Stalking the Jungle Vampire

I heaved my cast in to the roiling rapids for the thousandth time that day.  The sun was setting on my last day of payara fishing during a recent trip to Colombia, and I wanted to hold just one more of these impressive predators.  I stripped my heavy sinking line back with a two-handed retrieve.  As my line swung tight below me, I noticed a tremendous disturbance in the water about where my fly should be, but felt nothing.  I repeated the cast, and this time the fish left no doubt.  My line came tight instantly, and it felt like I had snagged a very angry boulder.  Before I could react, the payara was already taking line, leaping through the air, and running downstream.

I was in my backing within seconds, and clearly losing the battle.  Chasing the fish downstream was out of the question.  I had swum out to a rock, from which my cast could reach the seam where I suspected the fish were holding.  This fish would be in a different time zone by the time I swam back to shore and hopped down the boulders.  That left me with two options; I could break the fish off, or I could go full Brad Pitt and swim for it.  I was wearing a life vest (a mandatory accessory when fishing rapids for payara), so after a short hesitation, I jumped in to the rapid and fought the fish on the swim.

I quickly fell in love with fly fishing for payara.  They have so many pleasing attributes, but my favorite one is that each caught fish seems to be memorable for a different reason.  They are fairly difficult fish to catch, but unlike many other predator fish, they seem to provide ample opportunities.  Finding the fish can be an issue, but is not usually the biggest problem.  Identify some well-oxygenated rapids in the right river system, and opportunities will be had.  Solidly hooking the fish is another matter.  Payara possess a rock-hard mouth that is difficult to penetrate with even the sharpest hook.  Additionally, the way they attack the fly is not necessarily conducive to hook-ups.  They slash at the fly from the side, likely an effort to stun or disable prey with their razor-sharp teeth before coming back for the wounded meal.  I found that about one in every five hits resulted in a solid hook-up.

The eat is invariably followed by a blistering run.  The faster the water, the crazier this experience will be.  What ensues includes clumsy scrambles through boulder fields, frenetic clearing of running line, reel palming, prayer, and yes, chasing the fish down by swimming.

Over the course of several days, we learned multiple lessons that improved our success with payara.  The heaviest line one can cast line is the line to select.  Payara often live in the depths of rapids, and getting the fly down is imperative.  A six to ten inch-per-second sinking line will get the fly where it needs to be.  We opted against tying in a weak link of lighter fluorocarbon.  A short, simple leader with about 18 inches of 40 lb fluorocarbon and a 45 lb Rio bite wire tippet seemed to be a good set-up, and we did not break off any fish.  The consequence of this leader construction is that we broke several fly lines.  When caught hopelessly on a rock, the fly line itself is the weak link with this set-up.  We figured that a couple broken fly line tips were worth the ability to land these strong fish with less concern about breaking them off.  We used 10-weight rods, which were usually sufficient.  However, next time I will return with a 12-weight rod in case I hook a true specimen in heavy water.  Tying on a stinger hook with the bite wire also increased the hook up rate.  Due to the side-swiping nature of a payara hit, this adjustment seemed to have little danger of causing a deep and fatal hook wound.

I’m still digesting the trip, but I think I may have a new favorite species to chase on the fly.  Fly fishing for payara is extremely taxing, but also highly satisfying.  We hiked and climbed through miles of boulders in the 90 degree tropical sun.  We casted from rocks In the middle of Class IV rapids in the Orinoco River.  It was a bit jarring to be dropped off on a boulder for the first time amidst massive rapids in the fourth largest river in the world.  Casting a full sink line on a 10 weight all day long will challenge even the fittest of fly fishermen.  Mentally, the fishing is challenging as well.  I went more than a full day and a half without landing a payara, before a few adjustments allowed me to start lighting them up.  For a while, my biggest challenge was fighting the thought was that I could be going home without landing a payara.  However, it is all worth it to have the chance to admire the payara’s sleek, broad flanks, the beautiful black framing of the tail, and of course, the ferocious vampire teeth.  Fishing for payara is inordinately physical, and frankly quite dangerous, but oh so rewarding.  Payara certainly belong squarely in the conversation of the most worthy freshwater fish to chase on the fly.

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