Whiskered Warriors of the Amazon

by Andy Hahn

My buddy Zeca lobbed a high, arching cast and watched the heavy sinker's splashy entrance into the Araguaia river. After the big bait had tumbled downcurrent and settled in next to the flooded brush along the bank, Zeca tightened up the slack and, without taking his eye off the point where the line penetrated the chocolate-milk water, he commented, "This river is full of surprises. You never know what you're gonna catch."

It had taken Zeca, a rather inexperienced angler, less than four hours' fishing time to arrive at this conclusion. That morning we had already hooked three different species of catfish and had seen our companions catch an additional two species. And we were fishing under less than ideal circumstances.

The Araguaia River.

PHOTO: ANDY HAHN

The Araguaia River flows through north central Brazil, delineating the borders of the states of Mato Grosso, Tocantins, Goiás and Pará. Its northward journey ends at its confluence with the Tocantins River, which eventually joins the Amazon. This entire region goes through yearly cycles of high and low waters; the rivers can be fished at any time, but low water conditions are much better for the fisherman. High waters inundate the forests, scattering the fish as they forage in the flooded structure. As water levels drop, the fish return to the riverbeds and concentrate in predictable locations such as channels and creek mouths.

Our trip had been carefully scheduled for the full moon in early May. The Araguaia usually begins to recede in April, and we would catch the river while it was still dropping. Or at least that was the plan. Like those of mice and men, the river's plans are also subject to unannounced alterations. Upon our arrival we discovered that it had already begun to drop, but heavy rains to the south put the Araguaia back on the offensive -- it had risen more than six feet over the past two days. We couldn't turn around and go back. Our group of 16 fishermen had chartered a bus from Rio de Janeiro (a 32 hour journey) and the logistics of vacation schedules and other fine details were too complicated to give up and try again some other time. We had to tough it out, put our lines in the muddy water and hope for the best.

15 pound Tiger Corubim "Cachara."

PHOTO: ANDY HAHN

Our principal target species was the tiger sorubim (Pseudoplatystoma fasciatum), known as cachara ("ca SHA ra") throughout most of Brazil. However, the folks in the Amazon region refer to this fish as pintado, which often generates confusion because the pintado (meaning "spotted" in Portuguese) is actually the spotted sorubim (Pseudoplatystoma coruscans). Both species are similar in physical characteristics and general habits: they resemble the North American flathead (or shovelhead) catfish, with a long, flattened head, a dark gray back and white flanks and underbelly. The two cats are distinguished by the black markings they exhibit on their backs.

The spotted sorubim is covered with black spots while the tiger sorubim earns its name from the irregular black stripes painted across its back and down to its belly. According to the IGFA, the world record 44 lb. spotted sorubim was caught in Mato Grosso, Brazil. The world record tiger sorubim, a 36 pounder, was caught in Guyana. These fish can attain monstrous proportions. I have seen photos of four-foot sorubim, caught on trotlines, that weighed more than 100 lbs. Unfortunately, overfishing has become a problem despite minimum size requirements. Today, a sorubim of thirty pounds is quite a catch.

These fish are active predators that await in ambush near flooded timber and at the mouths of creeks flowing into the main river. The spotted sorubim is more common in southern and western Brazil (the Pantanal region) and its tiger-striped cousin predominates in the Amazon watershed, but there is a tremendous overlap in their territories where both species may be found. We were concentrating our efforts on the cachara because it is the most common species of big cat in the Araguaia and excellent table fare as well.

Our strategy was simple. We would tie off our boats to overhanging trees or flooded brushpiles and dunk live bait, shiners in the four to six inch range, near the underwater structure. Stout tackle was a necessity due to the big cats' down and dirty fighting style. Short, beefy rods and 25 to 30 lb test monofilament were used to muscle the fish away from snags. Sinkers that varied between one-half to two ounces were needed to keep the bait on the bottom, and our 7/0 hooks were protected from piranha by 18 inch wire leaders. 

As I said, our target was the tiger sorubim, but nobody was concerned about pinpoint marksmanship. Even when we missed the "target", we scored points. We caught plenty of mandubé, a small, whiskerless catfish. The mandubé rarely exceeds 24 inches in length and it is not a strong fighter. Its only saving grace is evident on the dinner table. A flattened head, wideset eyes, and an overall yellowish brown coloration conceal its tasty flesh. In other parts of Brazil this same fish is called palmito ("heart of palm"), in reference to its firm white meat.

