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Suriname 2024 - Hunt for the Piraiba

piraiba catfish

My trip to Guyana in 2023 was my introductory to the Amazon and fishing abroad in general. It was a tremendously successful venture that saw some 20+ species of fish fall almost effortlessly. A trip that centered around one pivotal 'dream fish'... the Arapaima. The queen of the Amazon, and what was the number one species on planet earth I wanted to catch. But, every queen needs a king... and the true king of the Amazon was the only species that eluded me on that trip - the mighty Piraiba catfish.


Piraiba literally translates to "bad fish"... and its fitting, this may be the baddest fish in the Amazon. A 'goliath' catfish that can reach astounding proportions north of 400lb. It is a colossal giant that is in the conversation for largest freshwater fish on earth. While the arapaima may have more mythology and flare, this massive Amazonian catfish is as big (or bigger) and significantly more powerful.



In 2023 my brother Matt managed to catch a piraiba in the Essequibo river and while I didn't get the first hand experience, I couldn't believe how hard it fought him, considering the fish wasn't a particularly large specimen. Still - I got to see the fish, touch the fish... but I left Guyana with unfinished business.


I turned my attention to Suriname. Through numerous connections I've made over the years I gathered intel and info, and set my sights on the Coppename river of Suriname. Perhaps the best shot at encountering a piraiba, this would be a trip tailored specifically for this one species. I reached out to Paul and Gary De Boer who have ran and organized these trips for years. Any photo or video depicting the pursuit of piraiba (aka lau lau) in Suriname generally has one of the De Boer's fingerprints on it.


For this trip I teamed up with my oldest brother Travis. It was a special opportunity to reunite on the water. Travis and I have shared many adventures over the years... from my very origins as an angler, through the years chasing alligator gar together on the red river. Also along for the journey was Natakorn Changrew (Thumb) of Thailand, Yuri Grisendi (Catfish World) of Italy, and fellow American angler Jason Kintner.


We landed in Paramaribo Suriname on March 14th and met up with Gary De Boer. It was about an hour and a half ride in a crammed little pickup truck with all our gear tethered down the to bed of the truck. We stayed at a small hotel in town and got what little rest we could before an early morning ride to Boskamp. Boskamp is a small fishing village on the East bank of the mouth of the Coppename river. The water here runs chocolate brown and salty - and is home to a number of saltwater species.


We loaded up our gear into two shuttle boats - long aluminum boats with 40hp two-stroke motors. There was an energy in the boat between all of us... having traveled from around the country and world all in the common pursuit of a coveted species of monster fish. That enthusiasm waned though just a short distance up river as a towering black cloud of storms crested the tree lines. We saw a wall of gray standing just ahead where the unavoidable onslaught of true Amazon rainfall seemed to ominously wait for us.


What was originally supposed to be a 2 hour boat ride turned into a near 5 hour CRAWL up river in torrential rains. Our boat, already hampered by the weight of 6 full grown men and a bunch of luggage was gradually being weighed down by rising rain water at our feet. Our captain did his best to operate in whiteout rain, heavy winds, and one hand steadily baling water with a milk jug cut in half.


I suppose this was the appropriate welcome to the most famous rainforest on the planet... a christening of sorts, and a not so subtle way the jungle was telling us we were going to have to EARN it this time.


All the while we traveled up river I anticipated the chocolate mud of the coastal waters to dissipate or transition into progressively cleaner water... it just didn't happen. The water remained muddy for miles and miles, a troubling site. I remained optimistic despite the poor condition of the river, even up to the point of seeing our lodging on the horizon. We must have all thrown our fists into the air and hollered when we saw it, the boat ride from hell was over!



The 'lodging' itself is as humble as it gets. Essentially a floating wood platform enclosed by panels of scrap metal, plywood and tarps. Enough to keep the weather off of you and really that's all you need. Aboard the 'houseboat' were two bunk beds and two single beds. Each was positioned around the central point of the vessel, a small toilet that dropped straight into the river below. We took a bit of time in the tight space to establish our racks and our own tiny slivers of space and pretty much realized we were ALL going to get to know one another very well on this thing...



Priorities were on display from the get-go. Some people arranged their beds and linens, others prioritized the storage and safety of electronics, while some of us just tossed all our crap on top of the bed and began rigging up rods. After about an hour of getting nestled in and arranged, our guides arrived at the houseboat.


Travis and I were met by our guide for the trip, Winel. Now... I had inside information that Winel was an excellent guide. Someone who i've seen for years in photos and video with guys like Gary Newman, Joseph Taylor, Graham Lawrence and a long list of European world travelers. Guys that have really been around and seen some big fish... so I knew Winel would be our guy! We headed out for the first evening session with scarce bait, a few tiny little catfish half dead clinging to life in a little black bucket of muddy water.



Still, at this stage faith was strong and unwavering. We put lines out and fished into the dark where absolutely positively nothing happened. Its ok, its just the first day... right?


