The Fanged Monster of Fast-Water
I'm always a bit nervous when traveling to a foreign country, meeting new people and pursuing a fish I've never experienced before. I guess most people would be. So I couldn't help but wonder if these guys were putting me on. After creeping along slippery ledges and craggy rocks to the edge of a swirling pool, my guide told me to cast my big Rapala CD 18 into the rapids of Uraima falls! How could he keep a straight face looking into that swirling maelstrom? I couldn't see how it was possible for a fish to swim, let alone feed, in the roiling currents. Skeptically, I heaved the heavy lure into the frothing water and then frowned with the effort of struggling to retrieve the Rapala against the tremendously powerful current and the rock-strewn bottom. This did not seem like the way to access the fabled fast-water predator. Why weren't we using the boats? I shook my head remembering how I'd spent endless tiring hours casting for saltwater species into unproductive surf from rocks just like these. Suddenly, on my second cast, I was startled out of my reverie when a belligerent payara blasted my lure and took off running, almost tumbling me off my rocky perch. Line started screaming off my reel.
I was using a medium baitcasting rig with 14-pound test monofilament and a conservatively set drag. Bad plan. The hefty sabre-toothed fish knew just how to use the violent current. Within seconds the payara had taken out over 200 feet of line and was cruising through the tumbling water under the falls. The guides were screaming! "Don't let him get so far away! Get him out of the falls! Tighten the drag! The rocks will cut you off!" In my halting conglomeration of Spanish, English and Portugese, I tried to explain that I was using relatively light line and that this fish was big, well over 20 pounds. They kept right on shouting and the line kept right on peeling off. The payara was now well on its way to spooling me. I shrugged with resignation and began to thumb the spool, slowing the fish's run. I used the momentary respite to readjust the drag and try to reclaim some line. The payara took off running again and instantly, I was reeling in a slack line. With my heart still pounding, I shook my fist in the air and cursed the fish for breaking me off. Gradually, as my pulse slowed, a smile began to creep across my face. As I reached for my heftier spinning rig, complete with 30-pound test Fireline, I realized that this was going to be a heck of a lot of fun. What could be better than an intense physical battle with a maniacal, high-powered fish in roiling, rock-strewn water? Score one for the payara.
Having learned something from my first encounter, I adjusted my plan of attack. I took my heavier rig and felt my way along the rocks looking for a more secure perch with deep, slack water at the bank and access to the roiling current within casting distance. I settled in and began casting into the current, allowing it to tumble my lure along and spit it into the slack water. Once into the quieter water, I began using the big Rapala like a giant jerkbait, yanking it along and bouncing it off the rocks on the bottom. The payara bought the concept and within a couple of casts I was into another one. The heavier line allowed me to keep the fish away from the worst of the current while the quick water at the fringe helped to turn the fish back into the slack water. With its range restricted, the frustrated payara took to the air looking for escape. My first sight of the big, outrageous looking, silver-blue missile caused my eyes to open wide in excitement. Man, I wanted to get that thing onto my scale and in front of my camera!
The payara has great stamina. Even with the advantage of the heavier gear, the fish fought me long and well and my hands and arms testifed to the effort when I finally slid the fanged monster onto a flat wet rock. My guide pounced into the water and grabbed the fish by the base of it's forked tail, hoisting him high, and staying well out of reach of the snapping jaws. I started rummaging in my tackle bag, searching for my Bogagrip, a neatly designed scale designed to hold a fish without injury. My guide didn't wait, however. He hooked the payara's huge fangs over his own conventional scale. How convenient! I picked the wild looking creature up (very carefully!), posed for a picture and gently slid the 14-pounder back into the water. This arrangement was going to work just fine for me. Several fish later, I picked my way downstream to a rock jutting out into the river beneath an overhanging tree. I clambered onto the rounded rock and settled into a seat. By slinging my lure in an underhanded motion, I was able to flip it well out from under the tree and get a good approach angle out into the current. After a few casts, a 12-pounder nailed the bait almost at my dangling feet and took off running. Try fighting a big angry fish with your butt balanced on a rock and without being able to lift your rod overhead! By maneuvering my rod parallel to the water, I was able to put some pressure on the fish. After a few minutes of clumsy rodwork, the fish swung within reach of my pouncing, tail-grabbing guide. I climbed back off the rock and happily performed the weighing, photographing and releasing ritual.
It was a good thing I practiced on the smaller fish because no sooner did I settle back onto my rocky perch than I hooked up with a 20-pounder. This big monster decided that the road to freedom lay through the air. The silver bruiser repeatedly flung his body several feet out of the water, shaking his big, fanged head. Payara have hard, bony mouths and lures often hook into the softer flesh beneath their lower jaw or above their eyes, completely outside of their mouths. When they leave the water and start flinging the heavy lures around, they have a good chance of throwing the bait right back at you. As with tarpon, the angler must avoid pulling the line tight on an airborn fish. This payara was hooked solidly and the bait held. My biggest worry was that the fish would actually jump into the branches of the overhanging tree as I worked it closer in. The payara came close, but my luck and the hooks both held. I drifted the fish into the clutches of my tail-grabbing guide and enjoyed another great photo opportunity.
