My friends have sometimes said that I get as big a buzz from researching and planning a fishing trip or campaign as I do from actually catching the intended quarry. I guess that’s true, particularly at the moment as I’m trying to pack enough tackle to tame another of those bucket list species – the wonderful golden dorado – and still come in under the totally unreasonable 23 kgs weight limit on the flight to Argentina. This time I’m a passenger not an organiser. That role falls to globe-trotting adventurer and sometime editor of Classic Angling, Keith Elliott, who kindly invited me on a long-planned trip to La Zona on the Uruguay River. This is the place where the majority of world record dorado are caught – huge fish up to 60lbs plus – and where white knuckle, reel screaming action is the norm rather than the exception. Consequently, Keith, Mark, Jason and myself are in the grips of a monster fish frenzy with emails flying back and forth about lures, braid, wire and unfeasibly large flies. My dining room table has resembled a tackle shop for several days now but finally the traces have been made up, the lures and flies selected and packed and various specialist rods and reels bought, borrowed or acquired.
I’ve never made any secret of the fact that I retired from Parliament to ‘spend more time with my fish’ but originally I thought that was more likely to mean roach, tench, chub and barbel rather than anything particularly exotic. Spending 15 months in Australia changed all that and gave me a taste for hooking big beautiful beasties in the sunshine – usually on surface or sub-surface lures. I still love fishing in the UK and even look forward to those damp winter days when the river will be carrying a tinge of colour and my trotted breadflake will have a good chance of tempting some fine fish in peak condition. But, and it’s a big but, I’m afraid it’s not enough anymore and while I’m fit enough and still earning I’m determined not to miss the opportunity to add to that fisherman’s bucket list and charge up the memory bank against the day when I’ve neither the health or the funds to go on these Boy’s Own fishing adventures.
Mind you the wanderlust started well before I had my fishing sabbatical Down Under. In 1976 I dropped out of college and went to work on a building site to save up enough for my girlfriend and I to travel around Europe. We limped that old minivan, complete with a twisted sub-frame which gave it a crab like trajectory, all the way through France, Italy, Yugoslavia, Greece and Turkey. It wasn’t a fishing trip as such but a couple of rods were packed and for some strange reason we invariably seemed to find ourselves camping beside some fishy looking water. I didn’t catch a great deal, you rarely do when holiday fishing ‘on spec’ but it did make me determined to return to foreign climes on some properly planned trips.
Like many English anglers of my generation I took regular trips across the Irish Sea to take advantage of the absence of a coarse fishing close season. In the 70’s maggots were not easy to come by in Ireland and we hadn’t yet worked out how to chill them down in polybags and carry them over in cool boxes. The game in those days was to to load up with a few gallons of wrigglers and sneak them onto the ferry, in pillow slips, would you believe? We then had to compete with other anglers to find a suitable, well ventilated hiding place, usually inside the lifeboats, until the boat reached port. Those Irish trips were great fun, and, with proper research and planning and sufficient bait they produced some staggering catches of roach, bream and hybrids and made a major contribution to tourism in the Emerald Isle. But God help any one needing a lifeboat on the Irish Sea !
The first real exotic trip came my way in 1996 when my good friend Mike and I decided to go on one of Dave Plummer’s early trips to India’s River Cauvery in search of the mighty golden mahseer. I was lucky enough to land a cracker of 76lbs along with a good few more over 20lbs. This was exhilarating fishing – sitting on a rock in the middle of a fast flowing river, miles from civilisation, surrounded by all manner of dangerous creatures and waiting for a bite that could see you dragged half a mile down river by one of the most powerful freshwater fish on the planet. A battle with a mahseer leaves you bruised, sore and sometimes bloodied but my goodness do you feel alive. That’s why two years later I was back on Cauvery and the lucky run continued with a cracker of 92lbs – the largest mahseer caught anywhere in the world that year.
