Rewa Rodeo is a film focused on the arapaima fishery of the Rewa Valley in Guayana. Arapaima are jungle fish capable of breathing air like tarpon and pack a punch when they suck down flies. These fish are capable of reaching lengths around 30 feet and are aggressive jungle carnivores. We had the chance to sit down with the filmmaker behind the project, Johann DuPreez, to learn more about the film and these incredible fish.
Flylords: Can you give us a little background about the Rewa Eco Lodge? When was it started and how it’s been built around the community of the Rewa valley?
Johann: Rewa initially was constructed as a birdwatching eco-lodge. They got funding from Conservation International in 2005, and the lodge was built. A couple of years down the line, the word got out that these massive jungle fish were in the ponds around the Rewa system. Oliver and Matt put a crew together and they went looking for these fish. Once they finally started to identify the potential as a fishery, that’s when Indifly got involved. They start working with the local Makushi community and it’s grown into a massive, beautiful operation. The revenue from the fishing is tenfold what they make with birding or wildlife photography. So, it’s been really good for the village, it’s been good for the people of Rewa. Almost 90% of the locals are employed directly or benefit directly from the lodge.
The village and the loge are very well integrated. They’re a hundred meters apart, just down the road from the lodge, you’ll walk into the village. There’s a village council and then you’ve got the lodge board of directors. Rovin, who’s the head of one of those, is the lodge manager and the head guide. He’s essentially the go-to guy in that village.
Flylords: Describe the Makushi people’s relationship with the arapaima.
Johann: It’s almost like in Bolivia where the Dorado also very spiritual animals. I think arapaima used to be a victim of the fact that they’re confined to the ponds and they’re easy to kill because they have to come up for air. So, a hunter could potentially sit in a tree with a bow, and wait for this arapaima to roll, and then just shoot it. The fish were very easy targets. So, the fish became victims and their numbers were reduced.
Then all of a sudden, I don’t know what it was, but something shifted and the locals realized that these fish are worth way more when they’re alive than dead, and they stopped killing them. They started protecting the fish and the numbers have risen and risen, and now the arapaima is a protected species.
The fish have come a long way and it’s been a 180-degree shift in ideals. You’ll see in the film when I speak to Winston, the head researcher. He speaks about it, he says he used to kill fish, and he used to like killing arapaima. However, now he’s the guy who cares for these fish more than anybody else.
Flylords: What is Winston’s research focused on?
Johann: It’s mainly data collection. The initial big chunk of information about arapaima’s survival was done by Andy Danylchuk. He’s an American guy, who’s also involved in the fly fishing industry. He worked closely with local researchers to try and figure out how to release the fish. Initially, you would just take arapaima and you let it go, he’ll swim away, but he won’t be strong enough to come up and breathe air, and then the fish would just drown. So, they attached accelerometers to the fish, and they started recording release data while giving them plenty of time to recover. Once they figured that out, they had a system. The big fish gets cradled, given time to take a number of breaths, maybe four depending on the size of the fish.
We’ve also begun embedding PIT tags in the fish to record recapture data. Essentially, each fish essentially gets a unique code, and if you recapture the fish, it tells you a few things, where it’s been or where it’s moved to, whether it stayed in the same pond, whether it moved to another pond, or how much it grew in the last season.
Flylords: What is this “Bobber Release Method” mentioned in the film?
Johann: Basically, it’s like two elastic bands that get loosely clipped together around the fish, and attached to that is a long tether line, and at the end, there’s a big wooden bobber.
When the fish is released, it will swim away and they can track the bobber seeing where the fish goes and how many breaths that that fish takes post-release. The research team will sit there and wait for the fish to come up taking the time between those breathes to see if the fish is healthy, if it needs help, or if needs intervention. If they see a black caiman come towards the fish, trying to eat it, and they’ll just paddle over, and whack the caiman to spook it off.
It’s cool, they’re literally protecting this fish until it’s strong enough. Usually, within 45 minutes, they’ll grab the bobber, it slides off the fish, freeing them to hunt baitfish in the murky waters once again.
Flylords: In the film, there are four or five different sound effects people make describing what it’s like fish when eats the fly. What is that sensation like when you’ve got the fly line in your hand?
Johann: It’s tense, to say the least. I absolutely love arapaima because of this. It’s not the most explosive fish. Okay, look, they erupt from the water, it’s like a Tarpon, but they’re no way as strong as a Tarpon, they’re not as aggressive as a GT. They’ve got a lot of shortcomings in where they fight. But what’s really amazing is when they eat the fly and how much fly line they’ll rip out of your hands.
The strip is extremely slow – long, slow strips. If a fish is eating while your hand’s off the line, it’ll just shoot out of your head and you’ll lose the fish. So, you literally have to strip and grip the line with your fingers as hard as you can on the cork, let go, and then strip. You have to be in contact with your fly the whole time.
Flylords: Describe the fight angler’s experience when hooked into an Arapaima.
Johann: It’s a short fight. You shouldn’t be fighting and arapaima for more than 10 minutes or you’re probably going to kill it. So, we put in everything we can. And you’ll hear in the film, “Strip, strip, strip. Hit him, hit him, hit him.” And that’s number one, if that fish eats, you got to set the hook as hard as you fucking can. I mean that hook’s got to go in somewhere. It’s like sitting at like a wooden or bony mouth, it’s so hard, you know? So, that’s step number one, just keeps setting the hook. Even if you think you’re going to pop a fly line or open a hook, it doesn’t matter. You set, set, set until the fish starts pulling off. It will shake the fly if you don’t do that.
And then, what’s always cool is, you know, you’ll see sort of where the fish ate, where the bubbles come up, and then just see the line sort of slowly peeling off and rising to the surface. And as it comes up, the water will literally bulge up and then just this fucking giant head will come out. I think that’s when everybody, they realize like, “Whoa. Holy shit, what did I just plug myself into?” And that’s when arapaima fishing gets really awesome. Massive head shakes. And on the bigger fish, you’ll often see them spray baitfish. They’ll just regurgitate a whole bunch of baitfish.
And then once that’s done, a fish will jump maybe four or five times and you’ll get him into the boat, but that’s when the Rewa Rodeo begins. That’s when things get really exciting is when the guide gets into the water with the fish. Because you can’t lip it, you can’t land it like a Tarpon. You can’t just pick it up, or pull it onto the boat. It’s too big and it’s too aggressive. So, the guides will get in and try and wrestle this fish, grab a leader and try and sort of… They’ll put a hand across and try and grab the pec fins. They’ve got really hard, big fins, and try and grab onto that. But yeah, it’s actually bizarre, to watch these men jump in to fight a fish that’s twice their size. It’s awesome.