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Brazil's Xingu River: One Tough, Amazing Adventure

Some fishing trips bring lengthy travel demands, numerous logistical challenges, and sometimes even life-threatening danger. For adventuresome Arkansas angler Keith Sutton, a trip to the Xingu River in northern Brazil's jungle brought all the above, along with beautiful memories that will last for a lifetime.

Brazil's Xingu River: One Tough, Amazing Adventure

Ian Sulocki (left) and Manassés Aranha pose with a magnificent 65-pound redtail catfish, or pirarara, caught and released by Ian. One might say this is the signature fish of the Xingu.

In writing his 1933 novel Lost Horizon, author James Hilton described a mythical Shangri-La as an earthly paradise, one filled with wild beauty and isolation from the everyday world.

For frequent Outdoor Sportsman Group contributor Keith “Catfish” Sutton, Shangri-La isn’t a perfect valley in the mountains of Tibet. Instead, he dreams of a fish-filled paradise located deep in the heart of the Brazilian jungle. One vivid memory happened on a fishing adventure of a lifetime to the Xingu River — home to some of the world’s largest and most exotic fish species.

A tributary of the legendary Amazon River, the Xingu runs from south to north for just more than 1,000 miles, making it one of the largest clearwater rivers in the Amazon Basin, as it accounts for a reported 5 percent of the Basin’s water supply.

For Sutton, the motives of this trip were simple. To witness the Brazilian paradise in all its glory and sample the river’s legendary fishing before the construction of a hydroelectric dam on the lower river.

A view of the flooded jungle from Belo Monte Lodge atop the mountain where we stayed. Locals said the water was higher than it had been in 30 years. Only the tops of the highest trees were visible.

“I had spent several years going back and forth to Brazil to enjoy its fishing, and I fell in love with the people and the extraordinary angling opportunities down there,” recalled Sutton. “But it eventually got to the point where I wanted to push beyond the areas where most people go fishing down there. I wanted to experience a real jungle trip, one that was remote, and a long way from a city.”

Sutton wanted to fish the river’s amazing piscatorial action during the Xingu’s high-water season — something few outsiders have ever experienced in a rain forest, where precipitation can fall in blinding, bucketful fashion.

If he could pull the journey off and accomplish his goals — to catch as many Brazilian catfish species as possible, to find and catch some previously unrecorded species, and perhaps, to challenge some International Game Fish Association (IGFA) world records — the trip would be deemed a success. All despite being potentially the toughest fishing trip of Sutton’s globetrotting angling career.

“The high-water season would make the trip very difficult,” he said. “From the travel to simply trying to keep from getting lost to catching fish, going during the high-water season just added another challenging layer to the adventure.”

It took multiple days and planes to get there. “When I flew down there from Little Rock, I think there were five different flights spread out over four days,” said Sutton. “Getting there was an adventure in itself and was easily the most grueling flying experience I’ve ever had.”

When Sutton got off the final plane and arrived in the jumping off point of Altamira, Brazil, he joined his angling partner Ian Sulocki for the last leg into the Xingu River. Sulocki, no stranger to IGFA records and fishing adventures, had already been in the jungle region, trying to get the lay of the angling landscape as he and Sutton embarked on the expedition of a lifetime.

Keith Sutton, a bit frazzled and muddy, upon his arrival at the Altamira airport for the return journey to Arkansas.

But their journey became even more arduous the next day as a 100-mile long trek — filled with copious amounts of mud and water — began on land. “It was the most ungodly vehicle ride I’ve ever taken,” Sutton said. “It was pouring down rain most of the time and everything was flooded, inundated with water. Some of it was on the Trans Amazonia Highway, which was nothing more than a big muddy rut in the jungle. We got stuck ourselves about 50 times and drove by numerous large buses and trucks that were stuck. It was a nightmarish thing to make that journey in a vehicle.”

Upon arrival at the lodge (a modest collection of small, thatched-roof huts and buildings), the nightmare continued as the housekeeper used a homemade broom to shoo away a group of vampire bats and jungle spiders making themselves at home on the ceiling of Sutton’s room for the next several days.

And then there was the river itself.

Typically one of the Brazilian jungle’s treasures with beautiful water and stunning waterfalls, the Xingu that Sutton experienced was nothing more than a muddy cauldron of angry water.

“They have high water every year, with the difference in water depth of 50 to 80 feet,” Sutton said. “But the year that I went, it was the highest water they had seen in at least 30 years, some 160 feet above what it was during low water season. We rode horses up to the top of what they called the nearest mountain, and we could probably see for 100 miles, but all you could see was the tops of jungle trees in the water. Flooded for as far as you could see and there was no way to distinguish the river from the jungle. When we got to the river, the guide said, ‘You wanted to fish the high-water season, well, you’ve got your wish because we’ve never seen this river this high!’ ”

But Sutton said they decided right then to make the best of it. And that can-do attitude proved to be the turning point in the trip. Before long, Sutton found himself in a boat with Sulocki and their local guide Manasses, experiencing the fishing trip of a lifetime … in more ways than one.

Using tackle that ranged from typical bass-sized baitcasting rigs to large ocean-going rods and Penn saltwater spinning reels spooled up with 130-pound test mono, it wasn’t long before Sutton and Sulocki heard the sweet sound of a reel’s drag singing in the jungle as a huge whiskerfish sped downstream.

