An Expedition Into the Wild Rivers of the Amazon

blog post photo

by Julia Dorn
Series Field Producer

Day 1: Arapaima Expedition: What To Take On This Expedition?
Today, adventure angler Jakub Vágner, two camera operators and I begin an expedition into the Amazon. We’re on a mission to find a giant Arapaima and a Piraiba Catfish in the wild. The contents of my personal bag are almost entirely need based: First aid kit, electrolytes and rehydration salts, mosquito spray (a lot of it!), sunscreen, light-colored quick-dry clothes, plus rubber boots and rain gear. Our filming equipment is packed in protective pelican cases and surrounded by desiccants that will hopefully absorb the moisture from the high humidity.

Day 2: Arapaima Expedition: Journey Along Remote Tributaries
In a motorized long-tail boat we’re traveling along a wide, muddy-brown tributary of the mighty Amazon River. Trailing behind us, a support boat carries our supplies: 1,000-gallon drums of fuel, dry and canned food, drinking water, and tents. We cruise for eight hours straight, journeying deeper and deeper into the Ecuadorian rainforest, the world’s largest and densest rainforest. It’s about the size of the USA west of the Mississippi! Here, on either side of the river, thick vegetation covers every inch of ground.

Day 3: Arapaima Expedition: Life in Base Camp

It’s the end of dry season and the river level is still low. We dock our boats and climb up the steep, high walls of the riverbank to our base camp.  Here we eat, sleep in tents, stage our equipment, and setup the generator we use for recharging our batteries. During the day, tiny sand flies eat us alive, honing in on every inch of exposed skin. And when darkness falls, mosquitoes join the feeding frenzy. We’re constantly slapping our necks and arms, or frantically swatting them away from our faces.

Day 4: Arapaima Expedition: Fishing for Arapaima

Catching Arapaima is more like ‘hunting’ than fishing. We sit in small, lightweight canoes and, like hunters sitting in a blind, try to be as quiet as possible. Jakub surveys the lagoon with a fierce, intense look like that of a hawk searching for its prey. Quietly, he prepares his line, hook and bait, then sits and waits. Suddenly, we hear a gulp. Fifty yards away from us an Arapaima surfaces for air and splashes on the surface. Quickly, Jakub casts towards in its direction. We wait. Then we can see little tugs on the line. I get excited, thinking we got one! But Jakub knows better. Shaking his head with frustration, he reels in his bait – it’s devoured and only the baitfish’s skeleton is left. A couple of hours of later, Jakub tries again. The same result. It’s clear that any bait left in the water too long is being attacked and annihilated by shoals of piranhas. Realizing this will be a constant obstacle in our quest for Arapaima, I get nervous and wonder: Will we ever catch one?

Day 5: Arapaima Expedition: How to Survive In the Jungle
Curious about what life in the jungle would be like without supplies, we venture into the forest to learn some survival techniques. The undergrowth is so thick that we have to use a machete to clear our way. Some branches and leaves are covered in tiny spines, others in nasty four-inch long needles. Everything around us could potentially hurt us. Then, we spot two-inch long bullet ants. With their massive heads and torsos they look like ants on steroids – massive. Plus, they have powerful jaws and a painful bite.  We keep our distance and move on until Jakub spots a tree with little cocoon-like nests. He picks one and breaks it open. Little green lemon ants crawl out. Jakub starts sucking them up. I eat some too, and discover that in fact, they do taste like lemon! We continue to slash our way through the forest and find a palm tree. Jakub chops off its tip the tip of the trunk and opens up the core revealing white, soft flesh.  It’s heart of palm – just like the heart of palm we normally find canned and stacked neatly on supermarket shelves back home. Then, we find a vine that oozes moisture. We cut the vine and thick, milky liquid pours out. I try the milky liquid and enjoy its natural, tree-like taste. Next, Jakub finds a Canumbo tree that grows Coroso nuts. He breaks one open and three thick white worms appear.  With a hearty bite, Jakub swallows one. ‘Tastes like coconut,’ he says.  By the end of our adventure, I realize if you know where to look, you can survive on just the food and water the jungle provides.

Day 6: Arapaima Expedition: Finding Lagoons

Each day we travel further, exploring new tributaries and lagoons, hoping to find Arapaima. Some lagoons are accessible by canoe via small streams. But for others, when the water level is too low for paddling, we have to drag our canoes behind us while sinking knee-deep into the mud. Other lagoons are entirely cut off by solid ground from rivers and streams. To reach these, we have to carry our canoes through the forest – a brutally exhausting exercise to undertake in the middle of the day’s searing heat and suffocating humidity.

