The Kayapo’s Kendjam – Yellow-flower-eating fish, wolves and jaguar…the Disneyland of fly fishing…

This adventure or expedition is as remote as I think I have ever been. Ryabaga Camp on the Ponoi is out there, as is my expedition into the Colombian jungle but in terms of time and distance into a remote area this is it. I really did cast to rising fish taking yellow flowers off the surface, there are wolf fish which lurk in the deepest, darkest places of the river and although we only saw jaguar tracks, the week before they saw four, three black and one normal. But let’s get to the nitty gritty of this trip.

Manaus is the obvious and rightful gateway and in the Juma Opera Hotel, the operators have likely chosen the best hotel option in town. The rooms are cool and spacious, and the hotel is located right next to the famous opera house and close to the fish and vegetable markets. All are worth a visit so I would recommend at least one whole day in Manaus before departure for Kendjam. The food at the hotel is decent but there are other good places such as La Parilla and maybe Peixaria do Juvenal if you want local fish. If you happen to be into aquarium fish, the Manaus is a hub for the export of ornamental fish so that could be interesting too.

On the day your trip begins in earnest Debora, the local rep, will pick you up ready for departure at 6 am. The hotel do a full breakfast from 5.30, most would not. It is at this time that you pay your US dollar Indigenous Indian fee in cash to Debora. She explained to us that she has it converted in to Reals and then pays it into their bank account. It is also the time to check that your bags are no more than 40 pounds for the soft duffel (required) and 10 pounds of hand luggage. If you need more weight, ask well before you depart home. The drive to the airport is about 20+ minutes and there the bags are weighed and loaded while you wait in an air-conditioned room with tea, coffee, and water.

The itinerary they give you says it will be a 3-hour flight. It might be if the wind is behind you. We did two hours, stopped to refuel for about 20 minutes (getting out to go into the Itaituba Terminal) and then another two hours. The journey is over 500 miles. The operator’s website says “There will be a “Meet and Greet” providing anglers time to discover the Kayapo culture, social organization and more. We will present the group to the Indian chiefs and a brief orientation of fishing week will be made.” This no longer happens because, understandably, the Kayapo are tired of being the entertainment. In fact, you may not see them in traditional dress at all because their favourite player’s football shirt is the preferred dress these days. To be brutally honest, all the photos, which are still published on social media, of the Kayapo in their traditional headdresses etc, are just social media hype and it is highly likely you will not see it. I disagree with the marketing hype; I do not blame the Kayapo. Furthermore, if you want to be painted like in the photos, which is cool, that is not gratis, it is $20 per session per person. You only really need it once in the week. Do beware however, on occasion skin reacts to the dye and creates an itchy rash.

What actually happens is that you are asked to sit under a tree with your bags while the outgoing party load up and depart to avoid any bags going in the wrong direction. You are given a decent packed lunch which you may eat on the plane or during your wait. The wait is not too long and then your bags are taken to the waiting boats by the guides and Kayapo helpers. If you are lucky there will be an actual football match going on right there. The skills are impressive! One other little piece of knowledge we gained through misadventure! Marcos, the manager, showed us a cashew fruit under which the cashew nut sits rather tentatively. Of course, we opened the fruit and opened the nut. It was left on the bench for a while then brushed into the grass. It was there long enough to leak onto the bench and then be sat on by one of our party, not noticing the small amount of liquid. We now know that the juice is 70% acid and they ended up with a nasty acid burn in an inconvenient place!

The Kayapo people are the indigenous people of Brazil who inhabit a vast area spreading across the states of Pará and Mato Grosso, south of the Amazon river and along the Xingu river and its tributaries which include the Iriri tributary where the Kendjam fishing lodge is set. They have been given the nickname the Xingu tribe. They are one of various subgroups of the great Mebêngôkre nation (people from the water’s source). The Kayapo tribe live alongside the Xingu in the most eastern part of the Amazon rainforest in several scattered villages ranging in population from one hundred to one thousand people. Their land consists of tropical rainforest savannah (grassland) and rainforest and is arguably the largest tropical protected area in the entire world, covering 11,346,326 hectares of Neotropical forests and scrubland containing many endangered species.They have small hills scattered around their land and the area is criss-crossed by river valleys. The larger rivers are fed by numerous pools and creeks, most of which lack official names. The term Kayapo, also spelled Caiapó or Kaiapó, came from neighbouring peoples in the early 19th century and means “those who look like monkeys”. This name is probably based on a Kayapó men’s ritual involving monkey masks. The name for one village is Mebêngôkre, which means “the men from the water hole.” Other names for them include Gorotire, Kararaô, Kuben-Kran-Krên, Kôkraimôrô, Mekrãgnoti, Metyktire, and Xikrin. In 2018, there was an estimated 8,638 Kayapo people,which is an increase from 7,096 in 2003.Their villages typically consist of a dozen huts. A centrally located hut serves as a meeting place for village men to discuss community issues and this is no different for the Kendjam village where guests land. There is a rather depressing documentary about the indigenous people of Brazil and their fight to retain their lands. It is called The Territory and is on Disney +.

