LaZona Argentina, An Angler’s Paradise For Ferocious Razor-Toothed Fish…

Imagine the excitement any angler might have if given the opportunity to cast for fish that are both plentiful and more ferocious than any other freshwater species found in the western hemisphere.

For Spring Lake resident Ed Lutkus, his brother Rick Lutkus, Indiana resident Bob Daly, and me, last spring (mid-April) imagination turned into reality and the memories created by our adventure are sure to last a lifetime.

Our target; the giant freshwater dorado which are primarily found within the first few hundred yards downstream from the LaZona Dam. This huge hydroelectric power plant, located on the Uruguay River, separates Uruguay from Argentina. And due to the fact that this facility provides much of the hydroelectric power for both countries, LaZona is tightly controlled by the military. So much so that until 18 months ago access to this site was strictly off limits to all anglers!

The freshwater dorado, not to be confused with the dolphin (mahi-mahi) called dorado in many areas, is better known as the “golden” dorado and is considered by many anglers to be the world’s ultimate freshwater gamefish.

Found only in a few isolated locations in South America (we were in Concordia, Argentina which is a 5-7 hour drive, depending on traffic, north of Buenos Aires), these brightly colored fish have jaws of steel and a nasty temperament to match. Similar to the African tigerfish (both are categorized under the Characidae family); they’re extremely aggressive and will savagely strike any baitfish or cannibalize their own young that foolishly come within striking distance.

Dorado grow much larger (current record of 55 pounds 11 oz. was set in January of 2007) than a four year old Michigan salmon and when stung by a hook they’ll put on an acrobatic display more dazzling than that of a fall-run steelhead. Their mouths are very hard and their jaws so powerful one chomp can literally crush a lure. Careful handling is required as their razor-like teeth can cause serious injury to any angler not excising due caution.

The fishing rules at LaZona are as simple as they are strict;

(1) Fishing is only permitted Monday-Thursday and is restricted to two boats, each of which is operated by a guide having a permit from the Argentine government.

(2) Your passport must be checked by an armed guard before you’re given permission to fish.

(3) You may begin fishing around 9:15 each morning but lines must be pulled at 12:30 p.m. Your afternoon session will commence around 4:00 p.m. and quitting time will be at 6:30 p.m. (which during our spring is sundown below the equator) for a total of just over five hours of fishing time each day.

(4) You may use artificial lures only and catch-release is strictly enforced.

(5) The wearing of your life jacket is required while fishing as the swirling currents found near the dam have caused over a half dozen anglers to fall overboard during the past year.

It should be noted that no local anglers will ever have permission to fish any closer than 800 yards below LaZona. This area is clearly marked and the locals understand that they will be in peril if they attempt to cross the line.

The Sunday before our scheduled fishing time at LaZona our four man fishing crew (Daly, the Lutkus brothers, and me) tried our luck at catching golden dorado a mile or so below the LaZona dam.

“We’ll catch a few dorado here but they aren’t as plentiful and certainly not as big,” said Russario who is well known in the local area for being one of the better guides on the lower river.

Trolling at 4-5 MPH with deep-diving body baits proved somewhat effective as all four of us managed to hook a couple dorado but none came close to being brought to the boat.

“No drag,” instructed Russario. “You must hold the fish tight when one hits.”

No problem! We were all using 80# braided line; extra strong hooks, and wire leaders. The smaller fish, most of which were in the 3-12 pound class, shouldn’t be a problem!

Zzzzzzzing! My first dorado hit so hard that in spite of the drag being turned down tight, the 80# line was peeled in a matter of seconds. That first big strike was my shocking introduction to the power of golden dorado. The other members of our fishing crew didn’t fare any better as by the end of the day we were collectively 0-9.

“The fish are many more and much bigger at LaZona,” said Russario in somewhat broken English. “Big fish- you’ll see.”

The next morning the Lutkus brothers and I were assigned to go on Hector’s (one of two guides allowed to fish at LaZona) 20 foot boat while Daly, who had limited skills in both Spanish and Portuguese, was joined by a husband-wife team from Sao Paulo Brazil on the other boat.

We were told to cast large deep-diving body baits (Rapalas, Yo-Zuri’s, Rat-L- Traps, and Bombers) across the current. All of our lures were upgraded with 4X hooks and extra-strength split-rings as the hardware found on most out-of-box lures wouldn’t be enough to hold these fish.

