Sunday, 23 March 2014

Never get out of the boat. - Guyana : November 2013

Guyana : November 2013

British Guyana stamp featuring an Arapaima
and her Majesty the Queen
(it looks like she can smell it)

Having sat on my allowance of holiday days all year, some other travel plans fell through so I started seriously thinking about fishing in the Amazon.   To fish here has been a dream of mine from the wilderness years between the ages of 17-37 when I had stopped fishing in favour of other pursuits.  I remember seeing a BBC Attenborough nature documentary about the Amazon where a little guy perches on the front of his canoe in a little creek and attaches a feather and a hook to the end of a whippy stick.   He proceeds to wiggle this about just under the water for a few seconds and WHAM.  He hauls out a large peacock bass.  I thought to myself that 'that has got to be a great place to go fishing'.

Peacock Bass
Many years later in September 2013 I found myself fortunate enough to have holiday, money in the bank and a rekindled love of fishing.  Previous fishing holidays to India had turned out to be wonderful experiences so I began to seriously look into living the dream and fishing the mighty Amazon.



I started where I always start any project - The internet.  If you go looking for 'Amazon Fishing' or similar on the interweb you will probably come across Steve Townson.  He'd popped up on the forum of the Lure Anglers Society telling us tales of lure fishing fun in the Amazon and people were a tiny bit sniffy as he was obviously promoting his business of Amazon-Angler.com.   I was intrigued and went along to www.amazon-angler.com to see what kind of thing they were doing.  It all looked very exciting with this one http://www.amazon-angler.com/essequibo-river-trip/4577908464 looking best to tick all the boxes of your favourite Amazon fish species despite not actually being the Amazon river itself.

I sent an email to inquire if there were any trips at the back end of 2013 that I could attach myself to and Steve rang me straight up with a few alternatives and informed me that the Guyana Essequibo 6 day trip in November and 9 day one in February both had places and would be just the thing for me.  While a 9 day trip would have been preferable, I wanted to go this year with this year's holiday allowance from work.  I had a few phone calls with Steve discussing the ins and outs of the trip as regards tackle/travel etc and told him I'd think it over.   Next day I paid the $3000 in full - committing myself to what I hoped to be the trip of a lifetime in only 2 months time.

The die was cast so I began to spend all of my spare time in the internet and at the doctors collecting the necessary inoculations, medicines, tackle and equipment.  I had a bit of a disaster with the flights when, as I hesitated for a few minutes, The £721 Caribbean Airlines almost direct flight via Port-of-Spain disappeared leaving me with a £851 slog via JFK in New York changing from Virgin to Caribbean and then via Trinidad.  Bugger.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guyana

Guyana is an ex-colony of the glorious British Empire (The GREATEST EMPIRE THE WORLD HAS EVER SEEN) gaining independence in 1966.  This has a couple of advantages over say Brazil because it means that the people speak English as the national language and Englishmen such as myself do not need any visa.  What Englishmen do need is some protection against malaria, yellow fever, Hepatitis A&B and some other nasties found in developing tropical countries.  If you go there DO take the malaria medicine.  Mr T told us that there was hardly any where we were going but, despite none of us even seeing a mosquito,  Dr Dan came down with malaria after the trip and is currently curing himself back in Seattle.  I didn't have any bad reaction to the horribly expensive Malarone malaria pills I had so decided to take them anyway even though mosquitoes seemed to be completely absent.

A trip like this is requires quite a lot of expenditure tackle wise.  2-3 med to heavy spinning or baitcasting setups are required for the peacock bass, payaras etc and you need a heavy setup with miles of 100lb braid for bottom fishing for the big catfish etc.  Obnoxious surface lures such as woodchopper propbaits, spooks are apparently the thing and I didn't have any belief in these as pike lures so only owned one little spook.

  I gathered from Caribbean airlines that they wouldn't take any hold items over 5 foot or so.  This meant I couldn't take my uptide rod for the big catfish as that was 6'6" packed and carp rods etc only go down to 6'.  Steve had advised that travel rods were the way to go.  I would agree with that as there are few things worse than arriving thousands of miles away for the fishing trip of a lifetime to find that the rod tube does not arrive intact.  Unfortunately this meant I would have to buy ALL the rods for the trip.

Shakespeare 8' travel 20-30lb boat rod.  Decent and cheap.


Finding the right travel rods and buying them on spec from the internet was hard work and a bit risky and I ended up having to get three catfish rods when the Shakespeare 8' travel boat rod arrived with a tiny first guide suitable only for a multiplier reel & no good for casting and a mis-purchase on my part delivered a hideous telescopic (ffs) catfish rod with about 4 rings on it.  Happily the awful thing had been damaged in transit and I got the £45 (you gets what you pays for) back.  What I had meant to buy was this Daiwa MEGAFORCE 5 piece big fish travel rod.

Tackle Review interlude - Daiwa Megaforce big fish travel rod.


Excalibur - Daiwa Bigfish Catching Rod.

I eventually got this rod off a french website which seems to be the world's only stockist.  When it arrived it was a huge relief as when I put its 5 dinky sections together it became a 9'6" beast of a rod suitable for casting large weights and baits a reasonable distance with fixed spool or multiplier reels.  Its almost as nice as the Shimano one I borrowed from Joe the mahseer king on the last trip to India.  I intend to have mine altered now to move the reel seat as far up the 1st section as possible as it is far too low to cast a multiplier comfortably.
At £63 this rod was amazing value and is strong enough for the biggest tropical monster catfish, mahseers, Nile perch etc.  The biggest fish I ever saw in my life was landed on my setup of the Daiwa rod with a US style baitrunner and 80lb braid and I landed a fish bigger than me on it.  Watch the videos later in this article to see how it performs on giant fish.  This bigfish catching tool also takes up very little room inside a large suitcase.  Heaps recommended.  **** 4 stars out of 5.  Missing out on a maximum because of the odd positioning of the reel seat.

Shopping for sub 7 foot travel lure rods was also not easy as there isn't a huge amount of choice.  I didn't want to get into baitcasting gear as the Amazon with its lairy big fish is not the place to be learning to cast.

SG Roadrunner - took 2 of these.
Eventually I settled on the 7' Savage Gear  Roadrunner 10-40g for heavier stuff and a Sakura Shinjin 3 piece 6'6" 7-30g as a lighter rod.  The Shinjin turned out to be a lovely little rod (as it should be for over £90) and drew admiration from other anglers on the trip while the Roadrunner acquitted itself well.  For the propbaits a short baitcaster would work better but both rods worked nicely with the 2500 Rarenium going on the Shinjin with 30lb braid and the 4000 Rarenium(s) going on the Roadrunner with 50lb braid.
Sakura Shinjin 3-piece.  Lovely little rod

I ended up taking the 5 rods with me (Shakespeare and Daiwa catfish rods plus 2x Roadrunners and the Shinjin) - all packed in the suitcase along with 3x Rarenium fixed spinning reels, a worryingly small Baitrunner-D 8000 with almost 200 yards of 80lb braid and the Daiwa SLOSH 40 with 300 yards of 100lb braid on it.  My reasoning was that even with a broken rod or spooled-out/broken reel I'd still be able to make a catfish setup from the remains and its good to have a spare spinning setup.  Two of my outfits went overboard during the trip but were retrieved by the excellent guides saving me £100s.

Further expenditure on lures and braid and heavy catfish/arapaima hooks etc followed until I stopped buying stuff about a week before departure.  Some of this was wasted money as circle hooks don't seem to follow any consistent pattern or size so I ended up with some awful shite and most of the heavy trace wire I bought turned out to be rubbish.

The journey in.


Eventually the big day arrived.  With Friday off work I was able to double check my equipment and take my time getting down to Heathrow for my evening flight.  It was a Virgin Atlantic flight to JFK.  The service/entertainment etc on Virgin is good but really don't like the pokey seats and pathetic legroom.  I'm only 5'10" and I find it really cramped. JFK is not recommended for transfer passengers either as they make you retrieve your hold luggage and check in again to the onward flight meaning that you have to go through the surly US immigration process just to fly out in a couple hours.  Assuming I was just transferring on I didn't know that you need an ESTA VISA just to get your bags and had a fraught hour at Heathrow obtaining one as I wasn't allowed to check in for my flight without one.   The only good thing about this flight was that I was able to go out into the lovely New Jersey air for a cigarette.
Hours of long haul tedium followed and a huge convoy of wheelchair bound elderly Guyana/Trinidad visitors gathered at JFK for the Caribbean airlines flight.  A relaxing flight with a stop at Port of Spain with wheelchairists leaving and others joining the short onward flight to Georgetown Guyana.  No mention was made of the fact that the flight started late and got ever more delayed - arriving in GT 1.5 hours late.
Mouth of the mighty Essequibo river as viewed from the plane.
I emerged blinking into the tropical heat of Guyana before queueing for what seemed like an eternity at immigration while the wheelchair bound hordes were ushered through ahead of me and the few able bodied passengers.  I was supposed to arrive at 07:20 but it was 09:30 before I came through to find nobody waiting for me at arrivals.  I wandered around to see if my lift was coming and eventually was approached by Navin - the local tour operator/outfitter.  He'd inquired to see if a mr David Daints (my internet pseudonym) was on the delayed flight but there was only a David White (me) so he didn't know if I'd come or not. (see end of article for definition of daints)
I enjoyed talking to Navin on the hour or so drive into Georgetown to the hotel  I was booked into for the first night.  The group was to assemble at 6am the following morning to drive up country south to the river.
Navin seemed like a pretty clever guy and we talked at length about the fishing and Guyana and cricket.  Being a West Indian of Indian ancestry he knew everything about cricket and we looked forward to the hiding England were going to give Australia in the Ashes series starting while I was in the jungle.  When I came out England had begun to self destruct and, as I write, have already collapsed to a humiliating 5-0 whitewash losing the Ashes with key players J Trott and G Swann retiring/coming home mentally ill and everybody being dominated by the resurgent Australian oiks.
  
