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Out There: My Xingu Shangri-La

1/4/2005
Ian Sulocki, left, and Manassés Aranha pose with Sulocki 's 65-pound pirarara. 

The Xingu River Lodge sits like a dream palace high on a palm-covered mountain in the Brazilian state of Pará. Gazing up at it from its namesake river, I am reminded of James Hilton's description of Shangri-La in "Lost Horizon":

Ahead, and only a short distance away, lay the lamasery of Shangri-La. … A group of colored pavilions clung to the mountainside with none of the grim determination of a Rhineland castle, but rather with the chance delicacy of flower-petals impaled upon a crag. It was
superb and exquisite.

Hilton's words, published in 1933, describe a monastery hidden in Tibet's Himalayas. But they might as easily have been written to characterize the scene now before me — a beautiful pavilion on a scenic mountain in a remote corner of the world.

If this is Shangri-La, then my fishing companion, Ian Sulocki of Rio de Janeiro, is the High Lama, and my guide, Manassés Aranha, is one of the wise Tibetan monks.

Between them, Ian and Manassés have almost a century of experience fishing this and other great rivers in Brazil.

I have met many South American fishermen, but none more knowledgeable than this pair of personable brasileiros. Though I have known them only a few hours, we are already good friends.

We listen to a howler monkey calling from the darkening forest. The strange, haunting sound confirms I am far from civilization. Manassés, who has lived in a simple home on the Xingu all of his 50 years, says the guariba is a lone male, perhaps a mile away.

"What is he saying, Manassés?" I ask.

Ian translates: "Manassés believes the guariba is telling us a big pirarara will soon take our bait."

As if on cue, Ian's rod takes a nosedive. The High Lama sets the hook and meets powerful resistance. A Xingu monster has taken the bait.

"Can you hear it?" Ian asks.

Deep booming sounds emanate from the water. The leviathan speaks, and tells us it is indeed a pirarara. The name means "macaw fish," and like its namesake bird the fish is vociferous.

"Grandé!" Manassés exclaims, grinning from ear to ear.

Ian finally pulls the huge catfish to the surface. The cool water cannot extinguish the brilliant flame of its blood-red tail, which provides a convenient handle for Manassés. The little man quickly boats the enormous catfish.

"Hurry, Ian!" I implore. "We must get a photograph!"

The sunset swirls with a palette of violet and gold, the perfect backdrop for a snapshot of this incredibly beautiful catfish.

The High Lama smiles a big smile as he and Manassés lift the 65-pound redtail. I push the shutter release and capture an instant in time in Shangri-La.

The Xingu (pronounced "shing-goo") River flows 1,118 miles through Mato Grosso and Pará before joining the Amazon 100 miles west of Belem.
The river was little known until explorer Karl von den Steinen discovered its headwaters in 1884. Even today, relatively few people know the river with any measure of intimacy.

I have come here to try my luck catching the many species of Xingu catfish. But unlike most anglers who visit, I have come during April, the peak of the rainy season.

"Catfishing is excellent when the river is high," I am told by Mark Ulrich, who books fishing adventures at the lodge. "Yet few fishermen come during this period. The heavy rains keep them away."

This is why I choose to go. The ideal of fishing a jungle river during a period when it is seldom fished appeals to my sense of adventure.

When I arrive at the lodge and see the river from the mountaintop, however, I wonder if this will be more of an adventure than I anticipated.

The Xingu is a vast maelstrom of swirling water. It looks like the Mississippi during a 100-year flood. In many places, only the highest branches of the tall jungle trees are visible above the water. The river is higher than it has been in more than 30 years.

"It will be difficult to fish," Manassés says. He is confident, however, we will find and catch several species of catfish.

For a few hours, the rainy-season deluge ends, and our first day of fishing is replete with sunshine.

Manassés ties off the ropes at each end of the voadeira — our long, narrow "flying" boat — while Ian and I rig heavy weights to keep our baits on the bottom of the turbulent river.

We use baits of two kinds: small fish, including piranhas and sardinas, and the minhocuçu, a Brazilian worm the size of a small snake.

I have my eyes on a pair of scarlet macaws when the first catfish hits. To my delight, it is a species I have never seen.

"A pacamao!" Ian says. It is a small catfish he has been eager to show me — a species caught only during periods of high water.

I reach for the unusual-looking catfish as I lift it from the water, and too late I hear Ian's warning. "Nooo!"

When I grasp the pacamao behind its dorsal fin, the long, serrated pectoral fins snap down on my hand like razor-edged scissors. Manassés must assist me in releasing my bloody fingers from the pacamao's grip.

When we catch another unusual catfish — a cuiu-cuiu — later in the day, I see it has similar but even longer rapiers on its sides.

This time, however, I'm wise to the danger and handle this weird catfish safely while I marvel at its coat of armor.

Barbados, or flat-whiskered catfish, love 24-inch worms.

Ian catches dozens of the denizens, trying vainly to hook one larger than the world-record 17-pounder he caught here last year.

Six long whiskers, as long as the fish itself, surround the mouth of this comical-looking cat.

Redtail catfish (pirararas) are amazingly abundant in the Xingu, and hardly an hour passes during my four days of fishing that one is not caught.

We land several 10- to 15-pounders and many smaller ones. All put up a battle far out of proportion to their size, and all greet us at the water's surface with their unusual grunting vocalization.

The pirarara is, in my mind, the most beautiful of all the world's large catfish. And the fact that it weighs up to 100 pounds makes it one of the most popular targets of anglers visiting Brazil.

Two other species of very large catfish — the piraíba, which is known to reach weights exceeding 600 pounds, and the jaú, which sometimes weighs more than 200 pounds — also inhabit the Xingu. Both species, however, manage to elude us.

Three other species do not.

The piramutaba — a sleek catfish with long filaments on its fins — we find schooled on an inundated sandbar. Ian and I land several of these powerful cats.

The mandubé proves quite common and easy to catch. Unlike most cats, it has no whiskers. Its broad mouth resembles a duck's bill, and the sweet flesh is considered a delicacy.

One day we keep several mandubé for our dinner, including a 5¾-pound specimen I catch at the jungle's edge. Only later do I realize we have eaten a potential world record. A 5½-pounder caught in the Xingu in 2000 is the standard recognized by the International Game Fish Association.

The tiger surubim, or cachara, proves more elusive than the other species. Manassés knows they are here and is eager for me to catch one. It is late the third day, raining hard, when I finally succeed.

We admire the beautifully barred skin of this magnificent 20-pound tiger surubim and release it back into the river.

In all, we catch seven species of Xingu catfish, each more interesting than the last. The giants elude us, however, as giants often do. All except one, that is.

As long as I live, I will never forget that incredible moment in time when Ian landed one of the biggest, most beautiful catfish I have ever seen — the 65-pound pirarara caught as the setting sun painted the tropical sky.

At that instant, I found myself in Shangri-La. And I have the photo to prove it.

To contact Keith Sutton, email him at catfishdude@sbcglobal.net.