Exploring the Fringe
by Paul Reiss
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 many of our highlands exploratory trips, we started in Boa Vista to get the necessary 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 Indian tribal population (indigenous residents and owners of the reserve through which most of the Rio Travessao flows). With documents in hand, we returned to the tribe's representative and 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. We finally had to simply leeave our truck behind at the edge of the forest and drag our boats and gear the last difficult kilometer. Finally, right at dusk, the river came into view. We 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 at our campsite. Finding us camped on the banks, 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 their further 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 make 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? Two 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 many of our earlier highlands destinations, this is a relatively gentle river. 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 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. The Travessao evoked a mysterious yet 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 kind, 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 an aluminum 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've now built comfortable Picapau lodge in the middle of this beautiful river. Trips are available in this fishery from October through February.
This unique adventure offers truly wide-ranging species 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 relatively small 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. 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 two of the largest catfish ever caught on rod and reel (a 295 and a 350 pound piraiba), the new world record black piranha (8.5 pounds), the new world record jundira (28 pounds) and several line class records, The Rio Travessao has delivered bicuda over twelve pounds (and anglers have lost them up to 20 pounds!). My 50-pound redtail looks like a joke in hindsight compared to the dozen or so red-tailed catfish we’ve since caught that weighed over 120-pounds. 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. I suspect we'll find more fishing surprises waiting for us.