Jiminy Wickets stares dejectedly at the crack-torn Perth pitch as the
awful Australians celebrate thrashing England
 in the Ashes series.
At the hotel I met Mr Chip McCann from Massachussets who was one of the anglers on the trip and we went for a spot of lunch at the nice hotel we thought we were staying in.  To me Georgetown looked a bit rough and was not the sort of place I would go for a wander round on my own.  After an attempted snooze back at the hotel a further 3 trip members arrived.  They were Keevin and Marlene Windel from near Anchorage Alaska with their daughter Melissa who lived in Baton Rouge Louisiana.  We all went out for a bite to eat and Oma (Navin's wife) kindly showed us around Georgetown.  Most of Georgetown is below sea level so there are numerous nasty ditches around the place which look like top malaria mosquito breeding locations.  Upon our return to the hotel Chip went on to bed and Keevin, Marlene and I had a couple of drinks.  I obtained a small bottle of rum and Marlene and I ended up fairly drunk - a theme that would continue for the rest of the week.

I didn't take any decent photos in Georgetown but this short video shot from Navin's car gives you an idea of what its like.
video

Jet lag made it a bit difficult to sleep and I woke up several times during the night.  Early in the morning I woke up to find A MAN in the other bed in my room.  This was a bit worrying as I did not know who he was or where he had come from.  As I struggled to full consciousness the reclining figure introduced itself as Dan.  I was relieved to find he was the final member of the fishing trip - retired surgeon Dr Dan Froese from Seattle.   I wish I'd been informed that I was sharing a room as I would have put some clothes on.  I have a horrible feeling that I may have gone for a drunken wee in the ensuite while he was there.  I just hope I didn't have a morning glory on.   Dan turned out be an excellent fellow who, having done his medical degree in England, actually understood the game of cricket which is very rare for Americans.

At 6am we gulped some coffee down and were all off in the magic bus driven by a man called 'Magic' for a long drive south down to Kurupukari village in the jungle where we were to be picked up and boated up to the fishing camp upstream - hopefully in time to spend the first night in camp.  The Essequibo river flows hundreds of miles north out of Guyana into the Caribbean and is the biggest river between the Amazon and the Orinoco.

After picking up Magic's wife and very sweet little daughter in the outskirts of Georgetown we headed off down a decent paved road to the town of Linden following the Demerara river.
The magic bus outside a fish n chip shop.
We dropped off Mrs Magic and daughter in Linden and stopped for a snack from Gloria's Shop (pictured).  Linden seems to be all about the extraction of bauxite and you can see the stuff coming out of the ground for many miles around.  There was a dock where large ships were loaded with bauxite before heading back down the Demerara river.  Linden was to be our last look at civilisation for many hours as the paved road ran out just outside the town giving way to the 100-odd miles of dirt road we were to travel to get to Kurupukari.

The author disguised as Steve Irwin at breakfast

Local man and baby enjoying some cool coconut milk at Gloria's shop.
I had never travelled on a proper tropical dirt road before and it was not the best part of the trip.  The road is only passable during the dry seasons as it turns back into red mud when it rains.  Scenery was pretty much invisible as the tropical rainforest jungle crowds in to the roadside the whole way.  Punctures seem to be de-rigeur on this road as there was an abandoned truck tyre every 50-100 yards for a hundred miles or more.  The road was bumpy/muddy/rutted along the edges and the middle section which looked OK was not useable as it had taken on a 'washboard' surface where bouncing tyres & suspension amplify consecutive bumps in the road that threaten to shake your teeth out if you drive on it.
  


This dirt road was what we saw/felt/breathed for 7-8 hours
Occasional widely dispersed settlements/logging/mining camps were passed and we drove with the windows open meaning that all the occupants of the magic bus were covered in a layer of the fine red tropical dust that the mud road becomes when it is dry. Occasional sounds of howler monkeys and birds were heard over the bangs and squeals from the magic bus transmission and suspension as the heroic vehicle protested at the abuse it was being subjected to.  I was a little disappointed not to see many birds and animals on the drive but occasionally large butterflies of the most intense electric blue colour would remind me of the teeming life that must be only yards away in the forest.
About 6 hours into the arduous drive we stopped for lunch at a truck stop near to a very large logging place. Primary industries of logging and mining are pretty much all that is going on in the small portion of Guyana easily accessible by road.

Macaw at truck stop.
(Other pecked-half-to-death macaw not pictured)


The truck stop turned out to be really nice with excellent curry lunches from the restaurant at about 1200 Guyana $ (One US dollar gets you 200 of these).  There were a couple of blue macaws in a cage out back and a spider monkey type thing on a chain up a tree.  The monkey's chain did not reach to the ground and it swung itself off & performed a hilarious trapeze type act for me.  This performance abruptly ceased once I got the video camera on the phone working.  There were dishes of unknown bush animal on the menu as well as standard chicken & rice type fare.  Only Keevin took the plunge and ordered something other than the decent chicken curry and got a wild cow pepperpot.  This came as a black curry a bit like the Coorg pork pandhi curry I enjoyed in India and Keevin rated it highly.  We think wild cow might mean a deer of some kind or maybe a paca type animal.  I ate the wild cow pepperpot on the way back out and it really was excellent.

tasty paca
  There was a short delay getting going because the bus wouldn't start.  The connector on the battery had jogged loose but was quickly secured by Magic using the tool kit under my seat.  The road split after this stop and became narrower but smoother, presumably due to less giant logging lorries, and we were able to drive a bit faster.   We picked up a lone white woman at a remote logging camp and I got talking to her when the bus broke down again.  She was Daniela from Germany and the intrepid lady had been all alone on a trip arranged by Navin to Kaieteur Falls which is one of the biggest and highest single drop waterfalls in the world.

Kaietur Falls


After another couple hours we finally arrived at Kurupukari village with an hour or so of daylight left.  Navin had been all the way to the Brazilian border at Lethem to pick up Steve Townson who had been on the road for even longer than we had.  They met us off the bus and we immediately walked a few hundred metres into the forest to get to where the boats were ready to go.  This was my first look at the Essequibo river and it was a beautiful sight in the waning afternoon sun after the long drive.

Navin gives final instructions to chief guide Lawrence as we
prepare to leave Kurupukari for the camp.


  The luggage and meat-cooler was unloaded and put into an unseen larger boat and the guides plus Steve and the 6 guests departed immediately for the fishing camp which were were told awaited about an hour upstream.
We were a boat down as, on the trip down from camp, one of the outboards had blown up in such a serious fashion that Navin had to take it back to Georgetown for repairs.  We passed the stricken vessel moored up to a tree while we were about 20m mins or so out of camp.

Lawrence drives Chip (round head), Steve (sunglasses)
and myself (filthy) up to camp
The boats were nice little flat bottomed aluminium vessels.  The one in the picture only had 15HP on the back so the Windels plus Dr Dan came in Brian's one with 30HP on it.  They soon disappeared into the distance leaving us to take in the surroundings.   As we sped upstream through rocks and rapids expertly navigated by Lawrence I had a huge grin on my face.  After leaving a dreary English November less than 48 hours ago I was now deep in the greatest rainforest on earth and the jungle around was throbbing with life. Occasional smells of flowers wafted across the water but it was mainly just a smell of Life with some of the greatest diversity of plant, animal, bird and fish species to be found anywhere in the world.

Brian's boat - fastest in the fleet
It is reported to have made the Kessel run in under 12 parsecs - in the dark.
Here the Essequibo forms one border to the Iwokrama Forest - one of the four last pristine tropical forests in the world.  The forest belongs to the Indians (Macushi?) and our guides were representatives of these local indigenous people and I was honoured to be their guest for the week.  When not guiding guests the guys would return to the traditional lifestyle of hunting pacu fish (a vegetarian relative of the piranha) with arrows and drying them out for sale and to eat.  About the only way to catch the pacu is to shoot them with arrows as they are almost impossible to tempt with a hook and line.  Navin told me of a certain kind of river weed that grows  on waterfalls that can be used as a hookbait but the bow-and-arrow method is much easier.

