Part 3 of the Tsimane Trilogy | Fins & Feathers of Bozeman - Fins & Feathers
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Part 3 of the Tsimane Trilogy

Date: 04/03/2015

Fly in Golden Dorado Mouth

The final segment in Toby's recount of his trip to Bolivia in 2014 with friends of Fins & Feathers of Bozeman's, Montana fly shop and fly fishing outfitter. I hope that you have nejoyed the post and please remember that much of what I say can be taken with a grain of salt as I truly am a fishing guide...I sometimes exaggerate!

Part 3 Of The Tsimane Trilogy - All Things End...Thankfully!

Our destination for the remainder of our week in paradise was the Pluma Lodge….located on the Pluma River of all places. Turns out that it was only a 15-minute flight between villages. However, it took most of the day to get from one lodge to the other.

As we descended into the second village, it was immediately apparent that there were more locals and they had more infrastructures. We had the same type of greeting by the village residents, plus a forest ranger in uniform to collect our passport and fishing permit information.

Tsimane VillageTsimane Daycare

The most memorable part of the 5 minutes we spent deplaning was the presence of a long-haired, long-bearded, cocoa leave, Pashtun dressed character sitting to the side of the locals. He neither fit in with the locals, the guides, nor us. He looked like a Taliban in hiding, to be honest. The departing dudes said that he was the chef at the lodge and very good, but his time is up and he’s out of there. I kind of thought that sounded good as he didn’t really look much like a chef that would be oriented towards your typical food safety preparations and I was yet to have experience any food poisoning symptoms on the stay.

As we made our way to the boats to take us to the road that would get us to the lodge, we ambled through the small village where I noticed Porta-Potties, dogs, skinny horses, and babies playing in fenced in dirt corals. The people here had their front teeth for the most part and seemed more “connected” than the folks at the first lodge. I think I may have seen a broken motorcycle or something there too.

The boats took us up the river about 20 minutes or so to a “dumping off” site that had a few out buildings and fewer people milling around. As always, the staff was very enthusiastic and gracious with helping us get our gear moved and settled into the next phase of our travel to the lodge. They continued to be kind even after one of our group members decided to pretty much take a crap right in the middle of the settlement as he was too nervous to ask about a porta-potty and even more nervous to step into the forest. It was a moment of embarrassment and pride for all of us…I bet he’s even forgotten about it…I never will be able to.

Our chariot for the last leg of the journey was a jacked-up Jeep with big wheels, comfortable seats, a huge engine, and low gears. The luggage and gear was transported using a small, custom-built trailer to be towed by the Jeep. Jungle tour ahead was our thoughts as we all settled in for the ride to new water and a new adventure.

Tsimane Pluma broken trailerTsimane Road to Pluma LodgeLuma Lodge luggage trailer

The 4X4 jungle tour nostalgia faded with the arrival of gas fumes and the rearrangements of my viscera thanks to the constant and unpredictable jarring of the road ahead. It was the longest, most miserable 10-15 miles of ground transportation in my 43 years on this planet. In addition to the road and Jeep both sucking beyond suck, the trailer hitch broke which reduced us to 50m of progress at a time. We finally got it to stay connected to the truck by standing on the hitch:ball joint. I would have walked if it were so muddy that you couldn’t walk.

As the end of the road approached and the forest canopy opened, reluctant happiness came to all of us. The girls were waiting with drinks and smiles as we unloaded and the facilities looked great compared to the first lodge. All looked good - even the river – but I couldn’t figure out why there were some white dudes fishing in a boat right in front of the lodge.

I kind of thought that we had the place to ourselves…because that’s how we booked it…that’s why. But, alas we walked into the lodge and there is tall, pale ginger-man talking like an American sitting in the lodge and his buddies are fishing the water that no one is supposed to be fishing that day. Turns out that it had rained so much that they couldn’t get to where they were supposed to be upon our arrival and ginger-man had come down with some jungle fever. Not a big deal in the grand scheme of things, but I did have to engage in some tedious conversation about distance casting an 8 wt. bamboo rod. My life is also not richer after watching another one of the guys carry a Sat Phone around to talk to his girlfriend back home…reminded me of those 80’s bag phones.

