Setting an example deep in the jungles of Guyana

Posted on January 30, 2020

Howler Ambassador Christiaan Pretorius recently traveled to the jungles of Guyana in search of the fabled Arapaima. Together with friend Jay Epping, photographer Will Graham, and Rewa Eco Lodge manager Johann Dupree, what he discovered was an amazing culture and fishery with a conservation success story along the way. We asked him to share some words about this epic trip. Images by Will Graham.

Sitting on yet another 30+ hour flight on my way back to Namibia from the deep jungles of Guyana. Two plastic meals deep and the bug bites on my feet are still reminding me of camping under the starlight on the riverbanks of the expansive Rewa River. Visiting Guyana has been on my bucket list since Oliver White told me about it a couple of years ago. My interest was sparked initially by the chance to catch the biggest scaled freshwater fish on the planet, named ‘Arapaima’. These fish grow in excess of 300 lb! Trying to achieve this with a fly rod in hand is especially challenging. As the idea grew and I started asking more questions as the years went by, I discovered that the true treasure of the jungle is not the Arapaima but in fact is the story of why these fish still exist. Not only do they exist, but they are thriving. As a 29 year old passionate fly fisherman, I am used to arriving at destinations only faced with the dreaded words of “you should have seen this place 20 years ago…”  Well my friends, Guyana is the exact opposite of that oft-experienced adage. 

Let's rewind a little and talk about Arapaima. To this day these fish are still a major food source in many of the Amazonian watersheds. They grow gigantic and they are super tasty with hardly any small bones. One fish could potentially feed an entire village with the amount of meat it can give. They are also pretty easy to locate because of their size. They need to come up to breath air every now and then and they essentially get trapped in smaller ponds. Actually, they are very similar to tarpon in many ways, just the freshwater version. A couple of years back, Oliver White got word from a scientist who visited Rewa Village that he saw these massive fish rolling in some of the smaller ponds while studying the bird life (which is next level). These ponds get created when the water drains after the rainy season.  The water can drain up to 30+ft. These ponds are scattered all over the jungle and are filled with fish, big and small, and of all different species. Not only was it easy for the scientist to identify the fish in these areas but also easy for the locals to hunt Arapaima with bow & arrow and live bait. This fish used to be harvested in large numbers, almost to the point of extinction. But a real turning point occurred a few years back when a couple of dedicated fly anglers identified the potential of setting up a sustainable fishery with the help of the local community. From this idea, Indifly was born.   

Founded in 2014, the Indifly Foundation was initially established to help the local community of Rewa set up an eco lodge. Not only does this lodge cater to fly fisherman up for the challenge to try catch Arapaima and all the other various species that frequent these waters but it also offers nature tours and showcases all the treasures the Guyana jungle has to offer. It’s now 6 years down the line and this fishery is thriving. With a 100% catch and release policy, together with the help of scientists that do studies on this prehistoric looking fish, it’s a recipe for success. They now understand more about these fish than they have ever before and are still learning more everyday. It’s truly an exciting time for Arapaima, Guyana and the Rewa community. 

A couple months ago I finally committed to some dates and booked my flights to Guyana. Like with any other big trip, preparation starts months before, reading articles, watching videos, speaking to the guides etc. Months flew by and, before I knew it, my bags were packed. 12wt’s, 80lb fluorocarbon, 8/0 heavy gage hooks, you name it.  I set my goal to hopefully hook into one of these fish before the week was over. In all honesty, this is my goal for any trip, just one fish, and then one more, and if they are around in numbers maybe one more. Joining me on this trip was Jay Epping, a great friend who I met through fly-fishing (like many of my best friends today) and Will Graham. Will is one hell of a dude and also one of the best photographers I know. Neither of them needed much convincing. I recall the phone call I had with them. I used three key words to lure them in: Rum, Jungle, Arapaima. Their response, “when are we going?”

Like me, Jay and Will were blown away with this entire experience. From arriving in Georgetown to touching down on the grass airstrip in the jungle. What a journey. Arriving at Rewa we were welcomed with some freshly squeezed Squirrel Juice, or at least that’s what it sounded like. Not sure really what fruit it was from, but it was damn amazing and a hit for the entire week. Soon after arriving we rigged our gear and were happy to see the guides approved all our tackle which is always a big win. With all our rods rigged, we headed out for the first afternoon session. Will and I headed out to Grass Pond, one of the first ponds they discovered out here. After a short boat ride followed by a 20 min hike through the most pristine jungle I have witnessed, we reached this magical little pond. Filled with lily pads 2ft wide, Cayman cruising around, and the sound of Arapaima rolling.  If heaven is a place on earth, this could be it. 

The anticipation was unreal casting at the first sight of a rolling fish. I picked up really quickly that you could track these fish by looking at the bubbles after they breathe air. Well, we did just that and on my 4th cast I lead the bubbles and dropped my cast 3ft ahead of the trail of bubbles. “Wait, wait.. okay.. start stripping,” whispered Vivian, our Guide. “BAM!” I got the shock of my life when I could not only feel a foot of line shooting through my fingers but also the sound of the fish eating the fly with a solid thump. Having fished for many Giant Trevally with 130 lb leader in my life, I enjoy nothing more than setting a hook, and these fish demand a really solid strip set, not once, or twice, but until the fish is in the guides hands. From the hookup, to the jumps, to the headshakes, these fish have it all. As the fish got close to the boat it was time for the real wrestling match to take place. This is when Will and I made eye contact with both of us shaking our heads as if we were dreaming of the spectacle taking place. And by spectacle we mean the guide literally wrestling this fish in the water. There are stories of these fish knocking guys out stone cold when their head meets your face. This became one of my favorite stages of the fight later in the week - actually getting in the water with the fish and wrestling them before installing the tags, snapping some pictures, and watching them swim off.

Well, still in shock of what the hell actually just happened, I couldn’t believe that I had just touched my first Arapaima, on my 4th cast, on the 1st afternoon. We didn’t slow down from here. We proceeded to have some exceptional fishing for the rest of the week in various different ponds. With a new camp record of 13 fish for the week, I was over the moon. Jay on the other hand also had a great week dancing with 7 Arapaima and getting the biggest of the week with a stellar fish of 78 inches. 20 fish for the week, 18 more than we expected. I honestly do not understand why these fish are not spoken of more often. This was without a doubt one of the most kickass fly fishing trips I have ever been on and I cannot speak more highly of this operation. Having Will there to capture all these amazing moments, made it extra special. It’s always quite difficult to explain to my parents where I have been without pictures. Yes mom, that is a tarantula on my head… It was Jay’s first jungle experience and we are already looking forward to our next jungle adventure. He is hooked. 

Saving the best for last, the community of Rewa, the staff, the guides, the helpers (who drag boats through the jungle everyday) the cook, the scientists, the boat drivers, Indifly and everyone who formed part of this operation. They are the true rock stars and they are the reason why this place is so well protected. They are the reason we caught 20 fish of 20 lifetimes. Deep in the jungle of Guyana they are setting the example of what a sustainable fishery looks like. I cannot speak more highly of our Guyana jungle adventure.