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Arapaima on the Fly

How fly fishing in Guyana can provide a sustainable economy and protect the environment.

Arapaima on the Fly

Arapaima fishing is an exciting new frontier for fly fishers but more importantly, a successful tourism operation could preserve the natural habitat and boost the economy of an entire region. (Blake Gordon photo)

This article was originally titled "Rumble in the Jungle" in the Oct-Nov 2012 issue of Fly Fisherman magazine.

Guyana is off the radar for all but the most adventurous travelers. It’s a small English-speaking country in South America with a troubled past including decades of dictatorship, and a notorious Kool-Aid incident in Jonestown. The country has been getting a growing amount of press recently: Newsweek put it on its bucket list of adventures, it was a “hot spot” travel destination in USA Today, Outside mentioned it as well, and it is also starting to get a little notice in the fly-fishing community.

Why the surge in positive public awareness? Guyana is covered in pristine rainforest, one of the most ecologically diverse places on the planet, and has a few activities you cannot do anywhere else—like catch arapaima with a fly.

Beyond its natural beauty, Guyana is also full of natural resources—oil, gold, bauxite, and timber particularly. The country is now in a coming-of-age position where it will decide whether to pursue an extraction-based economy, or focus on the ecotourism market. And that’s how fly fishers are getting involved.


The Guyanan Fly-Fishing Adventure Begins

Rewa is one of the most remote villages in the country’s interior at the confluence of the Rewa and Rupununi rivers. It is 250 miles from the nearest road, and no easy task to get there. After overnighting in Georgetown, the capital of Guyana, visitors must charter a small plane into a dirt runway used during the balata rubber export trading era. From there it is 90-mile canoe trip up the Rupununi to reach Rewa.



The village is home to fewer than 300 people who subsist almost exclusively off the land and the waters around them, but even here the modern world encroaches. Remoteness has been a bit of a blessing for the people of Rewa. In 2000 the village elders made a conscious decision to protect their resources, and they banned trapping and harvesting of species on their land.

Conservation International gave the village a grant in 2005, and they built a Spartan ecolodge with the ambition of creating a tourism business, primarily driven by birding. They completed the lodge, but were left with a shell of a structure and no skills on how to run a business or market themselves. The first year they were open, they had two guests—both mining prospectors.

Gaining a foothold in the ecotourism business has been a struggle, but the townspeople have persevered. Their commitment to conservation 12 years ago is paying dividends as the Rewa area is now one of the few places on the planet that boasts a healthy population of arapaima—one of the world’s largest freshwater fish.

Arapaima on the Fly
Arapaima run up to 440 pounds and are native to the freshwater rivers and ponds of the Amazon River basin. Guyana is one of the few places where their habitat and populations are still intact. (Blake Gordon photo)

An obligatory air breather, arapaima get airborne like tarpon and reach gargantuan proportions. The largest specimens are rumored to be 10 feet or more and greater than 500 pounds—and they can be caught on a fly rod.




The sunglasses company Costa initiated and funded an effort in 2011 to develop and explore the fishing; sending down three anglers (including myself) to dial in the techniques for landing arapaima on fly, and to document it in the newly released film Jungle Fish (available at costadelmar.com). What started as an epic adventure for monster fish quickly morphed into a conservation and business development project, as we became enamored with Rewa and its people.

Arapaima are protected in Guyana, so fishing for them is illegal under the presumption that catching a fish also results in its consumption. So the project had to begin with special permission from the authorities to attempt fly-fishing for them strictly on a catch-and-release basis.

Explaining the concept of catch-and-release to people who kill and harvest their food to survive isn’t an easy task, and was one of the hardest hurdles to overcome. Convincing the government and the locals that we were going to use a fly rod to land a behemoth freshwater fish, and then let it go unharmed, was a difficult task and ultimately required demonstration.


Hunting Dinosaurs

It’s not easy to chase down one of the largest freshwater fishes in the world. Arapaima (Arapaima gigas) have been authenticated up to 440 pounds and they are a valuable food fish, but they have been harvested extensively and few wild arapaima remain in the Amazon. Voracious predators, their diet consists mainly of other fish such as peacock bass and arowana, crustaceans, and even small mammals and immature birds that fall in the water.

