One of the many appealing aspects of tarpon fishing is that tarpon come up for air, allowing anglers, in most cases, to view their quarry before casting to it. Just seeing a group of 100-pound 'poons rolling on the surface can be almost as exciting as that first strip-set. So imagine taking the largest tarpon you've ever seen, doubling or even tripling its size, then sticking it in freshwater.
Welcome to Guyana.
Despite English being its official language, most of us have never been to this small South American country. In fact, most of us don't even know where it is. ("Africa?" No. That's Ghana.) There are reasons for this, of course. Guyana has very little infrastructure, even less tourism, and consists primarily of uninhabitable jungle, with 90 percent of its population living on 10 percent of its land—that 10 percent being a mostly marshy strip of narrow coastline.
Photos by Oliver White
There are, however, two groups of people that do know about Guyana: serious birders, and extraction-industry executives looking for the next exploitable rainforest. And there's about to become a third: flyfishers.
Several groups of visiting anglers have recently journeyed to a tiny jungle village in central Guyana called Rewa, where the community has built a small ecolodge along the banks of the Rupununi River, and is hoping to attract flyfishers looking for a legitimate shot at arapaima, one of the largest freshwater fish on the planet.
Information on Guyana began trickling into the flyfishing community a couple years ago, when Al Perkinson, vice president of marketing for Costa sunglasses, heard from a birder who saw arapaima in some Rewa-area lagoons while filming a TV show. It didn't take long for Perkinson to parlay this information into a work-related research trip. He recruited saltwater lodge owner Oliver White to come along, and the two made several exploratory missions together, including one with a writer that produced a feature story in the June issue of Garden and Gun magazine, and another that resulted in a May 23 photo essay by Field and Stream's Kirk Deeter on that magazine's website.
Why all the hype? There seems to be three main reasons. First and foremost, unless your fishing plans include throwing goat-blood-soaked streamers at Mekong catfish, arapaima are likely the largest species any angler will ever cast to with a fly rod. And because they breathe air like tarpon, arapaima can be spotted near the surface, even sight-fished in some cases. Secondly, while it's certainly not a weekend trip, Guyanian arapaima are a lot easier to reach than Mongolian taimen, Nile perch, or many other exotics. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, helping the Guyanese people develop a jungle sportfishery might strengthen their efforts to protect their rainforest—and quite possibly save one of the last known populations of wild arapaima.
"The only asset these people have is their land, and they don't want to sell their logging or mineral rights," White says. "Many of them would like to stay in their home village and possibly become guides. That was the whole idea behind the ecolodge—bring in some tourism dollars and help create local jobs so the young people wouldn't have to leave."
Of the many reasons to go to Guyana, easy fishing isn't one of them. The first couple of trips produced only marginal results for arapaima, with the biggest barrier to success being the toughness of the fish's mouth. This difficulty in keeping them hooked continued in March, when White returned to Guyana with a couple of long-time fishing friends—Matt Bruer, a guide for the Ponoi River Company in Russia, and Nathan Webber, a bass fisherman from Lake Wylie, South Carolina.
While they caught plenty of peacock bass and arawana and piranha, it took the threesome nine days into their two-week trip with guide Rovin Alvin before the first arapaima was brought to shore with a fly rod. "We hooked like 18 or 20 fish before we finally landed one," Webber says. "Their mouths are so tough, so we started fishing straight 80-pound leaders. Then we started breaking rods—Oliver goes through them pretty quickly. But I think our biggest expense was fly lines."
Some of their lines were simply broken by massive arapaima, many of which were more than 200 pounds. But other times, it was piranha that would chew through them, usually at the color change.
Not only are arapaima enormous, intelligent, and aggressive, but they are also one of the oldest fish on the planet. In science terms, they're known as "living fossils," meaning their current appearance is very similar to ancient remains from a prehistoric era. Other examples include horseshoe crabs, sturgeon, aardvarks, and Federation of Fly Fishers.
Arapaima are protected in most regions by the government of Guyana because they've been wiped out by commercial overfishing in large parts of the Amazon. But the Guyanese government granted special permission for these flyfishing research trips. The tactic is to use the main rivers—the Essequibo, Rupununi, and Rewa—to navigate, and then to hike back to ponds left behind when rainy-season floodwaters retreat (river levels can fluctuate more than 30 feet during flood season).
Costa hired a talented filmmaker named Louisiana Kreutz to make a film about the fishery in Rewa, using the trip with White, Bruer, and Webber as the vehicle in which to tell it. The film, called Junglefish, was released in May and does a great job of explaining some of the potential benefits a flyfishing destination lodge could bring to the village. What is less clear, however, are some of the potential drawbacks.
"You're always a little concerned when you go into a remote village like this, that you're drastically altering their lives," says White. "What has taken the rest of the world 100 years, these people have done in a couple of months. They'd never even seen a microwave, or a computer, and now they're on Facebook."
Imperialist flyfishing concerns notwithstanding, it's hard to argue that offering a sustainable sportfishing industry in Guyana would not be a vast improvement over the alternative. Early support from Conservation International and USAID shows that flyfishers aren't the only ones with faith in the concept. The people of Rewa are hoping that sportfishing can provide future jobs and a long-term alternative to extraction industries in their rainforest. And flyfishers are hoping for a shot at one of the largest fish on earth.