Fly Fishing Exploration and Discovery in the Amazon — Arapaima in Brazil with Rodrigo Salles and Untamed Angling

arapaima fly fishing Rafael Costa
Ph: Rafael Costa

Rodrigo Salles and Marcelo Perez of Untamed Angling have been exploring jungle destinations in Brazil and Bolivia for a number of years. At every opportunity, they have uncovered incredible fisheries and have set up relationships with local communities that allow for unique guided fly fishing experiences in a model that promotes sustainability and stewardship. Among their destinations, Pirarucú stands out, as it is an exceptional place to catch giant arapaima on the fly. Rodrigo recently sat down for an interview about Pirarucú with The Venturing Angler:

How did you come to discover this destination?

Marcelo and I were searching the very best place for arapaima on the fly for several years.

We spent lot of time exploring remote reserves and understanding over the years what would be the perfect place for arapaima fly fishing. The key was to find the perfect place with high concentration of fish, clear water (much of arapaima habitat is in muddy waters watersheds), and ideal fishing conditions.

The search took us to the largest protected arapaima reserve on the planet: Mamirauá. This reserve of 1,1 million hectares was discovered in the 80s by the great naturalist and scientist Marcio Ayres and from there their mission was to protect an area with some of the largest biodiversity of the Amazon, in and out of water.

However the big question became our biggest challenge, because Mamirauá is a protected area and under strict laws for conservation with no fishing regulations since the beginnings. Fishing for arapaima was prohibited within the reserve in any form. What we didn’t know that at our first encounter with the place, and this became the key to our future entrance to this nirvana. Local communities had just received a permit to manage a small percentage of pirarucús for sale under strict control of authorities. Needless to say, we found the place — the Pirarucú Nirvana!

We presented a proposal similar to our other projects in the jungle — Tsimane in Bolivia and Marié in Brazil — which is the concept of total partnership with local Indian communities to create a fly fishing tourism project supported by biological studies and at the same time generating income in a sustainable way for local communities all while preserving their culture, rivers, and fish.

The proposal at the beginning seemed surreal or even ridiculous for local communities. How could we fish for pirarucú with those thin rods and lures made of feathers with a small hook, and even more, bring tourists to this madness?! Accustomed to fishing for arapaima with harpoons, the leaders of the local association and community members living within the Mamirauá reserve did not seem to believe in our idea.

In a very large meeting with all communities to present our idea and the project, I introduced the concept of the proposal and fly fishing for arapaima. And I saw a typical situation … it was literally stamped on everyone’s faces that I was speaking in another language and presenting some real crazy ideas. Those ideas were the laughingstock for several minutes, especially by the most experienced local fishermen when they saw the fly fishing equipment that we proposed to catch arapaima.

Soon, after several minutes of laughs and excitement, some members of the communities even left the meeting. With much effort, I brought everyone back into the floating barge (the site of the meetings) and decided to present them a tarpon fly fishing video.

I asked for everyone’s attention, and as soon as the audience began to see the jumps, the fight, and the large tarpon being caught on the fly, their faces began to change. The joke and the laughs turned into curiosity. YES! They seemed to understand that it was possible to catch a big fish with this ridiculously light equipment.

Right after the end of the film, the association’s president came with a big question. The arapaima is different. It can sink a canoe. How do you think that fly fishing could work?

Immediately I proposed a scouting session — a proof that it is possible to catch them on the fly. And I proposed we all do it together. The excitement filled the room like a high stakes gamble. The challenge was put forward.

Soon after a long deliberation, all the communities decided that if this proved successful, they would study the proposal to change the commercial management (fishing) of arapaima for the fly fishing tourism project!

We ended up catching two fish the next day, and the communities decided to change their harvest license to create a new project of catch and release fly fishing for arapaima.

In our exploratory season of four weeks in 2015, we hooked and landed more than 300 arapaima among 16 anglers!

arapaima Brazil fly fishing
Ph: Camilo Duarte

What drew you to set up an operation around arapaima? 

Personally I believe that there is an ancestral relationship between tarpon and arapaima. There are great similarities between the two species that make me believe, although I do not have the biological knowledge to assert scientifically, that these fish must have had some common ancestors.

