Exploring the Fringe
by Paul Reiss
Two Highlands Rivers - The Rio Urariquera and the Rio Travessao
Have you ever daydreamed about some great fishing spot, real or imagined, that would fulfill all of your fishing fantasies? It would be isolated; you'd be the only one there. It would be beautiful; an example of Nature's perfection. It would be just right for your style of fishing; the best spots within an easy cast of your plug or fly. But most of all, it would be loaded with fish; hungry, aggressive, big fish just waiting for your brilliantly presented bait! Of course you have; you're a fisherman!
Well, so have I and so have my fishing partners and fellow explorers. We..Wellington, Nicky and myself.. Three friends, fishermen and Amazon outfitters, decided to try to make that daydream a reality. As our regularly scheduled guided seasons ended and our time became our own, we pooled our resources to cooperate in a search for new, exotic fishing destinations; for the daydream location.
Our quest started in the far northern Brazilian town of Boa Vista. Surrounded by the rare sight of Amazonian mountains, Boa Vista blends the sensation of a bustling frontier cattle town with the richness and warmth of the rural Brazilian spirit. We met here, at a modest hotel, to lay the groundwork for our expedition into Brazil's hidden treasures; it's rare, fast mountain rivers. We were going to succeed surprisingly well.
The Rio Urariquera
All my life, weekend camping trips close to home have been a quick and simple way to have fun. But it was clear that this exploration would be different. Ten days in the Brazilian Amazon without a support system or supply source would take a lot more planning and care. What we didn't realize, was that would be the easy part. Making our way through the Brazilian government's bureaucracy for the necessary approvals, turned out to be the toughest task of all.
Our first destination was to be the fast and powerful Urariquera River, western source of Brazil's mighty Rio Branco. None of us had been there before, but rumors of giant payara occasionally turning up in the upper Rio Branco were motivation enough to prompt our exploration. Payara migrate. During the dry season, they follow schools of baitfish up fast rivers to feed, fatten and spawn. Payara are practical. Although incredibly powerful fish, a physical obstacle that concentrates their food source is stimulus enough to stack them up and hold them in place. The Urariquera was full of all the right stuff; waterfalls, rapids and rocky cliffs. Surely we'd find a place that fit the bill.
First stop, Ibama (an environmental protection agency) to get permission to enter and pass the the vast Santa Rosa jungle reserve that separates the upper Urariquera from the flat savannahs surrounding Boa Vista. Using this planned route, a pleasant day's boatride through the placid lower river would get us to the beginning of the Urariquera's wilder upper stretches with relative ease. Easier said than done! After frustrating hours of form filling and explaining, assuring and cajoling, we were ultimately told that access by the river couldn't be provided, find another way in. Hah! That would also prove to be easier said than done. Driving overland, towing two boats and a pick-up bed full of gear and supplies wasn't a likely prospect for reaching an area 170 km from Boa Vista - without a road. We needed a new plan.
We headed back to the hotel for a quick map study and satellite image review session. Finally we came up with an alternate idea. Beyond the reserve, paralleling the southern branch of the constantly braiding upper Urariquera, lay a series of fazendas, giant savannah cattle ranches bordering the river's protective band of montane jungle. Maybe we could find a way to pass through the last ranch. Wellington, who seems to know everyone in Boa Vista, said, "Let me ask around, I bet I can find the owner". With that he was gone. Nicky and I looked at each other, shrugged and set off to assemble our non-perishable supplies. No sense being pessimistic and wasting time.
When we returned, Wellington was waiting at our modest hotel with a burly young stranger decked out in jeans and fancy cowboy boots. Incredibly, Wellington had not only found the owner, but he had managed to drag him back to talk to us about our harebrained idea. We sat him down and ordered dinner. With the auspicious first name of Kennedy (his parents admired our martyred president); I figured we had a chance. During dinner, we were promptly informed that Kennedy didn't fish, the ranch had no real road and that there was no way through the dense jungle at the river's edge. Two beers later, Kennedy thought he might be able to let us drive through the ranch's pastures. Two more beers and he thought maybe the ranch hands could help us carry the gear through the jungle. By the evening's final "Brahma" brew, Kennedy had decided that he was coming along!
We left at dawn, towing the boats, laden with supplies and full of second thoughts. Was this going to work? Could we actually get there? What were we going to do with this cowboy who had never even held a fishing rod before? Well, the river beckoned and we had our work cut out for us if we wanted to find out.
