May 9th, 2005

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"La Prohibida," Our Bolivian Secret
By Miguel Reznicek (migs)

It's 5:00 am and though I had set the alarm to wake me, I'm already awake. I get dressed quietly so as not to wake my wife or the kids. Taking off this early in the morning is a finely orchestrated maneuver.

I have to remember to not to forget the Camelback bladder that I left cooling in the fridge last night. I must also remember to take the sandwiches the maid made for us to take. (Yes Bolivia does have some perks) Downstairs in the kitchen I boil some water and prepare a thermos full of hot tea that will serve as breakfast for me and my buddies Rene and Fernando as we drive to the lake. I grab my backpack and insert the bladder.

The pack contains my waders, jacket, wader boots, two reels, a Reddington CPS 5 wt rod, two snow poles, and my little William Joseph chest pack. Hoping I've not missed anything I get into the Land Cruiser.

Outside it's quite dark, but we have to leave this early to get to the lake by about 9am. At 5:30 Fernando is already waiting for me outside his door with Rene. By 6 we are close to a small market at La Paz's edge. The people are starting to come to life, and in a market area some Indian women have set out their bread in giant baskets. We buy a dollar's worth of rolls, which is about three dozen of them, knowing we will find plenty of people along the way that will delight from a piece of bread in the early morning. Fernando buys a bag of rock candy for all the children we will run into. I get a couple of bottles of water for Rene and Fernando, knowing they never think of these things.

A few minutes later we have left La Paz, a city at 11,500 ft. of altitude, heading east towards a small mining town on the base of the Illimani, a snow capped peak that overlooks our city from 100 miles away. We will fish on a mountain just opposite it, an almost as high. This particular road is cobble stoned the first part of the way, which is typical for Bolivia. As I drive we each eat a roll and drink some of the tea I made earlier. Rene is Dr. Rene Botelho, a thin 45 year old biochemist, and father of Fly Fishing in Bolivia. Fernando Montes is an older architect, but I would most likely characterize him as a fly fishing fanatic.

By 8 in the morning we have arrived to Choquecota, the small mining town close to our lake. On this particular morning the river below the road is dead grey. This means the miners have been washing their ore in the river, thus poisoning all that lives downstream with mercury. As we start donning our packs the children and people from the village begin to surround us. The rolls of bread flow for everyone, and children two and three years old delight with candy too. On this special morning we have also brought 150 notebooks and 300 pens to give to the local families for their school children. This is our token trade for the village to protect the lake from net fishing or even worse, a few sticks of dynamite in the water. We ask the villagers to do something about the miners and the river. We get some empty promises.

Illimani on the way in

Finally we are off to the lake, a steep hike up to 16,000 ft where our secret hides in a small valley surrounded by shale gravel and snow. (This is where the ski poles really help by taking some of the load off my feet) We have named the lake "La Prohibida," which means "The Prohibited One" because many years ago we got chased out of it by the local "campesinos" (which means country folk). Eventually we made the deal with them in the form of notebooks for their school aged children. We also lovingly call it that because it's an unspoken code among the three of us that we will not tell others about the lake. (So you too keep the secret Ok?) After all, the spinning rod fishermen would only be too happy to test their wares on our lake.

Almost at the top Fernando and Rene

The mountain path eventually leads to a small valley where llamas and wild horses roam freely. It's April and the herds have had their offspring. Tiny llamas are everywhere with their coats nice and clean. A couple colts run tight with their mares. Children herders whistle to us from far above the mountain and come running down for some of Fernando's rock candy. We ask the children if some fishermen have come these days and they say "no" through their runny noses. We insist on how they know. The little one, barefoot in this cold, black, wet peat moss answers "because last night we slept next to the lake." It's summertime in Bolivia (just the opposite of the northern hemisphere) but it still gets down to freezing every night at this elevation.