Like tarpon, arapaima, also breathe air through rolling movements to surface. The pirarucú perform this respiratory movement on the surface every 15-20 minutes. The indigenous tribes of the Solimoes Basin relate this movement to the spirit of the jungle that rises the great Amazonian rivers to show their size and therefore their power, but above all to observe what their human descendants are doing.

The great part of the Amazon Indian tribes has legends and beliefs that are direct descendants of the big mother fish or big snake. This large animal left his descendants on earth in human form, and it is a pirarucú duty to take care of their descendants living the riverbanks.

The spirit of the jungle rises on the surface and then disappears into the depths, and the power of this goliath can only be expressed by the size it has. People have had their wooden canoes dragged or even turned in the battle with this huge fish.

The respect that communities have for the arapaima caught my attention. The allure of being able to consistently fish for the largest species in the Amazon became an obsession. The engine of our quest was to know that untouched wild places full of pirarucú still exist in remote parts of the Amazon. And it’s similarity to the tarpon was the fuel that fed our confidence. We were certain we could have success using the same angling techniques.

The Mamirauá Reserve is scientifically proven to have the largest population of wild arapaima on earth. That makes the dream to catch big numbers (and not one or two per week) of arapaima on the fly come true.

During each fishing week, an experienced angler is likely to hook a fair number of arapaima with average sizes at an astounding 60 pounds. The average numbers in past two season was 3.5 fish landed per day per angler and several more lost (broken lines, rods, bent hooks). For numbers, it’s better to go for the shallower smaller (10-60 pounds) fish in the bays. For the larger and potential trophy fish (80-300 pounds), anglers should concentrate on blind casting and dredging the depths of the lake and channels where the concentration of fish are rolling. The toughest part of fishing for arapaima is the hook set. Possessing mouths like stone and bone, anglers will need to get a firm hook set and constantly keep the pressure on the fish. Again, fishing for pirarucú is very similar to fishing for tarpon.

Untamed Angling arapaima
Are there other species down there?

While arapaima are one of the main focuses, there are three other species one can catch on the fly at Pirarucú. Tambaqui are a close relative of the pacu and can grow up to 100 pounds and are normally found in the 8 to 20 pound range. They readily take artificial flies, as they are an omnivorous fish that will eat anything including fish, bugs, fruit, or nuts. Pound for pound, they are stronger than pacu and are extremely powerful.  An 8/9 weight outfit with either floating or intermediate tip lines are perfect for these fish that resemble a freshwater permit.

We also have arowana. These wonderful fish are also omnivorous and a close relative of arapaima but much smaller. There are lots of arowana in the reserve, and they extremely interesting to catch on the fly. They will take streamers or big dry flies, and they are known to jump out of the water to find food in low-hanging branches. They frequently hover just below the surface in shallow stretches of water, making for prime sight-casting targets. 6/7 weight rods with floating lines are ideal for arowana as they can reach up to 10 pounds.

As you may know, we love peacock bass, and we have the yellow species down here. These smaller peacock bass range in size from 2 to 8 pounds and act much like their larger cousins found elsewhere in the Amazon.  Medium-sized streamers and poppers on 5/6 weight rods will do the trick.

Tambaqui fly fishing
Ph: Rafael Costa

What is the Mamirauá Sustainable Development Reserve?

Pirarucú is located within the Mamirauá Reserve. About 600 km west of Manaus, it is a complex of lakes and channels between the Solimões River and Japura River. Mamirauá was the first Sustainable Development Reserve in Brazil, legislated by the Government of Amazonas in 1996, and remains the largest arapaima reserve in the world. The purpose of the Sustainable Development Reserve is to find a balance between biodiversity conservation and the sustainable development of an area inhabited by human populations. Mamirauá covers an area of 1,124,000 hectares and Tefé, the region’s primary urban center, is located an hour and a half boat ride from Pirarucú.

The water in the core of the reserve is called “black water” in the Amazon, which, despite being dark tinting from jungle leaves, is actually quite clear, allowing for sight casting opportunities for a variety of different species.

You have a unique relationship with the local community and the government. How does that work?

