Jaw-dropping Amazonian experience

By Karim Abu Bakr

If you’ve surfed our web-site for more than 5 minutes you should already know what destinations are worthy to be in our Bucket List. Loaded with fish, beautiful landscapes, best available accommodation and equipment, highly trained staff – this is what a short version of Rob Anderson’s standard of fishing destinations looks like. For me, as a, modesty apart, experienced eco-tour guide, the bar gets raised even more: wildlife and flora diversity are essential, a historical background doesn’t hurt either. So, when I was invited to the fishing camp for the first time I wasn’t sure what to expect. Let’s face it: I had to deal with demanding birdwatchers and naturalists that don’t give you much space for a mistake.

So, I arrive to the North of Xeruini River Preserve. For someone who lives in a place where everyone believes there’s no match for Tapajos River, as “Brazilian Caribbean” with hundreds of miles of desert sandy beaches, Xeruini river humbled me. It doesn’t look like a postcard, no. More like a dream. Unlike the anglers, we reached the camp on the river in a fishing boat leaving Terra Preta – the last inhabited place on Xeruini River you’ll see heading north for 7-9 hours. What a blast! That river is narrow, in many places almost blocked by overhanging jungle. At the peak of the dry season it’s shallow and looks like a snorkeling paradise. Fish shoals pass by all the time and the variety of colors is incredible. It’s like going to an oceanarium, a 200-mile-long one. Macaws, which are very territorial birds would fly over our boat all the time, not just in pairs – in dozens.

Then, over the three weeks we spent in the camp, I got to see anteaters, tapirs, stacks of Jabirus and Spoonbills – what I wasn’t used to see even doing expeditions year-round.

Fishermen have something we don’t get in eco-tourism very often – time in one spot. When you do wildlife observation, most of the time it’s not about chasing monkeys around the forest – it’s about staying quietly in one spot. That happens naturally in fly fishing world. At some point, while you’re casting into a honey hole (which are abundant at Rio Novo) there will be something flying or running by. This was a huge change in concept for me, as I used to be a tour leader that would always rush everyone to the next stop – you get to see what you get to see on the way and that’s pretty much it.

So, January 2019 experience was inspirational. What I was curious is how someone from the outside of fishing world would take it. In August 2019 Rob and I went to Pantanal. While we were exploring and putting together our “Fishing with Jaguars” program, Rob shared with me he’d miraculously have an available spot in January 2020. So, I run to my contact list and invite someone I was sure would give me a great honest input on whether it’s worth dragging an eco-tourist to a fishing trip. That person was Barbara.

I laid the whole thing out to Barbara and she just sent me an e-mail 2 days later confirming she’d be joining us. Stakes were high: even though Barbara is an easy-going traveler, I knew how much she appreciated wildlife photography. Plus, It would be Barbara’s FIFTH time in the Amazon, plus a trip to Pantanal she had done in 2018. What new could we possibly deliver? Well, you can find it in 2 ways: the lazy one – watching a 40-minute long documentary I made about that week, or reading Barbara’s story below. I’ll just say, I had a great time!

AN INTRODUCTION TO BUCKET LIST FLY FISHING

By Barbara Robert

When a Brazil Amazon tour guide I had met in May, 2017 contacts me two years later and says “Are you busy in January 2020?”, I had only one question, “Why do you ask?” Six months later I am off to the jungles of Brazil with guide Karim.

It seems Karim had become the “go-to” guy to assist an American bucket-list fly fishing company set up a world class fishing camp in a remote and pristine part of the Amazon that just happens to be teeming with fish, lots of fish, lots of BIG fish. Rob Anderson, owner of Bucket List Fly Fishing Company of Reno, Nevada, had been taking anglers to Brazil for seventeen years. But now, he had access to a new area in the state of Roraima and sought Karim’s assistance in making it happen. After two years of negotiations with local and state authorities, the operation was up and running. For a few select weeks of the year, a small group of avid fly fishermen journey to this remote part of Brazil in hopes of landing a trophy Peacock Bass.

With a beautiful mobile fishing camp, expert local guides and all the hard work that goes into making a successful operation, the organizers were now hoping to “lure” eco-tourists to this untouched wilderness. And, that is where I come in!

Karim assured me the area was virtually untouched and teeming with wildlife. He compared it to the Tapajos River that we had explored three years earlier and said this new region was even more pristine and abundant. The plan was that he and I would spend our time in a small skiff with a local captain/wildlife/fishing guide searching the riverbanks for flora and fauna while the fishermen fished. It sounded good, very good, but I thought I better speak with this fellow Rob in Reno. So, I called Rob, introduced myself and said, “You don’t know me but, I have been contacted by Karim Abu Bakr about a possible trip to Brazil.” Rob replied, “We were just talking about you!” That was interesting.

Having been married to an avid saltwater sport fisherman, I understood something about passionate fishermen. After Rob answered some questions and I was certain he understood I was not an angler and a woman of mature years but also a keen soft-adventure seeker who traveled for wildlife. I was invited to join the last group of the season (7 anglers plus me) as an eco-tourist experiment. It would be entirely unscripted and exploratory; I signed on. All I had to do was make my way to Manaus, Brazil in January!

In addition, I was assured there would be the opportunity to try fly fishing. Little did I know that would be a highlight of the trip!

