World Record Golden Dorado - La Zona

Mike Sadar recaps his 2015 Adventure.

In April of 2012, our client Mike Sadar landed a world record fly-caught 50-pound golden dorado. Here is his La Zona recap for his subsequent trip in 2015. Mike’s Golden Dorado pledge:  "I, Mike Sadar, will do my very best to fish for this species at least once per year, until the day I die."

Golden Dorado

Mike Sadar and Lazona golden dorado

The Golden Dorado is known as possibly the world’s most prolific freshwater fish. My first exposure to this species was at Tsimane, Bolivia when we landed dorado up to 30-pounds in small pristine streams. At Tsimane, I observed and began to understand their habits. Dorados can be overly timid and refuse all presentations and then suddenly flip the switch and become the most aggressive predators on the planet. The latter was not fully realized until a time when I was playing a 10 to 15-pound golden dorado on the line. The fish suddenly got bit in two by a much larger fish—something you’d expect to see on the National Geographic channel.
Golden dorado are the ultimate species to catch on a fly and exceed all expectations. They demand a good presentation with the right fly and reward one with the most savage strike imaginable. They have rock-hard mouths, and this requires a perfectly timed strip-hookset to drive the hook into the fish. Once hooked, the fish will make blistering runs and tail-walk across the surface of the water. The probability of actually landing one is 50-50 at best. Although you’re almost always guaranteed a show—they’ll jump five to six times, showcasing their golden operculum plates, scales, and fins—a breathtaking sight.

La Zona Golden Dorado

Jumping golden dorado

After the experience of hooking and landing my first golden dorado, I vowed I would do my very best to fish for this species at least once per year until the day I die. That was six years ago, and in March of 2015, I made my seventh trip for golden dorado. The last three trips have been to La Zona, the best golden dorado spot on earth and possibly the best fishing spot on the planet as well. La Zona is the tailwater of Salto-Grande Dam on the lower Uruguay River. The dam serves as a barrier to migratory dorados of this river system, where they collect beneath the upwellings from the turbines and feast on sabalos and freshwater eels. Here, golden dorado grow to behemoth sizes—the largest of their species in the world.
My first trip to La Zona was a once-in-a-lifetime trip in which I landed several fish over 30 pounds and two beasts at 45 and 52 pounds, all on flies. After that trip, I knew I would be coming back on a regular basis.

Golden Moments

La Zona golden dorado

So, this brings us to 2015, my fourth year in a row for La Zona. I have learned to play the odds for low water conditions, which is a window of time between December and April. Even in this dry season, there are upsets in weather where the river can go into flood stage and put the big fish down. This year the river was far from the flood stage, but there were still very heavy flows. These upsets would make fishing more challenging, as I would find out later.
At La Zona, fishing is very restricted, and everyone must play by the rules which are mandated by the Argentine and Uruguay governments. There are two fishing sessions per day. The morning session goes from about 8:30 a.m. and stops promptly at noon. A four-hour break follows. In the afternoon session, you’ll fish for three hours, from about 4:00 p.m., promptly quitting at 7:00 p.m., right about dusk. Over the course of a four-day trip, anglers have eight fishing sessions, and so that was how I broke down the highlights of this particular trip.

2015 Golden Dorado Fishing Sessions:

Session 1 - Friday, March 6th, Morning - The water was high but not out of control. I started out with a 4000-grain line and a large black-and-red streamer. Fishing was slow, but I missed several fish. I was stripping very fast, and that might be what was causing the missed strikes. I landed five dorados of 8, 14, 24, 5, and 14 pounds. This was still considered slow but was better than last year when the river was at flood stage, and I caught five fish the entire trip.
Session 2 - My first cast was a hook-up but not to a dorado. A sabalo of about 12 pounds took my purple-and-black streamer. I hooked several more as they were congregating in a corner of the dam. Fishing then slowed on streamers. I worked to get any kind of grabs whatsoever. We then spotted some dorados in a small riffle near shore and changed to a titanic fly. This is a floating fly that splashes water everywhere when stripped, providing very visual strikes from fish. Every drift over the spot yielded a fish, but nothing big. All were between 5 and 10 pounds. The weather was hot and dry. There was not a cloud in the sky.
Session 3- The day started with fishing the 400 sink and having very slow action. I still hooked and lost several, but only boated three dorados, all about 10 pounds. The lure guys in the other boat were hooking lots of fish but landed very few. Many of their fish were very large, so they are eating. Just not black flies! My guide, Elbio, asked me if I had any white flies. I did not have any in any of my boxes. It is so ironic, as the dorados have always loved to eat my black streamers in the previous six trips! But this time, something was different.

