It was an unforeseen turn of events that led Steve Townson down a little creek in the Amazon. A thunderstorm had pushed him and the others who were in his boat away from the large lake in which they were fishing. After all, sitting in an aluminum vessel while lightning is firing around you isn’t the best idea. And, what is more, the change in plans ended in an encounter with one of the Amazon’s most amazing fish.
Townson is in fact an expert in fishing on the Amazon. He runs a website dedicated to fishing trips in the jungle, and according to the site, amazon-angler.com, he is “an extreme angling expert with an unbridled knowledge of the Amazon basin.” Well, that knowledge was certainly called into play on this trip.
Townson is actually a television personality, too, and he has twice been crowned Amazon Peacock Bass World Champion. It’s fair to say, then, that he knows his stuff, and so it’s no surprise that in some circles he’s known as the “fish-finder.” What’s more, on this particular adventure he used those skills to find one of the world’s most impressive river monsters.
Indeed, it was no accident that Townson guided his boat down into the creek that day. He knew that the fish he was searching for is a reclusive one. However, because of the habits of the creature, the fishing expert didn’t just know exactly where to look. He also knew the tell-tale signs that one of these monsters was near – and it didn’t take too long for his hunch to pay off.
So, after the aborted expedition on the lake, Townson headed off to this smaller creek. There was less chance that the boat would be struck by lightning there. But although the move paid off, soon enough Townson was struggling with a true Amazon monster. And while you might not have heard of it, it’s one of the most amazing underwater creatures on the planet.
The fish in question is called the arapaima. And though it may not have the fearsome reputation of the piranhas of the Amazon, it more than holds its own when it comes to sheer size. That being said, the fish isn’t just interesting because of how massive it is. No, there are plenty of other reasons why it gets anglers so excited – but first let’s get a measure of this monster.
The arapaima is the largest scaled freshwater fish on the planet. Make no mistake: these creatures can be truly enormous. The heaviest ever found weighed in at a staggering 440 pounds. The longest? Well, that measured an incredible 15 feet long. However, there’s something else about the arapaima that makes it stand out.
It’s the way that these fish breathe. Unlike other species in the river, which use their gills to take in oxygen, the arapaima is an air breather. And yet this is both a help and a hindrance to these creatures. Often, the waters in the Amazon are low in oxygen, which gives the arapaima a distinct advantage, but there’s a downside, too.
According to Townson, one of the reasons why arapaima prefer more secluded locations is that, all things being equal, they’re easy for other predators to catch. That’s because they need to surface regularly for large gulps of air. And this gives any creature looking for an arapaima-sized meal the perfect opportunity to pick one up.
For the most part, though, breathing air is one of the arapaima’s biggest strengths. In fact, during times when the water in the Amazon is low, arapaima become the top predators in oxbow lakes. This is because the lack of oxygen in the water makes their prey lethargic – a problem that the air-breathing arapaima doesn’t have.
However, the arapaima doesn’t just eat fish. It feeds on crustaceans, too. What’s more, somewhat shockingly, it’ll take small mammals that wander too close to the shore as well. So, this is far from a gentle giant, that’s for sure. That said, there’s a sadder side to the tale of this Amazonian monster, and the reason for this is down to humankind.
It’s true that Townson did catch an arapaima – and it was a pretty big one, too, tipping the scales at an estimated 200 pounds. Nevertheless, once he’d posed for some photos with the huge fish, the expert angler released it back into the wild. That’s because there’s a catch-and-release policy for this giant but endangered species.
As a result, you’re only allowed to catch arapaima in certain locations in the Amazon basin. The native people in these areas are permitted to catch and kill the creatures for what’s known as subsistence harvesting. Otherwise, once you’ve bagged yourself an arapaima, you need to release it back into its environment.
The arapaima is in fact on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s red list, where it’s listed as data deficient. Yes, because of the size of its habitat, it is difficult to conduct studies about the number of the fish left in the wild. On top of that, it’s hard to work out how many of the giants are caught each year when, for the most part, catching them is against the law.
All of this made Townson’s impressive catch all the more difficult. For instance, he used circular hooks to ensure that the fish didn’t sustain too much damage. Speaking to Fish&Fly, he said “Arapaima are the largest scaled freshwater fish in the world, but they can be delicate and must be handled with care.”
There are other strange characteristics of the arapaima as well. For example, the male of the species is what’s known as a mouth brooder. This means that it carries its young in its mouth for the early part of their lives. The female, meanwhile, will circle the male, warding off predators and ensuring that the brood isn’t put in any danger.
Then there’s the creature’s tongue. It’s called a bony tongue, and there are a set of teeth running along it. Interestingly, these teeth have a number of uses among the native peoples in the Amazon basin. For starters, they’re often used as nail files, but there’s an even weirder use for the organ, too.
Yes, it’s believed that the tongue has medicinal properties. Once it’s been dried and mixed with guarana bark, it’s combined with water, and patients are then given the mixture to rid them of intestinal worms. Just another bizarre side to the story of this enormous, and sadly endangered, creature. Still, when it comes to strangeness, the arapaima isn’t alone.
Indeed, the Amazon basin where the arapaima is found has its fair share of other river monsters. The area is home to at least 2,500 different species of fish, and it’s believed that there could be as many as 1,000 other species which have yet to be properly identified.
In fact, of all the other river basins in the world, it’s the Amazon’s that has the largest number of fish species. There are river stingrays, giant fish that look like alligators, electric eels and, of course, the infamous piranhas. But the arapaima dwarfs them all. It’s a true giant of the waterways, and Townson’s encounter with one proves just how special these creatures really are.