July 07, 2020
By Ross Purnell
I first read about the Kayapo people in National Geographic. The story explained how this primitive, indigenous group in Brazil resisted construction of a dam and reservoir on the Xingu River. The tribe had no money or industry, but they still refused to sell their piece of the Amazon rainforest.
The Kayapo leaders wrote a letter that spoke to me as a fly fisher. It read: “We do not want a single penny of your dirty money. We do not accept Belo Monte or any other dam on the Xingu. Our river does not have a price, the fish we eat do not have a price, and the happiness of our grandchildren does not have a price.”
I was impressed by their foresight, and their courage. How could people with nothing stand in the way of Brazil’s insatiable appetite for electricity, lumber, and grazing land? What made the Xingu so special?
Years later I met Rodrigo Salles, a fly fisher from Brazil who had also read the very same article in National Geographic. He was similarly inspired, and he reached out to the Kayapos with a proposal to jointly operate catch-and-release sport-fishing operations in the Xingu watershed.
When we spoke, Salles and the Kayapos had already started a lodge on the Iriri River (a tributary of the Xingu). Salles told me what made the Xingu so special—it’s a massive, clear river flowing over granite bedrock. It’s the best place in the world to catch a fanged predator fish called a payara. These aren’t piranhas, they eat piranhas. And Salles told me that the Kayapos revere and respect this fish above all others. In the villages along the Xingu, young men catch these fish on their path to become warriors. They take the long fangs of the payara, and a village elder uses the teeth to cut and scar the arms of the fisherman. This ritual gives respect to the river, and allows the spirit of the fish to live on in the blood of the warrior.
In the dry season of 2019 the Amazon was burning with more than 80,000 uncontrolled fires, most of them started by intentional slash-and-burn clearing, the most cost-effective way to create open spaces for farms, cattle ranches, mines, and roads. Normally in the rainforest these fires move slowly or not at all, but an unusual dry spell turned standard deforestation techniques into a firestorm.
While smoke drifted over the Kayapo Indigenous Territory—and other indigenous people in the Amazon watched the jungle disappear under the weight of farms, wildcat mines, and lumber operations—Kayapos in the small villages along the Xingu River in the southern Amazon were busy working toward a different future.
What they envisioned was a catch-and-release sport-fishing operation on the Xingu that could take advantage of the Kayapos’ reputation as hunters and fishermen. The operation would create jobs and develop an economy based not on extraction but on sustainability. When the guests go home, the river and the jungle would remain places where the Kayapo people can hunt and fish to sustain themselves and their culture.
Salles, a partner in the outfitting business Untamed Angling, first fished the Xingu in 2016 at the invitation of tribal leaders. What the chiefs wanted was a sport-fishing project modeled on the already successful Kendjam Lodge on the Iriri River in the far west side of the territory. But what Salles found in 2016 was a river that was overfished . . . not by the Kayapos but by outsiders who came into the tribal lands from Sao Felix, filled their boats with peacock bass, pacu, catfish, piranhas, and corvinas, and took the cargo back downriver.
Worse, the Kayapos got nothing in return for the fish that were stolen from right under their noses. A few Kayapos were hired to help navigate the river, which in places is shallow, rocky, and punctuated by treacherous rapids. But after they learned the way upriver, the poachers returned to help themselves again and again.
Salles advised the Kayapo elders that there would likely be no outside interest in sport fishing if this type of commercial harvest continued, so the nine Kayapo communities along the Xingu took action. They bought a patrol boat, and hired their own surveillance team to monitor and control access on the Xingu where it flowed out of the Kayapo Indigenous Territory near the village of Kokraimoro. The boundary here is a demarcation line that is clearly visible from the air. Google Maps shows a pristine Amazon jungle inside tribal lands, and a patchwork of mostly farmland outside where the jungle once stood.
Kayapos on the Xingu put a stop to the plundering of their river, and they noticed that within one season, their own subsistence fishing was improving—immediate results that indicated the lower river was repopulating itself from reaches far upstream, where exploitative fishing never occurred. By protecting the river, their families already had more food on the table.
As the river came back into balance, the Kayapos saw more and more peacock bass, wolf fish, catfish, piranhas, and also more predatory payaras. While payaras had never been a commercial target, they do depend on a robust fishery to prey upon, and they were an important indicator that the river was enjoying a resurgence.