Rick Lutkus took the first fish (28 pounds) and within the first hour we had all caught dorado that weighed in excess of the 30 pound mark. The action continued fast and furious allowing little time for photo opportunities other than that of the double-header (each 32 pounds) taken by Rick and me. Our final tally for that first day included five dorado weighing over 30 pounds (Rick’s 36 was our biggest), a dozen or more in the 8-24 pound class, and at least 20 additional fish that were lost. Not a bad start… that is until we heard that Daly and the Brazilian couple had caught several dorado weighing over 40 pounds and had the pictures to prove it!

Although exhausted from the combination of too much sun and battling a multitude of huge fish, adrenaline continued to flow as we prepared our tackle for another day of fishing LaZona.

For reasons neither of us were able to fully comprehend, the next day Ed Lutkus and I both went into a fishing slump as between us we hooked over 30 fish but only managed to bring two to Hector’s boga grip (a tool used to safely hold and weigh a fish before being released). Meanwhile Rick continued to catch and release over a dozen dorado weighing up to 36 pounds.

“Use this,” said Hector as he searched for a lure that might improve our landing percentage. “Cast out and jig it back”.

The fish then started coming one after another on what looked to be a white plastic jig. Yellow also worked well as our guide Hector prepared several more of his highly effective “ghost” lures.

Our four man crew spent more money that we care to discuss on pricey body baits only to discover that Hector’s “Ghost Lure” out-performed anything we had in the tackle box.

His secret will now be revealed– tie one large single hook on a steel leader, slide the 1 oz. egg sinker down to the hook and secure with electrical tape. Next, wrap the hook with a plastic grocery bag, tape it to the sinker (or use a rubber band), and trim it off about four inches below the hook. The final step is to make a series of vertical cuts on the bag so it looks like fringe around the hook. The completed lure mimics a bogo, which is a member of the carp family, and is the primary forage of the dorado.

Using a combination of large body baits and “ghost lures” the Lutkus brothers and I completed our four days of fishing LaZona with a total of 70 dorado caught and more than 100, (including Rick’s monster dorado lost next to the boat that Hector estimated to be in the 50 pound class) that were prematurely released. The total weight of our catch was 1,329 pounds which gave us an average of just under 20 pounds per fish. Our heaviest fish was 38 pounds and only two didn’t exceed the ten pound mark.

Not bad at all for four days of fishing but our results paled when compared to what was caught by the trio in the other boat. Their estimated catch was well over a hundred fish including a dozen that were in excess of the 40 pound mark.

Trophy fish at LaZona are the rule rather than the exception as fish in the 40-50 pound class (the record is 55 pounds taken a month earlier) are taken on a regular basis.

Our fishing “trip of a lifetime” also proved exhausting in ways we hadn’t expected… the minivan trip between Concordia and the airport in Buenos Aires comes quickly to mind. On this well-travel highway there are hundreds of miles of two lane traffic where tailgating truck drivers and those in vintage cars (many ’60 and ’61 Ford falcons are still on the road) seem to enjoy playing a game of road “chicken”.

When you’re within spitting distance of a tanker truck while doing 70 mph on a two-lane highway -it’s ‘white-knuckle’ time!

Those harrowing experiences were soon followed by a traffic jam the likes of which few Michiganders have ever seen. Imagine four lanes of plugged traffic and then having motorcycles racing between the stopped cars with little more than a matter of inches on either side separating them from a trip to the morgue!

We also encountered unfriendliness at the airport. For example; there were nearly a dozen stops where unsmiling faces asked for either a tax receipt, plane tickets, or passport, – where payment of an $18 dollar tax was required in order to leave the country, being hassled by over-zealous inspectors who were convinced a fishing reel with line on it might be a dangerous weapon, and then having your departure delayed as several weeks earlier lightning had hit the airport radar tower.

Negatives aside, the fishing was excellent, the hospitality wonderful, the meals and libations superb, we each had a private room with a full bath, and the weather was ideal (70s-80s) throughout the week.

But best of all, we’ll always have the memories of huge dorado becoming airborne and then, following a spirited battle, having Hector lock his boga grip onto the jaw of the spent fish. This is just one of the sights that will remain forever in my mind’s eye.

To some the trip may have been a little “pricey” ($1200 airfare, $4,500 to the outfitter for the week, and $400-$600 in specialized tackle) but without hesitation it can also be said that the memories produced were priceless.

Note: Fewer than 180 Americans have ever managed to receive a permit for what has to be the most exciting freshwater fishing on the planet. Ed Lutkus and the author were the first anglers from the Midwest and the only anglers from Michigan to ever fish LaZona and the adventure was incredible.