Sardinata and Payara on the Caura
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Sardinata - The "Golden Tarpon of Amazonia"
by Paul Reiss
A Trip From the Past
Although we no longer offer the trip described in this article, the stories are still interesting and remain available for your information and enjoyment. Over the last two decades, Acute Angling has focused on owning, operating, outfitting and organizing its own vertically integrated trips. We have painstakingly evolved and perfected our trips to provide you with the broadest range of options and access to peacock bass and Amazon exotics in a dependable, carefully controlled manner. As the Amazon’s premiere fishing operators, we provide “turn-key”, “all-inclusive” trip packages in our polished accommodations, delivered with first-class service. That success mandates that we no longer offer trips operated by others. Trips owned or operated by someone other than the entity outfitting and ooffering the trip creates multiple layers of responsibility. We offer only trips that we ourselves operate, where we have total control over how your trip is delivered. One responsible entity, no excuses, no unpleasant surprises.
We offer stories in this archive for your enjoyment and to provide insights into how our operating philosophy and our trips have evolved over the years. Mostly, they're here because some are fun and interesting to read. As for the trips themselves, we've moved on. In some cases the fisheries described have been depleted, in others, access to the region is no longer available and in a few, current governments have made travel less attractive. The fish, however, always remain interesting, so read and learn about them and the fishing experience they provided. Who knows, governments may change, conservation practices may improve and rivers may reopen. We just might end up returning there, or someplace like it, in the future.
"We already have some of the world's greatest destinations for peacock bass, and how can you beat the size and numbers on our payara trips? Besides, how could we possibly fit another trip into our schedule, anyway?" That was my very sensible first response when my partner Garrett VeneKlasen suggested a visit to a newly opened fishing lodge on Venezuela's Caura River. He paused a moment before responding. "Sardinata", he said, "Whole migrating schools of them chasing baitfish through a hundred miles of unexploited, fishable waters". I could feel my sensible first response drift away like smoke while my mouth uttered it's usual, completely impractical, second response, "OK, when do you want to leave." It was all downhill from there. A new species of gamefish in a new location!… I get hooked more easily than the fish. I had been hearing great things about Sardinata for years now, and I couldn't resist. A week later we arrived in Caracas, on our way to Caurama Lodge.
Carlos Aristeguieta, owner, founder and outfitter of the newly minted fishing operation at Caurama Lodge met us at the airport and immediately proceeded to regale us with tales of the fishing potential, the characteristics, and the variety of the Caura River. Conditions become optimal during the months of October and November as water levels drop and baitfish begin to move into the Caura from the Orinoco. In this fishery, Sardinata, the exciting, surface feeding, giant sardine that I had come to Venezuela to experience, begin to stage in massive schools where the Caura meets the Orinoco. Once the baitfish begin to move, the sardinata take off in hot pursuit, feeding on the huge schools of bait as they ascend the Caura, providing great fishing through December and into early January. I guess Carlos didn't know I was already hooked, so he kept dangling more bait in front of me. And I kept on eating it up, hooked or not.
The next morning found us cruising eastward and by 8 AM, we began to descend toward the Lodge in our comfortable twin-engine Piper. Years of fishing in Brazil has helped to greatly improve my Portuguese language capabilities, but it has done absolutely nothing for my Spanish. In spite of this, I could readily discern the discomfiture in Carlos' voice as he conversed with the pilot. Although I knew instinctively that it had nothing to do with our flight (it couldn't have been smoother), my antennae immediately went up. Sure enough, a moment later Carlos turned toward us and said, "Well guys, it looks like it's been raining pretty heavily here". Fishing South American equatorial rivers has sensitized me to the vagaries of water levels and the huge effect they have on the fishing. In my head, I quickly translated this to mean, "Crap! The river's way up and the fish are probably not going to show". Well, I was a little bit right, but mostly wrong. The result of our whirlwind three-day trip to Caurama wasn't exactly what we planned or expected, but it couldn't have turned out too much better, no matter what our plans were.
After we landed, unloaded our gear and had a quick breakfast, we hopped into one of the Lodge's Toyota Land Cruisers and headed for the river. The axle-deep, acre-wide puddles attested to just how heavily it had rained. Pulling up to the riverbank, the swollen waters swirled around our waiting boat. My apprehension levels began to increase. "Well", I thought, "we'll find out soon". I began to assemble my fishing tackle as we headed downriver to start our pursuit of the elegant and elusive Sardinata. Also known as the Amazon pellona and apapa in Brazil, the Sardinata is an exceptional, yet little-known migratory gamefish. The fish averages about 8-pounds, but can grow upwards of 20-pounds. Sardinata take to the air immediately upon being hooked. Their gill-rattling leaps and long, fast runs make for great exitement on light tackle. If the Tarpon is known as the "Silver King", then we probably should be calling the Sardinata the "Golden Prince" because it is surely the freshwater heir to the tarpon's royal ocean legacy.