Day 7: Arapaima Expedition: ‘Jungle Fever’

They say the first week in the jungle is the hardest. Being away from known civilization, technology, and other amenities we normally take for granted is one thing, but the sense of isolation is another challenge altogether. We’re about as remote and off the beaten path as you can get. For miles around, there’s no village, no hotel, no restaurant, no shop. And of course, with no Internet connection or cell phone reception, communications are limited to our one lifeline – a satellite phone.  The clothes on our backs are caked with a mix of mud, sweat, sunscreen and mosquito spray. We have insect bites covering our hands, arms and ankles. And skin rashes contracted from unknown sources start spreading like wildfire. To top it all off, the heat seems to be sapping our energy; everyone is getting a little lethargic. Something has to happen soon.

Day 8: Arapaima Expedition: A Bite!

Finally we see some fishing action – Jakub hooks an Arapaima! When the fish takes the bait, it splashes on the surface and almost knocks him out of his canoe. The powerful fish next drags the full weight of both Jakub and his canoe across the lagoon. Then, Jakub screams in frustration – his line gets tangled in a submerged tree. Quickly, Jakub jumps into the water to free the line. Grabbing a knife, he dives underwater, cuts the line on the other side of the submerged tree and amazingly, with the fish still on the line, ties a new knot, allowing him to continue the fight from his canoe. But disaster strikes.  The fish swims into another submerged tree. This time the line snaps, shattering our hopes for today’s catch.

Day 9: Arapaima Expedition: Record Catch!

Another lagoon, another chance. Jakub sits in his canoe continuously surveying the water, looking for an Arapaima surfacing for air. Suddenly he spots one, and it’s not far from his canoe. He casts. Moments later, the fish takes the bait. Jakub reels and yells ‘This is massive! This is an incredible fish!’ The powerful fish surges against the line. Jakub fights, successfully reeling it close to the canoe. But the battle isn’t over. Now, he needs to find a place to land it.  He steers the fish closer to shore where the water is shallow. With the Arapaima splashing next to the canoe, Jakub jumps into the water and tries to get a hold of the fish without injuring it or himself.  He succeeds. We measure the fish and are astounded: It’s 10 feet 1 inch long and weighs 339 pounds! Pushing in close with our cameras, we get some amazing shots of the prehistoric, dinosaur-like creature.  I’m in awe of this animal.  Reaching out, I touch its armor of giant-sized scales and feel privileged to be so close to such a unique, and incredible fish.  The experience is absolutely unforgettable.

Video Preview: “Wrestling a Colossal Fish” — Jakub finally snags an arapaima on the Amazon! But will he be able to get the humongous fish into his boat?

Day 10: Piraiba Catfish Expedition: Opponent #2
On a quest to catch another freshwater giant, the Piraiba Catfish, we press on and travel further downriver, crossing the border to Peru. It’s the beginning of the rainy season, but we haven’t had much rain yet. Jakub is concerned. If it doesn’t rain the river’s water level will remain low and Piraiba won’t migrate upriver to spawn. It doesn’t look like nature is on our side.  Plus, if catching one giant fish is against the odds, catching two in one expedition could be next to impossible.  In fact, prior to setting out on this expedition Jakub told me ‘Catching both an Arapaima and a Piraiba Catfish in one trip is like winning the lottery twice.’ I cross my fingers and hold my breath.

Day 11: Piraiba Catfish Expedition: Hunting Wildlife With Amazon Natives

Two Amazon natives, Guinto and Namo, invite us on their jungle hunt for meat. Not having the right tools to land big fish, they hunt monkeys, birds and wild boar on land. Guinto shows us how to prepare a poisonous potion with ‘curare’ – a toxic alkaloid found in certain tropical South American trees. It’s a powerful relaxant for striated muscles and the natives use it on their arrow tips when hunting with their blowguns. Together, we prowl through the jungle. Watching bare-footed Guinto and Namo move smoothly through the forest is like watching a feather glide effortlessly through the air. They track with their ears and noses, listening to every sound around them and picking up animal scents in the air. Suddenly, Guinto and Namo spot a target – a bird. Careful not to scare it off, they inch closer. Then Namo blows his poisonous arrow…success! This will be our evening’s meal. We make a fire, then pluck and roast the bird.  It’s a welcome break in our monotonous diet. In this heat and humidity fresh food like meat spoils quickly. So we’ve been living mostly off of dried and canned food, and our trusty staple – pasta with ketchup.

Video Preview: “Hunting Birds with Bushmen” — Jakub joins two Amazon natives armed with poison darts on their hunt for a hot meal.

Day 12: Piraiba Catfish Expedition: Falling Asleep Standing Up
While filming a scene in the forest, the sky suddenly opens. Immediately I cover up with a rain poncho, hugging a small camera close to my body to protect it from the torrential downpour. I lean against a big tree, hoping its crown provides extra cover. Listening to the raindrops hammering down on me, I literally fall asleep standing up.

