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Angler's Guide to Amazon Catfish

A central knowledge base about the catfish species encountered in our Amazon fishing trips

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Redtail CatfishPhractocephalus hemioliopterus  —Bloch & Schneider, 1801

Redtail Catfish
Redtail Catfish (Known as Pirarara in Brazil) - Giant Amazon Catfish

The redtail catfish, known as pirarara in Brazil, is one of the most ubiquitous of the giant cats. It appears to have very few habitat limitations, just as happily living in acidic, blackwater lowlands streams as it is in alkaline highlands rivers. An extremely powerful fighter, redtails are known for a sustained, line-peeling initial run and the ability to find a tangle of submerged logs at the end. Their unique markings and bright coloration makes them unerringly easy to identify and their seemingly endless appetite makes them easy for anglers to engage.

Where to catch: Rio Travessao Multi-Species trip
                             Floating Bungalow trip

ID Key: The bright tail is an instant giveaway.


Identification Keys
Bars and Markings Colors Size Key Characters Similar Species
The dark upper body contrasts sharply with a cream to white segment below the lateral line posteriorly. The mix of contrasting colors highlited with red makes the pirarara one of the most striking of the big cats. Body dark olive to shiny black on dorsum. Abdomen white. Lower fins red. Dorsal fin and adipose fin fringed with red Adults: up to 60 inches and over 100 pounds. bright red tail
Broad, shallow-domed bony head.
Angler's Summary
Known Range Behavior Notes Habitat Common Names IGFA records
Countries: Brazil

River Basins: Amazon
Omnivorous. Feeds on fish, detritus, crabs and fruit (we've actually caught them on watermelon pieces)! Seems to have few limitations. Is found in all parts of clear (blue) water, blackwater and whitewater (sediment carrying) rivers, including small tributary streams. English: Redtail Catfish

Local: Pirarara
113 lbs.
9 oz.
Rio Negro

Fishing Tactics

Probably the most readily caught of the Amazon giants, redtails have been landed on everything anglers use, ranging from free-swimming live bait to a Wooly Bugger fly. For practical purposes, cut bait is the easiest. Start your redtail fishing session off by landing a small fish, most preferably a traira (easily caught on small walking stick baits like a Zara Spook, fished slowly in very shallow edge waters). A piranha makes a good second choice. A durable and very quickly accepted bait is the entire head of a traira on your circle hook. Using an "Amazon rig", configured as follows;

Amazon Catfish Rig - For Redtail Catfish; a large (14/0) circle hook haywire twisted to 12 to 18 inches of strong (120 - 220 lb. test) wire then twisted to a heavy (180 lb. test swivel. A two ounce (or heavier - as current demands) egg sinker is allowed to run freely on heavy line (50 pound or greater) braided line. This wire reinforced "Amazon" rig helps keep piranha away from the actual running line and minimizes the loss of hook, line and sinker.

Set up your rod according to your preferences. If you're casually taking a break from peacock bass fishing, use your woodchopper rod (medium-heavy baitcaster or spinner) spooled with heavy braid (50 to 65 pound test). You'll lose some and win some, but its truly a blast tussling with a big beast on this relatively light tackle. Unlike piraiba or jau, redtails are amazingly durable and will not be adversely affected by an extended fight. They are readily released afterwards, none the worse for wear and impervious to the depredations of piranha.

Several types of water are usually productive. In a river without a lot of features, a curve will often suffice. Drop the bait into the deeper, channel side. If deep pools with eddying water are available, select these types of water. Often, piranha activity on the bait is followed quickly by a take from a big cat. Perhaps the activity summons the redtail. In any case the traira head is a great bait even when almost entirely denuded. Let the piranha have their way and wait for your quarry. If there is a redtail there, you'll usually meet up within fifteen minutes. If not, move on.

To succeed with this tackle, you must survive the first run. Make sure your boat is ready to move upon the hookup. The "take" is usually a no-doubter, redtails grab forcefully and move on. With an open bail (or clicker on) allow line to be taken until you're certain the fish is moving away from you and has had a chance to engulf the bait. Point the rod tip upward, engage your reel and allow the rod to be pulled downward until it points at the fish. With resistance occurring, a redtail will usually react with a screaming run, hooking himself with the circle hook in the process. This method is highly recommended because it will unfailingly result in a safe hookset in the corner of the fish's mouth, never in its gullet or stomach.

Depending on the size of the fish and the underwater structure, anglers with light tackle can be spooled on the first run. Make sure the boat stays with the fish and you keep a reasonable reserve of line. Don't try to stop him with a thumb or a tightened drag - you'll probably just break him off. Let him burn off that first blast and then you can start to fight back. The key to landing a big redtail on light tackle is to get him off the bottom. If possible, get nearly over him, but offset at an angle, and work him upwards. If you can lever him into the water column, you gain the tactical and mechanical advantage and can probably land the fish quickly. If he is able to remain on the bottom, he will seek cover or structure and even though you may have survived the difficult first run, you can still lose him to an unforgiving snag. Once at the boat, redtails can be easily lifted from the water by their heavily boned pectoral fins. He'll talk to you the entire time you take your pictures. Put him back to fight again.

If you're record hunting or simply want to land the highest possible percentage, a heavier rig (i.e. - an Ambassador 7000 sized reel with a stiff, short and heavy Ugly Stick rod) can be used with line up to 100 lb. test. This is enough to slow down the runs and then muscle all but the biggest redtails off the bottom, the key to landing them.

Giant Redtail Catfish
An Acute Angler holds up a big Redtail Catfish caught on our Multi-species trip.

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