170 kilometers of broken pavement, dirt roads, cow pastures and cattle trails later, we reached the ranch house. Kennedy, who had spent the ride educating us about the intricacies of cattle ranching in this sparse, weedy savannah, promptly took charge. He rousted the surprised vaqueiros from their afternoon endeavors and quickly assembled a work detail. Looming between us and the river was a mile of weed choked scrubland, a belt of thick jungle and 100 yards of boulder strewn riverbank. Armed with machetes and scythes, the ranch hands began clearing a route through the overgrown pasture. Following cattle paths, they had soon fashioned a track that would allow our 4x4 Ford Ranger through. We promptly dubbed it "Avenida Kennedy" and Nicky set to work shuttling boats and gear to the jungle's edge. The rest of us began hauling the loads through the jungle. As darkness set in, we trundled the last of the gear to the river bank and wearily made camp. Lord, we were tired. Well, we'd see what the morning brought. I hoped it would be fish.
The crack of dawn found me still bone-weary but gamely clambering the rocks with my fishing rods in hand. The jumbled boulders looked like a spilled set of building toys for a giant's toddler. Ranging from a dull red to a shiny black, the water-carved rocks provided the only way to move along the shoreline. Making my way to the edge of a small eddy, I launched my first experimental cast. Within seconds, a nice payara was all over my Yo-Zuri and instantly airborne. He was gone before I could react, but I was fully awake now! Two casts later, I hooked up solidly with his roommate and the battle was on. While the beautiful silver battler ran and leaped with abandon, every last bit of yesterday's exhaustion evaporated - I was fishing again. Five minutes later, I released a glistening 12 lb. payara.
Now I went to work with a vengeance. The base of a fair-sized nearby rapid held a deep hole. I moved in and began probing with a deep-running Rapala CD-18. It immediately dredged up one beefy payara after another. Jumping off three for every one I managed to maneuver through the ripping current, these wild payara soon had me grinning like a fool. This river was loaded with fish. It was time to break out the fly rod. With gleeful anticipation, I scampered up the rocks to a back-current tailor made for my weighted line. Within minutes, my painstakingly tied payara fly had me connected, hand to jaw, with yet another fanged bruiser. As the jolting strike reverberated through my shoulder, I snapped off a fast, hard hookset. The surprised payara seemed to stop and think for a moment, then took off at a screaming pace headed straight for Boa Vista. As the line whipped through my fingers, I was thankful that I had only stripped out enough for a short probing first cast. Quickly, he was on the reel, taking line and into the backing. As suddenly as he started, he stopped and took to the air. Three head shaking, gill rattling leaps failed to dislodge my red, black and yellow streamer from his toothy lip. As he settled down to a bullish tug of war, I knew that it was now just a matter of patience to bring him back into the quiet water at my feet. Within minutes, a hefty 10 pound payara was gracing the business end of my Bogagrip. As I released the tired fish, I could see the first wisp of campfire smoke rising like a restaurant advertisement from behind the rocks. I had already tied into 16 nice payara. I was tired, optimistic and hungry, so I headed back for breakfast to share the good news.
We talked and planned over coffee. It had been our hope to ascend about 35 miles of river over a three day period to a region where our satellite images showed many of the river's braids coming together. The reality of the actual conditions down here on the surface began to make that look like a questionable goal. Water levels were very low, leaving rocky defiles looming out of the water and concentrating the powerful roaring cataracts that descended around them. The river was going to present more than just a small challenge. We were going to have to fight for every mile of our exploration. Slowly, a plan emerged. We would run one unloaded boat upriver to determine the feasibility of ascending each rapid, rocky stretch, while the other boat stayed near camp to assess the fishing. If we found a passable route, we'd move, step by step.
Nicki and Wellington headed upriver to explore, while Kennedy and I crossed over to the opposite bank and worked our way to the base of a good-sized waterfall. For a fellow who had never fished before, Kennedy sure learned quickly. After a quick casting, hooking and catching demonstration with a friendly volunteer payara, Kennedy took off grinning, with my light spinning rod clutched like a prize in his hand. I couldn't help smiling as he clambered over rocks and sloshed through the water in his beautiful, hand-tooled leather boots looking for a spot to fish. Minutes later I heard him whooping and hollering in pleasure. A big payara was tail-walking across the current not 50 feet from the end of his rod. No doubt about it, Kennedy was hooked.
