Thursday, January 28, 2010

Back from the Amazon! Peacock Bass Report (Jan. 2010)

Jerry displaying his massive 21 pound Azul Peacock Bass
(more trip photos at end of report)

With winter storms in the forecast at home, my group and I departed on our annual fishing adventure in the Brazilian Amazon. What a welcome thought for each us,… to leave the cold rainy weather behind and head for the tropical latitude. But what most encouraged us to make this trip was to, once again, pursue one of fishing’s greatest freshwater gamefish on the fly, the Peacock Bass.

To start, this trip would introduce us to fishing conditions that were in great contrast to the previous years’ experience. Prior to this season, the Amazon basin experienced heavy rainfall and resulting high water levels throughout the basin. On last year’s trip, (Feb. 2009 Report), we experienced very high water levels on the Itapera River. Despite this fact, our group still landed solid numbers of trophy Peacock Bass. But, this season would show that with optimal conditions, an even grander fishing experience was to be had.

With this season’s low water conditions, the stage was set for ideal fly fishing conditions. From the moment we gained altitude in the Cessna Caravan and flew northward, we observed many exposed sand bars on the Rio Negro and other tributaries. This was a welcome sight for us, as we knew that all fish were out of the jungle and confined within the banks of the rivers and lagoons.

As scheduled, our group arrived camp on the Xeriuini River. Low river levels required the float plane to land on the lower stretch of river near the confluence with the Rio Branco. Throughout the week, our mobile camp moved upriver every couple of days to ensure that we did not over-pressure fish in a particular stretch. This strategy by River Plate Outfitters is unique, highly effective, and advantageous for anglers. In addition, it was always nice to have a change of scenery while returning to camp. Each day our host, Alejandro, would greet us with a smile and eager ear for reports on the fishing success.

At first glance, the Amazon is vast and a seemingly homogenous mass of jungle broken by the occasional river drainage. However, as one settles in at camp and begins to observe the natural surroundings, it is quite apparent how much diversity there is in the Amazon basin. Previously, Alejandro was an eco-tour guide in the Amazon jungle and, therefore, shared many interesting facts about the jungle and river ecosystem. He explained that there is a delicate balance and interdependency amongst the flora and fauna of the Amazon. Due to the nutrient poor quality of the soil and sand in the Amazon basin, the trees, plants, and fungi depend on each other for an exchange of nutrients and to form unique cycle of life for each other. Intertwined with this relationship is animals’ dependency on flora and other animals for sustenance and survival. Each life form is an essential puzzle piece in the Amazon’s circle of life.

Throughout the week, it was amazing to see the diversity of wildlife along the river’s edge. Our group reported sightings of various birdlife such as indigenous macaws, parakeets, heron, egrets, and many other unique species to this region. We also saw two different species of dolphin, caiman, otters, and numerous other rodent species. And often, in the distance, we could hear the roar of the howler monkeys. What a truly amazing place the Amazon is… so much diversity.

Our accommodations at camp are best described as “high-class camping” with air condition tent cabins, private sink / shower / toilet facilities, daily laundry and housekeeping service, and comfortable beds. Additionally, the meals were hearty and a pure delight. Breakfast included food items like eggs-over-easy, toast, sausage, fruit, and some of the best bold Brazilian coffee you will every drink. Lunches were simple and self-made by each angler – make your own sandwiches, cookies, fruit, etc. Bottled water, soft drinks, beer, wine, and local liquors were available to everyone as well.

After each exciting day of pulling on fish, we would arrive camp and be served a congratulatory drink (Brazlian style of a margarita) that was enjoyed by everyone on the beach. It was always exciting to hear of the battles won and lost against the brutish Peacock Bass. And finally, each evening we looked forward to the soup of the day, a hearty meal of fish, chicken, beef, and/or pork, and a surprising dessert like ice cream (yes, ice cream in the midst of the jungle). Yes, we were truly “roughing-it” on this trip... that is what I tell my wife! ;-)

This week’s fishing experience and success was incredible in many respects. We landed an impressive number of Peacock Bass, some of which were mammoth proportions. In addition to the “count”, our group was also pleased with the variety of tactics we could employ throughout the week. From topwater to subsurface, and from sparse to jumbo flies, our fishing was successful with a variety of methods and flies. (see Tackle Notes at end of report for specific details)

The lower water levels created a much different fishing scenario than last year’s trip. Last year, with the high water levels we focused our blind-casting toward the bank structure and submerged jungle tree line where the Peacocks would be patrolling for a meal. This year was a much different scene – the river level below the jungle tree line, exposed sand bars, shallow flats and lagoons (or “lakes” as the guides like to call them), and narrow river braids and channels. We would fish a variety of areas in a section of river or lake – bank structure if water was deep enough, dropoffs at exposed points, sand flats, and, most surprisingly, dead-center in the middle of a lake or lagoon. All of these qualities added up to a fishing experience that was much more diverse, intimate, and visual.