When Salles heard about the comeback of the Xingu River, he made immediate plans to return. A jungle fisherman for all of his adult life, Salles and his partner Marcelo Perez own and operate some of the world’s best-known jungle fishing operations for species such as golden dorado, peacock bass, and arapaima.
His fly-fishing passion right now is the elusive, challenging payara (Hydrolycus armatus). Very little is known about payaras, and much of what we do know comes from the aquarium hobby community, where they are sold under various pseudonyms such sabertooth barracuda, vampire fish, and dogtooth tetra. They require large aquariums and they must be kept in solitary confinement, otherwise they tear their tank mates to pieces—even other parayas—so they have a well-earned reputation as dangerous, solitary predators.
When Salles called to invite me on an exploratory trip to the Xingu, he was excited because the Kayapos had sent recent reports of catching many payara, some weighing more than 20 pounds. In a lifetime of fly fishing for payara, Salles had never caught one over 20 pounds, but he assured me that the Xingu was the best place to target a fish of this size.
On the Xingu, Kayapos revere the payara as one hunter respects another, and the fish play a central role in Kayapo culture. In villages like Pukararakre and Kamotjam, all young men perform a specific rite of passage into manhood: They catch and kill a payara, and a village elder afterward uses a payara tooth to cut and scar the arms of the successful fishermen.
Before the scarification ritual, a young Kayapo is just a boy. After they earn their scars, Kayapo men become warriors and respected fishermen. The Kayapo actually believe that the spirit of the payara enters your body through the bloody cuts, and by hosting its spirit, you become more like a payara. You become a deadly hunter and a more effective fisherman. The ritual is not a one-time event. Many of the men in the village have multiple sets of scars from different stages of life. As you catch more payaras—and collect more scars—your stature in the community as a fisherman and a hunter grows.
I was aware of vampire fish, but thought of them as an oddity, a rare bycatch you couldn’t really target. But Salles thought the Xingu might be the first place in the world where fly fishers could successfully make them a primary quarry. He wanted to test that theory with me in an exploratory trip in August of 2019. It would be his fourth time on the Xingu, and I’d be one of the first North Americans ever to fly fish there.
The question was, could we figure out how to reliably catch them on fly tackle? Payaras are vicious predators that stab and spear their prey with their long fangs. Their favorite foods are red-belly and black piranhas . . . and other payaras. They have large eyes that allow them to hunt the shallows at night, a habit that makes them “vampires” in more ways than one. In bright sunlight they live in the dark crypts of the deepest holes, where they hide from the light and ambush their prey from below. They also hunt the rapids of the fastest whitewater, where rocks and boulders create hiding places and ambush points.
In both cases, getting a fly down to the fish is problematic. Rapids that are 12 feet deep and slow water that is 60 to 80 feet are equally difficult. This isn’t optimum territory for fly tackle. But getting our flies in front of the fish was just the beginning of our challenges.
Bucketmouth predators like tarpon, taimen, and striped bass engulf their prey whole, and fish hooks are designed exactly for mouths like these. The mouth closes, and the hook engages itself on the way out. Payaras, however, have tall, narrow bodies, and their mouths are built for stabbing and spearing. They stab your fly in an attempt to wound and injure, and they often return to further victimize your fly, but amid all this sideswiping and tail-nipping and body piercing, it’s difficult to get a solid hook-set into their jawbone.
When Salles and I arrived in August 2019 at our campsite near Kamotjam village we were greeted by Alec Krüse Zeinad, a zoologist and author of the book Peixes Fluviais do Brasil, a 360-page compendium that illustrates and identifies more than 200 fish species. With him was Ireo, a local chief from Pukararakre village, and seven other representatives from different communities up and down the river.
I could plainly see by the scars on their arms that these men were experienced and successful payara fishermen. I could also see they were curious about our plan to catch these fish on flies. Kayapos catch payara (and catfish and everything else) by handlining with a piece of bait, a hook, coat hanger wire that is looped at both ends, and a spool of heavy 100-pound-test nylon monofilament. (Without wire, nuisance piranhas will cut off the hook.)
As we unpacked our fly rods, reels, and lines, the Kayapo men crowded around, watching us with some degree of skepticism as we pieced together our rods, threaded our fly lines, and tied our flies to thin knottable wire. It was clear most of them had never seen such fishing tackle. Compared to their simple and deadly handline rigs, our tackle looked like Rube Goldberg machines.
