Camping on the Cinaruco River

After a long drive south across Venezuela, cities and towns petered out and we then crossed many miles of flat llanos grass country, with countless freshwater ponds dotting the countryside. Perhaps 30 klics from Columbia, we turned off into the vast Santos Luzardo National Park, also called Cinaruco-Capanaparo Park, and drove 40 klics of dirt road, crossing occasional 40-yard mudholes. Eventually we arrived at the middle of three fish camps along the Cinaruco River, with perhaps 10 miles of space between them. Our camp wasn’t on the river, but utilized scattered oxbow lakes in the forest. The camps are closed each summer, with ours flooding about five feet deep. When dry season returns each November the camp is cleaned, the swimming pool refilled with well water. Our camp had a kitchen and dining room that would seat 25 fishermen.

After 30 years of fishing here, our friends may camp in tents over the top of their pickup trucks, above the weather and critters. They even have portable air conditioners and small Honda generators. Or in fine weather, a hammock will do. I slept surprisingly well in a hammock, after fishing. The no-see-um knats will leave plenty of red bumps, unless you’re immune to them. Getting ravaged by a similar gnat species on Florida’s Gulf Coast did nothing to prepare me for these gnats. At night, the stars overhead had to be seen, to be believed. The sky was milky was stars.

At first our fish camp foreman didn’t want us in the water, one of several oxbow lakes they call lagoons here, the nearest only 40 yards away. Too many piranha, for one thing. The local species, one of seven found in Venezuela, are said to reach six pounds.

Then there are caiman, anaconda (world’s biggest snake) and freshwater stingrays. We were also four hours from the nearest doctor. Gradually, however, he gave up on us; perhaps he realized we weren’t city slickers prone to accidents. Our wading in chest-deep water must have made him nervous, so he finally stayed back in camp when we really hit the water, especially the last day. Without wading shoes we had to go barefoot, but the bottom was river sand in these lakes, not far from the river. Several days of wading barefoot in unfamiliar water and not a scratch, not a freaking scratch. One day we were picked up on the far shore of the lake, by the camp’s jonboat. Heading back to camp, we noticed a bass of about 7 pounds floating in mid-lake. We circled to pick it up for dinner. Unfortunately, piranha had gone crazy on it, leaving only the head, shoulders and shiny backbone…That happened only 40 yards from where the picture below was taken.

For us it was a showdown for these peacock bass, that had been so elusive during the bass tournament back in Calabozo. During the rainy season, these river fish spread out across a mile or two of countryside when the river naturally floods every year. When it recedes, a new batch of fish are trapped in the lakes for a few months. The peacocks feed on everything they can find, including baitfish and piranha, and they don’t have to worry about river dolphins that eat peacock bass. The dolphins are smart enough to retreat to the river, as water levels drop. So, these oxbow lakes are naturally restocked with fish every year. And that’s where we waded into them, literally. Other times we stalked the bank, looking for casting room in the trees. Schools of bass paraded through the tree roots and I picked them off with a topwater plug. That made for some short but savage battles in tight quarters up in the trees, running around in my flip-flops.

One morning at 5 a.m. six of us gulped tiny but strong Cuban coffees, then went out and and landed a hundred bass by 8:30 a.m.—-before being summoned to a breakfast of steak and eggs. It was tough duty, but somebody has to do it. John, who picked us up at Caracas Airport, is pictured below on the right, with Ron Klys on the left.

And then we really got serious, wading deeper as a big school of peacocks pounded the lake at mid-day like feeding tuna. Many of these fish had never seen a fishing lure, or acted like it…time and again we were “bowed up” by sizeable fish.

Not as big as peacock bass found deep in the Amazon of Brazil, but we saw a number of 12-pounders here. And we weren’t doing bad, wadefishing in a national park, our truck parked at an empty public campground, at a second lake only five minutes away.

Big Preston stuck some fine fish, as well. One friend, John D., carried only a tiny tacklebox. He favors jigs or a Drone spoon with a single hook, used for saltwater trolling. And he nails big bass. Another guy, Vicente, owns the tackle store back in Calabozo, so you can imagine how many lures he carried. For myself, the best four lure types were red and white bucktail jigs, Yo-Zuri swimming minnows, plugs with propellers like the wood-choppers made by Caribe Lures, and a bone-colored, walk-the-dog topwater I didn’t catch the name of, before a huge fish took it away from me. These bass can knock a topwater lure six feet sideways, and did. That will drive you to distraction, if your timing is off. Use a bucktail jig, and they simply inhaled it.

One day we drove a dozen klics (kilometers) to the next fish camp, called Laguna Larga Lodge. It’s been there a long time, owned by several Americans. One of them was there, retired Air Force colonel Bert Bookout, who flew F-4s over Vietnam. It’s a simple old-fashioned lodge, cozy inside and out of the bugs, and right on a lake connected to the Cinaruco River. Inside was a collection native spears and paddles that Vicente liked.

They have a half dozen boats there and soon three of them were speeding us down the river with 40-horse Yamahas, five guests and three guides.

The Cinaruco empties into the mighty Orinoco River, which flows to the Atlantic. Eventually. We fished way down the river all day and ran into a school of five to 12-pound bass. And fish-stealing dolphins. Returning in near-darkness, we shared fine rum at happy hour with Bert and his lady friend.

Unbelievable place: Forty klics off the pavement, where at night you can get lost like a ship at sea, no lights anywhere on the horizon. That’s when a GPS helps find the fish camps on the broad llanos. It was very quiet; no spy drones from Columbia passed overhead, as there have been claims of, and we only saw two Venezuelan national guard helicopters slowly heading south, the last day. While we glumly drove the dirt road back. Or I was, anyway; the others were in fine spirits, so to speak, as we cleared the last mud holes. We stopped for a refill before getting on the blacktop highway (the traveling drink of choice is Johnny Walker Black Label). Below, Oscar the airlines pilot gives a hearty thumbs-up because we’re almost back on the pavement. 

I didn’t want to leave…somewhere on that oxbow lake, peacock bass were probably knocking my topwater lure back and forth in the air, for sport. And waiting for the next fishermen to show up.


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