The vegetarian pacu. Staple diet of local Indians
with teeth very similar to my own. 
 Although I go fishing a lot I rarely fish out of boats so I found the trip up to camp quite exciting as the boats ran up rapids and scooted around big islands and rockpiles where the course of the river splits up into multiple channels.  I quickly lost all sense of direction and it was only the powerful flow of the great river against us that reassured me were heading in the right direction.  Eventually we rounded a bend to see the camp which had been set up on one of the larger sandy beaches deposited by the river when flowing hard in the rainy seasons.

The Camp



Our camp - Gilligan's Island

Guests were to be housed in tents on the beach and Dan & I shared the one under the trees at left.  Behind the beach an area of forest had been cleared leaving tall shade trees and a tarpaulin structure housed the kitchen/staff quarters.   A rustic table and benches had been constructed for guests to eat and drink at.  A generator powered 2 freezers in the kitchen and these held the meat/fish and all-important COLD BEER.

Dining area and kitchen/staff quarters

Toilet and bathroom facilities are always a worry to travellers to developing countries but we had very good sanitation.  Two oil drums were raised up 7 feet or so to provide water for the shower beneath (a tap at about 6 feet elevation.  Also provided was a proper sit down flushing porcelain toilet with an odour free soakaway beneath.

The shower

Splendid flushing sit down toilet with views of lurking caimans
The only problem with the facilities was that all the water tended to leak out of the rustic plumbing during the night.   Being jet lagged and an early riser I was usually up for a motion at about 05:30 and I had to turn on the generator to pump water up to the tanks in order to flush the thing before any subsequent lavatarians visited.  So everybody had to wake up early..

Dinner was ready when we arrived so we enjoyed a meal of freshly caught pescada fish and a few cold beers.  I was encouraged to see two 2l bottles of the excellent local El Dorado rum sitting on the table ready for us. We were pretty close to the equator and night fell very quickly as we waited for the big boat to arrive with our luggage.  Once the gear arrived and we had installed it into our respective tents we could be properly introduced to the locals.

Pescada.  Dinner on day 1

Although the people were proper indigenous forest indians they all had wonderful English sounding names.  Our guides were Lawrence, Brian, Mark and Raymond and the camp staff consisted of Thelma and her mum Sheila.  Thanks to the brilliant British colonial legacy everybody in Guyana speaks English as the main language.  It is a form of Caribbean dutty English but with practice one can pick out what people are saying through the thick accent.   Thelma had the most beautiful sing song voice and a lovely laugh like a little bird.

Sheila and Thelma
Between them these two ladies did all the cooking and cleaning around the camp as well as doing our laundry every day.  I'd like to say that all the rubbish was taken out but I think it probably just got flung into the jungle somewhere or at best burnt.  Even if it was transported all the way back to Kurupukari it would only get dumped or burnt down there as there are no bin collections/recycling facilities etc in most of Guyana.  Its the 3rd world down here and modern style rubbish is as much of a problem here as anywhere else.

The Fishing.


The plan of action for the fishing over the next 6 days was discussed over dinner.  Most people would be fishing for the usual catfish, peacock bass etc on most of the days but there was another quarry that we would be fishing for.  The Arapaima.  

Arapaima in a tank.


 There were places about 1.5 hours upstream where these freshwater giants could be fished for and the plan was for one boat to go up there every other day so as not to overdo the angling pressure on these magnificent and protected fish.   Dan and I were to make the first arapaima expedition with Brian the next day.

Now what happened on which of the days has got a little bit confused as I failed to make daily notes, preferring to spend my evenings getting drunk.   While the following things may not have happened in the order they are presented,  they definitely DID happen.

Skeleton of arapaima gigas

Monday - Arapaima day.

On morning 1 we all got up early to prepare all our tackle prior to the day's fishing.  Dan did not have any heavy gear as he was primarily a fly fisherman so I set up both my heavy catfish outfits for the arapaima fishing so he could use one.  We were a little late getting going as people swapped various tackle items to fill in the gaps in what we had all brought with us.  I was very kindly lent a nice $120 boga grip by Chip which was very useful in handling the various toothy fish we would be hoping to catch.  Eventually Brian, Dan and I set off in the fastest boat which was to be our base for the next 6 days.  As well as the two heavy outfits I had a med-heavy and medium spinning setup with the lighter outfit having a wire trace.

Local man Dennis and family in their traditional canoe


We stopped en-route to attempt to catch some bait.  Steve had asked us to use piranha as bait and leave the peacock bass alone as he loves peacock bass.  Brian had other ideas and was trying to get us small peacocks as these are the best arapaima bait.  After a few casts with one of Steve's smart 'Stevie Stinger' bucktail jigs I was into my first fish of the trip.  A large black piranha of 5lb.

The river is full of large black piranhas like this one.
That powerful mouth is big enough to bite off at least one of your balls. 
Piranha are ubiquitous here and are not nice things to have in a boat with you.  The frightening jaws open and close rapidly with an audible 'snap' and woe betide anyone who lets any part of their body get in the way.


Black piranha jaws
As well as making nuisance of themselves by stealing the bait when you are bottom fishing, piranhas will have a go at larger hooked fish as you play them with quite a few catfish coming to the boats with bits of fins chewed off.  A month or so before my trip well known globetrotting angler Joe Taylor had been out there on a trip way upstream and Brian told us how they were catching enormous catfish but the piranhas were so voracious that one of them came to the boat as a semi-eaten corpse and still weighed 80lb!

It was while bait fishing in the mouth of a small backwater about an hour upstream that I first decided to try my 7cm Salmo slider lure on the light shinjin rod.  Sliders in 10cm size are my no1 favourite pike lure and, although not appearing on Steve's list of suggested lures, I was eager to see if they were just as deadly out here as they are for domestic predators.

Deadly Salmo Slider.

All my lures had been upgraded with 4x strong hooks but the 7cm slider had on 3x strong VMC trebles which I thought would be strong enough.
I had a few casts into the margins of the mouth of the backwater and Dan also had a bash for peacocks with his 8# fly outfit with a popper fly on.  I think I might have lost a peacock bass and then hooked up into something strong.  I played the fish until we could see what it was and the salmon-like shape of a payara came into view.  Sadly the fish gave a thrash and broke off one of the points of the treble it was attached to and the slider pinged back at us with a big gouge in the side from one of the payara's big dracula front teeth.  Losing fish came to be the theme of my holiday and this was just the beginning of some heartbreaking losses for me.
A short while later something really big grabbed my slider after I had replaced the broken hook and I found myself attached to my first South American giant fish via the lightweight Shinjin rod and 2500 size mini reel with only 30lb braid.
First contact - An arapaima estimated at 100lb on
my lightest lure fishing outfit.  It did end in tears.
This was something truly huge and I knew it was the biggest fish I'd ever hooked.  The water under the boat was only 4 or 5' deep and soon the identity of the fish was revealed.  The unmistakeable red-scaled tail of a big arapaima churned the water up under the boat and I knew I was seriously under gunned for this encounter.  I had never been so excited in my fishing life as the weedy little spin rod took on an alarming bend but did not break.  The fish broke surface to breathe (yes they breathe air) on a couple of occasions accompanied by squeals of excitement and some bad language from me.  The second time it came up for air after 5 mins or so its huge head reared up out of the water and gave a shake as it tried to rid itself of the lure.  The violent shake along with the huge weight of the fish straightened out both of the hook points that secured it to my line and the plucky little plug came shooting back at me once again as the arapaima went back to sucking up fish and growing.  It was just as well this happened as it would have taken me the whole day to land the fish on such light tackle had the line/hooks held.  The 7cm slider went on to survive the entire trip full of teeth marks and was my 'go-to' lure for shallow water luring for all species.  For longer casting I also tried the floating 10cm slider and this was equally attractive to piranhas and other creatures. 
By this time we had scraped together a couple small peacock bass and piranhas for bait and it was time to fish for arapaima properly with deadbaits/cutbaits and proper heavy tackle.
Rigs were just a huge 12-14/0 circle hook on a 2 foot heavy mono trace to protect against the arapaima's funny little peg teeth.

