Photos: Becoming a Believer in Brazil

Written by: Brian O’Keefe

The arapaima is an incredible game fish that rewards angling skill and fights like a monster.
Photos by Brian O’Keefe

When I saw that my Brazil itinerary included a stint at Pirarucu, the arapaima hot spot in the Amazon watershed, I had mixed feelings. From what I had seen in videos and in magazines, the arapaima is a weird looking (imagine a giant eel on steroids), prehistoric jungle dweller that to me seemed like a novelty fish and not a species with long term bucket list cred.

It’s a good idea to keep an eye out for any lurking caymans before you hop out of the boat.

I stand corrected, and in a big way. Arapaima are wild and crazy. They breath air, like a tarpon. But when they come up for air, it isn’t a simple, graceful roll; it’s like a tractor tire being dropped from 50 feet. Giant explosions in all directions. Incoming mortar fire! Being on a body of water with arapaima is exciting.

The colors on these fish are simply spectacular, adding to the arapaima’s strange mystery.

Then, the thing I liked best is that Pirarucu arapaima fishing is technique-driven. The guides say there is a direct correlation between an angler’s ability and the catch rate. I really think a lifetime of stillwater trout fishing helped my success. It’s critical that the angler is touch with the fly’s depth, mentally. You have to fish deep, like 20 feet sometimes, but not too deep. The retrieve is slow, like you would move a damselfly or leech, except your fly is eight inches long, and you are casting a 12 weight.

Hooking a big arapaima is one thing; landing it is something else altogether.

Then, there is the WOW factor. My first fish was 180 pounds, and it jumped and pulled like 20 crevalle jacks. The colors of the scales near the tail are unique and very cool. While landing an arapaima, you have to watch for crocs (spotted caiman, but big enough to grab a leg and swim off with what’s left of you). A strip set is mandatory, flowed by as many more as you can do before the fish hits the road. Arapaima have a boney mouth and head and during my week at Pirarucu, the hook up-to-landed ratio was probably around 3 to 1, at best. Oh, and piranha will just take a bite out of your $75 fly line, and you stay in floating cabins surrounded by caimans and 300-pound arapaima crash into the floorboards at night. It’s really cool.

Sleeping on the water is calming, except when a big fish strikes the bottom of the floating cabin.

So, in conclusion, arapaima live in really interesting places, they are not endangered, and they are challenging in a good way (not like permit). Arapaima fishing require a lot of concentration, good casts, great hook sets–and knowing some Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu helps when landing one.

Jungle weather is unpredictable and sometimes violent.

Brian O’Keefe is a renowned photographer who has fished all over the world. Check out his website.

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