Another common species is a downsized cousin of the sorubim that carries the scientific name of Sorubim lima. This catfish grows to about 18 inches in length and is sometimes seen hunting baitfish in schools, pushing them up to the surface and even clearing the water in hot pursuit. Its head has the typical flat profile of the sorubim, and its name in Portuguese, bico-de-pato ("duckbill") comes from the peculiarly shaped mouth: the snout and upper jaw extend far beyond the lower jaw. In Tupi-guarani, a native South American language, this fish is called jurupencem ("cracked mouth").

Like catfishing anywhere, we played the waiting game on the Araguaia river. After tying off the boat, we dropped our lines overboard or cast out toward the middle of the river to let the current swing the bait in close to the bank. We didn't usually have to wait very long. The warm waters keep the fish operating at an accelerated metabolic rate, and that means they are almost always on the feed. Another point in our favor was the good old law of the jungle. The river holds great numbers of fish, and each one of them knows that if they hesitate when an easy meal presents itself, the opportunity will be lost when another fish gulps the bait.

The observant angler quickly learns to identify his quarry based on the Morse code message that is transmitted up the line. A series of short, sharp taps is bad news. If you're lucky, you'll hook one of the piranhas that's pecking at the bait. The larger ones can weigh more than a pound and they put up a good tussle, turning their frying pan bodies against the current and running in tight circles. Small piranhas are excellent bait for the big cats, but as one would expect, extreme caution is necessary when putting them on the hook!

The mandubé and the bico-de-pato will take the bait lightly and make a short run with it, but their relatively small size limits their fighting ability. The veteran sorubim angler tenses with anticipation when he feels two or three slow but firm pulls on the line. A few seconds later the fish will move off with the bait in a steady run, and that's the time to set the hook, hard. Many Brazilians say that these catfish mouth the bait before actually taking it, but I can't agree with this theory. The underwater competition is fierce, and any fish that takes too long to inhale a bait will lose it to his faster neighbor. My guess is that the cats engulf the bait, then take a few more looks around to make sure they didn't miss any other baitfish before leaving the area. Hence the short pulls before the longer run.

Once the hook is set, you must keep the sorubim's head turned by applying as much pressure as your tackle can withstand. The river bottom is covered with fallen trees and if the cat reaches the shelter of the entangling branches, it'll be tough to pull him out. My snag insurance consists of either a 50 lb test monofilament shock leader or a three-foot length of double line ahead of my wire leader. Besides withstanding the abrasion from aquatic obstacles, the shock leader protects against a bad habit that many guides have: they like to grab the line to control the fish before gaffing or releasing it.

The sorubim move in schools, so it's common to catch several from each pool. When the action slowed down we either moved to another spot or enjoyed the Amazon scenery for a while. We saw macaws, toucans, roseate spoonbills and other wading birds flying overhead and, although it was impossible to see any animals back in the thick forest, we heard several troops of vociferous howler monkeys raise a fuss now and then.

I ended up doing a bit of howling myself, but my vociferation was prompted by pain. I caught a bico-de-pato and politely refused my guide's offer to remove the hook, even after he advised me of the fish's sharp spikes. I grew up catching channel cats and bullheads in the Monongahela river, so I figured I knew how to grip catfish and avoid their bony pectoral and dorsal fins. As I slid my left hand up the fish's back, it folded its pectoral fins in at an angle and started moving briskly from side to side. The catfish back home never played dirty tricks like that. Before I knew it, a barbed spike was buried in my finger, just ahead of the knuckle in my hand.

Getting stuck by a channel cat is dangerous because there is always the possibility of infection from the fish's protective slime. The bico-de-pato goes one step further by coating its weapons with a poisonous substance. I immediately felt a burning sensation spreading from my finger down into my palm and across my knuckles. We clipped the spike off to separate it from the wildly uncooperative fish, then I removed the foreign object from my body with a pair of pliers. The barbs made the operation difficult and painful. I washed the wound with bottled water and applied ice to my finger and to my forehead because, by this time, I was feeling woozy. My friends say I turned green as I lay in the bottom of the boat, massaging my throbbing hand. The aching, pinprickly sensation reached down to my wrist and persisted for at least one hour. All of this unpleasantness was aggravated by the thought that I would be unable to fish for the remaining two days of the trip, for in this condition I was incapable of gripping a rod. Heck, at the time, I was incapable of sitting upright!

