Hunting Brazil's Giant Peacock Bass
April 25, 2018
Centuries ago, Amazonia natives learned to catch their most revered and desired fish without using bait. They may well be the original purveyors of artificial lures.
Using techniques similar to the way they made their thin, high-tensile-strength bowstrings, they braided and twisted sinewy plant fibers together to make fishing lines. They attached the lines to the ends of straight, limber poles. They shaped their hooks from fire-hardened, V-shaped branches, but instead of using bait, they used more of what the jungle offered—the mobile inner bark fibers of plant called peacock beard, lashed to the hook in the shape of a broom.Piranha
Bait of any kind attracts mostly piranhas, but piranhas are bony and piranha teeth sever valuable fishing lines. High in the headwaters of the Amazon in what today is known as the Rio Marié, native Amerindians discovered that they could swing, pop, and twitch these lures (called pinawaca) to attract and catch the giant, brightly colored cichlids we call peacock bass.
Izaak Walton first wrote about dapping with horsehair fishing line and yarn lashed to an iron hook with silk thread in 1653. The Tucano, Baniwa, and Bares people were catching peacock bass on their "flies" many generations before Columbus set sail in 1492.
If piranhas are "little devils," peacock bass are truly gods of the river. The natives call small spotted peacock bass (Cichla orinocensis) "butterflies." They use exactly the same word to describe both brightly colored moths and fish. Both are extremely prolific throughout the Amazon basin.
On a good day on the Rio Marié, a pair of fly fishers can expect to land 20 to 30 butterflies ranging from 3 to 9 pounds. They are pound for pound some of the strongest fish I've ever caught. More than once I've had a 10-weight rod nearly yanked from my hands at the strike of a 7-pound butterfly.
Butterfly peacock bass
They travel in groups, and when you catch one, there are likely many more nearby. When your fishing partner hooks a butterfly, it's a good idea to cast as close as possible to the jumping, thrashing fish. This commonly results in a double hookup.
Despite the strength, beauty, and numbers of butterflies, the main attraction of the Rio Marié is the largest of 15 known peacock species, Cichla temensis. Although the native tribes along the river use one word to describe all types of butterflies, and all spotted peacock bass, they have two words for the giant cichlids with three prominent vertical bars. These are the revered apex predators that feed on snakes, piranhas, butterflies, and have a 1,000-year history of smashing aboriginal fishing tackle. If you're not adequately prepared, they might break your heart as well.
When Cichla temensis are close to spawning, they move out of the river into stillwater oxbows and lagoons. That's where they look for mates, perform their courtship rituals, create nests, fertilize their eggs, and protect their broods. The natives call these fish açu (pronounced AH-sooo). They are characteristically moody, sullen, and defensive. They dramatically change colors much like a spawning brook trout or a Pacific salmon. They lose their white freckles, their heads turn emerald, their dark vertical stripes become much bolder against a green background, and their throats, bellies, and pectoral fins turn scarlet. Açu are less aggressive feeders, but they react defensively, and are easier to target than pacas because they roam open, sandy-bottom lagoons and stillwaters. Guido Perillo photo
When temensis are not spawning, they hunt in the main river, and natives call them paca. Compared to colorful açu, they are relatively drab fish with three darker vertical bars, and rows of horizontal white spots. They are voracious predators and completely fearless. They are much stronger than açu, and they hunt the riverbanks weaving their way through fallen wood and drowned cabibi forests. Compared to colorful açu, they are relatively drab fish with three darker vertical bars, and rows of horizontal white spots. They are voracious predators and completely fearless. They are much stronger than açu, and they hunt the riverbanks weaving their way through fallen wood and drowned cabibi forests.
They are powerful eating machines, but they often feed in places you cannot reach with a fly. If you do hook them on the perimeter of their primary habitats, they use the current and fallen timber to their advantage. It's exciting, challenging casting, and the type of battle that is often won or lost in the first 10 seconds.
Every paca is an adventure. It's a weekly occurrence to have a guest hook a large paca, get their line wrapped around a sunken log or branch, and watch their native guide dive into piranha-infested water to free the line and help land the fish.
