Taming the Urariquera
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Taming the Urariquera
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Taming the Urariquera
by Paul Reiss
I have no idea how the rumor that fishermen are patient got started. It was probably suggested by some ancient, incorrigible practitioner of the angling arts seeking to append at least one admirable virtue to his less than impeccable character. While I fancy myself a fisherman, I'm certainly not patient. In fact, when it comes to fishing, I'm always eager to get started, for the fish to bite and the action to begin. Whenever I get close to the water, I can't wait to start exploring with the hooked end of my rod. It's the impatient fisherman's dream to go where the fish don't make you wait. That's why the most unexplored and unknown regions are always my first choice. Who knows? I might end up surrounded by schools of swirling, feeding fish, just as impatient as I.
Hidden in the northern fringe of the Amazon basin, lies one of Brazil's greatest natural treasures, the pristine Ilha de Maraca Bio-Reserve. This giant riverine island hosts one of the richest natural biospheres remaining in the world today. Few tropical ecosystems have been protected as carefully as this critically important reservoir for species preservation and biodiversity. Maraca is surrounded by the spectacular Rio Urariquera, one of the most breathtakingly beautiful rivers in the world. Pouring through convoluted braids, separating and rejoining endlessly, the Urariquera's environments range from slow moving, lagoon-like pools to raging white-water torrents, from shallow, jungle-lined passages to bottomless, stone-walled chasms. This incredible river system is home to an amazing variety of fish species, both resident and migratory and is one of the greatest natural hatcheries in the world. The Urariquera holds enough fish to exceed any impatient fisherman's wildest fishing dreams .. And I was heading back there.
It had been almost a year since my first visit to the Rio Urariquera. Now, I was returning with truly mixed feelings. One my previous visit, our small group of explorers had spent several days trying to explore the vast, complex system. Like a flirtatious tease, this river had tantalized us with fantastic fishing thrills and then sent us home early by trashing our boats, gear and expectations in its raging waters and treacherous rapids. Now we were back for a full scale, three week expedition. We were well armed with specially designed boats, satellite photos, experienced guides and a provisional permit from IBAMA, Brazil's counterpart to the EPA. Even so, as I arrived at the river, I was feeling a little bit like Charlie Brown must feel as he starts his run at that elusive football, beckoning at the tip of Lucy's treacherous fingers.
Acceding to the river's previous dominance over our travel plans, we set up our new expedition camp in a more accessible and less difficult location, about 10 miles downriver from our previous site. The location proved to be a good choice, practical and manageable for a safe and comfortable fishing operation. Upon our arrival, the camp became home to eleven of us, five anglers (three adventurous clients, my daughter, Jenny, and I) and six staff (our camp manager, Nicky and his three guides and two camp workers). We settled in quickly and then left for a short, late afternoon of fishing, testing the waters for a first taste of what the river would be offering … And what a great taste it was! Five anglers returned to camp with tales of tangling with big payara, giant piranha, and to our surprise, a 16 and a half pound pacu (pirapitinga). Things were starting to look good..that tricky football was still there, firmly on the ground, waiting to be kicked.
As in our first exploration, a year before, our camp was simple, nothing more than a group of pup tents and a fireplace. We did enjoy the luxury of a set of plastic tables and chairs, however. Set in the sand of a pretty beach overlooking the rushing waters, dinners couldn't have had a more intriguing setting, cooled by fresh breezes and calmed by the burbling sound of the river. Our impromptu dining room quickly became the camp meeting place where we would talk about the day and brag about the fish. As we explored the region surrounding the camp over the next few days, we wound up with plenty to brag about. It proved to be full of fish, bigger, and with even more variety than we anticipated. This rich fishery wasn't going to disappoint us.
The more the new camp proved to be a success, the more it seemed to itch at Nicky and I that we hadn't been able to tame the river in the area we entered a year before. It seemed to us that if we could only get back there, we'd figure out how to continue with our original plan of exploring the entire “furo de Maraca”. After all, the site was only ten miles away.