So, the fishing at Pluma was better than we had at the Secure, but not by much. The first day started with the usual guide meet and greet with the typical flare of arrogant guide greatness as they looked over the gear and flies. Guide seemed good, but he didn’t speak English well enough to understand my comment that morning that went something like “ You think you are a pretty good guide, huh? Think you are a good angler too, huh? Don’t worry, ‘cuz no matter how good you are…I’m better! Comprendo Senor?” Yeah, sometimes I say things that I should only think, but it turns out that he really didn’t understand so it didn’t faze him either way.

Jumping golden dorado in Pluma river

I fished with my dad that day and we fished hard as the water was green, the sun was out, and it seemed like water levels were truly dropping. Despite our efforts, we only found a few fish that day, missed some hard grabs, but we had the feeling that things were getting better. My dad was happy, I was happy, even the guide seemed happy.

Jerry Swank and Golden DoradoFly in Golden Dorado mouth

We made our way back to the road where the Jeep was picking to return us to the lodge. As we waited for the ride to arrive, I leaned against a well-used Bobcat that apparently had died where we stood. I assume it is still there. Instead of the Jeep, A Suzuki Samurai shows up, we make it about ½ mile with the characteristic gut jostling and head banging on bars and trees when the steering or front end breaks. No worries as there is another truck not too far behind us and they pull up within minutes. We make it ½ mile and then that trucks engine burns out. We can’t really call anyone and it’s way too muddy to make any progress on foot. The light is fading and I’m thirsty, dad is getting grumpy. The Jeep shows up and we cram in with everyone else, making it back to the lodge by dinnertime. Who would have guessed it would take 2 hours and three vehicles to a go a few miles? I was finally convinced that it had gotten as bad as it could and I had resigned myself to grumpy optimism.

The lodge itself was much nicer than the Secure Lodge. The old lodge on the Secure River had been washed out by a flood earlier in the year, so we were staying in a wall tent camp (very nice with plumbing). The Pluma lodge had large rooms, comfy beds, and was generally far nicer than anyone would expect in such a remote place (I heard that the Pluma Lodge just recently washed out as well…BTW).
The new chef had a hard time planning dinners, as he was usually 1-2 hours late with meals. Great appetizers though.

I was to fish with ol’ Mr. Poops in village center that day. Per usual, we had a great time and I out fished him in dramatic fashion. I think I caught something like 125 fish that day to his 1? Ok, maybe that’s not true, but I did get a very nice fish right out of the gate, which took the pressure off altogether. This was important as I neglected to mention that the southern skies lied to me that night.

Toby Swank, guide with Fins & Feathers of Bozeman and a Golden Dorado

I recall walking back to my room after dinner and looking at the skies. Marveling in the clarity and the strangeness of the constellations. The night air was crisp and clean. I awoke a few hours later as the world sounded like it was coming to an end, I thought perhaps that old chef really was some kind of Taliban and here they come! My head cleared, temporarily, and I realized that the noise was the thunder of rain. It didn’t stop for a while and the morning brought us a river of brown rather than green. Joy.

Our local boat dudes that day were amazing. They were stoned on Cocoa leaves like the rest of the local guys, but they were also drunk and animated. Plus, they knew where to find fish in the dirtying water. The guy working the front of the boat squeaked something at me while pointing at a back-eddy and a stick. I made an 80’ cast across 7-10 different current seams, threw a mend, strip, strip…bang. Ok, it was more like a 20’ cast and the fish ate the fly as soon as it hit the water and by some act of God, remained on the line despite raised rod tip, lost line, and utter befuddlement on my part. It was a nice fish, kind of a trip make for me. The rest of the day found me having fun talking crap with my buddy and the guide that did a very nice job of appearing to not understand anything I said. The boat dudes got drunker, steered the boat well, and made pop shots at various wildlife like Cormorants, Herons, and Cayman with the ever popular and juvenile wrist-rocket, pocket slingshot. They never hit anything.