Valley with peat moss Soon we arrive at the lake and don our waders, jackets, small chest packs, and assemble our rods. The climb up has taught me personally to be a minimalist. I take a reel and an extra spool, one with floating line and the other with full sink III line. It is a deep lake after all, and sinking lines are the norm. Slowly we begin to spread out and work the deep lake. The sky is clear and last night had a full moon. This is not good because the fish will be less prone to bite. I work my way to the part of the lake that receives the runoff of a glacier, as I've had better luck here in the past. The wind is on my back, and as I strip line onto the grass I notice a pair of Condors flying above. They will remain there for most of the morning, eagerly awaiting some fish entrails that we might leave behind.

Dr. Rene Botelho and the Lake

My first cast is lucky - I manage to hook myself right in the back. I wonder to myself why I always do this. It's embarrassing to have to strip down to my T-shirt to remove the hook. Soon we all get into the groove, tossing long casts out into the water and waiting for them to sink deep enough to start retrieving. Quite a while passes of absolutely nothing biting with Woolly Buggers and Scuds. I finally decide to put on a size 10 black streamer whose sides have a little silver tinsel. It feels lucky, and sure enough I soon have a hook up. The reel spins down to the backing, and I slowly begin to work the rainbow in. It feels like a big one, so I have to be as careful as the 4X tippet will allow. She's a female, and carefully I hoist her onto the grass. Since she is fairly good sized I decide to keep her, as most of our fishing is released. I kneel on the grass and can feel each blade like a sharp needle on my knees. Secretly I hope my waders won't get poked. One has to kind of slide onto this grass so as to push the blades down. I take my Swiss army knife by the lanyard and smack the trout on the head to kill it. Then from the butt I slice it open to beneath the gills and remove the entrails. I scrape off the black stuff next to its backbone and wash it in the lake to leave it quite clean. My hands smell like fish; a little of the trout's vengeance to my kill. This gutting will slow down the fermentation, as I wont be home before 5 or 6 tonight. The fish is stored in a Zip Lock bag and set into the water so it stays as cold as possible before we have to head back.

Author with trout

Fernando has hooked a few too, but he has returned everything. (I'm not as good as the two of them, so even if I keep one now and then it doesn't bother them). True friends, they feel joy in my catch, as some times I get skunked in this lake. Rene is also doing well. To watch him cast is impressive. Wind or no wind his double haul is so powerful he always casts the whole line out into the lake. He made his first rod and used to store it in a PVC tube. These days he has moved up to an old Scott SAS rod.

Rene reeling one in

At lunch we have the tuna fish sandwiches my maid made the night before. Rene and Fernando never think of food or drink, so I always bring food for them, and force them to take some water bottles in their packs from the truck. Sometimes I wonder, this guy is a doctor, doesn't he know about dehydration?

Rene with trout

La Prohibida The three of us on the bank watch something I have never seen before on this lake. Every now and then we see rise rings, where the trout are coming to the surface for food. Rene says I should try a floating line with a dry fly. Quickly we make the line swap and put more tippet on the end. I read somewhere that a 12 ft leader works better in these cases where the sky is clear and the water is calm. A little Frog's Fanny floatant on the fly... My cast is perfect (not long mind you, but perfectly presented which is not so common for me) The trout takes the fly and all three of us jump for joy! It's a little one, so we let it back. Still, this is one of the few times we got to see a dry fly in action since most of our fishing is lake bound.

La Prohibida's runout

By about 2 we start heading back down the hill. My pack is laden with one beautiful fish that my little one will ask to have sliced into Sashimi. I can already picture him dipping the raw orange slices in the black soy sauce. It's still cold at the top of the hill so we all have our waders on but by the middle of the walk down we are all so hot we have to stop and shed them. Back at the truck we hand out the last of the bread and begin the drive back. They ask us if there were any fish and all we give up are looks that half-heartedly say "no."

As we head back west with the sun in our eyes we are blinded by the wonderful sepia colors of the dust in the traffic ahead of us. It's been a real nice Saturday. ~ migs

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