So we scratched the itch. The next morning we set out with GPS at the ready and sought to return to the site of our ignominious defeat of a year before. My adventurous daughter, Jenny, turned out to be just as mule-headed as us and joined our stubborn quest. The first challenge would be to ascend the falls of "Pirandira". Just a short distance upriver from camp, the falls cascaded down three rocky inclines, dropping the river's bed over 30 feet in a distance of less than 50 yards … steep, impressive and fast. A year ago, this would have stopped us cold, but our new boats were designed to handle these conditions with relative ease. Long, recurved, aluminum V-hulls gave us plenty of reach to assure that the nose stayed above water. The curvature of our hulls allowed us to ascend readily over steep inclines and our light, 15 HP short shaft motors grabbed water in the shallowest crevices. We were ready.
Donning our life jackets, we worked out a plan. Jenny would ascend on foot over the rocky but manageable bank to observe our progress. Nicky and I would sit far back in the boat to assure that the nose stayed high. We'd start in the middle branch of the falls and cut to the right about halfway up, where the first branch offered more water and a smoother ascent. When Jenny saw us reach quiet water, she'd begin her climb as we watched and we'd all meet at the top. Like clockwork, it couldn't have worked more smoothly. Five minutes later, running upstream, the GPS said we'd cut the distance to nine miles and we were pointing the right way. It was only 6:45 AM! This called for a celebration.
My idea of a celebration is to get a line in the water and fish. My partners concurred and we beached the boat on a rocky island offering access to all sides of a short stretch of rapids. I grabbed my fly-rod and headed for the uppermost point. Catching payara on the fly in fast water demands an outfit that gets the fly down to the fish in the face of a strong current. I chose a 10-weight Loomis GLX with a 400 grain sinking line. The heavy weight of the line determined the need for the fast, powerful rod. I placed several casts into a fast tailrace, looking to mend my way into a seam that would allow the line to sink and come taut in the current. On my third cast, I managed to get the line deep at the edge of the current and feel it stretch out against my hand. Stripping a few long, probing strokes, I felt for the fly's resistance to the water. Suddenly it felt right and I began stripping fast and long. With an arm-wrenching jerk, a payara turned on my big red, yellow and black streamer. I strip-set the hook with all the force I could muster to set it in that hard, bony mouth, lifted the rod tip and whooped out loud. The fight was on and the line was whipping through my fingers. Suddenly the payara headed for the surface and Jenny and Nicky started to yell in harmony to my whoops as the wild silver predator put on an aerial display in an effort to shake the offending fly loose. While the heavy current took its toll on me, the GLX began its work on the payara. Within five minutes, a tired 11-pound payara met its equally tired but very excited captor. Could it get better than this?
It did, and quickly. After a few moments of holding my game adversary in the fast current, I felt his strength return. With a flick of his powerful tail he released my grip and swam away. Still basking in the glow of that moment I heard a whoop erupt from Nicky. I turned to see him pump his rod in a hard hookset and then brace for the onslaught of a pissed-off payara's first run.
Nicky's relatively light Calcutta 250 reel groaned as his payara completely crossed the tail-race of the rapids. Then he changed his tactics and began leaping in the slack water almost completely across the river. It was a good thing too, because the golden glint of the Calcutta's spool was clearly visible below the last few turns of line on the reel. Nicky coaxed his unwilling friend back to our side of the river and landed a beautiful 14 pound payara. This one deserved some photos, so we assumed the positions and began clicking away. Suddenly, Jenny yelled and we both turned to see an even bigger payara take to the air.
This thing was a pig. Its slab-like body slapped the water as it landed after a second prodigous leap. Sounding, it quickly began a deep, fast run. Jenny, wasn't about to be outdone by any fish or any other fisherman. She put her shoulders into the battle. With a smug grin, she suggested that we might want to bring the camera over to where she was. She was right. Minutes later she hefted a beefy 19 and ½ pound fanged monster while Nicky and I dutifully clicked away. Round one and bragging rights went to Jenny.
Three strikes and three payara landed is a really unusual thing. Sure enough, the law of averages quickly took over and brought us back to reality. Payara's hard, bony mouths and outrageously huge fangs make it extremely difficult to set a hook or keep it in. More often than not, anglers are amazed to find that these fish simply open their mouths after a hard, fast run and just plain let the lure go. It was never hooked in the first place; it just didn't want to give up its prey! Once airborne, payara readily toss lures back at their astounded owners with a gill-rattling head-shake. We jumped off six more fish between us, before I managed to get another solid hookset on an eight pounder on the fly. Ten strikes, four fish and it was only 7:15! The action quieted down quickly after that and we continued to head upriver.