Session 4
March 7th, Evening

Can the skunk come to La Zona?
It sure can and did.
I hooked seven dorados and lost them all. My boat partner did land one, but we worked hard for that fish. The other boat also had tough luck, with one person skunked for the entire day. The fourth person was 0 for 20 on hook-ups. Similar to Day One, the sun never saw a cloud, and it was a hot, windless day.
Back at the lodge, we brainstormed why so many fish were being lost on lures. We suggested that the treble hooks be removed and replaced with a single 5/0 heavy Trokar Hook. Between the ring and the hook, we attached a heavy barrel swivel to make sure the hooks do not lay up against the side of the lure. On Sunday, we would see if this experiment worked.
At this point, we are halfway through the trip, and it was like the black flies were non-existent to the dorados. I was sure the fish were seeing these flies as I was touching the bottom all the time. But they were unimpressed. I looked for materials to re-tie some flies, and one of the anglers in our group had a vice and thread. I cut off the black and tied on some white with reflective tinsel. I left on the colored highlight. I was curious to see how this would look in the water. I was able to tie three flies, and I hoped this would change my luck. It was hard to imagine that we just passed the halfway part of the trip. Like the previous two days, the weather was hot and cloudless. Tomorrow would be Sunday, and in Argentina, very few businesses would be open. Thus, the generators at the dam should be relatively quiet, making the water drop a bit. We could only hope the water was low as this often turns the dorado bite on for flies.

Session 5
Sunday, March 8th, Morning

Sure enough, the water was down at least six feet, and we saw rocks above the surface of the water, scattered across the river. This were prime conditions, and we spotted dorados up near the dam chasing bait everywhere! My boat partner and I hooked and landed a pair of dorados in the 15-pound range, which was a great start to the day. Then, my buddy hooked into a very nice fish, which turned out to be 33-pound fish on a silver-and-white fly. My white flies with pearl did generate some strikes, but I had not realized much success.
Suddenly, we noticed that the Uruguay side of the dam had started to generate power. The water on that side of the river immediately rises; and we immediately head over there and begin a drift. Alejandro, our guide, said that this is the time to fish as the fish turn on. And sure enough, about three casts into the drift, I had a heavy strike and set the hook hard. The fish catapulted out of the water and then circled the boat, heading upstream into the fast current. It was at least a forty-pounder, and we turned to chase it. It was just screaming away, and then suddenly, the line went slack. The fish was gone, and my 40-pound tippet is severed from the fish dragging me either over or around a rock. But that is why this place is so special!
I tied on my second white fly and start casting again, thinking my chance was gone. It was near the end of the drift, and I had another viscous strike! I go to set the hook, and it was a solid set, and then slack line. White fly number 2 is now gone, as the fish again breaks the leader! I rigged back up with only about 10-minutes to go and landed two more fish, both about 15-pounds. My total for the morning was three fish, but I lost two big fish, both breaking my leaders. The other boat hooked numerous fish and landed about half of them with the new single hook rig. Some of these fish were in the 30-40 pound class! The fishing was turning on.
Over lunch, I found a couple of bags of chips, of which the inside of the bags were a silver foil. I patiently cut the bags into several 1/8th-inch strips until I had about thirty strips to tie several more flies. The bag came from our guide Frank, so we named the flies Frankensteins!

