A Giant Arapaima

I am now sixty years old and have been fishing since I was five. Most of my life has revolved around fishing, working in the shop and fishing whenever I could. However, since maybe 14 years old I had one big dream……A really big Arapaima.

My “thing” is freshwater fish over 100lb, so when I wrote the list of target fish at age 14 the Arapaima was at the top. For me a big Arapaima is over 300lb and such fish are hard to come by and because of their location, expensive to fish for. So, for many years this was just a fantasy. I read and researched everything I could find about this beautiful fish and dreamed of the day I would have enough money to really seek out a giant.

Of course, Brazil is the home of the Arapaima. Whilst now somewhat protected, this wonderful creature was hunted to the point of extinction in its natural habitat. Monsters still exist in Brazil but are all but impossible to catch. While I was saving my pennies one of our shop customers and now a close friend made a number of trips to Brazil to fish for Arapaima but always failed. He had great trips, caught many fish, including smaller Arapaima, but each time he hooked into a truly big fish it was impossible to land. The natural Rivers of Brazil are incredibly snaggy and a large Arapaima impossible to stop on its initial runs. The outcome was always the same, a snagged line and a lost fish and no responsible angler should put a hook into a fish he is unlikely to land.

In the mid 1980`s I discovered Thailand. This was long before the current boon in Thai fishing holidays. The famous Bunsamrang was virtually the only know “commercial” fishery and the rest was like the wild west. These were great days of searching out small unknown lakes full of huge fish. I was fortunate enough to meet and become friends with Wuttichai Khuensuwan who goes by the name of Boy or Fishing Boy. Boy was, and still is the best and most knowledgeable guide in Thailand.

Between 1985 and 2005 I travelled to and fished in Thailand perhaps 15 times and caught many large fish, ticking off my plus 100lb list as I went. I even caught Arapaima along the way, some over 100 lb, but comparatively few. In 2005 I took a decision, I was going to seek out my childhood monster and an 8-year quest began.

Arapaima breed very well in Thailand, in fact they are commercially breed in fish farms for food, so many lakes hold Arapaima. Fish plus 300Lb are rare and protected by their owners for one very simple reason. A big Arapaima is worth over one years (average) salary in Thailand and a real giant several times this amount, and here lies the first secret of Giant Arapaima. A secret that took me several years to unlock.

So secret number one: The fishery owners, whether they are European or Thais, do not really want you to catch their Arapaima. In particular they do not want you to catch their biggest Arapaima!

Like most predatory fish Arapaima are very fragile. A deeply hooked fish is in great danger of dying, a poorly handled fish is in extreme danger. Sometimes when making their fantastic leaps when hooked, the way they twist in the air to throw the hook can break their spine, and even a prolonged fight can build up enough lactic acid to subsequently kill the fish, even when it has apparently swum away happily. Couple this fragility with their great value and the honest fact that many holiday fishermen in Thailand are not that experienced with very big fish, you can understand the dilemma of fishery owners.

Some fisheries ban live baits or even all fish baits to protect their Arapaima, many limit the hours per day you can use fish baits to maybe 4 hours per day. On all Arapaima fisheries, you must be accompanied by a guide, and this guide will very subtly make sure you do not catch many fish. Normally two per day is the limit, and if they can manipulate it, these two will be smaller ones. Of course, they will never admit this, as they need to sell trips to the next guy, but it is a fact.

Once post 2005 I stopped fishing for anything but very big Arapaima I quickly learned the tricks of the trade. Mysteriously, live baits were unavailable, even when the lakes were teeming with small fish. So I started packing a pole and small hooks to catch my own. After you catch a fish the guide is trying to make you change tactics or move to a new area “No more fish here sir, we must move over there” The guide is the guide, so in the early days I was polite and went with the flow. However, once you learn about Arapaima you learn lesson No.2

Secret No.2. They are very easy to locate and catch: Arapaima have three big failings, no doubt the reason why they almost went extinct in the wild. Firstly, they are air breathers, so they give away their location by coming up to breath. As they are a beautiful shade of red, they are not hard to spot. Secondly, they are territorial, so while they may swim around the lake, hunting or playing, they live somewhere. Work out where they live, and you know they will come back to this sanctuary. Lastly, they are very greedy. A big fish has to eat a lot, so if you put a bed of bait down, close to their lair and wait, you WILL hook that fish…..That is assuming the guide will let you and believe me he will try to stop you doing this.

