Giant Catfish of the Amazon by Paul Reiss
The smaller piranhas seem to make the best bait. It's easy enough to jig up one pounders, but hooking a smaller one can be tough. The little monster now hanging from my hook and snapping its razor sharp jaws was, therefore destined to immediately adorn my catfish rig.
The rig is simple enough. A sturdy 14/0 circle hook, haywire twisted onto 18 inches of 218 pound test wire, ending in a second haywire twist to a sturdy swivel and a few ounces of weight. The cats don't have sharp teeth. The wire is there just to lessen the number of rigs lost to the flashing jaws of the piranhas, who slice through fishing lines anywhere in the vicinity of a cut bait. I replaced the well nibbled piranha chunk on my hook with the freshly caught little bait, hooking him low, ahead of the tail, in the caudal peduncle. He'd swim slowly on the bottom, avoiding the predations of his cannibalistic, scavenging brethren and hopefully, finding his way into the jaws of a big red-tailed catfish.
These brawny cats, (Phractocephalus hemioliopterus), locally called pirarara, are prized as food throughout Amazonia. Growing to well over 100 pounds, they frequent deep holes, river confluences and wide pools formed at the junctures of rivers and lagoons. We were drifting in the center of one of the wide, river junction pools. Everything looked perfect. The only problem was the fact that I sat in a boat filled with peacock bass tackle. Way too light for the planned application.
I selected my Daiwa 1600SS spinning rig over the Shimano Calcutta 250 with 20 pound test laying at my side, primarily because of the somewhat stouter 3-piece Loomis rod it sat on and its greater line capacity, 175 yards of Fireline. I had no idea how important every last yard of that would be.
I tossed my baited rig out into the middle of the 5 acre pool, letting it sink the 20 feet or so to the bottom. I've never possessed a tremendous amount of the vaunted "fisherman's patience", so necessary for outwaiting randomly opportunistic feeders. So I was starting to fidget around, looking for a comfortable spot in the boat when I felt the line in my hand start to slide away, definitely faster than the little piranha could pull it. I stripped line off my open bail, gave it a few seconds, then closed the bail and let the fish crank my rodtip down to the water. The sudden resistance prompted the fish to spurt quickly forward, initiating the hookset. Standing n ow, I was rewarded with the feel of a solid resistance. Well, somebody was definitely home on the other end of the line.
Line began to peel off the Daiwa's drag. Not blazingly fast, but steadily moving upstream. Fifty yards later it stopped. Well, either this thing wasn't very big or it just didn't have much fight in it. I began to pump the rod, regaining line, when I found out that I was wrong on both counts. This thing just hadn't realized it was hooked! It quickly took exception to my attempt at manhandling it. Turning abruptly, it ran straight for the current, blowing right by me and steaming downstream like a freight train. Now I knew I was tangling with a big, strong fish.
I watched, at first in admiration, then in growing concern as layers of line peeled off my spool. I quickly realized that drifting blithely behind this steamroller was only going to get me spooled, and fast. Before I could even shout, my guide had the motor running and the boat moving. The gold bottom of my spool was glinting through the windings of line before I began to gain some back.
The beast ran almost a quarter mile before he finally took a breather. We were long out of the pool and well downriver. I knew I couldn't let him rest, so once again I began lifting my rod and cranking it back down to regain line and keep pressure on the fish. The big cat really hated this. He took off again. Now space was at a premium. The river, swollen with recent rains, was normally about 75 yards wide here. But where the banks used to be, the water coursed hundreds of yards through the trees and into the jungle. The big cat headed back upriver, angling right toward the trees. I knew that if he reached them, the fight would be over.
This time I had the current and position in my favor. Leading him steadily upriver and toward me, I was able to turn his head and keep him out of the jungle. I began to feel him tire now. Five minutes and several short runs later, my adversary sat below me, 20 feet under the boat. Now what? The relatively light pack rod definitely wasn't built to haul big brutes off the bottom. Once again, the current came to my aid. As the boat drifted downstream, the angle improved and suddenly the giant came into view. "Holy S---!", I yelled. I couldn't believe the size of him. The catfish, on the other hand didn't seem quite as pleased as I was. He must have seen something he didn't like, because he immediately sounded. The next repetition of our meeting brought the big fish, exhausted, to the side of the boat. I couldn't believe it! I had done it! A great surge of exhultation coursed through me as my guide and I heaved the glistening red, yellow and black fish into the boat.
This was the first time I had ever heard a fish complain so loudly about being caught. The big cat mixed deep, loud bass rumbling with sharp guttural grunts overlayed by a series of amazing clicks coming from the joints of his pectoral fins. I suppose I would be complaining too, if subjected to the indignities of being weighed, measured and photographed in endless poses. (He measured 52 inches from nose to tail, 37 inches in girth and an amazing 18 inches across his head. He probably weighed about 85 pounds.)
As my heart stopped pounding and my composure returned, I experienced the best moment of the whole adventure. My daughter, who was my fishing partner, usually mercilessly outfishes me. And then she cuts me no slack later when we recount our experiences. This time, however, she congratulated me with an enthusiastic high five (and I could see an honest glint of respect in her eyes).
Brazil has to be considered the catfish capitol of the world! No river system, anywhere in the world, is as rich in fish fauna as the Amazon basin. Over 3000 different species of fish occur in the Amazon basin. The order Siluriformes, or catfish, is the most diverse and probably the most spectacular group of Amazon species. With 15 families, including about 1300 species, Amazon catfish account for almost half of all the catfish species in the world. Ranging in size from the tiny, 5mm candiru to the gigantic, 3 meter long Brachyplatystoma, or 'piraiba', these fishes occupy tremendously diverse ecological niches. Some are bottom dwellers, some nocturnal. Some are parasites and some are roving predators. Some are completely scaleless while others are heavily covered with bony armor plates.
The dense, inaccessible Amazon jungles have kept many species from the prying eyes and curious observation of man, leaving the biological and ecological aspects of many of these Siluriformes poorly known. Many species are yet to be discovered. The worldwide angling community has, as of this writing, seen nothing like these catfish. Although Brazilian species are now being included, the only Brazilian species initially listed in IGFA was the red-tailed catfish, the pirarara of this article, at 97 pounds (that record was held by the famous Brazilian angler and author, Gilberto Fernandes). Someone had better make room for another half-dozen Brazilian species ranging up to and well over the 100 pound plus category. These giants all belong to the Family Pimelodidae. I don't know how it will be possible to make room for the piraiba, the 400 plus pound monster that lurks in Amazon rivers. The famous 111 pound blue cat caught in Tennessee's Wheeler Reservoir better move over for a cousin well over three times its size. There are many more angling records waiting to be set in Brazil.
Acute Angling operates a variety of trips to pursue the biggest of the giant Amazon catfishes. We take adventurous catfish loving souls deep into the heart of Amazonia, where the big cats live .
Find out more about our trips or learn about our many catfish world records.
The big red-tail cat whetted my angling appetite for more and bigger catfish experiences. Acute Angling is now operating giant catfish safaris in several spectacular jungle fisheries and into the haunts of the giant piraiba. We also stay very busy fighting big red-tails, flatheaded sorubim (Psuedoplatystoma fasciatum), dourada (Brachyplatystoma rousseauxii), Jau (Zungaro zungaro) and filhote (young piraiba, Brachyplatystoma filamentosum) all of which can tip the scales over 100 pounds. Several other smaller but still impressive species such as piramutaba (Brachyplatystoma vaillantii), bandeira (Goslinia platynema) and piranambu (Pinirampus pirinampu) round out the lineup. Get your very own whiskered Amazon monster… join us on the trip of a lifetime.