February 08, 2018
Sweat dripped from my nose as I crouched in morbid curiosity to get a closer look at the biggest freshwater fish I'd ever seen, dead or alive. The mood was somber, even funereal, as seven Macushi Amerindians and five tourists circled the giant green, gold, and scarlet arapaima stretched out in the moonlight on a sandy beach of the Rupununi River. It was 88 inches long with a 46-inch girth.
The men hung their heads in solemn tribute and spoke only in reverent whispers as we mourned the accidental casualty. It was like the death of a friend. As little as a few decades ago, these Macushis might have celebrated the killing of such a fish with a triumphant return to the village and a feast that included flaky white arapaima steaks, farine (from cassava root), awara juice, and bora (long, green jungle beans). Hunting these shallow-water giants with traditional longbows made from warama wood sustained the indigenous Amerindians of Guyana for generations. Today they continue to use arapaima for sustenance, but they've traded their longbows for fly rods, and are using catch-and-release sport fishing as a mechanism to protect the fish and their fragile ecosystem.
Fly fishing first came to Rewa in 2011 when a tall, lanky American fishing guide named Oliver White showed up and asked the most accomplished hunters to show him where the arapaima lived. He wanted to catch one using fly tackle, and then release it unharmed. It was the first domino in a chain reaction that helped change their culture forever, save arapaima from potential extirpation, and preserve vast tracts of rainforest from international mining and logging operations that are building roads and advancing from coastal areas at an exponential rate.
Birth of Indifly
To industry insiders, White's background story is well known. In 2004 he was young fishing guide working winters at Kau Tapen Lodge in Argentina. There, he met hedge fund manager Bill Ackerman, who started him on a Wall Street career that rose like a shooting star, and burned out in 2008 when White decided he didn't like the short-sell game, and more importantly didn't like living and working in Manhattan. Hell, he didn't even like wearing shoes. He wanted to be outside fishing.
After quitting Wall Street, White bought property for a dream fishing lodge in the Bahamas, and was literally "living the dream" fishing around the world in 2011 when Al Perkinson of Costa sunglasses asked him to visit Guyana. "At the time, I didn't even know what an arapaima was," said White.
Their research revealed a fish population survey by the government of Guyana that estimated there were fewer than 300 arapaima left in the entire country—
most of them reported in the Rupununi River wetlands near the village of Rewa. (As a result of the survey, Guyana in 2002 made it illegal to harvest, hunt, or even fish for arapaima.)
White also found a small eco-lodge in Rewa owned by a village cooperative. The untouched jungle there is a bird-watching paradise with harpy eagles, seven types of macaws, channel-billed toucans, parrots, parakeets, untold marsh birds, not to mention howler monkeys, river otters, tapirs, and jaguars. The few fortunate visitors to the area also reported seeing giant air-breathing fish in the shallow ponds the eco-guides sometimes used as avenues to view birds and other wildlife. It seemed to White and Perkinson that if you wanted to catch the world's largest scaled freshwater fish, this was a logical place to try it.
On his first visit to Rewa, White traveled solo to evaluate the possibility of even catching one of the prehistoric-looking fish on a fly rod.
"The first time I came here, I had the wrong hooks, the wrong rods, the wrong everything," White told me while we were running upstream on the Rupununi River. "The only thing I had right was the place. The fish were there in catchable numbers, and the locals knew exactly where they were at. Once I saw where they were at, and how they behaved, I knew this was doable."
The biggest obstacle was just getting permission to fish for them, as before he could even tie on a fly he had to secure permission from the local toshao (an elected chieftain) using a written letter from the minister of agriculture and fisheries exempting his catch-and-release efforts from the nationwide ban on fishing for arapaima.
Later that same year, with funding from Costa sunglasses and logistical support from USAID, White went back to Rewa with Montana guide Matt Breuer and made the film Jungle Fish, a documentary about the steep learning curve involved with catching these fish on a fly rod.
In Jungle Fish, Oliver White did much more than figure out how to dependably catch the biggest freshwater fish the fly-fishing world has ever seen. He also trained local guides to use and understand fly tackle and strategies, helped develop much-needed infrastructure like boats and accommodations, and taught villagers how to host guests so that his accomplishments could be replicated.
