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Catfish Week: The Exotic Catfish Experience: Breaking Jungle Jau

Deep in the South American jungle, a pure catfish adventure awaits.

Catfish Week: The Exotic Catfish Experience: Breaking Jungle Jau

While wading in waist-deep water the color of coffee and shuffling my feet to avoid the venomous jab of an ill-placed stingray, I find myself bear-hugging a giant jau catfish the size of a refrigerator. My primary focus is not losing my grip on the fish. Although exhausted from the long battle, the fish is still just one tail swipe away from heading back to the river gorge from which it came. My second thought is on finding solid enough footing along the bank to get photos with my trophy catch and then set her free. So how did I get here and what lessons can be learned from this catch?

The “where” in this equation is the jungles of Colombia—more specifically, the biodiverse Guaviare River. Having fished this river system a few years prior, we had found the connecting lagoons to have some of the most spectacular fishing for double-digit peacock bass. Lacking from that initial trip were the various catfish and other fish species that were touted as being plentiful throughout the system.

amazon waterfall
Flowing water is an important place to start the catfish hunt.

This trip we had peacocks on the forefront of our minds, plus a renewed focus on sampling the diversity of this immense river system and the prospects of a ­triple-digit catfish. On our current trip, we had checked most all those boxes by experiencing three days of incredible peacock bass fishing, several afternoons of non-stop action on saber-toothed payara, two memorable mornings casting figs beneath fruit trees overhanging the riverbank to fool fruit-eating pacu, and steady action on smaller catfish species while soaking cutbait in tributary streams. Most of this action took place in an untouched setting, draped in a thick jungle canopy that kept the outside world at bay with a chorus of sounds from the resident insects, birds, reptiles, and mammals.

The only thing that was missing mid-trip was a triple-digit catfish. Granted, the main river had given up medium-sized redtail catfish that entertained us as they “barked” peculiarly when removed from the water for photos. Ripsaw catfish of three varieties bewildered us with their unique armor-plated appearance and dangerous looking spines adorning their sides. Flat-whiskered catfish sported “fu manchu” mustaches with whiskers that seemed four-times too long for their bodies, the fish pressed flat as their name implies.

the striped surubi catfish
The striped surubi catfish is a beautiful whiskered kitty cat.

My fishing partner even caught a spectacularly marked surubi catfish on a spinnerbait intended for a peacock bass in 2 feet of water; these fish look like Dr. Seuss crossed a tiger muskie with a catfish and then flattened its head in a press. Let me not forget plenty of “false piraiba” in the 10- to 25-pound range, which would make your heart stop on their initial take, running off 50 feet of line from a bait-feeder reel in a blink of an eye, prior to engaging the drag. These spirited fighters bear an uncanny resemblance to their larger relatives that can weigh upward of 400 pounds.

The large jau seemed to be absent from the small feeder rivers and much of the main river. Our non-English speaking guide knew where these monster catfish resided but catching them on conventional sportfishing gear was proving nearly impossible. The setting was a rapids area where the main river narrowed to an area roughly one-tenth of its average width. A gorge was formed in this narrowing with solid rocks lining both banks and creating a large cathedral wall on one side of the river. The entire rapids and gorge area stretched over a mile in length with the upper area being the shallowest and quickest flowing. Here the depth was only 10 to 30 feet deep, with submerged boulders sending whitewater swirling in every direction. Just below this area the depth increased to 30 to 50 feet but varied tremendously. The river moved at a pace several times faster than any catfish water that I had ever fished, absent settings directly below spillways and dams.

Golden juvinile jau cat
Steve Ryan with a golden juvenile jau catfish, these critters get enormous and the color fades making the younger version a special catch.
flat whisker cat
The flat-whiskered catfish is a cool specimen.

The middle stretch of the gorge widened considerably with a sharp bend in the river. Here, the current slowed and even reversed directions with depths from 30 to over 150 feet. The lower stretch narrowed and had the water again moving at a rapid pace. The rocks along the river ranged in size from that of a microwave to a double-wide trailer. Most all the rocks had crisp linear edges ready to cut braided line put under any pressure. With no electronics, anchors, or trolling motors and only a stripped-down 15-foot Bass Tracker Topper jonboat and a 30-hp motor, the outfitter’s plan was to put us on the bank in the lower stretch and have us use our standard slipsinker catfish rigs.

Weight restrictions are common on these remote jungle trips. On this trip, we were allotted 50 pounds total, including clothing, essentials, camera gear, rods, reels, lures, and terminal tackle for the wide range of species to be pursued. We packed an assortment of catfish hooks (circle, J-style, big river, and hybrid versions), barrel swivels, three-way swivels, sinker-sliders, leader materials, and sinkers.

Fishing from the bank quickly proved difficult. The guide seemingly wanted our baits positioned well off the bank where the large jau positioned themselves behind large unseen boulders and in caverns created among the piles of boulders lining the bottom. In current flowing at perhaps 7 to 10 mph, we had zero chance of having our baits being positioned snag-free in the middle of the river, no matter if we loaded our rigs with 4-, 8-, or 12-ounce sinkers, or perhaps even a couple pounds of sinkers. Instead, we would cast our baits mid-river and watch them either get snagged as soon as bottom contact was made or be swept to the bank immediately downstream. There they would either get snagged or be eaten by a small catfish.

We experimented with three-way swivels and sinkers on light dropper leaders. That merely resulted in more lost sinkers that were now in short supply. Shorter casts meant getting snagged closer to the bank and the same smaller catfish being caught.

