We’ve been taught since infancy that it’s good to have goals. I believe that’s true when it comes to passing third grade, making the tennis team, or learning how to play “Ring of Fire” on the guitar. Not so much when it comes to fishing. Unless you’re one of those entrepreneurial marketing types who have the genetically infused optimism to completely ignore or rationalize failure, setting a goal of catching a specific fish firmly places one on the path to ruin and damnation. At the very least it is the surest way to jinx a fishing trip beyond making a voodoo doll of your fly rod and jabbing pins into it. Don’t misunderstand me, we all have dream fish, bucket lists, and life-fish that motivate us to go places and to keep trying. You can think about those all you want but saying it out loud even if no one is around to hear you will doom you for sure. You would stand a better chance of the Victoria’s Secret models being on your trip than you would of catching that fish.
So retaining the faintest glimmer of hope the Victoria Secret models would join us, I mentally set myself a goal of landing a pirarucu. This was the year. Week after week the trip reports boasted of clients catching the famed arapaima. Several times I nearly blundered. I almost told my wife one night as I read the trip reports while she rapid fired question-answers back at Alex Trebek. I know Scott felt exactly the same way but held my tongue as we commiserated during a sleep deprived first night in Manaus when our hotel somehow didn’t have any rooms for us. I nearly blurted it out to Mike while he cleaned every last morsel of flesh from the fried tambaqui we had for lunch. Even our waiter was impressed with his skill and dedication. Fortunately I held it all inside and things were going good.
We had a great group of old and new friends along on this trip. All our gear showed up. The water level was perfect for sight fishing. After a smooth uncrowded charter flight and a nice brunch we hit the river and immediately started catching fish. Life was good and about to get better. The third day Bob and I were with Bacaba in Zone 3. We asked Bacaba if he had some water conducive to popper fishing. You may not catch a lot of big fish with poppers but it’s visual, it’s exciting and just plain fun. I thought Bob being somewhat new to fly fishing, might enjoy it. Bacaba replied he did have a lagoon that was good for poppers. But first he wanted to check out another lagoon while the wind was down. It had many pirarucu he said and it was best to go there without a lot of wind. ‘This is it” I thought to myself. After motoring downstream for about 20 minutes Bacaba beached the boat, we gathered fly rods and backpacks, grabbed a few extra waters, and made a 10 minute hike through the jungle to Cobra Lagoon. The boat Bacaba had stashed in the lagoon had a few inches of water in it from the rain the previous night. We tilted the boat up as far as we could, then Bacaba bailed out the last of the water. As Bacaba poled us into the lagoon we both pointed out pirarucu that had come up for a gulp of air near some trees along the opposite shore. There was also a huge splash in the deep middle section of the lagoon. Bacaba said we’d get to those later, first he wanted to check the shallow water to our west. “We can sight fish them?” I asked. This just got better and better.
Pirarucu often come up, gulp air and then return to the same place near the bottom of the lagoon. I knew the typical way to fish for pirarucu was to watch for the rising fish and then cast a deep sinking fly into the rings and let it sink. Then you retrieved the fly with a slow steady pull, hoping it magically got close enough to the business end of a pirarucu that the pirarucu would suck it in. It wasn’t the most exciting fishing but knowing there was a pirarucu down there somewhere was usually enough to keep us at it for an hour or two.
Bacaba turned the boat to follow the shoreline, keeping us around 150 – 200 feet from shore. He was scanning dark tannin colored water about three feet deep. Suddenly he planted his push pole up near the bow slowing and turning the boat toward shore. “Pirarucu. You see it?” he asked. I admitted I did not see it. “See the big sand hole at one o’clock?” I said I did. “See the grey spot just to the right? That is a pirarucu.” Wow, that was a surprise. I figured the fish would be dark, maybe with a slight reddish hint. The few pirarucu I had seen on previous trips were that way. So Bacaba found us a fish, now we had to figure out which end was the head. Throwing the fly at the tail end doesn’t work. Pirarucu are pretty lazy fish and won’t chase a fly, they won’t even turn around to get one that bites it on the ass. Finally Bacaba said “Cast, left of the fish.” I admit my first few casts were well off the mark. I mean how often do you get to sight cast to a pirarucu? So I blew up that first fish. After watching that first fish, Bob acknowledged the cast was longer than he could make and graciously told me to stay up. Bacaba found another fish and I spooked that one too. By the third fish I had my nerves more or less under control and I made a decent long cast to a fish. The fish moved toward the fly but didn’t take. I quickly stripped in and recast. This time the fish accelerated, ate the fly and kept right on coming straight at us. I couldn’t strip fast enough to get a good hook set. The fish passed the bow of the boat headed for deep water. The line came tight and I gave it a couple hard sets. Just as my backing left the rod tip, the fish changed direction and the hook pulled free. Both Bacaba and I had hopes for that one. “The mouth is very hard” Bacaba said as he made a hook with his finger and pulled it out from between his teeth. I stripped in my fly and we tried along another section of shore. Another pirarucu ate my fly and liked it so much it kept all but the hook. As I tied on a new fly the wind came up making sight fishing difficult. It seemed like the pirarucu didn’t like the wave action either and moved out of the shallow water. We moved into deeper water and watched for rising fish. Bob got up and made many great casts into the rings left by the fish but got no takes. After an hour and half we decided there was too many other fun things to do so we headed back to main river. But that morning in Cobra Lagoon had lit a fire, my internal goal blazed as if gasoline had been thrown on a campfire. I had to catch one of these fish.
