My adventure began the moment I left Little Rock for the Rio Preto do Igapó-Acu — the Black River of the Great Flooded Jungle — in southern Amazonas, Brazil. Getting to the Brazilian outback from Arkansas required a 40-hour airport marathon from Arkansas’ capital city to Miami, then to Manaus, Brazil, and onward to the small city of Autazes on the Madeira River, where I finally stepped aboard the Santana, a sleek mothership that would be my home for seven days.
A young Brazilian named Wilson Rodriguez was assigned as my guide, because unlike the other anglers aboard the Santana who had come to experience the region’s extraordinary peacock bass fishing, I wanted to catch catfish. Several giants swim the Amazon River and its tributaries, including the dourado, a favored food fish that sometimes exceeds 100 pounds; the strikingly colored redtail catfish, another prized heavyweight; tiger and spotted surubims, both known to exceed the century mark; and the prize of prizes, the piraiba, one of the world’s largest freshwater fishes, which has been documented at weights up to 660 pounds.
Wilson knew how to catch all these, I was told. And he was the only guide willing to take a crazy gringo catfishing when there were plenty of 10- to 20-pound peacocks to be caught.
The next day, having traveled 12 hours up the Madeira aboard the Santana, we found ourselves in a forgotten corner of the world. I convinced my friend, Jeff Samsel, to join Wilson and me for some catfishing, and we were on the water in a bass boat at sunrise. We baited hooks with the toothy heads of dogfish (the only catfish bait we could obtain) and dropped them into swirling water. Wilson noted that no fish in its right mind would eat a thing with such big, wicked teeth. Chicken heads were the best bait, he said, but chicken heads had been impossible to find. Nevertheless, Jeff hooked and landed a most unusual fish, a 4-foot-long freshwater ray with the spiky tail of an ankylosaurus. Alas, it was our only catch that day.
The Santana left the Madeira and steamed many miles up the Rio Preto that night, carrying us to the border of a reservation owned by the Mura, a tribe of indigenous peoples — “ferocious and untamable,” one writer called them — once highly feared by European settlers. We waited anxiously until a flotilla of dugouts paddled by young men approached the mothership. Their chief, wearing a headdress fashioned from brightly colored feathers, stood regally in the center craft.
The old man boarded the Santana, and during hours-long negotiations with our captain, a deal was struck. In exchange for malaria medicine, the chief would grant us permission to fish within the reservation for the next three days.
From this place in the heart of the Igapó-Acu, we had access to extraordinary fishing opportunities on several rivers, including the Preto, Tupana, Matupira and Autaz Mirrim. The country is as wild and untamed as any on the planet, and the rivers’ complex network of channels, oxbows and lagoons holds very big peacock bass. James, a 14-year-old New Yorker fishing with his father and brother, had one extraordinary day, landing one 20-pounder, two 10s, an 11, a 12, a 13 and a 14, plus many smaller fish.
I clung stubbornly to my hope of catching monster Amazon catfish, but it was not to be. The Mura had no chickens, so we had no chicken-head baits. Without chicken heads, Wilson said, our catfishing was for naught.
It mattered not, though, for catching fish in a place so wondrous as this is just icing on the cake. Each day, fishing the rivers with Wilson, I was granted glimpses into the lives of native peoples who only rarely have contact with the outside world. We joined Mura men fishing from dugouts with bows and arrows, canoed with Mura boys who filled their boats with strange fishes caught in handcrafted nets, and reveled in the natural wonders of a world far different than I had ever seen.
One day, as we fished near a small Mura village overlooking the Rio Matupira, some women and children paddled near to us in a dugout. The men had told them we were taking photographs, and the ladies brought the youngsters so they could have their pictures made.
Wilson and I fished many hours each day, and many hours at night. One afternoon, as daylight faded, we paddled into the great flooded jungle and dropped our baits into the water. As night fell, an eerie chorus of screams, howls, whistles, snorts, roars, squawks, squeaks, hoots and hollers erupted from the jungle encircling us. Wilson identified the source of each call — birds, monkeys, bats, frogs, insects and caimans.
The little Brazilian roared with laughter when a vampire bat landed on my head, and I jumped into the water. “Piranhas there, Señor Catfish,” he said, pointing to the river as he chortled. But I got the last laugh when I hooked and landed a 4-foot caiman with a taste for dogfish heads. When I grabbed the reptile behind the head and thrust its snapping jaws toward him, Wilson, too, took a dip with the piranhas.
We never caught any catfish, but while we waited for them to bite, we cast plugs and caught piranhas as big as dinner plates, saber-toothed payaras, ugly dogfish and high-jumping bicudas. Then finally, at Wilson’s insistence, I tied a big prop bait on my line and fished for peacocks. It was our last day on the Igapó-Acu, and the fishing gods smiled on us. We caught many of these gorgeously colored fish. Each exploded like a stick of dynamite tossed beneath our lures. Catching fish together — a brasilero from Autazes and a country boy from Arkansas — formed a friendship that will last forever.
A souvenir photograph taken of me on this trip hangs on my office wall, a reminder of my good times on the Igapó-Acu. It shows me in the fork of a big jungle tree surrounded by flood water, dangling a line from a fishing pole into the river below. Jeff shot the picture when he fished with Wilson and me.
I can still hear Wilson laughing as he left me there in that tree and motored out of sight through the great flooded jungle.