Of course, the color change from paca to açu and back again happens gradually, and around the mouths of lagoons, side channels, and oxbows you'll catch temensis in various stages of transformation.
No other peacock bass species has this extreme change in coloration, and it wasn't even until 2012 that scientists were able to attribute the variations to a spawning cycle. Before that, some people speculated that the darker fish were females and the golden/olive fish were males. As the local names indicate, natives used to consider them different fish species altogether.
There is no specific spawning season for temensis on the Rio Marié. On every day of the year there are small numbers of giant açu in the stillwaters, pacas roaming the riverbanks, and fish in various stages of transformation in all of the above places.
Temensis have evolved in a freshwater ecosystem near the equator, and they are most active when the water is hot. When water levels are rising, the water is generally cooler from rain and overcast weather, and the fish become lethargic.The 92-foot, 130-ton mothership Untamed Amazon has three floors, and six guest suites with floor-to-ceiling windows looking out onto the Rio Marié. The massive mothership is still dwarfed by the Amazon jungle. It takes eight days to move the boat from Manaus into the Rio Marié for the start of the fishing season. Avi Hesterman photo
When the water levels are dropping, the opposite is true. Blue skies can quickly warm a dropping river.
One thing to remember is that local rain is not the issue. Precipitation upriver in Colombia is the major determining factor, and it's possible at any time on the Rio Marié to have blue skies and hot weather, but rising cooler river water. Fishing season on the Rio Marié is during the driest months of the year: September, October, and November.
Fishing for açu in stillwater lagoons is straightforward. You cast toward the bank with an intermediate or slow-sinking line, and strip the fly slowly back across the mud and sandy bottoms where temensis breed.
Some lagoons seem lifeless, and it can be tedious work at times to cover open water looking for fish. Other times, it can be as thrilling and rewarding as tarpon fishing. The native guides have incredible eyesight and a lifetime of experience in the jungle. When a bird makes a noise in the jungle, they know what it is. When they see a track in the mud, they can identify it. And when something moves in the water, they instantly know whether it's a turtle, pink dolphin (botu), or an açu.
I'll never forget the afternoon when I noticed our Baniwa guide Gerson Pena wasn't watching where I was fishing. He was staring intently at the far end of the lagoon, and using the electric motor to slowly move us that way. He spoke in Portuguese to our Argentinian fly-fishing guide Juan Pablo, and soon all four of us in the boat could see intermittent signs of at least one fish roaming near the dead end of the lagoon. First, a push of water on the left bank that disappeared in the deep water toward the middle.
My fishing partner Eduardo was in the front of the boat and covered the area with a right-handed forward cast. Then, some movement on the opposite shore, and Eduardo reversed 180 degrees with a backhand cast on the right shore. While he was still stripping his fly, a single small baitfish leapt from the water about 10 yards down the bank—closer to my end of the boat. Jerson said one word, "sardino," and my fly quickly landed in the expanding concentric rings created by that single fleeing baitfish.
I made three quick strips to move the fly from the shallows to deeper water, came tight to a heavy weight, and I kept stripping with my left hand until the line surged away from me, burning a cut in my index finger as I tried to slow the fish. I have to admit the fish had his way with me until the heavy drag from my reel turned the tide. After the fish realized it couldn't go anywhere, the battle took to the air with red, gold, and green fireworks near the boat until Juan Pablo could get the net under it. At 21 pounds, it was the largest peacock bass I've ever caught, or likely ever will catch.
It was also a shining example of how the native Amerindian guides and the international fly-fishing guides communicate and cooperate to produce the best possible fishing experience in the jungle. It's truly a team effort.
In the river, the fishing is completely different. There, you're looking for temensis in their voracious paca phase, and let's be clear. Most places where paca feed cannot be reached with a fly. It's simply too dense. But there are some habitats where you have a chance.