We ran steadily westward, watching the miles melt away between our marked goal and our current position on the GPS. Then, with only 5 miles separating us, everything changed. The river ahead seemed to be disappear into the surrounding jungle! The wide, single channel we had been running suddenly broke into a maze of small creeklets, heading off into half a dozen different directions. Unfortunately, the GPS said they were all pointing the wrong way. What to do next? We went to what seemed to be the widest, deepest option and we gave it a shot.
Two hours later we had been turned back at every try. Although we could make some headway in each of the braids, eventually we ran into what seemed to be a dead end . Water that got too shallow, channels that got too narrow, or rockpiles that just wouldn't let us through. So much for our quick start. With the sun climbing steadily overhead, we decided to try to maneuver our boat over a small waterfall, more like a water-soaked pile of boulders, blocking the most promising of the braids.
We might just as well have just called it Niagara Falls. Small as it was, the extraordinary power of falling water concentrated in a narrow chute wouldn't let us ascend on outboard power alone. Something else had to be done. We emptied the boat. Out came the gasoline, the cooler, the fishing tackle. On went the life jackets and the rubber soled water shoes. With Nicky working the outboard, Jenny hauling on the rope from the rocks above and me shoving on the gunwale, waist deep in the shallow fringe of the falls, we pushed, pulled, poked and cajoled that hollow aluminum sausage over the top. Breathlessly, we plopped down on the moss-cushioned, densely covered rocks to rest. Relaxing, with the work of the moment done, we realized just how beautiful a place we were in. Crystalline water was cascading over a field of gray and red boulders, generating sprays of white foam in an ever-changing pattern of flow. Brilliant green ferns and yellow palms at water's edge were gently gyrating with the force of the current pulsing at their bases. The sound and the rhythm and the colors combined to create a natural masterpiece, a piece of Nature's performance art. Of course it was a lot easier to wax rhapsodic about it looking down from above. We were moving on.
The braid wound through the jungle, narrowing and opening and narrowing again but never gaining ground on the GPS' screen. Every so often, as we ascended, we noticed that small streams of water were splitting off to descend on their own. It took a moment to realize it, but these were the channels that we had tried to enter from below. Our braid was getting wider as we rejoined the blended flow. Finally our narrow channel opened into a wide, almost still, tree-lined, lagoon-like section of river. And it was pointing straight toward our goal.
It was clearly time for another fishing celebration, but we were tired and hungry and lunch was going to come first. Relaxing in the shade and munching sandwiches, we pondered our strategy for fishing this very different piece of water. Later, my fellow travelers told me it might have been the coolness of our spot, or maybe the steady, rhythmic birdsong, but it wasn't until a screeching macaw startled me out of my reverie that I realized I had been taking a snooze. I preferred to think of it as a power nap, preparing me for the upcoming rigors of the expected fishing combat to come.
We motored upstream to the head of the lagoon and began a slow drift back down, casting as we went. This looked almost like peacock bass water, even though we all knew it wasn't. With a high-pitched shriek, Jenny's reel announced the strike and run of a big fish. Seconds later, a glistening, silver payara cleared the surface, shaking his head and tailwalking across the still waters. What a place for payara! The lagoon wasn't deep so the payara sought asylum in the jungle at water's edge. While Nicky back-paddled the boat toward the middle of the lagoon, Jenny swept her rod tip downstream, coaxing the payara away from the trees. Back and forth they went until the tired fish was almost at boatside. We all knew what was coming next. He bolted. Maybe it was the sight of our three fierce fishermen's faces or perhaps the huge hulking aluminum predator in which we sat. In any case, he bolted. This time he headed out to the middle, maybe seeking deep water or some other way out of his unexplainable predicament. But there was no escape to be had in that direction and Jenny was able to make short work of him now. I slipped the Bogagrip between his wicked looking fangs and hoisted Jenny's 12 pound trophy.
