Fishwest Ambassador Chad Any does it again! Another amazing entry from his time spent in the jungles. Enjoy this write up on Chad Ady Presents: To Catch A Payara.
A three hour flight to Dallas. A four hour layover delay. Another five hours on a plane to Bogota. It’s 2 AM now. The wake up call is at 6 AM. A short, mostly sleepless night in Bogota, full of half-awake payara fever dreams. Just as sleep arrives, the alarm rings and it’s off to the domestic airport. Another two, actually three hours, to the frontier town of Puerto Carreño. A US military aircraft is on the runway, and we circle over the airport for an hour before being given clearance to land. I’m pretty sure the aircraft lacks air conditioning. But it feels like an icebox compared to the heat that greets us on the runway in Puerto Carreño. Another hour waiting outside on the runway, searching for a fleeting patch of shade, waiting to be questioned by the local authorities. Convinced that we really traveled to this crazy corner of the world simply to catch a fish, they allow us to exit the airport..
We drive another five hours across the savannah of eastern Colombia. I start to doze, and I am repeatedly awakened by the jarring of the impact between the old 4Runner and the “road” as we fly across the plains. I half expect an elephant or rhinoceros to emerge from behind the clusters of trees that dot the open landscape that could double for the Serengeti. The road winds endlessly around mountains of stunning, black volcanic rock called the Guinea Shield, some of the most ancient rock formations in the world.
The sun sets fast near the equator. Suddenly, it’s dark and we arrive in the hamlet of Garcitas. A hub along prominent drug trafficking corridors only a decade earlier, Garcitas is now a sleepy village on the banks of the Orinoco River. The occasional Blackhawk helicopter soaring overhead helps to encourage the uneasy peace. Finally, we near our destination. Our expert guide, a local fisherman named Silvio, carefully navigates us through the currents and boulders of the third largest river in the world. The only light around is from the grassfires that dot the surrounding countryside, a vicious lightning storm in the distance, the constellations of the Southern Hemisphere peaking over the horizon, and Silvio’s lone spotlight, which guides the other boats behind us driven by the less-experienced boatmen.
We reach the Orinoco Lodge, a surprising bit of civilization located on an island in the middle of the Orinoco. We rig our rods, eat a quick dinner of delicious paella, and retire to our cabins. Another nearly sleepless night ensues. The heat is oppressive on our North American bodies, adapted to the cold of the February winter at home. The camp dog starts barking at midnight, perhaps chasing a capybara that swam out to the island. A confused rooster starts to crow at 3 AM, long before first light. As the sunrise begins to glow over the Venezuelan side of the Orinoco, I arise from my bed exhausted, but eager to meet the beasts that lurk in the depths of the river.
Following a quick breakfast, we retrace the steps of German explorer Alexander von Humboldt, one of the first non-indigenous people to explore the area in the early 19th Century. We pass an incredibly odd and gigantic statue of El Libertador, Simon Bolivar, attached to an abandoned school for troubled city youth who were sent to jungle for reform. Another hour in the boat and we reach the Maipures rapids. Described by Humboldt as the “eighth wonder of the world,” these rapids live up to their name and then some. Seven kilometers of braided class IV and V rapids can be heard from nearly a mile away. Silvio skillfully navigates us through the calmer portions toward the first fishing spot. Here, the payara live.
The dry season yields empty channels that we can navigate by foot. We follow Silvio through one of these channels, over massive boulders and up steep hillsides of sand. The hike is maybe a half mile, but feels like five under the unrelenting sun of the Amazon. We are now several miles in to the troubled country of Venezuela. Without a visa, the legality of our actions is questionable, although the border is not strictly enforced in this indigenous territory. We’re told that as long as we hang with Silvio we should be good, and we are. While jumping off a boulder, my brand new pants literally tear in half. I try to repair them, but despite my efforts I’m left with a pocketed loincloth in which to fish for the rest of the day. My legs pay the price exacted by the relentless sandflies.
Finally, we reach the first fishing hole. A giant rapid longer than a football field, the spot is impressive. This is my second trip in pursuit of payara, and I know what to do. I strip my entire fly line out at my feet. I make a simple 30 foot cast in to the rapid, and allow the current to pull the rest of my line in to the river. As I start to feel the backing in my hands, I begin to strip the line with both hands, rod tucked under my armpit. Slowly at first as the line comes tight and starts to swing, and later faster to imitate an escaping baitfish, I bring the 12-inch long fly back to my feet, and repeat.
We first meet just five minutes later. I feel the telltale thump at the end of my line, indicating that I’ve found an interested payara. I set the hook hard with both hands, and continue to pull until I can’t pull any more. The payara starts to win the battle, and takes off downstream. I tighten my drag to the max, and I’m still losing. The fish continues to take line, and I meet a part of my backing that I’ve never seen before. As the payara literally starts to turn the corner on the river below me, I realize my only play is to clamp the reel with my palm or I’d risk losing my brand new fly line. As I do so, I nearly get pulled off the rock on which I stand. I know if I can weather the insane initial 60 seconds of a fight with a payara, I can likely land it as it starts to tire.
I’m able to crank the fish in on my overmatched 10 weight. I jump off my perch above the river in to the water, and bring the fish to hand. The creature is beautiful. It is perfectly adapted to its role as a top dog on the mighty Orinoco. With a powerful tail to navigate the rapids, formidable teeth to slash at baitfish, and a sleek profile with a razor sharp section on its belly to avoid attacks from even bigger dogs, I know I’m holding something special.
I’m completely exhausted. I’m half naked with my torn clothing. I’m well in the throes of heat exhaustion and dehydration. My screaming reel put a gash in my hand. My legs are bleeding from insect bites. I spent thousands of dollars for this opportunity. But it’s worth every cost: physical, financial, emotional, and otherwise. The things we do for fish will confuse an outsider, but I have no doubt that the adventures will continue.