It took me many days and a lot of money to learn these two secrets and a lot of frustration as even when I had worked it out, the guides always tried to upset my plans. I would order 10 kg of bait and only half a kg would be available “sorry sir, supplier had run out” When I identified a lair and elected to sit for a full day in one spot, the guide would be going crazy “No Arapaima here sir, fishes over there”

Secret No.3 People lie!! There is an old saying in fishing; “You can`t catch what is not there” I wasted a lot of time fishing waters supposedly holding huge fish, only to catch a 150 lb fish that the guide insisted was 250 or spending days watching fish without seeing a monster even though “we have over 20 fish above 300lb sir” Often customers in my shop show me photographs of 300lb Arapaima. I am always polite and do not want to spoil their joy, but a 300lb fish is very big, and impossible to weigh. The guides want to make their customers happy and maybe get a bit over enthusiastic with the weights. Consequently, many of the plus 300 lb fish claimed are probably more like 200-250. Still wonderful, beautiful creatures but not what I wanted.

So, between 2005 and 2013 the only fish on my mind was a huge Arapaima. I followed catch reports, read everything I could find and travelled to Thailand for two weeks every year. I came close to my goal in 2010 on Palm Tree, on a magical evening when I had persuaded the then owner (it has now changed hands) to let me fish two hours later than normal I had several big Arapaima circling my float fished live baits.

The float slipped away and perhaps 10 seconds later, I struck, and the water exploded with a six or seven-foot red missile leaping into the air. Arapaima are fast, and the first run is unstoppable, the fish peeled off line and surface maybe 70 yards further along the right-hand bank. I am not going to tell the story of the epic battle, but eventually she was wallowing in front of me. It was huge, my +300lb fish I am sure. She was just too far out for the guides to get the cage under her and I was gently walking backwards with a steady pressure to bring her in range.

With three audible snorts of air the beaten Arapaima filled her lungs and took off once more. Down into the depths and into a snag, that everyone swore did not exist. One minute I was standing there with a stiffy planning how the photographs would look, the next I was holding an immovable weight feeling the line sawing against some unseen structure on the bottom as she shook her head.

We tried everything, every trick I know to free snagged fish and even sent divers down to try to free her. After all these years I still do not like to tell this story, hence the lack of details. I lost the fish and that is all I can say about it. I think I still had a few days left of my trip but was so gutted and switched to other species and sulked.

Before my 2013 trip, I had been driving Boy mad about getting a big Arry. On that trip I was bringing Bob my partner at Robbos for his first Thai trip, so I wanted to give him a taste of all the wonders of Thai fishing. As usual Boy outdid himself with venues, but the last 5 days was on a little-known fishery that was rumoured to hold two very big Arapaima’s.

We had planned three days on the carp/cat lake and only two on the predator lake which allegedly held the big girls. Day one was a predictable Arapaima trip, I think Bob and I caught one or two fish each, the bait did not turn up as ordered, we got moved away from the fish. Poor Bob got take after take only to catch bloody Alligator Gars (which are horrible by the way) BUT: I saw a monster!

You must understand what Thailand is like, you may well be thinking Why didn`t I just tell the guide to “buggar off “and fish my way. The problem is they are so nice and so clever at manipulating you it is difficult to be tough with them. Plus of course the lake guides are only poor workers doing what the owner has told them. That afternoon I complained to Boy and told him to try to get them to leave me alone for the last day. I also asked him to drive to the local supermarket and get me the baits directly.

The next day I saw the fish again in the same area. That means I had seen him first thing in the morning and the previous day just before dusk. My guess is, “that is where he lives” and the rest of the day he is swimming around the lake. I asked the lake guide to let me fish there, but he was insistent I fished the other side of the lake, possibly because it was in the shade and it was bloody hot. He even went to the extreme of using a big chunk of my precious bait chumming an area and getting maybe 6 small Arapaima feeding in front of us. I politely refused to cast to them, explaining I would wait for a big one. The poor guy seemed genuinely hurt and sulked for the next two hours. Around 12 pm I had caught only some small cats and Alligators and stayed away from the small Arapaima’s. I then insisted we move to the area that I had seen the big one.

I baited the area with maybe 15 chunks of chopped fish bait, little Mackerel looking jobbies cut into 2-inch bars and cast away from the baited area into open water to play with the Redtail’s. I rebaited with a few chunks every 15 minutes or so and put a bait on it around 2 o`clock. The area was only about 4 rod lengths from the bank and although I do not generally like freelining, but mindful of having nothing to get snagged, I just fished a fish chunk on a 1/0 hook. A 100lb Fluro leader tied to 65lb braid. The rod? …This may surprise you, my rod of choice was a 12ft 2.75 Daiwa Theory. I had with me much more powerful rods, but I will explain my choice later.

