Exotic Grand Slam

Exotic Grand Slam

Chasing these fish takes you to dream-like lands.

  • By: Val Atkinson
  • Photography by: Val Atkinson
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Golden Dorado

I first learned about something called the exotic grand slam years ago in an old British sporting journal. The British have a history of concocting new ways to entertain themselves, including those mammoth expeditions to Everest and the South Pole. They also invented the sport of lion hunting from horseback, the trick being to dismount before actually shooting the charging lion. That game never appealed to me, but the exotic grand slam did. To take the slam you have to catch three challenging species that live on different continents:

1African tigerfish, in either the Okavango Delta or the Zambezi River and its tributaries, which are full of crocodiles and hippos, and venomous snakes like the puff adder and the black-necked spitting cobra.

2 South America’s golden dorado, which requires anglers to fish isolated jungle river corridors, among exotically beautiful, giant blue butterflies and terminally stealthy jaguars. In addition, anglers must pray they are not bitten by an infected sand flea and get leishmaniasis, a parasitic infection that results in severe scarring and even death. (The cure involves 15 to 20 intravenous infusions of Pentamadine or Pentostam. The process is like chemotherapy; not something to look forward to.)

3To round out the exotic grand slam anglers must travel to India for royal mahseer; doing so means crazy travel by air, train and bus over seemingly suicidal mountain passes while coping with drivers whose faith in an afterlife seems total.

Two of those three fish have big, nasty teeth; all are tackle-busting bruisers. Catching any of them is an accomplishment. Catching all is a life-dream. About five years ago I decided to try for the ultimate. And so began my trek to far-off lands for dorado, tigerfish and mahseer.

The golden dorado (Salminus brasiliensis) is a large river fish that lives in central South America—Brazil, Paraguay, Argentina and Bolivia. Despite having Salminus in their name they are not related to any species of salmon, nor the saltwater dorado. They have large heads and powerful jaws filled with razor-sharp teeth, and are golden in color. The largest on record weighed about 70 pounds.

In most places where dorado are found, anglers target fish between 10 and 20 pounds, with 30-pounders caught occasionally. No matter the size, freshwater dorado have appealing qualities: they grow large, they jump like crazy and they’re always hungry.

I chose to fish for dorado in the Mamore watershed of northern Bolivia, staying at Tsimane Lodge, which is named after the local indigenous people. Daily we ventured out in dugout canoes. Huge trees hung over the river. Vines draped over the pools. All this was set to the squawking of macaws and toucans. Daily we saw groups of natives bow-fishing for supper. Once, we spotted a jaguar laying on the beach amidst thousands of blue butterflies, the national (and protected) insect of Bolivia.

The dorado constantly searched for baitfish called sabalo. Frequently, we saw packs of six to 10 dorado cruising in the shallows like a group of coordinated killer whales or wolves, often corralling their prey against the bank. With split-second timing they charged into the baitfish and left nothing but body parts floating in the receding disturbance. If you could get a cast into that frenzy you would always get a take.

Tigerfish

The tigerfish is found throughout Africa’s large river systems and it is appropriately named—these fish have a fearsome appearance consisting of a bright orange tail, black lateral stripes and notoriously large, bright-white, dagger-like teeth. They jump often when hooked and fight hard. To catch one, I joined Susan Rockrise and spent a few days in the Okavango Delta wetlands, sharing the waterways with giant Nile crocodiles that stretched to 14 feet. Hippos were abundant, too, and it seemed like they were just waiting to bite our boat in half. We also saw elephants and lions, which made our outing feel like an episode from the TV show Survivor. We accessed the area from Maun, Botswana and slept restfully, but anxiously, in canvas tents next to the river.

Locating tigerfish in a vast, winding river is tricky. Guides use binoculars to spot circling white cattle egrets feeding on small batifish called Churchills. Catfish feed on Churchills, too, and tigerfish massacre those catfish. The tigerfish took flies so hard they literally almost pulled the rod out of my hand. I used tape on my stripping finger to guard against line cuts. I let the guides unhook the fish so that their teeth wouldn’t cut me up like a bandsaw. And they released them, too. After a giant crocodile bumped the bottom of the boat and then surfaced inches from my feet, I knew I didn’t want to fall overboard.

Royal Mahseer

“Mahseer” is the common name for one very exotic fish that, surprisingly, belongs to the Cyprinidae family—in common words, they are a carp. Mahseer are found across Indonesia and southern Asia, but in some places they are in drastic decline. Bhutan, for instance, declared them a royal fish and only anglers with a special permit from the king are allowed to fish for them. To catch mine, I flew to Delhi and traveled by private car to the Indian Peninsula, and on into the foothills of the Himalaya with Baobab Educational Adventures.

Catching any mahseer is a memorable achievement, as they are extremely smart. One of the secrets to success is timing—they spawn in the headwaters during the monsoon (rainy season). As the rivers recede and clear the fish drop back into the main rivers. That’s when you want to target them, as the water clears, but before it’s too clear.

In Jim Corbett’s book, The Man-Eaters of Kumaon, he describes battling a 50-pound mahseer on an early model Greenheart fly rod. I didn’t catch a 50-pounder, or even hook one, but I saw them finning in the deepest holes within Jim Corbett National Park. And I wasn’t the only one looking—we joined locals who traveled hundreds of miles to a swinging bridge over the upper Ganges River in the city of Rishikesh, just to view protected mahseer, which are considered sacred and are fed with bread crumbs tossed into the river. Overall, traveling through India for mahseer was otherworldly, akin to an LSD trip—bizarre, unexpected, constantly unfolding before me.

See more of the author's photographs at valatkinsonphotos.smugmug.com and at www.valatkinson.com.