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Hoplias aimara “TRAIRÃO” wolf fish!

Fly Fishing Brazil -The Iriri River

For me, the trip to Brazil’s Amazon jungle to fly fish for Peacock bass, matrencha, bacu, piara, wolf fish and more with the Kayapó Indigenous Tribe at Kendjam was an unlikely personal nexus. A merging of waters.

As editor and co-producer of Catch Magazine, of course fly fishing is my lifestyle, especially over the last 15 years that I’ve worked with Todd to produce the magazine. I focus on the stories, the photos, the fish, the people…I edit, write and assist with video production on places and people all over the globe in my role as editor at Catch. With a master’s degree in Journalism from the University of Montana, I’m fortunate to use my education regularly and to earn a living with it.

However, unknown to nearly everyone (and something I often forget as well) is the fact that in my 20’s I studied and earned a bachelor’s degree in Cultural Anthropology. So nearly 25 years later, when the opportunity came up for Todd and me to travel deep into Brazil’s Amazon Rainforest, a job to film Untamed Angling’s Kendjam, it seemed like a full-circle event for me.  Something meaningful.  In fact, these same Kayapo people were the subject of textbooks and cultural studies I’d seen at the University in the 90’s. The chance to actually meet the Kayapó, to see their jungle home and to experience their culture would be a dream come true…the nexus of my patchwork career and educational pursuits. The merging of lots of different pursuits, like the joining of many streams.
I just had to go.

“The chance to actually meet the Kayapo, to see their jungle home and to experience their culture would be a dream come true.”

The Kayapo tribe lives alongside the Xingu River in the most east part of the Amazon Rainforest in several scattered villages in Brazil.
The Kayapo use intricate black body paint covering their entire bodies. They believe that their ancestors learned their social skills from insects, so they paint their bodies to mimic them and to better communicate with the Spirit that exists everywhere.

Once into Brazil, we flew 500 miles south from Mannaus, cruising low over the Amazon River and its millions of tributaries.  With the promise of catching giant Amazonian fish and seeing wild, jungle animals on the Iriri River, I couldn’t help but feel life itself – a groaning and struggling survival of the fittest-  pulsating from the land below us.

A  flat and fluid canvas of green blanketed the land below us, with blue river veins cutting through it in every direction as far as the eye could see.  Small streams of smoke rose from the patches of individual forest fires and clearcut burns throughout the verdant carpet below us.  Gold mining left its mark, too. Scarlet runoff leaked like an ink spill from a few of the big gold operations along the big river, blending and diluting back into the perpetual blue of the water continuing downstream. 

Despite the mining, the clearcuts, the dry season and a particularly extreme bout of forest fires, the power and life created by the world’s largest river drainage system (7 million square kilometers of northern South America) seemed unstoppable. Even from the air, I could appreciate the urgency of life below us.

We landed on a dirt airstrip in Kendjam Village, the small community where about 150 members of the Kayapo Indigenous Tribe live. Kendjam sits right on the Iriri River, a tributary of the “emerald clear” Xingu River Basin.  It’s also inside the 20 million square miles of the Mekrangnoti Indigenous Territory, an area designated an Ecological Reserve and the most isolated region in the Brazilian Amazon.

We stumbled out from our three hour-long Cessna ride, and bam… straight into a wall of tropical humid air that took my breath away.  Almost immediately we were greeted with the lively and curious Kayapó children, who, dressed perfectly for the climate in very little clothing, were covered head to toe with intricate body paintings.

Our group of American anglers, including Todd with his big camera, were ushered directly to the center of the Village, where a ring of

houses with thatched roofs and clotheslines surrounded a central common area.  The grounds were well used as a dirt soccer field, with a worn goal and barefeet trodden paths.  Chickens roamed freely. In the corner, a group of very young Kayapó kids huddled around a baby owl that was cradled in one girl’s arms- perhaps the most recent jungle discovery and obviously a playtime focus.  Laughter and chatter emanated from their small group. These kids knew a happy life.

Soccer is one of the favorite activities for Kayapo children, and the influence of Brazilian culture is making its way into the village in many ways.
Water is a way of life for the Kayapo.
The headwaters of the Iriri River are the traditional home of Panará people, the last descendants of the Southern Kayapó.
The wide variety of birdlife here is possible because it’s a natural corridor between the Amazon and Cerrado Ecosystems.

We were led to a covered village center, where a group of Kayapó- young and old- formally awaited us in a semi-circle.  The chief Kayapó introduced himself in his native language, welcoming us to his people’s land.  All the native attendees listened carefully, eyes on us as the strangers from a far off land.  A young Kayapó leader in training translated the chief’s words from the Kayapó dialect to Portuguese, and then our Brazilian guide from Untamed Angling finished the language chain by translating to English.  It was linguistic anthropology at its finest.