Most apparent was the ability to see the Peacock Bass in some areas. The low water conditions concentrated the fish on some shallow flats or sand bars. Like all sight fishing, it was a challenge to not spook these fish when presenting the fly. Lining the fish or presenting your fly with a loud “splat!” would surely bring a failed effort on the angler’s part. Additionally, if a big Peacock was tending to its spawning bed in the shallows, the fish would not always spook, but would hold tight to their spawning bed with a tight lip. It was very intriguing, however, to observe these behemoths in the process of procreating the next generation of jumbo Peacock Bass,… or rather, creating a future meal for themselves or other ravenous predator. The Amazon basin is truly an “eat or be eaten” world for fish.

OK, back to the sight fishing game… the visual aspect of this game was amazing. Seeing Peacock Bass cruising the shallows puts an angler in the “hunt mentality”. It was awesome to see a number of fish in the shallows and get to choose which fish you wanted to pursue… of course, it just so happened that we always seemed to choose the biggest Peacock when we had the choice! The pure explosive speed and power of these fish is incredible. I recall on many instances spotting my “chosen” fish, leading the fish with my cast, fly landing, stripping the fly, seeing the fish get excited 10 feet from the fly, and then a complete blur of fish disappearing and the water boiling where my fly was last seen. Of course, the finale was an arm-jolting jerk on the line as the Peacock Bass nailed the fly at full speed. Amazing,… truly amazing. These fish can close a distance of 6 to 10 feet in what seems like a millisecond.

Another exciting visual scene is to enter a lagoon or lake and see Peacock Bass busting bait with a fury. And sometimes, this “bait” is a school of 2 – 3 pound Peacocks fleeing for their life as a tsunami-sized wake behind them closes in and finishes the act with the sound “KABOOOSH!” Yes, that is the sound of a “teener plus” Peacock Bass closing the deal on a meal. It is these instances when an angler can see how fast these Peacock Bass can swim and close in on their prey.

Next, I forgot to mention that, in addition to the visual experience, the audible experience of fishing for Peacock Bass can be exciting and down-right unnerving at times. This past week, we had prime conditions for topwater fishing. It was a scene that repeated itself throughout the week… enter a quiet lagoon and ready our topwater setups. Make a cast and start the retrieve. Poppers (Banger), divers (Pike Fly), crease flies (RDCF), gurglers (Haskin’s), and walkers (ie. Bisharat’s Pole Dancer) all create an audible sound and disturbance that call the Peacock Bass. I like to think that the sound these flies make is like the theme sound from Jaws. With each strip, you just know that the Peacock Bass is advancing closer to the fly. This past week’s largest topwater Peacocks were landed by Jim Christensen, who landed two 17 pounders on Bisharat’s PoleDancer and a massive 19 pounder on Umpqua’s Pike Fly. It was amazing to hear the stories told about these behemoth fish and the way they ate the fly. Surely, it was a visual sight to behold, but what was most commented on was the sound that these fish made when they pounded the topwater offering. Words like a “power-flush”, “bowling ball”, and “vacuum” were used to describe the audible on these topwater eats.

The best performing topwater setups included a 9 or 10 weight rod lined with a RIO Tropical Outbound Short floater, and 5 - 6 feet of 40 - 50 pound straight leader material (mono or flouro). Some anglers over-lined their rods by one and even two line sizes (ie. 9 weight rod with an 11 weight OBS). Granted, some of the anglers in our group were throwing chicken-sized topwater flies. With this jumbo fly setup, the Quigley/Gutterres twisted leader systems proved to be essential for effectively turning over these large flies. Most of my topwater fishing was conducted with the Sage Largemouth rod and fly line. It worked well for all but the largest topwater flies in my box. Tropical lines are a must for fishing this environ. The water temps are warm and the deck of the boat can be scalding hot during the midday heat.

A total of 57 “double-digit” Peacock Bass were landed in 6 ½ days of fishing by our group. The largest was an impressive 21 poundser landed by Jerry Lyerly on his baby Peacock Bass pattern that he tied on a Gama EWG worm hook. It was interesting to note that most of the trophy Peacocks were hooked while casting to the middle of the lagoons and lakes,… not the shoreline structure. The guides and host Alejandro explained to us that, during low water conditions, the bigger fish most often hold in the deepest areas of a relatively shallow area. When these fish are ready to eat, they head for the shoreline areas to pounce on their prey. In many of the areas where large Peacocks were hooked, the “deeper” areas were only about 4 – 6 feet deep. Blind casting to these areas yielded fish of 2 pounds to 21 pounds… you just never knew what to expect.