By midday we rejoined the other boat at the campsite and compared notes. Nicki and Wellington had ascended 3 sets of rapids and reached an area where the river split into 3 braids - each guarded by a three meter high cascade of roiling, tumbling water. We wouldn't pass that region today, but a beautiful beach sat at the base of the falls and would make a perfect camp for that night. We'd figure out how to best move past the falls the next day. We broke camp, packed the boats and headed upriver. By late afternoon we'd reached our stopping point.
The place was strikingly beautiful. The amber colored, packed sand beach sat like a poured foundation at the base of a raging cascade in the central braid. A sandy haven, it was surrounded by racing streamlets overflowing from the other two channels. The roaring water and crystal clarity of the setting created an acute awareness of the intricate balance between Nature's simple beauty and her pure raging force. More than just a campsite, this was a place of power.
We needed to scout up above this non-navigable section, so we carried a boat up and over the rocky point delineating the braid and set it into the calm waters above the torrent. Kennedy and I watched from the rocks as our intrepid team of skilled rapid runners successfully skittered up the next stretch of fast water and disappeared upriver. We grabbed our fishing gear and headed off to do some tough work of our own. Starting off trolling, we quickly hooked up two nice payara from a nearby deep passage. With both of us fighting fish at the same time, the boat slowly spun in a quiet eddy. Kennedy and I began the doubleheader dance, ducking under and passing over each other's lines as the payara did their own version of the do-see-do. I was amazed at how quickly our Brazilian cowboy was turning into a competent fisherman. Without a hitch, we brought a pair of nice fish to the boat for a simultaneous release. Moving downriver to probe a shallower, sandy point brought out some other species. Within a short period we had added a big boulengerella (bicuda), some big piranha and, to my surprise, even a nice-sized peacock bass. Tying on a floating plug, just to see what would happen, yielded a fat eight pound pescada. Also known as corvina, this delicious fish had dinner written all over it. Time to get a fire started and rendezvous with our partners.
As we rounded the point in front of our camp, Kennedy shouted, pointing out a big red object bobbing at the base of the cascade. With a shudder of horrible understanding, I realized it was the gas tank from the other boat. Like a menacing dark cloud, that bobbing tank foretold trouble on the horizon. Something had gone dreadfully wrong.
We raced to the bank and began scrambling over the rocks and over the falls to round the next bend. In the distance we saw a silhouetted figure standing on the rocks - frighteningly, just one. A small braid separated us from the next stretch of bank. We quickly swam across and stumbled along the rocks to reach a wet, but uninjured Wellington. Where was Nicki? He didn't know. Everything happened quickly. A powerful rapid had tossed and flipped the boat over like a leaf in the wind. When he surfaced, everything was gone. They had been using the life preservers as seat cushions. With mounting fear I headed further up the rocks to the next bend.
Join us - on a full-scale Urariquera exploration
New Exploratory Trip - Our short and limited exploratory trip this year made it clear that the Urariquera is an extraordinary fishery. Payara up to 20lbs, Pacu up to 25lbs and giant Jau catfish up to 65lbs have been caught in just the small region we explored this year. Next year, we want to explore a larger area and to more thoroughly probe the fishing opportunities than our short first visit allowed. For this reason, we'll be mounting a single, larger scale exploratory expedition in 2003, including from four to six selected anglers. We want to find out what else is here. Our staff will handle all campsite work so that anglers will be able to concentrate most effectively on patterning the fishery. We will routinely move the camp in order to explore as many different areas as possible.
Camping - Basic, but comfortable camps will be located on beaches or along the riverbank in pleasant, secure locations. Facilities will consist of pop-up tents with mattress pads and clean sheets, . All camping gear will be provided. Our staff will prepare complete, hearty meals, with the emphasis on freshly caught fish. Riverside laundry service will be provided. Bathing and toilet facilities will be strictly 'au naturel (use the river to bathe and the woods for everything else). This is not a trip for everyone. The Urariquera is a very powerful river. For this reason, our staff will portage boats and equipment up or down particularly powerful cascades. Anglers may experience a reasonable amount of walking over rocky banks in these areas. For this reason, anglers should be in good health and physical condition.
The Urariquera has never been fished by American sportfishermen! It's potential has, as yet, never been tapped or even measured. The Urariquera's great variety of sought after gamefish species and the river's extreme beauty and isolation, promise to make this voyage an unparalleled fishing and wilderness experience. This trip is recommended for experienced fishermen.