Against my protests, the guide began motoring back toward our lodge. We had done everything that could be done, and although I was in extreme discomfort, I was in no great danger. Besides, there were three hours of daylight left, and I didn't want to ruin the afternoon for my two companions. We had been running for twenty minutes (and I admit that the breeze in my face felt wonderful) when the guide suddenly cut the throttle and headed toward the riverbank. Another boat was tied off there, and its occupants were motioning to us. They had happened upon a school of tiger sorubim just as their bait supply was running out. We gave them a dozen baitfish and positioned ourselves slightly upriver to join in the party. My two friends hooked fish within minutes, and I was instantly cured. The pain subsided with each fish I hooked and by dinnertime that evening I was back to normal. The lesson learned was not soon forgotten. Every fish after that, no matter how small, was handled by clamping its lower jaw in fish gripping pliers.

Like Zeca said, the Araguaia is full of surprises, sometimes big ones. A few members of our party nearly had their reels emptied by redtail catfish (Phractocephalus hemioliopterus) that grabbed the bait and headed for the middle of the river. These bruisers can get huge - the world record is 97 lbs - and they are the most strikingly colored members of the catfish family. Pirarara, as they are called in Portuguese, comes from the Tupi-guarani pira, meaning fish, and arara, meaning macaw. Legend has it that the species originated when a brightly colored macaw was turned into a fish. The pirarara has a chocolate brown back with white flanks and belly. Its name in English comes from its orange/red fins and tail.

The redtails can be an exhilarating side effect while fishing for sorubim because, despite their large proportions, they won't refuse a six-inch baitfish. Anglers who actively pursue these big boys use saltwater tackle: solid fiberglass rods, high capacity levelwind reels loaded with 50 lb line and 10/0 hooks. A favorite bait is a 10 to 12 inch mandubé and the best fishing is at night because the piranhas are inactive. These fish will try several tactics to rid themselves of the hook, sometimes making long, strong runs, sometimes bulldogging along the bottom. Fishermen are often startled when they catch their first redtail because the fish emits a series of loud grunts, squeals and gurgles as it approaches the boat.

If the redtail is the prettiest catfish, the armau has to be the ugliest. This critter varies in color from mud-brown to black and is protected by rows of bony, armored platelets along its sides. Its thick skin has a texture that resembles velvet and its pectoral spikes are long and menacing. Even worse, the armau puts up no fight at all. It feels like a snagged branch, a dead weight on the line, then it thrashes a bit at boatside. The species is widespread throughout all of Brazil, as evidenced by its many local names, such as abotoado and cuiú-cuiú.

On our last night at the lodge, the cook showed me a photo of a fish that his brother-in-law had caught several months before. The beast goes by the name of piraíba, and there is some discussion as to the true meaning of the word. The first part, pira, is undoubtedly the native word for fish. The second part may be aiva, meaning evil, or it may be iva, meaning mother. You can opt for scientific precision and use the Latin name, Brachyplatystoma filamentosum, but that's a mouthful that I can't translate. So the name may mean "evil fish" or it may mean "mother fish", in the sense that this fish is the mother of all the other fish in the river. If you hook one, you'll be in for the mother of all battles, to paraphrase a certain Iraqui personality. Small piraíba are known as filhote, which means youngster. In this case, "small" means up to a hundred pounds or so. The monster in the cook's photo was pushing two hundred pounds.

Such a behemoth is not easily subdued with rod and reel, and very few mentally stable people would even think about hooking one. The locals catch them by baiting huge hooks with beef heart and attaching the hooks to jugs by means of nylon rope. The jugs are drifted down the deep main channels of the river and the fisherman accompanies the flotilla in a canoe, occasionally dumping cow's blood overboard to chum in the piraíba. There are stories of men who went out for a day of such fishing and never came back. Perhaps "evil fish" is the more accurate interpretation.

The Bad News

Brazil's Amazon basin is home to some of the most exciting catfishing on the planet, in both size and variety. The sad fact is that the infrastructure in this region is far from adequate. Almost all of the lodges have invested in peacock bass fishing because it attracts more customers and provides an immediate financial return. The Araguaia region is still lacking a quality outfitter that would meet a traveling American angler's standards. More specifically, the cost would be high and the comfort would be low. The service is not top-notch and access is difficult (a six-hour drive from the nearest airport), although an airport is under construction at a nearby town. The Brazilians have begun to realize the potential that exists in sportfishing enterprises, and several other lodges that may soon be able to accomodate international guests are under construction in the southern Amazon basin. Until then, the Amazon's whiskered warriors will do battle with only the hardiest adventurers.