I consider myself optimistic on the water. Not necessarily in the conditions, but in my own resolve and ability to cope. I had a problem with the fact the water was so terribly brown. I mean ZERO visibility... none. It's my understanding that during the dry seasons, or in the absence of sufficient rain, the muddy coastal water is able to push further up river during the tide cycles. There needs to be heavy rainfall and a consistent flow of freshwater from up river to flow down and push the stained water down stream. I looked at this brown water and it just seemed clear this condition would push less hardy species of forage fish up river... and presumably those larger predators that might feed on them.



Still, we trusted the process and fished through it early on. The issue was - as days went on, hours of setting out gillnets to find bait were yielding no results. Hours and hours of soaking our small rations of baitfish had zero return... no activity at all. This couldn't have been more different than my time in Guyana were fish were at every corner and practically jumping out of the water to hit our lures in midair. We couldn't keep the fish OFF our lines there and yet here it was like this barren wasteland of no fish.



We pressed on, and on and on... waiting on no bites, and pulling empty nets. At some stage decisions need to be made - and considerations for new courses of action. This is the hazard of bait-fishing... which, is inherently inactive by nature - but calls for active awareness and thought processes even in 'total stillness'. There comes a point in 'bait and wait' fishing where you have to know the difference between being resolute, and being stubborn. We can't cling to hope so long that it becomes a prison or barricade. Just the same, we cant let paranoia and impatience pull us away from a bite that can come at any moment if we just wait a little longer. I can't tell people how to make that judgement. Its a calling and an intuition that only comes with time and experience.



We decided to try a smaller tributary of the Coppename called the Wayanbo river. To push a few miles up this river in search of cleaner water and different fortunes. Here the river was smaller, more condensed, and it served as a better funneling point for fish travelling through with better odds of passing by our baits. That night shortly after the tide shifted Travis got a blistering run. The fish took off ANGRY! He had enough time to try to get the rod high and holler out in excitement at our sudden change in fortune before the line snapped! I couldn't believe it... after all of the hours of waiting with not even the first nibble we finally get a solid run and the line breaks. This was human error, this was a weak spot in the line I failed to notice - a poorly tied knot - SOMETHING I could have done better to ensure success and I failed. Of that I am convinced, because the gear, if situated correctly, should be able to handle even the biggest fish.


We got lines back in the water and it may have been 15 minutes before Travis got ANOTHER run! The fish again took off with speed and aggression. It fought valiantly and pushed Travis hard but as it came to surface it was no giant per se. A solid fish, and our first piraiba of the trip!



Feeling like we may have found a rhythm here we set up on anchor again, and once more maybe 15-20 minutes passed before I got a hard run myself! In short order we had experienced three takes in an ideal bite window after a changing tide and I was on solid. My fish fought differently than the two previous. It didn't pull with speed or sporadic changes in direction. It moved intentionally in specific directions. This is the tale tale sign of a larger, more experienced fish that knows its terrain. The fish was looking to take me into snags quite intentionally. Winel did an excellent job captaining the boat and positioning us between the fish and any potential snags - working to push the fish away from the shore. After a hard fought battle the fish finally broke surface, a better specimen! The fish was so impressive, donning a full body assortment of scars and battle wounds. These fish are absolute warriors. I finally had my piraiba, and at this point I am pretty well content with the trip!



We set back up on anchor that night with no additional luck. And we proceeded to fish the following day with absolutely no bites whatsoever. With two other boats, and four other anglers returning to camp each night reporting similar luck and no fish... things were getting concerning.


Each night we would return to camp for dinner and talk about our luck with the other guys in the group. It was an opportunity to decompress and reassess strategies. Every night I would also take the opportunity to just walk in the jungle. I dreamed of the Amazon since I was a child, and that interest has always been there. It was nice to think of something other than just fish and wander around at night with headlamps and walking sticks looking for any kind of wildlife. We found a variety of tree frogs, snakes, insects and arachnids, and some sort of Amazonian mammal akin to an opossom.


At night the guides sometimes went hunting. We woke one morning to find they had harvested a small 'banana rat'. I use the term small sparingly... it was the size of a small dog, a smaller cousin of the capybara I think. Its head was missing, blown off by a shotgun, but this was to be lunch for the next day! The meat was surprisingly good, or maybe I was famished enough by the long hours and hot sun that anything would've tasted better!





The consistent looming reality though was the lack of action in fishing. I've been through uncertain bites enough in my experience as an angler to know the importance of charting courses and developing game plans ahead of time. To become stubbornly married to an approach or a location can pay off BIG, but it is also the textbook definition of insanity. Internal limits must be placed, unwavering limits on time that don't get pushed back by the bounce of a rod tip, a nibble, or some boil on the surface. Little queues and hints that MAYBE the bite is about to happen, and they enslave you to the same fruitless song and dance for hours more.


fishing for piraiba
boundless pursuit

As hours turned to days, my limit of toleration was being reached. I can handle 72 hours of inactivity but not a second more, no matter what signs of changing fortunes are shown. Having familiarized myself with the Coppename river and its tributaries in the months leading up to this trip, I had charted courses and set pins on numerous locations to try in the event that such problems may arise.