Finally, I crested the point and was able to scan upriver. There, in the distance, sat Nicki, wet, exhausted, scratched and almost naked - but clearly alive and in one piece. An audible sigh of relief escaped me and I could feel the muscles in my shoulders and chest relax, as though one of the river's boulders had been lifted from my back. It was at that moment that I realized just how frightened I had been. We had underestimated the sheer power of this river and the unrelenting physical reality of Nature . By some combination of sheer luck and God's will, we had been spared a severe injury, or worse, the loss of a friend.
Slowly, like a surrendering ragtag army, we regrouped to make our way back to the parked fishing boat. As we approached the top of the impassable cascade, we heard the unmistakable clang of metal against rock. There bobbed Nicki and Wellington's boat, overturned, sunken and trapped between two boulders. One more reprieve had been granted us.
Later, we sat by the campfire, quietly and thankfully eating and recovering. Happy to be safely all together again. It was time to take stock. Only one operational boat remained. We had lost the tools to repair the waterlogged motor. Half our fishing gear was gone. Clearly, further progress upriver was impossible. But meanwhile, the fishing had been tremendous. We decided to wait for morning to make our final plans. There, at the base of the cascading torrent, to the accompaniment of the river's steady roar, we drifted quickly and gratefully into sleep.
Dawn revealed that the river had already made all of our final plans for us. During the night, the water had risen more than a meter. There would be no more fishing now. The good news, however, was that our inevitable descent would be made easier by the smoothing effect of the higher water. The same rocks that yesterday had threatened to rip our motor off the transom would now be safely underwater. The Urariquera had granted us one last boon and sent us on our way.
We'll be back. Next year, earlier in the season, better equipped and with a clear understanding of the character of this river. The long haul back to Boa Vista gave us plenty of time to plan a fully staffed expedition. Yes, the river is daunting, but it's loaded with big fish and great variety. In all our time on the river we had only managed several hours of fishing time. But they were filled with non-stop action. We caught one big, beautiful fish after another and they all behaved like the denizens of our daydream fishing spot. Now that we understand the Urariquera's scope and gigantic complexity, we can mount a well-designed and well-planned expedition to properly access it's wealth of gamefish species. This spectacular river offers not only exceptional fishing opportunities, but a direct connection with Nature's awesome beauty and power.
The Rio Travessao
For a long moment, the warm touch of the afternoon sun, the reassuring sound of the rushing water, the rich jungle aroma and the brilliant green, flower-specked tapestry all surrounded me at once. The powerful sensory flood conspired to fill me with a profound sense of awe, peace and fulfillment combined. This rare feeling of oneness, of belonging in a natural world, stirs us all to find a connection to our biological roots, be it a walk in a park or an immersion into a primeval forest. Quickly, and without diminishing the richness of the sensation, the next rapidly approaching rocky cascade brought my focus back to the task at hand, safely descending the boulder strewn Rio Travessao in the Brazilian Amazon. This uplifting gut-level emotion returned again and again during our fast paced exploration of this isolated river on the fringe of the Amazon Basin.
As with our earlier exploratory trip, we started in Boa Vista. This time we needed approval from Brazil's version of the Department of Indian Affairs. FUNAI (Fundacion Nacional do Indio) is charged with linking the needs, responsibilities and rights of Brazil's indigenous Indian tribes with the appropriate government and private resources. We had already spoken at length about our exploratory plan with a representative of the Rio Travessao's indigenous Indian tribal population (original residents and owners of the reserve through which most of the Rio Travessao flows) and expected that FUNAI would simply approve the necessary paperwork for us to begin. What could I have been thinking? As with any bureaucracy, it could never be that simple. The day of our departure dawned and we were informed by the local office that we would have to go to Brasilia, several thousand miles to the south, to get our paperwork completed. #!@?/*@$!%^?! In the comics, that used to represent a thorough round of cursing. Once again, we were stuck before we even left.
This time we didn't hesitate to look for another solution. Encouraged by the effectiveness of our alternate mechanism of accessing the Urariquera, we decided to go straight to "Plan B" with the Rio Travessao. We returned to the Indian tribe's representative we had initially contacted, asked him if he'd like to be our guide, loaded him and his bag into our truck and headed for the river. His name was Anauldo and he said he'd love a visit home anyway.
We headed south from Boa Vista, enjoying the ride on a mostly well paved road. As the miles and hours went by, the road became less paved and more rutted, until, abruptly, we were looking at a dirt track, cratered like the moon. The river was still 45 miles away. Slowly and creatively we picked our way around the washouts, holes and moguls until finally, the river came into view. We unpacked our gear, set up our tents and got some rest. We'd launch the boats in the morning.
