetlands—an area almost seven times as large as Florida's Everglades—although the specifics of our rendezvous weren't exactly clear to me. Get on a plane, find me. Noel was frequently off in the bush, out on the water, and our communications had been last minute, the logistics addressed in a manner all too breezy and cavalier.
But that's how dreams operate—you fling yourself into their spell and expect it will all work out. What you really must expect however is the strong possibility that such immoderate optimism will be sorely tested.
AFTER A DAYLONG flight from Miami, I land after dark in Buenos Aires and check into the Hub Porteño past midnight. No one at the hotel has heard of my final destination, Mercedes, Corrientes. Indeed, even the placard at the airport ticket counter the next morning doesn't identify it on the flight manifest. At our first stopover, everybody disembarks but me and a Chinese businessman, and an hour later we put down in the weather-beaten colonial town of Mercedes, which is probably like flying into Chicken Neck, Louisiana, in 1955. Descending, I can see curls and snakes and catchments of muddy water everywhere, a saturated landscape, a fishery run amok, and I imagine schools of dorado patrolling the floodwaters of the pampas like marauding tigers, gobbling up rabbits and lambs.
Someone named Ricardo has come to fetch me in his mud-encrusted pickup truck. Hello, I say, how do you say mud in Spanish? Barro. We drive through somnambulant streets to a two-lane highway and then onto a deeply rutted dirt track, its surface melted to goo. Mucho barro, I say to Ricardo, who struggles mightily with the steering wheel. Too much rain, sí? Sí, he nods. The fishing has been affected, sí? A little, says Ricardo. We pass through endless flat ranchland, small rivers swollen with floodwater, the pastures lapped with water, sheep and cattle crowded onto the high spots. The clouds roil overhead, looking ever more threatening, the truck sliding in and out of the ruts until we finally skate sideways off the roadbed, axle-deep into the slop.
It's midafternoon by the time we mud-surf into Pirá Lodge. Pirá is the first five-star lodge dedicated exclusively to dorado fishing, built in 2000 by an outfitter called Nervous Waters. The compound is quietly welcoming, an understated outback haven for one-percenters, although put me to bed in a cardboard box, for all I care—my idea of privilege is limited to landing a ferocity with fins.
Of the original team of hotshot guides at Pirá, only one was Argentine, a fish-crazed kid from the capital named Noel Pollak, a self-described “born fisherman” who looks like most of the sinewy, bantamweight rock climbers I've known. In 1987, when he was 13, Noel decided he was a fish geek and taught himself fly-fishing, practicing at a lake in a city park. At 21, he dropped out of university to become a professional sport fisherman. For him it wasn't a decision, it was beyond intelligence, it was a calling, like entering the priesthood in waders.
He started giving fly-fishing lessons to friends and writing fishing articles for a magazine, Aventura. Then Argentina's largest newspaper, La Nación, asked him to write a biweekly column. But after two years on the beat, Pollak was sick of it all, fed up with writing—actually, fed up with being edited—and he walked away from the job. Instead of buying a car with his savings, he bought a skiff and began guiding in the nearby Paraná Delta, 45 minutes from downtown Buenos Aires. Then Pirá Lodge came into the picture. He guided at Pirá for ten seasons; by the third he was promoted to head guide, eventually managing the place. Then in 2006 he took an off-season trip to Bolivia, where he would encounter both glory and betrayal.
NOEL TAKES ME directly to the boat dock, where the lodge's pair of Hell's Bay flats skiffs are tied up on a channel of swift, caramel-colored water, providing access to the marshes and lagoons and the headwaters of the Río Corriente, a tributary of the Paraná. Both the Paraná and the Río Uruguay farther to the east eventually merge north of Buenos Aires to form the Río de la Plata, the widest river in the world.
Standing on the dock, even a newcomer can see that conditions are not normal here. The channel has overflowed its banks, submerging the lower trunks of willow trees, sending water up the lawns of the lodge. Two days earlier, a low-pressure system over the Amazon Basin descended into Argentina and dropped 20 inches of rain in 48 hours, resulting in the worst flooding in ten years. Not to be deterred, Noel fished the downpour with his last stubborn client, Jimmy Carter, who had left the lodge that morning to dry out in BA.
