South American Catfish Expedition
January 01, 2015
How do you tell someone about the trip of a lifetime, one that you can't wait to begin again? Magical, mystical, the stuff dreams are made of. Sounds like a cliché, but words aren't easy to come by. Imagine stepping into a boat that transports you away from civilization. With every river mile you seem to travel back 100 years in time.
My trip began three years ago when a coworker showed me a half-page magazine article about South American catfish. A blurry photo showed a man hefting a 120-pound cat. The author apparently caught seven different species of catfish with several pushing whiskey barrel size. A short time later, In-Fisherman published a list of the toughest fish in freshwater, which placed Amazon catfish in a tie for first.
Phase 1 — Planning
I was hooked, but still had many obstacles to overcome. First was to find someone crazy enough to go with me, and second, convince my wife that I should go. The second task proved to be the easier. Several prospective partners showed moderate interest, but were concerned about the expense and travel conditions in a third-world country. Bill Pfleiderer, though, showed no reservation. After a short trip to the Red River for some pole-bending channel cats and several nights on the Missouri river hunting flatheads, we were ready to tackle bigger game.
Enter the next obstacles. Where to go for big cats and which outfitters cater to catfishermen? I started by calling In-Fisherman editor Steve Quinn. Apparently few people pursue South American catfish, Quinn advised, or at least they don't talk about it much. He did, however, send me a copy of a 1989 In-Fisherman article on Toad Smith's adventure to Bolivia along with a couple contacts to start with.
A quick call revealed that the location where Toad fished is now closed to anglers, so Bill and I began calling every South American guide service we could find. Most catered to peacock bass fishermen and were unable or unwilling to offer advice about catfish. Most, too, didn't believe catfishermen were willing to spend $4,000 for a week of mind-blowing, rod-smashing monster-cat action. We talked to 30 or 40 guide services and found only five that would consider chasing catfish for a week.
The first outfitter booked trips through another guide who had already told us he wasn't interested. The second, Fish-A-Bout, went to a great deal of effort, but the location in Argentina offered only two species of catfish, and heavy fishing pressure had decreased their size. Another service offered all we wanted, but the luxurious accommodations with lobster and steak dinners added $1,000 to the price tag. The fourth merely listed catfish as a possible catch and refused to connect us with anyone who could answer our questions.
Finally, Bill contacted Russ Clement at the Xingu River Lodge. Clement not only sent us a letter and brochure, but also included a videotape. The tape captured our interest, but Clement clinched the deal. This Nebraska native made no promises about size or numbers, but the promise he made carried a lot of weight with us. "It's your vacation," he said. "If you boys want to fish day and night, I'll assign you two guides."
Enter obstacle number four: What equipment to take to battle catfish that may push 500 pounds? This excerpt from Toad's article offered an idea of what we were up against:
"Suddenly my bait has settled but it hasn't settled, and I instinctively set the hook and it's impossible, incredible. I just have time to realize that in 30 seconds I will not have any 50-pound line on my Garcia 7000. Miscalculation: 22 seconds later, minus 150 yards of line, I'm relieved to still have a rod and a reel with a functioning drag."
With the date set, we began surveying anyone knowing anything about the region, especially possible dangers. Horror stories were as abundant as useful information. We heard of everything from stolen wallets to gang robberies to tribes kidnapping blond women because of their hair color. I'm sure these things may have happened at one time or another, but would our jails be so full if such things didn't happen in the US? Our hosts had a good laugh when we told them what we had heard.
We also heard about piranha, jaguar, and giant anaconda, but I never saw a snake. Piranha don't attack hooked fish or, as a rule, bathers. In fact, I swam in the Xingu River, which contains a healthy piranha population. If you're going to get bit, washing blood off into the stream probably is the most likely way. You might also hear jaguars in the jungle at night, but the chance of seeing one is remote. The most frightening part of the trip was when I had to repack my carry-on after a check at the Miami airport — took two hours to pack it the first time.
Phase 2 — Traveling
Our journey started at noon on November 18, 1998 when we boarded a plane at Kansas City International Airport. After approximately a 14-hour flight, three layovers, and three time zone changes, we arrived in Sao Felix around noon on November 19. Sao Felix is not a clean town, but has a unique charm. After a quick tour of the lodge, a cold drink, and a good meal, we boarded a 17-foot V-bottom boat and headed upstream (south).
Another stream enters the Xingu in town, and with its confluence comes the erosion of gold mines. Fortunately, the government has tightened its control on mining, so the river continues to clear each year. Past the Xada rapids where commercial fishing ends, the only traces of civilization are a few scattered huts. Two hours later, we stepped out of the boat onto a steep clay bank in front of a split log sign that reads, "Xingu Outpost." Somewhere during the boat ride we had entered what the locals (few as they are) refer to as the fifth world.