As though we were starring in a "B" movie, we awoke to find ourselves surrounded by Indians. Well, sort of surrounded, anyway. Nine very serious looking Rio Travessao indigenes, in three large dugout canoes had arrived at the end of the road to meet a delivery of gasoline and goods for their village. Finding us camped on what was to be their loading area, they politely and quietly sat down to wait for us to awaken and find out what it was we were up to.
After studying, struggling and practicing Portuguese for the last few years, I've gotten pretty confident in my ability to communicate anywhere in Brazil. That complacency went out the window in an eye blink as we came to the realization that none of our erstwhile hosts spoke Portuguese, and of course, none of us spoke their language. Now we realized why Anauldo was the indigenous representative in Boa Vista - he was one of only a few who spoke both languages. Boy, were we glad we had been sharing our potato chips with him all the way from Boa Vista.
After a few minutes of gesticulating and speaking through Anauldo, we managed to make our intentions known. The Indians spent a few more minutes earnestly discussing this and ultimately we were informed that they would be taking us to their village where we could meet with the tribal chiefs and request permission to explore their river. Since it seemed like a reasonable and polite idea, we agreed. The Indians then proceeded to rearrange their canoes. Wellington was placed in the middle of one, while I was motioned into another. A Rio Travessao native took up position in the prow and the stern of each canoe. Nicky and Anauldo were asked to pack up the camp and then catch up to the canoes later. Without another word or motion, we were off. This was turning out to be an adventure in its own right.
The silent natives manhandled the huge canoes through the Rio Travessao's quick water, tumbled rocks and challenging riffles with speed and remarkable precision. The ride was moving quickly and when we reached a stretch of quiet, boulder-pocked water, I pantomimed my intention to take a few casts to my hosts. Although they hardly changed their expression, it seemed to be alright with them, so I rigged up a medium baitcaster with a big gold "Red-fin" and took a few casts at the passing rocks. The Indians were curious, but clearly not impressed. At least not until a three foot long boulengerella (or bicuda) went airborne and came crashing down onto my lure. Happily, I managed a good hookset and the battle was on. These aggressive predators are shaped like a pike, with jaws like a gar and an attitude like a rush hour driver who has just been cut off by a Sunday sightseer. The sleek silver-green speedster took off on a series of short runs, each ending in a thrashing leap. This fish didn't seem to like staying in the water. His wild antics soon slowed down as he tired rapidly from his constant leaps. The Indians had stopped the canoe and were watching, transfixed. As I lifted the fish into the canoe, my native helmsman pointed at his stomach with one hand while he pantomimed eating with the other. It didn't take a translator to understand that. I unhooked the fish and handed him over. For the first time, my hosts were smiling.
From that point on, my hosts started maneuvering the canoe toward the most likely looking spots while I probed the waters with a variety of baits. By the time Nicky and Anauldo caught up to us, I had put a half dozen huge piranha, an eight pound payara and a 12 pound trairao into the boat. It was lunchtime and there'd be plenty of fresh fish to go around. The two canoes and Nicky and Anauldo in our aluminum boats, pulled over onto a rocky bank for a shore lunch.
We learned a lot at lunchtime. The first thing we learned was that if you give a Rio Travessao native a fish, it's his. He cooks it and he eats it. Our boatmen and Anauldo were busily roasting and eating the morning's catch while Nicky and I quickly went to work catching a few more piranha for our own lunch. We also learned that the locals aren't in a hurry. When we asked Anauldo how much further it was to the village, he answered "Talvez hoje o talvez amanha, gente no podem saber certo." "Maybe today or maybe tomorrow, people can't know for sure." When we tried to figure out just what that meant, we learned that the Rio Travessao Indians are remarkably polite. Further probing established that the village was at least another seven hours away up a tributary of the Travessao! If we wanted to keep fishing along the way like a bunch of idiots, fine, but we'd never make it today. But they weren't going to mention that if it was what we wanted to do. We quickly put out our fire, packed up the rods and indicated that we were ready to go. That's when we learned one final thing - the members of this tribe don't tell you what you don't need to know until you need to know it. It turned out that the village was up a smaller tributary and the shallow, rocky conditions would never accommodate our aluminum boats. Nicky and Anauldo would remain behind, camping on the bank while Wellington and I headed to the village in the canoes. We said our goodbyes and set off for the village. The differences between our two cultures were more than just language. The native mindset and lifestyle was a world removed from ours.
