Thursday, March 5, 2009

Trip Report: Amazon Peacock Bass Adventure

BIG flies for BIG Peacock Bass!

On February 18th, our 7 group members traveled from various cities and met up in Miami. We planned our overnight at the Miami International Airport Hotel, conveniently located within the airport at terminal E. The following morning we departed at 7:00AM for Manaus, Brazil on TAM Brazilian Airlines. The 5 ½ hour direct flight was very comfortable since the flight was not full and allowed for each of us to have our own row of seats.

We had all carefully prepared for this trip with great anticipation. There are a few important pre-trip details that included obtaining a Brazilian Tourist Visa within 90 days of our trip departure. Some group members applied for their visa at their local Brazilian consulate, while the rest of us utilized a private visa service agency. We worked with Martin Travel Services in Miami, Florida to arrange our flight itineraries and hotel stay in Miami. They provided excellent service and even secured discounted rates for our round trip airfare.

Upon arriving Manaus, we deplaned and immediately felt the heat and humidity which reminded us that we had arrived at the equatorial region of the Brazil and home to the largest Peacock Bass in the world, the Amazon Basin. We briskly made our way through customs and immigration. After retrieving our luggage, we received a warm greeting by the owner of River Plate Outfitters, Luis Brown. He unfolded his map and showed us that we would be headed for the Upper Itapera River camp in the state of Roraima. He also informed us that fishing conditions were “good” (not great) since the entire Amazon Basin had received an enormous amount of rainfall since mid-December. The good news was that river conditions on the Itapera were good and improving (dropping water levels). The group was excited and optimistic as all fly anglers are…

Angling On The Fly has chosen to work with River Plate Outfitters for Amazon Peacock Bass trips for one specific reason… their mobile strategy for placing anglers in the most optimal fishing conditions possible. River Plate Outfitters has 6 fly-in mobile camps, made possible by their floating cabin barges. This allows them to not only be mobile, but also situate their camps in low fishing pressure regions. And on this trip, this strategy proved its worth once again.

Next, we were shuttle
d to the Hotel Tropical in Manaus for a one night stay before departing for camp the next morning. The hotel stay is included in the fishing package and offers very nice and comfortable accommodations. After a good nights rest, we headed to the CTA terminal to board our 8 passenger Cessna Caravan float plane. We lifted off and enjoyed a very scenic flight to the Upper Itapera River. The flight took about 1 ½ hours and gave us a wonderful bird’s-eye view of the Amazon Basin and its diverse environ.

The Amazon Basin is vast, covering an area about the size of the continental United States. This region is dissected by the equator, making this a tropical climate throughout the entire Amazon Basin. The months of November through April are when river levels in the Amazon Basin are at their lowest. Because of the vastness of this region, the southern areas of the basin (south of Manaus) experience l
ow river levels earlier in the season starting in October. As the season goes on, the low river level regions transition northward. From the months of May through early fall, river levels will flood to levels as high as 20+ feet. As we stood in camp, it was amazing to imagine that water levels could be at the tops of trees during the non-fishing months. What an amazing dynamic environment!

After doing a fly-by on our camp, we gently touched down on the Itapera River. The camp staff met us on river with their boats to shuttle the group and our gear to camp. The rest of the staff greeted us on the beach with warm hearted smiles and their version of a Brazilian margarita! We were shown to our cabins where we settled in and quickly rigged tackle for a “day zero” of fishing. Yes, we were fortunate to take the first float plane out from Manaus and this allowed us to arrive camp with ample time to get a bonus half day of fishing in. And, day zero proved to be a snapshot of the rest of this wonderful week of fishing… massive Peacock Bass would be hooked and landed this week.

Due to higher than normal water conditions, we fished 8 – 10 weight rods with fas
t sink-tip fly lines. In many areas, the river level submerged the base of trees. This was a “catch-22” for us,… the Azul and Butterfly Peacock Bass love structure and, therefore, it made locating them obvious. However, on the anglers end of the deal it made for a fishing strategy that entailed accurate target casting to likely holding spots for the fish. The more accurate you presented your fly, the more Peacocks you would entice. Many anglers liken Peacock Bass fishing to playing an arcade video game,… a fun game that rewards hitting the mark.