Tsimane Badass Hunting with sling shotTsimane Badass

Late in the day the guide decided that he had heard enough of me talking and decided to get up and take Mr. Poop in village center’s place on the casting platform. We went side by side, pounding out long casts followed by hard strips. He caught 2 fish in 5 minutes, one being 5-10 pounds larger than anything I saw in 5 days of fishing. “Lucky,” I thought to myself.

Another lackluster meal and service followed, along with more chit chat with the anglo’s from the other group about stuff that has no relevance in life. Some of them were gone though as the lodge folks took them out to the boonies as originally planned more to give us some room than anything else.

As the last day of fishing fast approached, we schemed for the day ahead and hoped for improving water as the rain has ceased once again. I was destined to fish with the father of Captain Fanta and we opted to go upstream in the morning so that we could fish the cleaner of the tributaries that feed the main stem of the Pluma. Sounded great, as no one had fished it in awhile. The plan was laid, poker was played, and a good night’s sleep was finally had once again.
The morning sun brought the light, deeply saturated blue and green colors that can only be seen in those reflective moments of childhood picnics and days in the neighborhood park. The light also made it possible to realize that our clear tributary upstream was now shit-colored water! A plan B was developed and shot down by the lodge staff as they had sent some locals up the now clear tributary to hand dig a channel that morning. Seemed like a fishy, creative way to let ginger man have some of our water for yet another day. Never did make any sense as to why they would do that, so I’m sticking with my paranoid perception that Chuckie was out to get me that week.

We headed out that day with a much shorter option of fishable water that we had to split up between 4 rods rather than the typical 2. The guide kind of split up our water into beat 1 and beat 2 as we stopped at the various spots. We reached a place where I was told to go to beat 2 and to not fish until I got to beat 2. I made a cast at about beat 1.75…bang, biggest fish of trip for me accompanied with some hooting and hollering, didn’t really intend to fish beat 1.75 but shit happens. The guide gave me a stern lecturing about fishing water that wasn’t mine to which I made some snarky remarks with the confidence that he’d have no idea what I was saying anyway and that’s how it went. We fished hard the rest of the day, don’t know that we got any more fish, maybe it was a good thing I made that cast a few feet short of “my water.”

Toby Swank, guide with Fins & Feathers of Bozeman, with Golden Dorado in Bolivia

A late day swim across water deeper than anticipated capped off the trip with another hour or so on the jungle Jeep tour. Dinner was 3 hours that night and the Googan crew was all back in the lodge. Bamboozler was taking pics of the locals with Polaroids with a look of self satisfaction and grandiosity that just made me want to smack him upside the head. I did not. However, my guide the last few days and I, shared some cigarettes and laughed about the days now gone. I looked forward to heading home the next morning, despite the prospect of another two hours in the back of the wrecking ball as we headed to the landing strip.

Chuckie looked at me just after breakfast that last morning with a look that reminded me of how I must have looked when I told my dad that I had wrecked his car - for the 5th time in 6 months back in my teen years. He gave me the phone as he conveniently “speaka no eenngggils.” Although it was great to hear the voice of our Santa Cruz interpretive guide on the Satellite Phone, his news of the international and municipal airport being out of fuel was not so exciting. He was letting me know that we would probably not be able to get out that day, as the planes leaving Santa Cruz to come get us had no fuel. Funny though, they had enough fuel to get Ginger man a few hours earlier! The G-77 (opposite of G-16) convention was held in Santa Cruz during the week and all of the private planes owned by the 77 poorest nations on the earth had used up all of the fuel at the airport in Santa Cruz. WTF? So, I told Chuckie to get the guides ready and get us on the water, as we are not sitting around all day, doing nothing. That must have scared him as they somehow found some gas in the next 20 minutes and were on their way.

We scrambled for the Jeep as we only had two hours to go the 10 miles to get to the landing strip for a quick turnaround of the inbound aircraft. It was another typical, bouncy, crappy drive that brought soreness and nausea to beleaguered body. I felt giddy though as we loaded into the boats to take us back to the final village. The drunken boat dudes from day two were our boat drivers for that last haul and all went smoothly as we listened to music like Patsy Cline from some archaic transistor radio leftover from the bygone era of cultural subterfuge movements from the early 60’s. The only moment of confusion came as the captain swerved the boat to mark a spot where they had just seen a turtle along a riverbank. They would be back within minutes to try to get their lunch.