My moment of truth has now arrived. I'm an agnostic, an unapologetic philistine, one devolution away from fishing with dynamite. Noel puts his gorgeous bamboo fly rod in my hands, wants me to feel its craftsmanship, wants me to love it, wants to see what I can do, but it might as well be a nine-foot piece of rebar in my clumsy grip, and so I show him just how graceless an otherwise competent man can be, stripping out line like an infirm monkey, noodling my cast up and up until it plummets ineffectually midway into the channel. Because he has teaching ingrained in his personality, Noel seems to think he can help me overcome my deficiencies, and he probably could, but there's too little time, and I have no intention of spending it feeling frustrated and dumb. “No one who is learning should ever feel stupid,” Noel says, trying to console me, but honestly, screw it. For once the art is beside the point. I don't want to learn, I want to fish, and I know how to handle my spinning rod.
Noel, unlike the majority of fly-fishermen I know, is an easygoing, tolerant guy. He maintains his composure in the face of my blasphemy and we go fishing.
WE BLAST DOWN the esoteric maze of pathways through the marshlands, the channels no wider than a suburban sidewalk. Noel pilots the boat like a motocross driver at full throttle, slaloming through serpentine creeks, making hairpin turns, rocketing ahead across small lagoons into seemingly solid walls of vegetation, the fronds of the reeds whipping my face.
After 20 minutes, the marshes open up into bigger water, providing a clearer picture of why the Argentines call this region Mesopotamia, the land between the rivers. The horizons are tree lined, but out here vast clumps of floating islands composed of reeds and their root systems define the ecosystem. As the water gets deeper and as wide as the length of a football field, horses are suddenly everywhere in the stream, washed out of their range. Only their heads are visible, nostrils flared red, chased by swarthy gauchos in pirogues trying to herd them back to terra firma. Farther on, where the marshlands pinch in again at the headwaters of the Corriente, Noel cuts the motor and climbs atop the poling platform bolted onto the stern and we drift, El Maestro calling out advice and wisdom to me, poised in the bow.
To fish for dorado requires the hyper-accuracy of a marine sniper, every cast by necessity a bull's-eye or you're in the vegetation. Of course, as a marksman, Noel uses the equivalent of a bow and arrow, and I'm firing a rifle. His mantra is persistent but gentle—Cast at that riffle, cast at that inlet, cast at that confluence. After dozens of fruitless casts, I'm thinking, Fine, let's do dozens more. That old man Jimmy Carter bounced around out here in hard rain for two days and boated eight dorados.
Try over there, says Noel, pointing to an eddy line where a channel runs out of the reeds into the main current. Kaboom is the noise you don't hear but feel when a dorado strikes, and the next thing you know the beast is in the air, a solid gold furious thrashing bolt of life, and the next thing you know after that is farewell, goodbye, it's gone, and you are inducted into the Hall of Jubilant Pain that is dorado fishing. The fish launches out of the water with a hook in its bony jaws and razor teeth and when it comes back down after a three-second dance it's perfectly free and you're bleeding internally, experiencing some pure form of defeat.
“If you love fishing you're going to fall in love with this fish,” Noel declares. “But they make you suffer, hombre. Like the woman who you really fall in love with, they always keep you at the edge. I will admit it, I like the difficult fish.” With the sun about to set, I conjure a second fish into the sky and lose it, too.
AT BREAKFAST Noel jokes that he'll wear his lucky hat today, “The one I was wearing when I discovered this place in Bolivia,” but then again, Bolivia didn't turn out so well. We take off in the skiff down the channel into the marshlands but the flooding is now unprecedented; its surge has separated vast platforms of the vegetation, breaking apart floating islands and jamming together new ones. We finally plow our way out into the Corriente and pole and drift the edges, both of us fishing for three hours. Nothing. We try every possible combination of structures and depths. Nada. Shit. Noel has never seen these waters like this. The Paraná—a four-hour drive north—will be better, he promises. The drainage is different, the riparian geology less susceptible to the washout here in the marshes. We head back to the lodge, pack up, and hit the road.