This modern version of a pinawaca fly—with a steel hook and nylon thread—was tied by Baniwa guide Gerson Pena. The wing is made from the soft inner bark fibers from a shrub called “peacock beard.” Ross Purnell photo
The Rio Marié is a blackwater river, which means the river water is clear, but stained with tannins from the decomposing plant material filtering rainwater into the river. The bottom of the river is a fine white sand that looks out of place in a river environment, and in low water, there are enormous white beaches that look like a postcard from a tropical island. When the tea-colored water flows over these white sandbars, the water looks blood red, and the irregular contours create ledges, drop-offs, potholes, and other ambush points. For predatory fish, it's the stuff of dreams, and it's all there in front of you to read like a map. My best paca came by sight-casting to a pair moving upriver over contoured white sand [see page 43], but many fish are just sitting in the darker depressions, waiting to ambush your fly.
The white sandbars are mostly on the insides of giant bends in the river. Some of the riverbank is heavily wooded with dead fallen trees, and the guides mostly avoid these areas. What they prefer is a bank with one of three main vegetation types: Molongó is a long straight plant stalk that is light and hollow, much like balsa wood. Some of the guides actually make popper heads from it. Jará looks like the type of ornamental elephant grass many homeowners use for landscaping in the U.S., but the stalks of this grass grow into a type of palm tree. Cabibi is similar to mangroves in that the roots and much of the plant grow underwater, and the leafy top part creates mats of vegetation with river water flowing through and underneath.
These three plant types grow in slow water on the river perimeter. They provide refuge for small baitfish, and they are feeding grounds for big predators.
The primary method of fishing the river is to use the electric trolling motor to keep the skiff parallel to the bank, and drift along the edges of the cabibi, molongó , jará and , casting your fly as close as possible to draw peacock bass into the open. The small coves and bays that offer breaks in the vegetation are the best places for a hook-up, and often you'll pull six or eight butterflies from a small space of open water no bigger than your dining room table. They are not the target species, but each strong, brightly colored, and acrobatic butterfly is a joy. When you find them, keep casting and try to catch and release every butterfly in the group. Big pacas follow groups of butterflies like sharks. The thrashing and splashing excites the big predators and can draw them out from heavy cover. If you're not catching butterflies, the guides may throw a noisy hookless teaser bait to accomplish the same effect.
Bring two or three tough 8-, 9-, or 10-weight rods with you to Amazonia. Set one rod up with a Scientific Anglers Titan Jungle line with a 15-foot clear intermediate sinking tip. This is your primary weapon. Set the other rod up with the floating version of the same line. Use the floating line for poppers in the afternoons when the water is hot and the fish are most active. The intermediate tip is a better option through the course of the day because you can mend the back of the head easily, and the tip gets the fly down where the fish can see it but doesn't hang up too much.Photo by Avi Hesterman
The guides and owner/operators of Untamed Angling have worked closely with Scientific Anglers to develop the Jungle Titan. The taper is designed to turn over bulky flies with accuracy, and the long head means you can mend and control the belly of the line from the boat. Any lines you bring should be built to deal with tropical heat—it's hot up there on deck, and your fly line is your most important tool.
A 10-weight is the best rod to make long casts with big flies, and to fight these fish, but it's hard work throwing that all day. I'm a strong, fit fly fisher, but felt trampled at the end of each day. If you're older, smaller, out of practice, out of shape, or you have shoulder or elbow problems you should make do with an 8-weight. Your muscles and joints will thank you for it.
Bring a rod that loads. As Lefty Kreh explained to me many times, you don't cast the line—you merely bend the rod, then you let the rod cast the line. This kind of efficiency is paramount in jungle fishing where you cast all day. Do not bring a super-stiff flats rod designed to boom out just a few long casts per day. You work too hard bending rods like this.
I bring 8- and 10-weight G.Loomis NRX rods to all my exotic destinations because they work for all-day casting for big gamefish and they don't break.
However, my favorite rod on the Rio Marié was a 350-grain Thomas & Thomas Exocett SS. This 8'8" rod is just a little shorter than my standard arsenal, making it a more powerful tool for fighting fish near the boat, slinging line low under overhanging branches, and for lifting sinking-tip lines near the boat for the next cast.