Back at camp for lunch, my fishing partner and host, Humberto Malaspina and I discussed our fishing plans for the afternoon while we savored our delicious meal. We decided to motor upriver in one of the lodge's long dugout canoes. The plan was to try a little trolling and then tie our boat up at the base of a small, secondary falls and cast into the fast water. With the technical details settled, we finished our lunch and headed for the hammocks for a short siesta. I took along my science fiction novel and settled in for a good read. The next thing I knew, my guide was shaking me and telling me it was time to go fishing. I had been asleep for two hours!
Uraima Falls Lodge uses 35 foot long dugout canoes carved from huge jungle trees to navigate the heavy waters of the Paragua River. These solid vessels provide two anglers with comfortable seats and a spacious, stable fishing platform. Because it is often necessary to fish close to rapids and fast moving water, two crew members handle each canoe. One concentrates on driving and positioning the canoe, while the other assists the anglers and lands the payara. As ferocious as the payara looks, its head and gill structure is somewhat delicate, so the payara is landed by grabbing it at the base of its sturdy tail. It can then be released with a minimum of injury and stress, helping to assure good fishing for the future.
Our afternoon began with a trolling run. We let big rapalas (CD 18 and CD 22 Magnums) out over 100 feet behind the boat and then began to motor rapidly into the current. The heavy forces generated by the boat's speed, the strong current and the resistance of the big baits, necessitates using a stiff rod and a high capacity reel with heavy line. The fisherman gets a workout just maintaining his rig in the water. When a payara hits this already strained arrangement, the impact almost lifts the angler out of his seat. My first hookup was with a hefty 17-pounder who set the drag on my reel singing as he headed downriver with my lure. Before we had the boat turned around, over 200 feet separated me from the now leaping payara. What a show the fish put on! With jump after frenzied jump, he sent spray in every direction as I reeled frantically to maintain line contact with the fish. As the current brought the boat closer, the payara finally sounded and began a deep, bulldog struggle. Payara don't give up easily. Tailing these big strong fish often takes several tries as they continue to struggle beside the boat. Finally the big fish was landed and unhooked and I had the pleasure of holding him in the current while he regained his strength. I could feel the fish recover in my hand, until, with a powerful stroke of his tail he swam free.
After a few moments of getting reorganized, we set off again on our trolling run. We hadn't covered more than 50 yards when another fanged monster made my reel begin to sing again! I could get to really like this. Several finned interuptions later, Humberto suggested we head for the falls and try some stationary casting. The boat's crew expertly moved us through the fast water and into position just below the falls. We tied onto an exposed rock in relatively slack water just at the edge of the raging current. Our position let us cast in a wide range of directions while the current consistently returned our lures through the shallow, slack water. The big, sinking Rapalas proved to be difficult to use here, so a switch was in order. I selected a big-lipped floating Rapala, retrieving it quickly enough to keep it bouncing on the bottom, then slowing it down so that it could float up instead of digging in. It worked like a charm. Payara consistently grabbed it within just a few yards of the boat. It seemed as though they were either following the lure in or simply lurking under the boat and ambushing the bait as it came close. Either way it provided consistent action. I switched over to my light baitcaster with 14-pound test and enjoyed the challenge of landing these feisty fighters on their own terms.
Just across the falls on the other bank of the river lay a quiet, protected pool shaded by an overhanging tree. There is a long-entrenched bass fisherman living inside of me who kept me looking over there. Each time my guide saw me look across the falls, he frowned, shaking his head and waggling his finger. No doubt his confidence in my casting ability did not extend beyond 50 foot flips into open water. I'm certain that he didn't want to have to figure out how to retrieve the lure after I hung it in the tree, trying to make that cast. Or perhaps he was just telling me that payara don't hang out in quiet pools. I didn't ask. I couldn't help myself.
I just wound up and slung my floating Rapala sidearm, as hard as I could. I was amazed as it actually sailed under the branches of the tree to land with a plunk, dead center in the pool. Instantly the water exploded and the lure disappeared. Startled, I leaned into the rod, set the hook and felt the satisfying resistance of a big fish. Good grief, now what do I do? The fish answered the question for me by thrashing wildly across the surface of the pool and into the roaring current just beyond. Ok, this I could deal with. By now, my guide's frown had turned into enthusiastic multilingual shouts of advice. Humberto was yelling, "Aymara, Aymara!" and my pulse was racing as the big fish dug into the current. I had hooked an aymara, a big, blocky south American fish resembling a bowfin with toothy jaws from hell. I played the fish carefully across the current with my light baitcasting outfit, not wanting to test my 14-pound line against the aymara's 20-pound bulk. For once, the fast water helped me by spitting the fish out into the slack water below the canoe. Several minutes later, the incredibly ugly fish was finning at the side of the boat. Now what? We didn't carry a net for the payara and this thing had a fleshy tail wider than anybody's hands, tapering away from its barrel-shaped body. With its hideous jaws discouraging any attempt to grab it from the front, we began a heated discussion about how to get it into the boat. "Try the bony ridge around the eye sockets", yelled the driver. "No, no, the fleshy skin under the jaw, or maybe behind the gills" shouted Humberto, as the payara catcher mincingly probed around the fish, looking for a handhold. I went rummaging for my Bogagrip. Meanwhile, the aymara rested alongside the boat with the flowing water bringing fresh oxygen to its gills and replenshing its strength. It ended the debate by heaving its bulk against the side of the canoe, leaving the lure hooked onto the wooden dugout as it swam slowly away.
