Pluggin’ the Amazon’s Redtail Catfish
by Larry Larsen
Tossing artificials to redtail catfish–the ultimate thrill.
When it comes to “sporty” catfish, there are few species that can exceed the artificial-striking and fighting abilities of the redtail catfish or Pirarara as it is called in Brazil. The huge Amazon Basin is just one of the worldly haunts of the fish that grows to well over 100 pounds. They are also found in other South American waters including the Orinoco Basin which is primarily in Venezuela. Several IGFA tippet Class World Records come from Thailand waters.
The easily recognizable catfish with dark brownish back, yellow sides and a blood red to crimson orange tail, dorsal and caudal fins make it distinct among its relatives. While they do eat both live and cut bait, I have found in my 60 trips to Brazil that the redtail is one of the easiest cats to “sight-fish” and catch on artificial baits. They love lures!
The redtail congregate in many “blackwater” rivers and lagoons in the Amazon River system and due to their size, they are fairly easily to spot in most tannin-stained waters. That means that about half of the tributaries in the Amazon rain forest have black or clear waters with white sandbars and the clarity to toss lures at and catch the fish. The redtail hangs out in turbulent waters around rock outcroppings or huge boulders, as well as in deep holes beneath waterfalls down to 150 feet where such depths exist and in the quiet lagoon waters at depths of only 5 or 6 feet.
Fortunately, the redtail frequently bites during daylight hours and are available to catch all year long, even in the rainy season when other sportfish are difficult to locate. All strike hard and fight similarly, and they are sometimes easy to cast to. When hooked the redtail provides all the action you might want. In the Amazon, the typical redtail runs from about 15 to 30 pounds, a prefect size for anglers with quality casting gear and beefy line that may also be chasing a few giant peacock bass.
A Learning Experience
While many redtails are caught “accidentally” on large subsurface peacock bass lures, I’ve experienced days where I’ve caught up to 20 of these cats when focused purely on catching them. The Rio Agua Boa watershed in the Amazonas State of Northern Brazil is just one of many that normally have fairly clear, but slightly stained water making it productive for sight-fishing redtails. The excellent catfish river system has numerous blackwater lagoons that are full of big catfish.
A friend and I went into one of my favorite area lagoons off the Agua Boa one day many years ago and found the redtails scattered across a large shallow flat area that was fairly clear of structure except for a few fallen trees close to shore. We noticed the big “shadow-like” figures along the bottom in depths that ranged from 6 to 8 feet or so but we weren’t sure which species they were until we made a couple of casts.
My partner tossed a large, single-hook #18 PET spoon to the fish, and I made a long cast with a large Heddon hard-plastic minnowbait. Both lures are effective on redtails, and we both quickly hooked up. We alternately reeled in big redtails of 15 to 22 pounds over the next hour, mostly on the 6 1/4 inch-long Redfin minnowbait. My largest redtail from that particular lagoon came on one of my last casts. It was a colorful 25-pounder that put up one heck of a battle.
We learned a few important things about the redtail that day: 1. Redtails tend to move about in “packs”, 2. They prefer slowly retrieved lures that move in the water column within 3 feet or so of the bottom, and 3. Those redtails that strike at the lure and miss can usually be enticed again by a follow up cast.
Cranking the Giants from the Depths
On another day, a friend Mark Klein and I were chasing peacock bass along an elongated sandy flat inside a deep-water lagoon about 200 yards from its entrance into the river. We were both casting one of my favorite “deep-running” baits, a huge Lindy Big M diving plug that gets down to about 7 or 8 feet and wobbles along slowly.
We noticed a long dark shape slowly moving along the edge of a sharp drop-off away from the sandy, shallow bog. There were a few sparse, flooded bushes lying along the bar, so we each cast toward the fish leading it by about 15 feet. That put our lures right in its cruise path. My partner had started his slow retrieve back down the bar into the depths and we saw the fish speed up to grab his crankbait. Mark’s rod bowed as the fish almost jerked it from his hands.
“It’s a monster,” he yelled, as the fish took off pulling his baitcaster’s tightened drag at will. “Maybe it is another huge piarucu!”
For those that may not be familiar with the giant pirarucu, it is also called “arapaima” or “paiche” in the Spanish speaking countries of South America. The pirarucu is an air-breathing fish in Amazonian rivers and lakes that is one of the largest freshwater species in the world. I’m told that it grows to 550 pounds or more. I have seen several in the Amazon that weighed between 100 and 250 pounds, but to catch one is normally a rare event. Mark though had caught 3 of them earlier in the week that ranged from 60 to 120 pounds on his Big M crankbait.
Despite Mark’s luck earlier in the week, we learned that the fish he had on was not another giant pirarucu. After a ten-minute battle it came to the surface, and we discovered exactly what was giving him fits. It was a 40-pound redtail catfish! On the following day, we returned to that same lagoon and I caught and released two other redtails, one on the PET spoon and the other on the Redfin minnowbait. Both weighed 24 pounds.
Live and Cut Baits Work Too
The redtail can also be caught on live and cut bait. A few years back, I was on a trip to the Xingu and Iriri River watersheds in the Amazon with a few catfish-focused anglers. The Xingu and Iriri are often characterized as fast gradient riverbeds of rocks protected by rocky outcropping along much of their meandering courses. Only at high water does the waterscape change drastically as the water moves into the edges of the forest and amongst the trees. The rivers often make hard right-angle turns and are dotted by islands, boulders and pools that lie below rapids, falls and other rock masses.
In some cases, part of the streambed shoots off in one direction, running through the forest and then reenters the main channel of the river a mile away, after it tumbles down a rock-filled gully. The redtail catfish are often caught in that watershed. When using live or cut bait, the best fishing for the biggest redtails are in the deep river holes early in the morning and just after sunset around the dark moon phase. Whole piranha, a baitfish called “peau” and small pieces of other fish species are often used for bait.
The catfishermen in our group that week caught 10 redtails up to 40 pounds, but of course, the biggest got away. One 60-pounder that hit a live piranha was brought to the boat and then after a couple of minutes of thrashing off the gunwale, spit out the hook. The catfishermen were tossing 3 to 4 ounces of weights with a bait attached to a 7/0 circle hook to the edge of the current lines that were over 100-foot-deep and letting the rig go to the bottom.
Anglers can use live or cut bait on the redtails, but for a true challenge and maximum fun, I prefer to toss the artificial lures for these sporty cats. If sight-fishing is feasible, that makes it the ultimate thrill!
Larry Larsen, an inductee in the Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame, travels the world in search of prime fishing opportunities. He has fished South America 86 times and has published numerous magazine articles and photos in regional and national outdoors and travel publications.