June 16, 2023
I heaved the 6-ounce spinnerbait and trailer as far as I could toward the dam and let it fall toward the bottom. Powerful currents from the hydroelectric power plant's 14 open gates quickly swept the bait downstream and away from our boat. The offering started tumbling through huge rocks some 10 to 12 feet below the surface. I began a slow crank, keeping the bait at a depth where it bumped into the boulders about every 5 seconds or so.
The boat continued its drift downstream in the tailrace area as I retrieved my first cast of the day. I tossed it again as far upstream as possible and engaged the reel after the lure’s 8-second free fall. On the second handle revolution, I felt the spinnerbait tick a rock, then a giant golden fish slammed it and took off pulling drag. "Set the hook! Set the hook!" yelled my guide Elbio. "Again!"
I complied and the big fish took to the air, trying to shake free of the heavy lure. Three more surface-clearing leaps and a few reel-screaming runs treated us to a show of the force and tenacity that have made the Uruguay River’s dorado famous. My hook stayed implanted in the fish’s jaw, and I gained line after each jump. The guide finally used the BogaGrip to end the battle and weigh my first big dorado, a 32-pounder.
After that fish on my second cast ever at La Zona, the world’s premier giant dorado fishery, my fishing buddy, Peter Kim, and I thought it was going to be easy. With the fish feeding even in the cold, muddy water, we figured we were going to catch the big guys all day long. Wrong. We caught only three more small fish under 20 pounds in that first "slow" morning session of four hours.
We headed for a big steak lunch at the lodge with our two other fishing buddies, experienced La Zona anglers Gary Clark and Hank Szopinski. After a full stomach and short siesta, we went out in two boats for another four hours. Activity improved substantially. Only eight dam gates were open, resulting in slightly slower currents. Peter and I caught a couple of 28-pounders and two more fish that weighed 30. His biggest dorado of 42 pounds beat my 40-pounder for top fish of the day. Clearly, we had come to the right place to find gold.
TOOTHY RIVER TIGERS
La Zona, a restricted tailrace area on the Uruguay River, lies below the massive Salto Grande Reservoir Dam and its 14-turbine hydroelectric facility. The catch-and-release fishery is located close to Concordia, Argentina, about 270 miles north of Buenos Aires. The river forms an aquatic border separating Uruguay and Argentina. Like the power-generating dam and lake above it, La Zona is shared by the two countries.
The dam acts as a barrier to the dorado’s upstream spawning runs and concentrates the fish below the outflow. The permitted La Zona fishing area is about 3,000 yards wide and extends downstream about 700 yards. The turbulent tailwaters are born from the rocky topography of the river bottom and the varying dam releases through massive gates. The spillway water levels below the dam may fluctuate from 1 to 10 meters. Currents and surface chop also vary greatly, depending on power generation, weather and reservoir volume needs above the dam.
At extremely low water, the craggy outcropping is easily visible and a stark reminder of the hazardous habitat to be considered when gearing up for battling these giant fish. Dorado reach incredible sizes in big numbers due to the dam barrier, abundant food availability, unpredictable water levels and very limited fishing pressure. Boga, a carp-like fish, migrate up the river, and dorado love to feast on them, particularly in warm and shallow water.
Fishing access to the tailrace area at La Zona is by official permit only and patrolled by the dam police of the two countries. The area is open only four days per week, Friday through Monday. Currently only four boats can fish at one time. La Zona Lodge has the Argentina permit for two boats, and Uruguay has issued a similar permit to an outfitter operating in that country.
The freshwater dorado is unique to south-central South America. Waters in Argentina, Uruguay, Bolivia, Paraguay and Brazil are home to the so-called river tigers. In five trips specifically to dorado land, I’ve fished four of those countries. I am convinced La Zona offers the world’s best fishing for trophy-size dorado.
The dorado has a muscular, salmon-shaped body cloaked in distinctive golden scales and appointed with orange fins. Conquistadors who ransacked South America looking for gold reportedly gave the dorado its name, which means “golden.” The fish has superior speed paired with crunching, vice-grip jaws. They are lined with twin rows of conical-shaped, tiger-like teeth, which make sharp, extra-strength hooks imperative. Pre-made 12- or 18-inch stainless wire leaders or 200-pound-test Trik Fish monofilament leaders are necessary to avoid cut-offs.
La Zona anglers must be careful when lifting the monster-jawed behemoths for a photo. Appropriately, the dorado (Salminus maxilosus) is a member of the tenacious Characidae family. Its illustrious-toothed relatives (which I’ve also caught) include the fierce tigerfish in Africa and both the Dracula-fanged payara and razor-toothed piranha in South America.