The Indians made good time and the village came into sight just as the last of the day's light trickled away. Our guides led us up the bank to a log in the middle of the village and asked us to wait there for the chief. After a half hour, with night well fallen, I began wondering if maybe we shouldn't have asked exactly when the chief would be coming. Considering all that we had learned earlier, it might have been wise. But no matter, without Anauldo we couldn't very well have asked anyway.
We made ourselves as comfortable as we could on our log and waited. And waited. I got to musing about the situation. Here we were, in a primitive village in the middle of nowhere. Coming from one of the most developed and complex societies on earth, I realized that I was completely at a loss about how to behave here. I was as much an alien in this village as a Rio Travessao Indian would be on the streets of New York City. We knew just about nothing about the customs and mores of this society and even less about the layout of the village. It was pitch dark. We were asked to wait and wait we would. But what did they do for bathroom etiquette here? I certainly didn't want to wander off to relieve myself and then find out I was using someone's front lawn, or worse yet, mistake a garden for a patch of weeds. And what about food? Thinking back on our lunchtime experiences, I realized we were probably not going to be fed. Where were we going to sleep? We had our pop-up tents with us, but would it be proper to put them up here in the center of the village? And where was everybody anyway? Three hundred people live in this village and we didn't hear a sound.
My musings were quickly ended as a throng of children came laughing and giggling into view. Behind them a group of young men carried hand hewn wooden benches that they set into place in a circle around us. Then all became silent again as the four village chiefs entered the circle and sat. The youngest of them began speaking in perfect and precise Portuguese. He introduced himself and his elders and then explained that we could now discuss our interest in exploring the Rio Travessao. "Go ahead, please", he suggested.
My mouth was experiencing vapor lock and not a word came out. Wellington, however, is never at a loss for words. He began eloquently and expansively explaining the purpose of our exploration and our ultimate hopes for the tribe's approval to bring sport fishermen to their river. Ever the consummate salesman, he waxed eloquent on the benefits to the tribe of licensing us to operate a catch and release fishery on the Rio Travessao. When Wellington finally wound down, the young chief asked our patience while he translated and explained to his elders. When he was done, he told us that the chiefs very much favored such an idea as it represented a form of sustainable harvest that would allow the tribe to benefit without cutting timber, fouling their waters or otherwise destroying their most precious resource, the surrounding jungle. He turned to me and asked if I would understand the tribe's only condition - the village itself would remain off-limits to fishermen because of the tribe's desire to maintain and perpetuate their unique culture and lifestyle without undue contamination from the outside. I readily assented and assured him that the seven hour upriver ride would well ensure that the village remained secure. After another round of translating and collaborating, the chief explained that the tribe would vote on this proposal and send word to Wellington when Anauldo next visited Boa Vista. As the meeting came to an end, I realized that my perception of the Rio Travessao Indians as a primitive people needed to be tempered with a clear understanding of their awareness of the outside world and how to deal with it. I had just witnessed an expert politician and negotiator at work. In a different setting, this intelligent man could have led a business or run for congress. We were told to make ourselves comfortable for the night. In the morning, the chief would send two young, Portuguese speaking boatmen to bring us back to the main river and guide us for the rest of our exploratory trip.
True to his word, our guides showed up at dawn. I was ready to go. Although visiting this wonderful village had been a remarkable experience, I couldn't wait to return to the main river and our supplies. I was starving!
The next two days proved to be a remarkable fishing experience. The upper Rio Travessao is very different from most Amazonian waterways. Unlike our earlier destination, the big, powerful Urariquera, this is a relatively small, gentle river, averaging perhaps sixty feet wide. Big boulders and jumbled rocks accent the fairly quick moving water. Where the rocks stretch most of the way across, fast riffles, and here and there even short rapids occur; usually, with big, slow pools sitting below. This liveliness and variability is also a far cry from the more uniform and staidly immobile peacock bass rivers in the lower Amazon basin. The surrounding jungle proved to be even more surprising. Towering above the river, dense gallery forest loomed on both sides. Rich with flowers and lushly green, the jungle shades the water for most of the day. Inside the peaceful canyon of the river, the fresh smells of the forest's flora provided a pleasantly pervasive added dimension to the Rio Travessao's sensory stimuli. In clear counterpoint to the fast paced excitement of the first river we visited on our exploratory journey, the Travessao evoked a more mysterious yet more relaxed mood.