One cannot help wondering if these people would not be better off without us and our modern or Western ways, especially upon hearing their views and attitudes towards what we crazy fishermen are doing there. For example, they cannot understand why we would fish in the heat of the day, and all day! If one needs some fish, why not go out in the evening, catch a couple and come home? They particularly struggle when they know the fishing is going to be poor. They will tell the guides… ‘it is going to be terrible today, why are we going fishing?’ They can feel the air pressure and the mood of the weather and they know how things are going to be and are invariably right! Then you hear the other side of the story and realise that if we were not there, gold miners, loggers or land-grabbers would be and the extraordinary watershed that is the Iriri or Xingu river basin would not be the pristine place it is today. This piece by Yale Environment 360 gives a window on what the Kayapo are dealing with on a day to day basis. It is the same with atolls like Cosmoledo. We wonder if we should really be there but the truth is, if we were not, someone else would be and there would be no fish or birdlife or anything else.

Once the boats are loaded you are invited to walk down to them (do not photograph Kayapo women or children) and the journey to camp commences – a key piece of advice on this section of the journey is as follows…when you leave Manaus, either dress as you would for fishing or have it handy because on the boat journey you need to be fully ready to avoid sun burn. Depending on the water height, the journey can be from 1.5 hours to over three hours and both are time enough to get burned. A waterproof jacket is also a good idea, possibly for rain but boat spray too. Bugs are a possibility too so let’s address the bug in the room now!

The company information is relaxed on the possibility of biting insects and the guides concur that if there is not rain then the bugs are not bad. However, we all know that weather is less predictable these days and, we are in the Amazon jungle where there is every bug imaginable! To our surprise, the lodge does not stock bug spray so ensure you bring a proper supply. You may not get rain and it might be fine but bring it! If you do get rain, there will be some mosquitoes, not clouds like a Russian summer but enough to bite you and cause irritation especially if you are prone. Bring bug juices and sprays and have them handy as all times. The same with decent sunscreens. Also, bring aloe vera, antihistamine tablets and cream and some post-bite cream. I stress the guides say that under normal conditions it is OK but as we are all learning, normal is changing so come prepared.

The river journey is stunning, miles and miles of granite-clad river of varying depths steeped in habitat and fish species from tiny colourful tetras to the colourful peacock bass you hope to catch. It is truly like a journey through the most stunning and pristine of aquariums. It is during this journey that you realise you have arrived somewhere truly special and remote. How far the walk from your boat to the lodge will depend on how high or low the water is but the lodge is set on a fine sandy island and fits into the environment perfectly. The beach is often lined with skimmer birds and plover. There are five usable rooms – there is a sixth room reserved for the owners which can sometimes be used but at night it is surrounded by Kayapo using the internet on their phones!

The rooms are specious and everything you might expect and more from a lodge this remote. The bathrooms equally so but the shower floors are shiny tiles and lethal. You would be forgiven for questioning the need for hot water but the guides declare that, at times, it is appreciated. The lodge really is decent and in a magical setting overlooking the river. It is not until you have been there a while that the little details which matter start to appear. The sun sets are fabulous but there is no doubt they heat the lodge (and rooms) before dusk so close your curtains to reduce the heat build-up and ask for them to be closed while you are out. The screened windows could be maintained better and possibly replaced. They have holes and tears. There is the odd nail on the lovely veranda which is poking its head up and could cause injury to a bare foot. The lights outside each bedroom door suddenly seem to be in a very stupid place once you realise how many bugs they draw in the darkness and when you open your bedroom door, they follow you in! Thanks to the rain, mosquitoes appear as you enjoy your evening caipirinha and drive you inside. Bedrooms lights are best left off if you are not in the room. Bedroom walls are thin, great for easy chat between rooms, not good for snoring and why are the beds laid out head-to-head along the rooms? Above all, it is just hot and there is no air-conditioning, and the ceiling fans are all you have to counter the heat. But, as any creature does, you learn to live with all this because it is worth it. I also think we had an unusually hot week and the guides concurred. The internet is good and reliable so telling ones’ friends where you are is easy!

Soon Dylvane or Giovanni the butler or Guilherme or Carlos the manager (depending on who is on duty) will have settled you in and put a caipirinha in your hands and begun to talk about the week ahead.

You could have six rods set up as follows:

A 5 weight for dry fly

A 6 weight with dry and a hanging nymph

Another 6 weight with a smaller streamer

A 7 weight with a full-sized streamer

Another 7-weight armed with a popper

One more 7 weight or an 8 weight with a wire trace for wolf fish

You could reasonably expect to use them all in one day and that is what Kendjam is all about. Here are your main target species and how you might catch them and what rod you might use.

