Going for the Gold

Freshwater dorado are known for their aerial acrobatics and explosive fight power. Jessica Maxwell learns to land these "river tigers" at Argentina's Los Ombues Lodge.

Something yellow explodes beside the purple water hyacinths. Python? Bog beast? An Argentine lagoon canary in some kind of X-Files growth spurt? The mind reels. So does the fisherman, who lifts his fly rod, which is now doubled over as if in pain. The fish bucks and twists in the South American sun, its scales throwing prisms of light in the four cardinal directions. A lemon-metal comet writing champagne messages across the quiet marshland sky.

For more than a decade, I have pursued serious ichthyological prey from Outer Mongolia (taimen salmon) to the Amazon (peacock bass), with a lot of Pacific marlin and Caribbean tarpon in between—but there is nothing as thrilling as landing an Argentine dorado, the world's most sought-after game fish. One of the best places to stalk this alchemistic fish is in the Paraná River's massive marshland adjacent to Los Ombues, a sporting lodge just north of Buenos Aires. Getting there is not easy, but the reward is 30,000 private acres of unspoiled wetlands with such an abundance of fish, ducks, and doves that serious sportsmen want to kiss the ground.

To reach the lodge, you take a short flight from Buenos Aires to the farmland of the Entre Ríos Province, where a car awaits you. Soon the curvy landscape is galloping by, and you feel as if you have been delivered to some kind of natural Valhalla that doesn't know the 1940s are over. Then you reach the promising graveled turnoff to Los Ombues, named after the region's signature round-topped, big-trunked tree, and finally the lodge proper, glowing in the morning sun atop a rise overlooking the lower Paraná's magnificently complex marshland.

The 12,000-square-foot brick and vanilla stucco lodge is a modern treatment of the traditional estancia—Los Ombues is, after all, a working ranch. The great room is the heart of the place, with French doors, hardwood floors, shelves of sporting books, ceiling fans, and a telescope. Local ducks, stuffed and mounted, are arranged in an arcing flight pattern across the mantel of the massive stone fireplace. Private sleeping quarters are to one side; on the other are the dining room and long mud room, where rain gear and rubber boots hang at the ready.

Everything at Los Ombues is spacious, well proportioned, thought-through. Windows flood the lodge with light, framing incredible natural vistas. You can breathe there. You want to move in permanently. But first you must fish.

A quick change of clothes and you emerge to find owner Carlos Sanchez tying flies: dark streamer patterns that look like escapees from the headdress of a Brazilian Carnaval dancer. He says something in Spanish to his brother, Juan Pablo, who runs Los Ombues with him, and suddenly you find yourself bounding down the hill in an SUV, past grainfields planted for bird cover, ombu trees, and gauchos on horseback.

Carlos, 47, spent his formative years working as a fishing and hunting guide all over Argentina and knows the land intimately. He became one of the country's top outfitters, booking only the best properties. His dream was to have his own lodge, his vision defined by what he'd learned from Argentina's other leading lodges, most of them in Patagonia. He wanted a fresh location, with virtually no previous or current hunting or fishing pressure, no anglers from the next lodge down staring from the opposite bank. He wanted refinement and comfort (hence the estancia feel), Argentine cuisine built around local ingredients, and preemptive service (towels, for instance, are changed three times a day, even though I never caught the housekeeping staff in the act).

Carlos also wanted a small, very exclusive lodge—Los Ombues can sleep 14, but he prefers groups around half that size. And he wanted stellar bird-shooting and fishing close to the lodge, allowing for lodge lunches and immediate field action. "Guests come to fish and shoot," he says, "not to spend hours in the backseat of a car."

Within minutes of leaving the lodge we are at the marsh's edge, a quiet entrance to an enticing open swamp and a maze of side shoals fastened with tall grasses that thicken in places to wetland jungle. From the dining room of Los Ombues, the 250-mile marsh looks enchanting, the distant play of vegetation and water almost painterly. Up close, it is daunting. Fortunately, Julian, the chief guide, has already prepared one of the 30-foot aluminum johnboats with powerful 24-horsepower, go-devil motors designed to handle shallow water.