Our home for the next five days was one of the most beautiful places on earth. We walked up the bank through a small clearing to a stone-lined path. At the base of the jungle-covered mountain were three thatched bamboo huts and a cook shack. Simple, but comfortable.
We were greeted by four macaws, two tapers, one capivara, a dog, and a baby wild boar named Mr. Pig. The macaws went wherever they pleased, occasionally dropping twigs, leaves, or fruit on us, and they were nosier than roosters shortly after daybreak. The capivara and tapers were in a pen out back, while Mr. Pig wandered about seeking attention.
Phase 3 — Fishing
An hour later, with gear assembled, we headed for the river. No matter that we had just gone 38 hours without sleep, because we came to fish. For the next two hours, we played with peacock bass and piranha. At dusk, we settled down for our first chance at South American catfish. I promptly caught a large payara (cachoro or dogfish to our guides). But as dark settled in so did jet lag, so we headed in for a bite to eat and some much needed sleep. We ate a light meal to the sound of holler monkeys ringing in our ears. As we walked to our hut, the not-too-distant "bark" of a jaguar reminded us that the jungle possesses power and strength along with beauty.
Sometime around 10:00 a.m. we got up to breakfast. As we passed through the door, Margreenyo, the camp caretaker, came up with a feed sack. Apprehensively I peeked inside to find a dead guinea with blood on its neck. Three of the five guineas had fallen victim to vampire bats during the night. Apparently the bats present a problem to small animals, but are merely a nuisance to cattle and humans.
Back on the river, Bill caught a small black piranha and a 7-pound red piranha that destroyed a Super Spook trolled at half throttle behind a 25 hp motor. After an afternoon nap and an early supper, our guides, Raul and Vando, took us upstream for our first all-night catfish outing. At dusk, Bill set the hook on his first South American cat. With 60-pound mono and the drag set tight, the rod doubled under the weight of the fish. Two minutes later, the fish gave in to the heavy pressure and surfaced next to the boat. Raul grabbed it by the tail and Bill had his first surubim (Pseudoplatystoma Fasciatum), a 9-pounder.
A few minutes later, my clicker started. I engaged the reel and set the hook into nothing. The bait hadn't been touched. Perhaps a fish swam into the line. Bill tied into another cat and promptly landed a barba chata (Goslina Platynema), which translates "crazy whiskers." This fish has extremely long featherlike barbells and appears somewhat anorexic in the back. Its fighting ability was impressive.
Again my clicker sounded. I grabbed the rod, put the reel in gear, and prepared to cross his eyes, but again the fish was gone. I reeled in to yet another surprise — the bait was untouched, but my 5-ounce bank sinker had been bitten off. Guides generally don't fish, but we felt it cruel and unusual punishment to make someone sit in the boat all night without a rod. Also, it became apparent that handling two rods at night without light would be difficult. We gave each guide a pole and held one each.
A short time later, Vando stood up, set the hook, and shoved the rod to me. Without hesitation, I hollered at Bill for the fighting belt. He slipped it under the rod butt and I tightened the drag on my Penn-309 spooled with 80-pound Stren. I braced myself and started to pull as the 71â„2-foot St. Croix rod doubled over. Slowly the heavy rod relaxed and I gained a couple cranks. Whatever it was, it wasn't running but felt as if I was trying to drag in a barn door. Five minutes later the spotlight revealed a large brown shape with yellow circles on its back. I had caught the first stingray of the trip.
Raul, Vando, and Bill each caught a small catfish with small whiskers. These pocomos rarely exceed 3 pounds, and when placed on the floor of the boat, begin panting like a dog and will live for hours. Vando picked up the anchor, actually a feed sack filled with rocks, and we moved downstream near an island. We hadn't been there five minutes when a drag began to squeal. Raul handed the pole to Bill, and I quickly shoved the fighting belt under Bill's rod butt. Bill tightened the drag until he was more uncomfortable than the fish. Vando retrieved the anchor and began guiding the boat with a paddle.
About seven minutes later, with a spotlight on the line, a large fish with a bright red tail showed briefly below the surface. The fish extracted more line and dove for another hard run. Three minutes later we saw him again. I was watching through the video camera as the water erupted. Three more times the monster managed to extract some line. Then it surfaced again and Raul seized it by the tail and dragged it into the boat.