I visited Guyana in March of 2017 with White and a film crew from Outside TV to see firsthand how to catch these prehistoric giants, and more importantly to learn what has changed since White first visited Rewa. (You can see the 20-minute film Rewa at outsidetv.com, Apple TV, Amazon Channels, or Roku.)
Since White brought fly fishing to Rewa, the village-owned lodge has grown from less than $1,000 annual revenue to about $120,000 per year. So far, the lodge has hosted only 67 foreign fly-fishing guests, but the socioeconomic impact has been immense.
In a village of fewer than 300 people (more than half of them children), most able-bodied adults in Rewa work directly for the sportfishing lodge, and everyone benefits indirectly.
It's not just the biggest economic driver within the community, it's the only one.
The jobs (and the money) are spread among a rotating staff of camp hosts, cooks, guides, boatmen, and boat haulers. The business itself is owned by the village, and its mission is to benefit as many residents as possible. No one works two weeks in a row, because everyone wants the work, and it's fair and beneficial to spread the employment among as many people as possible.
The manpower required to successfully fish these remote (often landlocked) ponds in the jungle is immense. It often takes a crew of more than a dozen men to machete a path through the jungle, lay down a corduroy road, and drag the boats to the destination at sunrise. While the guests eat lunch, the boats are pulled from one pond and dragged to a new venue for the afternoon. While the men are dragging boats through the jungle, the women prepare food, do laundry for guests, and take care of housekeeping chores—sometimes with small children in tow.
While there are some drawbacks in creating a cash economy where none existed before—drawbacks like televisions and alcohol—the economic and environmental benefits are staggering. With the lodge, the natural ecosystem now has value. Guests pay for the experience of casting to massive arapaima with scarlet macaws screeching overhead and monkeys chattering from the trees.
There's no need to poach arapaima for food, or illegally capture parrots for the pet industry, when there are well-paying, legitimate jobs available that ensure a sustainable future for Rewa. It creates a situation where it pays to keep the 200 square miles of wetland and jungle habitat in pristine condition. The local school is better funded, there is better access to medical and dental services in the village, able-bodied men don't have to leave the village to work in extractive industries like gold mines elsewhere in Guyana, so families stay intact. And improved transportation means better access to goods and services from outside the village.
When White saw how the fly-fishing game in Rewa was changing human lives for the better and preserving the environment, the obvious question was: "How do we replicate this again in other parts of the world?" After a follow-up trip to Rewa with his friend Al Perkinson, who at that time was vice president of marketing at Costa, the pair founded the nonprofit Indifly. Its mission is "to protect fisheries and provide sustainable livelihoods for indigenous peoples" using fly-fishing ecotourism as the economic driver. Indifly kickstarts a sustainable economy based on catch-and-release fly fishing, and empowers local inhabitants to take protective ownership of imperiled natural resources.
For example, now that Rewa residents have seen firsthand the benefits of a nonconsumptive sport-fishing operation, they protect the arapaima as shepherds tend to their flocks.
In the dry season of 2016, two known arapaima ponds became dangerously low to the point where dozens of arapaima were immobilized like beached whales. With no outside consultation, villagers took immediate action and in one day used canoes to haul 19 arapaima one at a time from evaporating sloughs back to the main river channel. The two largest arapaima were still left in one pond at nightfall, but when rescuers came the next morning with more manpower to move the two larger fish, all they found were bones, scales, and jaguar tracks. Previous generations would have quickly harvested the arapaima before the jaguars could get to them.
In another example of how the Indifly seed can become a beanstalk, Rewa residents are now negotiating with the government of Guyana to extend their upriver ownership of the Rupununi wetlands. The move is defensive: At least one Chinese company is vying for the right to log this headwater region and use the Rupununi (or build new roads) to transport the lumber to market. Both options threaten the arapaima, the village, and the wetland ecosystem, but because of the Indifly catalyst, the Macushis now have the communication tools, political willpower and experience, and other means to conserve the resource in meaningful ways instead of being bystanders and victims of resource exploitation.