We take off at a Star Wars clip across the open part of the marsh, then hurtle down a narrow and nearly invisible pathway, between five-foot waterweeds that whiz by our ears with an alarming rattle. Julian steers the boat past grass islands, down hidden sloughs, and around mangrovelike trees that are growing in the middle of the waterway. Every piece of open swamp is edged in a low thicket of water hyacinths, their round Granny Smith-green leaves raised upward. Finally, we turn a corner and enter the lagoon, a broad-backed platinum oval about the size of a football field reflecting the gauzy lapis sky. Julian slows the motor and takes us to the far side of the lagoon, then noses the boat into a patch of purple water hyacinths in bloom. I look around.

Ringed with bright-green vegetation, the lagoon is quite peaceful, still, and mercifully quiet, except for the light lapping of the water and something that sounds like the ringing of tiny wooden temple bells.

"Frogs," Carlos instructs. "Little ones."

So little I never saw one. But their strange song makes it very clear that we are deep in South America, not western Montana.

Right away, Julian begins chumming with taupe-colored bits of dove that slowly float away on a small current. Moments later a small eruption occurs in the line of dove debris. Julian laughs with delight.

"Piranha," he declares, which Argentines pronounce "Pee-rrraun-ya."

I hear another big swish, like someone scooping an insect out of a pool—more piranha. "Are there a lot of piranha in here?" I ask in my coolest tone.

"Oh, yes," Carlos answers. "Three species, in fact. They're very aggressive—you don't want to fall in." Resisting the urge to say, "No kidding," I move toward the center of the boat and pretend to examine my fly reel while Julian lands our first piranha. Laughing, he casually holds the wriggling fish in one hand and feeds a piece of marsh reed into its mouth sideways with the other. The piranha's tiny, sushi-knife teeth instinctively chomp the reed into bite-size bits like some kind of marshland precision-cutting device.

But we are not here for piranha—we are trying to catch dorado, the Paraná marshland's famed golden salmon. The Latin name is Salminus maxillosus, the former meaning troutlike and the latter referring to the fish's pit-bull jaws. Smaller dorado (five to ten pounds) resemble blunt-nosed Atlantic salmon. Larger ones, up to 40 pounds, look like Pacific king salmon crossed with Winston Churchill. All dorado are covered with perfect, tight lines of small black dots beneath a golden glaze.

Technically, a dorado is not a salmon, but it is similar in size and weight. (It should not be confused with "el dorado," the more familiar Pacific saltwater dolphinfish.) Freshwater dorado are predators, beloved by fishermen for their fierce strikes, acrobatics, and brazen fight power, for which they have earned the nickname El Tigre del Rio. You find these river tigers in the colossal watershed shared by southern Brazil, Bolivia, Uruguay, and northern Argentina, slung between the mighty Uruguay and Paraná rivers.

Carlos looks up. Fishing-guide algorithms work in his eyes. "The weather is changing," he says. "That's good. It's been too hot.

"This is what we will fish," he continues, holding out a five-inch feathery black fly—a "Los Ombues Old Faithful"—with artificial cartoon eyes (black dot in a white ring) and a bit of red flashaboo under its neck.

I sigh. That thing will be a bear to cast. Back home in Oregon, if we are not trout fishing with delicate little Parachute Adams or caddisflies, we're fishing with only slightly bigger steelhead flies; dorado flies are heavier by whole ounces. Weight is fine if you're cheating with a spinner or bait-caster reel—with those you are literally pitching the weight of your lure when you cast, and more weight makes it go farther. The physics of fly-fishing, however, to those as yet uninitiated, is dependent on energy transference, not the mass of the lure. Both fly line and flies are essentially weightless. In fact, a heavy fly just throws off your timing. The reason you saw Brad Pitt, for example, whipping his rod back and forth before he actually cast his line in the film A River Runs Through It was because he was building energy in his rod ("loading" it). With a properly timed release this stored energy was transferred to his line, sending it and the fly flying. All this is what gives fly-fishing the delicacy and grace it's known for, and makes it so difficult to learn. Clearly, casting Carlos' monster dorado flies will be a challenge, especially with the wind picking up, which, as Carlos had predicted, it is.

Without warning a huge commotion occurs about 50 feet from the boat, splashing water in every direction. "Dorado," Carlos announces, then tells me to cast to it.

Casting in still water is a lot different than casting in a river. There is no real current to deal with, thus no way to drift your fly to a risen fish. While river fishing takes more skill, marsh fishing demands accuracy: You either cast where the fish is or you don't.