Sometimes, the fish were manageable in size, leading to a good fight and a quick photo opportunity before release. A few became fresh sashimi and various forms of dinner, with the juices of wild fruits growing in the Brazilian jungle accenting their flavor.

Keith Sutton with a tiger surubim, one of several species of large catfish caught in the Xingu.

“Our total catch was into the hundreds, we caught fish constantly,” said Sutton. “When I got there, our guide assured me that we would catch fish. I thought there’s no way because I couldn’t imagine fishing in a river that deep filled with flooded jungle trees, but he knew how to do it.”

A few times on the seven-day expedition, a fish of enormous proportions would get hooked, but not often caught.

“There were times those big catfish would spool me off a Penn reel loaded up with 1,000-plus yards of line and there was nothing I could do about it,” said Sutton. “It was like standing on the side of an interstate highway and hooking a semi-truck, you just could not get them to stop.”

By trip’s end, nine different catfish species had been caught along with other types of fish, including expected whiskerfish specimens like the beautiful redtail cat and the big piraiba catfish that swim in Brazil’s wild and untamed rivers. And one fish even fulfilled Sutton’s dream of catching an unknown catfish species on his angling adventure deep into the heart of the jungle.

“We caught an armored catfish that the locals called cuiu-cuiu,” he said. “It turned out to be an undescribed species of catfish that no one had ever seen before, although it turned out to be pretty common down there.”

What advice would the adventure angler from Little Rock give others contemplating a similar type of journey? Sutton says he spent months researching and planning his Brazilian trip, enlisting the aid of knowledgeable locals, having a realistic time frame for the adventure to unfold and assembling all the appropriate gear and provisions.

Some of that included what the group would eat. While there was fresh fish and fruit in the jungle, Sutton and Sulocki also had plenty of other food resources to get them through their long days on the rain swollen river.

Today, such a list would certainly include supplies of drinkable water and snacks like the protein-rich packages of Jack Link’s jerky, meat sticks, steak strips, sausages, and lunch box snacks. You can pick these up online or at retail stores around the country.

Jack Link’s protein snacks come in a variety of flavors and forms that won’t take up too much space or weigh down your backpack and deliver a power-packing wallop of protein per serving. Jack Link’s leads the way in innovation so there’s no shortage of options to carry into the heart of the jungle on an angling expedition.

Ian Sulocki shows another common resident of the Xingu that was often caught by the author and his friends: a black piranha.

From The Pounder, a 16-ounce red bag of Jack Link’s Original Beef Jerky (11-grams of protein and 80 calories per serving) to the company’s Teriyaki Beef Steak Strips (8-grams of protein and 70 calories per serving) to Jack Link’s Spicy Red Pepper Beef Smoked Sausages (7-grams of protein and 140 calories per serving), there are more than 50 different snacking options available from the nation’s top supplier of high quality jerky and meat products. Whatever your taste buds and daily needs, there is something available from Jack Link’s to help get you through your own adventure.

For those adventurers on Keto, Paleo, or diabetic diets - or those who simply want to cut sugar, not flavor and quality from their daily food intake – there’s also the option of the brand-new Jack Link’s Zero Sugar Jerky. Staying true to the original recipe of the Link family, this new beef jerky product delivers 100% lean beef, 30-plus grams of protein in a single bag, and no preservatives, nitrates, or MSG.

And when you’re spending a full day in the jungle on a massively flooded river chasing huge exotic fish, being able to reach into your pack or tackle bag and pull out a body-fueling resource like Jack Link’s Jerky is a tremendous asset for the grueling hours spent on such an unpredictable journey.

“You have to know what to expect,” said Sutton. “I’m a big believer in the Boy Scout’s motto of ‘Be prepared.’ For instance, if I hadn’t known about the biting pium flies, I wouldn’t have had the right insect repellent. And without it, I don’t think I could have stayed because they were everywhere. Even with repellent, I looked like I had been hit with a shotgun blast when I got home thanks to the blisters they caused.”

While danger can lurk in the jungle in many forms from the alligator-like caiman to large snakes like anacondas to biting insects like disease-carrying mosquitoes, Sutton said the most dangerous part of the trip to him was simply on a rain-swollen river in a small boat, something that always mandated him wearing a life jacket.

But he also noted that there is ample beauty in the Xingu River region in the form of the jungle trees, plants, flowers, birds, monkeys, butterflies, and of course, the fish.

For Sutton, while the whole trip was memorable, there was one single moment of stunning beauty that stood out from all the rest.

“When I got down on the water right after we got there, I could look up and see the little lodge we were staying in, and for some reason, it reminded me of Hilton’s Shangri-La in the Himalayas,” said Sutton.

“I told Ian about the story and mentioned that he’d have to read it someday. Not long after that, as the gorgeous orange sunset was peeking in and out of the trees with the dark purple rain clouds scattered about, Ian hooked a big catfish. It fought hard, and I could feel its vibrations through the bottom of the boat as he fought it.

“It was a beautiful redtail that weighed about 67-pounds, and it took Ian quite a while to get it to the boat. He finally got it in, got it up in his arms with our guide looking on, and the photo was unbelievable.

“As I looked at it all (through the camera’s viewfinder), I thought ‘This is my Shangri-La.’”

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