Fly Fishing in the Land of Giants

Rob Howard
by Donovan Webster - Guyana - June/July 2012

Deep in the jungle of South America, a prehistoric fish of massive proportions is at the heart of a new kind of tourism

> Click to see photos from the writer's Guyana fishing trip

The fifty-year-old rum (golden and nearly as thick as maple syrup) slides smoothly into the mouth of my nine-ounce stainless-steel flask. As it oozes in, I am thinking: A sip or two goes to anyone who catches an arapaima on a fly.

We are headed for extreme southern Guyana—down near that nation’s roadless border with Brazil—to an eco-lodge that ranks among South America’s most remote. Once there, we’ll be fly fishing for arapaima: a quarry that may have lived there since the Age of Dinosaurs. Today’s arapaima run in the realm of seventy to five hundred pounds. And since it was recently discovered that a fly caster could catch them, roughly a dozen have been taken using this technique.

So as the idea of an arapaima hovers in my thoughts, I can only hope someone among us is lucky enough to hook, catch, and release one of these monsters. If so, he deserves a thirty-dollar hit of ron añejo to mark the occasion.
They are truly stange fish: both beautifully streamlined and grotesquely ugly, like early-seventies muscle cars out of Detroit. They have big, aggressively bony skulls combined with odd body colors and tapering back ends.

They’re also, like tarpon, air breathers, meaning they come to the surface to gulp a fresh breath every ten to twenty minutes and then  go back beneath the tea-colored water to sulk, giving off a stream of small bubbles as they continue to eat and slowly exhale.

And they can only be found natively in the wilds of northern South America. To catch one in its natural home, you have to come to the thatch-roofed Rewa Eco-Lodge. It’s not a small journey. To get here, you have to take at least three airplanes—including a small Cessna that lands on a grass strip—and then go down to the Rupununi River landing and take an open boat for about ninety minutes to the lodge. The lodge itself is spartan. Its small plaster huts, with ceiling-hung mosquito nets over the beds, are all set around a central cantina. To get around at night you need a headlamp, if only to look for snakes beneath your feet. The showers are outdoors, in a little walled-off area behind your room. There are candles at night and no screens on the windows. It’s about a ten-minute walk from the little thatch-roofed village of Rewa, and the last civilization for 150 miles all the way to near the Guyana/Brazil border. It may not be the edge of the civilized world (they still have fantastic cooked food and a few cold beers), but it feels pretty damn close.

The fish themselves wait farther afield. They live in isolated oxbow-lake lagoons: placid waters, usually inconveniently deep inside buggy jungles, where the fish breed and eat and grow to gargantuan proportions. Most of the year, the lakes are cut off from nearby rivers and are eventually replenished by annual jungle flooding.