We had drifted almost halfway down the quiet lagoon by the time we released Jenny's payara. There was no way we were relaxing now, so we quickly put our lures back to work. Casting a small, floating Rapala on a light spinning rig toward a fallen tree (I still had peacocks on my mind) I was instantly pounded by a shoulder-wrenching strike. Cutting a heavy Vee through the water, a broad shouldered shape headed upstream with my bait as though it wasn't attached to anything at all. Like a runaway locomotive, it ran, and it ran and my line was disappearing fast. It was halfway to the head of the lagoon and my little Shimano 2000 reel was getting skinny. Whatever this thing was, I couldn't believe I was going to let it spool me going upstream! Nicky started the outboard and I started cranking the reel for all I was worth. Saved! Slowly, I began to regain line. Meanwhile, the submarine I was attached to turned hard left and headed for the opposite bank. It wasn't fighting like a payara. It wasn't fighting like a peacock, and it wasn't jumping. It just seemed to put its head down and run. And here came yet another big run, but this time, I could feel the creature's power starting to ebb.
The fight was deteriorating into a slugfest. Like a pair of overweight heavyweights past their prime, we were trading punches. He peeled off line, I pumped it back in. Back and forth we went until slowly he came to the boat, exhausted. It was big, brown and round and it wallowed like a small whale at the side of the boat. It was a huge pacu! Those big, blunt jaws just weren't accommodating my Bogagrip. Nicky reached down with both arms and hoisted the broad fish aboard.
To be more exact, it was a pirapitinga. A member of the family Serrasalmidae, this fish is considered by international anglers, for sport fishing record keeping purposes, to be a big pacu. When we finally manipulated the Bogagrip into his disturbingly human-like jaws, he weighed in at 18 pounds. I had no idea he would be here. Talk about fishing lagniappe, this was a bonus, I hadn't expected. I held him, facing into the current as he slowly regained his strength. With a flick of his broad tail, he swam away.
With a blunt snout and an expression reminiscent of a bulldog, a body like a broad-beamed tuna, and a decidedly bad attitude when hooked, the pirapitinga was a surprise star on the Urariquera. Growing upwards of thirty pounds, these brawny fish are the second largest of the Family. Cousins of the smaller, rounder fish most commonly grouped into the common name pacu, pirapitinga are more closely related and more similar in appearance to the Amazon giant, tambaqui. During high water conditions, their preferred diet consists of flowers, fruits and seeds, but during the dry season, when vegetarian meals are scarce, they take on a decidedly omnivorous bent, fiercely attacking fish-imitating baits.
Anglers pursuing payara with some of the shallower running plugs, as in our case, are subject to being ambushed by big, tough pirapitinga. They can also be successfully caught with a simple offering of melon on a hook. Their powerful jaws, fully equipped with crushing molars and tearing incisors can totally destroy hooks and lures with a single encounter. Repeatedly, they surprised anglers with their aggressiveness, even in fast, open water. Their powerful, sustained runs, their seemingly endless stamina and their sheer size, make them a prize catch indeed.
By the time my pirapitinga swam off, it was already 2 PM. We were still nearly 5 miles from our goal, so we headed off again. The big lagoon led into another, and yet another. We were moving closer and making good time again. With a flourish, the river led us into a deep fast channel, with fast water at its head. We ascended and began winding through a rocky region and then, just like that, we were back in the main body of the Urariquera. The GPS showed our nose pointing straight at last year's camp, with just a mile to go.
It was easy from there. We knew we had made it when we saw 'o garfo', a giant, lightning-struck tree that loomed over the river. It had served as our guide to the river's edge when we hiked in through the surrounding jungle a year earlier. Visible from a great distance, it looked just like a huge, black fork standing on end. We passed last year's campsite and then pulled ashore on the sandy beach of an island at the foot of the waterfall that had defined the limits of our progress a year ago. We had done it. We had traveled North and South, back and forth, and somehow snuck up on our westward goal. It seemed as though another fishing celebration was in order, but the clock wasn't letting that happen. Sundown was only 3 and a half hours away. We had taken the better part of the day to reach our goal, and with the thought of descending our little Niagara Falls, the boulder-strewn creeklet on the way back, we decided that we would be better off getting started. So after a few casts from the beach (just for the heck of it), we turned back.
