Sunday, August 1, 2021

Mano A Mano With Jungle Beasts
By Gil Greenberg

It’s late January 2018. I’m staring out the window of our 10-person propeller plane, flying over hundreds of miles of Guyana’s virgin jungle. With a busted-up ankle wrapped as tight as a mummy, my mind races as I mentally prepare myself for the upcoming battle. My foe? Possibly a 350-pound scaled torpedo that can drive anglers to the brink of sanity.

Guyana is a magnificent country and I was beyond excited to be in its deep jungle interior for another adventure.

Guyana is a magnificent country and I was beyond excited to be in its deep jungle interior for another adventure. Upon landing in Lethem, our guides Terry, Blacks, and Jules, greeted us with a few beverages before we hopped on Jules’ minibus and took off towards the river.

During the three-hour drive, we made a quick stop for lunch at the Oasis Café where we had a moment to indulge in some fantastic local cuisine and catch up. We arrived at the staging area on the Rupanini River just after 2 p.m., and embarked upriver to our basecamp. The boat ride usually takes around six hours, but due to low-water conditions, this year it took a little longer. The good news was this: lower water levels meant better fishing.

By 7:30 p.m., however, the sky was already filled with stars and we still had a dicey stretch of river to cover. Using starlight and his superhuman Amerindian night vision, Terry managed to navigate our overloaded 23-foot long riverboat to our campsite. We hit a few logs and sandbars along the way, and each shook the boat as if it were about to tip into the piranha-infested waters. In all honesty, it was a pretty terrifying experience. Nevertheless, we made it. After dinner and some sips of rum, we were ready to sleep.

In the morning we decided to warm up our casting arms on arowana. Targeting arowana on the fly is a blast. It involves drifting over shallow flats and around riverbends, looking for fish cruising just inches below the surface. As we approached a back-eddy, Terry saw a pair of arowana swimming tight along the riverbank. I landed my Jungle Muddler about a foot in front of the largest fish, and wham—the second the fly hit the water, it was demolished. The fight didn’t last long, but it was intense, consisting of lighting-quick bursts, and five or six acrobatic leaps.

Although arowana tastes great, this fish was a bit too big to kill, and after taking photos, we released it. Minutes later, I hooked a larger arowana. Unfortunately, after a short struggle, the fish busted my line, leaving me dumbfounded. I never would have expected one of these guys to pop 20-pound fluoro. We finished off the morning boating a half-dozen good-sized fish before moving on to hunt for arapaima.

On day two we tried our luck in a spot known as Bamboo Pond. We started the morning casting to three large arapaima that were rolling in a channel near the back of a pond. After a few hours of placing cast after cast across the channel, our confidence started to fade. The fish were hanging in nearly 12 feet of muddy water, making slim odds of one seeing our flies. On the upside, Bamboo Pond has a great spot for lunch and was full of nice sized peacock bass. Within 40 minutes we caught lunch, as well as several extra fish for the boys to bring back for dinner.

For those who don’t know, peacock bass are a delicious, sweet-flavored fish and we ate it for lunch almost every day. My two biggest peacocks of the day were around eight pounds (released), and Jules managed to land a decent sized wolfish. We cooked our catch Amerindian style over an open fire with a pinch of chili salt, known locally as Devil’s Dust.

Our sixth day was absolutely phenomenal. Getting off to a late start, Terry, Blacks, and I trekked through the jungle to a grass-lined swamp that led to a pond. Right away you could tell this place was special. The pond was full of life; baitfish splashed everywhere; birds chirped; and multiple arapaima were rolling.

That area’s topography was, literally, perfect for fly fishing: shallow, but long enough to fish one end without spooking fish on the far end. Within minutes we were casting to rising arapaima. In no time we had a few eats, but no solid hookups, and as morning turned to afternoon, we decided to fish the grassy shoreline, hoping to catch a few peacocks for lunch. As we worked the shoreline, Terry suddenly noticed two fish heading towards the boat. I immediately switched back to my 12-weight and put a cast directly between them. As I stripped the fly past the first fish, I felt a massive tug on the line. I pulled in the slack and slammed five solid two-handed, full body strip-sets, and the fish took off. I was hooked to a 150-pound female arapaima. After a 10-minute struggle, she jumped and the hook pulled out. For a few seconds I was devastated, screaming at the fish gods, trying best not to lose control and snap the rod across a knee. I turned to say something to Terry and there it was—right by the grassy shore—an absolute behemoth was slowly surfacing.

Wasting no time, I tightened my fly line and water-hauled a twister-tailed DP Popsicle into the air. With one false cast to gain control, I backcast to the green submarine 60 feet behind my right shoulder. Teeth clenched, I watched my fly land six inches in front of the fish’s nose. I honestly can’t remember if I even stripped the fly, but the “take” was epic. I gripped the fly line as hard as I could and set the hook like a mother . . . .

For the first five minutes of the fight, the fish didn’t seem to realize it was hooked. Then, suddenly, all hell broke loose. The arapaima began running, jumping, and pulling the small 10-foot duck boat around like a scene out of a cartoon. After an intense 15-minute battle, I was able to get some line in, and tightened up the drag as Terry positioned the boat so we could fight the massive fish from the shallows. Four or five jumps later, the arapaima tired, and Terry dove headfirst into the water. Ten long seconds passed before Terry surfaced, holding the pectoral fins of the biggest fish I had ever caught.

We took a couple of pictures, then walked the fish to a cleaner portion of the pond and let it recover. Terry estimated that fish at 380 pounds. It was nearly a foot longer than our boat, and I could barely touch fingers when I positioned the fish for photos. While far from the longest arapaima on record, Terry said this was the fattest one he’d ever seen.

NOTE:
Look for the second installment of this Guyana adventure in the February edition of Fly Fishing International.