12-weight rods, 12-foot crocs, and a 320-pound(ish) fish.
I woke to the sound of slaughter. Several times a night this happened. The noise was caused by a pair of prehistoric animals hunting beneath my bed at Brazil's Uakari Lodge, a floating eco-resort nestled along a protected stretch of the Amazon River, about 400 miles west of Manaus. Guests are advised to sleep with earplugs due to the nighttime feeding habits of the black caiman, an ill-tempered croc reaching lengths of 15 feet; and the arapaima, an armor-plated tank of a fish growing to 400 pounds. When either of these jungle thugs finds a meal on or near the surface, then a loud, violent attack happens. And it can happen five feet from your pillow.
These hourly assaults were the first of two disturbances that woke me during my stay. The second we'll call "grab-dream syndrome"— a familiar phenomenon to many steelheaders or striper fishermen, caused when a fish in your dream eats the fly so powerfully that you can actually feel the grab, and you instinctively react. I've had two-hander friends share stories of accidentally smacking a wife or bare-knuckling a nightstand while sleepsetting an imaginary chromer. I asked photographer John Sherman—a fanatical bass and steelhead guy, and my travel companion in Brazil—whether it's ever happened to him. "Oh, totally," he said. "I crushed my skull on our headboard one night after a huge striper grab. And I was sound asleep when it happened."
I've experienced waking-level grab dreams about a dozen times in my life, usually during mid-October trips to B.C., or mid-winter nights along the Oregon Coast. But steelhead have always been the culprit. In Brazil it was arapaima, a fish with the kind of next-level grab strength that leaves a lasting impression. In my dream, after casting a fly the size of a Bernese Mountain Dog into a muddy patch of the Amazon, I let it sink for an eight count, and was slow-stripping it back when the grab roused me from a solid REM-sleep cycle. All I remember after that is my missed hookset nearly taking me overboard—a feasible and frightening scenario considering what lives in the water. The crocodiles, piranha, and arapaima swimming in the 4,300-squaremile Mamirauá Sustainable Development Reserve represent three of the oldest, most intriguing, most mythical members of their respective animal-kingdom families. The crocs and piranhas we did our best to avoid. The arapaima we couldn't stop chasing.
FEW THINGS IN FLYFISHING are more filled with anticipatory promise than the first morning boat ride of a week-long trip. But ours at Uakari had a unique flavor—dirty water, the total absence of other boats or anglers, and caiman so thick at times that our driver had to weave between them to avoid hitting one. It was a quick 20-minute run from the dock to the series of lakes, channels, and lagoons making up the arapaima water at "Pirarucú"—the Portuguese name given to this new offering by Brazil-based travel company Untamed Angling (pirarucú = Portuguese for arapaima). Despite both John and me spending months studying what scant information existed regarding arapaima, when our guide, Rafael Costa, stopped the boat and asked me to step to the bow, I had little idea what to do with my 12-weight.
CAST NUMBER 341 INSIDE BRAZIL'S
MAMIRAUÁ RESERVE. BUT WITH GREAT LIGHT!
"So… let it sink?" I asked. "Long strips?"
"Sure," Rafael said, in a tone that conveyed an important opening message: "I'm still figuring this out myself. Try everything you think might work."
So we did. Floating lines and 500-grain sinkers, big flies and little, white ones and black, stripping fast, stripping slow—and re-rigging whenever a piranha chewed through another $100 sink-tip. Finding fish was the easy part. They were surfacing everywhere. Getting them to eat was another story.
We started the day in relatively shallow water, with floating lines and a couple black baitfish patterns like you might use for roosterfish or pike. This earned me a couple of good grabs during our first hour—action I would later come to realize was a relative hot streak. I hooked neither of them, which only reinforced the first bit of gifted wisdom that any would-be arapaima angler is likely to receive: these fish are hard to hook. Not only are they equipped with a mouth made of concrete, but if you do get lucky enough to stick one, they often swim straight toward the boat, making it nearly impossible to come tight. As Field and Stream editor-at-large Kirk Deeter put it when I asked for his arapaima impressions: "It's like trying to pull a finish nail into a cinder block with a piece of 60-pound fluorocarbon—from 50 feet away."
AN APPROVED SPOT FOR LANDING A 300+ POUND ARAPAIMA. 9-WEIGHT OPTIONAL. THE FISH MEASURED 248 CENTIMETERS—JUST OVER EIGHT FEET. RAFAEL COSTA ON LEFT; JOHN SHERMAN IN THE MIDDLE; BOAT DRIVER BRAULINO ON RIGHT.
About halfway through the morning, fishing relatively clear water, I spotted a yard-long arapaima about 10 feet from shore. I dropped my fly a foot in front of it, and the fish lunged and ate it. "That's the first time I've seen that," said Rafael, their secondyear guide, and also Pirarucú's operations manager.