These Kayapos knew nothing about fly fishing, but they were to be our guides for the next four days of fishing. They’d show us where the payaras were, and we’d try to demonstrate that fly fishing was a practical method. If all went according to plan, the Kayapos would learn how to position the boat, and where fly fishers could potentially stand or wade to fish rapids and steep drop-offs.
If we were successful, Salles planned for paying guests to camp in the same tents for a few short weeks in October 2019, and then, in partnership with the Kayapos, to construct an actual lodge for operation in late 2020. The Untamed Angling model that has been used with native groups elsewhere is a simple one. The indigenous group builds a lodge they own, and it’s on their land. Untamed Angling markets and operates the lodge, and hires native guides, boatmen, and camp help from the local population. Native people are paid individually for the work they do, and then at the end of the fiscal year, Untamed Angling has an open-book meeting with their tribal partners and splits the annual profit 50/50 with the tribe. According to its 2019 report, Untamed Angling hired 393 natives, and contributed $534,802 to nine different ethic groups in 55 villages in Bolivia and Brazil. That money is used to improve the quality of life for all the natives through projects that provide clean drinking water, medical and dental care, schools, and solar panels. To get the ball rolling on the Xingu, all we had to do was demonstrate a viable sport fishery.
The other sources of revenue for Kayapos are fruit like acai berries, and nuts like Brazil nuts, cumaru, and cacau (cocoa). It’s been said that the cure to cancer may lie in some unknown plant in the Amazon jungle, where unequaled biodiversity means there are plants that haven’t been “discovered” by outsiders, and we don’t yet know their potential uses. Studies have shown that one square kilometer in the Amazon jungle can support more than 1,100 tree species alone. (In Yellowstone National Park you might find 11 different tree species.)
The Kayapos treat trees as you might treat your grandmother, with great care and attention. The pharmaceutical industry buys all the cumaru nuts the Kayapos can produce. It’s a source of guaifenesin, an expectorant and bronchodilator used in many cold remedies. A ton of cumaru nuts is a cash crop of about $10,000, but that’s just one of the many reasons Kayapos don’t cut down their trees. The lodge at Kendjam was built on a sandy beach along the Iriri River because Kayapos refuse to clear trees for any kind of development. Some of them have seen the clear-cuts outside their boundaries, and they know that logging and agriculture result in dirty, muddy rivers, and a loss of their ancestral hunting lands.
Exploring the Xingu
The Xingu is unusually clear for a river of this size. With an annual average discharge at the mouth of 775,000 cfs, it’s roughly three times larger than the Columbia River. On Kayapo land, it’s clearer than the Madison. The headwaters flow over a massive granite plateau, and the roots of the jungle envelope the soil. It’s a region where there is up to 1,200 inches of rain annually. The river can rise and fall up to 30 feet during the wet season, yet there is practically no erosion. It’s far different than the other Amazon tributaries you see flying into the Xingu, rivers that are brown and muddy all year due to clear-cuts, agriculture, and hydraulic and placer mining.
Although it’s a massive river, it’s very fishy, and the clarity helps you easily recognize almost unlimited structure and underwater terrain. It’s wide, with extensive sandy shallows, rocky shoals, islands, and a network of channels—in some places there may be 12 or more major river channels where only one of them offers passage deep enough for a propeller.
In the rocky shallows there are wolf fish (trahira), pacus feed on leaves and nuts in giant back eddies, peacock bass hunt the sandy flats and mouths of tributaries, and in the places where the river funnels into deep holes, there are massive catfish, schools of piranhas . . . and payaras.
After a long day of travel, we arrived on the Xingu with just enough light for possibly 90 minutes of fishing. After stringing up our rods, we ran upriver in 30-foot aluminum johnboats to a place where the river had over the eons eroded a slot through a ridge. Rodrigo called it Serra Encontrada do Xingu which in Portuguese means the Meeting Hills of the Xingu. Ireo said his people had always called this place the Meeting Hills since the beginning of their oral history.
Here the river was constrained into one massive deep pool, and the low evening sun made the glassy surface look like liquid mercury. The massive river moved quietly, but howler monkeys roared from the high ground on both sides of the river, and screaming hyacinth macaws flew in pairs overheard. We could also see payaras rolling at the surface both above and below us in a pattern that showed where the river was deepest, or are least it showed where the fish were visibly concentrated.