On this trip, our group was fortunate to post remarkable numbers of fish for the week – almost 1850 Peacock Bass were landed. Without a doubt the single fly that produced the highest numbers of fish was a baby blue over white flash-tail Clouser on a Gama jig hook (2/0 or 3/0). Our group discovered the effectiveness of this fly color combo when one of the anglers, Shiz Nakawatase, and his wife, Judy, tied up a few for last year’s trip. Shiz ended up landing the most double-digit fish on this fly last year. This year, the fly did not account for the largest of fish landed, but surely ranked the best for pure numbers of fish. It was reported that this pattern fished best in the afternoons when fishing in clearer water conditions. Anglers Jim Bare and Doc Cedar did progressively well throughout the week on F/T Clousers, and even jokingly harassed me about why one of the F/T Clousers I gave them fell apart after “only” 15 Peacocks landed. And, anglers Wade Yoshii and Terry Jenkins produced 100+ fish days on 5 out of 6 days of fishing by using this fly. There is one other fly that also takes a place in the hot-fly category… Bisharat’s Air Head in red over yellow and brown over white (3/0). The Peacocks loved the profile and lateral action of this fly. It accounted for the most double-digit Peacocks that I personally hooked during the week.

The most ideal subsurface setup this past week was a 9 weight rod with the RIO Tropical Outbound Short F/I (intermediate tip). A strong 9 weight is easier to cast all day than a stout 10 weight setup, and yet still has the backbone to handle the largest Peacocks. Most of us used straight 40 – 50 pound test leader material. This high test rating is needed for a combination of reasons… to survive the powerful grab and first run of a trophy Peacock (shock strength is needed), to stand up to the abrasive nature of the Peacock Bass’ mouth (rough like a tarpon), and to minimize break offs and lost flies from toothy finned creatures (piranha, dogfish, mudfish, barracuda… and the list goes on.)

Well, I am still reluctantly coming down from my Peacock Bass “buzz”… it was an epic trip that will go down in the fishing annals for sure. I am headed back next season for another week (or two!) of fishing adventures in the Amazon! Until then, Fish On!

Keith Kaneko

Keith's Tackle Notes:

Favorite Topwater Setup

Rods: Sage BASS rod (Largemouth model) – or – Sage Xi3 990-4

Reels: Sage 6080 – or – Galvan Torque 8

Fly Line: RIO Tropical Outbound Short (10 or 11 weight full floating) – or – Sage BASS line (330 grain)

Leader: RIO Flouroflex 44# or 52#; Maxima UltraGreen 40#; Quigley Twisted Leaders (4 foot)

HOT Flies: Bisharat’s Pole Dancer (fire-tiger or red/white), Ron Dong Crease Fly, Pike Fly, and Bubble Head.

Favorite Subsurface Setup

Rod: Sage Xi3 990-4

Reel: Sage 6080

Fly Line: RIO Tropical Outbound Short F/I (intermediate tip)

Leader: RIO FlouroFlex 44# or 52#

HOT Flies: Bisharat’s AirHead (red/yellow or brown/white), Blanton’s Whistler (red/white) and F/T Clouser (baby blue/white), Fuch’s Peacock Deception, and Anderson’s Reducer.

Left to Right: Wade, Terry, Jerry, Jim C., Jim B., Shiz, Doc, and me

Cessna Caravan float plane - our transportation to the Xeriuini River

The Amazon's beautiful Xeriuini River

Guide Joao and Shiz with a nice Azul Peacock

Alejandro showing our location in the Amazon...

Joe serving up a hearty dinner meal...

Jim and guide Jardel showing a nice Peacock Bass landed on an AirHead

Shore lunch BBQ prepared by the guides

Jim and his 14 pound trophy Peacock Bass!

The Peacock Bass... a beautiful, and yet formidable predator of the Amazon

Wade releasing a trophy Peacock Bass...

Shiz and Wade pet a baby Caiman caught on an evening eco-tour...

Doc with a double-digit jumbo PBass!

The group enjoying the delicious soup of the day...

One of many nice Peacock Bass landed on a Bisharat AirHead

Our camp on the Xeriuini River...

Piranha made short use of the Gen-X Bunny fly...

One of Jim's trophies landed on the topwater "Pole Dancer"

Low water conditions required some shallow water portages to get to the prime lagoons

Alejandro explaining the timing of the fishing seasons throughout the Amazon Basin

Jerry getting pounded by Amazon rainfall... no rain jacket needed!

Some lagoons required the conveyor approach to move the boat across land

The fishing boats at camp...

My favorite by-catch of the trip... an Arowana!

Jim and one of his trophy Peacocks for the trip

Terry taking a jungle lunch break... hey!... catching 100+ fish per day is hard work!

Piranha dental checkup

Terry and his topwater trophy landed on a RDCF

The formidable Dog Fish... watch out for those teeth!

The group recounting an amazing day of fishing... 11 double-digits landed by Jim and Jerry

Shiz lands another trophy Peacock on his trusty F/T Clouser

Meet Mr. Jacunda says guide Mo...

Wade excited about landing an Arowana!

Baby blue and white F/T Clouser lands another Peacock Bass!

Traira look prehistoric and also wreak havoc on your nicely tied flies with their gnarly teeth

A beautiful Jacunda...

Wade and 10 pounder...

Jerry and one of his two 19 pounders for the trip...