Funnily enough, Keith Elliott also has a love affair with the mahseer and is chairman of the Mahseer Trust, which aims to preserve these incredible and endangered fish. I asked him how he developed his own fishing wanderlust and here’s what he said.
” My first real wild trip was to Ecuador in 1990, though I did fish Australia’s Great Barrier Reef two years before that. My favourite places are the Outer (and very wild) Mongolia; the Bushbetta stretch of the river Cauvery in India; Great Slave Lake in the Canadian North-West Territories; and the River Thames at Maidenhead where it all began for me. My most memorable fish were taiman in Mongolia, alligator gar in Texas and, of course, the mahseer in India
A million madnesses and adventures are what these trips are all about. One was going to Arunachal Pradesh with the fishing writer John Bailey. We were the first white people to enter the country since Victorian times and our guides took us to a village where girls came out and danced for us, the headman made a speech and said: “We had heard there were people in the world who weren’t like us. We see that you are very developed people. We would like you to tell us how we should lead our lives.”
Unfortunately we got there just too late. The villagers were taking down their fish traps (a bit of a clue) and fishing was very hard. Though everyone had a fish or two, including a rare chocolate mahseer, the fish had already dropped back into the main Brahmaputra river. I, on the other hand, spent a couple of days walking the river and looking for good spots. A big mistake for that’s when most of the fish were caught. I did hook a mahseer for about 10 seconds, and typically, it came off. Because I didn’t want to have travelled all that distance and be skunked, when we got back to Calcutta, I got up at 3am with a top joint from my spinning rod, some breadpaste filched from the dinner table and caught a goldfish from the hotel pond. Job done ! I’ve loads more stories, like the fer de lance in Ecuador, the bird-eating spiders, the leopard in India…and who knows what we will experience in Argentina?”
Preparation is key
One thing I’ve learn’t over the years is that much of the best fishing to be had on this planet is in far off places where the mankind has yet to screw up the environment and where the ‘men with nets’ can’t, or won’t, get there. In fact, I’m at my most happy when the only route into to these fisheries is by some rickety light aircraft or a long boat journey through a barely inhabited wilderness. These places often hold great fish but almost never a tackle shop so preparation is everything. Some companies, such as Fox, have really tried to cater for the traveling angler with a comprehensive range of travel rods designed to cope with virtually any fish that swims. Check out their Trek travel range at http://www.foxsportfishing.com/index.php. There’s something for everyone here and because they break down to four or five sections there’s no need to be humping bulky rod tubes around anymore. I’m taking their sailfish spin rod to La Zona teamed up with the light but powerful Fox Diablo 550S spinning reel and 80lbs braid. This outfit is designed for light game fishing at sea but will give me the power I need to keep a 50lbs dorado out of the rocks – hopefully !
Although my flycasting is somewhat agricultural it is a fun way to catch fish so I’m packing a 10 wt and some awesome flies tied for me by my friend Martin Webster who now runs Selectafly. There’s not much Martin doesn’t know about catching sportsfish on the fly – in fact one of his regular customers, Matt Harris, has just posted a stunning picture of a recent fly caught Bolivian dorado on the Selectafly website.
Having the time and resources to make these trips is of course essential and it’s also handy to have mates who can loan you the odd bit of gear that you might never use again. However, there is no substitute for doing the homework and finding out what is catching now and not ten years ago when the book or magazine article, that first caught your eye, was published. There are plenty of specialist fishing and adventure companies that will offer to organise that trip of a lifetime. I’ve been with Aardvark McLeod and Dave Plummer and can’t speak highly enough of both of them. This time we are going with Steve Townson from Amazon Angler who is a real South American specialist. And you can, if you’ve the time and determination, do your thing and plan your trip from start to finish on your own. There are obvious pitfalls but the information is out there.
The interweb now means that all this info is just a few clicks away. The temptation is staring at you from behind your screen. My advice is to give in to it as often as you can. But then I’m writing this in the grips of yet another fish frenzy of excitement and planning and you should probably ignore me….until, that is, you see the pictures!