Fishing guides are in many respects the most innocent people in the world, always believing in the best, believing in the next cast, another chance, embracing a type of aesthetics and idealism found most bracingly in nature. Fly-fishermen especially are dismayed by a cretinous mentality, unable to comprehend a certain type of laziness and a certain type of greed.
Noel and I go to the Paraná because we can't go to Bolivia, where he and his investors built what became a legendary dorado camp, the Tsimane Lodge, up in the jungled foothills of the eastern flank of the Andes. Days of walking through the jungle, days of shitty fishing, then a flight in a bush plane and days more being paddled upriver by bow-and-arrow Indians in a dugout canoe, until finally the murky water cleared, the air brightened, the river was beautiful, and Noel experienced the most amazing day of dorado fishing in his life. They were all giants, and they came to him one after another. “I almost want to cry, remembering this,” he tells me.
Three years of discovery and development, three years of fabulously successful operations, and then the money disappeared, all the profits—even the staff's salaries—vanishing into a wormhole. Noel doesn't want to air the details, but suffice to say that his greatest success was also his greatest ass-kicking, a pattern that seems close to the essence of existence, dorado style. Back in Buenos Aires, he couldn't even lift himself out of his bed for months. But he had left Nervous Waters, the outfitters of Pirá Lodge and in his opinion the number-one fly-fishing outfit in the world, on good terms, and when his depression lifted Noel and Nervous Waters hatched a scheme for a new partnership built around a dorado trifecta—day trips out of Buenos Aires to the delta, a future lodge elsewhere in South America, and the first dorado operation on the upper reaches of the Paraná. This new place, called the Alto Paraná Lodge, based out of a 100,000-acre estancia named San Gara, would open for business in October.
It's a tedious drive north through flat countryside from Pirá to the estancia, where we arrive long after dark and meet Christian, the son of the owner, and two of Noel's friends—Mariano and Alejandro. Beautiful guys—they have boats, we don't. We're fed beef with side dishes of more beef and shown to austere rooms in what seems to be a converted barracks for the resident gauchos—the estancia runs 3,500 head of cattle and 300 horses. In the morning, I awake to a riot of obnoxious parrots who inhabit, by the hundreds, the crowns of the palm trees clustered at the end of the veranda. The four of us squeeze into Mariano's pickup truck and tow his boat to the river, about five miles down flooded gravel roads. Rheas dash across the road, foxes, the huge but rarely seen swampland deer known as ciervo de los pantanos, flushed out to higher ground. The upper Paraná has been victimized by the same weather system—20 inches of rain, the river rising three feet out of its normal banks. In fact, as bad as the Iberá marsh was, the Paraná is worse.
The river is expansive, miles across, Paraguay out there somewhere on the eastern bank, separated from us by an archipelago of midstream islands cloaked with impenetrable jungle. The water is the color of dulce de leche, whipped by a steady breeze. We roar away to known spots, to unknown spots, scouting and fishing and roaring away again, all the familiar exposed sandbars and beaches now underwater from the deluge.
Within an hour I have my first dorado, but it's minnow size, four or maybe five pounds, and then I lose a second, bigger one. I'm spin-casting a spoon off the bow and Alejandro's fast-stripping a streamer from the stern, losing fish after fish. When Noel takes his place, the story's much the same, although he boats a half-dozen pirá pita, a smaller fish with as much fight as dorado, using dry flies. After a couple hours of happy frustration, we head out to the islands and their solid walls of jungle, the first line of trees and bushes half-submerged, the shorelines sculpted with mini coves and overgrown inlets and gaps and twisting eddies. It would be impossible to get out of the boat but unfortunately I find a way, kneeling in the bow to retrieve Noel's fly, entangled in a branch just out of my reach, and I fall slow-motion into the fucking water. I'm only three feet offshore but there's no bottom to touch and I swim to the stern of the skiff and am pulled back aboard by my wide-eyed friends. As dips go it's pleasant enough, but with 12-foot caimans and truck-size catfish throughout the river, I'm not keen on getting back in the water around here.