Why payaras roll at the surface in the morning and evening is unknown. They exhibit the same slow roll you see from tarpon, but tarpon breathe air, and payaras do not. It seemed to me that the payaras were at the surface just to make an appearance. They seeming to be intentionally herding their prey, making schools of fish agitated and fearful and driving them deeper to where the payaras could make unseen ambushes in the darkness.
Even though there were many fish at the surface, Salles assured me we would need to get our flies mega deep to catch the fish in this particular pool, so I used a 10-weight Orvis Helios 3 rod, 400-grain Scientific Anglers Sonar Jungle Titan fly line, and 7-inch-long 4/0 black-and-red Bad Attitude Baitfish with a rattle inside. I figured that down in the depths, payaras might be able to track the vibrations of their prey, as well as use their nocturnal vision. What we learned in the ensuing days is that the specific fly doesn’t matter as long as it’s mostly black, and long with tons of movement. To keep the fly deep, you have to move it slowly, so it must have inherent mobility to give it life.
We made the longest casts possible at an angle across and slightly upstream, and then reaching down, we dipped the rod tip straight down into the water to push the intermediate running line down to a deep starting point. We tried various countdown times from 10 to 20 to 30 seconds, and then a slow, crawling/twitching retrieve that imparted as much life as possible, but didn’t draw the fly up out of the strike zone.
Going Full Kayapo
When I heard the stories of the Kayapo scarification ritual, I was intrigued. I don’t have any tattoos, yet have often wondered what tattoo would or could fairly represent my passions as a fly fisher? Would it be a trout, a tarpon, a giant trevally? Could the artist fairly depict the beauty I saw in nature, a moment, or a memory? The scar from a payara tooth doesn’t attempt to paint a picture for anyone except yourself. It’s not a depiction, it’s a primal reminder of the lengths we’re willing to go to catch an extraordinary fish.
All fishermen are at least a little superstitious. I know some who won’t bring a banana on a boat, others who have a lucky hat, or a special shirt that helps them catch more fish. We all have a secret weapon. The kayapos believe the cuts from the tooth of a payara allow the spirit of the fish to enter your body. You capture the soul of the fish and you become a better angler. The scars become your totem, a symbol that you belong to a very dedicated class of fishermen. That’s some powerful mojo—why wouldn’t I want that?
I originally thought that if I traveled to Brazil and caught even a single payara, I would ask the Kayapos if I could participate in the ritual. But on our first night of fishing, it quickly became apparent that to impress Kayapo guides like Ireo, and to be accepted as their peers, we needed to catch something impressive. Fish under 10 pounds barely raised an eyebrow with our Kayapo guides, but every time a giant rolled at the surface they’d point and exclaim tepwatire abatoy! (Tep means fish, tepwatire is literally toothfish, and abatoy means huge.)
These Kayapo warriors were like all fishermen everywhere around the world—catching fish is fine, but catching a giant is something special, and Salles and I decided that to gain their respect and earn our scars, one of us needed to catch a fish they’d admire. On that first night we set our benchmark at 20 pounds, and we promised each other that we were on a “blood run” to catch a worthy payara and earn our stripes.
On our first full day on the river we fished for payaras for only 90 minutes at dawn and then again at dusk. When the fish were rolling and obviously active, we got almost constant action, but when the sun was high, the payaras stopped rolling and we went in search of other species.
While fishing deep for payara, we caught other species like black piranhas up to about 10 pounds. There were also smaller red-belly piranhas that sometimes scissored our flies to pieces, but they are too small to get their mouths around a 4/0 hook. When our flies were getting nipped by piranhas it meant there were likely payaras nearby. We caught many corvinas from 8 to 12 pounds, often at the end of the swing or when we were retrieving the fly for the next cast. Corvinas are strong, acrobatic fish that Zeinad described as a freshwater drum species. They are delicious, and we often kept one for dinner. We also regularly caught a whiskerless type of catfish called palmito that also jumped and fought nothing like a catfish. These tasty fish didn’t have scales, something piranhas seemed to appreciate because every time we landed a palmito, it showed multiple fresh bite marks.
When we left the big payara holes, we fished at the mouths of small tributaries, and in lagoons and sandy back bays for peacock bass. After slinging heavy flies and sinking lines, it felt good to scale down to floating lines and 8-weight rods, and make accurate casts with a small foam Gurgler into fallen timber, reeds, and rocks along the shore. The surface strikes were super aggressive from quality peacocks of 8, 10, and 12 pounds.