Clearly, the Indifly idea works, and success in Rewa has spawned two other potential projects. On Anaa Atoll in French Polynesia, the kio kio (bonefish) is a favorite food fish, but the numbers of kio kio and the size of them are rapidly declining, while employment opportunities are nonexistent. The people survive on what they harvest from the ocean, and they are quickly eating themselves out of house and home. Indifly's goal on Anaa Atoll is to introduce a sustainable catch-and-release fishery that will produce real jobs and protect the fishery. The challenge is to get everyone on the island to buy into the project (like the Rewa villagers) and stop trapping schools of bonefish as they enter and exit the flats.
In the U.S., Indifly hopes to introduce the Rewa model to the Wind River Reservation, a 2.2-million-acre parcel of land owned and populated by Eastern Shoshone and their traditional enemies the Northern Arapaho. The reservation village of Crowheart is named after a famous five-day battle between the Shoshone and the Crow tribes in 1866. The war was over rights to the hunting and fishing in the nearby Wind River Range, and ended with Shoshone Chief Washakie besting his rival chief in a one-on-one duel. Instead of customarily scalping his opponent, Washakie was so impressed by the courage of the Crow chief that he instead cut out his heart and placed it on the end of his lance.
The point is that the hunting and fishing was (and still is) worth fighting for. Most of the Wind River is within the reservation, and the Wedding of the Waters near the reservation boundary is where the Wind River becomes the Bighorn River. The Wind River below Boysen Reservoir is one of the best tailwater trout fisheries in the country, and access and licenses are permitted on a limited basis by tribal authorities. The tributaries of the Wind River offer excellent small-stream fishing, and the reservation itself contains much of the Wind River Range and provides recreational access to the rest of the alpine lakes and small-stream fishing in the adjacent national forest lands.
The value of these recreational resources is immense, but they are largely unused by the tribal communities, which are plagued by unemployment, alcoholism, and a generation of native youth who are largely cut off from their outdoor-oriented spiritual roots.
"Indifly's goal with the Wind River project is to create hope and opportunities for the next generation, and help them cultivate an appreciation and understanding of the value of their natural resources," said White. "Most of the younger generation on the reservation don't participate in the outdoor pursuits that surround them—this project could be a beacon of hope and set a great precedent for what's possible."
To succeed with these future projects, Indifly needs to make inroads with the indigenous people, and garner support from individuals and companies who share the same vision.
"We are in our infancy, and in a lot of ways stumbling our way through," White said of the nonprofit he started. "We need to improve communication with our fly-fishing base, our marketing, and ultimately our fundraising. The Indifly model is proven, but execution is slow, and we need to make sure we can stick around for the long term to have positive and permanent impact."
Technical, Visual, Thoughtful
Like most other fly fishers, what first captured my imagination about Rewa was the size of the arapaima. I wrongly assumed that a sweaty, knuckle-busting battle with one of the largest freshwater fish on Earth would be the highlight. What I found is that this shouldn't be characterized as simply a testosterone-fueled tug-of-war—it's some of the most serene, visceral, and technical fly fishing I've ever experienced. The stalking, the strategy, and the suspense of the hunt are all far more thrilling than the actual fight.
It's quiet in the jungle. No motors, no trains, no jets overhead, no farms or agriculture, no babbling river, and no wind. The silence sucks on your eardrums like a vacuum on the still ponds of the Rupununi wetlands. Your senses are almost overwhelmed by the sounds of a passing bee; paired scarlet macaws screeching overhead; the deep, distant roar of howler monkeys; and the quick breathing of an arapaima as it breaks the surface for a gulp of oxygen.
Arapaima are mandatory air breathers. While they do have gills, they depend on a modified swim bladder lined with lung tissue for oxygen. Arapaima must regularly come to the surface to breathe, and the guides often time their breathing with a stopwatch to find a pattern.
When the guides see/hear an arapaima take a breath, they move the boat by pole or paddle without a splash or drip of water. Arapaima live in a calm, quiet environment, and their lateral line is formed with a series of dish-shaped structures that are obviously meant to capture vibrations and sound waves. The two guides in the boat use signals to communicate with each other, and whisper only when necessary. Your fishing day is not a time to relive memories with your old college roommate or discuss a new business venture — do that back at camp after darkness. When you stalk arapaima, it's a test of silence.