As we made our way t o the landing strip, I remember all being quiet. I think that we were all in worn out and looking forward to some good food and a quiet night ahead. As we approached the final dropping off point, there is a sudden rush of movement to my right, just in the forest next to the trail. It sounded like what I always imagined a Tiger would sound like in the forests of India. Just then, a big, white cow comes running across the trail, snorting and kicking right back into the dense vegetation. A local lady jumps to her feet and draws a 6” pocketknife to defend her children from the wild beast, which is now calmly grazing along the landing strip edge. As quick as chaos arrived, it is gone and with it the oppressive heat is back in my mind. All I could think of then was Tatoo on Fantasy Island yelling “The Plane, The Plane.”

A quick exit was made once the planes arrived, but there was just enough time to have some “kind words” with the guys - that up until that point – I had only know through rude bantering and gesticulations. As it turns out, they were from Missoula and just giving me some friendly crap. We did exchange some nice words and I hope that they had a great Jeep ride back to the Pluma Lodge that day.

Going Homeâ¦slowly

Our outbound flight was smooth and the sight of rebar-capped buildings never looked so good to me as it did that night as we descended into Santa Cruz. The rest of the trip was uneventful and enjoyable. Great sushi that night as we all laughed and reveled in the misadventures that tend to follow me wherever I go. I smoked a pack of Marlboro Reds and reflected on the week in silence later that night. I don’t recall what I thought as I also took a couple Ambien and apparently sat out on the hotel deck in my underwear for an hour or two. Whatever it was, it must have been good, as I have been meaning to tell this tale since last July!

Trip Summary (Honest Feedback & Recommendations)

Overall Rating of the Tsimane/Untamed Angling Operation – 4 our of 5 Stars.

The logistics of running this operation are far beyond what I could have comprehended. The nearest town is literally a 10-day boat ride downriver from the Pluma Lodge. They have a lot of moving parts in terms of equipment from generators to washing machines, not to mention boat engines and refrigeration units that are used heavily and difficult to maintain. Yet, they make the most of it and consistently try very hard to not let these challenges impact their guest’s stay.

It takes a special kind of person to be able to work and live in this kind of environment, while entertaining new guests every few days. Most of the guides and lodge staff are Argentinian, speak very good English, and are committed to providing exceptional, friendly service.

We had some very bad conditions during our trip, so we did not get to experience the quality of fishing that we had hoped for. The guides worked hard and stuck with us through the tough conditions, which is as much as one can ask for. I never doubted their abilities during our days on the water. Our experience would rate the staff at the Secure Lodge a 5 out of 5 and the Pluma Lodge would be a 3 out of 5. That said, the Pluma staff was dealing with some issues that were beyond their control as there was twice as many guest in camp for a couple days than what there should have been. Again, that was a result of the weather altering the operation plans for the week and beyond everyone’s control.

The meals were a 2 out of 5 as a rule for our group and is the one area where we all agreed was in need of some attention. This was especially true at Pluma where we arrived along with a new chef, so we need to keep that in consideration. Also, if the fishing would have been good to very good, we may not have even noticed the meal service!

In short, if you want to catch Golden Dorado in a wilderness setting, this is probably as good as it gets. It is a logistical challenge getting into these remote areas and Untamed Angling is years ahead of anyone else in the region. The rivers, fish, and setting are truly stunning and I can’t imagine any serious angler not savoring the experience.

That said, I’d never go back! But, I’m glad that I went! I have enough confidence in the logistical coordination of Untamed Angling that I recently booked a trip to their Rio Marie Peacock Bass destination in Brazil.
Whenever possible, I rely on the travel expertise of Yellow Dog Fly Fishing, and that’s who I book all of my international travel with (except New Zealand). The staff at YD has pretty much been there and done that just about everywhere in the world; their level of intimate knowledge about any destination they represent is pretty hard to beat.