FIRST TIME FLY FISHING

I was the “Eco-tourist Experiment” and while the anglers were casting their fly rods, Karim and I, and often Rob, spent hours, both early morning and late afternoon, cruising the small tributaries of the Rio Blanco in Roraima State in search of rainforest flora and fauna. With local captain Francisco’s expert knowledge, we hacked our way through the overhanging jungle into the inner lagoons. Our efforts were rewarded with sightings of numerous bird species including the Agami Heron, Roseate Spoonbill, Green Ibis, Black-Collared Hawk, Hoatzin, Capped Heron, Green-tailed Jacamar. Yellow-Tufted Woodpecker, Muscovy Duck, all three Kingfishers and many, many more.

This daily routine was altered when someone suggested, “You should try fishing”, and a spinning rod was put in my hand; the fly rod would come later. I was hooked. Not only did I catch fish, a lot of fish for a novice, I was really having fun! While I was not always accurate in placing the lure in the desired spot, the fish were so plentiful that I was quite successful.

The next hurdle was graduating to the fly rod and I had Rob Anderson, company owner and expert angler, as my coach. I am somewhat of an over-achiever but, I must admit, using the fly rod was quite challenging. Those skilled anglers make it look so graceful and so easy! With Rob’s patience and my determination, I did catch a few fish on the fly; another first life-experience!

So, when birding got slow, we fished! My biggest fish was a 5+ pound Peacock Bass on the last day but, in total, I caught more than 50 fish including multiple species. The “real fishermen” had a week’s tally of 1747 Peacock Bass with 499 caught the last day, 42 fish above eight pounds and 17 species. What a privilege it was to be in the company of such accomplished fisherman, to enjoy their camaraderie, have expert guidance and enjoy the pristine rainforest wilderness of Rio Branco. From an eco-tourist, this wildlife/fishing experience will be hard to top. Fishermen go to cool places!

MORE THAN BIRDS IN THE RAINFOREST

While I do not consider myself a birder, I do enjoy taking photographs of birds. While on that quest, the Amazon rainforest held some surprises.

While edging our way slowly down a narrow tributary of the Rio Branco know locally as the Mata Mata Lago, our local guide, Francisco, spotted a Mata Mata! What is a Mata Mata, you ask? It is an odd looking freshwater turtle with a thick long nonretractable neck, wide mouth, small nose and long claws. It was a wildlife first for both me and Karim.

Thad previously seen Giant River Otters in the Pantanal but in a side channel of the Rio Branco, we came across a small group playing their game of hide and seek. These five-foot- long otters with a set of sharp teeth are very curious creatures and kept us entertained with their antics until they got bored with our presence! You ask, what else lives in these waters of the Amazon basin? There are the Amazon pink river dolphins also known as the Boto and shrouded in local lore. You are most likely to only get a peak. More visible are the River stingrays or freshwater stingrays seen in the clear shallow waters of the small tributaries swimming among the fish nest depressions in the sandy bottom.

The remote waters of the Rio Branco and its tributaries are teeming with fish, fish of great variety. The Piranha have a reputation and rightly earned; only the experienced angler takes that fish off the hook! They made for a tasty meal back at camp. But it is the giant Peacock Bass that bring the fly fishermen from around the world to the isolated waters of Roraima in the northern part of the Amazon jungle. Little did I realize, I was starting my fishing experience at the apex of angling! Also in these waters you find the Silver Arowana locally referred to as the “Amazon Water Monkey’ for its ability to leap out of the water and catch prey on low over-hanging branches! Since I had only read about this fish, it was a thrill catching one on the fly rod. Another ancient relic is the prehistoric lung breather Arapaima. This fish can grow to monster size and Rob had an estimated 200 pounder on before it pulled the hook. Even to witness this short battle was a trip highlight; sorry, Rob, but it does make a good story.

Toward the end of our week deep in the rainforest, Karim spots a dark shape on the riverbank. We glide our skiff closer for a better look and it is a Giant Anteater. It appears quite relaxed and we get a good sighting noting that most of its 6-7 feet length is tail! Check off another first for this wildlife enthusiast.

I have saved the best to last. Karim had stayed back at camp to assist with the task of floating the camp to a new location. It was just captain Francisco, Rob and me in the boat. Rob was hoping for another crack at the Arapaima but mostly we were birding. The skiff came around a sharp corner in a very shallow channel and there in front of us was a jaguar crossed the stream. I don’t know who was more surprised, the cat or us! We did get a good look as it climbed out of the water onto the sandy bank, its wet body appearing almost black. It disappeared into the thick jungle underbrush leaving pug marks in the soft sand, no time to grab the camera. Rob and I turned to one another and in unison said “Jaguar!” Rob has been coming to this region of Amazonia for seventeen years and this was his first jaguar. I knew the chances of a slighting were very, very slim and had given up scanning the riverbanks. The cats were here but the jungle too thick; what a lucky way to end this expedition!

Toward the end of our week deep in the rainforest, Karim spots a dark shape on the riverbank. We glide our skiff closer for a better look and it is a Giant Anteater. It appears quite relaxed and we get a good sighting noting that most of its 6-7 feet length is tail! Check off another first for this wildlife enthusiast.

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