Mountain climbers have Mount Everest. Fly anglers now have the arapaima. These fish are often called “swimming dinosaurs” because they are the world’s largest freshwater species with scales. Native to jungle rivers in South America, they’ve been over-harvested to the point that wild populations are extremely rare. Yet near the village of Rewa in the interior of Guyana, amidst the largest intact rainforest in the world, they are protected, so the population is robust enough to offer anglers opportunities to match wits, and muscle, with this ultimate freshwater beast.
The Guyanese government gave special permission, and the local Amerindian (Makushi) tribe partnered with Costa del Mar to organize expeditions to see if arapaimas could be caught with flies. They hope that establishing a viable, regulated sport fishing operation can offer economic opportunity to the natives, and reinforce an incentive to protect these fish and rivers for generations.
It took a lead team of expert anglers — Oliver White, owner of Abaco Lodge in the Bahamas; Matt Breuer, manager of Ryabaga Camp for the Ponoi River Company in Russia; and tournament pro Nathan Webber — 10 days of trial and error (and numerous broken fly rods and lines) to get it done. Hooking an arapaima was tough, but landing one proved to be an even greater challenge. The trio hooked 17 fish before landing their first. Photo courtesy of Costa Del Mar
So there were no guarantees when it was my turn to take part in a return expedition with Oliver White, Al Perkinson of Costa, guide Alvin Rovin from Rewa village, and others. And getting there is a story in and of itself, as our charter flight into the bush had to make an emergency landing at a mining town because one of our plane’s engines was suspect. We had to land, wait, and switch aircraft.
After we reached our destination, we spent a night in comfort at the Rewa Eco-Lodge, then boarded boats and rode several hours upstream to a campsite the local guides set up on the banks of the Rewa River. Nodding off to the sounds of howler monkeys and screaming pihas (birds) while slung in a hammock under a tarp in the jungle wasn’t easy for me. I couldn’t help but feel like a giant ham hanging in cheesecloth out there in the heart of jaguar country.
We didn’t see any jaguars. I was fine with that. But we saw plenty of signs that they were around, including paw prints, the skeleton of a black caiman, a reptile similar to an alligator, that had been killed on a beach, and the remains of a giant river turtle that had been dragged from the water into the bush. The thing about the jungle in Guyana is that it has the “biggest” of everything, and lots of creatures (small ones also) that want to eat you. The largest snakes (anacondas), largest river otters, and largest rodents in the world (capybara… shown here) are all found on the Rewa.
We focused our fishing efforts in jungle ponds that are formed when the rivers flood; the water levels can rise 40 feet or more during the rainy seasons. We hiked into these ponds on jungle trails, or in some cases paddled up small vine-draped creeks to find them. The arapaimas follow the floods into the jungle, and then remain behind in the ponds after the waters drop. Look closely at this photo, and you can see the water line on the trees that indicates how substantial those floods can be.
Arapaimas are air gulpers, so the fly fishing drill is fairly straightforward. Though the ponds are often muddy and it’s hard, though not impossible, to spot fish under the surface, the arapaimas reveal themselves by breaching and gulping, which sometimes makes an odd cracking sound, like a gunshot over the stillness of the pond. Figuring out head from tail is half the battle. You drop a cast right near what you surmise is the fish’s head, let it sink, and then make long, slow strips of the line to tease the bite.
Catching arapaima requires the ability to make a long cast with a 12-weight rod. Sixty feet is usually the price of admission, because arapaimas have sensitive lateral lines and are extremely wary of vibrations and noises. When they feel your presence, they stop gently gulping and start smacking their tails and splashing on the surface. Native guides call fish that do this “wild fish,” and they’re no longer catchable players.
Oliver and the others figured out that the most effective fly patterns resembled peacock bass, which are abundant in all sizes in these ponds and rivers. It struck me that many anglers go to the South American jungle to fish for peacock bass, yet we were there to fish with peacock bass.