Two days later I was scheduled to be the single (having an odd number in our group someone had to go alone each day). I thought maybe this would be another chance if I could swap zones with someone. I get to fish with some of the most gracious, caring people on the planet. Anna and Scott readily agreed to swap zones with me – I owe them big time and promise to make amends. They went with Caboclo and caught huge peacock bass. But I got to go back to Cobra Lagoon with Bacaba. I told him what I wanted to do as we left the dock, headed downstream to his zone. Bacaba was stoked. We repeated the drill from a couple days prior. I avoided the pirarucu fever and put several good casts on fish. But the fish were acting snotty. We went back to the shallows to catch a small wolfish just to see what the pirarucu were up to. We hooked the little wolfish on a big fly and tossed it out behind the boat. As Bacaba poled us slowly along, the line suddenly went tight. Something tried to eat the wolfish. I stripped it back in and we could see scrape marks on both sides of the wolfish, most probably a pirarucu because it wasn’t deep enough for catfish. So okay, they were eating. We just had to keep trying.
Bacaba guided the boat along another shallow shore and we saw two more pale grey spots. One moved out of range but the second one stayed put. My fly landed just left of the grey shape and the fish swirled, stirring up mud. Bacaba said “I think he’s still there in the mud”, so I cast again and began a slow retrieve. This time there was no doubt in the eat and no doubt on my set. It was perfect and I knew I was solid to this fish. It went left and then made a 90 degree turn and blew by the bow of the boat. I stayed tight the whole time and soon saw a little backing leaving the reel. But the fish didn’t fight as hard or as long as I thought it would. I was able to pull the fish back toward the boat. Twice more it took line but less than half it took the first time. The fourth time it came to the boat and Bacaba boga’d it without drama. There was a huge sense of relief when we got the fish in hand. Both Bacaba and I felt it and we high fived and grinned like little kids. We took a couple photos with the fish in the water and Bacaba picked it up trying guess the weight (it was way more than his 30lb boga). But when we tried to resuscitate the fish there was something wrong. It just got more and more lethargic and wouldn’t swim upright. It finally held itself right-side up in the water and waved its tail a few times. But when we released it it simply dropped to the bottom and rolled on its side again. Bacaba jumped in and swam the fish around the boat for 10 minutes to no avail. I was pretty sure there was something wrong with that fish based on the way it fought, or didn’t fight. One eye was more cloudy than the other too. The gills weren’t bright red but maybe in that poor oxygenated water they aren’t anyway. This was the first and only pirarucu I have had a chance to examine. Bottom line is the fish died in our hands. So I accomplished my unspoken goal but it was bitter sweet. A noble prized fish was gone.
There wasn’t anything more we could do about it so we pulled the pirarucu into the skiff and paddled back to the put in point. We carried it back to the main river and Bacaba motored us to a shady lunch spot. After lunch we decided to clean the fish. Bacaba tested his machete and it wasn’t very sharp and all we had was my little hook hone. I did have a Swiss Army knife and that blade was sharp but not much use against the armored plating of the pirarucu. So Bacaba used his machete to remove a row of the thick hard scales along the dorsal edge. Then we use my knife to filet the meat off the ribs and backbone. After resharpening my knife we peeled the skin from that filet, then flipped the fish over and repeated the process on the other side. Bacaba tossed the entrails, head and carcass into the river which immediately came alive with small baitfish eating as much as they could. About an hour later we cruised past the spot and the only trace of the pirarucu we could find was a couple scales on the shore. As we searched the area a big 14 foot black caiman surfaced. That explained the absent head and carcass and entrails for sure.
I estimate that fish around 65 – 70 lbs and we probably got 40 lbs of magnificent filets from it. Pretty sure we had it for dinner on the last night. So thankfully, the fish didn’t go to waste. Still, it hurt to know I played a role in its demise. I kept a couple of the big scales in a small baggy and when we got back to the lodge I slipped into the door frame of Scott’s cabin. It was the way we used to let our friends know we caught a big tarpon – we stuck a scale under the windshield wiper on their car so they’d find it the next morning.
That evening I remember reliving the past couple of days. Five pirarucu hooked, one landed. That seems about right. And I patted myself on the back for keeping my goal to myself.