Keith Sutton: Redtail Rendezvous

RIO NEGRO, Brazil —
Fishing can be like a capricious lover. Just when you think she will satisfy all your desires, she rebuffs you for no obvious reason.

I am into my sixth and last day of fishing on Brazil's Rio Negro when this thought pops into my head. I have fished five days, 18 hours a day. I have caught huge peacock bass, toothy piranhas, dangerous stingrays and several species of hard-fighting catfish. But the one fish I want to catch most, the redtail catfish, has managed to elude me.

Ten hours from now I must leave for home. I seriously wonder if I can catch a redtail before I must go.

Legend has it this catfish originated when a scarlet macaw was turned into a fish. Brazilians call it pirarara, the macaw fish. Americans know it as the redtail catfish.

It is aptly named in both cultures. The pirarara's tail and fins glow with the vivid red hues of the scarlet macaw. The upper body has a rich olive or chocolate tone; the belly and flanks are creamy yellow.

Some people say catfish are not beautiful, but those people surely never encountered the breathtaking redtail.

Since I first saw a photograph of this fish, I have longed to catch one. And this trip to Brazil provides my first, and perhaps only, opportunity to do so. The species is said to be common here, but every tactic I have tried, ever hole I have fished, every bait I have presented has failed to produce a redtail. I am beginning to think it is not meant to be.

My guide José and I motor into a tributary to fish some deep holes found earlier while scouting. As we round a bend, we see a man standing in a long, slender dugout. He is holding a handline, and the water before him is boiling. For several minutes, he fights the fish he has hooked and finally he drags it into his boat. It is a redtail!

"Grandé!" José shouts. It is a big one,at least 60 pounds. As we pull alongside the man's dugout, we see he already has caught a smaller redtail.

I cannot speak Portuguese, but José talks with the man who obviously is pleased with his catch. José tells him we, too, are hoping to catch a redtail, and the man motions to me to hand him my fishing pole. He replaces the cut-bait on my hook with a live piranha that clacks its sharp teeth like castanets. Then he casts the toothy bait right in the middle of some bushes next to the bank and hands the rod back to me.

"The pirarara is like the arara [macaw]," the jungle fisherman tells me as José translates. "It loves trees. That is where you must seek it."

And so, having left the deep water where we thought the redtails lived, we now fish in the bushes edging the river.

The 4-inch piranha struggles, vibrating my line. Then, suddenly—wham!—my rod tip takes a nosedive. I rear back on the pole; the water beneath the bushes boils.

José quickly repositions the boat in deeper water. The fish must be brought away from the bushes and fought in more open water. But the fish is not persuaded to follow this plan. It surges deeper into the thicket, spinning rapidly as it goes. My line is wrapped around a dozen branches.

Not to fret. I've fished for catfish all my life and have been in this situation before. I lean back hard on the 7-foot rod and put pressure on the fish. Soon its head turns. Then, what I hoped would happen happens: I manage to drag the catfish clear of the bushes.

The fight now begins in earnest. I gain a few feet of line. The fish takes it back. I reel some more. The fish surges away.

Minutes pass. But finally I bring the fish close enough so José can net it.

As the sun sets on the last minute of my last day in Brazil, I land the redtail catfish about which I have dreamed so long.

To contact Keith Sutton, email him at catfishdude@sbcglobal.net. His book, "Out There Fishing," is available at www.catfishsutton.com