As I began to react over the lost photo opportunity, I caught myself, realizing that I wouldn't have offered this thing my hands either. And I was certainly glad we hadn't injured it with our clumsy attempt at lifting it in. I took a deep breath and said "let's see if we can find a net for tomorrow when we get back to camp". Everybody relaxed and with Humberto translating, my guide told me that he never seen an aymara behave that way and that was a stupid cast to attempt, anyway. His big, sheepish grin also told me that no, "I told you so" was needed. We regrouped and got back to the business of catching wonderful payara until sundown.
Uraima Falls is located in the State of Bolivar in the southeastern portion of Venezuela. The Paragua river tumbles through rocky defiles as it descends from the southern mountains into the the "llanos", the high plains of Venezuela. The comfortable camp, located on an island literally surrounded by descending levels of the falls, is the last thing one would expect to find in this starkly beautiful jungle locale. Fishermen enjoy spacious, private bedrooms with real beds, sheets and pillows in traditional, local Indian-style thatched huts. Each round hut contains two bedrooms, a sitting area and a great bathroom with flush toilets, running water and a real hot-water shower. This just isn't roughing it! Uraima falls provides a taste of luxury in the jungle.
The camp is set right on the water with the huts arranged in a cleared, landscaped area connected by stone walkways leading to the huge dining area. This is the center of camp life. Here, anglers enjoy three terrific full course meals a day, served family style. Comfortable chairs and sitting hammocks line the unwalled structure, topped with a gigantic conical thatched roof. Breezes, coming off the surrounding water keep the open air pavillion cool and comfortable. In the evenings, anglers trade fishing stories (and fishing lies) and sometimes solve the problems of the world while sitting at the convivial bar.
The friendly and very professional staff made my stay at the camp more than just a great fishing experience. I was comfortable, well-taken care of, and most importantly, I felt that I was among friends. When my head hit the pillow at night, in the few seconds before my tired body completely conked-out, I was already thinking about the next great day of fishing ahead.
A typical day's fishing provides anglers with upwards of a dozen acrobatic payara averaging about 12-pounds each, with plenty of fish in the 20-pound class. The waters at Uraima falls contain the largest payara in the world. The current all tackle world record of 39 lb. 4 oz. was set here along with several other IGFA line class records. The falls surrounding the island are actually a series of descending steps providing many areas of payara-holding, fast water within minutes of the camp. These varied fishing areas make a variety of techniques available to anglers pursuing the payara. As soon as I developed an understanding of the fish's characteristics, I was able to orchestrate fishing situations where light tackle was feasible. Payara's powerful runs, tremendous stamina and acrobatic leaps are great fun on light gear. The camp staff has an excellent appreciation of the unique resource provided by these exciting fish and they are very careful to protect it. With several thousand caught every season, a well thought-out catch and release policy is critical. Great care is taken to minimize trauma on released fish to help ensure their survival. Giant payara (Hydrolicus scomberoides) such as those present at Uraima Falls are not found everywhere. They are members of the family Cynodontidae. Although more than 10 other species distributed among 4 genera are found in areas of Venezuela, Columbia and Brazil, H. scomberoides is the largest. A combination of higly-oxygenated, warm, fast water coupled with access to more placid breeding grounds appears to be necessary to support populations of these fish. These conditions are not common in the lowlying areas of the South American tropics. The highlands of Venezuela, however provide just the right combination of environmental factors with Uraima Falls certainly an optimal location. The payara become concentrated in the headwaters of the Paragua river to feed in the fast waters of Uraima Falls during the dry season. With the advent of the rains, the fish begin migrating downriver to spawn. When they reach Lake Guri, hundreds of kilometers to the north, they disperse into the vast lake's waters. Although relatively little is currently known about the details of the payara's life cycle, a new tagging program is planned for the 1999 season. This will further improve the camp's ability to understand and protect the species.
There is no argument that the payara is a very strange species. Their looks alone make that easy to see. Their totally piscivorous diet, coupled with their fast-water environment makes them a highly specialized, top level predator, unlike those found in more temperate climates. But when an angler has one on the end of a line, the pulse-quickening excitement and plain old, gut-level brawl that ensues is familiar to all true fishing enthusiasts, even those who have never experienced such a fight before. It's what draws us out, whether to Venezuela or the local farm pond. Try them for yourself and see if the payara judge you worthy.