Carlos' experienced eye quickly told him that the baitfish weren't yet in the river, and that very likely the Sardinata wouldn't be either. He quickly told me. He explained that he had been at the Lodge a week earlier and that water levels had been falling at a rate that would make our trip perfectly timed. Unfortunately, since then it had rained.... and rained.... and rained. And as we looked upriver, to the North, we could see that it was about to rain again...and hard...and soon.
Our rain-suited ride downriver continued with us all hunched over in our seats as the rain pelted down on us. It always amazes me how cold you can feel in the tropics in a fast moving boat in the rain. No bait, no sardinata, cold and wet, what were we going to do now. We talked about what our fishing options would be and agreed that it would be worthwhile to cruise the 35 miles to the Orinoco to see if we could find the Sardinata holding in the great river, near the mouth of the Caura. The rain didn't look as though it would let up any time soon and we might as well use the downtime to try to find the fish. No such luck. An hour later, as we surveyed the equally swollen Orinoco, no trace of Sardinata, or even baitfish, could be found. Carlos apologized for our bad luck, but it wasn't necessary. We understood that we were on a fishing trip and no one, not even the detail oriented Carlos could control the weather, much less the fishing. "How about trying for some payara after lunch", he suggested. We might find some holding along the banks or in the faster current back in the Caura.
A half hour's run back upriver put us into a long, steep curving bank, pocked with eddies and littered with deadfall and submerged branches. This looked a little bit like a wider, faster-moving version of some of the peacock bass terrain that I was familiar with. With rain still sputtering from the skies, I started off casting a deep-running Rapala CD-14 at the structure along the bank, looking for a fish's response through the confusing pull the fast water was putting on my bait. I began to think about a fishing strategy and a pattern that might work in this new environment. While I was deep within my technical reverie, both Carlos and Garrett coolly and calmly hooked up with big, fast-running payara. I reeled in quickly to avoid the lines zinging on both sides of me and sat back to listen to the music of whirring drags and the now shouting fishermen. Our guide maneuvered to keep the boat positioned so that both fish could be landed without tangling. Laughing now, the two fishermen proudly hefted their fanged doubleheader a few minutes later. So much for my technical theories.
When the fish are biting, the same cold and annoying rain that one otherwise finds so uncomfortable, recedes into the background. By the time I noticed that it had stopped, I had landed several powerful payara, averaging right around 15-pounds. These were big by any standards and they fought in classical payara style; a bone-jarring subsurface strike, a moment's hesitation while the fish realizes something is wrong with the bait and then a long, line-peeling run, culminating in repeated three foot leaps. Even though we didn't find the Sardinata, we had a heck of a consolation prize to keep us chattering and comparing notes all the way back to the lodge.
Caurama Lodge has facilities for 8 anglers in comfortable and clean double rooms, each with a fully equipped bathroom, including flush toilets and hot showers. After our long, wet day on the river, it was a pleasure to be able to clean up and relax in our rooms for awhile. Freshly showered, I lay back on my bed and started to read. For me, cracking a book on a fishing trip is generally about equal to taking a dose of sleeping pills. I rarely last more than ten minutes. Just as I began to doze off, Carlos' cheerful yell brought me back to the present. "Dinner is ready, guys! Come and get it!" Right about then I noticed that my stomach was entirely in agreement with Carlos. I went off eagerly to see what the kitchen had wrought.
The rooms are arranged in groups around three sides of a square, central garden - with the kitchen, dining room and bar area occupying the fourth side. By the time I closed my room door behind me, my nose had located my destination...and looking up, I noticed that Garrett's feet had already gotten him there. I followed right behind. If dinner tasted half as good as it smelled, it was going to be a feast. Arranged in front of me as I sat down was a table loaded with plates of pasta, fresh vegetables, bread, beans and rice and the biggest, best looking ribs I had ever seen. Garrett told our host we could n't possibly eat all of this, "why there's enough ribs there to feed an army". Half an hour later we proved that we were in fact a small army. As we pushed back from the table, completely stuffed, all that remained was a scene of total dietary devastation. Empty plates and sparkling clean rib bones attested to the terrific meal we had enjoyed.
The lodges' dining room also doubles as a natural history museum of the area. Jean Posner, the lodge's resident biologist/ornithologist and ecotour guide has assembled an excellent collection of carefulley labeled artifacts, skeletons and items of interest from the surrounding llanos, jungles and river. A small library of pertinent books and texts line the shelves. I know of no other fishing destination that offers such a detailed information resource about the surrounding ecosystem. Fishing clients can arrange for non-fishing travel partners to tour the area to birdwatch, photograph and just plain enjoy their surroundings. It's a great solution for fishermen who might like to take a day off as well.