After enduring this for an afternoon, our guide suggested to our outfitter in Spanish that we needed to use long 50- to 60-foot leaders made of our heaviest 150- to 200-pound fluorocarbon, and sinkers in the 10- to 16-ounce range. There were multiple problems with this plan, but it’s typically best not to argue with your guide prior to at least trying it. At this point, we had dwindling supplies of heavy leader material and sinkers. The outfitter indicated that the guide had plenty of heavy 300- to 400-pound mono used for handlining giant catfish, and the sinker supply issue could be addressed through jungle ingenuity.

Down at the riverbank on the last day of fishing, we had plenty of sinkers and leader material, but we still had an outrageous amount of current and jagged rocks. Now, though, instead of losing 5 to 6 feet of leader material with each snag, we were losing 50 to 60 feet, and instead of losing 8 ounces of lead, it was 16. Plus, it was incredibly difficult to break off snags that would not pull free. After several requests, our guide finally relented and we attempted a primitive form of back-bouncing baits from the boat through varying depths, current speeds, and directions—all with no electronics, minimal boat control, and no precise knowledge of the river’s makeup.


The author with a cool ripsaw catfish, named for the boney spikes along the lateral line.
Author Steve Ryan with a fine redtail catfish.

Not surprisingly, we still got snagged—a lot. However, we were able to more easily free at least half of those snags by getting over the top of them with the boat. With each drift, our technique improved slightly. On our third drift through the gorge, there was a distinct tap at the end of my line as my sinker dropped 10 to 15 feet behind a rock shelf in perhaps 50 feet of water. I lowered the rod tip to let the rod load. As I set, it felt as though I had hooked a boulder. There was no give in the line. I never moved the fish on the set. Instead, the fish merely moved upstream in the rapids. First, at a slow pace and then much more quickly.

This is the modus operandi of big jau catfish. They make power runs upstream and try to get into submerged caverns or wedge their heads under rocks. That’s exactly what this fish was attempting to do. With a stout Okuma Nomad travel rod and bait-feeder spinning reel spooled with 100-pound-test Sufix Performance Braid and a 50-foot leader of 300- to 400-pound leader material, I put as much pressure as possible on this fish as we chased it up and then down the river and then back up before the fight ended—not with the fish coming to the surface but wedging itself to the bottom in ultra-swift water at a depth of about 30- to 40-feet deep.

The current was so swift that it was difficult to get directly over the fish or precisely upstream or downstream or to the left or right of where we imagined the line might be snagged. For further context, it was 90°F outside with a relative humidity of 90 percent and the current was tossing the boat around sufficiently that the outfitter occasionally grabbed my back to make certain that I didn’t get tossed from the boat.

Using the motor, we tried to pull the fish out of its cavern from every angle to no avail. After 20 minutes or so, I knew we had to call an end to trying to extract this fish. It became a now-or-never proposition. The guide asked me what direction we should pull from for the final time. We were either going to break or cut the line or extract the fish.

I made the call. The motor strained in this final game of tug of war that had me cupping the spool and trying to ready myself in the boat for the breaking point. In this case, the fish broke free of its hiding place. The fight wasn’t over, though, as the fish had been resting for much of the time, we were trying to extract it. The back-breaking fight continued with me trying to prevent the fish from getting back to the bottom as we were swept through the rapids.

After what seemed like an eternity, the fish came at the surface and the calls of “monster!” rang out. We brought it to shore where a small feeder creek poured into the main river and formed a pool on the creek side with still water. It was here that I could get my photos with a true trip-maker fish—an experience that I’ll never forget.

Big Amazon catfish are amazing fish. Their raw power must be experienced to be appreciated. In such warm-water settings, we might expect them to deplete their energy and tire more quickly than our North American catfish, but this isn’t the case. They act more like well-conditioned athletes that get in prime shape during the rainy season when their rivers are raging torrents, and then take out their aggression on anyone who tries to tame them with a hook and line.

A full-grown Jau catfish is a giant predator.

There are a few brief lessons that I learned from this encounter with a giant jungle catfish. Make certain to pack fresh spools of leader material or mark down on the spool how much line you had previously used. On this trip, I packed a spool of 150- and 200-pound Sufix Superior leader material, thinking both were full spools of 110 yards. Upon using some of the 200-pound line, I realized I’d packed a spool that was less than half full.

It’s also wise to pack the highest-quality swivels and hooks as you may be putting them under extraordinary stress. After landing the jungle giant and inspecting my rig, both the swivel and hook were slightly straightened—not enough to fail but plenty to make me want to use only the best going forward. The swivels were a good national brand but not my typical Spro Power Swivels, and the hook came from the guide, instead of a premium quality Owner or VMC hook that I had packed.

I also learned the importance of politely listening to your guide and taking suggestions but also being assertive if you have a better plan for success. Earlier in this trip, our guide had also suggested that we kill a big black monkey (howler monkey), then burn it and use it in large chucks for giant catfish. I’m especially glad that we were insistent to not act on this plan. No monkeys were harmed in the catching of our jungle catfish, although we did roast a rat that was killed in camp with a blow gun and used it as bait, although unsuccessfully.

Jungle Sinkers

During our trip, a dwindling sinker supply necessitated a little jungle ingenuity. So how do locals make sinkers in the jungle? Collect lead from all possible sources. Empty a 106-ounce can of corn. Remove the contents. Add the lead and heat it over a fire. Whittle a 1.5-inch diameter stick to a rounded point. Find soil with enough clay content to hold its form as you insert the stick 2 to 3 inches into the soil. Pour the molten lead into the molded hole in the ground and insert a 4-inch steel nail into the center of the lead. Allow to cool and remove with pliers. Drop the sinker into a bucket of water to complete the cooling process and remove the nail for the completed product.

An empty corn can is used to melt the lead so it can be formed into the weight.
Making lead weights in the bush takes a little creativity.
The end result helps to avoid snags and keep the meat in the strike zone.

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