Now the arapaima is pretty unique in the freshwater fish world in that it actually obtains its oxygen by gulping air into its specially adapted swim bladder which has lots of blood vessels in it.  The gills are just used to expel the CO2 from the blood.   This adaptation allows arapaimas to get marooned by receding river water in land locked lagoons which quickly run out of oxygen.  All the other stranded fish die but our friend the arapaima does not and proceeds to go around gulping air and also gulping down all the other fish until the waters rise again months later.  Arapaimas grow very quickly to a size when they are too big for any other fish to eat.  An arapaima becomes sexually mature at about 5 years old and are already 4 or 5 feet long.  They can grow on to be over 10 feet long and upwards of 400lb.  Once they are grown up then arapaimas really only need to fear human predation although Brian told us that someone had seen a jaguar locked in combat with an arapaima up one of the creeks.  Why don't they get eaten by piranhas? was a question that crossed my mind.  As well as being gigantic they are also heavily armoured.  I have a couple of arapaima scales as trophies and they really are incredibly tough. Click for interesting article on their amazing properties.

Angling for arapaimas takes place in the various oxbow lake type creeks where the river has changed course leaving a lagoon or still backwater with no flow but still attached to the river.  These big lazy fish do not like to contend with the flow so are normally found in slack or still waters where their air breathing adaptation can give them an advantage.

Upon arriving in our chosen creek - a large one about a mile long with a big island we started to look out for signs of surfacing arapaimas.  This surfacing to breathe has been the downfall of arapaimas throughout the amazon basin and they are now very rare as they are massive - good to eat and easy to locate and catch.  Here in Guyana they are protected and not hunted much by the locals so there are plenty of them in certain places known to our guides.

Unlike other parts of the world, Arapaima’s population in Guyana is healthy, due largely to a local belief or “taboo” that the Arapaima represents an “Oma”, Macushi (a local tribe that inhabits this area) word for “demon” or “evil spirit”, and anyone who consumes its’ meat would become ill. It is also referred to, as the “Mother” of all fish species

Sure enough loud splashes and big swirls betrayed the presence of several large arapaimas in the creek and we began to stalk them.   The MO is to find a surfacing fish nearby and then silently paddle up to it in the boat until you are within range to cast a big freelined fish bait at them.  Since they move slowly it is often good enough to launch a bait into the spot where you guess it has got to based on its direction of travel when it showed itself.   They often grab a bait almost immediately if you land it in front of them or smell the bait and circle back onto it.  As well as giving themselves away by surfacing to breathe they also produce little bubbles as they plod around so there really is no hiding place for them.
Launching baits became a bit of a problem as neither Brian nor Dan (or me!) could cast my multiplier/boat rod setup because it was a bit of a handful and I wanted to use the other rod and reel as this was precisely why I had bought them.  Dan, lovely man that he is, basically spent the whole day watching ME trying to catch arapaimas and did not complain.  His reasoning was that he really wasn't interested in anything but fly fishing. This attitude did change over the week as arapaimas and catfish were caught and tickled his fancy.
Arapaima fishing is likely to induce a heart attack as it all gets a bit intense as the anglers and guides speak in whispers and  every effort is made to avoid making any noises in the boat which could spook the fish off.  Finally the cast is made and then the wait begins in the knowledge that the most enormous freshwater fish in the world (barring certain stingrays and asian catfish) could be about to pick up the bait.  
After stalking and casting at a couple of showing fish (they are HUGE and hard to miss) I finally got a pickup and the line buzzed out of the baitrunner.

small 14/0 circle hook with iPhone 5 for scale
We had all been instructed to use only circle hooks for arapaima as the in-turned point is supposed to allow them to slide out of a fish that has swallowed it and catch in the corner of the mouth as the fish moves away from the angler.  That's the theory and the angler must not strike but just wind down onto the fish and allow the hook to slide out, turn and hook into the edge of the mouth.   



A massive arapaima puts a healthy bend in the Daiwa big fish rod,
I followed the instructions and wound into the fish until I could feel the great weight and then applied pressure to bring the rod into a healthy bend as the giant fish powered off taking the 80lb braid off effortlessly against a hard set drag.  The hookhold seemed good as I had the fish on for 5 or 10 minutes but as it breached and gave a big head shake something went wrong and the hook pinged back out of the fish and it was gone.
We reasoned that the hook must have attached itself to some superficial structure inside the fishes mouth which then broke off under pressure.  So there I was with 2 arapaimas hooked and none landed.
We resumed the frustrating business of slowly and silently chasing down and casting to the surfacing fish.  It was frustrating because you would find and cast to a fish and then work at keeping the slack out of the line to the bait as the boat drifted around only for an even bigger one (or maybe the same one) to surface out of range somewhere else.  This  went on for a couple hours until another pickup eventually happened and I followed the previous routine of winding into it.  This time I gave it a bit of a strike as suggested by Brian and I was in again.
Now you see me now you don't

We had changed to a wire trace because the heavy mono rubbing leader had been abraded by the peg teeth of the previous fish and we didn't have any more of it (I'd got a short bit from Steve at the beginning of the day but he didn't have much).  I'd made the trace by crimping the so-called 100lb 7 strand coated wire to a swivel and big circle hook but the wire actually broke this time under the weight of the fish.  It was only attached to 80lb mainline so there is no way that it should break before the line.  SHIT WIRE.  I cursed the ballbag manufacturers as the fish of a lifetime swam off with a hook in it.

ANOTHER arapaima makes a successful bid for freedom.
 Luckily Steve had brought along miles of single strand heavy wire and I used this for arapaima and catfish traces after this.  Traces are not necessary for the catfish teeth but to protect against the piranhas which will nip through mono or braid and make off with the hook and bait otherwise.
After all my failures it was now getting late so we began the trip downstream to camp hoping to arrive before dark.
We stopped off about an hour from camp for a quick shot at some catfish in a spot Brian knew.  This river is home to over 1200 species of catfish but the big three we were hoping for were the redtail catfish, The Jau and the mighty Piraiba.
Jau & redtail go to over 100lb but the piraiba/lau-lau can go well over 400lb and built like a shark with a big flat head.  All 3 of these amazon catfish species are athletic hard fighting fish and are much nicer to look at than the nasty big slimy slug-like things you get in Europe.  The redtail is often farmed and stocked into those big-fish commercials you get in Thailand.
Redtail catfish
Jau
Piraiba
I set up with the Shakespeare boat rod and multiplier while Dan set up his 8 foot spin rod and 30lb line with a catfish rig on the end.  Catfish rigs were simplicity itself with a lead egg sinker running on the line and a short wire trace with large 6/0-8/0 normal hook baited with a piece of fish.  This rig is then lowered or gently cast into a deep hole to hopefully be eaten by a catfish.

Dan got a bite pretty quickly and struck into something solid which then plodded off at a leisurely pace and was completely indifferent to having a large american man attached to it.  we gave chase in the boat and an epic battle ensued.  Dan would gain a bit of line onto the little fixed spool reel as we made ground in the boat and then the catfish would take it off again.   This war of attrition continued for nearly an hour as Dan was not able to put serious pressure on the fish with the light tackle and it had to be very gradually tired out.  Eventually the runs became shorter and he was able to finally get the fish up off the bottom.  Brian manouvred the boat to a small sand beach and Dan finished off the fight from the shore until finally the fish came into view in the gathering gloom.  It was a lovely redtail catfish that we estimated at over 60lb and we quickly snapped a couple of photos before returning it.
Catfish of the week for Dr Dan.  A genuine triumph on light tackle.
We now found ourselves in a bit of a dodgy situation.  The sun had just set and we were still an hour from camp.  Brian set off with just the afterglow from the sky to light the way through the rapids/shallows/rocks etc.   On the way up I had been marvelling at how well Brian knew the river as when travelling flat out he would suddenly throttle off and unhitch the outboard to allow it to swing up if we hit something and I would look down to see water only a few inches deep under the boat.  These guys are amazing as they know where every rock and shallow is even though the river can go up or down by 15 feet or more between wet and dry seasons.
The trip down to camp was the most frightening hour of my life.  Soon the afterglow of the sunset faded away leaving us in almost pitch darkness with just starlight to go by.  Brian was driving a little slower than he does in daylight but it was still terrifying.  I sat on the boat seat with my head in my hands as I tried not to think about the consequences of crashing the boat or smashing the propeller.  Those consequences being death by drowning/piranha/caiman.  If one ended up in the water then drifting along to a rock would be the best hope as the jungle crowds down to the water's edge so thick that it would be very difficult to get out.  If you can get out of the water then sleeping out in the jungle is a no-no as you will get nipped by little vampire bats.  The blood loss wouldn't kill you but the rabies that they carry probably will.
We'd had a full moon a the night before and I suggested to Brian that we stop and wait for the moon to come up as it was a clear night.  Undaunted he carried on and soon the light of the moon rising behind the trees gave us a tiny bit of light to steer by.
At about 7:10 - more than an hour into darkness we came in sight of the camp and there were several torches out on the beach where Steve, Chip and others were looking out for us.  Steve helpfully blinded Brian with his high powered torch as we approached.
They had kindly saved dinner for us but I couldn't eat it. I was too tense after the ride down so I opted for chainsmoking and several lovely cold Banks beers for a little while while I calmed down.