Session 6
Sunday, March 8th, Evening

Fishing definitely slowed down, but I also tried several black flies again. The fish just would not take black. I go to the Frankenstein flies that were tied from the potato chip bag and did generate several strikes and hookups. My best was a 24-dorado, respectable, but nothing to raise eyebrows at La Zona. I hooked and lost a few more fish and landed one more for an evening session of two fish. The fishing is indeed slower, but we are seeing a few big fish.
The lure fishermen were doing super good. The biggest landed was 44-pounds, and several in the 30-pound range were landed. They also lost many fish, some of which broke their lures in two. The worst case was when they hooked one fish, and another fish of equal size took the lure that was hanging from the mouth of the first fish. Considering both fish were at least 25-pounds plus, the first thing that happened was a broken line. However, they are hooking 5X the fish and landing many of them, so they were doing great!
Like the first three days, a strong high sat over the area, and it was hot and cloudless! We only had one more day, and hopefully, fishing would continue to offer some excitement with big fish! Unfortunately, I could only fish the morning session, so I had to make it count.

Session 7
March 9th, Morning

The day started out good, landing a few good fish. I cast the Frankenstein flies and landed a 28-pound dorado. I landed a few others that were in the 15-20 pound range. We continued to work water close to shore, and I hooked into what must have been a very large catfish. I fought it for 20-minutes and could not get it off the bottom. It was very rocky, and the fish finally went through some rocks, and I could not free it. Eventually, the line broke, but it was one of those instances that I will never know how big that fish was. I looked at my watch, and I had an hour left. It was not looking good, as I hurried to re-tie one last leader.
Finally, I re-rigged, and we worked a drift about a third of the way across the river. I looked at my watch, and there was 15-minutes to go. I thought it was over, and I slowed down my stripping. It was then that I had a solid grab and I strip striked into a solid fish. The fish immediately tried to come out of the water, but it was so massive that only the upper third of the fish was visible. It was a horse, and immediately headed across the river. We motored toward the fish, as I was deep into my backing. We finally caught up to the fish when it made another run in the other direction. We again caught up to the fish, but this time there was not free line between the fish and me. It had me around a rock—another stinking rock! We worked to try to free the fish, moving in all directions around the snag. I did not feel anything at all, indicating the fish had broken free. It was not the way to end a trip, but in a way, it was. That was to the core, the reminder why I come back to this place again and again!
The lures continued to work for the other anglers, and more 30-40-pound fish were landed. The biggest for them was 48-pounds, and they were having some awesome fishing. The color of the lure didn’t seem to matter, as long as it was down deep near the bottom.
I hurried on back to the lodge to meet my ride that was already there waiting for me. And with that, I packed my bags. I expected more and bigger fish and probably would have done better had I had some white and some silver flies. Next time I will have these colors by the dozens.

Golden Lessons Learned

As with all trips, there are always lessons to be learned. This trip, in particular, taught me how hardheaded I can be.

Golden Dorado Flies

Golden dorado flies

1.  Always have a broad assortment of light and dark flies. I had plenty of black flies with colored highlights, but in my four boxes, I did have one light-colored fly. Specifically, flies that were white-and-silver or white-and-holographic worked incredibly well.

Lure Angler - Jim Schmid playing one to the boat

Jim Schmid

2. Be willing to try different retrieves. The last hour of my trip, I really slowed down my retrieve, and the dorados responded. I have learned my lesson on this when fishing highly pressured waters, where everyone uses the same flies, and only a certain retrieve will catch fish. With dorados, they can be very finicky, and one always has to experiment.

The Lure Anglers - Jim Schmid and Russ DeFusco

Mike Sadar with golden dorado

3. Lure fishing - throw the trebles away! Once the others in my group went to heavy single hooks, they landed 50 percent of the hooked dorados, versus 5 % before. When using single hooks, the barrel swivel between the ring of the lure and the hooks is absolutely necessary to give it some distance away from the lure body.
4.  Lure type: Like the flies, have both dark and light-colored lures. It is also good to have more than one of each. On a few occasions, the dorados literally tore the lures apart.

Mike Sadar - Closing Thoughts

Royal Coachman dining

5. Never give up! Even when I thought my fishing was over, I hooked the largest dorado of my life. Yes, I did not land the fish, but the image of the size of that behemoth and the battle that I lost will never be forgotten. After all, if we caught everything we hooked, where would all the excitement and suspense be?
Until the next time, may those dorados grow even bigger!
--Mike Sadar

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