The ponds are usually only 4 to 6 feet deep, but the slightly acidic "black water" makes it impossible to see more than a few feet. There aren't suspended solids like a dirty river back home; the light just can't seem to penetrate it because it's stained by tannins from the surrounding forest.
Despite the lack of clarity, you'll know the fish are there because when they breathe, they settle back on the bottom just a few feet from where they started, and they often emit a slow trickle of gas bubbles as they absorb oxygen from the swim bladder and release the waste gas. That slow trickle sometimes shows approximately where the head is, but it's still difficult to figure out just what direction the fish might be facing.
White is adamant that if you can get the fly inside a basketball-size area right in front of the fish's face, "he'll eat it every single time." But if you're outside that short cone of vision, you're in the no-hope zone. That's why the guides encourage you to hold your cast until a fish slowly rises for air. Often, you can tell when an arapaima is about to come to the surface because it expels a gush of bubbles at one time. When you see this, you know the fish is ready to surface. When the fish breathes, you can see the head and the direction it's facing, and fire a cast right in front while the fish is elevated.
The fish are extremely sensitive to their quiet surroundings, and despite your best attempts at stealth, too many casts, a dropped water bottle, or a clunking paddle will cause a fish to move away, and you can often watch it happen as a trail of tiny bubbles rises in a linear path between point A and point B. Camains often leave a similar trail as they crawl along the bottom and release methane gas from the mud. Your best chance at getting any fish to eat is with the first cast, but at least when an arapaima leaves a bubble trail like this, you get a solid indication of which way it's facing, and you can also use that to your advantage.
"Seeing" these fish in black water is like playing blind man's bluff when you were a kid. The fish can't see you, and you can't see the fish, but your other senses tell you your target is right there. It's the most suspenseful and thrilling "blind" casting you'll ever do.
The Science of Catch-and-Release
Large arapaima have mouths about the size and shape of five-gallon buckets. Their gill slits have evolved not to slowly help extract oxygen, but instead to quickly draw in a huge volume of water. They don't bite or slash at their prey like a muskie or a bluefish, they inhale it with a massive intake of water that you can often hear. A strike often happens like this: You are stripping your floating line with a one-handed retrieve—slowly to keep the fly deep and within sight of an arapaima you know is near. You hear a quick, short powerful sucking sound, and before you can whisper "what was that?!" your line goes tight.
Arapaima suck in not just your fly, but the entire volume of water surrounding it, and as they expel the water through their gill slits they bite down with their bony mouths.
Steelhead, tarpon, and most other gamefish commonly grab the fly while swimming and then conveniently turn away, pulling the hook into the corner of the mouth. Arapaima don't make it that easy because they don't chase their prey like many other gamefish. They are ambush predators that sit camouflaged on the bottom like a giant mud puppy.
When a piranha, peacock bass, or other prey species comes close, they lift only as much as they need to, and suck it in.
Often the fish is directly facing you, and still moving forward slightly as it settles back to the bottom. Getting a hook into one is a bitch because you are drawing the hook straight out of the mouth while at the same time the fish has clamped down on the leader and the fly, flattening the fly into the horizontal position where it has little purchasing power.
It's a hard thing to comprehend, but often the fish bites down on the leader so hard that you can't even move the hook, let alone dig it in. It's like when your Labrador retriever bites and hangs onto his leash, so you can't tug on the collar.
Sometimes an arapaima grabs hold of that leader so tightly that you set the hook hard with an arm-length strip-set, set the hook again, and again, to the point where you're moving the boat you're standing in, and then the fish just lets go of the leader and is gone. It's possible you never really had a hook in him.
I set the hook hard on one memorable fish with two arm-length strip sets, and then—
holding tight to the line—
fell backward from the bow into the center of the boat. Even putting my full 200-pound body weight into it didn't work, as in the next instant the fish simply let go of the fly.