Oliver tied his own patterns with green, white, orange, and yellow materials and huge (8/0) hooks, which he said were necessary to penetrate the arapaima’s hard mouth. Sinking any hook into an arapaima’s mouth is akin to trying to drive a finish nail into a cinder block. We used 80-pound fluorocarbon leaders (about six feet long) straight from the fly line to the fly. The rest of the setup: Sage Xi3 12-weights, Hatch Outdoors 11-Plus disc drag reels, and Rio Tropical Clouser floating fly lines.
I’ll admit, as I was standing with wobbly legs on the front of a dugout canoe and an arapaima rolled in front of me, I made the cast and started stripping, not knowing if I was really ready or willing to have that fish eat the fly or not. The first time my line came tight, it was a false alarm. I lost the fly because a piranha had bitten through the leader.
Not long after, we saw an arapaima swimming near the vegetation along the shoreline, its presence given away only by a subtle wake on the surface and trace glimpses of pinkish-red scales from its tail end reflecting in the sunlight. I made several casts, but couldn’t get that fish to eat. After several minutes of tense silence, the fish simply vanished into the dark water without a trace.
My third shot proved to be the charm. As Rovin paddled through the middle of the pond, two arapaimas rolled on the surface at once. They were unusually close to the boat, and not having much time to process what was going on, I lobbed an ugly cast into the bulls-eye rings left by the closest fish. I made a couple strips, and wham, I got bit. It was a lucky shot, but I landed that fish. I’m not the first guy to catch an arapaima on a fly, but I might be the first angler to land the first arapaima he hooked.
Arapaimas jump like tarpon. But I’d describe the battle as more of a wrestling match than a drag race. Unlike tarpon that will scream across a flat and show you your backing in seconds, the arapaima will play offense, sometimes attacking the boat, whacking it with its tail, trying to pull you into the water. It’s a unique sensation, unlike anything I’ve ever felt through a fly rod, but you can sense the energy building as the arapaima’s muscles tense just prior to the next burst.
The end game is most dangerous. Just when you think the fish is played out, it will make another run or charge. Oliver showed me how thumping them on the nose with the butt of the rod will make them run again, and further tire them so they can be landed. Only when they’re ready, the boat paddles to shore, the anglers hop out, land the fish, and let it go.
Even though arapaimas don’t have sharp teeth, you still have to be careful about not getting your hand stuck in those jaws as you try to pull the fly out.
My arapaima was a juvenile. These fish can grow to over 700 pounds, and Oliver and the others have caught arapaima pushing 300 pounds. I was thrilled just to have an opportunity to land one. At any size, an arapaima is a very worthy adversary. And given how rare they are, and how technically difficult they are to catch on a fly, the arapaima is a “life fish” for any angler.
The plan going forward is to allow very limited and strictly catch-and-release fishing for arapaima by special permit. Only 16 fly fishing tags will be meted out per year — four each in the first and last weeks of November, and four each in the first and last weeks of March. The lodge is also considering weeks for anglers using conventional gear to fill in the gaps. It’s fair to say that fishing for arapaimas will be something like hunting for rare Marco Polo sheep or other exotic animals. Check out this link if you’re interested.
Of course, arapaimas only comprise part of the wild, virtually untapped fishing scene in Guyana. Anglers can also catch various catfish species (like this), as well as arowana, wolf fish, peacock bass, piara (the vampire, or dragon fish), and much more. But arapaimas are in their own league.
Our trip concluded with a return to Rewa village, where we took in the world premiere of “Jungle Fish,” a film directed by Louisiana Kreutz and produced by Al Perkinson and Costa, that features many of the guides and locals, and chronicles the quest to figure out arapaimas on the fly. It’s a wonderful documentary that captures the essence of this adventure, and underscores how sport fishing might indeed be the catalyst for preserving some of the last wild resources — including the ultimate freshwater fish — on the planet. You can check out a trailer below and purchase the movie via this link.
Field & Stream editor-at-large and FlyTalk blogger Kirk Deeter recently took part in an expedition sponsored by Costa del Mar sunglasses to fish in Guyana, where he became one of the first fly fishermen ever to land an elusive wild arapaima–the world’s largest scaled freshwater fish species.
Click here to learn more about arapaima fishing opportunities in Guyana and the film “Jungle Fish.”