Finding them is the easy part. They are obligatory air breathers, and they must surface to gulp air every 7 to 24 minutes. These rolling fish frequently reveal themselves, allowing fly fishers to get a shot.

They take flies, but not aggressively. If it’s in front of them they will eat it, but they won’t move 10 feet to chase it down. When they take the fly there is no doubt; they don’t strike short. The hardest part is getting a hook to stick. Arapaima are in a class of “bony tongued” fish, and it is difficult to get a hook to penetrate their tough mouths. You point the rod and pull with your line hand repeatedly. Sometimes you can strike six or seven times before the fish even becomes alarmed. They are the biggest and baddest fish that swims—no one has interfered with them for millennia. It often takes them awhile to be concerned about someone pulling on them.

The best tackle is 12-weight rods, large-arbor reels, and 150 yards of 30-pound Dacron backing. Use a bluewater floating line meant for marlin. These lines are built on a heavy 75-pound-test core. The leaders are 6 feet of 80-pound hard monofilament, so line management is critical. Don’t allow the line to become wrapped around your fingers or toes, or you could be injured.

The Education of a Fly-Fishing Guide

Rovin Alvin was our guide from the outset. He is 27 years old, small in stature, but powerful from living in the jungle. He loves to fish, has an inquisitive nature, and picks things up remarkably fast.

Rovin was particularly doubtful of the fly tackle. The very first day we were assembling our gear he inspected everything. He looked hesitant, so I asked him what he thought.

Arapaima on the Fly
Rovin Alvin has learned how to become a successful fly-fishing guide, and how to run a lodge. (Blake Gordon photo)

“Won’t work,” he said.

“Why not?”

“Not strong enough,” was his reply.

“What does work?”

“Bait,” he said matter-of-factly.

It took some work, but we eventually converted Rovin. Once we were able to demonstrate the casting, and he started to understand how fly fishing worked, he began to find the right situations for us in clear and shallow water, with undisturbed fish.

After leaving Guyana, I got e-mails and phone calls from Rovin for months as he continued to explore and think about how to do it again and better. Rovin has grown with us as we explored and fine-tuned a technique that has allowed us to land many fish up to 300 pounds on a fly rod.

Rovin now loves fly fishing, believes in it, understands it, and has become a hell of a guide. His initiative and passion made it clear he was the key to making Rewa a successful case of using sport fishing as a method of conservation—not just of a single fish species but of an entire region.

Costa reached out to USAID, an arm of the United States government that provides economic development assistance throughout the world. USAID was already in Guyana and looking for tourism-based projects, and catch-and-release fishing for arapaima fit their needs. The goal was to make Rewa a destination for fly fishers to catch arapaima, peacock bass, arowana, and payara. In exchange for continuing to protect the fish and the forest, Rewa would receive additional grant money to help launch this project.

Rewa is the only place in the world where fly fishers have a legitimate shot at landing an arapaima on a fly. The population is healthy, the habitat pristine, and the area has the right combination of shallow and clear water ponds that make it possible to target them on fly.

An irreplaceable asset unlike anywhere else makes this a marketable product, and with a little help on the business development side, sport fishing can have a material impact on the economic well-being of the village and help ensure that this small part of the rainforest remains as it has always been. More important, it provides an example that can be replicated throughout the Amazon and other parts of the world.

Rewa’s success as a sport-fishing operation now rests in Rovin’s hands, so we offered him some worldly experience. His education was a two-week crash course in fishing lodge management, hospitality, logistics, and guiding skills at Abaco Lodge in the Bahamas—a great opportunity, but also quite intimidating for someone who has seldom left Rewa and never left Guyana.

We got him a passport, a U.S. visa, some new clothes, and his first pair of shoes. Then we put him on a plane to Miami by himself. Rovin had to spend the night in Miami before he could catch a connection to the Bahamas where he would meet me at the lodge.