Banks Beer.
It goes down well after a near death experience.

 The other two boats had had a decent day fishing.  The large luggage boat was transformed into a 3 armchair high speed fishing luxury gin palace with both Raymond and Mark guiding for the Windels while Steve and Chip had fished in Lawrence's small boat with the 15HP outboard.
Melissa had been bagging up and had several species already.  I'm trying to get pictures in order by judging sunburn levels.  I think the one below would be from the first day or so.


Melissa with a nice payara.

 Tuesday-Thursday:  My luck runs out.

The next three days all kind of run into one for me as I pretty much failed to catch anything decent.   I was still having a fantastic time and catching fish but I had the most awful luck. My luck is normally pretty good when it comes to fishing.  On my first ever barbel fishing attempt I got a lovely 9lb one and I'd been pretty fortunate out in India catching 2 decent mahseers in shocking conditions on my first trip and landing all of the fish I hooked on the last trip.
In Guyana however it looked like my luck had ran out.  On top of the 3 arapaimas and payara I lost on Monday, most of the decent fish I hooked ended up breaking the line or somehow spitting the hook out. 
My list of things I wanted to catch on this Guyana trip were a who's who of amazon sport fish and all were possible here on the Essequibo.  I'll do this next section by giving a profile of the species before relating my experiences of them. 

Peacock Bass.  


The picture shows an absolutely enormous peacock bass from the Rio Negro in Brazil. These ultra-aggressive cichlids are present in the Essequibo but just into double figures.  A nice 5lb plus one of these would have ticked one of my boxes.  With their spectacular lure hits and lunatic fight, peacocks are regarded as one of the best sporting fish in the world and many people come to South America just to catch these.

Steve and Chip did pretty well on these catching a few on most of the attempts.  Peacock bass are fished for with lures - or for masochists like Dan - fly tackle.  Dan put in some serious effort with his fly setup.  Most of the time he was fishing little surface popper flies on his Loomis #8 rod and line and managed only a couple of small peacocks and one nice one of over 5lb the whole trip.  
Fishing with 'normal' lures is much easier as you can cast about 5 times as far and cover a lot more water.  Peacocks nearly always hit close to 'structure' mainly rock piles.  As the day heats up they are usually found in some shade.  
Traditionally peacock fishing is done with noisy propbaits - A type of surface plug with a big propellor at the back that creates a big spray and commotion as the lure is ripped quickly back to the boat.  I had several of these including the sexy but unwieldy High Roller Rip Roller.
Rip Roller
I also had 3 smaller 4" Pavon Prop lures and found these to be easiest to use and cheaper but had a tendency to blow out and go end over end when ripped wrongly.  I never really got to grips with propbaits and think a baitcaster setup would be preferable to operate these lures.  I did manage a couple of small peacocks on a redhead pavon prop.
  
Pavon Prop beaten up by big peacock
Bucktail jigs such as these peacock-specific ones supplied by 'Mr Peacock Bass' Steve Townson were also effective in the hands of anglers other than myself.  Mine just got chewed all to hell by piranhas


Peacock bass are known for hitting lures with incredible aggression and will often go airborne on the hit or in the ensuing fight.



I shouldn't really complain about my own experiences at peacock bass fishing because I did manage to catch a few of the things.  I got mine on a mix of the Pavon Prop,  walk-the-dog style Heddon Spooks and, most consistently, the 7cm sinking Salmo Slider worked quickly.   Peacock bass fishing is great fun and basically involves casting your lure as tight to the rockpile or any available cover as humanly possible and then retrieving the lure rapidly.  I never experienced the fabled explosion as a big peacock smashes a surface lure but a couple of the peacocks I did catch gave a few leaps before being brought to the boat.

Here are a selection of photos of the peacock bass I did catch.   Due to their small size, all of these got knocked in the head and cut up for bait unfortunately.





I was mighty impressed with both the application and skill of Dr Dan with his attempts to catch a good peacock on the fly.  He was doing some beautiful accurate casting to features and really deserved more than this lovely fish that he finally got on the Thursday on the popper fly.

Dan's skill and patience is suitably rewarded by the capture of
this lovely peacock bass on the fly.



Payara

One of the Amazon species familiar to viewers of river monsters and other exotic fishing shows is the payara. Also known as the dracula fish.  
ANOTHER good payara for Melissa.

This predator looks a bit like a salmon with a monster's head attached to the front.  Two huge teeth protrude from the bottom jaw which opens downwards a bit like Beaker off the Muppet Show.  These teeth slot into special cavities in the upper jaw to allow the mouth to actually close.  They are not as heavy as they look as the body is actually quite flat but deep.

My own experience of payara was one of frustration and failure.  I lost one on the first day on the amazing salmo slider and then lost about 5 on the last day on bait.   The payara's narrow bony mouth means that a decent hook hold is hard to come by.  When you're luck is out then those hooks nearly always fall out.

Here's a payara caught by Brian.  I felt justified in having my photo taken
with it as I'd just had 5 of the fucking things fall off the hook

Wolf fish/Aymara/Trairao

A nice wolf fish caught by flyin' Brian - Not me.

This was one of the species I had seen on TV and really wanted to catch myself.  A strange evil-looking fish with a thick paddle tail not unlike a coelecanth.  If you believe the bullshit on River Monsters then these are vicious killers and almost impossible to catch.   The second part was true in my case.  I did land a small one where Dan handed me the rod with a fish attached as he felt sorry for me and my rotten luck but that was one of only 2 that came in our boat.  The better fish was the one in the photo which Brian had on his catfish setup - a lovely rod and Okuma multiplier presented to him by one of the rich Japanese group that had been fishing with the guys a couple weeks previous to our visit.  This aymara was about 22lb but they go to more than double that.

Big Catfish - DAINTS *

I've already run through the big 3 catfish species that it was my ambition to catch.  I'm sorry to report a complete failure in the catfish department.  Once again this was down to my awful luck.  Most days we would spend at least a couple hours catfishing.   Dan was able to join in because I had the 2 heavy rod and line outfits and plenty of hooks & weights etc.   The usual MO would be to either anchor up over a deep hole or to drift down with the current slowly 'jigging' the fish baits so as not to drag the rig into a big snag.  The action was not exactly fast and furious but we usually got a bite or two.

A Piraiba like the one I didn't catch


Two massive failures of mine are worth relating.  I think it was Wednesday when I really hit rock bottom.

Lawrence, Steve & Chip swing by to take the piss out of me
& have a fish fight.
Brian had taken us to one of the channels between islands where the water was seriously deep.  We anchored up and all 3 of us put a line out.  It was mid afternoon and both Brian and Dan had managed to snag their rigs on rocks or similar structures.  They were behind me sorting this mess out when I had a bite.  I let a few feet of line out and then struck into the fish on my Shakespeare boat rod and multiplier reel loaded with 300 yards of 100lb braid.  I suspect that the fish at the end was either a huge redtail or Jau or maybe even the Piraiba aka Lau-Lau that was my dream to catch.  The fish set off on a run downstream stripping line off against a pretty hard-set drag.  And it just went and went and went.  I've experience mahseer runs and of course large arapaima but I've never felt a fish as strong as this.  The passage of time went a bit strange and I don't know how long I had the fish on for.  Brian got unsnagged and the pair of them were trying to free up Dan's rig which was on my other rod.  100 yards of line went out and I was asking them to hurry up.   My fish was not even beggining to slow down so I tightened up the drag as far as it would go with no effect.  The big reel was now half empty and I was beginning to panic as the only way to deal with big catfish like this is to chase them in the boat or lose all of your line.  'Cut the ****ing line & lets go' I exhorted the boys as they buggered about.   Soon I was down to only 100 yards of line and started to thumb the spool in an attempt to slow the fishes run.  Big mistake - I finally gave it just a bit too much stick and the line broke at the knot - I died just a little inside and tried not to feel resentful at the lack of help coming from the others.  I reasoned that I still had 100 yards left and didn't really need to give it that much stick so it was actually MY fault as I don't like to nurse a simmering resentment of my boat buddies.  I still spent the trip back to camp in silence and chugging beers from the boat's coolbox to try and take the sting out of losing what was probably going to be the best fish of my life (arapaimas aside).  A very exciting but ultimately sickening experience for me. - DAINTS

22lb Jau catfish

'Charity' Jau catfish.
Dan hooked this on my spare rod and handed it to me to play in.