THE FISHING is grueling. We're casting from about 80 feet offshore into tiny pockets between the foliage, beneath the foliage, alongside downfalls, the trickiest shots imaginable. We're all expert marksmen, but nobody is perfect enough in the wind to stay out of the branches. Further on into the jungle we can hear the eerie rumbling of colonies of monkeys, their vocalization like pigs, not squealing but a low persistent collective grunting. Noel picks up his rod again and now there are three of us fishing, perfectly synchronized, our casts each landing within a yard of one another in separate pockets along the bank at the same moment, and something wonderful happens. “A triple!” shouts Alejandro at the wheel. Three dorado simultaneously erupt into the air, looking like a jackpot lineup on a Vegas slot machine, then fall back into the current, gone, all three.
That night two of the Pirá Lodge guides, Augustin and Oliver, arrive from the south to join us on the Paraná. In the morning, as a river otter frolics in the shallows, we zoom off in two boats toward the islands. I'm daunted by the wind and the choppy, dirty water and ask Noel how hard he thinks it's blowing—fifteen knots? Twenty? That's not the scale I use, says Noel. My scale is Perfect, Nice, Shitty, Awful. This is between Shitty and Awful.
But the day has its rugged magic, at least a window into the magic. Augustin, in Mariano's boat, lands a 12-pound hunk of what one American magazine referred to as “gaucho gold,” and on an assassin's shot between two downed trees I'm struck by lightning, so to speak. The strike is immediate, a nanosecond after my diving plug hits the surface, and like a Polaris missile launched from a submarine, up comes the dorado, 15 pounds, jumping into the air above our heads. Like orcas, a dorado will jump out of the water onto land a full yard to pursue its prey—in the dorado's case, sabalo, panicked baitfish. Somewhere in the sequence I can feel the release of the hook and the fish is free again but honestly it hardly matters, Noel and Alejandro are hooting and will talk about that fish with a thrill in their voices for the next two days—Oh man, that fish—because it was huge and magnificent and for a moment it was ours. When the two boats reunite, Augustin tells us Oliver has spent the day “harvesting the forest,” which means he's been an inch or two too far in all his casts, but at least he hasn't gone swimming. Noel and Alejandro tell him about the monster I hooked and lost. “And then,” Oliver, an Englishman, says to me, “you were left with your thoughts.” But there wasn't a thought in my head. I was left with only heartbreak. Yet to have owned the fish for a few seconds, to see it in the air, suspended between outcomes, has to be enough.
La vida es sueño, the Latins say—life is a dream. I think of Noel and his struggle in Bolivia. This time it's not the fish but something much, much bigger, and it stays in the air for what seems like an eternity but in fact is only three years, and when it falls back to the water, it's gone, receded back to the dream, you thought you had it but you never did and its descent is a form of bittersweet devastation. Sometimes you can catch the big one but the result is pathos and tragedy. And you can lose the big one and yet it persists and remains, a triumphant vision, something to carry forward beyond the dream. There's clarity here—these fishermen, these lovely men, the spread and flow of big water, the dance of the big fish, the ascendant luminosity, a blazing star built of muscle and teeth and fury, the golden arc of sweetness and sorrow, possession and loss. That's what you discover in the marshes, what you bring home from the river. That, finally, is the meaning of the dream.
The next day on the Paraná is a screaming disaster. Noel and I fly back down to Buenos Aires to fish the delta. In the morning, we are greeted by squalls but head out anyway into shining moments of solitude and silence, autumn light and autumn colors and yes, kaboom, up a little creek one last bull's-eye next to a log. Pirajú, the Guaraní god of water, strains for the sun.
A week later, in the suburbs of the capital, scores of people will be swept away by the floods. Any dream has its limits, and this dream had breached its boundaries, waiting to be dreamed again, and better.
Contributing editor Bob Shacochis is the author of The Woman Who Lost Her Soul.