For Lea and me, two poetry professors targeting an exotic fish in a not so exotic location, the day began as a relearning experience.
We were ready to fish for the legendary golden dorado: a powerful, primitive, salmon-looking predator with a massive battering ram of a head. The “river tiger,” as it’s also known, is famed for hitting lures like the hammer of an angry god then going ballistic in the air. This carnivorously fanged spectacle of a fish ranges throughout five South American countries, and its gleaming, gilded monster madness is the holy grail of many international anglers seeking the ultimate freshwater rush for reasons I was about to discover.
Excerpted from Monster Fishing, by Mark Spitzer (Torrey House Press, 2023). All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.
Monster Fishing probes the human spirit fighting to preserve a planet in distress. After 50 years of fishing waters worldwide, extreme angler Mark Spitzer takes a hard look at his impact on monster fish and their environments. Through action-packed adventures exploring both familiar and foreign waters, this deep dive into the bioethics of fish suffering and stress invites a new way of seeing aquatic species and holding ourselves accountable for the health of our shared planet.
Knowing their conservation status has been in decline because of dams, and having read a radio-telemetry tracking study documenting how hydroelectricity infrastructure projects are blocking dorado migrations as even more are being built, I got straight to the point.
“Are there any fish ladders,” I asked from the passenger seat, “to help them reach their spawning grounds?”
“Yes,” Alejandro replied, looking a bit glum, “but they aren’t working very well.”
Alejandro was a dashing and fit 30-something-year-old who’d gone to a Baptist college in Missouri on a soccer scholarship. He had an environmental science background, lived in Buenos Aires, and had become a leading guide for golden dorado.
After driving half an hour, the sky still dark but the sun beginning to muscle up, adding a blood-orange ruddiness to the horizon, we arrived at the boat. We then met our other guide, Matias, who had grown up in the area and knew the dorado well.
Following a bayou full of hunting egrets and diving nutria out to the Paraná River, we motored downstream to a goliath iron ore plant full of moored freighters, catwalks and cranes, and a rusty dust that permeated everything including the songbirds hopping on the shore. There were steaming cascades pouring down the clay banks from a power plant’s cooling system, creating a dramatic, roiling turbulence that attracted our target fish.
For Lea and me, two poetry professors targeting an exotic fish in a not so exotic location, the day began as a relearning experience: for Lea, on casting a spinning rod, and for me, on casting a baitcasting reel. I’d forgotten how to use my thumb as a brake on what was essentially a musky-casting rig, and with the oversized crankbaits we were using, Lea had some trouble finding the right point of release.
We bungled around for an hour, our patient guides unsnagging our lines, telling us where to cast and the proper retrieval speed. By the end of that hour, we’d both regained our casting chops.
Still, bringing in a golden dorado was something else altogether. Alejandro explained how to set the hook and set it again, and how you have to reel in on the descent. After that, you gotta keep the tip down while always keeping the line tight.
So when one bashed my lure with the brutal force of a high school bully slamming a nerd’s forehead into a locker (a memory I clearly recall from the receiving end), I set that hook and set it hard. An electric burst blasted from the froth, back flipping spastically four feet into the air. I set it again while the fish was in flight, then powered down on reeling in, both guides advising me to slow down.
When I got that dorado to the boat, I began guiding it around in a blazing figure eight while it shimmered beneath us, its horizontal black stripes adding an extra hundred watts of contrast to its steely blur. In the process, I lifted my rod too high. The hook popped out of its mouth.
Man! Having witnessed what we’d come to get, I was now completely adrenalized—so we got back at it. More bumbling and more retraining took place, and eventually, drifting through a series of barge-mooring columns and colossal cleats, Lea hooked a dorado and brought it in, all of us shouting instructions at her. She got it next to the boat where Matias lifted it in.
It was ours! Target fish landed!
But Lea, she wouldn’t accept that she had done anything. She chalked it all up to luck, which I wasn’t buying. She had honed her casting skills through trial and error, and there it was in the fish gripper, bleeding from its gills. This dorado, though, wasn’t bright gold. It was just sort of platinum.
