November 28, 2022
By Justin Miller
This article originally appeared in the Destinations special publication of Fly Fisherman magazine.
I really wasn’t that excited to chase peacock bass. I don’t fish for bass. I’m a steelheader from the cold coastal rivers of the Pacific Northwest. I guide in Siberia. I don’t pop frogs over lily pads, and I hate being hot.
But I have always wanted to see the Amazon, as long as I can remember. I can still see myself on the couch, when I was just a padawan, eyes bugging out, watching Jacques Cousteau, listening to him talk about his adventures in the Amazon, one of the most immense tropical wildernesses on Earth. I promised myself I would go on an adventure there too, someday. So when I was told I was going to explore a previously unfished—by outsiders like me, anyway—region on a tributary of the Rio Negro, that nobody had ever heard of, I asked myself, what would ol’ Jacques do? Well, I guarantee he wouldn’t have said “No thanks, it’s too hot and I don’t fish for bass.”
I was ready to go into uncharted territory and hunt for a fish that looked like it was going to tie balloon animals at some six-year-old kid’s birthday party. I planned to throw poppers into one of the wildest jungle rivers on the planet. Little did know that I was about to have my whole perspective on life (fishing) changed forever.
When I took that first trip, the jungle was a new frontier in the fly-fishing world. Our sport started in cold water, and stayed in that narrow lane for quite some time. Fly fishing was invented to catch trout. Then it expanded to Atlantic salmon. Then it jumped the pond to North America with our immigrant forefathers and adapted to myriad other species in the northern latitudes before the pioneers of our game started distributing our trout targets to faraway lands such as Chile, Argentina, and New Zealand.
Then some dudes in the Florida Keys took a hard left and decided to try flicking feathers in the salt. It was an absolute game changer when they discovered that they could get tarpon and bonefish to take flies on their old fiberglass salmon rods—then they tricked a permit. An entire new world opened up to fly fishers in the shallow saltwater flats of the Caribbean, quickly spreading throughout the rest of the equatorial belt circumnavigating the globe, roughly between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn. But that was it. For a long time, the yin and yang of fly fishing was cold fresh water and tropical salt water.
Then, just recently, a new era of exploration started, with intrepid souls searching freshwater rivers in the jungle for previously unheard-of exotic species. This opened a virgin world to fly fishing. Since then, jungle fly fishing has quickly become the third solar system in the fly-fishing universe.
I realize that there are satellite moons to these worlds of fly fishing that don’t exactly fit into my simple universe, such as bluewater billfish, ol’ bucketmouth bass, smallmouths, bluegills, mahseer, and flounder, among others.
Untamed Angling is the outfitter that blew the jungle game wide open for fly fishers. Marcelo Pérez and Rodrigo Salles pioneered the bulk of Amazon fly fishing with the long rod. They are the jungle guys. They went into the wilderness, far off the beaten path of the gear chuckers. They talked to the native tribes and asked about the secrets their lands and rivers held. They built relationships with the natives—based on conservation and preservation—for the benefit of these indigenous people, and the fly-fishing community, making sure that they did not negatively impact these precious resources.
They were the first fly-fishing outfitters to gain the trust and permission of the native tribes and deliver on their promises, earning exclusive access to the most pristine jungle rivers in the Amazon basin, while helping protect the rivers, the rainforest, the fish, and the tribes’ heritage, while preserving their way of life without exploiting them. Untamed Angling also provides a means for the tribes to capitalize on their lands and rivers in a sustainable way. Catch-and-release fly fishing is by far the best option for the future, versus alternatives based on resource extraction, such as logging, mining, industrial farming, and commercial fishing. This partnership has a future, and has proved its value and sustainability to everyone involved.
Arguably the most popular angling quarry in the jungle is peacock bass, and Brazil is where you look for the biggest peacocks in the world. When Untamed Angling started telling us that they had secured access to the Rio Marié, and told fish tales of the gigantic specimens they found there, it was almost unbelievable. Twenty-pound peacocks caught on flies are rare. Other rivers in the Amazon might see a couple fish of that caliber landed per season—if they’re lucky. These guys were talking about it being a weekly occurrence for most anglers! When I heard this, I quickly enlisted to go find out for myself what was going on. Still, I was skeptical. And I had never actually caught any bass of more than about 3 pounds.