As we began our return journey, I decided to perform some navigational housekeeping duties. On our way to Ilha de Naufragio (Shipwreck Island), I had traced our path on my GPS and now I was trying to relate it to a tattered photocopy of a satellite photo we had earlier begged from an IBAMA official. I wasn't having any success making sense of it. The serpentine path we had followed just wasn't matching any of the myriad winding squiggles on the map. In fact, I couldn't even tell where we were in the overall view because the map had no coordinates. Well, we had a trail, we'd made a start. The rest would undoubtedly become clear eventually.
As we made our way back through the rocky stretch of fast water just a short way downriver, we were greeted by a fisherman's favorite sight ... Fish were jumping. In fact, it seemed that they were in the middle of some sort of crazy acrobatic frenzy. Big payara were leaping straight into the air all around us, cartwheeling and reentering the water with knifelike precision. Were they feeding? Courting? Just enjoying the afternoon? We had no idea, but three sets of lures were flying before the boat had fully slowed. I guess the thought of sleeping on the beach or running through the rapids in the dark because our travel time had run out wasn't going to stop us three lunatics from taking advantage of a potential fishing opportunity. And it turned out to be a golden one, too.
They were feeding, alright. Wildly. All three of us hooked up immediately. Within minutes we were going as wild as the payara, shouting, laughing, cursing as we lost fish, whooping as we hooked up again and then scrambling around the boat, passing rods over and under and finally hurrying to release the ones we caught. It lasted about 30 minutes. As suddenly as it began, it was over. We had released eleven fish and probably lost twice as many as that.
Payara are fantastic creatures. People's initial reaction when seeing these strange predators for the first time is usually dominated by their amazement at the fish's extreme dentition. Gaping, spike-toothed jaws culminate in a pair of huge, dagger-like fangs that settle into inset holes in the upper jaw. The big, fierce looking head is attached to a powerful, heavily muscled body, reminiscent of a bonito in top fighting trim. Payara are highly efficient hunting machines. Their huge pectoral fins and gigantic broad tails can drive them rapidly forward and upward through the wildest current, while the nightmarish, fang-tipped jaws clamp shut on hapless baitfish. Preferring large prey, typically 15 to 50% of their own body lengths, payara use the great fangs to block their victim's escape while their razor-sharp rear teeth penetrate the baitfish's body in preparation for turning and swallowing it. This altogether stupendous array of hunting tools gives payara the fighting attributes that make them one of the most admired gamefish anywhere.
They have a real bad attitude, too. Like a mischievous little boy that just can't seem to stay out of trouble, payara seem to be unable to pass up the opportunity to absolutely crush a bait. They don't bite, they don't strike, they simply utterly demolish plugs and flies with reckless abandon. If they are present and they can see the bait, they will attack. If you can see them, you can usually catch them. Unlike many popular gamefish, payara never seem to take a standoffish attitude. Put a bait in front of a payara, the payara will take the challenge. I've dangled juicy fat minnows in front of uncaring bass and I've watched trout turn their backs on my finest offerings. I've been ignored by some of the most famous gamefish in the world, but payara never make me feel rejected.
The crushing initial impact of a payara's attack is often followed by a momentary lull. Perhaps, they try to turn the bait, perhaps they're mouthing it. With the line tight, this is the moment to set the hook, and hard. Their bony, toothy jaws have an uncanny ability to deflect fishhooks. The unexpected impact of a hookset changes their equation. Suddenly, the payara mindset goes from hunting to escaping. Now the powerful musculature turns against the pressure of the rod and the payara runs. A big fish can peel off 50 yards of line in what feels like an eyeblink. Still hooked, he'll take to the air. One, two, sometimes three headshaking leaps, they are spectacular aerialists. Never quitting, they probe the current in search of their opponent's weakness. Give them slack, they're gone. Let them get into a fast current, they'll turn their broad bodies into the flow and head for the distant ocean.
Luckily we land some. These are valiant fish. They fight hard and deserve respect. Even when exhausted, they must be very carefully unhooked, avoiding damage to fish and fisherman alike. The fish has given you everything he had and now it's your turn to give something back. Submerge him with one hand around the narrow caudal peduncle just ahead of the tail and the other supporting the belly just aft of the pectoral fins. Holding him facing into the current, you can slowly revive him, letting the water wash over his gills. You can feel the strength return to the tired body and sense the great fighter's power returning. As the muscles recover and the fish tenses, a single, languid flick of the tail will return him safely to the freedom of the river.