During our week of fishing, a remarkable 51 “double-digit” Peacock Bass would be landed. The largest Peacocks (by species) landed include an impressive Azul Peacock of 20 pounds landed by Jim Christensen, a 15 pound Paca
Peacock landed by Shizuo Nakawatase, and an 11 pound Butterfly Peacock landed by me. This was an incredible week for size of fish landed… 20, 19, 18.5, 17s, 16s, 15s, 14s, and numerous 10s – 13s.

A variety of flies worked throughout the week. Burk’s Punk Bait, Fuch’s Agitator and Deception, Blanton’s Whistler, Reynold’s Gen-X Bunny, Flashtail Clousers, and a variety of personal tied creations by the group. Each day we had to experiment with the retrieve of these flies. On some days, the Peacock Bass were aggressive and pounded on a rapidly retrieved fly. On other days, a more methodical retrieve with pauses was the ticket to fooling the fish.

Throughout the week, we were fortunate to have dropping water levels. Each day we would look at a designated marker stick with hopes that the river continued to drop. Our conditions improved throughout the week and that made for some very happy anglers! This tropical environ is so dynamic in many ways. We had a couple of days of rain showers, a couple days of overcast, and a few days of pure sunshine. The overall range of daytime temperatures deviated between 80 and 90 degrees.

The water levels did impact the average numbers of Peacock Bass landed. During our week, the average was between 20 – 30 Peacock Bass per day. During years that the water levels are normal in the Amazon Basin, averages much higher are achieved. But again, our group was very pleased with the fishing because of the trophy sizes that were being hooked. Eve
n the guides were amazed at the much larger than average size of Peacocks being landed. During the week a number of group members raised the bar on some of the guide’s personal best on the fly. It was such a joy to see how the guides would often get more excited than the anglers about a trophy fish landed or lost! Our skilled guides’ names were Caju, Carlos, Ronaldo, and Sydney.

After each day of fishing, it was not the “landed” fish that dominated story time,… it was the dozens of mystery sized Peacock Bass that broke 40 pound and even 50 pound test leader material The immense torque and power of Peacock Bass resulted in battle wounds of line-burned fingers, ripped stripping guards, and even melted fly lines. With the higher river levels, anglers had
to make an instant decision whether to “try” to stop these beasts from powering into the submerged trees and structure, or to just let them go and hope that our guides could swim them out of the entanglement. Sometimes, we made the wrong decision only to have our flies broken off and left in wonderment if it was a “20 plus’r”…

On occasion, the Peacock Bass were too powerful for us to stop and they would end up fleeing into deep cover and structure. It was at that time that the guides would, without hesitation, jump over the side of the boat, swim and follow the entangled
fly line, and retrieve the trophy fish from the snags. It was amazing to witness this event, as guides seemed to be equally at-home in the water just like the fish they were in pursuit of. They would pop back up to the surface with the recovered trophy Peacock and a big smile of success and accomplishment. These guides are truly committed and hard working.

Another incredible skill of the guides is their ability to truly hunt the trophy sized Peacocks. Our guide would always be watching subtle movements on the surface of the water in lagoons. Sometimes, he would say, “Cast to the bubbles! Cast! Cast!” We learned that trophy Peacock Bass will hold their young (fry) in their mouth and occasionally let them out to feed near the surface. It is at this instant when fine bubbles emerge on the surface and it is time to quickly cast your fly through the fry and entice the prote
ctive parent. A number of our trophy Peacock Bass were landed with this strategy. Other instances of “the hunt” included the guide watching for subtle bulges in the surface. Giant Peacock Bass displace a large volume of water while cruising due to the sheer mass and size of their body. It was very exciting to fish this way, knowing that a hook up was going to be a trophy fish.

