Fly Fishing for Payara: A 101 Guide

If you look in to the Latin and Greek roots of fish scientific names, you’ll find some pretty cool examples.  However, perhaps none paint a more apt description of their species than Hydrolycus armatus.  The Armored Water Wolf.  The Payara.  The largest, meanest, most imposing member of a fish grouping referred to as “dogtooth tetras” or “vampire fish,” the payara is one of the newest suspects on the booming jungle fly fishing scene. Dive deeper into this amazing fish in our Fly Fishing for Payara: A 101 Guide.

One of the most fearsome freshwater fish in the world, payara are ravenous predators, and use their trademark fangs to stun, maim, and kill their prey before returning to swallow them.  An average payara is 6-12 pounds, with the grandest specimens nearing 40 pounds.  The first 60 seconds of a fight with a payara is pure mayhem.  It often takes a team approach to clear the running line while the payara screams downstream, cartwheeling and leaping all the while.  Payara are now more approachable than they used to be.  Recent advances in rods, reels, lines, and flies have made them a viable gamefish on a fly rod.  Remote areas in Colombia and Brazil are safer and more accessible than ever before.  For some, they may be a bucket list novelty.  However, for myself and many others I know, payara became an obsession the moment we hooked in to our first one. 

The Habitat and Behavior 

Payara can be found throughout jungle ecosystems in South America in all types of water.  However, they congregate in certain situations.  They gather in the greatest numbers within and adjacent to fast water.  Often, the fastest water in the river system will produce the very best payara fishing.  I’ve had some of my best payara fishing in unnavigable whitewater.  In other systems, the fastest water may be a gentle riffle, but if it’s the quickest water around it will likely hold payara.   

Additionally, payara will concentrate in areas with ample baitfish.  In particular, spawning runs of baitfish.attract massive congregations of payara.  Payara are known to migrate vast distances to follow various baitfish species. 

There are now several outfitters targeting payara in the Amazon.  Check out Fish Colombia on Instagram @fishcolombia or at www.fishcolombia.com.  I have joined three trips through this company, and in my opinion they offer some of the most exciting payara opportunities currently available. 

The Rods 

Fast action rods in the 10-12 weight range are preferred for payara.  A large, stout rod is needed to handle these powerful fish, the strain from current where they reside, and the large flies often required to catch them.  These days, nearly every fly rod company offers a worthy rod in this category, but I have some favorites.   

  • Scott Sector: Whether for payara or big brown trout, this is the best streamer rod I have ever held.  Extremely powerful yet with a friendly swing weight, this rod is the perfect tool for tossing foot-long flies all day long.   
  • Orvis Clearwater: Given that a trip to catch payara is already going to cost thousands of dollars, one need not break the bank to find great gear.  An 11 weight rod costs a third of the top end options, and provides probably 90% of their performance. Both species require hundreds of casts with massive flies, and this rod was designed for that purpose.

The Reels 

An optimal payara set-up will include a high end reel with an elite drag system.  These powerful fish can be difficult to stop in the heavy current where they often reside.  Personally, these are the only fish that have been difficult for me to stop even with maximum drag on some of my reels.  I’ve seen payara go halfway in to my backing with the drag cranked all the way up.  After hooking in to these fish my first move is adjusting the drag to full stop, and you need a reel that can actually put the breaks on these beasts. 

  • Sage Spectrum Max: There exist many reels up for this job, but the Spectrum Max is my favorite.  Powerful, durable, and not as expensive as other options, the Spectrum Max possesses the strength to handle the biggest payara.  It has a sleek design and multiple color options, which add to the appeal.  This reel has yet to fail me during my jungle adventures. 

The Lines 

Although I’ve seen payara shallow enough to sight fish, they more frequently hang out fairly deep.  A line that gets down quick is a necessity, especially with the large flies there are used and the fast current that is implicated. 

  • Rio Leviathan: I have used several lines for payara, and this is the best one I’ve found.  At over 7 inches per second of sinking at the 10 weight size, this line has a 26-foot sink tip that gets down fast to where the payara swim.  It has a short, aggressive front taper that turns over large payara flies.  The running line has less memory than other options, and I can only recall one lost fish due to a knot in the running line.  It is durable and I have yet to break one of these lines, which is saying something considering my experience with other lines while fishing for payara.   