I don't. The big black fly wobbles across the darkening sky drunkenly, then lands with an awful splash a good three feet from the fish. Damn. Suffice it to say, I spend the next 20 minutes practicing casting dorado flies. Meanwhile, with my blessing, Carlos takes aim from the bow of the boat and casts perfectly to the dorado. Hooks it too. And then the real fun begins.

It is one thing to read about a powerful fighting fish. It is quite another to witness it catapult out of the water, body arced, tail wagging, somersaulting from one side of the lagoon to the other. No wonder serious fishermen take this fish so seriously. When Carlos boats it, and Julian removes the hook, studiously avoiding its little ice-pick teeth, I am stunned by its beauty up-close.

"Small," Carlos says dismissively.

Who cares! I want to cry. But then, this is not my 926th Argentine dorado. It is my first. Now all I have to do is catch one myself. Within the next half hour I catch three, each one glinting in the sun like a Mayan artifact. I also catch a couple of piranha—two of the region's three species—an equally thrilling feat on a fly rod. Then it is time to retire to the lodge for lunch.

We arrive to a platter of fresh house hors d'oeuvres on the great room's coffee table. Marinated dove breast, tender and savory. Duck liver pâté, rich with Cognac. Both made from birds shot within walking distance of the lodge. Needless to say, the freshness of the meats gives the dishes unparalleled flavor—you simply can't make food like this in the city.

Later, after an afternoon spent dove hunting (see Shooting Season), we all meet for drinks on the terrace and toast the lowering sun as it turns the marshland below into a mosaic of silver inlay on the Paraná's quiet green terrain, then we repair to the dining room for duck sauvage à l'orange.

But it is not doves flying in formation that mark my dreams that night—it is a fish. A single, leaping, golden salmon splashing out of my subconscious backwaters, suspended in midair like a prayer flag, a living, breathing source of light that will, I know, guide me back to Argentina for many years to come.

Shooting Season

Mornings at Los Ombues are left for fishing; afternoons for wing shooting, when the countless birds that reside near the lodge take to the skies to roost for the night. So, one afternoon the brothers Sanchez took me out and taught me to shoot. Just like that. I'd shot clays once about ten years ago and can't say I remembered a thing. But within half an hour I could do it, and by the end of the day I'd hit two birds, a dove and a pigeon—albeit out of about 5,000 possible targets. The sky above the grainfield darkened with doves every ten seconds. Carlos and Juan Pablo shot 250 birds in one hour with .410 gauge over-and-under shotguns, no easy feat. To give some perspective, that is more than ten times the daily limit back in the States, which is 15 birds per day.

For those who find the idea of bird hunting disturbing, take heart. The Entre Ríos Province has been farmland for a long time. Corn, soybeans, sunflower seeds, wheat, and rice are grown there year-round, and birds of all sorts find these easy pickings. The marsh provides both water and cover. All this plus the mild climate creates one of the most productive bird habitats on earth. Widgeons, pintails, perdiz, four kinds of teal, two species of tree duck, and countless rosy-billed pochards coexist in dazzlingly high numbers. Also, the place is home to more than 17 million eared doves. So many, in fact, that farmers consider them pests and poisoned them for years until Los Ombues hunters came on the scene. In truth, hunters take only a tiny percentage of birds there.

"But psychologically, it is enough to make the farmers stop poisoning them," Carlos explained. "And that is good for the environment." All of which made me feel better about my two trophies, and I returned to the lodge that night with a sense of accomplishment.

The Basics

CONTACT Los Ombues, 2653 Santa Fe Avenue, Office 40, Buenos Aires 1425, Argentina; phone/fax: 54-114-826-5386; www.losombues.com; e-mail: cslosombues@aol.com.

RATES Dorado fishing combined with high-volume dove shooting is $500 a day. Duck, perdiz, and dove hunting is $1,000 per day, plus shells and tips.

WHEN TO GO Argentina's summer is our winter. Dorado season runs from November to April, and duck hunting season from May through August. Dove hunting is year-round.

GETTING THERE Delta and United fly to Buenos Aires from major U.S. cities. Los Ombues will arrange for your travel from there to the lodge. If you need to stay overnight in Buenos Aires, the Alvear Palace in the lovely Recoleta district offers traditional elegance, superb service, a Relais & Châteaux restaurant, and even your own butler. Phone: 54-11-4804-7777; e-mail: Alvear@satlink.com.

Jessica Maxwell wrote about Oregon's Pacific Dunes golf course in the May/June issue of Departures.