Then I waited, and waited, actually I have no idea how long, my guide was getting restless and wanted me to move, but I had Boy speak with him in Thai, ordered him a beer and he went to sleep under a tree. When the take came it was so subtle the Delkin never even bleeped. I was fishing semi slack as I was so close in, and I could see the line slowly move left to right in the water. It did not even take an inch off the open bail arm, but was moving steadily, so I hit it.

When I fish with light rods for big fish, I keep the drag as tight as I can and really a 2.75 T/C rod should not be put under this strain. I love the Theory`s as they bend right down to the butt which was wedged into my groin. The lake was maybe 1.5 maximum 2 acres and as far as I knew (and Boy normally knows) had only one serious snag in it. If I had needed to stop the fish, which to be honest is almost impossible without pulling the hook, I would have used my 9 ft 4lb T/C Harrisons, but I find the softer “springy” rods tire the fish out faster. It is like the elastic that the match boys use in their poles. As long as you keep very constant pressure on the fish and do not let it take rests, they seem to tire faster when I fish this way. It also has the very big advantage of not pulling hooks. Large predators have a habit of shaking their heads and against stiffer, more powerful rods this often pulls the hooks or breaks the line.

We did not get a good look at the fish for the longest time, and during the fight which was a little over 30 minutes the fish run me to the four corners of the lake. There is an abridged video on this site that shows a good part of the fight. I have no words to describe it. Time after time I made line on the fish, only to see a swirl as it gulped air and took off again. I laugh every time when I watch the video as the normally inscrutable Boy utters the famous words “Be careful Jeff, it is not a small fish”

When we saw it, it was beyond my wildest dreams, I remember thinking it looked like a giant red Anaconda in the water, twisting its body and moving snake-like in the sunlight. At one point it run at me and I almost panicked as I lost contact, winding as fast as I could I could not catch up, but then the rod hooped over again, and it was still there. Several times my heart was in my mouth as the line pinged off its long fins, each time convinced the hook had pulled.

30 minutes is a long time on a big fish in the Thai sun, but if you had asked me afterwards I would have said the fight was over much faster. I only know the time because Boy videoed the fight from maybe 5 minutes into the battle. I have had harder fights with fish, big Mekongs are far tougher, Tarpon break your heart and hurt your back and arms. I have had giant sharks on for two hours without ever seeing them Goliath Grouper actually scare me as I think they will pull me overboard, but a big Arry is the best. They are not the hardest fighting fish in the world, but anything well over 100lb has a body mass that when moving cannot be easily stopped. This fish did not jump (too fat I think) but it is very visual as the fight near the surface. The runs are fast and long and all the time they are shaking their head, the long body is in danger of wrapping and well, when you see them, they are the most beautiful creatures in the world. Huge red scales, eyes that look at you and long, incredibly long sinuous bodies.

Eventually we got it into the cage, and you will see from the video that this was no easy task. How big was it?

I don`t know!!!!

The cage was 7 feet long, and almost a foot was hanging out of the back. I tried to wrap my arms around its girth to get some idea of its size and I could not touch my fingers. What I do know is that 5 years previously the owner had put in two big Arapaima`s. One was 200kg and the other 210 kg. So, they went in at roughly 440 lb and 460 lb. Neither had ever been caught and the owner told me he thought that they had died. Interestingly, my fish had three other hooks in its mouth, so they are being hooked and lost (Probably because the hire rods most people use are too stiff and powerful)

How big do I think it was?

I have caught a lot of big fish, both fresh water and sea. The weight of a big fish is in its girth, rather than its length. Take a look at the photos I have posted with this article and just look how deep and wide it was. I have had a Sturgeon of 8ft 3inches that went just over 300lb. This fish was maybe not as long, but much, much thicker. The only fish of similar dimensions I can compare it to is a Marlin.

I think: Assuming the owner is correct that it was +440 lbs five years before, and the fact that Arapaima continue to grow their whole life, plus the fish was fat and fit and seemly in perfect condition. I think it could have been +450. The fact is we will never know. I always say I believe I have had an Arapaima over 400lb. I think honestly that is safe.

I have caught Arapaima since, but don`t seriously target them anymore. Realistically I will never get another as big as this. It is sad really that anglers get hung up on size, but we do, and after this fish, a lot went out of my fishing life. Of course, I still fish, but I wanted that fish so badly that catching it has taken something major away. One day something will pop into my head and another quest will start. Actually….I have never had a 60lb carp…Emmm