To Bolivia for pura payara
- By: Grant Wiswell
- Photography by: Grant Wiswell
For a half-hour my guide, Balacho, had been pointing and smiling at threatening black clouds that formed over the Brazilian border. With each lightning strike, he laughed demonically and shouted, “Bueno, bueno!” What was he thinking? Was he crazy?
My perfect bluebird afternoon was succumbing to a jungle storm of diluvial proportions. Balacho, who was now singing and looked as if he had won the Bolivian lottery, cheerfully paddled the dugout canoe to the beach in preparation for the pending storm. Adding to my misery, we landed across from what looked to be the perfect payara pool.
Unable to take the irrational behavior any longer, I snarled, “Why are you so happy?” Obviously unfazed, Balacho’s toothless grin widened and he said with enthusiasm, “Angry rain.” Something must have been lost in translation. He continued, “Angry rain make payara . . . loco . . . crazy. You see.” No sooner had I rolled my eyes than Balacho was up again pointing excitedly at the river.
As I looked across the Caño Negro, I saw something I couldn’t believe. The once-calm pool had erupted with no less than a hundred surfacing payara. The jungle vampires were rising rhythmically like trout on drakes at Silver Creek. To my surprise a five-pound payara jumped all the way out of the water, attempting to take down a small bird that was cruising too close to the surface. With a gloating smile, Balacho slapped me on the back and said, “Pura payara.” Utterly baffled, yet enlightened, I grabbed my rod and tied 40-pound wire to the biggest green popper I could find.
No sooner had the fly hit the water than it was ambushed by three oversize payara. The first fish struck short, allowing enough time for a decisive strip of the 4/0 Chartreuse Banger. From somewhere below, 25 pounds of angry tooth and muscle erupted on the helpless fly. With my set, the now-irate fish took to the air like a frenzied tarpon. After 10 minutes of dizzying jumps, the payara conceded and came reluctantly to hand. The fanged fish took several swipes at our guide as he removed what was left of the popper. After the release, I yelled, “Bravo!” and Balacho nodded, beaming with an uncontainable I-told-you-so smile. For the remainder of the stormy afternoon, we fought countless fish. As day turned to evening, the storm broke and fishing eventually ebbed. Reluctantly, we reeled up and headed back to the lodge.
My interest in payara began when a friend, J.W. Smith, phoned and said, “Son, would you be interested in catching something that looks like a nasty mix between a sabertooth tiger and a vampire?” He continued, “They’re called payara, they grow to over 50 pounds, and they love to eat flies.” During that conversation, I learned that Smith had spent the past 30 years in the Amazon Basin searching for trophy peacock bass. During his travels in Bolivia, he stumbled across what he described to be “the greatest payara fishing in the world.”
Payara (Hydrolycus scomberoides) are most common in Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia, in the tributaries of the Orinoco, Essequibo and Amazon rivers. While Payara are found throughout a large geographical area, historically they have been extremely difficult to target on the fly. In larger rivers payara are often too spread out to catch with any reliability. The beauty of Bolivia’s Caño Negro and San Simón rivers is in their size—these smaller waters tend to concentrate payara into predictable areas that are fly-fishing friendly.
Very little is known about the species other than they have lethal four- to six-inch mandibular incisors and a fierce disposition. They are predators and feast upon other fish (especially piranha), birds and mammals. Also known as vampire fish, chambira, cachorra, or dog-tooth characin, they are most often compared to the golden dorado—both inhabit jungle waters, readily take flies, jump when hooked and fight savagely. After speaking with Smith, I needed to find out more about the payara. In fact, I needed to catch one and compare it to the area’s biggest angling draw, the golden dorado, which I have fished for and respect thoroughly. The trip was booked, and I flew to Bolivia and soon discovered that Smith’s proclamation was accurate—the payara is a great gamefish. Several days later the week-long journey was almost over.
On the last day of our TRIP, WE decided to make the breathtaking two-hour boat ride to the upper San Simón River, on the Brazilian border. As we quietly passed through the ancient jungle, we saw countless creatures. Wild flocks of colorful macaws, giant storks and prehistoric turkeys squawked from the trees above. A family of river otters barked with throaty disapproval as we passed, and several inquisitive pink dolphins breached a few feet from our boat. Balacho pointed to shore, where an 18-foot anaconda and a jaguar were seen a week ago. The tall grasses mostly obscured our view, but occasionally we caught glimpses of capybara and tapir. Edgar Rice Burroughs would have been truly inspired.
In what seemed like no time, Balacho killed the motor and we silently drifted onto an expansive sandbar. The firm bottom and warm water felt similar to the brackish bonefish flats that I know so well. Slowly we waded toward a drop-off that would assuredly hold payara. As we quietly walked, we spooked a solitary stingray that quickly swam toward a mixed school of large, exotic catfish.
Looking over the drop-off into the green depths below, I tied on one of my favorite billfish patterns, Umpqua’s Indian Ocean Mackerel (in 8/0; no small stuff here). After some ugly casting, I splashed the fly next to a fallen tree on the opposite bank. With fast, erratic strips I retrieved the fly and watched as it disappeared in a huge silver swirl. After a strong strip-set, the monster bulldogged, then jumped. On several occasions he tried to take me under the fallen tree, but the 9-weight proved persuasive. Fifteen minutes later a 35-pound trofeo grande was landed. Truth be told, this fish gave me about all I could handle. It made me wonder if the 50-pound beasts that lived below could ever be landed. Here’s hoping.
Having visited two excellent Bolivian fisheries, I can’t help but compare them. Which fish was better—the dorado or the payara? Both are amazing for different reasons. While some prefer dorado, I must say that the payara is a spectacular gamefish and a worthy opponent. Honestly, we know very little of this fanged fish, and I look forward to finding out more.
As I tied on a new fly, a cloud covered the sun and a thunderclap roared in the distance. Looking at Balacho, I smiled and asked, “Angry rain?” He winked and responded, “Yes, my friend. Muy bravo!”
Grant Wiswell, owner of Castaway Films, lives in Missoula, Montana with his wife and three daughters.