With the same inability to avoid trouble as the payara seems to have avoiding bait, we had just consumed another half hour. Less than two hours remained until sundown. We started downriver once again. At the region of the wide lagoons we followed our GPS trace back to the branch we had originally ascended. Nicky hesitated. He circled the area, assessing the other options. "What are you thinking", I asked.
"I think we can make better time descending on the widest branch", he replied.
"But we already tried every single one of them and none of them offered any kind of passage even remotely as manageable as Niagara Falls", I countered.
"Yeah, and it's late. I'm not really looking forward to the idea of spending the night on the bank", chimed in Jenny.
Nicky ruminated a moment longer, circled the end of the lagoon again, and said, "Let me give it a try for awhile. I think it might work. Even if we follow our GPS path directly back, by the time we unload the boat and drag it down Niagara Falls, it will be too dark to run the big rapids back to camp. If we're going to end up camping somewhere, it might as well be the beautiful beach near where the payara were jumping."
This was patently unfair. He was clearly trying to get his way by promising us good fishing in the morning. Well, it worked, of course. It was also good logic, but that was beside the point. The fishing temptation would have been enough on its own.
We turned, passed our original trail and veered off into a big, wide branch. Within minutes it had turned directly north. We were supposed to be heading east. We all looked at each other and shrugged. We might be going the wrong way, but we were sure making good time doing it in this deep, broad braid.
We ran inexorably northward. It was 5:30, just about an hour until sunset. The braid continued on, almost featureless, but deep and fast. We started to swing to the northeast. Slowly, the braid curved over a stretch of kilometers until the westerly sun and the GPS told us we were heading back south. It looked as though we were going to intersect our trail, well past the troublesome, rocky falls. Then the braid swung east paralleling our earlier route. We noticed it beginning to dissipate into small streamlets in every direction. It was changing, diminishing. Then suddenly, without much further preamble, it came to an effective navigational end, washing over boulders and then dribbling down a sheer rock wall.
We had seen this place in the morning. It was one of the first braids we had tried on our way upriver. We had judged it to be impassable then and it hadn't changed in the least now. We turned around and slowly started to motor back upriver. Not as crestfallen as I thought he might be, Nicky was still scouring the southern bank, looking for something, any way out. I looked at my GPS. We were less than a kilometer from our earlier path. Then suddenly, we found it; a flow of water heading off at right angles to the braid, not more than two meters wide and running straight into the jungle. If this didn't work, it was a night in the woods. Well, we knew how to catch fish and start a fire. Besides, it was pointing where we wanted to go. We plunged ahead.
Twisting through the trees, the flow held deep and strong. It plopped us out, quite matter of factly, right into our morning's path, well below the difficult, small water. It was as easy as that! We were 20 minutes from camp with half an hour of daylight left. What had started out looking like an impossible quest had turned into an extraordinarily remarkable day. We had found what amounted to our own version of the "Northwest Passage". We caught fish galore, we learned more than we expected and we were still going to arrive back at camp in plenty of time for dinner. Could it be? Would Charlie Brown finally get his shoelaces on that big fat football? It looked a lot like it.
There was still much more to learn. This was a three week expedition and Nicky and I were committed to navigating the entire Furo De Maraca. We wanted to ultimately reach the head of the huge island, where the Urariquera splits to form the two main branches that constitute this gigantic fishery. Now that we had developed a working technique for navigation, it had become an attainable goal At the beginning of our last week, we packed pup tents, extra gasoline and enough basics to support ourselves for four days and we headed back upriver. We made short work of the job. In only 3 days, twenty hours of running time, we reached our goal. Aided by a little bit of luck and outdoors intuition, we had used our newfound navigational ability to read this water perfectly. We avoided every large waterfall, we bypassed shallows and narrows and we skirted obstructions to create a route that made the passage safe and manageable. Coupled with what we had learned from our first foray upriver, we were able to overlay our traced route with the satellite information. Finally, we understood this complex and somewhat mysterious river system.
