From enrolling at Pavon Campus, to signing up for Bicuda 101 and graduating in Advanced Payara, Luke Barrell visited the Orinoco River in Colombia to get an education. Full story in issue 34 of The Mission.

It’s been difficult coming back to reality the last few weeks. My current home is in Northampton (UK) and, while I have been visiting my local reservoir on weekends and the early signs of summer are starting to show, a part of me is still stuck on the mighty Orinoco River in Colombia. My trip with Alberto Mejia’s Fish Colombia Expeditions had originally been scheduled for April 2020 but then the pandemic happened. With some glimmering hopes for pre-corona normality in 2021 and my jungles flies watching me every time I grabbed my fishing kit, I was hopeful the trip would happen. Unfortunately, the Delta variant had other ideas last year and the infamous joys of red-listed countries kicked in. With the arrival of 2022, I was hoping it would be third time lucky.

The problem with a three-year wait is that every year you find yourself overthinking all the items you might need for the jungle (except perhaps something needed for a sting ray attack… but I’ll get to that). By go-time I had enough lines, leaders, wire and flies to stock a small fishing shop for a month.

I find something truly special about large rivers and Orinoco was no different. After traveling from a lively Bogota the day before, we were picked up first thing at the small river town of Puerto Carreño by a man only identified as the ‘Spanish Machine’. Something about the worn 4×4 and the dusted-up Dakar sticker on the back told me we were in for a good time. As it turns out, the Spanish Machine takes his Dakar sticker very seriously and proceeded to get us to camp at record speed. Two boat crossings, some entertaining roads, hairy rock climbs and a ham and cheese sandwich later, we arrived at the banks of the Orinoco. Expectations can be a dangerous thing when it comes to fishing.  Yet, from the second I saw this river (dense jungle in every direction, wild parrots flying overhead), it all felt almost too good to be true. But it wasn’t. We had made it to the jungle at last.

Payara (Hydrolycus scomberoides), AKA the vampire fish, have been on my hit list since I learnt about their existence. I spend much of my free time in the UK chasing pike and so dealing with unpredictable toothy creatures is right up my alley. Unfortunately for me, pike and payara could not be more different in their approach.  Pike enjoy still or slow flowing water where they carefully ambush prey and payara… well they don’t do that. 500 grain sinking lines in Class IV rapids is the name of the game. So big flies with integrated rattles and stinger hooks were the plan.

“Dealing with unpredictable toothy creatures is right up my alley. Unfortunately, pike and payara could not be more different.”

It was only after a couple of days trying to chase some smaller peacocks on my 7-weight with a small black brush fly that I realised many schools of payara had made their way up into some of the smaller, clearer tributaries. Now I wouldn’t recommend a 7-weight for these fish – not unless you enjoy line burn and cursing the gods in false disbelief that you’ve just lost a trophy jungle predator.

A small pinnacle made up of eroding volcanic rock divided a section of the Rio Tomo and made for a popular warm-up location. Surrounded with strong and aggressive young peacocks, this spot was just what you needed to find the gear from the day before and get dialled in again. However, that morning something was off. Takes were far out and nippy. There were no last minute dine-and-dashes back to the caves these smaller fish like to sit in. Admittedly, I knew this meant one of two things: either we had just worked that area too hard the day before or, something bigger was lurking. I decided to ditch the flashy fly I had on and opted for a smaller black brush fly. I was slowly pulling the fly back no more than 10ft from me so I could see how it swam with the outrageous leader I had attached to it, when, unexpectedly, an absolute unit of a payara hit it. This fish, which dwarfed the 15 pounder I had caught on a 12-weight a few days prior, came up and sipped the brush fly as if it was a brown taking a dry on a slow evening rise. In total disbelief, I still managed to get a decent strip set and a confirmation from the guide who had also seen it and confirmed that I wasn’t just going delirious in the jungle heat. Off the bat I knew this was a losing battle. I was basically straight sticking this fish for fear of executing my 7-weight on the spot. Payara, much like tigers, have incredibly bony jaws as well as family ties to the Cirque du Soleil aerobatics academy so, naturally, hook set and retention is a nightmare. Having no capacity to dictate anything to this fish and having already done a few laps around the tiny island, it threw the hook. I adjusted to a more appropriate set-up and proceeded to have my most successful session for the fanged fish. The volcanic pinnacle was renamed, ‘Payara Island’.

Throughout the week this piece of paradise, hidden away from the world, began identifying some key areas and much like ‘Payara Island’ they too were appropriately nicknamed. ‘Peacock City’, ‘Pavon Campus’ & ‘Bicuda Alley’.  Each comes attached with a vivid memory. Peacock City is a deep section with huge perfectly-sanded boulders protruding from the depth below. No babies here… 9-10-weight set-ups only. The closer you moved to the bank the more the boulders formed together and created neat fishable sections. There was no other way to do it than bouncing double barrel poppers off these boulders and into the danger zones. Pop and wait. Pop and wait. Pop and boom!

The awesome power of peacocks is mind-blowing. Powerful runs, dives, jumps and their tendency to try get under any structure made these battles tight and you had to slowly navigate the fight back through the boulders until you had them at your feet. These epic fights taught me a lot about fighting big fish in tight sections. Losing the big boys at your feet through sloppy errors or lack of patience certainly helps ingrain those lessons. It also made the big ones that much sweeter.

Read the rest of Luke’s story in issue 34 below. As always, it’s free.