The majestic Pirarucu, or Arapaima Gigas, is one of the largest scaled freshwater fish and grow up to 350cm in the wilderness of the Amazonian basin. A fish that has prowled the rivers, lakes, lagoons and backwaters of the Amazon River and its tributaries for the abundant baitfish – it only took us (man) a couple of hundred years to butcher the population down to the brink of extinction in the mid-80’s! Their ability to breath oxygen through a rudimentary lung system allows them to hunt in the shallowest of waters where others cannot. This ability has proven to be a blessing in disguise because gulping air makes the Arapaima easy to locate and subsequently easier to net/spear. Yes, the traditional way of hunting these gigantic, prehistoric creatures is ambushing them with a large spear from a wooden dugout canoe and this practice is still performed by the local Indians today. However, where commercial fishing is regulated, the populations of wild arapaima are recovering.
The abundance of bait and the fish’s ability to grow extremely fast do help this situation. Areas such as the Mamirauá Reserve in Brazil have set a prime example for sustainable conservation of the species (amongst many others), regulating the local commercial fishery by kill quotas, while at the same time allowing the communities to partake in and profit from active ecotourism and recreational angling. Since its establishment in 1996, the largest flooded forest area in the world is now home to the densest population of wild arapaima. Coincidence? We don’t think so. The revenue of the ecotourism that flows into these communities helps them to sustain their way of life, while at the same time allowing easier access to clean water, medicine, and education. This model of cooperation between the local Indians and the department for tourism has set a trailblazing example for many other ecotourism operations throughout the Amazon basin. Untamed Angling was among the first to introduce this principle to the fly fishing world with its jungle operations throughout South America.
Pirarucú Lodge is comprised of a series of floating bungalows, connected by wooden footbridges – utilization of solar energy and a wastewater treatment system aims to minimize the impact on the environment. Navigating these lakes, channels, and lagoons or even just staying at the lodge is eerily satisfying. The richness of the surrounding wildlife is truly astonishing. Caimans slowly gliding through the water and large Arapaima gulping air only a few feet away. The air, the forest, the water – everything is alive. Drink it in, let it act on your soul.
Arapaima are a lethargic fish. Although their primitive lung enables them to breath in the open air, their way of life is designed to save energy in theis oxygen-poor environment. The frequency of their breathing cycles largely depends on their swimming and feeding activity, and in the murky waters of the Mamirauá Reserve, the breathing is really the only indication of activity you may get from these fish. Rather than hunting down their prey, they ambush it by waiting for it to swim by, simply sucking it in by gulping gallons of water in a split second. We have had a couple of occasions where we actually saw the fish eat our fly. And although you do feel a hard take in your line, all the fish really does is suck in the fly with a lot of water, without actually moving its body. What this means for us is that we need to get the fly right up in the face of the fish to trigger any reaction. While we are limited to a certain size of fly and the depth it is fishing in, we have the huge advantage of being able to slow down the retrieve to an almost stationary movement. Slowing down the fly so it stays longer in the taking zone made the most sense and triggered the most reaction. On the other hand, fishing a fly slowly in an area where you don’t know the depth of the lake, or how deep the fish are, can be pretty freaking frustrating. No bite = no idea if you are doing the right thing, and even if you get a reaction it might be just a coincidence. The lakes are – depending on the water level – somewhere between 1 and 20m deep. Anything from slow intermediate lines to heavy sinkers might be appropriate, however finding the right approach for the right time and place is a daunting task. So little is known about the behaviour of the fish from a flyfisher’s perspective, it is hard to stick to a fly or technique, if you don’t get any positive feedback, it may just be that you’re in the wrong place, or the fish are simply not active.
Whilst, during the rainy season the fish spread out into the flooded forest areas, during the dry season they get condensed in the main channels and deeper sections of the lake. A higher density of fish in less space makes it easier to get the fly in front of one! The activity of the fish in certain areas of the system, however, seems to rapidly switch on or off, largely dependent on the time of the day. During the early morning you might see a lot of fish gulping and thrashing in a tight channel, later this same spot may seem deserted, while fish start showing more frequently in the deeper lake. The Indian guides seem to have developed a sixth sense for these fish and will know where to take you at any time. But then there still is the issue of what is the right fly, if there is such thing. Arapaima naturally feed on Redbelly Piranhas, Arowanas, smaller Catfish and other baitfish that might cross their path. The variety and diversity of the endemic fish species is amazing.
In the murky waters of the Mamirauá Reserve, the fish will largely have to rely on their lateral-line organ. Any fly that vibrates, pushes or rattles, and at the same time can be fished very slowly, almost stationary, seemed like a logical approach to the problem. And after switching flies, testing different sizes and colours, we ended up getting the most takes on only a few different patterns. Large Wiggle Tail deceivers in black/red or olive/orange and big, pushy, synthetic baitfish patterns in these same colour combinations. It seemed that the choice of flies made a big difference, as over the course or a good week, most results were had on the same patterns time and again. Yet, getting these fish to bite is one thing, hooking them is a whole different story…
No other fish I know of has a bonier mouth – not even Tarpon – and just looking at the skull on the fish market in Manaus gave us a pretty good idea of the kind of hook and strip-strike you would need to penetrate these jaws. Quite frankly, getting your hook stuck in the bone is close to impossible. Only a few soft spots in the corner of the mouth and in the tongue allow for a hook to safely sit in. Our first few days were a frustrating display of how the hardest strip strike you have ever performed on a fish can still result in it simply spitting out the fly. Line burns on both hands, but no fish after a handful of takes. A proper hookset with a solid hook is one thing, but good timing on your strike and a fair amount of luck are needed to survive the first few jumps. If the hook is still in place, then you will have a good chance of landing the fish. A miserable hookup ratio during our first day’s fishing was frustrating, especially after seeing the size of some of these fish many of which easily exceeded the 200cm mark. Upon returning to Pirarucú lodge after three weeks fishing in the jungle and seeing the sheer size of some of these fish, we had an entirely new perspective on this fishery. And although there is no other place in the world with this density of wild Arapaima, you would generally go there to catch a real monster – it is the biggest scaled fish in the Amazon system after all. The mission “Arapaima on the fly” is doomed to fail just by its external conditions, but Pirarucú Lodge in the Mamirauá Reserve (operated by Untamed Angling) is the place to go if you do want to take the challenge.