Bring hassle-free reels with powerful top-end drag settings. You don't need a bunch of backing capacity for these fish, because if you have your drag set correctly you don't need any backing. There is too much woody debris in this river to allow a fish to run any distance. You do need a reel that is big enough to balance your rod . . . an undersize reel will make the rod tip feel heavier and make you work harder. I used Nautilus Silver King and Ross Evolution R Salt reels without any problem. They both have the drag to stop a Mack truck, and I chose them because the drag knobs are huge and easy to crank with sweat and sunscreen on your hands.
I packed a 5-gallon Yeti LoadOut in my duffel bag and found it invaluable on the Rio Marié as a stripping bucket. It has a no-skid bottom and if you fill it with 6 or 8 inches of water, you can run the boat without removing the bucket from the platform. When you retrieve line, strip coils of line into the bucket. The water keeps the lines slick and tangle free so when you cast, you have fewer knots and you're not stepping on the line. I found it makes lines last longer in a hot, abrasive environment. When you switch ends or sides of the boat, you can just move the bucket. You're always ready. My best fish of the trip came from a 70-foot cast that landed within inches of the target moments after switching from the right bank to the left bank. Without the bucket, I wouldn't have caught that fish—I likely would have been fiddling with my line.
The most peculiar thing about the Rio Marié is that there are no mosquitoes. I didn't wear repellent, didn't see a mosquito, and there wasn't one mosquito bite reported among our group. Apparently, the water is too acidic for mosquito larvae to survive. Because the water is inhospitable to mosquitoes and most other insects, the risk of malaria, Zika virus, yellow fever, and other mosquito-borne illnesses is negligible.The many white sandy beaches of the Rio Marié are the best places to sight-fish for big pacas or butterfly peacocks. They are also perfect for swimming as long as you're not worried about piranhas. The water has little or no suspended sediments, but is stained with tannins from decomposing plant material. Grace Smith photo
Because of decreased insect life, there are fewer birds than elsewhere in the Amazon, but you will see the pink dolphins native to the Amazon basin (they feed on peacocks), piranhas, and you'll see and hear toucans, macaws, and other smaller parrots and parakeets. If you're lucky you may also see jaguars, tapirs, herds of wild boar crossing the river, or black caimen.
Brothers Avi and Bryan Hesterman on our last day on the Rio Marié noticed a large bird of prey silently winging upriver. They watched in awe as the harpy eagle dove into the riverside jungle canopy and picked a spider monkey out of a troop of primates. The jungle went from silent to chaotic as the monkeys screamed and chattered in despair, and the largest eagle in the world sat on the forest floor and tore strips of flesh from its prey. Anything can happen in the jungle, and it often does.
Native Catch & Release
Due to the efforts of Untamed Angling in conjunction with the Brazilian government and 13 indigenous tribes, the Rio Marié is the largest catch-and-release fishing preserve on the planet, with 600 miles of river under an exclusive treaty that preserves the rainforest ecosystem and mandates catch-and-release sport fishing only for Cichla temensis. The treaty signed in 2014 by all parties is valid for 20 years. In that time, Untamed Angling along with native guides are conducting a study to monitor the effects of catch-and-release angling on the fishery.
At the start of the treaty, Brazilian government biologists proclaimed the Rio Marié had the highest numbers of large temensis (over 20 pounds) in the Amazon basin. Time will tell whether catch-and-release will improve these numbers. Each temensis catch is weighed and measured and recorded in an attempt to monitor the health of the fishery over the course of multiple generations of fish.
In return, the Untamed Angling sport-fishing operation employs about 24 natives daily through the course of the season, and each visiting guest pays a native community fee ($670 USD) that goes directly toward medical and educational infrastructure at the tribal level. The Fly Shop (theflyshop.com) in Redding, California, is the exclusive booking agent for the Rio Marié and Untamed Angling's other venues in Bolivia and Brazil.
Ross Purnell is the editor of Fly Fisherman.