November 17, 2020
Brazil: All that bites is not bad for you By Pete Robbins
I’d been to the Amazon basin twice before, both times to the Rio Negro to chase peacock bass, so I had no excuses. I should have known that everything there, whether it appears menacing or innocent, will bite.
During my first trip, as our guide employed a machete for an hour to enter a backwater lagoon, I grabbed onto what appeared to be a benign plant, only to find out the hard way that the leaves were razor-sharp. The following year, I put my fingers too far into a peacock’s gill while posing for a photo and did more damage to my other hand. Our jigs received “haircuts” from omnipresent piranhas, and while I’m told that the candiru – which reportedly crawls up swimmers’ urethras, then deploys a spike that makes removal impossible – are exaggerated, my internal caution-meter ruled out swimming.
All of this is a long way of saying that my ankle, swelled to twice its normal size, and pockmarked with scabbed, puss-filled lumps, qualifies me as a candidate for the Darwin Awards.
After a three-hour ride from Manaus on a Cessna Caravan into the state of Mato Grosso, I’d been so excited to fish that I’d forgotten my common sense. Outfitter Billy Chapman had promised record class wolffish and saber-toothed payara (also known as “vampire fish”). As we neared the lodge he became animated. He’d explored Venezuela’s Orinoco River and its tributaries decades earlier, traveling via flat bottom boat, living in a tent, and while he’d expected this Brazilian location to look like the sandy and wooded environs of the Rio Negro region, the rocky shoals and numerous rapids were reminiscent of now-closed Venezuela.
He’d brought six gringos here, along with a Brazilian translator/naturalist, and we were going to show a bunch of bait-soaking Brazilians how to catch fish.
In my rush to get out on the water, I kept on the shorts and sandals I’d worn on the plane. First mistake. While I knew the equatorial sun would be brutal and therefore globbed on sunscreen, I hadn’t put on any insect repellent, even though I knew that everything down there bites.
I was further distracted when my third jerk with a Yo-Zuri jerkbait was interrupted by a bicuda – “freshwater barracuda” – that darted out from behind a rock to slash at it. Three jumps later I boated my first fish. Our guide “Batata” helped us add a few more bicuda and some diminutive peacocks, but the big wolves were absent. We insisted on throwing the lures that worked for big peacocks on the Rio Negro, including oversized prop baits, walk-the-dog topwaters, jerkbaits and beefy hair jigs, but either we were fishing them wrong or we were in the wrong places, because our target species weren’t playing nice.
Meanwhile, after 90 minutes I started to feel a burning sensation on my ankles. I’d been so focused on catching fish in the sweltering heat that a special brand of bloodthirsty no-see-ums had laid siege to me. I slathered on the too-late repellent to try to slow their progress but the damage had been done. By the time we made it back to the lodge, my ankles were nearly twice their normal size and covered with welts. I slept with socks on my hands to avoid scratching. The next day fellow traveler Leroy Boss, who’d spent his oilman’s career in third world countries, offered me some Prednisone. Out of desperation and trust I took the pills. Over a year later I still don’t know how much I took, and fortunately there were no side effects. The closest pharmacy was a boat ride and a plane ride away. In the Amazon, you can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
Getting Dialed In
Day Two, well-fed on a diet of local delicacies and few Brahma beers, we headed back out with hopes raised by the fact that other group members had caught teen-class wolf fish. For all of the hundreds of lures we’d packed, the most productive one had been something none of us owned – an Argentinian wood crankbait called a CuCu. Others had elicited strikes on a Brazilian topwater called a Zig Zara.
I tried not to focus on my ankles. That was helped early on when my Duo Fang Ops deep diver was intercepted by my first wolfie. The 12-pounder bulldogged down, then went skyward and took off again. It went from both trebles buried in its mouth to just a single tine stuck insecurely when it hit the Boga. I admired the bowfin-like body and armored scales, careful to keep my distance from the razor-sharp teeth. Having been made a fool of by invisible insects, I was taking all possible precautions against future bites.
After catching a couple more, and losing others on the strike, on the jump and for no explicable reason whatsoever, our guide decided to troll the CuCus across miles-long scalloped sand flats. Our crew consisted of casters, but the Brazilians preferred to soak bait or troll with the boat – and their method proved efficient. Every once in a while we’d get our shoulders pulled out of the socket by another violent strike. A 20-pound sparkplug of prehistoric toothiness can quickly convince you that you don’t know as much as you’d thought.