After a some conversation and a few after-dinner drinks, Carlos hustled us off to his "special fisherman's room". Situated behind the lodge proper stood pair of thatch roofed, connected, circular structures. Carlos beckoned us inside what proved to a true fisherman's den. Couches and chairs were spread throughout the area. Fish mounts, fish pictures, trophies and a slew of IGFA record certificates lined the walls. Furnishings included a fly-tying table, gear racks, fishing videos… even a fish napkin holder. Heck, I didn't have one of those. This guy is an even bigger fishing nut than I am. Carlos promptly took this opportunity to have Garrett demonstrate some of his fly-tying specialties, while Carlos tied along with him. I watched the proceedings. While bucktails and feathers flew, I began to doze. Finally, I struggled out of my chair, passing through what now looked like a Perdue chicken processing plant that had been invaded by brightly colored deer, and headed off to bed. We still had a lot of fishing to do.
Dawn brought more rain. This definitely wasn't going to help me hook up with my first sardinata. Carlos suggested we head off upriver to see some of the beautiful terrain surrounding the Caura and to fish the rapids further upstream. He wasn't kidding about the area's natural beauty. We passed through gorgeous forested regions and striking vistas of fast-water, cascading through giant boulders strewn about the river. Here and there we stopped in some promising waters, drifting through the cascades or parking on the rocks and casting into the current. Both techniques proved productive and we landed more of the surprisingly hefty payara. Carlos indicated, that as the water levels dropped, these areas would also produce good numbers of morocoto ( a Venezuelan version of the pacu, reaching up to 20-pounds) and the related bocon, a fish known for smashing topwater plugs with gusto. This area is also home to four species of giant catfish (redtail, yellow, laulao amd tiger), any of which can reach well over 100 pounds. Along the Caura, many lagoons and effluents hold peacock (butterfly and speckled) reaching over 12-pounds. Further upriver, in the mainstream Caura, the beautiful, royal peacock (Cichla nigrolineatus) can be caught. Rarely seen elsewhere, this black-striped peacock is a smaller, fast-water version of the famous, big, tackle-busters. That's a heck of a line-up of incidental species!
By late afternoon the rain had subsided and we settled into working another long, steep curving bank, complete with swirling eddies and fish-holding structure. Garrett, Carlos and I had arranged ourselves into a workable three-man casting setup on the lodge's 16-foot, 40 hp boat. All of us were more accustomed to fishing two to a boat, but it seemed silly for us to break-up into two boats when there was plenty of room available with the big stable casting platforms built-into the boat. Besides, we'd miss the constant irritating banter, boasting and baiting that went on between us. On our first drift through the area, Carlos and I used conventional tackle, while Garrett expertly dropped a blue pelon fly into the tangle of deadfall, stripping it rapidly back toward the boat. While we were commenting on the fly's great looking action, a huge silver slab of a payara rose, turned and inhaled the fly not more that twenty feet from our watching eyes. Stunned, we held our breath as Garrett, keeping his wits about him, set the hook, got the fish on the reel and braced himself for the fish's run. And run it did! Line screamed off the 8-weight reel as the fish took off downriver at blistering speed. Finally, more than 50 yards into the backing the big fish stopped and took to the air in a, spectacular, gill-rattling leap. And then, agonizingly, Garrett groaned as the line went slack, the fly settling back onto the water in the big payara's wake.
The silence didn't last long. As the initial disappointment subsided, we realized that we had been treated to a fantastic sight. The 20-plus pound payara had given us clear evidence of it's speed, power and persistence as it deservingly won the battle. And Garrett had experienced it hands-on with a light fly rod. Neat! We quickly headed back to the start of the action for another drift and attacked the structure with renewed vigor. Maybe another 20 pound beast would turn up.
Actually, it didn't take long. We caught several fish ranging from from 7 to 16-pounds on the next few drifts. Then we anchored next to a productive eddy so that Garrett and Carlos, both now using fly rods, could easily access the optimal current eddies. Suddenly, not more than a half hour later, my big CD22 rapala was slammed in a rod-pounding strike. I braced myself, because I knew what was coming next. The fish took off downriver like a runaway train. I knew right away that this one was big. Line peeled off my reel so fast that I was afraid the drag would overheat and seize. At least a hundred yards of line had been stripped off my Daiwa SS1600 reel, leaving me to worry about how much more was left. Finally, with the spool at an alarminly low level, the run stopped. A moment later, so did my heart. A huge payara began turning tumblesaults in the air. Leaping repeatedly, I could hear the slap of it's slab-sided body resounding across the water at each landing. When the fish sounded again, the fight broke down into an extended pulling and tugging match, with the payara using its broad body and the force of the current, while I countered with the pressure of my rod. The momentum was now on my side and after a prolonged subsurface struggle, the fish was mine. As Carlos slipped the Bogagrip into the exhausted monsters jaw, we hoisted him over the side into the boat. Bone weary and soaked in sweat, I broke into a big grin.