The battle lasted 10 to 15 minutes, and both angler and fish were whipped. The fish was remarkable, a mottled brown top changing abruptly to bright yellow halfway down the fish's side, contrasting with its bright red tail. This red tail weighed 69 pounds, was 501â„2 inches long, and had a 323â„8-inch girth.
At 5:00 a.m. we headed back to camp. As the sun rose, we ate breakfast to the song of macaws and the squeal of holler monkeys. After a long picture-taking session we dragged ourselves to bed.
Six hours later, after a shower, we were back to eating again. If it sounds like we ate often, you're getting the picture. Our unusual fishing schedule had the cooks, Sonya and Arlette, confused. If we were awake and in camp, they cooked. I'm a picky eater and planned on losing 5 or 10 pounds — big mistake, I actually gained weight.
Barbossa and Jerry loaded us into the boat for our second night. Barbossa seemed to prefer shallow-water fishing, and most of the night we fished on 8- to 12-foot flats. It turned out to be a night of rain, barba chata, and pocomos.
It was my turn to be surprised at the power of the barba chata. Bill had tried to prepare me for the experience, but the fighting ability of these fish has to be experienced. I'm a diehard flathead fisherman, who until this trip, believed flatheads were the most powerful fish in freshwater. Now I know better. That night I caught a 91â„2-pound barba chata that bent my 60-pound St. Croix catfish rod as a 15- to 20-pound flathead would.
The spines on all South American catfish are much thicker and longer than on North American cats. They also seem to be porous and lightweight. Although each of the five species we caught had different body shapes, they all possessed great fighting ability. Suribim, with their flat heads, continually dove for the bottom. Barba chata, whether large or small, fought with a style similar to large channel catfish, continually trying short powerful runs without much head shaking. Red tails can best be described as having the fighting style of a large flathead.
Although we didn't catch any, Russ says that jau (Paulicea Lutken) and filhote (Brachyplatystoma Filamentosum) are occasionally caught, but should not be expected. From what we learned, jau are somewhat similar in size and habit to red tails. Filhote reach monstrous proportions, having been documented by commercial fishermen at over 300 pounds.
The habits of South American catfish also are similar to North American species. At night, we often caught fish that were moving into the shallows. Natural rock outcroppings on the river function similar to wing dikes, creating scour holes that hold catfish.
On the Missouri River, I often catch flathead from brushpiles or fallen trees. On the Xingu, 100 big trees may be found in a half-mile stretch. As we fished throughout the week, we began to gain an appreciation for the size and diversity of the river. Countless times, I thought we were entering a tributary stream only to emerge in another channel of the Xingu.
The best advice I can give you is to let the guides do their job, but if you see a spot that looks good, ask them to stop. Their goal is to put you on fish. Some of our favorite spots included 20- to 30-foot holes below rock outcroppings; deep water near the downstream tips of islands; and 8- to 12-foot chutes between islands and the shore.
The Xingu probably is similar to what many of our streams were like 150 years ago. Seeing it is worth the price of admission. Yet it receives little fishing pressure because the outpost is above the Xada rapids, and most tourists dream only of peacock bass. Peacock bass, piranha, and payara all are fun to catch, of course, but none other offers the battle of a catfish.
My last and perhaps fondest memory of the Xingu Outpost occurred during our final morning. It was as if the jungle held back just a little of its beauty for our final sunrise. As the sun topped the horizon, vivid hues of green began taking shape as the soft, white, misty, veil of fog rose from the jungle floor, masking the mountainside in splendor.
The details, long plane ride, great expense, and all the anxiety washed away. Would I do it again? In a heartbeat.
Sun & Bug Precautions
The Xingu River is located on the equator, so temperatures during the day frequently reach the mid- to high-90°F range, dropping into the mid-70s at night. Long-sleeved shirts and sunscreen are mandatory. Insects can be a problem, but were not as bad as we'd anticipated. If they don't bother you much at home, they probably won't bother you much here. Take a good mosquito spray with at least 28 percent DEET, and spray your clothes 30 minutes before putting them on. Keep your wrists, hands, and ankles covered, and you shouldn't have trouble.
'¢ 3 pair cotton pants
'¢ 3 cotton shirts
'¢ wide-brimmed hat
'¢ 3 pair socks
'¢ 2 pair shoes
'¢ rain gear
'¢ insect repellent (28% DEET)
'¢ 3 rods (40- to 80-pound)
'¢ 3 reels (minimum capacity of 200 yards of 60-pound test)
'¢ 24 hooks (9/0 to 12/0)
'¢ 24 weights (2 to 5 ounces)
'¢ 24 wire leaders (90-pound test)
'¢ fighting belt (inexpensive
models work fine)
'¢ 1-pound spool of 60- to