The strong dorado strike with ferocity and entertain with explosive and memorable jumps. There are no better jumpers in the neighborhood. The fish is an acrobat when hooked and usually immediately erupts through the surface to dislodge the lure. I fought one dorado of about 40 pounds that jumped eight times. I had another surprising strike right at the boat, just 10 feet off my rod tip. I set the hook into the 24-pounder, which leapt skyward four or five times beside the gunwales during the intense 5-minute battle. Fortunately, it never landed in the boat.
Gary and Hank had an even more intense La Zona battle when they tangled with a couple of trophy-size aggressors one morning. Gary hooked a monstrous 48-pounder, and Hank hooked a 42-pounder within a few seconds of each other. Their lines crossed several times during the fight, and the anglers brought the often-airborne twosome to the boat at the same time. The circus-like action was certainly memorable.
As the power generation and dam discharge conditions change at La Zona, so does the fishing. Our second day was even better than the first as the dam gates were all closed and the still-muddy waters had dropped about 8 or 9 feet. A few rocks were even protruding above the surface. In the shallower water, Peter and I switched to gold spoons and caught a 42- and 24-pounder, respectively. We switched back to the giant spinnerbaits an hour later and added two more in the 20-pound class and a 34-pounder. Topping that, Peter landed a monster 49-pound dorado, the biggest of the morning, and Gary had a 48-pounder.
That afternoon, the temperature hit 90 degrees and 14 of the 20 dam gates were again wide open. The water level had risen 6 feet during our lunch recess, but the hungry dorado were still active. I caught and released 34-, 42- and 44-pounders on my favorite spinnerbaits. In the other boat, Hank had four trophy fish up to 48 pounds.
The following day was a literal blowout, preventing us from fishing. Day-long winds up to 40 mph, pouring rain and a 30-degree temperature drop hit the area. We were fortunately prepared for the harsh cold front and dressed for it the following day. Air temps started out in the 40s, but giant dorado were still on our minds. The muddy water had risen back to earlier heights, and most of the dam’s gates were still open.
Downstream currents over the rock field and upstream winds around 30 mph prevented us from safely casting from the boat’s bow and stern decks. We caught 16 fish on our spinnerbaits including a 40-pounder, but two battle royales topped the day. A 46-pound golden flash gave me all I could handle for about 15 minutes in the rough waters, and my final catch was the fish of my dreams!
The monster fish struck my falling spinnerbait and immediately cartwheeled above the surface with a secure grasp of the jingling bait. It then bulled down into the depths, pulling drag. After 20 minutes, the giant had circled the boat four times. The powerful fish peeled braid from my Shimano Tranx baitcaster frequently and performed additional aerial acrobatics. My guide for the day, Alejandro, finally placed the BogaGrip in the bruiser’s mouth. The beautiful dorado weighed 52 pounds and was our biggest fish of the week.
The fishery at La Zona has not always produced the monsters of today, according to longtime friend Bob Daly, who has made about 30 trips to the area since 2006. He is arguably the world’s most experienced La Zona angler. Bob has caught and released around 250 dorado weighing more than 40 pounds and has eight topping 50 pounds to his credit. His largest weighed 53 pounds, not far from the world record of 55 pounds, 11 ounces.
"When I first started fishing down there," Bob recalls, "we fished hard right up next to the dam and caught lots of smaller fish between 20 and 35 pounds, but 40s and 50s were rare. Then governmental regulations changed, and we had to start fishing 150 yards downstream from the dam. That’s when we started catching more of the monsters. Starting the boat’s drift a little farther away from the dam walls put anglers in an even better position to catch true giants."
Gary agrees with Bob about the improving trophy production. He has fished La Zona more than a dozen times in the past 12 years and has dozens of dorado over 40 pounds to his credit. He had never broken the 50-pound class until a fantastic trip in 2019. He caught his first 50-pound trophy plus three more that size in the same week!
In the last few years before the COVID “time out” and since La Zona reopened, Bob estimates 400 dorado over 40 pounds and 25 over 50 pounds have been caught at the spot each year. An average catch may be 10 to 12 fish per boat per day. Typically, dark, tannin-stained water with a visibility of around 2 feet is ideal for catching these fish. Muddy and cold waters negatively impact such averages, according to La Zona experts.
Fishing at La Zona goes on year around, but few American anglers go during Argentina’s cold winter months of mid-May through mid-August. During the spring season, mid-August through November, the river is at its normal flow and huge schools of big dorado migrate to the dam to spawn. Some of the largest fish that are hooked and released in October and November are heavy with spawn.