Photos were taken, and Matias tossed the fish back in the water, where it leapt three more times in rapid succession to show us that we couldn’t break its fighting spirit.
When you get a golden dorado on your line, the scintillating syntax of their skywork is just as expressive as the flashing of their flesh.
We got back to casting again, this time upstream along some muddy banks traveled by cattle, gulls gliding overhead. The day was warming, the sky was bright, and I hooked three more dorados that got off. In the meantime, our guides had a line out with a live “anguila” on it, their common freshwater eel.
At one point, Lea noted that the golden dorado defies human instinct, which was a spot-on assessment. My urge was to always reel in with manic speed so they’d have less of a chance to get away, which is what I’d trained myself to do with bowfin and pike. But as my guides kept telling me, I needed to go “less loco” on reeling, and when I got them to the boat, I needed to haul them around and tire them out. Basically, to land these fish, we had to unlearn not only everything we’d ever learned in terms of fishing, but what felt natural.
After an hour, the guides switched our live bait to what they called a “morena,” which was a shorter, fatter chub of an eel. When Alejandro stuck a hook through it, I felt absolutely nothing, except a minor sting from the fact that I didn’t feel anything.
It was after lunch and Lea had had enough. She was sitting in the stern with her phone on one leg and a cerveza in her lap, and she was getting ready for some Facebooking time. But before she could open that beer, Matias thrust a pole into her hands and started yelling for her to “REEL! REEL! REEL!” and to “STAND! STAND! STAND!” Lea was pulled to her feet, stuff went tumbling everywhere, and somewhere in all that chaos, someone handed me her rod. I was holding it high while she got her footing, and out in the river a golden dorado was jerk-jerk-jerking the line. Lea was laughing her ass off as I handed her the pole, and she set the hook expertly.
“FAST! FAST! FAST!”
“SLOW! SLOW! SLOW!”
“SET IT AGAIN! AGAIN! AGAIN!”
“GO! GO! GO!”
A few minutes later, she brought the fish in, and Matias swung it into the boat. It was a dazzling, metallic golden dorado, its scalloped tail a brilliant blur of incandescent tangerine fringed with salmon pink, a rich black swath cutting right through the middle of it. Lea, however, felt sorry for the fish because it was bleeding from the hook, which didn’t bother me at all, this being the standard price fish pay for me to get my kicks.
When we let that one go, it shot off like a torpedo, and a glorious golden one at that. I then hooked another dorado on a morena and again was given another barrage of instructions. I was bringing it in just as an osprey dove right smack in front of us, hit the water, grabbed a fish, lifted it, and dropped it back in.
Then I caught a fifth, and a sixth dorado, both of which leapt in spasming spirals, performing insane, gravity-defying pirouettes, because that’s the language of this fish, and that’s the way they speak to us.
When you get a golden dorado on your line, the scintillating syntax of their skywork is just as expressive as the flashing of their flesh. It’s an imagistic feast, an optical dance that I can only compare to poetry bursting from the breast. When poems working at their best, there’s a shift that can make for a larger effect. In the past, I’ve taught this trick as “the twist in the gut.” It’s a variant of what some poets refer to as “the volta,” the turning point, the aha moment, the instant in which everything changes. But with the torqueing that comes from the twist in the gut, there are no words for this dynamic. It’s something that can only be experienced in the intestines. I’m talking WOW! I’m talking WORD! I’m talking TRANSCENDENTAL! Because this is a fish which makes its own genre-busting rules that translate into something with the power to deliver a message which can only be felt at a gut level.
We let them all go, of course, bleeding or not. And the more we fished, the bigger they got, to the point that I couldn’t imagine how the day could become any more of a head-spinning fantasy come true. So I called it a day, and sat down and had a beer.
Mark Spitzer appeared on Animal Planet series River Monsters and consulted for National Geographic’s Monster Fish show. He was professor of creative writing at the University of Central Arkansas and lived part-time in the Mid-Hudson River Valley until the end of his life in 2023.