The sights we saw were fantastic. Otters basking on rocks followed our progress with a wary eye. Tapir, wading at the river's edge turned their heads to watch us move safely out of their sight. Monkeys scolded us from above, but not a single creature ran away panic-stricken. The wildlife in this wonderfully protected region has not been hunted and has not learned to unequivocally fear man. They were wary and attentive, but probably equally curious. We picked our way, motoring slowly through a shallow boulder strewn region where a giant catfish, easily half the length of our boat, swam escort off our bow for a quarter of a mile. Circling the boat for a final assessment, he then slowly headed back to his underwater domain.
We camped on waterside beaches. We feasted on delicious, dinner plate-sized pacu. We were lulled to sleep by the river's steady susurrations and we were rudely awakened by the raucous screams of gaudily colored macaws and parrots. We cruised and drifted and drank in the beauty and tranquility of this rare place. And we fished. Boy, did we fish. We caught payara, we caught pirapitinga, we caught piranha. We crossed lines while Nicky's three-foot long bicuda leaped wildly past my already airborne, silver matrincha. And we met the old man of the river, the, venerable Jau catfish.
Sitting at our campfire at waters edge on our second night out, Nicky baited a big 14/0 circle hook with the discarded head of a piranha that had recently been the main dish for our dinner. Attached to a heavy, 120 pound test monofilament handline, he spun it overhead and launched it 30 yards out into the river. Weighted with a 4 ounce egg sinker and protected by a stiff wire leader, the big rig sunk rapidly in the deep pool just offshore. Nicky tied the end to our beached boat, hooked a coil of the line over his big toe and went back to basking by the fire. I suspect he dozed off, but I couldn't tell, because I was pretty deep in reverie myself. It couldn't have been very much later, however, when Nicky jumped up, spraying sand in every direction. "What's wrong", I grumbled. Then I saw the coiled line tracing an arc across the beach and slithering into the water. Without replying, Nicky dove onto the line, grabbing it with both hands. He couldn't hold on. Whipping through his fists, I almost expected to see smoke rising from his palms. Somehow, simultaneously, we both knew what to do next. We scrambled to the boat and pushed off. Before I could get the motor running, the line drew tight and spun our nose toward the middle of the river.
The boats heavy but yielding resistance probably let the circle hook do its magical work. Almost faultlessly, these clever devices find their way into the corner of a fish's mouth. With no fanfare, without requiring mighty hooksets or lightning fast reactions, they use the pressure applied by the fish itself to penetrate and firmly embed themselves, presenting the angler with an elegantly performed fait accompli. Nicky grabbed the line and began applying pressure, hand to hand. I didn't bother to start the motor. We were already in the middle of the pool.
They wrestled back and forth. Every few minutes the fish got annoyed with Nicky's manipulations, forcing him to drop the line and lose the hard-fought yards he had gained. The boat spun left and right, buffering the fish's runs and Nicky's grunting hauls. After half an hour, no one was winning. Nicky had settled into a slow tug of war with the fish, but had yet to raise him from the bottom. I decided to get involved. I started the boat and ever so slowly brought us back to shore. The combatants came along, still wrestling.
Once Nicky got his feet back on solid ground, he was able to apply his strength. The cat still held the bottom, but the sloping beach must have given him a false sense of security. Nicky was gaining ground. Ten grunting minutes later the giant came into view, eerily illuminated by our guttering fire. It was simply huge. Fully five feet long with a blunt head the size of a suitcase, the exhausted Jau finned at the waters edge. Nicky plopped down beside him. The fight was over. In the middle of nowhere, the night took over again and everything settled into silence. I went to get my camera and Nicky's big, brass Brazilian fish scale.
He weighed 42 kilos, over 90 pounds. The IGFA rod and reel record was only 55 pounds! Although ineligible because he was caught by hand, this monster was almost twice the record size. He was tired and defeated, but uninjured. The circle hook had ensured that he wasn't damaged by sharp steel and it slid out easily. We didn't want him to become piranha food. We gently eased him into an enclosed, protected pool below our camp to regain his strength. It was time to go to sleep. The pictures could wait until morning when we could safely return him to the depths.