The period from December through mid-May is typically when the Uruguay River is at its lowest level. Drought conditions reveal the rock fields that encompass most of the tailrace area, and wise anglers fish them. Water levels may vary a lot in May and September through November.
The primary lures that accounted for most of the dorado we caught in the muddy, 12- to 18-foot-deep waters during our trip were giant, 12-inch, 6 1/2-ounce GD1 Magnum spinnerbaits. The rugged K-Lures spinnerbaits are custom-built by owner Kermett Adams and designed specifically for 40- and 50-pound dorado at La Zona. The articulated head weighs 2 3/4 ounces, and the wire is heavy stainless steel that’s .062 inch in diameter. Two large No. 8 spinner blades and the massive 8/0 hook are attached with Spro No. 6 swivels rated at 560-pound test. The double 10-inch silicone skirts in firetiger color and a beefy 8-inch chartreuse curly-tail grub enhance the monster bait’s profile and attract hungry dorado.
Gary Clark was the first angler to discover the effectiveness of spinnerbaits on the giant dorado in La Zona 12 years ago. On his second visit to the area, he caught several fish on spinnerbaits, but none of the baits commercially available then were heavy enough to stand up against the powerful fish. Gary started making his own heavier, more durable spinnerbaits for personal use at La Zona. He then started working with the guides there on developing the best techniques for success. The most effective retrieve turned out to be a very slow roll, bumping the rocks along the bottom.
Today, GD1 Magnum spinnerbaits are typically the most effective lures in La Zona waters when depths are beyond a couple of meters. K-Lures’ slightly smaller 5-ounce GD spinnerbait is more appropriate for bouncing through the emergent rock fields in the shallowest water. The single hook of a spinnerbait penetrates the dorado’s toothy jaw better than a treble hook on some other big lures.
K-Lures also custom-builds La Zona 4 1/2-ounce shallow-cup poppers for use above the rocks in shallow waters. The dorado there brutally strike the 8-inch-long September Pop topwater poppers. At La Zona, cast big poppers as far as possible and then reel as fast as you can. Use a high-speed, large-capacity reel and keep the rod tip high. Dorado tear after the wake-throwing plug and explode on it, according to Gary. If your arms are still in their sockets after the wrenching strike, hang on and continue cranking!
La Zona dorado can be destructive, so durable baits are vital. Big, strong crankbaits or metal-billed, deep-diving plugs are good options in mid-depth waters. Heavy-duty spoons, such as the 5 1/2-inch, 2-ounce Gold Papa Doc Big Game, tossed to shallow rock fields are also productive. Each day’s top-producing lures depend on the water levels and water visibility.
Quality 7 1/2-foot rods with medium-heavy or heavy actions and baitcasting reels, such as the Shimano Tranx 400HG, spooled with 65- or 80-pound-test high-visibility braid are ideal for La Zona dorado encounters. La Zona is a bucket list destination for good reason, and you need to be prepared for memorable battles when you strike gold—or it strikes you.
- La Zona Fishing Lodge is just 5 minutes from dorado.
La Zona Fishing Lodge owner Hector Bradanini began as an area guide offering day trips in 2002 and then added overnight cabin accommodations in 2013. In 2019, he completed the lodge hotel. American Airlines offers two 9-hour overnight direct flights from Miami to Buenos Aires’ Ministro Pistarini International Airport. Upon arrival, anglers are met by a La Zona representative who transfers them to the lodge near Concordia, Argentina, via a 5-hour van ride.
The lodge offers six air-conditioned bedrooms with private baths and a main building with a comfortable lounge room above an extra-large dining room and kitchen. Excellent and overly abundant food and beverages are provided at breakfast, lunch and a three-course dinner by Chef Santiago Cattani. Since 2018, Chef Cattani has been a premier asset to the operation. His creative main-course dishes and desserts, complemented by Argentine wines, are similar to what is found in upscale restaurants.
The fishing area is only 5 minutes from the lodge. Each morning, anglers meet the guides and board 21-foot fiberglass, center-console boats on a canal leading to the Uruguay River. The lodge also provides excellent fishing equipment for those not bringing their own. The typical guided fishing package at La Zona is five nights’ accommodations and four days of fishing. About 80 Americans in small two- or four-person groups fish these waters each year, according to Giuliana Bradanini, lodge manager.
Most U.S. bookings are from November through April, which are the warmer months of the year in Argentina. To secure a reservation, most anglers book their trips far ahead of time. For more information, check out La Zona Fishing Lodge on Facebook and Instagram (@lazonalodge).