I approached our guide Winel and the trip organizer Gary expressing a desire to push further up the Wayanbo river. Much further... but we didn't have enough gas. I offered up the money for one of the guides to run back to Boskamp and fill multiple tank of gas that would be enough to take us hours up river, deeper into remote jungle with fresher water.


The next morning we loaded up our gear and tanks of gas and headed hours up river. As we continued further and further the river began to transition. Muddied waters became progressively more clear and tannic. The broad sections of the Coppename and lower Wayanbo closed in around us into narrower river system. We began seeing more caimans, water birds, and signs of life. Things here felt 'right'. But as you go further into these river systems it becomes indigenous territory. In order to pass further, we needed to request permission to pass.


Amerindian village

We stopped at the village of Donderscamp where our guides got out and met with the village captain. After around 45 minutes of deliberation we were granted permission to continue on. Blocking the river was a large steel barricade. Like a lock and dam system, a large steel gate which had to be manually cranked open was closed and preventing access. Our guides climbed atop the structure and opened its gates just enough for the boat to pass, and we were on to even more remote areas!


coppename lock and dam

coppename lock and dam

It is in moments like these, watching that gate open in the middle of the jungle I recognize just how far from home I am. How far I have gotten from where this whole thing started for me... all in the name of catching a fish, or maybe something bigger than that. Still, we pressed on. It was a short way up river where we found a creek outflow where dark swamp water spilled over into the main river. Here we found hundreds of electric eels had gathered... attracted to the water spilling over for some reason. To capture an electric eel on rod and reel was a major side mission of mine for this trip. The electric eel is one of the real staple characters of the amazon... and I had every intention of catching and holding one in my hands!



Prior to the trip I had purchased a pair of electricians gloves, or lineman's gloves rated for around 20,000 volts. At best, an electric eel can generate around 700-800 volts. With this pair of gloves I would be able to safely handle and interact with these incredible fish. Fishing for the eels was bizarre. They had absolutely zero fear of the boat and were 100% willing to bite anything that crossed their face! Our guide said that electric eels will even bite bare hooks... no bait or lure at all. We opted to use small inline spinners, but found that we didn't have to work the lure at all. Simply casting out and leaving the lure stationary would generate one bite after another.


holding electric eels

The fight of the eel was unique. Generally it was as if they didn't recognize they were hooked at all, they would simply try to swim in reverse and back away from the threat. On some occasions we were snagging them because they were so thick in the water.


The gloves proved their worth and were 100% effective on holding and safely handling the electric eels! We caught numerous eels, and harvested several to use as bait. As difficult as getting bait was on this trip, one 4-5 foot eel would provide numerous chunks of bait!


electric eel gloves

We moved to a junction of the Nickerie river where the confluence of river systems had bore out a deep hole. This would be the ideal location to find our piraiba. We set out our chunks of electric eel at the head of the hole where a slow moving flow of current would push the scent of the bait into the hole and draw out any potential fish. It was no more than 10 minutes before Travis got a take! Bewildered by the immediate success... after having waited hours and days for bites prior to this, our fortune came swiftly. Travis came tight on the fish and it stayed heavy and steadfast! We knew we were on a big big fish. Slow methodical pulses of the fishes giant tail were demonstrated once again in the rise and fall of the rod tip, the fish hardly willing to rise even an inch from the bottom.


piraiba catfish bait

When the monstrous fish broke surface and we got a look at the sheer magnitude of the animal ALL of us screamed out! An astonishing fish, roughly 7 feet long with an enormous head. Winel got the fish tethered to the circle hook rope system and we towed the monstrous beast to shallow water.


giant piraiba
coppename river piraiba

These are the moments I live for as an angler. Validating instinct, hunches, and resolve at the successful capture of a dream fish. We had come through so much to be present in that moment with our hands on this spectacular animal... but for me it goes beyond just the trials and tribulations faced in Suriname. I've been fortunate enough to lay hands on some spectacular 'dream fish' in recent times... and each time I immediately reflect back on the totality of my experience as an angler. From the days of climbing under barbed wire fences, sneaking across golf course ponds, and progressively getting better and bolder in my pursuits. My brother Travis was there at the beginning, the early onset, and here we are thousands of miles from where we started in remote jungle holding one of the most spectacular freshwater fish on earth.

old photo

old photo
alligator gar red river

Nothing of any real consequence happened after this catch, and our trip was essentially over after that. It has become another stop and step in my progression as an angler. I am fully committed and focused on my path and trajectory where the passion for the pursuit has become the whole point. Suriname was tough, gritty, and dramatic... but afforded me opportunities to test my resolve and to be challenged - and that's all I can ask for.


giant piraiba
giant piraiba






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Guest
Apr 20
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

“Heroes get remembered but legends never die…”

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Guest
Apr 19
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Bro… most underrated fisherman on earth.

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