Jau (Zungaro zungaro) are among Brazil’s biggest catfish. This giant of the deep water has been said by natives to attain weights in excess of 250 pounds. The jau's home turf can be considered to be the catfish capitol of the world. No river system, anywhere in the world, is as rich in fish fauna as the Amazon basin. It is estimated that over 3000 different species of fish occur in the Amazon. The order Siluriformes, or catfish, is the second most diverse and probably the most spectacular group of Amazon species. With 14 families, including about 1300 species, Amazon catfish account for almost half of all the catfish species in the world. Ranging in size from the tiny, 2 cm candiru to the gigantic, 3 meter long Brachyplatystoma, or 'piraiba', these fishes occupy tremendously diverse ecological niches. Some are bottom dwellers, some nocturnal. Some are parasites and some are roving predators. Some are completely scaleless while others are heavily covered with bony armor plates.
The dense, inaccessible Amazon jungles have kept many species from the prying eyes and curious observation of man. This has left the biological and ecological aspects of many Siluriformes poorly understood and has kept the biggest of them all far from the baited hooks of the worldwide angling community. Many species are yet to be discovered and many records will undoubtedly be set here.
Before our three weeks had passed, the Urariquera had yielded many of its secrets and a few shiny new world records as well. Two more groups of clients had joined us to fish and explore. One of our client anglers had eclipsed Nicky's catfishing feat, but with rod and reel, shattering the world record for Jau. Another of our clients had broken world records for jundira and pirarara as well. Fishing with a handline and a piece of melon, our camp cook landed an incredible 24 pound pirapitinga, 3 pounds bigger than the current rod and reel world record. This is truly the land of giants. And the variety appears to be gigantic as well. Loaded with exotic species, Brazil’s Guyana Shield region offers some of the world's best gamefishing. Payara, among the greatest of all freshwater gamefish, offer anglers one of the best mixes of fighting attributes of any fish ever pursued. Gut wrenching strikes, blazing, line stripping, reel smoking runs and acrobatic, head-shaking leaps characterize the payara's fighting technique. The region holds plenty of payara into the 20 pound class, with even bigger fish lurking in deep pools and tailwaters of this region’s fastwater rivers.
The relatively unknown battler, Pirapitinga, provides extraordinary thrills beyond the expectations of anglers meeting them for the first time. Vicious strikes are followed by prolonged, powerful runs. Reaching well into the 30 pound class, these robust giants provide an extended hand-to-hand battle. Without any doubt, the world record pirapitinga is waiting in the waters of the Guyana Shield.
The new world record Jau is only the beginning of the region's catfish resources. There are probably Jau lurking in the depths here that can double that size. Landing them on rod and reel, however, will be where the challenge lies.
The variety doesn't end here. More species await to reward the angler willing to experiment. There are Bicuda, (Boulengerella cuvieri), a large, pike-like characin that takes to the air in a series of wild leaps as soon as the hook is set. Reaching up to 3 feet in length, these toothy critters provide a breath-taking aerial performance. Matrincha fight like trout on drugs. Powerful runs punctuated by flying leaps characterize their fighting style. They reach up to 10 pounds and are among the Amazon's most sought after food fish. The Amazon's largest catfish, piraiba roams these waters as well. These odd monsters have been known to reach sizes well into the 300 pound class. Specimens in the 200 pound class are common in the region.
There's still more. Big specimens of black piranha are the clean-up workers of this fishery. Anglers can readily tangle with specimens into the 6 pound class. The jundira is a smaller catfish, typically under 10 pounds. The world record was set here. Another Amazon giant, the red-tailed catfish can reach sizes of over 100 pounds. The 30 pound line class record was caught here. We've also encountered a smaller species of peacock bass (Cichla ocellaris — the Florida transplant) here, reaching up to 10 pounds. Pescada, a freshwater drum reaching 10 pounds, lurk in quiet backwaters and off sandy beaches. We haven't even seen them all yet. Who knows what else is roaming the remote, untouched waters of the Guyana Shield … Certainly many more world record opportunities and exciting adventures await in this unspoiled land of giants.
If only Charlie Brown had been with us. Unlike Lucy, the Urariquera made a perfect holder for that elusive football. We connected resoundingly and sent it spiraling through the goalposts for a picture perfect score. It doesn't even happen this neatly in the comics.
An inbred reverence for the priceless natural resource surrounding us guides Acute Angling's commitment to catch and release fishing and environmental preservation..And providing anglers with the fishing experience of a lifetime is the goal underlying all of our efforts.