Another notable catfish FAIL came I think on Thursday or Friday.  We were drifting and jigging past an island and I had a good bite and struck and hooked the beast.  It felt good and I started to try and pump it up off the bottom.  Then it all went slack and I swore and let the rig back down.  I thought I'd better check if the bait was still on so began to retrieve and, after a couple of turns the fish grabbed it again and was on.  This time there was no mistake and I quickly gained line and got the fish up off the bottom.  It didn't fight that hard and soon a lovely big Jau catfish about 4 foot long was alongside the boat about 2 feet off and one foot down.  Dan readied the boga grip to land the fish and 'ping' it spat the hook out and just floated for a second while I screamed 'C%NT!' at it and gave it the finger before it turned around and headed slowly back down to the bottom.  Brian upset me further by telling me that it was probably 60-80lb.  DAINTS DAINTS DAINTS. *

One catfish species that I COULD catch was the leopard catfish.
Tasty leopard catfish.
While trying for cats I got into a load of these smaller catfish.  On lighter tackle they would be great fun as they give a strange fight where they apparently surrender and you gain line and then they go absolutely crazy for a few seconds and take line back off you before going quiet again.   These catfish are greatly prized as eating fish and of the seven or eight I caught I never got to eat any.  They all ended up in the freezer back at camp - probably to be sold or eaten by our hosts.

Arowana

Success!  One day when we were trying for peacocks around a rock pile in the middle of the main river I was casting and ripping the redhead pavon prop surface lure without much hope.  As the lure came over a rock shelf it was hit by something and, after a short but spirited fight I had one of my target fish in the boat.
Tidy 6lb Arowana

The arowana is also known as the monkey fish and will be familiar to viewers of nature documentaries.  It is the one that you see in slow motion launching itself 3 or 4 feet into the air and snatching bugs off of high branches.  This power and acrobatic ability was evident in the fight of this one I caught as it went airborne a couple of times.



Bicuda

I never contacted one of these sleek, beaky, barracuda-esque predators but Dan had this nice little one out on the fly.

Cheeky Bicuda on the fly for Dan.


As well as losing lots of fish I nearly lost lots of expensive tackle.  One afternoon we had stopped off on a little beach/sand bar that projected into the river with a little creek sort of thing behind.   I'd cast across and hooked my slider into a tree on the far bank.  Brian & Dan kindly went round in the boat to free the lure but, as they contacted a low tree, a branch pinged my boat rod & multiplier setup over the side.  I became a little upset and went back across the sandbar to look out into the river and have a smoke as they tried to fish my rod up with another couple outfits.   I heard a positive shout as they managed to salvage it (thanks very much guys) and, just as I turned to go back over a large arapaima surfaced in the main channel right in front of me as if to give me the Essequibo finger.
On the last day as we were catfishing over a very deep hole eagle-eared Mark heard a quiet plop and turned quickly with a shout to Brian at the back of the boat pointing downwards.  Brian plunged his whole arm down as far as he could and just grabbed the tip of my Bushwacker/Rarenium main spinning outfit as it sank to the bottom after he'd accidentally knocked it off the boat.

I've just related how I got on with the fishing over the middle of the week but a an experience like this is about more than just fishing.  I love taking in the whole fascinating strangeness of the place itself the whole time I am there.
The sounds are amazing - distant howler monkeys are often heard during the daytime and bull frogs and a myriad other insects and amphibians fill the night with sound.
As well as the thousands of strange fish species the jungle was full of wildlife.  We didn't see many mammals as there not many places for them to get down to the water but there were beautiful birds from eagles, macaws and a strange prehistoric looking long necked bird that the lads called a 'duck' down to kingfishers.  As we shot past a fallen tree in the boat a flock(?) of small bats would be disturbed and come swarming out. The South American caimans are another potential threat.
small caiman

  They are a smaller version of the alligator but still grow to 10 feet or so and are very common.  On the beach at camp you could shine a torch out most nights and see up to 7 pairs of eyes as caimans lurked close by.

There were annoying but harmless little wasps which like to congregate on ones breakfast but we did not have much trouble with bugs and other pests because we did not venture into the jungle proper and the camp was kept clear of them.
Fascinating though it is, I was not tempted to go poking around the forest as I'd seen a Bear Grylls Escape from hell program not long before leaving England where 2 french guys very nearly died when a 6 day hike turned into a 40 day survival hell in French Guyana.  On the same programme was this guy from Bolton
who got dangerously lost for 5 days on a stroll in the jungle behind his hotel in Malaysia and had to text his missus and worry her sick.
"I wasn't terrified at this point
but I wasn't best pleased,''
I made two excursions into the jungle for alfresco bowel movements but was very careful not to lose sight of the water or get bitten on the arse by anything.  A sign - the only modern man-made object for miles - forbade logging but I did it anyway.

Brian & Dan have a post lunch kip on the boat cushions at the jungle's edge.
there were only 2 cushions so I went for a swim with the piranhas

Life at camp was pretty good.  At around 6am each morning we would rise with the sun and the ladies would have breakfast on the table.  This would usually be fried eggs in the rather nice 'bakes' which were in fact fried bread dough.  With the addition of a load of sugar they passed for nice donuts for a treat.  There was jam etc and coffee and hot water for tea.  Despite being surrounded by the best coffee producing countries in the world there is no decent coffee anywhere in Guyana.    If fishing nearby people would come home for lunch - the alternative being a rice & pea & some sort of meat or fish packed lunch in a tupperware.  The meat was a bit variable in these - especially toward the end of the week. I got a chicken's neck in mine one lunchtime.

After breakfast everyone would go fishing leaving the ladies to do the daily laundry and keep the camp shipshape.  Mid-week I found a Union Flag in my luggage and left it out on the rustic rod-rack on the beach for a laugh.  I came back depressed from a day of long-range-catch & release only to have my heart lifted by the magical sight of the flag of our great nation flying proudly from a pole on the beach.  Thelma had raised the flag the right way up to inspire Steve and myself representing England.  I realised that I loved Thelma when she handed me a small turtle to pose for this picture.

Releasing fish for Queen & country.
Chip shrewdly observed that 'people would think I was such an asshole if I did that with the stars & stripes' and he was right.  I can do it with the union flag because it has quite a lot of irony given that we were in the old Demarara colony which had decided NOT be part of the glorious British empire back in 66.  A taxi driver in Georgetown told us that the place had been going downhill ever since.
Evenings at camp were pleasant too and generally followed the format I was accustomed to when fishing abroad.  Night would fall very quickly around 7 and the boats would usually arrive back at base shortly before this.  Dinner was always ready so we would all sit down with some beer and dinner and relate our fishing exploits to each other.  I've never spent a week with mainly Americans for company apart from in America.  I liked them.  Chip was an old hand at South American peacock fishing having fished with Steve before on previous trips.  Keevin & Marlene Windel had been very generously brought on holiday out there by Melissa who was making good money working on a large offshore oil production platform.  Keevin looked and sounded ace as he had a real heavy Oklahoma accent and a father Christmas beard (seen in the background of the photo above).  Marlene and he had been in the United States Air Force together on C130 planes and had been all over the known world.  I got a bit of a schoolboy thrill to learn Keevin had even been navigator on the terrifying AC-130 gunships.

We had a fairly even split in the group between drinkers and non drinkers.  Neither Dan, or Chip would have any so tended to go to bed pretty soon after dinner with Melissa stopping for a beer or two before heading in.  That left the boozers.  Steve liked rum best and got Thelma to boil & freeze some water for ice so we could have decent rum & coke.  The El Dorado rum was good stuff and we had some pretty generous measures meaning we all got rapidly drunk.  Marlene and I were the endurance drinkers usually being the last to retire.  Steve left to go to another trip a day before the rest of us and on his last night we really went for it and I ended up miraculous drunk.  After Marlene had swerved off to bed I went to explain my bit of theory about better bite indication for arapaima fishing to the boys that were at the back of the staff wigwam.  Trouble was that I couldn't actually speak.  The guides were having a bit of a drink-up themselves and just laughed at me and offered me a crack on the bottle of cherry brandy they were consuming.  Lawrence was almost as bad as I was and we had serious difficulty making ourselves understood.
After a couple of days we found we were (almost) out of toilet paper and the beer looked unlikely to last the week.  Steve takes a satellite phone on these remote trips out of mobile range and was soon having a go at Navin to get more supplies sent up from Kurupukari.  Brian was to race down around dark and then come back early in the morning with the supplies in time to take Dan & I fishing. Without much hope I asked Brian to see if he could find out the test match score back in the village somehow.  Next morning as we were about to have breakfast we heard the boat coming back and were pleased to see both Brian and several crates of beer plus the essential toilet paper.  I was all for going Indian style and washing the batty with water but it wasn't fair to expect ladies to put up with these sort of third world toilet practices.
Over breakfast Brian wandered up to me and pressed a small piece of folded up envelope into my hand.  On it was written pretty good summary of the test match standing.  Amazing what is possible even after 60 years of independence. ;)   However I think something was missed or I misinterpreted it as I felt quite positive.  After coming out of the jungle something did not add up as I got the full score from a lady at Kurupukari and England had been horribly thrashed

We were not the only people living along the river.  About 30 mins upstream there was a family of Indians led by the patriarch 'Dennis'.  We often picked up mobile phones to charge up at the camp and one time picked up one of the guys with a bag of dried pacu to stay at the camp and head downriver with Lawrence.