Manaus is the launch pad for the best jungle fishing in Brazil. At the confluence of the Rio Negro and the Rio Solimões, this city of more than 2 million people sits where Earth’s largest freshwater drainage becomes the Amazon River. Manaus is the center of the Amazon basin and home to the National Institute of Amazonian Research.
From Manaus, we jumped on the float plane for the three-hour flight over the rainforest to reach the live-aboard ship that would be our home for the next week. Flying over the jungle canopy was mind-blowing—an endless lush green wilderness stretched away as far as the eye could see, in any direction. There are mountainous highlands in some parts of the Amazon region, but on our flight we saw only a flat, roadless wilderness. Some purple blended into what seemed an infinity of green, and nothing else. Our little float plane felt minuscule and insignificant.
As the plane landed on the Rio Marié beside the 92-foot mothership Untamed Amazon, we felt giddy at the potential for the week ahead. The ship is something to behold. Custom built for fly fishing the Rio Marié, it is the most comfortable and spacious modern ship in the Amazon watershed.
The Untamed Amazon is the first vessel in the Amazon with 100 percent solar power generation for its electrical system. On the roof are 96 German solar panels, and in the hold are 3 tons of Hitachi solar batteries. The Untamed Amazon has three decks. The lowermost holds twin 200-horsepower engines, the laundry, staff quarters, freshwater water filtration systems, and a sewage treatment plant. The main deck has eight double-occupancy suites with private bathrooms and floor-to-ceiling glass windows. The upper deck features a spacious living area and dining room, two Jacuzzis, and an open-air deck for cocktails and appetizers.
But I didn’t come here for the mothership. The fly-fishing skiffs are also custom built, perfectly designed to maximize both anglers’ opportunities throughout the day. Extremely wide and stable, with casting platforms at both bow and stern, and electric trolling motors, the skiffs let both anglers fish all day long. It’s not like the salt, where your buddy takes shots from the nose while you sit down in the hole. You are both in full attack mode all day.
Peacock bass fishing is a caster’s game—you need to cast far and often. Put it on the bank and in the bushes. I cannot think of another fishery that requires so much overhead casting with heavy tackle. This means at least thousand casts a day, covering water like a machine, and stripping flies back to the boat with a relatively fast retrieve to induce strikes.
It’s not just long, powerful casting with heavy rods, it’s technical casting as well. You are constantly threading the needle, slipping the fly between molongo shoots or under the dangling fronds of date palms. When you throw a fly into the trees and have to recover it with the boat, the guides will remind you that you are there to catch fish, not monkeys . . . it’s a never-ending joke that doesn’t get old.
Each boat carries two guides. You always have an English-speaking professional fly-fishing guide and a native guide in each boat. These guys grew up on this water, and they know every bend, every lagoon, every snag. And when they point silently at a submerged tree, a hidden miniature cove, or a shallow sunken sandbar, you’d better be paying attention. The native guides know their river well, and even when they can’t see the fish, they seem to be able to smell or sense when they are around.
The three-barred peacocks—the ones that look like clowns—are of the species Cichla temensis. These are the fish that everyone dreams about. They can approach 30 pounds, and they absolutely rip. They actually come in two color phases. The vibrantly painted ones are in spawning colors, spectacular to look at with their bright greens, yellow throats, fluorescent orange bellies and fins, and of course the signature three vertical black bars and the ever-present false eye spots on their tales. The natives call these colorful ones asu, or “big eye,” and they are celebrated every time a trophy is brought to hand.