For most visitors, an arapaima is the largest fish of any kind they've ever had on the line. The fish are enormously powerful, and while it can take several hook-sets to awaken the giant, once you get them properly hooked they always jump (often multiple times) and everyone in the boat goes from stealth mode to chaos management. Clear the line without losing a finger or creating a knot, get the fish on the reel, and pray your hook is holding on to something secure. If it is, and the fish doesn't get wrapped up in weeds, around a log, or smash your rod into pieces when it's close to the boat, you'll have a chance to land it.
The good news is that you're in a small, shallow pond. Arapaima don't have space to sound like a tuna or run toward the horizon like a tarpon, and while the first few minutes of the fight is a violent airborne adrenaline rush, you can usually land one of these fish quickly.
"Since we filmed Jungle Fish, we've had a complete transformation in the way we fight and land fish," said White. "At the start of this project we learned to thump a paddle on the water to scare the fish and get them to exert more energy so we could safely handle them at the end of the fight. These wrestling matches sometimes lasted 45 minutes or more for big fish. It made it easy to handle the fish, but we quickly saw that it stressed the fish excessively, and made for long revival times.
"Our indigenous guides recognized that we might be doing more harm than good, so we looked for ways to shorten the fight times, by putting more pressure on the fish, and using only straight 80-pound-test leaders. IGFA class tippets are detrimental to the health of the fish and we won't allow them. Rather than fight the fish to complete exhaustion, the guides found that if they jump in the water and grab the pectoral fins of the fish, it just sort of gives up, and it swims away healthier. Now our goal is always to land even the largest fish in under 10 minutes."
When White says 10 minutes, he's not just spit-ballin' a number. In the past few seasons, UMass Amherst associate professor of fish conservation and Indifly board member Andy Danylchuk has implemented one of the most detailed, result-oriented catch-and-release studies going on today. Under his direction, Carleton University PhD candidate Robert Lennox has accompanied Rewa guides (and anglers) into the field over the course of the past two seasons. When an angler hooks a fish, Lennox starts a stopwatch and records the exact length of the fight. With four anglers per week, Lennox observes only a fraction of the total catch, but he was there for two of my fish and clocked them at 5:55 and 5:46 minutes, respectively.
When a fish is landed, Lennox takes a tissue sample, plants a PIT tag to identify the fish in case of recapture, and using a harness made from a rubber band, attaches an accelerometer to the fish to record its movements and breathing activities after it is released.
"These devices (much like a Fitbit for a fish) measure movement on three axes, and they can reveal subtle (or not so subtle) changes in activity patterns," said Danylchuk, who concocted the removable harness system in his basement. "We use them to quantify how fish respond to the stresses imposed by angling events, specifically elements of capture, handling, and release."
The accelerometer measures things like how far the fish swims after release, and how many times it surfaces to breathe. It also reveals whether the fish lives or dies. There is mortality in all catch-and-release fishing, and in this study, each fish is carefully monitored after it is released. The 88-inch arapaima that died during our week took two breaths after it was released, and never came up for a third.
At the end of the day, Lennox is still directly attached to the accelerometer by a spinning rod and reel, and 80-pound test braid. To get the accelerometer back, he gives one hard pull and breaks the rubber band. That's how he recovers the device so he can download the data.
"Just saying 'we practice catch-and-release' is not good enough for Indifly," said Danylchuk. "Not all fish respond similarly to capture, handling, and release, and when the science isn't already available, we do the science to generate the best practices needed to make the recreational fishery more sustainable."
The data Indifly is collecting is preliminary but is already helping refine Rewa practices and define successful catch-and-release. Of the 27 arapaima releases Lennox recently documented over six weeks of fishing, three died, an 11% mortality rate which is consistent for all recreational fishing. It's a remarkable statistic considering the size of these fish, and dramatic considering that the Amerindians of Rewa have gone from harvesting these fish for food, to advancing our knowledge of catch-and-release fishing, and educating the rest of the world about sustainable practices.
And while we mourned with them over the death of one giant arapaima during our trip, we also celebrated the fact that fly fishing has provided a bright future for the villagers of Rewa, and overall arapaima numbers are growing in a protected, carefully managed fishery. All it took was a little help from one guy with a fly rod.
Ross Purnell is the editor of Fly Fisherman