With the wolffish merit badge earned, we headed downriver to an Amerindian village and a set of waterfalls — eight people riding two hours in a flat-bottom boat, with a cooler of beer (and water) in the spot normally reserved for a spare propeller. If you’ve read “The River of Doubt,” about Theodore Roosevelt’s journey to Mato Grosso in 1913, then you can picture the same harsh terrain and same untamed riverine habitat that claimed many lives during the former President’s expedition. Indeed, we were very close to those graves.
At the village there was no electricity, just children who were alternatively eager to meet us and shy, and adults were working on their crops, generally, more or less indifferent to our presence. I’ve been fortunate enough to fish in remote regions on several continents, and post-2015 typically the guides and camp staffers have cell phones. I can keep in touch with them through WhatsApp or Facebook. As compared to 2011, when I first went to the Amazon, the world is rapidly shrinking, yet in this village I was standing among holdouts with minimal connection to the outside world.
We beached our boats atop the raging falls and walked around to get in different boats to resume travel. Native children grabbed our packs and shimmied down the rocks.
“Quantos anos você tem?” I asked one apparent 9-year-old. “How old are you?”
“Catorze,” he replied. “Fourteen.”
We fished for a few hours, caught some smallish few payara, and made the long haul back without damaging our propeller. Despite the lack of fishing success, I felt privileged to meet the locals, but also saddened to consider that in a few years nothing would be the same. In a place where all of the terrestrial and marine creatures resemble dinosaurs the people are on the cusp of major change.
Time moves slowly there, but it does move onward.
What big teeth you have
With only two days left, I wanted to add a trophy payara my tally. These vampires look so badass that I knew it would make for a treasured picture, even if the process of catching them didn’t live up to their fearsome appearance. Generally, in fishing, we have a prejudice for pretty fish that also fight well. It’s why peacock bass or rainbow trout are coveted and others like catfish or bowfin generally are not, no matter how sporting they might be.
I just didn’t know that the payara was going to torture me so much.
My friend Dale Steele, a Texas car salesman, and I set out with our guide Itamar, to a 30-foot deep river hole and set out two baits that Itamar had procured, a piece of cut dead fish and some sort of hideous slug creature. We cast them with heavy lead weights, let them sink, and didn’t have to wait long.
On the first strike, I felt the payara pull and set the hook with all my might.
The next time, at Itamar’s pantomined insistence, I let the fish hold my bait. And hold it some more. And even more, until the rod was bent over double. I reeled down and reared back.
The next time, I waited even longer. I pulled it away from him, then let it sink back, toying with my “tiger” as if it were an oversized cat. It pulled, it swam, I could feel it digesting the bait through my 80-pound braid. I reeled down again, pulled gently, then swung.
I was hooked up ... Until I felt thick braid sawing an unseen boulder and getting snapped like sewing thread. Remember, this is the Amazon, where everything has teeth – rocks, plants, possibly even cotton balls. Fortunately a boat seat caught me as I rocketed backward or else I might’ve suffered a concussion, rather than just bruising myself and injuring my pride. Now the quest became a mission.
We settled into a rhythm, due more to luck than to skill. Sometimes we struck immediately and hooked up, other times it required prolonged waiting. Despite their formidable profile, payara have a narrow bony face, and if the hook was not set firmly in the corner of their jaw they invariably got off, either on the hookset, when they leapt from the water, or – most painfully – at boatside after a 15-minute fight. Still by the end of the afternoon we’d released nine or 10, several of them at the 30-pound mark, just a few pounds shy of the all-tackle world record.
We went out the next day and caught several more. Meanwhile, our friend John Pierce went out and caught a nearly 30-pound wolf as the sun went down. Other members of our group dialed in a bite for smaller wolffish on oversized squarebill crankbaits in fast-moving water. Others trekked to distant backwater lagoons full of peacocks and had a blast catching them one after another on topwaters.
It felt like we had conquered the jungle. Every time I think about it, I yearn for another shot, to take what I’ve learned and to go back there, and then I look at the faded scars on my ankles and realize I still have a lot to learn. It’s a big world out there, shrinking quickly, but even as we get more civilized the jungle still doesn’t forgive mistakes.