The natives call the other color phase paca. Named after a giant rodent with a similar color scheme that roams the forest floor, these are much more drab, dark brown with white spots all over their bodies. You can still see the subtle oranges and yellows, even the faint shadow of the three black bars, but it’s as if the colors beneath are hiding under a layer of darkness. They are camoflauged hunters. They’re not as classically beautiful as the asu, but the paca fight even harder, and they are often harder to catch because they hunt around submerged logs and dense structure. They aren’t wasting energy spawning or protecting their young—they are just hunting and eating, and they are in prime shape for a fight. Big asu make for great photos, but big paca make for great stories.
As mentioned, I’m not a bass guy. I’ve watched Bill Dance as he reels in some 3-pounder he pretends is a beast, dangling it from his thumb in under 20 seconds. I really wasn’t expecting much from peacock bass—I was there to see the jungle. I was sorely mistaken. The first time I came tight on a big peacock, I was shaken. This was not some dink from the tepid algae tank that formed my opinion of bass fishing in NorCal. This was a wild fish, worthy of the fearsome reputation of which I’d been skeptical. And I came to learn it wasn’t even a bass, but a cichlid. I instantly threw out all my preconceived perceptions about this apex predator of the Amazon. They earned the respect they deserve.
I quickly realized that the fancy sealed-disk-drag reels that are so important in the saltwater world are almost worthless in this jungle game. Peacocks live mostly in the structure, which is why we had to sacrifice so many flies. We’d throw our offerings as deep into these fortified compounds as we dared, maybe counting down a few seconds for our intermediate lines to sink the weighted streamers. Then we’d start stripping hard. If a hawg came out of the abyss and inhaled the fly, the situation got real serious, real fast. The guides explained something to us that was fundamentally the opposite of everything that I had ever learned on big fish: You cannot let them run. If you give an inch they head right back to the tangle they came out of, predictably resulting in a lost fish, or the guide rescue, which is the same thing.
If you let the fish get into the wood, the native guide will promptly dive into the black water that gives the Rio Negro its name, swim down into the snag, untangle the fish, and haul it and your line back to the boat. At that point it is no longer your fish—it’s his. You have to lock down the line to prevent that scenario, but you often have a pile of stripped-in slack line at your feet. This means that the only drag system you have is your fingers.
You strip the fly fast out of the structure, and sometimes the fish chases it a long distance. You watch or feel it inhale the streamer, you strip-set the hard, coming tight into what feels like solid wood before the fish turns and burns back to cover. It’s a hit-and-run, and you have to stop the fish right now, or you don’t have a chance. Stopping a 20-pound+ fish in its tracks, in the first 20 seconds, usually isn’t a great idea, but it’s the only option. The guides run 50-pound-test fluorocarbon suicide rig leaders, so there are no excuses about break-offs. The leader won’t break. Either you will break, or the fish will. I got burned badly a few times, with the line cutting through my gloves and my finger tape. Trophy peacocks will make you bleed.
I have never heard so many experienced anglers scream out loud while fighting a fish—a high-pitched, uncontrollable, absolutely surprised kind of scream. Guys just let go of the line, letting the fish they’d flown thousands of miles to wrestle with just swim back down to its home. Their instinctive reaction was “if it’s hot, let go.”
I saw a dude drop his entire rod and reel in the river like a hot potato after taking a serious line burn on the initial surge. A giant paca caught him by surprise. It looked as though he’d picked up a cast iron skillet off the stove without a mitt.
Don’t worry, in that case, the native guy dove in and recovered his rod, reel, and the fish. I promised that fisherman that I’d never tell the story to anybody, but I also told him that he shouldn’t take a picture of himself holding that fish up like he’d won the battle, because he most definitely had not.
The Rio Marié is famous for its giant fish. But if you want to hold a true trophy peacock bass, you have to put in the time and effort, and focus on big fish. This is trophy hunting, not a numbers game. There is no better place on this planet to try to land a peacock over 20 pounds, but they don’t come easy. It sounds weird to say it, but you should come with a steelhead or permit mentality. You are looking for one fish that you will never forget.
