February 08, 2016
Venezuela fly fishing makes most people think of tailing bonefish on white pancake flats, or marlin and sailfish off La Guaira Bank. Uraima Falls on the other hand is little known, rarely visited, and hasn't percolated into the consciousness of most fly fishers. Five hundred and fifty miles southeast of Caracas on the Paragua River, Uraima Falls is home to the biggest payara on the planet. Part tarpon, part salmon, part horror movie, they are fierce-looking creatures, but more importantly, they crush flies and get airborne like Michael Jordan.
Payara (Hydrolycus scomberoides) are elegantly fanged creatures sometimes called vampire fish or sabretooth barracuda. Every English translation focuses on those two prominent lower fangs that can range from 4 to 6 inches in large specimens. These unwieldy teeth recede into cavities in the upper jaw, and on particularly large fish, the teeth protrude through the top of the head.
Payara look like they belong in the ocean, or maybe an alternate galaxy. Their heads and hinged mouths are disproportionate to their body size. They feed in the fastest currents, slashing at any prey that passes in front of them, striking broadside with their formidable mouths and then swallowing their prey headfirst.
Menacing and fierce in the water, payara are surprisingly fragile when you hold them. Their tiny silver scales come off like dust in your hands, and their muscular-looking bodies feel soft and troutlike, but you can still feel the power when you grab them by the wrist of their tails. They do not handle air exposure well—quick photos with minimal handling are critical for healthy releases.
Scattered throughout the Amazon, payara tend to prefer deep pools or the gnarliest white water. I tangled with a few unexpected payara while exploring Guyana a few years ago, and have been enchanted ever since, waiting for the opportunity to chase the big boys.
If big is the mission, there is one place to go: Uraima Falls is globally known as the best place in the world for large payara. Almost every IGFA record has come from this spot on the river.
When Jim Klug from Yellow Dog Fly Fishing called with this trip on his mind for a segment in the most recent Confluence Films project, I was in. Klug has seen almost all there is to see in the world of fly fishing, when he has a new trip it's always an adventure.
Fly fishers have been pushing the limits of their tackle for years, and this location is no exception. Not the most fly friendly of destinations, this species is admittedly much better suited for conventional anglers. A few adventurous fly fishers had been to Uraima Falls before us and started to crack the code, but information was scarce. We knew what worked with a spinning rod—giant diving plugs—so we tried to go as big as we could with our fly rods. We packed heavy and planned to go big. One of my favorite challenges in fly fishing is going into something relatively unknown, and trying to make it happen.
After a night in Caracas, a couple of charter flights, and a ground transfer, we met our crew on the banks of the river for the journey upstream. As we headed upriver in our 40-foot metal canoes, the anticipation and excitement was building. When we got there we stood in awe as we looked over the endless rapids and the massive volume of moving water. It was too big to even pick apart or figure out where to begin.
Our boatman pointed to the fastest and deepest part of the rapids. Not the seams, eddies, or edges, but the middle of the fastest water. That is where payara choose to live—the very heart of chaos.
I stepped up to the first spot, a rock outcropping below the last rapid, and chucked my streamer as far across into the current as I could, one strip to get tight, and began swinging the fly through the heart of the rapid. In the dead center of the rapids, a fish hit so hard I thought I'd hung the bottom. I stripped tight, and a monster payara leapt three feet in the air.
It was so unexpected it caught everyone off guard, including the cameraman. It dwarfed any payara I had seen previously and weighed in at 16 pounds. While the all-tackle record is close to 40 pounds, the fly record is under 20 pounds, so relatively speaking, it was a hell of a fish to catch on the first cast.
But we all know catching a monster fish on your first cast forecasts two possible futures—great fishing throughout the whole trip, or an angling curse that is hard to shake. Of course, over the next three days we didn't see or touch another fish.
But we still worked for them, covering the water from the swirling eddies at the base of the falls, to the rolling rapids below them. Climbing rocks to reach better casting platforms, swimming out to rocks to reach farther into the current, we even ran the giant canoes up the rapids to reach new water, and risked potentially catastrophic consequences.
We also cycled through all logical combinations of fly patterns, colors, and fly lines all the way up to 700-grain sinking lines, 14-inch sailfish flies, and 12-weight rods. It was hard work to cast those rigs all day but we gave it our all.
Nothing worked. Was the river empty save that one fish? If there were fish, we were getting no feedback from them. Were they reacting to the fly? Were they even seeing the fly?
Fly fishing is a puzzle—solving it is a huge part of why we love it. But it's hard to solve a puzzle that seems to be missing important pieces.
In search of answers, we headed upriver to a smaller tributary with another cascading falls. It was perfect fly-fishing water with manageable size and current, and then we started catching them.
You could see fish moving up the falls like salmon. Like Uraima Falls, it is the severe drop that creates a unique fishing opportunity. For a few months of the year the river drops and payara migrate upstream—presumably to spawn or chase baitfish on their own spawning run. Uraima Falls is all but impassable, a giant roadblock on a highway of migration that sometimes creates a traffic jam at the base of the falls, and the best payara fishing on the planet. At other times, the fish have passed farther upstream to other obstructions, and that's where we found them.
It was spectacular, and our fish count jumped significantly. My companion Will Flack was dying to get a big payara on the board, and he found a perfect-looking spot that required some significant rock hopping and a little bouldering to reach, but he went for it.
As he made a cast, my first thought was "what is he going to do if a fish eats?" On cue, he got tight to his biggest fish of the trip, and was stranded midriver on a small boulder while his fish was headed downstream. There was no way to turn him.
Like a boss, Flack jumped in the river and floated downstream, fighting his fish until he could eddy out and land the fish. It was a spectacular thing to witness him swimming through deep, fast, foreign waters, with vampire fish likely all around him, and one on the line.
The water in the river continued to drop and the catching kept improving back at Uraima Falls. We didn't crack a code or find a magic fly or system, we picked up fish in all the spots we had been casting all week. More than anything the secret was to never give up. These fish had to be earned, every one of them.
Fishing trips are never just about the fishing. The people, the places, and the adventures make up most of the memories. Watching my buddy swim for his trophy, gripping the sides of a canoe as we barreled into a rapid, eating a jungle rat, and helping the villagers get their boat downstream were all important parts of the adventure. But every quest needs a Holy Grail, and these vicious-looking creatures are elusive enough to fit the bill.
Physically it was the most difficult fishing I have ever done, throwing 12-weights with the biggest flies and heaviest lines as far as you can, while perched on jagged rocks with monster rapids below you. But it was worth it. As with many goals in life, the things you work the hardest for are the most memorable.
Oliver White owns Abaco Lodge in the Bahamas and co-hosts with Jimmy Kimmel, Jim Belushi, Lefty Kreh, Yvon Chouinard, and others, the TV series Buccaneers & Bones on the Outdoor Channel.