"Wild Bill" Skinner tried to coach me.
"You have to let him run more, Catfish. Don't set the hook too soon."
I looked down at my huge saltwater reel. Half the line was gone, although the catfish had taken my bait only a minute before.
"If he runs any more he'll spool me!" I shouted.
I started reeling and felt the 14/0 circle hook set firmly in the fish's jaw. Then all hell broke loose. I had my drag cranked down tight, and the fish used my 130-pound braided line as a towrope.
We suddenly found ourselves on an "Amazon sleigh ride," as the gargantuan fish pulled our bass boat all over the river.
Variation on the Nantucket theme
The whalers of old went on a Nantucket sleigh ride after harpooning a whale. We enjoyed the Brazilian equivalent each time we set the hook in a big piraiba, a species many experts consider the toughest-fighting freshwater fish in the world, a species known to reach weights up to 661 pounds.
As I battled this leviathan, I couldn't help but wonder, "How big is it?"
Unfortunately, I wouldn't learn the answer to that question.
Though we hooked dozens of these fish during eight days of fishing, we never landed one of the true giants.
They straightened huge hooks, snapped heavy line like sewing thread and busted our rods. Some battles lasted more than 30 minutes, then, suddenly, with frustrating frequency, the hook would turn loose or some other mishap would befall us.
I plan to return again next year, more determined than ever to catch a piraiba that will break the rod-and-reel-record of 256 pounds.
Astounding and abundant
In the far reaches of Amazonia, these giant fish remain amazingly abundant.
Twice last year I fished this remote jungle haven, plying the waters of the Rio Negro, the largest tributary of the Amazon and one of the largest rivers of the world, where several species of huge catfish provide action for adventurous anglers.
Although the region we fished is remote, the 16 anglers in our party lived in luxury during each eight-day visit aboard the Amazon Castaway, a three-story, 100-foot-long mother ship, headquartered in Manaus. The guides and crew are the best in Brazil, the food and accommodations are extraordinary and the catfishing is unarguably the best on earth. The Castaway provides the first all-inclusive guided catfishing packages available in this region for a very reasonable fee.
Fishing for South American cats is, simply put, the most exciting freshwater fishing on earth. Nothing can compare.
He carried a big fishing stick
Of all the species we targeted, I am most intrigued with the piraiba. In his book "Through the Brazilian Wilderness," published in 1914, president Theodore Roosevelt described this fish and discussed rumors that large specimens sometimes eat humans.
"It is called piraiba pronounced in four syllables," he wrote. "While stationed at the small city of Itacoatiara, on the Amazon, at the mouth of the Madeira, the doctor had seen one of these monsters, which had been killed by the two men it had attacked."
To contact Keith Sutton, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org