Granted, most fly anglers are far older, fatter, and smooth-skinned than the types of souls who would endeavor to tread at an altitude where commercial airliners fly, or ride a lethal wall of water at speeds that make white sharks blink as you buzz past…

But we still dream, and tilt at our own windmills, and chase holy grails. The cool thing is that our grails are always living, elusive creatures – and the only reward most of us really wish for is a mere chance to connect with them for brief instants, perhaps touch them in passing, and ultimately let them go.

For the fly angler, the quest most often starts with a trout. Having figured that puzzle out enough to gain some confidence, you might then find yourself wading a tropical flat, searching for bonefish, or standing in a sideways snowstorm, lobbing thousands of casts, hoping for a tug from a wild steelhead. Then you might decide the fickle permit is worth the effort. You might pull on a prehistoric tarpon (and it only takes one of those to change your world forever), or a mako shark, or a colorfully-exotic peacock bass.

Then, the more “sophisticated” you become, the more you realize that the old “trash fish” carp that’s been swimming in the dirty water right down the road all along, is far from stupid, so you try to figure out how to catch it with a fly also.

Trust me. It’s an expensive, exhausting, always fascinating, sometimes dangerous vortex that sucks you in, and consumes part of your soul. But at the end of the odyssey, the final stop on the road is where you’re going to find one fish, and one fish only.

The arapaima.

Schoolchildren in Rewa

The waiting game

The arapaima is the largest freshwater fish (with scales) on the planet. It can grow to over 300 pounds, and more than several feet long. Native to South America, it once flourished throughout the Amazon drainage and other tropical river systems. But it also had the unfortunate characteristic of being incredibly tasty, so it was commercially fished, and eaten into submission throughout most of its natal range. The arapaima has hence been propped up, farmed, and transplanted internationally, but aside from some carefully cultivated, human-manipulated habitats where arapaimas have been nurtured and protected, there are scant-few places in this world where wild arapaima populations exist. A quiet, endemic southwest corner of the tiny South American country of Guyana – specifically, the Rewa River drainage – is one of those last places.

All of that is not meant to suggest that arapaimas aren’t mighty. Indeed they are. Hook a tarpon and it will rip line from your reel as it bolts toward the horizon. Hook an arapaima, on the other hand, and it’s just as apt to attack the boat and slap the gunwales with its tail, leaving the angler fumbling and shattered, trying to figure out just what the hell to do.

Arapaimas are apex jungle predators. But they aren’t toothy, vicious creatures. Their mouths are hard buckets of bone, meant to inhale and crush whatever swims around them.

Arapaimas are also supremely subtle in a way that defies their size. For the angler, the challenge is twofold. First you have to find them. Though they live in stagnant murky waters (usually jungle ponds created when raging tropical rivers recede from their banks), they’re air-gulpers. You’ll either see a scant trace of bubbles in the slack water, or often times, you’ll only hear a muted “gloop” that stands out amongst the constant whining and wailing of insects, birds and monkeys in the canopy. Or, if you have sharp eyes and are lucky, you might just catch a glint of pinkish-crimson, the only telltale scales along an arapaima’s otherwise muted and camouflaged flank, as it slinks through shallow brown water. At that point, you have to guess if it’s headed to the left or to the right.

And that’s when it gets really difficult.

Because you are usually fishing in relatively serene water – and because arapaimas have the most sensitive lateral lines of any fish in the world, which can sense vibrations from great distances – a rushed, clunky cast will never work. Somehow, some way, you must figure out how to hoof a fly that’s several inches long (most often, one that looks like a small peacock bass… most anglers go to South America to fish for peacock bass… when arapaima fishing, you cast with a peacock bass fly…) and drop it several inches in front of the target, then make it look alive, without undo commotion. It’s like trying to throw a small chicken with a 14-weight, 50 or 60 feet, without making much of a splash. Then don’t fumble with the line, and try to make that fly swim “naturally.”

Assuming you can pull that off, if the fish follows and grabs the fly, it gets even more difficult.

While the arapaima does not have dagger teeth, their mouths are stony-hard. Imagine trying to sink a finish nail into a cinder block, from 50 feet away, by pulling on a fly line connected to a 60-pound fluorocarbon leader. That’s what trying to set a hook into an arapaima feels like.

Nine times out of 10, you’re left heartbroken. On the tenth try, you’re left with a near heart attack.

Their mouths are hard buckets of bone, meant to inhale and crush whatever swims around them.

—Cabot Norton

We anglers often hear of scenarios where people are responsible for saving certain fish. Because we love the fish, and want to catch the fish, we do what it takes to protect the ecosystem and keep the fish around, both for ourselves, and also for future generations. And that’s always wonderful.