While Señor Payara posed for a brace of pictures, we admired the big fish's powerful, streamlined silver body, wicked teeth and perfect functionality. After holding him in the current for several minutes reoxygenating his gills, I could feel the strength returning to his body. I slipped open the Bogagrip's jaws and after a few tentative strokes, the big fish left in a reassuring boil. Just a hair under 27 pounds, it was my biggest payara ever. What was that other fish we were looking for?
Once again we happily chattered and compared notes on the ride back to the lodge. We had all had a terrific day with the payara. With the wisdom of all Monday morning quarterbacks, Garrett casually mentioned that he was wondering why I didn't ask to pull the anchor during the fight with my big payara. Dumbfounded, it dawned on me just how lucky I was to have landed the fish! What was I thinking? I was so involved in the fight that it never occurred to me to take advantage of what the river was offering. Score one for brute force and dumb luck.
Our final day at Caurama dawned in a bright and cloudless sky. Finally, we were going to have nice weather. Carlos suggested we try to find the Sardinata one last time and so we headed back downriver to the Orinoco. Still no sign of them, so once again we took out our frustrations on the payara. And the payara fought back hard. Anchored in a narrow rip of fast water, both Garrett and I broke rods during a morning of fighting our fanged opponents. With discarded tackle littering the boat and the sun pounding down on us, we decided to break for lunch. We settled the boat into a jumble of shoreline boulders, and relaxed in the shade with our sandwiches.
As often occurs with fishing nuts after a shore lunch, we all drifted off in different directions to fool with our tackle or fish from the shore. Mourning for my broken medium baitcaster, I began assembling a tiny ultralight rig, to see what sort of little fish I could catch around the rocks. Suddenly Carlos began yelling and pointing to a stretch of slick water between points of the rocks. "Sardinata! Cast in there! Let's catch some!" A fusillade of lures from three different directions quickly converged on the small group of staging fish. Carlos walked a Zara Spook, Garrett stripped a big popping bug through the water and I was skipping a new Rapala Skitterpop lure along. For the most part, the Sardinata ignored us. Occasionaly a fish would swirl or slap at one of our baits to show their disdain for our offerings, but they weren't eating. We couldn't hook up and slowly, after a half hour of frustration, we returned to our previous activities. I sat down in the shade and fiddled with my ultralight, studying the Skitterpop's action and wondering how I might apply it to peacock bass fishing. Garrett was catching small payara on the surface and Carlos went off in search of the long-awaited baitfish.
I drifted into a relaxed state, flicking the Skitterpop into the water and daydreaming. In the middle of one of my unconscious, mechanical retrieves, a sardinata, with a business-like sucking swirl inhaled my lure and took off running. By the time I had gotten to my feet, the fish was hooked and heading for the Caribbean and points east. My little Daiwa, loaded with four pound test was no match for this fish. I couldn't apply any serious pressure, so I just tried to keep contact with the fish when he ran and to take away any pressure when he jumped, and jumped, and jumped. The Caura was beginning to seem more like a home for hyperactive rabbits and kangaroos than a medium for water-bound fish. Nothing here seemed to be able to stay in the water. In keeping with the stretch of good luck I was enjoying, my little rod and it's threadlike line stayed intact. The beautiful, golden Sardinata slowly tired and after a few minutes, Carlos slipped him into the net. My skitterpop was in pieces. The fish, with a split ring somehow piercing its lip, looked like one of today's trendy teens. My bogagrip showed 7 and 1/2 pounds.
Well, I had caught a Sardinata after all. And on a rig a little on the light side for farm pond sunnies! Could it get any better? Well, actually it could. Carlos, who just happens to be the regional IGFA representative, said "I think you just caught a line class record. Let's get it weighed and measured and check the books." With a flurry of scales and tapes and photos we forever enshrined the Sardinata's vital statistics and headed back upriver.
That evening, with applications filled out and sent off, we all agreed that we needed to do this again and soon. With the river finally getting set to fall, we knew the Sardinata would be turning on and moving in earnest. I was heading off to Brazil for my fall trips, so Garrett, always the self-sacrificing fellow, volunteered to take the heinous assignment. We all recited in unison, "It's a tough job, but someboy's got to do it to". If the fishing gets any better than this, we're going to find out soon.
Note - We both returned a few weeks later. Sure enough, the sardinata were there and in great numbers. They proved to be great topwater fun for plug-casters and an absolutely super fly-rod adversary. They take baits with slashing attacks and launch themselves into the air the minute they're hooked.
Sardinata and Payara on the Caura:
The 'golden tarpon' of Amazonia