We are partners with the local native communities in a complete partnership where we set a unique working relationship with them. We have developed a project-based model that offers an equitable partnership with the indigenous communities and sustains the preservation of their environment, culture, and traditions. The biggest difference we have with the regular tourism is that we assume the business role and the Native people just work on activities related to their culture. We both share the profits of the project 50-50, and the result is the a successful tourism project in all aspects.

We produce thorough environmental reports every season and devote our efforts to studying the fish population and their life cycles. We work with small groups of guests so that environmental impact is kept to a minimum.

We also involve legal authorities in order to build a solid, long-lasting legal framework that guarantees the protection of our projects by ensuring a sustainable use of the resources. We work cooperatively with the environmental agency of the government in the Amazon as well as the non-profit organization — The Mamirauá Institute.

Finally, we are in continuous search of innovative ideas that can help us reduce our ecological footprint, whether through the use of renewable energy, proper waste management, or recycling.

Rodrigo Salles arapaima Brazil
Ph: Rafael Costa

Is it pretty difficult to catch an arapaima on fly?

It seems difficult at first. However, in Mamirauá, there are everywhere. And they are eating and eating. If you do everything right, you will likely hook many. Getting a proper hookset and landing one of these leviathans is another story.

arapaima rod Rafael Costa
Ph: Rafael Costa

What gear and flies do you use and recommend?

For Arapaima, we use 10 weight rods with floating and intermediate lines for the smaller arapaima as well as 11/12 weight rods for the larger fish. For these fish, we use heavy sinking lines (400-600 grain depending on water depth). All rigs require strong leaders (80-100# test) rigged with large streamers that imitate the baitfish found in the arapaima’s home waters.

In our opinion, there is no other place where you can catch so many arawana on the fly. These wonderful fish are also omnivorous and eat almost any insect or bait fish presented to them. So anglers will want to use streamers or big dry flies. Arawana are jumpers, and they will often jump out of the water to find food in low-hanging branches. They frequently hover just below the surface around structure and shorelines making for prime sight-casting targets.

How difficult is it to get down there?

Pirarucú is really an easy place to travel to from the U.S. Manaus is our base town in the Amazon and is only a four hour and 30 minute flight from Miami (with daily flight service). And from Manaus to Pirarucú, we fly a commercial jet plane for a 45 minute flight to Tefe followed by a 50 minute boat ride through a giant Amazon river.

Also, Pirarucú is a perfect destination for non-anglers as well and can be perfect if they want to bring one’s family. There are many non-angler activities there that are run by a professional team of naturalist English-speaking guides, from photo safaris to birdwatching to jaguar expeditions (yes there are many jaguars there) to experiencing the local culture and communities and more.

What are the accommodations like?

Pirarucú uses the community-based eco lodge for accommodations. The lodge is managed by the local community’s association in one of the very first native-based tourism programs in the Amazon. Originally built for ecotourism and bird watching, the lodge is simple but very comfortable and beautiful. It is a floating lodge, constructed of local woods. It is still utilized as an ecotourism lodge primarily for bird watching and wildlife viewing, and it is regarded as one of the top five bird watching areas in the Amazon. So it’s a perfect destination for non-anglers as well since there are lots of activities like bird safaris, jungle treks with pro guides, and visits to local communities. The lodge has 10 floating cabins, each with two en suite rooms, four of which are being refurbished to accommodate our angling guests. The main lodge building features a dining room, living room, and kitchen. Everything is on the water and is connected with wood platforms. The lodge is located in the heart of the reserve, with very short run times to the fishing. In fact, on most days, guests will return to the lodge for a well-prepared lunch before returning for an afternoon fishing session. Phone service and satellite WIFI Internet are also available.

What’s your number one piece of advice for anglers venturing down there?

Prepare your soul for one of the most intense fly fishing experiences of your life. All the nature and wildlife in the reserve are stunning, and in our opinion, the fly fishing for arapaima is the ultimate challenge for a fly angler. Getting these amazing sportive fish on the fly is an overwhelming experience.

To learn more about Pirarucú, please click here.

Disclosure: Untamed Angling is in a professional relationship with The Venturing Angler. Though potentially benefiting from this relationship, we do not post what we do not believe to be true. To read more, click here.

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