They lived under tarpaulins spread over wood frames when they were out Pacu-ing and had some sweet little kids.

I love the serious-looking little guy on the left.

Return to beyond the valley of the Arapaima

Friday was when those of us who had missed out on catching arapaima went back for another bite of the cherry.  I had failed because they came off.  Dan was now dead keen on getting one and Chip had missed out when Steve got 2 on their day up at arapaima city.  Melissa and Mum & Dad had all scored an arapaima each.
Melissa gets a good arapaima.

Previously there was quite a bit of debate among the guides as to who was to go up with us but this was eventually settled amicably.   Brian was to be captain with Mark as mate on the big boat that the Windels had been using.  Melissa was to go after peacocks with Steve & Lawrence and Keevin & Marlene would go with Raymond in Brian's boat.
The big boat was super comfortable with 3 camping chairs for us anglers with Mark on the bow and Brian driving.  With 50hp on it was fast too.  The plan was for us to put both my rods out and Chip's heavy setup too.  Like big game fishing we had pre-arranged for us to take it in turn to have whichever rod produced a bite - me first followed by Chip & then Dan.
Stopping to catch some bait on the way up we arrived up at the big 'lake' at around 9:30am.  It was dead. We hardly saw any arapaimas surfacing.  All of us had seen loads when previously there so we figured that it was perhaps too early for them as we always got there after 11.  Lying in late fits the MO of these big lazy fish.  We paddled around the whole backwater right into the corners but hardly saw a fish to aim at.  The few that we did see we pursued but without any luck.
Around 10:30-11:00 it seemed to liven up a bit with more fish making themselves evident and, after another slow-motion chase, we got all 3 peacock chunks cast out around where a fish had recently shown itself.
After 5 mins or so my big rod went off and i picked up and quickly wound into a fish after it took a couple feet of line.  Experience had taught me not to get too excited but it seemed to be well attached to the hook and went on a couple short runs against the drag before I sensed it coming up for the breath and head-shake.
video

Unfortunately for the arapaima it got too close to the side of the boat and whacked its head hard against the aluminium hull.  It was then just a case of towing the dazed animal to the bank where we grabbed a couple photos and some video of the modest sized arapaima.

I finally land an unconscious arapaima

It was still a very large fish - the biggest fish of any kind I had ever caught.  People said 100lb but I think more like 70-80 because I could lift it pretty easily and I'm a weed.
If I seem a little undemonstrative about catching the fish of a lifetime it is because something happened not long afterwards that was just incredible.

Next up was to be Mr Chip 'ironman' McCann and we resumed the stalking and casting after arapaimas routine.  A pleasant breeze had started up and was driving ripples which were making an odd musical sound against the flat bottom of the boat.  Chip observed that the sound was a lot like the sound at about 4:20 on Life's been Good by Joe Walsh.  


It was a fun day out in the boat with Chip aboard.  He's funny and has a fair bit of S American fishing experience so is interesting to talk to and learn stuff from.
It was getting to mid-day so we headed toward an overhanging tree to take shelter from the sun for lunch.  On the way in we lowered a couple of baits into the centre of the channel and paid out line until we were moored up so we could have a chance of a passing fish picking one up.

Eating lunch in the shade before the peace is shattered
We sat down for our rice & pea lunch with nice cold pop from the boat's coolbox and were eating and chatting when my big rod bent over and nearly went over the back of the boat.  Someone had forgotten to put the baitrunner in free-spool.  Seconds later Chip was hooked into something really big meaning lunch was cancelled and we had to give chase in the boat immediately.
Dan filmed most of what followed with Chip's camera and the fight is immortalised in the second half of the Youtube video coming up next.  There was a hairy moment several minutes into the fight when Chip felt it all go solid as the line was going straight down by the side of the boat and he suspected a snag.  Meanwhile I saw a HUGE fish surface and head left to right some 20 feet away.  I was seeing Chip's fish for the first time and it looked 7 foot long and gold with deep red edges to the scales.  The line angles indicated a nasty snag had caught the line and would have parted it had not Brian felt down with the paddle to find only about 4 feet of water under us.  Mark dived straight in like a kingfisher and freed the line in a second leaving chip to take up the slack and we were off again.

Minutes later we could all tell that the fish was coming up for a headshake as it stopped running.  Dan tried to get me to get out of shot and I just about managed it when the vast fish reared up out of the water and shook revealing a massive head and a girth like a pony.  Spin the youtube video through to 16:00 to see the most shocking sight I have ever seen while out fishing.  As I saw that fish I forgot I'd even caught one an hour previously as it was about 1/4 the size of the thing on Chip's dangerously frayed line.  Notice in the video how I realise things have got serious and pack the garden furniture away at this point.  This was a truly enormous fish.   Cutting a long story short we eventually got ourselves onto a few flat rocks so that Chip could conclude playing the fish and then get some photos.  Several times it looked like the arapaima was beaten but it took off again and again - even throwing all of its huge body out of the water.  Arapaimas seem to have tremendous strength in short bursts but no stamina.  Perhaps the rather inefficient method of obtaining oxygen means they can't sustain the effort for long without a breath.  At one point Mark was trying to get the thing under control by straddling it but it took off and he rode it in like a rhinestone cowboy.
Mark & Brian get a rope around Chip's dinosaur
Towards the end of the fight Chip found himself stood on a very hot rock and had to ask me and Mark to splash water up over it as the soles of his feet were getting done like bacon on it.  Eventually the fish was worn out enough for chip to get in the water with Mark, Brian and the enormous thing and it was all the three of them could do to lift it partially clear of the water for a photo.  Having achieved legend status among his fishing pals, Chip collapsed exhausted into his picnic chair back in the boat and announced himself satisfied with his trip and in no further need of fishing stimulation.
Those watching the video might think that Chip looks a bit awkward (like that sac Robson Greene) playing the fish but it is because he was using my setup and, for reasons best known to themselves, Americans usually put the reel handle on the the wrong (i.e the right hand) side.  It's one of angling's mysteries.  There really is no good reason to do this at all and nobody can explain why they do it.   I showed up how daft it was when Dan was trying to operate a spook topwater lure and couldn't get it walking the dog.  I offered to demonstrate the way but found I couldn't because I couldn't wind the handle as it was on my rod-hand side.  I turned the reel upside down and wound the handle backwards and a peacock hit the lure immediately as soon as it started swimming as designed.  I rest my case. Europe 1 - USA 0. (oh dear.  I am turning into the thing I hate the most - Robson Greene)
The rest of the day was spent trying to get the boat hat-trick for Dan.  We left the big backwater where all the action had come and motored round and up into a very narrow creek where i saw my first and only giant otter.  The forest overhanging the creek it made the whole thing more exciting and oppressive and there were certainly arapaimas in there as the gulping and bubbles betrayed.  Eventually the big rod in my hand registered a huge slow pull as the bait was taken.  I tried to pass it to Dan so he could do the whole thing but he told me to strike it which I duly did.  Big mistake.  The fish was on for around 6 or 7 seconds before the hook flew out.
Arapaima country
Daunted we tried some other spots but Dan's luck was well out.  I'd had yet another pickup on a peacock bass head bait but failed to connect as the head was a bit too big for the hook to get into the mouth of the arapaima.  I think the reason that most of the bites were coming on my long Daiwa rod was because I was able to cast so much further and get the baits right in front of the fish instead of behind them.  My hero casts earned me the nickname 'the cannon' which pleased me more than it should have.  I went from Big John Cannon to Tommy Cannon via Frank. Eventually we headed back downriver when we ran out of peacock and piranha baits and got home with a bit of the scary night boating at the end.  I swear they do it just to shit me up.
This was Steve's last night with us and he seemed determined that there would be no rum left in the camp when he left early next morning with Lawrence.  Terrifying measures sent the drinking anglers to a different level.  I ran into Chip on the beach as I was turning in and I was incapable of forming sentences and some words.

My arapaima goes 185.

