February 06, 2017
It was an adventure I’ll never forget, a week-long fishing expeditionon the remote Rio Preto do Igapó-Acu—the Black River of the Great FloodedJungle—in southern Amazonas, Brazil. Getting there from my Arkansas home was anadventure itself—a 40-hour airport marathon from Little Rock to the Amazonoutback. In Manaus, the metropolitan capital of Amazonas, I raced to board apuddlejumper headed for Autazes on the Rio Madeira. But as the small planetaxied down the runway to take off, it lurched sideways and screeched to a halt.A tire had blown, delaying our flight and stopping my heart. Hours passedbefore I finally reached Autazes and stepped aboard the Santana, a sleekmothership that would be my home for the next seven days.
A young Brazilian named Wilson was assigned as my guide,because unlike the other anglers aboard the Santana who had come to experiencethe region’s extraordinary peacock bass fishing, I wanted to catch catfish.Several giants swim the Amazon River and its tributaries, including the dourado,a favored food fish that sometimes exceeds 100 pounds; the strikingly coloredredtail catfish, another prized heavyweight; tiger and spotted surubims, bothknown to exceed the century mark; and the prize of prizes, the piraiba, one ofthe world’s largest freshwater fishes, which has been documented at weights to 660pounds.
Wilson knew how to catch all these, I was told. And besides,he was the only guide willing to take a crazy gringo catfishing when there wereplenty of 10- to 20-pound peacocks to be caught. Who in their right mind wouldwant to hook a fish that might pull you in the water and eat you!
The next day, having traveled 12 hours up the Madeira aboardthe Santana, we found ourselves in a forgotten corner of the world. I convincedmy friend Jeff Samsel to join Wilson and me for some catfishing, and we were onthe water in a bass boat when a flaming red sun rose above the jungle.
As Wilson gunned the engine and turned downriver, I wasbolted from my bleary-eyed stupor by the intense tropical heat. The junglevegetation surrounding us was dense and unimaginably diverse. Trees, herbs, bromeliads,strangler vines, orchids, ferns, bushes, lichens and mosses—all were visible fromthe river.
The abundance of wildlife was mind-boggling. Howler monkeysboomed their hair-raising cries from deep in the forest. Caimans as long aslogs and turtles the size of bushel baskets slid from the river banks. Macaws,toucans, parrots, tanagers, kingfishers, ducks and other birds filled the jungle air with color.
Most incredible were the dolphins. Dozens swam about us,despite the fact we were hundreds of miles from saltwater. Some were very largeand pink as a schoolgirl’s Easter dress. Botos, they are called. Others weredolphins in miniature, little tucuxis hardly 3 feet long. One young boto, stillgray in color, followed us everywhere we fished for several days.
We had hoped to obtain some chicken heads from local farmersto use for catfish bait. Wilson insisted nothing worked better. But chickens were scarce in these parts, and we had to settle for a bucket of dogfish headsinstead. We baited hooks and dropped them into swirling water at the confluenceof the Madeira and Maderinha rivers. Wilson noted that no fish in its rightmind would eat a thing with such big, wicked teeth. Nevertheless, Jeff hookedand landed a most unusual fish, a 4-foot-long freshwater ray with the spikytail of an ankylosaurus. Alas, it was our only catch that day.
The Santana left the Madeira and steamed many miles up theRio Preto that night, carrying us to the border of a reservation owned by theMura, a tribe of indigenous peoples—“ferocious and untamable,” one writer calledthem—once highly feared by European settlers. We waited anxiously until aflotilla of dugouts paddled by young men approached the mothership. Theirchief, wearing a headdress fashioned from brightly colored feathers, stoodregally in the center craft.
The old man boarded the Santana, and during hours-longnegotiations with our captain, a deal was struck. In exchange for malariamedicine, the chief would grant us permission to fish within the reservationfor the next three days.
From this place in the heart of the Igapó-Acu, we had accessto extraordinary fishing opportunities on several rivers, including the Preto,Tupana, Matupira and Autaz Mirrim. The country is as wild and untamed as any onthe planet, and the rivers’ complexnetwork of channels, oxbows and lagoons holds very big peacock bass. James, a14-year-old New Yorker fishing with his father and brother, had oneextraordinary day, landing one 20-pounder, two 10s, an 11, a 12, a 13 and a 14,plus many smaller fish.
I clung stubbornly to my hope of catching monster Amazoncatfish, but it was not to be. The Mura had no chickens, so we had nochicken-head baits. Without chicken heads, Wilson said, our catfishing was fornaught.
It mattered not, though, for catching fish in a place sowondrous as this is just icing on the cake. Each day, fishing the rivers withWilson, I was granted glimpses into the lives of native peoples who only rarelyhave contact with the outside world. We joined Mura men fishing from dugoutswith bows and arrows, canoed with Mura boys who filled their boats with strangefishes caught in handcrafted nets and reveled in the natural wonders of a worldfar different than I had ever seen.
Wilson and I fished many hours each day, and many hours atnight. One afternoon, as darkness fell, we paddled into the great floodedjungle and dropped our baits into the water. As night fell, an eerie chorus ofscreams, howls, whistles, snorts, roars, squawks, squeaks, hoots and hollerserupted from the jungle encircling us. Wilson identified the source of eachcall—birds, monkeys, bats, frogs, insects and caimans.
The little Brazilian roared with laughter when a vampire batlanded on my head, and I jumped into the water. “Piranhas there, Señor Catfish,” he said, pointing tothe river as he chortled. But I got the last laugh when I hooked and landed a4-foot caiman with a taste for dogfish heads. When I grabbed the reptile behindthe head and thrust its snapping jaws toward him, Wilson, too, took a dip withthe piranhas.
We never caught any catfish, but while we waited for them tobite, we cast plugs and caught piranhas as big as dinner plates, saber-toothedpayaras, ugly dogfish and high-jumping bicudas. Then, finally, at Wilson’sinsistence, I tied a big prop bait on my line and fished for peacocks. It wasour last day on the Igapó-Acu, and the fishing gods smiled on us. We caughtmany of these gorgeously colored fish. Each exploded like a stick of dynamitetossed beneath our lures. Catching fish together—a brasilero from Autazes and acountry boy from Arkansas—firmed a friendship that will last forever.
A souvenir photograph taken of me on this trip hangs on myoffice wall, a reminder of my good times on the Igapó-Acu. It shows me in thefork of a big jungle tree surrounded by flood water, dangling a line from afishing pole in the river below. Jeff shot the picture when he fished withWilson and me.
I can still hear Wilson laughing as he left me there in that tree andmotored out of sight through the great flooded jungle.