Indeed, sight-fishing to arapaima isn't common, but it happens. I didn't land that fish either, but about an hour later, after learning to properly deploy Rafael's patented jiu-jitsu hookset maneuver (wide stance, with torso turned slightly to the side, getting the whole body involved), I finally got one to the boat. It was tiny for an arapaima, probably 10 or 12 pounds. But the hookset curse had lifted.
John got his first fish right after lunch, and we shared the same initial impression: super-strong fighters that pull hard, but they don't make the long runs of their tarpon counterparts. After celebrating our first two, both smallish, we discussed plans for targeting the behemoth, Nessie-looking rollers we'd been seeing. I wondered aloud if maybe the huge ones were smarter and we'd been spooking them.
"I doubt that," said Rafael. "They're not afraid."
"Of the boat?" I asked.
"Of anything," he answered.
AS RECENTLY AS FIVE YEARS AGO, few in the flyfishing world had ever heard of arapaima—not surprising, considering the fish's preferred habitat of unseen South American backwaters. But in March of 2011, Bahamas lodge owner, intrepid world-traveler, and flyfishing wunderkind Oliver White, while visiting the tiny village of Rewa in English-speaking Guyana, landed his first arapaima on a fly. This was not the first arapaima ever caught on a fly, but it was likely one of the first ever hooked on purpose. "There are a few caught every year at peacock-bass operations," White told me, "but nothing with a healthy enough population to target."
VIEW FROM CROC LAKE. OUR FISHING SPOTS AT TIMES LOOKED LIKE ONE OF THOSE NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC SHOWS ON NILE CROCS. MINUS THE HAPLESS WILDEBEESTS AND GAZELLES.
At the time, White was collaborating with then- Costa executive Al Perkinson, along with Montanabased flyfishing guide Matt Breuer, to explore the area around Rewa and try to help its residents earn a living through flyfishing rather than selling their lands to mining or logging interests—a model the three are now trying to export elsewhere via the Indifly Foundation. By the following spring, the trio had helped establish a flyfishing-only arapaima operation based out of the Rewa Eco-Lodge.
Though only a dozen or so anglers fished at Rewa that first year, two of them were writers: Donovan Webster, from Garden and Gun, and Deeter, from Field and Stream. Both stories appeared in their respective summer 2012 issues. The Drake also published a piece on Rewa that summer, and Monte Burke profiled White for the July issue of Forbes. Almost overnight, A-List globetrotting anglers began adding arapaima to their bucket list. Two years later, in May 2014, Animal Planet's River Monsters featured its star, Jeremy Wade, landing one on a fly rod at the Eco-Lodge. And Men's Journal made it official six months ago by profiling White and the Guyana operation in its June 2016 issue. Arapaima had entered the mainstream discussion.
Despite the media coverage, repeat customers make it likely that fewer than 100 people have ever landed one on a fly. Nevertheless, the Rewa Eco-Lodge was no longer alone. In 2014, Untamed Angling partners Rodrigo Salles and Marcelo Pérez began discussions with federal and state officials about partnering with local communities to create a flyfishing tourism project, similar in concept to other programs the company was already running in Bolivia and Brazil. Their timing was impeccable.
When Mamirauá was first established in 1996, it was due mostly to the work of conservationist and primatologist Márcio Ayres, whose chief goal was protecting a small indigenous monkey called the bald uakari. But Ayres' larger contribution was convincing the Brazilian government to create a new type of conservation unit, called a Sustainable Development Reserve, that would protect endangered plants and animals without removing locals or preventing them from living off their land. Mamirauá was the result, complete with regulations outlawing all arapaima fishing. Every year since, 20-25 people have been hired by the Brazilian government to spend three days counting arapaima in the reserve, and in the past ten years, the fish's population has increased more than 400 percent. As a result, the local Mamirauá communities had recently received permission to manage a small percentage of arapaima for commercial fishing.
RACING A STORM TO THE ARAPAIMA GROUNDS; BIG FLIES FOR BIG FISH; AND AN ARAPAIMA'S SCALES—SOMETIMES USED AS NAIL FILES BY LOCAL VILLAGERS
"We presented our proposal just before they were to start the commercial fishing season," says Salles. "At first they thought our proposal was ridiculous, asking ‘How can you fish for arapaimas with those thin rods?' They are used to epic battles while using harpoons, so they didn't believe in the idea, and wanted to move forward with commercial fishing. But after they saw us catch and release a large arapaima on a fly rod, they agreed to the exploratory season in 2015."
Salles and Pérez then teamed with Redding, California-based The Fly Shop in sending a few of its travel customers to Pirarucú for those fall 2015 "exploratory trips"—travel-company speak for: "We think this is viable, but we're not totally sure, so you're kind of rolling the dice." And the dice-rollers came home pleased. Pleased enough, anyway, for The Fly Shop owner Mike Michilak to start taking reservations for a full 2016 season, running from mid-September through November. John and I were the first two guests of the season.
