The king of the Amazon
By Bruno Kelly
It was a dream come true for me to accompany the men who fish the pirarucu, South America’s largest freshwater fish. It was even more so to do it in the region of the Juruá River, one of the most inhospitable, winding and virgin rivers in the Amazon Basin.
The pirarucu, also known as the arapaima, is considered a living fossil. The adventure to fish them began from our departure from Manaus in an amphibious plane able to set down on dry land or water, called a Grand Caravan. Our pilot assured us that this is one of the few light aircraft certified to transport the president of the United States, and that left us much less nervous since we were heading into a region with nothing more than jungle and rivers below us.
During the flight I learned that the fishing would only take place during the night, which was a shock as I knew there would be absolutely no light.
We were received by the villagers in São Raimundo in a fiesta atmosphere, something close to a Christmas or New Year party. Fishing the pirarucu is permitted only once a year by the government’s environmental protection agency, IBAMA, so everyone awaits that day with great anticipation. For me, the energy surrounding our arrival excited me about what I was about to experience.
Around mid-afternoon we left for Manariã Lake where we would be fishing. Motorized canoes called “rabetas” took us the two hours along a stream until we reached the lake. With tree trunks and canvas we improvised a campsite at the lake’s mouth, and on the riverbank the fishermen prepared an area to measure and process the catch. In all there were around 50 local villagers in the camp, including men, women and children, all obviously pumped with adrenaline in anticipation of the event of the year.
The following afternoon they began to prepare the nets and other equipment for fishing. I decided to get into the canoe with Manoel Cunha, the local community leader. He told me that they prefer to fish at night because the pirarucu don’t notice the net and get caught in it much easier.
In the first hour we already had three large fish at least one and a half meters (five feet) long. The pirarucu is the true king of the river, as they are called in the Amazon. It took more than one man to pull each one into the canoe.
Once the fish was aboard the fishermen took quick action to kill it; they hit the pirarucu in the head with a hammer. Although it’s hard to watch, killing them is necessary to avoid being seriously injured by the giant’s flailing tail. They told me that they can’t risk keeping them alive in the boat because apart from the likely injury, they would lose an entire night’s fishing.
The cloudy sky brought two heavy rainstorms during the night as we worked in the middle of the lake. The sticky heat and abundant insects attracted to our lanterns made it very uncomfortable. Apart from the pirarucu we had another surprise in the form of enormous yacare caimans that got caught in the net. The fishermen had to kill them to get them untangled.
In the middle of the lake, darkness was total, and I couldn’t even see the palm of my own hand without artificial light. When I returned to camp to see how the fishing was going, I found a frightening scene. In the pitch black night I almost tripped over the wood planks that marked the floor of the processing area, and then discovered them to be covered with giant pirarucus, each one larger than the next.
The villagers were overjoyed knowing that the night had been an abundant success. In a sustainable way they were taking from nature their sustenance for the next few months, and guaranteeing the survival of the pirarucu for the coming generations.
At dawn our plane landed and it was time to return home. I had coexisted for a few days with the true guardians of the world’s most coveted forest, and brought back with me a lesson for life.