Each day the fishing schedule included breakfast at 6:30AM, depart for fishing at 7:00AM, lunch at Noon, and return to camp at 5:00PM. Drinks and appetizers are served, with dinner being served at 6:30PM. Often, our story time after dinner only lasted until about 9:30PM or so. Most of us were quite tired after battling Peacocks all day.

The pre and post fishing hours at camp are easy going and relaxed. The group always round tabled on the beach and shared stories from the day’s adventures. Our camp host was Bibi Kahn, a wonderful host that was a wealth of knowledge about region’s culture, flora, and fauna. The rest of the staff spoke very little English, so Bibi dutifully acted as translator when we wanted to ask questions of the staff and guides. The guides do, however, speak adequate “fishing English”, which enabled them to communicate the fishing strategy and even entertain us with some very comical fishing humor.

Most of the staff was from Santa Maria (“Boi Acu”), a small fishing village far down river from our location on Itapera River. Some of the guide’s wives worked as camp staff and even brought some of their children to live at camp with them. It was so apparent how important “family” is here amongst these locals. At the day’s end one would hear joyous laughter and conversations from the kitchen and staff quarters. It was quite apparent that they are a happy people that are truly in touch with their life in the Amazon Basin.

Surely, the guides were excellent at every aspect of their job as a fishing guide, from finding fish, fly selection, boat handling and positioning, fishing strategy, to overall attentiveness to the anglers needs. But what most impressed me with the guides was their willingness and interest in sharing more than just the fishing experience. I will explain this with an excerpt from my travel journal:

“I am captivated by this place! Today, our guide “Caju” was motoring us to our next fishing spot, when suddenly he dropped to an idle and slowly began to motor over the steep bank on our left. I looked back at him and he had amazement in his eyes and said “Priguica! Priguica!” Not understanding Portuguese, Shiz and I looked in the direction of where Caju was pointing. As we got closer to the bank, we saw a small hairy creature grasping onto a tree branch that was partway submerged along the river’s edge. In total amazement, I suddenly realized that Priguica means “sloth” in Portugese. We were able to quietly motor right up to the sloth and take some amazing photos of this amazing animal. Caju said he was just a baby and even petted it on the head before it slowly crawled back up the branch and into the top of the tree. This truly has been one of the highlights of this trip to the Amazon. And, Caju even said that this was a first for him too, to be able to have such a close encounter with this very elusive creature of the Amazon jungle.”

The Amazon Basin truly offers so much more than just fishing. The keen eyes of the guides were always on the lookout to show us something interesting about their environment. Throughout the week, our group saw otters, dolphin, “mutim” birds, yellow rump taningers (“Japim”) and their nests, Morpheus Butterflies, Howler Monkeys, McCaws, Caiman and their nests, snapping turtles and nests, Tapir, and many other fascinating creatures of the Amazon Basin.

In addition to the variety of wildlife in the jungle, it was also amazing to see the many different fish species that share the river with Peacock Bass. Our group landed a variety of species including Jacunda, dog fish, mud fish (“Traira”), Red Tail Catfish, freshwater cudas, and of course, the infamous Piranha. The most apparent feature on some of the fish in the Amazon is a voracious set of teeth. On occasion, we would get a missed grab while retrieving our fly and soon discover that the back half of our fly had been a meal for a Piranha or some other toothy creature. Bring lots of flies if you fish the Amazon!

For the Peacock Bass and other species, it is truly an underwater world of predator-prey, and even cannibalism. One of the most memorable scenes was to witness 3 pound Peacock Bass skipping across the surface in a meager attempt to flee from a behemoth Peacock Bass waking the surface close behind. Often, the finale was a bowling ball sized explosion of water that signaled a meal was had. This aggression, power, and speed are what make Peacock Bass an incredible gamefish on the fly.

By the end of the week, all of the group members posted incredible personal bests and countless fish stories of behemoth Peacock Bass lost. Our only regret during the trip was having to leave this amazing fishery and return to civilization. For me, this trip is at the top of my lifetime list of angling highlights and memories… I will return next year for sure! Fish On!