Story and Photos by Pat Ford
We were cruising up the Río Orinoco from Inírida in a 15-seat water taxi headed toward Tucunare Lodge, 107 miles away. The landscape was familiar: coffee-colored water, high sand banks with trees toppled by the annual 40-foot rise in water levels during the rainy season, and on top — jungle. On the east bank was Venezuela, on the west, Colombia. The midday heat was impressive even for a Floridian, but we were after one of the most incredible fish on the planet — the payara — so no one cared.
Tucunare Lodge is the only permanent lodge in this part of Colombia and one of the few places anglers can count on having shots at payara, a jungle creature that looks like a monster from a horror flick and is nicknamed “Vampire Fish.” The lodge exists thanks to an agreement between its founder, Alejandro Diaz, and the Sikuani indigenous community. The natives in this area live in communities of 50 to 100 people, and each has jurisdiction over several lagoons. They speak their own language, with a bit of broken Spanish, and they live off the jungle and the river. Water comes from the Río Vichada.
Every morning we saw the natives bathing, brushing their teeth and doing laundry next to the boat launch. The lodge has permission from the custodians of each lagoon to fish in it. Tucunare Lodge is the only sustainable tourism operation in Colombia. It has the blessing of the natives and provides a unique opportunity for anglers to safely visit this remote jungle.
Javier Guevara of Ecuador Flyfishing Tours set up our trip. Javier is an expert fly fisherman and fly tyer. At the very outset of our discussions, Javier made it clear that we were going into the JUNGLE! It was going to be hot, there were going to be bugs, and the accommodations were best described as rustic. He was right.
When we arrived at camp, our baggage was offloaded, and as I looked down, a native boy who probably weighed 40 pounds was carrying my 35 pounds of camera equipment up the hill on his shoulder. A few days later I watched an adult carry a 40-hp outboard down the hill to the boats, on his shoulder. These are some of the strongest people I’ve ever seen. Communication was difficult, and we were on our own as far as tackle and technique were concerned.
Once we arrived at the lodge, it didn’t take long to settle in. I took my plug rod down to the beach and casted a Rapala swim bait into the current line. I made three casts before I felt a strike and set the hook on my first payara. It jumped and made strong runs. It weighed 16 pounds. (Average size, I was told, is 10.) It was dark by the time we released it. I couldn’t wait to get on the water the next morning and chase those critters with a fly rod.
Our fishing plans on the Vichada/Orinoco rivers called for fishing for payara from dawn until about 9 a.m., then again from 4 p.m. until dark. During midday we fished peacock bass in the lagoons, except for the two-hour siesta, which was always appreciated. I used a 10-weight rod with either a 325 or 425 sink-tip Cortland line with 2 to 3 feet of leader. The payara hung deep, and the heavier line was needed.
Javier tied some double-hook flies for me that were spectacular but big. When one went by my head during the cast, it felt like a duck flying by. Most were made of fish hair and mylar. The bright, flashy flies got more hits. My most effective patterns were white with green or blue backs with plenty of flash. White and red worked well, too. They were rigged with two hooks in the 4/0 range, with one down and one up.
The hooks were attached with braided wire so they would be flexible. I had several strikes on flies that used hard wire to connect the second hook, and they didn’t work at all. The fly came back with the wire bent at a 90-degree angle and no fish. In fact, all the flies came back with no fish, but I believe the soft wire gave me a better chance for a hookup. Javier used soft wire in his flies and caught a bunch of payara.
One of the best payara spots was the shoreline just above the lodge. It was full of brush, had a good current and was relatively easy to drift and cast into the pools and eddies — until you got snagged, which happened about every fifth cast. There was a lot of backing up and retrieving flies. The payara like logs, rocks and current, which is a bad combination for anglers. The lodge shoreline was tough, but I hooked three or four fish there, losing every one. I had one right next to the boat, and we were leading it over to the beach for some photos when it looked up at me and spit the hook.
Most payara fishing was from the rocks. In the evening we saw them rolling like tarpon. We tried to fish the current rips and behind submerged rocks with long casts. Unfortunately it’s not easy to make an 80-foot cast with a fly the size of a squirrel. There are thousands of rock formations in the river, and we had to be careful because at the end of the retrieve, the fly was deep and would hang up on the base of the rock we were standing on. If we didn’t set the hook hard, it was easy to wiggle loose. Unfortunately, a payara strike feels like a snag for the first few seconds. It was a constant decision whether to set the hook hard for a fish or easy for a rock.
Payara like fast water. I had a couple of bites, but landing one never became an issue. On the other side of the rapids, Javier and the only woman on our trip, Santa Rava, caught four. We switched sides eventually, but to no avail.
The next day we ran upstream to the peacock lagoons on the Orinoco. On the way back we stopped at several rock formations and coves that were known to hold payara. We worked some fishy looking water until my casting arm was about to fall off, then moved to the next hole and repeated the process. By the third hole, I gave up on the fly rod and went back to the plug outfit. I was throwing a 6-inch jointed Rapala crankbait in black and silver, mainly because I could cover more water faster than with a fly rod.
Eventually we motored into a hole with rocks on both sides. It looked perfect. The current washed against the far rock wall, and I found that if I really tried, I could reach the rocks with the plug. It was too far away for a fly rod, but it looked fishy. On my third cast I had a strike but never saw the fish. On occasion we caught piranha and catfish.
Several casts later I had another strike and landed a nice payara. It was probably 20 pounds. I kept fishing the plug while Javier stayed with the fly rod. He hooked a beauty that broke him off at one of his loop-to-loop connections.
In the few hours before dark, I caught five payara between 16 and 20 pounds, and lost at least a dozen. They’re worse than tarpon to keep on a hook. They hit hard, make short, fast runs and jump a lot, but the hooking problem is linked to their fierce dental work. Javier told me that he had a payara sink its front fangs into a hard-plastic plug and break it off. You can barely pierce one of those plugs with a nail and hammer, which gives you an idea of this creature’s jaw strength. At least with two treble hooks on a plug we had a chance to hit a soft spot. Flies were a different story.
My friend and fellow photographer Matt Harris had told me to use a two-hand retrieve and keep pulling until the fish ripped the line through my hand, like we do with tarpon. That technique worked fine until the payara jumped. I think everyone did better than me. Santa caught five on a fly, and Ryan Sparks caught a 22-pounder on a fly. But most everyone lost most of the fish that struck their flies.
The flies of choice were big and difficult to cast, at best. They needed to push water, but that made them wind-resistant. The globs of fish hair and mylar tangled easily in the payara’s teeth, which prevented the hooks from moving when we tried to set them. Jaw strength also played a part. When that set of monster teeth clamped down on a fish-hair fly, it was difficult to move it enough to set a hook, assuming the hook found a soft spot. To make matters worse, the payara’s first reaction is to jump.
I hooked more than a dozen payara on the fly but never got one to the net. By the end of the trip, I was casting those giant flies pretty well, so distance wasn’t an excuse. Payara are just tough to catch on a fly, unless you’re Santa, who caught five and broke the tippet on several more. I never did discover her secret.