Rovin handled the shock of the modern world quite well. There were a few comical stories to tell when he made it to the Bahamas. We made constant reminders not to carry any weapons, and yes even small knives count (a difficult concept for someone who started wielding a machete at the age of three).

He became trapped on the elevator, and the goodwill of a stranger had to help him figure out how to get off in the right place. The hotel key cards proved baffling.

He ordered chicken wings in the Miami airport, but then they arrived at his table, he was convinced there was a mistake. They couldn’t all be for one person.

Everyone spoke Spanish to him, as his Makushi features resemble the Mayan features of Mexico—they were as baffled as he was that he couldn’t speak or understand them.

He slept in a bed for the first time ever, as hammocks are a way of life in Guyana.

Clearing Bahamas customs is usually a mere formality with little attention paid to details. But a Guyana passport, and a letter from USAID explaining Rovin’s mission was a little much for immigration officials. All the guests on the plane emerged except Rovin. About the time I was starting to worry, my cell phone rang and I was summoned by immigration officials to a back room containing a nervous Rovin. A quick recap of the purpose of his trip, and the assurance he was with me, and we were off.

Guyana means “Land of many waters” but it is nothing like the shallow, turquoise flats of the Bahamas. Rovin was in awe of the clear water and white sand.

The lodge was full of guests, and we threw Rovin right into the mix, socializing and eating with the other guests. He tried to spend as much time as he could with me, watching behind the scenes and learning what it takes to keep an operation going. He also got out in the boats with guides, imitating their guiding techniques.

Rovin was on a mission. He scribbled in his notepad constantly. I shared everything I could, but felt it was a little overwhelming to say the least. We had a one-hour discussion when I attempted to explain how a microwave works. We worked on his fly casting, and he caught his first bonefish—and a shark, which he found much more impressive.

The routine at Abaco Lodge is that the guides get 40 minutes to prepare before every scheduled departure. They start the morning at the dock fueling and cleaning their boats, getting coolers ready. When the guests step out, everything is in place, and the guides are there to help.

Arapaima on the Fly
The best fly-fishing tackle for arapaima is 12-weight rods, large-arbor reels, and 150 yards of 30-pound Dacron backing. (Blake Gordon photo)

When I returned to Rewa a second time, the boats were immaculate because the guides cleaned them every morning. Rovin now spots and calls out rolling fish on the clock, just as guides do in a flats boat. The directions are perfect: “2 o’clock, 80 feet, facing right.” He is an intellectual sponge, and it wasn’t limited to the guiding side.

The first thing he did upon returning to Rewa was to build a bar. The bar at Abaco Lodge is the social hub, and this fact wasn’t lost on him. He realized the Spartan ecolodge at Rewa lacked a comfortable common area to recap the day, and tell stories. He addressed and solved this problem.

He also brought in a small freezer to keep the beer cold, added a few benches and tables to make it more comfortable, and he even added more lighting. He showed the girls how to properly set the table, serve, add fresh flowers to the rooms, and provide turndown service.

The most impressive thing was how he realized that it isn’t just one thing that makes a business work, but an attitude. He took the ethos that exists at Abaco Lodge and implemented it in the middle of the rainforest.

It was impressive. In two weeks he had studied a well-run lodge, and was then able to go home and implement it. He shows a constant demand to get better and make this concept work. He now believes in sport fishing, and has the ambition and talent to make this project a success. Projects like this, though small in scale, are sustainable, and have great impact on local lives and livelihoods.

Rewa is now hosting a limit of 20 fly fishers per year to target arapaima. This handful of fly fishers will revolutionize the economy of the entire village of Rewa, and change the lives of everyone who lives there. In the process, it helps ensure the protection of the species and the habitat. Almost instantly, a small investment in the people of Rewa created a sustainable economic enterprise that helps preserve a magical part of the world for future generations.

At this point, the infrastructure remains Spartan, but the trip is magical—like a trip back in time. It will be limited to only a handful of anglers a year, and the demand is quickly exceeding the supply. Learn more at costadelmar.com/protect.

Oliver White owns Abaco Lodge in the Bahamas and has been instrumental in getting a fledgling sport-fishing economy off the ground in Guyana.

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