The final day of fishing dawned and we still had to get Dan his arapaima.  As his long-suffering boat partner I had to see it through and go arapaima fishing again. Lawrence had boated Steve down at first light.  We were a boat short so Chip was going to have a lie-in at camp watching his video of his giant fish (and touching himself).  The idea was for him to fish in the afternoon but Lawrence came a cropper down at the village and couldn't come back with the boat.
Dan, Mark, Capt Brian and myself tore up to the arapaima creeks rapidly in Brian's speed boat.  A fun peacock bass session among the big rocks provided us with what we thought would be enough bait for a quick session on arapaimas.  Again the format was both of my heavy rods cast out and Dan gets whichever one picks up.
I have described the arapaima fishing process and this was more of the same.  Creeping silently around in the boat casting after showing fish.  We would quietly drop anchor after casting.  The 'anchor' being a crankshaft out of some long dead piece of machinery (see photo above).  It wasn't long before we had a pick up and Dan took the rod and set the hook like a pro.  The arapaima he'd hooked was not going to give up easily and took as all over the place in the boat.  Eventually the fish surfaced close to the bank but the angles of the line were all wrong - indicating that the line was under a snag between us and the fish.  All the while flashes of silver under the water showed we had a very large shoal of small piranhas all around us.  There was much to-do between Brian and Mark as they tried their damndest to work out a way to get the line out.  It was too deep to swim down as Mark found out by trying.  They managed to gather quite a lot of line with a view to cutting out and reattaching the ends but it was very difficult to get much from the end with the giant fish on.  I think the fish got itself into yet another snag as well but the upshot was that we lost the fish with the wire trace breaking where it must have kinked round an obstacle.  Dan is too much of a gentleman to curse like me but we all could have forgiven him a bit of a swear.
Brian was not happy with the wire breaking and he and Mark fashioned a flexible trace made of several lengths of very heavy braid from Brian's reel braided together into a rope.  We continued fishing,seeing the arapaima activity increase again as the temperature rose towards midday.  Finally another pickup and Dan is in again.  It wasn't a huge one but he eventually landed a light gold arapaima with nice pale salmon pink scale edges.  I don't seem to have a picture of it but it was a nice little one about the same size as the one I had caught the day before.  I don't have a picture of it but I did pick up one of the golden scales that got knocked off it and it is still in my pike bag as a souvenir..
Mission accomplished it was time to exit the lagoon to get out for some payara fun we had planned.  As we paddled out more arapiamas were showing all over the place.  It seemed silly to not have a quick shot at them so I cast a nice big peacock steak out over the front of a big one that showed close by and a couple minutes later I wound into yet another monstrous fish.
Dan shot much of the fight on my camera so you can watch the first part from moments after the bait was taken in the following video.


The fight was pretty epic and I retracted the previous days observation that 'they fight a bit like a bream'.  This time I was on a larger and fully conscious one which stayed pretty deep to begin with and didn't go in for much of the head shaking seen from other specimens during the week.  I gave thanks for my luck in obtaining the Daiwa bigfish catching rod which again let me cast a long way to the fish and then did everything you ask of a big fish rod in subduing two very large fish.
The second part of the video (all unedited I'm afraid) is next.  in part 2 we see the fun part when the arapaima is brought into shallow water to try and beach it for a photo.


Getting a massive river monster to participate in a photo is easier said than done and weighing one is impossible.  Once the lads had chased it down &  got a good hold of the beast Mark and I posed for this picture.

Heaps gets his big arapaima.
I was so happy to get this incredible fish after all the heartache of losing so many good ones.  After the photos were done I swam around in the shallows just relaxing and soaking up the feeling of having caught one of the miracles of the natural world.  Although the holiday had been the fishing trip of a lifetime I would have had difficulty explaining to people at home quite why I did it with only a few small peacocks/piranhas/catfish and a modest arapaima to show for my trouble and expense.


With this fish I could feel that the trip was truly a success.  We don't know the weight of the creature but the guides guessed 200lb  I'd say less.  It was nowhere near the size of the one Chip got but I caught a wild fish that was  heavier than me and that's something not many freshwater anglers can say - especially fat ones.

The River Tiger.

At the end of the last day Dan & I were trying for some catfish at a spot on the way back from the arapaima place where a deep pool lay between sets of rocky rapids.  There is hard rock at the surface here and huge water-worn boulders cause the river to split many times.
The pool haunted by the River Tiger
Brian was captain and Mark was mate at the front of the boat.  We had been anchored up fishing for a short while when a sound abruptly started.  I thought it sounded like a boat coming but Brian said no when I asked him.  It was a deep constant hum and it continued for a couple of minutes but did not seem to be coming from any particular direction.  Both Brian and Mark seemed a little unsettled by it and they were even more excited when lots of bubbles started appearing at the river's surface.  The bubbles could only have come from a fairly major upheaval in the material down on the river bed on a much greater scale than the ones caused by fish feeding. One could not make out all the guides were saying as they muttered excitedly but I did hear Mark mention river tiger.  The sound stopped as suddenly as it had started and the bubbles diminished over a few minutes.
'What just happened and what is river tiger?' I asked the lads.
'It' a monster.' said Brian.
They didn't tell me much more than that and Dan was of the opinion that it was nonsense but it did give me a bit of a thrill.  That dinnertime back at camp all the guides and Thelma & Sheila were together and I went in to ask them about river tiger.  Raymond told me that it has the head of a tiger and the body of a snake and it eats people.  Brian had heard the same noise in that place a week or so previously with the Japanese guests and one of the others had heard it elsewhere.
As I stood shaving chest deep in the river later that night Thelma said 'aint you scared of the crocodiles?'.
I  said 'no I'm more scared of the river tiger now.'
'It' a baad Demon an it come out and eat you.'
Even later that night (drunk) I got spooked as I sat having a relaxing cigarette and cold can of Banks on one of the picnic chairs by the water's edge.  Even though the tiger head demon was obviously some local superstition, the sound and the bubbles were very strange.  Something was happening down below.  It would not seem that far-fetched to me for there to be large undiscovered creatures/fish in unspoilt parts of the planet such as this that, due to their habits or diet, might never been caught & identified by human beings.

The last night in camp was fairly subdued as we all had to pack for a 7am departure the next morning.  Fitting all my gear into the single large suitcase was difficult enough back in England with it all dry.  This time doing it in a tent in the dark while sweating profusely and beset with bugs was even less fun.   My arapaima-slimed clothing from the day had to go in all wet in a plastic bag.  I thought 'pity the fool customs officer who searches THAT'.   Sure enough in Georgetown airport on the way out my bag was turned out by the airline representative.

Next morning we had a swift breakfast and all piled in to only 2 boats with the luggage weighing down the big boat such that we had to proceed with great caution through the rapids on the way down to Kurupukari. The helmsman's face shows white through the wheelhouse.
Navin had not yet arrived so we bought some drinks and snacks at the shop there while I inquired as to the state of the first test match.  The shop guy blasted off some commands to a lady there and she disappeared inside - emerging minutes later with the full scores on the LCD screen of her old-skool Nokia phone. Bad news from the penal colony.  England had been blown away and went on to be utterly dismantled by a great, gutsy hostile performance such as we'd all forgotten the Australians were capable of.
Navin arrived in a smaller minibus the size of those used as local buses up and down the long red road from the coast.  It was not as spacious as the magic bus but Navin managed to take about 2 hours off the time the other way and arrive near Georgetown a few minutes to late to miss the turnout of the big motor racing event.  It looked like everybody with a car in Georgetown had attended the race as there was utter mayhem on the road past the track with 4WD trucks going 3 or 4 abreast driving round the queueing traffic.   Navin dealt with the jam brilliantly by cutting through a carpark and someone's garden to bypass an inconveniently sited police drink-drive roadblock.  Lots of people had been drinking and driving.   It was dark and we were all shattered and covered in a thick layer of red dust when we were finally delivered to the SleepInn international hotel.  We had stayed in the annexe/guesthouse of this hotel on the way in and this place had a nice pool and bar (with prostitutes) and decent rooms with air conditioning.  Chip, Dan and I were on an early morning flight out of Georgetown so Chip and I joined the Windels for a light dinner and a couple beers before turning in early.
It was a very early start and a long flight home for me.  I was on a plane with Dan as far as JFK.   It was an uneventful but long journey back to Heathrow.  With a schoolboy error I was relieved of my 1l bottle of 12 year old Demerera rum at JFK when I forgot to transfer it to my checked in luggage.

In the jet lagged couple of days off work I had after arriving back home I reflected on the trip.  I had been slightly apprehensive about being the only non-USA angler on the trip but, as usual, the people I met on the trip turned out to be great company.  Chip's just emailed me & he's very kindly sending me a cool lucite display case he's made for my trophy arapaima scale (taken from his big one because I forgot to get one from mine).  Dan, who I spent most time with, was a really great guy and a real pleasure to be in a boat lost in the jungle with.  While my actual fishing was plagued with bad luck such as I've never known, I still had an unforgettable adventure in a magical place that I'd always wanted to experience.  Steve Townson was also great company and helped us all out with first class fishing knowledge.   If you want to experience some of the best fishing in the world in South America you will not go wrong with Steve at www.amazon-angler.com.
Navin, Oma, Brian, Mark and the whole crew at the camp were excellent in every department and it was my pleasure to meet and spend time with all of them.  I would certainly return to Guyana fishing as I still have a lot of unfinished business with big scary fish.

Thanks for reading.  I'll write something else when I actually manage to go fishing and catch something.





*  daints definition

2 comments:

  1. HI!
    We are traweling to Guyana for a fishing trip to Navin. Can you recommend us something?
    BR
    József Papp
    Hungary

    ReplyDelete