Gear & Incidentals for Tsimane Golden Dorado

1. Lightweight, breathable clothing washed in permethrin. Terrific laundry service, so pack light and stick to fishing clothing.
2. Waterproof Backpack or Boat Bag
3. Rods in 9 and 10 weights (Helios 2, Scott Radian, Sage Salt)
4. Matching Lines (Rio or SA Troical WF lines)
5. Sealed Drag Reels (Hatch 7 or 9 Plus, Mid-Arbor Spools, 30 LBS Backing)
6. Rio Bite Wire (30 and 40 LBS)
7. Rio Fluorocarbon 30, 40, 60 LBS (Leaders are typically 5’ of 40lbs Flouro with 2’ of 40lbs wire)
8. Flies in 2/0-4/0 (personally TMC 600SP is best hook for these fish), with large silhouettes in blacks, purples, reds, and chartreuse colors. Patters are essentially variations of large Deceivers, Clouser Minnows, Flashtail Whistlers, and Tarpon Snakes. The lodge has some great flies available too, but supply can be limited. If the fishing is good, expect to go through a lot of flies (8-10 a day as the fish are very hard on them and pliers tend to either bend the shanks or tear the flies apart quite easily.
9. Pliers (Hatch)
10. Hat, Sun Gloves, Buffs, Raincoat, Neoprene Socks.
11. I usually travel with a pretty solid drug supply including the basics like Ibuprofen, Benadryl, Claritin, and my various prescriptions. As I do more and more of this remote/adventure travel, I have started to travel with Cippro & Phenegran as well; they have both proved themselves very worthwhile on more than one occasion while travelling in third world countries. Also, Bolivia requires Yellow Fever Immunization upon arrival, so be sure to have your immunization card and get the shot 4-6 weeks in advance.

Travel Logistics

Flights are harder to find than you might expect, so start looking and planning early. It is important to arrive the day before your scheduled charter flight to Tsimane from Santa Cruz. Flights from the US are typically overnighters out of Miami, so plan on having a full day in Santa Cruz upon arrival. Plan on overnighting in Santa Cruz on your way out as well, but flights to the US are usually in the mornings.

A representative from Untamed Angling will meet you at the exit of immigration upon arrival and take care of everything like taxi’s, tours, and restaurant reservations. They are a personal concierge service and it is all part of the land costs for the trip. Rely on them to get you whatever you need and to arrange transportation services in Santa Cruz.

The hotel in Santa Cruz is a large, business class hotel with full meal service, spa, pool, and all the amenities. It is not particularly “high-end” by US standards; but comparable to a very well kept Best Western or Holiday Inn. It is high end by Bolivian standards.

Charter flights to Tsimane from the municipal airport are very easy, but there is a check-in process, which includes gathering passport information and weighing luggage. The operation brings in a lot of supplies on these charter flights as well, so it sometimes takes longer than you would anticipate for them to get the planes loaded and unloaded.

Bolivia’s primary industry is Cocaine production and it is the poorest country in South America. We felt safe at all times while walking around Santa Cruz, but I would recommend doing so with the representative from Untamed Angling. There is a lot of poverty, but there is also a lot of development underway. Pay attention to your surroundings at all times and you will be fine so long as you use common sense and avoid questionable scenarios and surroundings.
This is a “BIG” trip and it requires a seriously committed angler and traveler. The fishing, wading, and travel can be very demanding so you should be in good condition before considering this trip. Let the lodge know well in advance if you have any physical limitations as the wading and boat fishing is physically demanding, everyday.

I am thankful to my traveling companions/close friends for joining me on this crazy adventure that we all shared. One thing that I have learned in my years of doing this type of stuff is that it’s the moments with the people I treasure that truly mean anything. If not for my friends on the water, these trips would be nothing more than a golf trip! I hope that everyone gets the chance to have experiences like this and please feel free to e-mail me or call me at our Bozeman Fly Shop if you have any questions about planning a trip to Tsimane.

Posted by: on 04/03/2015 | Part 3 of the Tsimane Trilogy

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