Mark of the Payara
Book number two in our series “Fly Fishing” is entitled Reading Waters. Many people define reading waters as finding fish in lakes and streams by looking at water types and conditions. But that’s not necessarily always so, as this story, excerpted from Chapter One of our forthcoming book reveals. Watch for more post on this soon-to-be-released Volume Two.
Mark of the Payara
All fishing is inter-related. What one knows about one species can be transferred to other species. What one knows about reading waters in one stream, can be transferred to another stream. Or so I always thought. But this was very much different. This was not a trout stream, it wasn’t even a stream. It could never be called anything but a river, a mighty river. The Oronoco is a massive flow of water that comes out of the high ground on the northern edge of the Amazon basin and sweeps north and east to the Caribbean Sea. Just seeing it instills in one an overwhelming sense of sheer, unstoppable power. From where I stood, it was a mile and half to the far shore; there, howler monkeys set up their jet engine roars. The water, thirty feet deep in the shallows, seemed to fight itself to see which would be first to taste the salt.
Ed Rice and I were there to fish for payara. Little exploited by the fly fisher, this species was a new experience for all involved. Our host, guide, and angling companion, Carlos Aristeguieta, had given us a few details, and asked if we would help figure out the best tactics and flies to take these pre-historic looking fish. We came well equipped, but one look at that water gave us pause. But, not to worry, we would start on the small waters, Carlos reassured us. The Caura, a tributary to the Oronoco was merely a half mile wide—a lot easier to cast across. We didn’t even hesitate. Out came the 10-weight rods, on went the forty-foot, lead-core heads backed by 150 feet of 25-pound Amnesia, wire tippets, and the biggest flies we could find. When those weren’t big enough, we spent the evenings tying bigger ones.
We started in those places that Carlos knew payara would be holding–faster water stretches where the baitfish would be packed in tight against the banks. I use the term baitfish loosely, they were really just smaller fish in the 8 to 18-inch lengths. We’d pound down the banks, heaving that head with all we had to get the line in tight against the shore, in the shallow spots that were only 10 to 15 feet deep. When the fly had gone down for several seconds, we’d rip it out of there with long pulls, a series of short pulls, and every other tactic we could think of. Some places held nothing, while other places gave up several of the big brutes.
Drifting down to the Oronoco, we found ourselves in the throws of a rapids—at least it would have been a rapids if the water had not been thirty feet deep. It was a powerful current to say the least, and it swept most impressively along the face of a huge wall of hardpan (densely compacted clay). The standing waves in the swift water were several feet high, and we clung to the bobbing boat with both legs tightly wrapped around the stems of our casting stools. The payara were there, right in tight against the bank. This was more like it. Any place where there was a protuberance in the cliff wall, or a tree hanging head down in the water, or a huge boulder pushing belligerently above the surface, there was a payara, sometimes several.
It was definitely rapid-fire casting. The first heave had to be right because there was no second chance. If the fly dropped in the slot, a payara would meet it with such violence that many times one would forget to strike. No need anyway. The heavy line tearing off at breakneck speed would jam the hook home and rip the fish out of cover so fast it was astonishing. And then the fight. As soon as a fish was hooked, the other angler would reel in and simply wait out the fight, as the boat was maneuvered downstream and into a softer current where the beast could be netted. They were released with the much-appreciated help of 12-inch-long, needle-nose pliers.
On the run back to camp, later that evening, Ed and I were watching for other such places on the Caura. Seeing a high hardpan bank, we asked Carlos to run us over so we could cast along it. Coming close, we noticed a series of curved marks on the clay two to four feet above the surface.
“The payara are here,” Carlos yelled excitedly. We saw nothing. No fish breaking the surface, not even any impressive holding spots along the bank. So of course, we had our doubts.
“What do you mean,” I asked, not just wanting to know how he could tell such a thing, but also wanting to catch a couple more before darkness drove us to the estancia.
“The marks on the wall,” Carlos pointed excitedly. “Those are wet marks left by the baitfish as they jump out of the water to escape the payara.”
My line was in the air before he finished his sentence, and sure enough, the payara were there, and they were nasty hungry. For the rest of the week, we never passed a clay bank without checking to see if it held the mark of the payara.
Reading waters is not always reading waters.