BEING AN ARAPAIMA GUIDE is a tough assignment. Much success or failure depends on water levels and on the client's threshold for lengthy casting sessions. Though Brazilian, Rafael speaks excellent English. He is also a talented photographer and guide, and he and Breuer—now head guide at Rewa—undoubtedly know more about flyfishing for arapaima than any two people on earth.
Rafael was honest in his appraisal of the fish and what he felt we had to do to catch them. And he didn't hesitate to speak his mind on the importance of staying alert in the presence of so many caiman. "I've worked at our other operations, and this one scares me the most," Rafael told us. "Be sure to wear your headlamps down to the dining room at night, and just pay attention to where you're walking."
He wasn't trying to frighten us or be overly dramatic; he was just suggesting that we err on the side of caution. Besides, there was precedent at Mamirauá. On Dec. 31, 2009, a 25-year-old Brazilian biology student named Deise Nishimura was cleaning fish on her houseboat dock when a 7-foot caiman attacked, pulled her into the water, and twisted her right leg off. She was able to swim back to the dock and was taken by boat to a hospital in Tefe, more than two hours away. Doctors say the only reason Nishimura survived is because the croc's "death spiral"—a notorious attack-move commonly employed by crocs and gators—had knotted her skin, blocking the femoral artery.
Despite this knowledge, I still felt safe fishing from Pirarucú's sweet custom skiff. More often than not, the commotion of an arapaima at the end of a line would attract one or more caiman toward the boat. But never to the boat, so whether it was uncertainty about us, or a lack of interest in an arapaima po-boy, the crocs kept their distance.
Like tarpon, arapaima are air-breathers with a swim bladder that allows them to pull oxygen directly from the surface. Unlike tarpon, arapaima get additional breathing help from a "labyrinth organ," near the gills, which helps pump oxygen to the bloodstream. Together, these two evolutionary advances are responsible for the species surviving the past 10 million years in oxygen-depleted jungle lakes, feeding on weaker, less bad-ass fish. That's the good news. But tarpon may still have an edge in the evolutionarily endgame.
IF ARAPAIMA AREN'T COOPORATING, THROWING FOAM AT ARAWANA MAKES FOR A NICE CHANGE OF PACE. FUN FACT: BOTH ARAWANA AND ARAPAIMA ARE MOUTH-BROODERS, KEEPING THEIR YOUNG SAFELY INSIDE.
Of the nearly 400 species of air-breathing fish, most, like tarpon, are "facultative" air breathers, meaning they only go to the surface if they need to, like when juvenile tarpon enter a stagnant swamp, or when low-light reduces oxygen levels on a flat, forcing adults to gulp air—which is why searching for rolling tarpon is usually better early in the morning. Arapaima aren't so lucky, falling into the "obligate" category, meaning they must breathe air every 15 to 20 minutes, lest they suffocate. Being an air-breather may give arapaima an edge as predator, but those regularly-scheduled trips to the surface make them easy pickings as prey. Unless you're using a fly rod, apparently.
As a dutiful striper angler from his home in the East Bay area of Northern California, John spends a lot of time using fish-finders, paying more attention to depth than most other fly guys. He also changes gear like Peyton Manning used to change calls at the line, constantly swapping flies, moving between floating and sinking lines, dropping from a 12-weight down to a 9 or 10. This is how, on our second to last day, John found himself fighting a 330-pound arapaima on a 9-weight.
The vast majority of arapaima being caught here are 15-50 pounds. And even those can be awkward to land. So how to properly handle one of these triple-digit fish has been something of a controversial subject. Big ones can crush themselves under their own weight, so the real monsters used to be pulled partly onto shore. But many of the banks at Pirarucú are steep and muddy, making it difficult to fight and land a huge flopping fossil. Plus there's the un-P.C. nature of dragging such a special fish onto a bank in front of the social media universe. The preferred location now seems to be in just the right amount of water—deep enough to keep the fish safe from suffocation, but shallow enough to keep the angler safe from curious caiman. So that's where, after a valiant 20-minute fight, John landed our fish of the week. Which ended up as Pirarucú's fish of the season.
With John's arawhopper landed, we both felt content to dial it back on our last day and chase some arawana, a fish often confused with arapaima due to its similar vowel-heavy name and matching hindquarters—an ass-end terminating not in the traditional stoutness of a tailfin but in a gradually narrowing swath of flesh and scales eventually tapering down to something akin to a mudflap. (But be careful: those mudflaps move fast and hit hard.)
Arawana aren't ridiculously easy, either—you still need a decent cast, and it might take some trial-anderror to get down the timing of their sometimes cutthroat-slow eat. Mostly, they provide a pleasant sight-fishing break after days of blind-casting 500-grains. We didn't try for tambaqui or peacock bass, but arawana are the bluegills in largemouth water, or the day-saving bonefish when a giant trevally is what you're after. And if you've already been fortunate enough to average a couple arapaima a day, and finish your week with a Shaqsized specimen like John did, then the arawana are dessert, just a final surface-eating sweetener to an unforgettable week spent fishing as raw and wild of a setting as any left in the world today.