In the case of the Rewa River, the indigenous Rewa Village (and the Makushi Indian tribe) in southern Guyana, we’re already seeing how the fish, and the ecosystem, can
save the people.

Guyana is an amazing place. Roughly the size of Idaho, this small South American country is home to more bird species, for example, than all of North America. It also boasts the most endemic species – species only to be found in that place – than anywhere else on the planet.

It also doesn’t take long to realize that this part of Guyana is also home to the “largest” of most critters; the largest river otters in the world, the largest spiders, the largest land rodents, large bats, large fish, large jungle cats, and yes – the largest snakes (anacondas) to be found anywhere.

And in truth, it’s also apparent that, as is the rule of the wild jungle, most creatures want to eat you, from the smallest water-born parasites and insects, to the jaguars and crocodilian reptiles. You have to be careful where you tread, in and out of the water. And as we spent a few nights sleeping under a tarp in the open jungle, slung in hammocks and draped in mosquito netting, I couldn’t hide the feeling as I nodded off (uneasily) that I was akin to a perfectly-wrapped prosciutto ham, dangling under the trees.

But our native guides were ever vigilant and there to protect us. They have now found, through the unlikeliest of circumstances, that angle – and fishing – might well be the key to them sustaining their culture and way of life.

Like many indigenous communities in the South American forests, the Makushi – who only a generation ago, did not speak English (the official language in Guyana) and did not trade with currency – have faced constant pressures to develop their lands and trade their traditional ways of life, for the sake of profit and progress.

There’s gold to be mined in the jungle. There’s money to be made by clear-cutting the trees. There’s also money to be made via poaching, and selling exotic birds, and so forth.

But because fly-fishing came to this area, the Makushi now have an alternative. By opening a modest eco-lodge operation, catering to a mere handful of anglers who seek to catch – and release – the wild arapaima fish in this region, for only a couple weeks in the spring, and a couple weeks in the fall every year, they can maintain their village, and their landscape, with minimal impact.

In fact, what impacts that have resulted have been positive. For example, a new clean water system, a new school, radically improved healthcare, and steady employment for those many who directly and indirectly cater to this quest for catching, and scientifically studying, the last, great wild fish on earth.

It’s truly remarkable. Proof, that fly-fishing, even in limited doses, can be the catalyst for saving the last intact indigenous cultures, and places, on the planet.

Tugging the boats

Spotting arapaima

People often ask me: “What is your favorite fish?” Or, “What was your favorite adventure?” Or “What was your favorite story you ever wrote?”

And, of course, I can never give a straight answer, because that’s like asking a parent who their favorite child is.

I love all the fish, and all the adventures, and more importantly, all the people I’ve shared those experiences with. I have equally fond memories of catching 10-inch native cutthroat trout in the backcountry in Colorado with dear friends and mentors, as I have catching 100-pound tarpon or mako sharks with other close friends. Flying in Russian helicopters chasing gargantuan rainbow trout with mouse flies, wading Bahamian flats, two-handing for Atlantic salmon in Iceland – the list goes on and on.

The real answer is – it’s all good. All incredibly meaningful. Wouldn’t trade any of it for the world.

But if the question were couched just a little bit differently, to ask: “Where did you feel the most alive, on any of your travels?” Well, in that case, the answer would be simple.

I think of one particular evening, running down the Rewa River in Guyana, in a boat with Oliver White (who had guided me and taught me all about arapaima), and Al Perkinson (who had the vision to connect sport fishing with Guyana and arapaima), with native guide Rovin Alvin manning the motor in the back of the boat.

We had been up-river, and landed an arapaima in a secluded lake. Darkness had fallen, and as we motored downstream toward Rewa Village, I couldn’t help but notice the hundreds of red, beady eyes along the riverbank (black caiman eyes). And I knew if we hit a rock or a stump in the darkness, and were thrown from the boat, we’d be in deep trouble.

But Rovin knew that water like the back of his hand. (It’s amazing how a shared respect for nature can foster instant camaraderie and respect among people who come from vastly different places). And the stars and sky were so stunningly beautiful, like shimmering diamonds set on a deep blue, velvet backdrop.

It was so raw, and primal, and honest – all the while I’m thinking, “How in the world did I ever get here?”

Yet, at the same time, I knew I was there for a reason. And I knew I had experienced an ultimate story, and perhaps an ultimate purpose.

Fishing, and catching, and sharing those things are one thing. But doing that, with effect, in a place so natural, so wild, and knowing how we all might actually be able to do something together to keep that around. 

Well, that has stuck in my mind ever since. I still have dreams about the arapaima, and Guyana. You can think about many things with your eyes wide open. It’s what you dream about, after the fact that speaks back to you with greatest effect.

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