Fly to Warmer Climes for Catfish Variety
by Larry Larsen
Head South to the “Summer” Dry Season Region That Lies Below the Equator
When looking for the warmest waters during frigid times in North America, some smart anglers head south, far south below the Equator. When we are in our winter season, it is “summer” in South America below the Equator. The Amazon Basin is in the middle of their “dry” or “low water” season in the months of January and February, and it offers the very best fishing for all species of catfish at this time!
The catfish in the upper half of South America are found in both tannic acid-stained waters called “blackwater” rivers and in those highly turbid river areas called “whitewater” rivers. There are some 22 major tributaries of the Amazon Basin alone that are “whitewater” rivers and over 45 major “blackwater” tributaries. Most of the better catfishing rivers are tributaries of the mighty Amazon River, mostly in Brazil, the Orinoco in Venezuela and the Rio Paraguay, the other large watershed in Brazil that flows southward into Argentina.
The Amazon Basin itself encompasses 75% of Brazil geographically, including the states of Mato Grosso, Amazonas, Para, Tocantins, Goias and a couple of smaller ones. I’ve found several great catfish-catching rivers in Brazil which include the Branco, Negro, San Benedito, Madeira, Xingu, Cuini, Uatuma, and Trombetas.
I have also caught several whiskered species in the renowned Pantanal Marsh area in the southwest corner of Brazil on the border of Bolivia and Paraguay. It’s a 100 mile long by 100 mile wide swampy area that is similar to our Everglades region with lakes, rivers, swamps, streams, and sloughs. The lowest water levels in the Pantanal usually occur in December and January, but the rainy season starts to fill those waterways in February.
Species Variety and Access
In most South American waterways, you’ll find plenty of redtail and surubim (“painted”) catfish, along with other colorful catfish species such as Dourada (scaled), the Barba Shotta, the “barbell-less catfish, the giant Jau, the silvery Piraiba (or Filhote) and the Barbado. The Jau, whose color ranges from a dirty yellow to a black, grow to a couple hundred pounds and are normally caught at night from deep channel holes.
The little Barbado catfish grows only to about 17 pounds or so and the Jundia catfish grows to around 25 pounds. Like most South American catfish both can be caught on both artificial lures and live bait during daylight hours. The largest catfish, the Paraiba, commonly grows to over 250 pounds and stories about their strength abound in Brazil.
“Our cook told me that when she was young, her brother and father were in a dugout canoe when they hooked a monster Paraiba catfish on a hand line,” an outfitter on the remote Rio Xingu once told me. “The fish dragged the canoe all over the river all day long, and then, they finally got it up alongside of the canoe and killed it with a machete. When they tried to pull it into the canoe, the canoe sank and they lost the fish!”
In tannin acid-stained areas with black and clear waters that offer decent visibility, the larger catfish specimens are often in the shallows and are particularly easy to see from the air, as I learned on one of my very first February trips south about 30 years ago. The aerial observations can be invaluable, and I have fond memories of an eye-opening flight with friend and outfitter Wellington Melo over the Xeriuini River. Wellington was managing a fixed lodge fishing operation back then, and he is a pilot. At the time, he often flew his two-place ultralight amphibian aircraft on “fish finding” reconnaissance.
Wellington and I flew about 150 feet up over some 30 lagoons, small lakes and “furos” or backwater river channels, in extremely low waters one February day as we checked them all out for sufficient depth and evidence of fish. We could easily notice several huge catfish and some other big fish species moving through the flats.
Abundant Bird and Animal Life
We also saw numerous giant river otters, some manatees, freshwater dolphin and caiman from the elevated viewpoint. That method of exploring the primitive and harsh Amazonas Territory in the northern Brazilian state of Roraima was an experience I will not forget. Part of the experience of any venture into the Equatorial rainforest is certainly enhanced by the animal, bird and marine life along the waterways.
You’ll certainly want to take along a camera when you visit Brazil. The country is about 2/3 the size of the United States so there is a lot to see here. In my 60 trips to the beautiful country, I haven’t seen all of it by any means, but I always take my camera. It’s no wonder that the area offers interesting sight-seeing in the wild along with good catfishing. While the Amazon Basin’s tropical forest covers only 7% of the earth’s dry surface, it contains nearly 60% of all life forms of the planet. No other region in the world has such diversity, and only 30% of them are known by science, according to my sources.
Parrots, such as macaws, toucan, green papagayo and parakeets, are abundant in the area providing many photographic subjects. Herons, egrets, hawks, and ducks are easy to identify, but rheas, the South American version of the ostrich, and other unique birds endemic to South America aren’t. They all enhance the beauty of both the Amazon and “Great Swamp” Pantanal area.
When the banks are exposed near the prime catfishing holes in summer times, several interesting animals and mammals add interest to the fishing. Although one-fourth of the world’s mammals live in South America, much of the exotic wildlife including mammals, are nocturnal though and not commonly seen by visiting anglers. I have seen the fairly rare anteater (with long snout), a small deer and marmoset. I have come across several capybara (largest rodent in the world weighing up to 100 pounds) and a few tapir (large pig-type animal with short elephant-like trunk) in my ventures.
In the darkness, the remote parts of the Brazilian jungle come alive with its nocturnal predators on the prowl. Jaguars, anaconda and other menacing “demons” of the night creep across the jungle floor in search of their nightly meal. Or you might get lucky and find one sunning on a log beside the water’s edge. Tribes of monkeys including the noisy “howlers” are common sightings even in the daylight along some of the smaller tributaries with flora-laden jungle adjacent.
Traveling to Brazil can often involve a late-night air flight. Several U.S. airlines fly from Miami and a few other large U.S. airports to Sao Paulo or Rio de Janeiro, where connecting domestic flights can access the Pantanal swamps and other watersheds in south-central Brazil. To get to Manaus, the gateway to the northern Amazon region and its vast waterways, American Airlines flies the 5 1/2 hours direct from Miami. Most top catfishing river systems can be reached with relatively short connecting flights from Manaus. The action will be hot and the temperatures warm there!
A variety of mothership/houseboat operations, fixed lodges and floating camps operate on most large Amazonas waterways. Accommodations are available on most river systems, but they must be booked ahead of time. Many, particularly those in the Amazon region, have week-long itineraries with little flexibility due to their charter flight service.
The most common operations that focus or heavily encourage catfishing employ yachts or houseboats. Although the guides seldom speak English, the small fishing boats, motors and other equipment are normally excellent, as is the service. Onboard the motherships, clients normally share private, air-conditioned cabins with a roommate. A dining room, lounge area and bar are usually in the common areas.
Several U.S. international fishing tour companies/booking agents offer Brazil catfishing and they include Paul Reiss’Acute Angling (1-866-832-2987 or www.acuteangling.com); Billy Chapman Jr.’s Anglers Inn Amazon (1-800-468-2347 or www.anglersinn.com); Frank Carbone’s Hawg Hunter Guide Service (1-954-325-1115 or www.hawghunterguideservice.com); Alex Zapata’s Orinoco Angling (1-786-317-4733 or www.OrinocoAngling.com; JW Smith’s Rod & Gun Resources (1-800-211-4753 or www.rodgunresources.com), and Ron Speed’s Adventures (1-903-489-1656 or www.ronspeedadventures.com).