The leader is quite simple.  I tie 18 inches of 60 lb fluorocarbon to the Leviathan.  I have about a foot of 40 lb Rio Powerflex Wire Bite Tippet pre-tied to all the flies I plan to use for a given day.  Then I simply loop the wire to the fluoro as I change flies throughout the day.  I prefer a Perfection Loop to connect the leader components.  A Krey Loop with just two or three loops works well with the wire to connect the fly. 

The Flies 

Generally, most fly fishers will use large, heavy flies when fishing for payara.  This seems especially important when fishing heavy rapids, as a large profile helps to attract the attention of the payara as the fly goes whizzing by.  These flies can exceed a foot in length, and can be a beast to cast, especially if tied with extra weight attached to the body of the fly.  Due to the way payara attack the fly, it is important that the fly has a hook midway down the body of the fly.  Most effective payara flies posses two hooks, increasing the likelihood of a hook-up.  As mentioned earlier, the initial attack from the payara intends to kill or maim the baitfish.  They do not generally attempt to swallow bait whole on the first strike, like a peacock bass or musky.  Therefore, if one uses a fly with a single hook near the head of the fly, the angler will likely be in for a frustrating day of missed hits.  Not realizing this on my first day of payara fishing, I experienced an excruciating day of 11 hits without a single landed fish.  The next day, when I adjusted the hook placement on the tube flies I was using, I went five for six. 

At times I will use smaller streamers for payara.  Particularly if I’m fishing in slower current, I’ve found that large trout-sized streamers are quite effective.  Not only do these smaller streamers work just as well in these situations, but they are much easier to cast.  Additionally, they have the advantage of attracting fun bycatch like sardinata, piranha, shovelnose catfish, matrinxa, and silver dorado. 

Fly color doesn’t seem to matter too much.  That said, anecdotally I’ve had the most success on dark, black and orange patterns.  Payara flies are not particularly difficult to tie for an experienced tier, but the investment in materials alone makes them somewhat onerous to approach.  My friend, Brian Beckstead, sells proven payara patterns at www.payaraflyfishing.com.  Another great option is a Colombian tier named Armando Giraldo, who runs Orinoco Flies at www.orinocoflies.com. 

The Extras!

Sardinata: These special fish deserve their own section in this article.  One of the great things about the jungle is the wide variety of fish that may be caught incidentally.  It’s a wonderful surprise to find a new species on the end of the hook during a day of payara fishing.  The currents that house payara attract a number of other predatory species, and chief among them is the little-known sardinata.  These fish look like golden, juvenile tarpon, and fight similarly.  As strong as payara may be, a sardinata several pounds smaller gives the equivalent fight, often leaping acrobatically through the air.  They exhibit razor-sharp bellies that provide defensive armor against larger predators like payara, and therefore they must be treated with care when landed.  But sardinata are perhaps the best of the Amazonian bycatch possibilities.  When found in abundance, sardinata are certainly worthy of being targeted in their own right. 

Miscellaneous 

  • Good footwear is a must when wading treacherous rapids for payara.  I prefer the Simms Flyweight Boots with felt soles.  They are lightweight, and unlikely to put your baggage over the stringent weight limits of domestic flights in Amazonian countries.  They don’t require anything more than a good synthetic sock to.work with them.  And the felt soles stick to the weathered boulders of big Amazonian rivers.  When fishing from a boat, I value breathability over all other features in the jungle heat.  I’m now a disciple of the highly fashionable “Crocs with socks” look.  The Crocs are highly breathable but have surprisingly good traction.  The tread pattern on Crocs rarely catches the running line.  I wear socks with them to protect from the equatorial sun and the voracious jungle sandflies.   
  • Beware of the teeth.  Seriously, this goes without saying.  But I’ve seen a couple people bitten after they got too cavalier around the mouth of a payara.  I have a pair of 8 inch long pliers that come in handy for payara and the odd piranha bycatch. 
  • I like a two-hand retrieve when fishing for payara.  This technique forces me to strip set.  Any bad habit of trout setting is rendered irrelevant, as doing so is simply impossible with the rod tucked under my arm.  This allows me to drive the hook point in to the bony skull of the payara as hard as possible.  It also allows for fast retrieves to mimic a fleeing baitfish.  One or two handed, it’s impossible to strip faster than a payara swimming at full speed. 
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