Relentless trophy fishing isn’t for everyone, though, and the Marié has something to offer everyone. Not many anglers want to go for hours without any action, and fortunately, Cichla temensis don’t own all the real estate. There is another species of peacock that calls these waters home, the borboleta, or butterfly peacock. These guys run about 4 to 8 pounds, with a few world record specimens coming out of the Rio Marié that top out at around 12 pounds.
Butterflies tend to school up and hunt in packs. If you get tired of covering water looking for a giant, just go for a rip and find a school of these guys—there are times when you can rack up some big numbers, with you and your partner literally catching fish one after another. The others won’t spook when you catch one—in fact, it gets them excited. When your buddy gets one, you’ll often see three or more fish following it to the boat. Cast over your partner’s shoulder, strip, and you’ve got a double.
As soon as the guide gets your partner’s fish off of the hook, he can cast over your shoulder. Strip. Double. Rinse and repeat. If it gets too automatic, switch up to a popper and watch them smoke those froggy patterns off the top for a while. There are often 20 or 30 butterflies in a school.
Be aware that all that splashing and commotion can often attract a big paca or two, and draw them out of flooded areas of the jungle. Playing with the butterflies is never a bad idea.
For this reason, I always carry two rods, rigged and ready to go. The 9-weight streamer rod is my primary rod, with a Scientific Anglers Sonar Jungle Titan Intermediate line. I also bring an 8-weight with a Scientific Anglers Jungle Titan floating line for the popper.
Peacocks aren’t the only things swimming in the Marié. You will encounter some amazing bycatch species as well. Wolf fish are rare, but we found a few. Bicuda can come out of nowhere to attack your fly—they are something like freshwater barracuda. Jacunda (sometimes called pike cichilds) are absolutely gorgeous, but super rare to catch while chasing Cichla temensis, as you are often throwing size 3/0 streamers, and they have tiny mouths.
Piranhas are fun, too. They don’t live in still waters, but if you strip a fly into the current, they are likely to have a go at it, and it isn’t pretty. If they touch the leader with a tooth, kiss that fly goodbye. If they come up short and get hooked in the jaw, with their teeth far from the leader, biting only metal, you can land them. The native guides will be super excited and take the piranhas home for dinner. You can still kiss the fly goodbye, since all the feathers, hair, synthetic fibers, and anything else you wrapped on the hook will be long gone.
Another special critter that I was super excited to see in the Amazon was a pink dolphin, as I remember being in awe of them while watching Jacques Cousteau’s adventures. I was so excited the first time I saw one! However, I quickly made the connection that if the pinkies were there, the peacocks were not. Still, I was stoked every time they porpoised alongside our boat.
Apart from the pink dolphins, there is an immense biodiversity that includes mammals such as tapirs, capybaras, jaguars, and many species of monkeys, as well as birds including macaws, toucans, parakeets, and even harpy eagles.
The entire experience in the Amazon jungle is incredible. I’ve been back to the Rio Marié three times now, despite the fact that I am still not a “bass guy.” I love it, it’s different, it’s the jungle, and there’s nothing else like it. It’s exciting to be relentlessly casting like a maniac, hoping that the biggest peacock bass in the universe destroys my fly and makes me regret threading the needle into his kitchen. Just going down to experience the Amazon, to see a place this wild and untouched, is good for the soul. The fish are our excuse to travel to these distant hidden corners of the globe, and disappearing this deeply into the wilderness gives you so much more than just a fish story.
Book Your Destination
To fish the Rio Marié with Untamed Angling, you’ll first have to fly to Manaus, Brazil. A float plane will take you from Manaus to the Untamed Amazon, which is always on the move to fish new water each day.
Rio Marié – theflyshop.com
You should carry two rods with you in the skiff each day on the Rio Marié—an 8-weight with a Scientific Anglers Jungle Titan floating line and a 9- or 10-weight with a Scientific Anglers Jungle Titan intermediate line.
Justin Miller started fly fishing on backpacking trips with his father in the Sierra Nevada. He graduated to being a NorCal Spey and steelhead guide on the Trinity and Klamath rivers, and afterward became a travel associate with The Fly Shop in Redding, California.