Day 13: Piraiba Catfish Expedition: Where Do We Sleep?
As catfish feed most actively at night, we also fish at night. This means we sleep on our long-tail boats. With three tents lined up in a row and propped up fishing rods, there’s not much space left on the cramped deck. Maneuvering around the boat turns into an act of extreme acrobatics and bathroom breaks are an equal challenge to our balancing skills. Biggest reward for this arrangement? An unobstructed view of the night-sky’s canopy of stars, with the entire Milky Way spreading out across the clear, black sky.

Day 14: Piraiba Catfish Expedition: Land-sickness
I’ve never been seasick. But spending multiple nights and most of our days on the boat fishing for Piraiba stirs up an unexpected malady.  Returning ashore, I actually get land-sick! My sense of balance is off, I stagger and stumble around, and even when seated, I can feel the water’s constant rocking motion continuing to sway inside me.

Day 15: Piraiba Catfish Expedition: Fishing Marathon

It still hasn’t rained enough. And the possibility of not catching a Piraiba is weighing on us like a block of cement. We can only hope the weather gods are on our side and rain comes soon. Meanwhile, Jakub’s tenacity’s turning into a 24/7 obsession. He hardly sleeps and he eats only when handed a plate. I’m worried he’ll exhaust himself. But he’s stubborn and so we fish around the clock.

Day 16: Piraiba Catfish Expedition: Singing In the Rain!

We have our storm! A torrential downpour hammers down on us. At last, the river’s water level rises. Our clothes are soaked, our tents leak and we have to race to protect our equipment with watertight bags. Yet, as miserable as it is, we’re excited and say, ‘Bring it on! Let the fish migrate!’

Day 17: Piraiba Catfish Expedition: Jumping Fish

While cruising further downriver, we’re suddenly surrounded by fish vaulting out of the water. They’re small, light-colored fish that leap all around us and actually jump right into the boat! They’re ‘boca chico’ – a fish known to migrate at the same time as our target Piraiba.

Day 18: Piraiba Catfish Expedition: Redtail Catifsh

What a relief, Jakub catches a Red tailed Catfish! It’s not a Piraiba, but it’s a fish… The monotony of casting, waiting, and reeling in bait that’s been devoured by meat-eating fish is broken. We admire the colorful catfish and release it back into the river.

Day 19: Piraiba Catfish Expedition: Baby Piraiba
It’s still dark when the reel goes off. Jakub scrambles out of his tent and runs toward it. Immediately he sets the drag and begins the fight. At this point, he doesn’t know what he’s hooked. His opponent isn’t too strong and it could be another species… but then, a small Piraiba surfaces next to the boat. Happy about the sight, we film the small Piraiba and release it back into the murky water. It’s only a baby, but where there’re small ones, there must be bigger ones.  And the catch lifts our spirits, driving us on toward an even bigger Piraiba.

Day 20: Piraiba Catfish Expedition: Whopper Piraiba!

The morning mist is hugging the river.  The jungle is alive with the sound of trees and birds performing their natural symphony. Suddenly, the loudest screaming reel I’ve ever heard breaks the peaceful harmony. A bite! Jakub jumps and grabs his rod. But before he can even set the drag, the powerful fish takes almost all his line.  Jakub fights with every muscle in his body. He shakes from exhaustion and it looks like his arms and legs are going to give out at any moment. Only adrenaline and will power keep him going. The fish is so strong, it drags the boat two miles downriver. Finally, we manage to catch up and position the boat above the fish. Jakub’s rod bends to the breaking point and dips into the water as he pulls against the weight of the fish. When I see the fish appear, it’s huge! And it breaks the water’s surface like a submarine rising from the depths. But there’s nowhere to land the giant. So Jakub has no choice.  Summoning the last of his strength, he pulls the whopper on board the boat. Exhausted, he sits down on the side of the boat, leans over his knees and gasps for air. Out of breath, Jakub can’t talk. Our cameras shoot silently as he slowly recovers.  It’s the most intense moment I’ve ever witnessed while cameras are rolling. But we still have to measure the fish so we steer the boat upriver and land the Piraiba on a sandy bank. Its measurements are astonishing: 8 feet 8 inches long with a girth of 54 inches! It’s a once-in-a-lifetime ‘jackpot catch’ and a successful ending to our amazing expedition into the wild rivers of the Amazon.

Video Preview: “Brawling with Piraiba” — After a massive face-off with the gigantic fish, Jakub is finally able to hoist a piraiba into his boat.

Don’t miss Fish Warrior Colossal Catfish premiering August 2nd at 9P et/pt.