Peacock Bass or Tucunaré Xingu are your bread-and-butter species and ideally you catch them with a big streamer brush fly or a popper. They grow up to about 65 cms which is likely just under 10lbs but they take hard and visually and somehow you do not tire of seeing these fish take.

Matrinxã or Jutuarana look like big dace or roach but they are very strong and great fun to hook with a 5 or 6 weight rod. They will take a dry, a hanging nymph and small or even large streamers. My favourite was dry fly and nymph under the trees.

Rubber Pacu are not the famous Bolivian pacu, they are not as big, but they are great fun to catch on nymph and dry either eating flowers from a ‘hatch’ created by wind blowing the flowers off the tree or nymph in the fast water or even streamer. They feel rubbery to hold and apparently the rubbery-ness remains if they are cooked! They jump and fight hard. They do have almost human teeth so there are times when you strike into the big one that was rising, and it cuts your nylon like a pair of scissors and you have felt nothing at all!

Silver Pacu are smaller but stunning with silver bodies and yellow tails. They are best caught on dry fly when the flowers are failing or there is a hatch. They do not pull too hard but the sight of a rising fish is often too enticing to leave!

Black piranha are stunning creatures totally built around the power of their jaws. They take small and large streamers… ‘take’ being the key word if you do not hook them in the right place.  The size of a dinner plate they are strong too. Handle with extreme care, one guide lost the end of his finger this past season.

Piranha Chupita – a smaller, more silver fish which takes almost quicker than the eye can see and will destroy your fly in a heartbeat if you let it.

Bicuda – whatever species are in the sea, the Amazon has an answer, and this is the Amazon’s answer to a barracuda – it behaves the same way, hits your fly at electrifying speeds and jumps like mad. It also takes small and large streamers. A wire trace can be useful too.

Wolf fish – these dark fish lurk in the least pleasant areas of the river. When you are hunting for them, splash the water and they will appear from their lair to see what opportunity there is. They do not race around to take your fly but swim it past them and they will suck it in in the blink of an eye and then solid strip-striking is the order of the day while the fish thrashes and jumps and, even with the best strip-striking in the business, it may still come off. But do not despair, these fish are so mean, if you can still see them, they may well take again! A wire trace is essential.

Payara or Vampire fish – these can be caught at Kendjam from time to time in deep water. They like to ambush from below. They shred their prey hence it is possible to hook a couple more if one has taken because others will be hanging around the attack. Strong, good looking fish with fearsome teeth.

Due to weight limits, you cannot bring every rod so I would suggest a couple of 6 weights or a 6 and a 5 weight plus a couple of 7 weights or a 7 and an 8 weight.

Jungle or warm water lines are essential.

30 and 40lbs fluorocarbon

30 and 40lbs wire

12, 15, and 20lbs nylon for dry fly

Bring as many flies as you can squeeze in ranging from:

Big to medium colourful brush flies on big hooks – silver, blue and green does well

Smaller baitfish pattern flashy streamers but on big hooks – hook size is always the guide’s focus.

Big and medium poppers

A broad selection of foam/rubber legged ants, beetles, hoppers, flies etc on strong hooks.

Standard hoppers (some in yellow) with strong hooks

Prince nymphs and stone flies which sink well – medium to large with strong hooks – some with rubber legs.

If you have all the above, you will feel aptly equipped and should achieve good results. Other essentials include:

Reel covers to protects reels banging around on aluminium boats

A waterproof backpack, boat bag or sling to protect cameras etc

Take a towel from the lodge each day for swimming and sweating!

I always wrap my rods in my clothes with no damage over the past four or five year – I suggest greater protection for this trip – I had four rods damaged by simply bag mistreatment.

Tape, known as Vetrap in the UK, is ideal for stripping and strip striking.

In terms of clothing, I would suggest the following:

Saltwater shirts or long-sleeved saltwater Ts x 2 or perhaps 3.

Leggings for sun protection with shorts however if there are insects, loose trousers will stop the bugs biting where they may bite through leggings

Buffs are vital

Sun gloves equally vital

Felt-soled wading boots with neoprene or saltwater socks or both

Rain jacket

Caps x 2

Sunglasses x 2

For evenings – trousers are better than shorts or leggings, crocs are fine but can let the bugs in so you might want something better for bugs. Tomorrow’s fishing shirt or long-sleeved T is fine, dress is very casual in the lodge.

Whatever you wear, clothes or shoes – it needs to be OK for them to get wet. The laundry lady does an excellent job and your clothes are always back in the evenings.

There is a small shop with lines and some flies but do not rely on the lodge for anything.