As we worked our way downriver, we portaged our boats around a series of waterfalls that defined differing regions of the river. We constantly entered new fisheries. A wide bend on the Travessao prompted our guides to suggest fishing deep here. We rigged up with deep-running crankbaits and within minutes Wellington was fighting a huge trairao. This wide-bodied version of the "bowfin from hell" sure knew how to fight. He stripped line rapidly from Wellington's heavy baitcaster with repeated headshaking, bulldogging runs. Just as it seemed he should be running out of steam, he turned and headed right back toward the boat. Wellington shouted, "He's heading for the surface." "He's going to jump"! Sure enough, the hefty bruiser proceeded to launch himself three feet into the air with remarkable agility, not more than twenty feet from Wellington's gaping stare. Three more jumps and finally the big fish was finning at the side of the boat. As I latched my Bogagrip onto that mouthful of wicked teeth, I could hear Nicky's triumphant whoop as he hooked into a trairao of his own. "Twenty four pounds! I told Wellington, "Let's find out what Nicky's got." By the time his sixteen pounder came boatside, I was happily struggling with a big scaly beast of my own. In the next thirty minutes, we hooked into at least a dozen of these critters and landed five more. When the action comes on the Rio Travessao, it comes in bunches!
Continuing to descend, we came to a region replete with quiet lagoons. It didn't take long for my probing Zara Spook to get the patented peacock bass treatment. As a rapidly moving "vee" closed in on my bait from behind, I braced myself for the strike. The angry peacock smashed the lure and took care of setting the hook all in one motion. In the violent fighting style of his species, the brilliantly colored, hefty fish tried to remove my hooks, break my line and shatter my rod; but to no avail. I had lots of space and I let him do his worst without giving in to the temptation to hurry the fight or force the issue. Minutes later a beautiful, 8 pound male peacock decorated my Bogagrip. Just as with the trairao, the action came in bunches and Wellington and I quickly landed fourteen nice peacocks, ranging up to ten pounds. Without a doubt, we had found the peacocks. What else would this river have to offer?
We made camp that night on a spit of sand below a beautiful waterfall. A wall of rock almost 200 feet in length extended almost entirely across this very wide section of the river, broken only by three rushing torrents of water. The resulting pools above and below just had to be full of fish. I was all set to rise early the next morning and test it out, but Nicky and Wellington weren't going to wait. Armed with a few freshly caught piranha they set out in pursuit of the Rio Travessao's storied giant catfish. I and the three Indians stayed ashore to jeer at their expected lack of success. We set about starting a fire and doing some heavy relaxing.
I've done a bit of catfishing over the years. Mostly, it's a lot of waiting and fooling with baits and waiting and changing sinkers and waiting and maybe having a beer and then waiting some more. Every so often there's a spurt of wild activity when a catfish shows up, but inevitably there's more waiting afterward. I figured I'd let my partners do all the complicated stuff out on the boat while I did the waiting and maybe some beer drinking sitting comfortably in front of the campfire. But I didn't realize that they had parked the boat in a "no waiting zone".
Big catfish were inhaling their baits almost as soon as they hit the water. The pool must have been crawling with them. They were each geared up with a piece of cut piranha on a corrodible circle hook, haywire twisted to about 18 inches of fishing wire terminating in a heavy swivel. A two ounce egg sinker was threaded onto their 30 pound test fishing line. This rig was obviously putting the bait right in front of the cats. They'd pick up the bait, run with it and quickly hook themselves with the circle hook. Nicky and Wellington would then join the fight and promptly lose them. Clearly there was a problem. These cats knew their environment. As soon as they felt the pressure of the drag, they'd simply head for the rocks and slice the 30 pound test off like sewing thread.
Fish, Camp and Explore the Hidden Travessao
The Rio Travessao - We've had a great opportunity to experience this river's remarkable variety of species. We struggled with huge, primitive trairao, beautiful, aggressive peacock bass, sporty payara, leaping bicuda and giant catfish. We're now returning yearly, to explore larger areas and to more thoroughly probe the fishing opportunities. Trips are available in this extraordinary fishery from January through March. As with our Urariquera trips, our staff will handle all campsite work so that anglers can concentrate most effectively on patterning the fishery. We will move the camp routinely to permit the exploration of many different areas.
Camping - This type of trip is not for everyone. As with our Urariquera exploratory, camps and facilities will be basic, but comfortable. The Rio Travessao is a very remote river. In some areas, our staff may portage boats and equipment up or down difficult stretches. Anglers may experience a reasonable amount of walking over rocky banks and should be in good health and physical condition. For experienced fishermen, this unique exploratory journey offers truly wide-ranging variety and a rare wilderness experience in a bucolic, protected, jungle setting.
