It Started with a Snail

It Started with a Snail! - A Giant Amazon Catfish Story by Anthony Williams

6 AM on the Travessao River: Brazil’s Amazon Basin.
Tony Williams Giant Catfish
Tony Williams Giant Catfish

We loaded our rods and cool box onto our 18 ft aluminum fishing boat as our guide, Chico, checked the 40 HP outboard and made sure all was in readiness for our day’s fishing.

A noisy pair of Macaws flew over the river, howler monkeys added to the dawn chorus and a tiny humming bird addressed the flower covered tree over our dining area.

We were staying in a tented camp on an island. Dropped in by Float Plane 1.5 hours from Manaus, capital of the Amazon region, we were remote with a capital R! We were even 5 hours by boat from the nearest Indian village, so we saw not a soul all day, apart from the other 6 fishermen in camp.

‘Where’s the bait?’ my fishing partner, Jeff Wilcox from the USA asked. I said that I was sure Chico had a plan. These guys live in the Jungle and it’s their supermarket. They don’t go ‘shopping’ without their cash card!

We set off into the current, through some fast flowing rocky channels and into an open area bounded by rocks and pools. Chico nosed the boat into some calm water behind the rocks and got out of the boat. We watched as he hunted around and then got on his knees and prised some sort of fresh water snail off the rocks under the water line. He cracked them open with the handle of his machete and produced a thin, whip-like stick, a 4ft length of mono and a small hook, to which he attached his prize.

Rather than start fishing he thrashed the water with the tip of his ‘rod’ to attract fish and then dangled his snail bait. A couple of minutes later he pulled a 4 inch fish that I didn’t recognize onto the rocks. Jeff and I jumped out, found some snails and joined in. Half an hour later Chico had 10 fish of 4 different species on the rocks and we set off back into the swirling waters. Jeff and I had caught 1 fish between us!

We found a nice pool and drifted slowly with 6 ft 6 inch Loomis Bass rods, multiplier reels and 80lbs braid, the business end being a 10/0 circle hook and a chunk of fish on the end. A 10 inch wire trace and a sinker rounded off the set up. We dropped the leads onto the bottom and drifted and soon encountered Piranha. Not the little hand sized jobbies, but big 5 to 7lbs Black Piranha. Great fun on light tackle. We must have caught 50 or so before we got ‘bored’ and decided to try for some bigger fish. We kept a couple as bait and put the rest back to annoy us another day.

redtail catfish
Amazon Redtail Catfish

We had already had some success with the Amazon’s 1,200 plus species of Catfish. Notably the very striking and solidly built Red Tailed Catfish. On much heavier rods we had caught them from 10 to 70lbs and what a fight ! These Amazon fish are solid, not the floppy, slimy European jobs. In addition to the resident species of Peacock Bass, acrobatic Saber- toothed Payara, Corvina, Bicuda, Piranhas and so on, we caught many other catfish species.

Jeff was buggering around with his bait. Mine was chewed up by Piranhas and the steel trace and clip a bit mangled by their powerful jaws, but I dropped it to the bottom while I waited. A gentle run started and I said to Jeff ‘Here we go…’ the run didn’t stop though and got faster. I pointed the rod at the fish and clicked into gear. Nothing happened - the run just went on but with enormous power.

Chico knew what was up and started the engine seconds before my braid ran out and off we went, me winding hard to keep in contact with the fish. I wish I hadn’t! Something very powerful and totally unstoppable went mad when I really put pressure on. He hadn’t really known he was hooked before.

Big 100 yds plus runs developed and with a fully bent rod I could make no impact on him at all. This was pretty much how it went for the first hour. When directly over him there was absolutely no give in him at all. Jeff reckoned there was no difference in him than when I hooked him and was starting to suggest I might have to cut the line as we would never be able to land anything this powerful on such light tackle.

‘No. Let’s just try and see what we have first’, I said. I just wanted to see the fish and then decide.

Still I couldn’t make any impression on him. I remembered my Dad telling me once, when Salmon fishing in Scotland, that to just hold a fish invited disaster. ‘Get sideways onto him and keep pulling his head round’ he advised. I asked Chico to STAY AWAY from the fish. I didn’t want to be any closer than 30 yards and at an angle. Once on position I lowered the rod to one side and pulled hard but very slowly. Slowly he came round, but he didn’t like it and shot off on another big run.

We caught up with him again and did the same. By this time it was hot, I was being passed bottles of water and lit fags, had water poured over my head and was soaked in sweat. But it worked and the fish responded like a puppy on a lead. Albeit a pretty huge puppy! Smaller runs of 30 to 50 yards came and by some miracle, with the braid under enormous pressure, it never touched a rock or snag.

Soon he was close to the boat and we saw a huge swirl deep under the surface. I gave him an extra strong head pull and then lifted.

‘Bloody Hell !’ from me and a ‘WOW’ from Jeff. The biggest freshwater fish I had ever seen broke the surface. It was a Giant Piraiba catfish. The world record, recorded by IGFA was broken on this river in 2007 and weighed in at 295lbs of solid muscle.

Right. Now I was really fired up! Plan B was now to try and land him. Small problem was that there were no beaches, just steep banks rocky outcrops and jungle…What to do??

Two of our chums from camp hove round the corner in their boat. I waved them to come over. ‘Have a look at this baby’ I shouted. They came over but kept their distance as he was still doing 20 to 30 yard runs. I pulled him gently up so he showed on the surface and they could get a look. Retired surgeon Joel Adler (Doc Joel) had been in on the earlier year’s world record catch and he just said that we should try and get a rope round him so we could drag him onto some rocks and measure him.

Well. By now I was getting blasé and the Cat was doing pretty much as I wanted. I hauled him close to the boat and Chico undid our mooring rope and on a pass he tried to get the rope round the Cat’s huge tail.

Well, that went well ! He shot off like a fresh fish, soaking us in water. I tried to pull him round and the rod responded unhelpfully by snapping 2 thirds of the way up! Now I had a problem!!

I retrieved the top section, everything was still connected and I could still bring him close enough to try and get the rope on him. Problem was, he simply didn’t like that! I called to Joel and his guide carefully brought his boat over. Joel had a big game rod and a massive 15/0 hook on 200lbs steel wire. We lifted the fish’s head and literally hooked him in the mouth to guard against another run. He was docile though with his head out of the water and Chico managed to slip the boat’s rope over his head and secure him !

High 5's all round as this was a mainly American group. I was the token Pom.

We gingerly towed him to a group of rocks and Chico and I jumped out and pulled him on to the biggest rock. He was huge! Joel kindly said that he had seen the previous world record landed and this guy was bigger. Very kind of him, but we’ll never know. I was focused on releasing him safely and wasn't going to take a chance by trying to weigh him. After taking some pictures we slid him off the rock and he swam away strongly.

2 hours and 10 minutes it took from start to finish . The most exciting fish I had ever caught and by far and away the best fight. It was like a game of chess in a way….

Good old G. Loomis will replace my rod for free and I will return to the Amazon in search of the other 1,195 species of catfish I didn’t catch !! This river has 8 world records of different fish in 4 years. They are being broken year on year and we have only fished a tiny part of it. Watch this space !

It started with a snail !!

Tony Williams travelled to Brazil and the Amazon with Paul Reiss, owner of Acute Angling. He joined the Rio Travessao exotic species variety trip operated in the northern Amazon highlands.