In the rocky areas we scouted for wolf fish in the shallows. If you like to wade, and you like to sight fish, this is your new best friend. Wolf fish are a little tough to see because their camouflage color scheme makes them closely resemble the granite bottom of the river, and unlike other fish—bonefish for instance—movement doesn’t give them away. Wolf fish sit stock still on the bottom, waiting for unsuspecting prey to swim close, and they use their short-distance explosive speed to grab their prey with vicious canine teeth, then swallow them whole.
The very best wolf fish spots are often small, cool-water tributaries. Small streams run under a shady canopy all day, and at night they cool off rapidly. The main river is exposed to the sun all day and with black rocks on the bottom, it is warm. Wolf fish like to get up into these cooler tributaries, and you frequently find yourself in small-stream situations with a closed, overhanging canopy, fallen logs crisscrossing the stream channel, and a wolf fish sitting in a spot as large as your bathtub. In these situations, you creep and crawl into position and often make a roll cast, bow-and-arrow cast, or just dap the fly due to lack of casting space.
On our first full day on the Xingu, the payaras taught us many lessons: how to swim the fly deep and slow, how to turn your body sideways so you can strip-set by drawing your elbow up and away from the fish—and then to strip-strike again, and again until that fly finds a home between all those teeth. You should never trout set because you won’t generate the power you need to drive the hook in. More important, a trout set lifts the fly up out of the strike zone. Often you’ll feel the payara, you strike and get nothing. Then the payara attacks again, and then again in just a matter of seconds. It can be a frustrating series of hits and misses, but then sometimes you connect—really connect—and your rod lurches down while the fish cartwheels into the air at an obtuse angle 80 feet from the boat. With fish this strong and this fast, there’s often a ripple in time between where your rod is pointed and where the fish is jumping.
Payaras are beautiful, acrobatic gamefish with small scales, silvery sides, iridescent blue backs, and a body shape not unlike a tarpon. The hard, bony gill plates around their eyes are opalescent like abalone shells, and those two giant, daggerlike teeth completely disappear into recessed slots when they close their mouths.
Kayapos traditionally kill and eat their payaras, so for them, taking a tooth for the scarification ritual is not a problem. But when Salles landed a 24-pound payara, he was faced with a dilemma. In decades of fishing for these noble gamefish, he had always practiced catch-and-release. Payaras are like tarpon or permit—too valuable to harvest—and his goal was to partner with the Kayapos to create a sustainable sport-fishing operation on the Xingu. Killing this giant specimen would set a bad precedent.
“No problem,” said Alec Krüse Zeinad, the zoologist who accompanied us for the trip and identified many of the fish species. Zeinad had seen hundreds if not thousands of payaras caught with a hook and line, and he said the 24-pounder (shown on the cover of this magazine) was the largest he’d ever seen. But he also said he had seen many payaras missing a tooth, or with a new small tooth just growing in. “They are like sharks,” said Zeinad. “They can easily lose a tooth and grow a new one. They grow quickly.”
Using a pair of long-nose pliers we removed the fly and broke off one of the long, curved and yellow fangs for both of us to use in the scarification ritual. It was the best way we could think of to release the fish and still honor the Kayapos by participating in their rituals and their celebrations.
Ireo nodded his head in appreciation as the giant payara regained its strength and swam away, and I knew that what Salles had started here was worthwhile. Because of fish like that, these men—all of them leaders of their communities—would have paying jobs without extraction or harvest, and the communities will benefit from a small number of premium-paying guests. We also showed that old customs and rituals can thrive alongside new ideas like catch-and-release fishing.
Kayapos have always felt that an intact jungle and a clear-running Xingu River have value, but now there’s an opportunity to actually earn some compensation for protecting and preserving it. More important, the sport-fishing project here is a chance to preserve their culture and their heritage as hunters and fishermen. These people weren’t born to be farmers or miners. They are legendary warriors, and they will fight to keep their lands wild.
Ross Purnell fished with Rodrigo Salles in August 2019 on the Xingu River where they filmed the 90-minute documentary Blood Run: Fly Fishing with Amazon Warriors. The film will premiere on Outdoor Channel on October 16 at 7 P.M. EST. It will also appear on Fly Fisherman's Facebook, Instagram and YouTube channel.