After several lost rigs, Nicky finally managed to maneuver one of the cats away from the rocks and convince him to fight his way toward the beach in front of our camp. Ten minutes of grunting and groaning later, Nicky hauled a huge, red-tailed cat into the boat right in front of camp. Making sure that his flashlight was clearly focused on the glistening red, black and white beauty, he promptly ended all of our jeers and catcalls. That was a big cat!
Wellington got the idea too. A few minutes later he hauled a 35 pounder out of the pool. They would have probably fished all night if it weren't for the fact that the last of their rigs and sinkers disappeared into the deep right after that. There had to be a better way to fight these cats. As we sat around the campfire later on, eating and relaxing, the Indians showed us their handlines. Made of monofilament, these things looked like electrical cables. At least 200 pound test, the lines were heavily abraded by previous contact with the rocks, but they remained strong and still flexible. Because these fish are so strong, it's almost impossible to stop them on their first run. Brute strength just won't do it. Anauldo explained that he simply lets the cats go into the rocks if they want and then guts it out with them until they start to tire. Humans have the edge in stamina and the steady pressure will eventually convince the cat to seek another spot to hide in. By then, they can usually be hauled up out of the deeps. It didn't seem to be a terribly sporting method, but the idea of feeling the cat's power, hand to hand, had a definite appeal. I had to try it.
Laying aside my high-tech graphite rod and engineering marvel of a reel, I borrowed Anauldo's battered handline and headed for the boat. Within moments a cat was sampling my cut bait. As he swam off with it, I let the line go tight and felt the circle hook do its work. The cat stopped, I stopped. Nobody moved for a long moment. Then I decided to be the aggressor and began stripping in line through my fingers. Big mistake! The cat panicked and took off running. I simply couldn't hold onto the line in my fingers. Dry monofilament rapidly zipping over dry skin is like rubbing two sticks together. I expected to see smoke coming up at any moment. I was saved by the empty plastic bottle tied to the end of the line. As it crashed into my hand, I grabbed hold and hung on. With no more slack, the cat's pull was transferred to the boat and, no surprise; the boat began moving behind him. I was sure this fish weighed at least ten million pounds. As he steamed inexorably toward the rocks, I began to get organized and started recovering line. By the time the cat stopped his run, we were only fifty feet apart. Now it was just a tugging match and after a few more minutes, I could feel the fish's resistance starting to ebb. Finally, I hauled him alongside the boat. To my surprise, he wasn't much over 50 pounds! Like the impact of a powerful gamefish when he slams a stripped fly, this cat had transmitted his strength directly down the line. It was electrifying.
As soon as Nicky and Wellington saw the size of the fish that had nearly taken the line from my hands, they began to subject me to the entire gamut of popular Portuguese trash talk. I knew I'd eventually be paying for the earlier jeers and catcalls that I'd subjected my partners to. Payback for that sort of thing is always inevitable. But I sure didn't expect that it would be this soon.
The Rio Travessao proved to be one of the most interesting fisheries we had ever seen. Replete with natural beauty and isolated within its surrounding reservation, it's pretty much a fisherman's dream. These fish have never seen lures before and they are as eager to strike them as our imaginations tell us they would be. Coupled with the remarkable variety of gamefish species calling it home, the Rio Travessao never stops delivering surprises. We've since caught trairao up to 28 pounds, peacocks up to fourteen and payara up to thirty-six pounds! The river has yielded the largest catfish ever caught on rod and reel (a 295 pound piraiba), the new world record black piranha (7.25 pounds), the new world record jundira (24.5 pounds) and several line class records, The Rio Travessao has delivered bicuda over twelve pounds (and anglers have lost them up to 20 pounds!) and red tailed catfish up to seventy. Add to this a population of pescada, suribim and some of the biggest piranha I've ever seen and you've got a remarkable mix of exciting fishing opportunities. We're now returning yearly with a fully outfitted exploratory expedition with room for several groups of adventurous clients to join us. It'll be basic camping, but well-planned and comfortable. I suspect we'll find more fishing surprises waiting for us.
Acute Angling hosts ocassional guided exploratory trips in remote regions of the Amazon.
These trips are limited to a small number of hardy individuals. For more information on joining us on a unique adventure, contact:
Paul Reiss at (866) 832-2987
E-Mail Paul Reiss,
Garry Reiss at (866) 431-1668
E-Mail Garry Reiss