The chief expressed his wish that we respect his land, like a guest visiting someone’s house.  I quickly understood that he considered the jungle, the river, the land we would be standing on…all of it…to be his house.  I thought about the way we take off our boots when entering our neighbor’s house, and the way we respect the collections of books, antiques or artwork inside our neighbor’s home.  It made sense to me.  I decided that to even pick up a rock or a feather would be impolite, even wrong.  Every wild thing on the land I was standing upon….it’s a Kayapó possession, to be treasured and respected.  

Jaguar tracks.
This is a “pico de brasa,” or a black fronted nunbird. When he sings, all birds fall to silence.
“batuira de esporão” Pied lapwing
A flower in the summit of the stone in Kendjam.

After the formal greeting, we loaded into four canoes, each manned by two guides: one Brazilian fly fishing guide, who powered the jet outboard engine and one Kayapó native guide, who sat up front and navigated to lead us through the network of river tributaries that serve as roadways in the Amazon.

The system set up with Untamed Angling is a unique cooperation between the tribal members and the fly fishing company. The goal: to preserve the Kayapó culture by employing them as guides in their homeland.

Rather than leaving home to find work in mines and timber industries on the periphery of their territory, the hope is that young Kayapó people will stay and continue their culture in their homeland.

The Kayapó people are known as warriors and fierce guardians of their homeland.  Over the years, they have made a name for themselves- their voices are being heard worldwide through active leaders and both in person and social media outlets for sharing their plight to preserve their culture in a landscape that has threatened their survival.

From a young age, Kayapo are taught and become adept at river play and navigation.

Once on the river, I realized this would not be a simple float down another river.  It was July, the dry season, and the water levels were dropping nearly two inches per day.  The routes boats could take were changing daily.  On the three-hour boat ride down river, we changed our routes often to avoid hitting the bottom or getting stuck on rocks. We skipped over to other river channels and braids that the natives led us.  In some places, the men would get out and pull our canoe across the bottom of the riverbed or drag it through rocks revealed by lowering water levels.  

The Kayapó guides knew this place like the back of their hands, like the roads and pathways we use in our own neighborhoods at home.  Only they didn’t need the GPS or Google Maps navigation that our phones and cars provide us. I guess they knew the various pathways simply from experience, by sight or by intuition. I felt completely taken care of, completely at ease with the knowledge and expertise between the two guides in our boat. We were headed toward a destination they had programmed in their souls.

A wood stork stands out among the jungle greenery.
The vegetation along the Iriri River varies from dense forest to rugged, rocky terrain. It makes this river one of the few freestone rivers where Untamed Angling takes anglers.

The minutes ticked by, and we continued to follow the seemingly endless river downstream from the Village, each bend giving way to another bend, more and more water.  Three hours later, we landed at our destination at sunset.  I realized just how far off the grid we were- how very deep into the jungle we had come.  

For me, this was probably the most remote and most wild place I’d ever been in my life.  I consider myself generally comfortable in nature.  I have explored the trails in my home forests, boated the rivers and lakes of the Pacific Northwest, backpacked and fly fished countless hours in the Western landscape. But here in the Amazon, I was entering a different kind of nature.  It was an unfamiliar nature, more wild and more remote made clear by the time and effort required to actually get there.

As we unloaded at the beach, having boated 40 miles through endless jungle downstream on a river that began thousands of miles to the East in the Peruvian Andes, I actually felt something like familiarity.  A sense of peace. A bit of meaning and purpose. How was this possible? I think I realized that, although foreign in many ways from my home rivers in the Pacific Northwestern USA, the Iriri River is like all rivers. Simple. Natural.

The nexus of waters.  

The Kayapó’s Iriri River, a tributary of the mighty Amazon River is part of the lifeblood for our planet, like all rivers everywhere on Earth.  One and the same, in a sense.  John Denver put it best in his song about the Amazon River.

“There is a river that runs from the mountains.

That one river is all rivers.

All rivers are that one.”

This was the Amazon, and I’d only just begun my journey….

Hyacinth macaw- or the Arara azul grande
Spider monkeys hang out and curiously watch anglers from a distance.
This rubber pacu was caught on an imitation of fruit.
Beautiful bicuda.
Parrots “Maitaca de cabeca azul” or the “blue headed parrot”
Evening tribal dance in front of Kendjam Lodge.

Contributed By

Lucas De Zan

Lucas is a fly fishing guide in Argentina and Brazil, with more than 15 years of experience. He has fished for different species, ranging from small golden dorados in spring streams to large ingots in Alto Paraná. He has chased sea trout of the Rio Grande on Tierra del Fuego and has caught payara and the beautiful giant peacock bass of the Amazon. He also enjoys photographing nature.

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