This piece will be too long if I go into the fishing in too much detail. A fishing day starts at about 6 when the lodge wakes up. If Giovanni is on form, coffee or tea will be there by 6.30. Breakfast is at 7 am, juice, toast, eggs etc and while breakfast is going on the lunch is laid out for guests to make their own lunch. Some do not like this but for most, the critical point is, they are getting to eat what they want, made how they like it. Lunches are passed to guides and stored in Yeti coolers. By 8 am, everyone is heading to the boats and off to their beat with their team of one fishing guide and two Kayapo boat handlers who know every channel and ensure you get about as easily as possible. In higher water, it is easier to get about but the potential for the aluminium canoe to flip is likely greater so make sure gear is secure in waterproof bags.

There are basically two beats above camp and two below. Each team fishes each beat over the first four days and then for the last two days one goes up once and down once. It works just fine. For the upper beats one tends to go to the top and fish down, for the lower beats, you fish your way down and then journey back up after fishing. They like everyone home by 5.30 pm for safety.

Lunches are a highlight. They are taken in a shady spot with a table and chairs. After fishing, a swim in the river is recommended and then perhaps some fishing around your lunch location while the Kayapo take their earned one-hour break. They pick very beautiful spots for lunch and fishing. Dinner is at 7 pm and probably too meat and potatoes orientated but the meat is very good. Vegetables and fruit seem to be hard to get to the camp unspoiled but there was always good fruit for breakfast and we took a pineapple for lunches.

How you fish and what you fish for is entirely up to you. I went with whatever we came across and if we came across nothing, we fished for peacocks until we bumped into rising fish or came across a wolf fish spot etc. While the peacocks provided endless entertainment, my favourite was rising fish to the yellow flower hatches – it just tickled me! In terms of wading verses boat, that is down to preference (and season) too and depends on what opportunities come your way.

Water is a key topic. The way they handle water is each guest has a Yeti container which they fill for you as often as you wish from larger storage containers both in the boat and at the lodge. This works very well and I suggest you drink A LOT of water. I would also suggest you bring your own Yeti because I am not 100% certain how they handle the hygiene for their Yetis. Best size to buy are these – 36 oz/1.4l or 1.9l bottle with chug cap.

How does the season work? Basically, the season starts with very high water, or should, and it sounds like the fishing is not that interesting and not so much wading is possible but the fish are active and willing. As the season progresses, so the water drops and as expected the middle of the season will get the best of everything in terms of fishing, wading, fish taking etc. As the water drops, guests have less fishing time because it takes longer to get around, but the skinny water makes for interesting fishing but challenging as the fish get more spooky. The benefit to low water is you see far more, and the river is so much more interesting. I would decide based on how much time you want or need to spend in a boat v wading and which species intrigue you.

The journey out is the same but longer because you are headed upstream not down. It is equally spectacular and an enjoyable experience. Our flight was delayed which was a pain so there were a couple of hours sitting under our tree.

Was it all worth it, I feel your eyes scanning for the summary! That depends on a few things. If you are married to 5-star lodges and the best food – stay at home! If you are married to salmon fishing and double-handed rods, stay at home. If you cannot abide heat or some bugs, stay at home. If you are intolerant of imperfection, stay at home. If your heart is set on seeing the Kayapo in their traditional head gear, either stay at home or ensure arrangements are or can be made for your visit.

If you have read this and are still with me and want a special experience in terms of the landscape, the river, the wildlife and remoteness, and of course the myriad of types of fishing you can do at Kendjam, there is no doubt in my mind this is a very special trip. Add the wildlife and a real chance of seeing jaguar, tapir, monkeys, macaws (red, yellow and blue) parakeets, ospreys, toucan, endless herons… the list goes on, there is no denying this is a special trip for the price of a long journey and a little discomfort. I told the owners that if they had air-conditioning Kendjam would be an absolute no-brainer. I would go again for certain, but should you call me because you are thinking of going, I will press you on being OK with all the negatives I have described. I loved the variety of fishing and wildlife. I loved picking up one rod, then another and another and the guides could not rig me fast enough when we found rising fish. Any issues with the lodge, the temperature and the mosquitoes (which rarely bother you in the day) were all washed away once on the water. The lower water appealed to me because I could see everything.

It is still just days since I left Kendjam and I am still digesting but from a fishing point of view, I think Kendjam is for people who like to know and understand why and how they caught their fish not just that they caught some fish. Love it or hate it, it was a privilege to be there, and I would do it again.

Comments 2

  1. Phil Adams

    That was such a helpful piece, Tarquin. Lovely and honest. It sounds wonderful. I’d have a terrible time deciding between watching the birds (and trying to identify them!) and the fishing.
    Sadly, Denise and I are well beyond this sort of trip, but thank you so much for sharing such useful and intriguing detail!

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