Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Trip Report: Amazon Peacock Bass by Bill Blanton

A big thank you to Bill Blanton (Ft. Myers, FL) for writing this wonderful report from last month's trip to the Amazon with River Plate Anglers. Also, Bill is an exceptional photographer and surely captured a visual representation of the trip too. It begins here...

In the world of freshwater fish, the peacock is the badass. He’s the snotty kid with the mean attitude. He’s the playground bully who’ll take your lunch money, bloody your nose, send you crying to the teacher after recess.

He’ll straighten your hook, pop your leader, wind your flyline through a maze of roots and underwater tree branches. Give him a chance, he’ll break your rod.

Once you subdue him and get him in the boat, he glares defiantly with those blood-red eyes as if to say, “So … is that the best you’ve got?”

In mid-January, I joined Dan Blanton and five other pilgrims for a journey into peacock country. From Miami we flew to Manaus, Brazil, where two massive river systems, the Rio Negro and the Rio Madiera, join the Amazon. We spent one night there in a luxury hotel, then flew by single-engine, 12-passenger prop plane to the tiny community of Santa Maria on the banks of the Rio Branco, a tributary of the Rio Negro. We boarded a launch at Santa Maria, motored downstream on the Branco to its junction with the smaller Rio Xeriuni, then headed back upstream a ways on the smaller river until we encountered our mobile camp — four air-conditioned cabins for anglers, a cook shack, dining hall, guide quarters and generator barge — all mounted on pontoons so they could be towed from site to site by a riverboat “tug.” The camp moved three times during our eight days on the water.

By mid-afternoon of the first day, Dan and I were rigged and on the water fishing out of a 21-foot jon boat, equipped with 30-horsepower Suzuki and stern-mounted trolling motor. Our captain was Moe, the head guide. For about an hour or so, Dan and I politely took turns manning the bow, with one angler resting while the other fished. It only took a few hard pulls from peacocks to change that arrangement. For the rest of the six-and-a-half fishing days, we both cast at the same time, one from the bow, the other from midships. We alternated positions daily. We fished it like it was a job, casting continuously, pausing only to change flies, grab a drink of water or stretch weary muscles.

The work paid off in fish. Over the six-and-a-half days, we caught 270 fish ranging from two to 14 pounds. There were several other double-digit beauties and a whole bunch of seven- and eight-pounders that put a good bend in our rods. We caught all four species of peacock common to our area: the Azul, the Butterfly, the Paca and a fourth whose name I could never master, a fish that looked like a blend of Butterfly and Paca. In total, our group of six anglers caught 909 fish over the same period. One angler, John Waldum, landed fish of 22 and 18 pounds. We also caught a mixed bag of piranha, oscars, dogfish and other weird species endemic to the Amazon region.

The fishing was brutal. We were casting stout nine-weights equipped with Rio Tropical Outbound Short intermediate lines, frequently out to 70, 80, 90 feet, with large, wind-resistant flies. On no other fishing trip have I cast so many times at such distance. Each morning, I’d strip line off my reel until there were only a few turns left around the arbor, load it into the absolutely essential vertical line management device, in this case a travel bucket from Sea Level Fly Fishing, and go to work. For efficiency, we made a lot of casts with water hauls instead of aerializing the line. But there were times when, for accuracy’s sake, we had to false cast a few times before placing the fly.

With the two of us casting at the same time, large hooks were continually flying through the air around and over the boat. I only hit Dan three times, thankfully, in the back with the hook eye instead of in the face with the point. He was kind enough not to return the favor.

Accuracy was essential. The dynamic of the Amazon riverbank is that large trees, up to 50 or 60 feet in height, grow right up to the water’s edge. In times of high water, the bank erodes away from the root systems, and the trees fall in the water. On a typical shoreline, you don’t encounter one or two logs. Instead, it’s a maze of very large fallen trees, rotting logs, entangled branches — peacock heaven but hell for anglers trying to place a fly in an unobstructed spot.

The trick was to drop the fly as close to the obstructions as possible, swim it though the tangle of branches, then let it sink a bit once it reached the open water. Oftentimes, the water by the banks would be three to six feet deep. That changed, of course, depending on overall water levels. During our trip, water was high, but not unfishable.

A common exchange after one of us seemed to get a bump on the retrieve would go like this:




As a guide in South Florida, I’m used to poling my boat over to a mangrove shoreline to help an angler pluck his fly out of the branches. I never make a big deal out of it. It’s all part of the game, so I didn’t feel bad at all when our Brazilian guides had to troll or paddle to a branch so I could dislodge my fly. Call it karma.

However, it was above and beyond the call of duty when two guides had to dive into the water to retrieve fish that had tangled themselves up in the roots.

Before Brazil, I’d heard talk about how hard-pulling peacock bass are. Since fishermen are known to exaggerate, I was somewhat skeptical. Anglers said they used “gorilla” leaders of straight 40-, 50- or even 60-pound mono. I was determined not to do that since it sounded like a good way to break a rod or lose a fly line. Instead, I employed one of Capt. John Quigley’s excellent five-foot twisted leaders for a butt section, then attached a three-foot segment of 40-pound mono for a tippet. The twisted leader is created from 20-pound mono, but its built-in stretch gives it a cushioning factor that reduces break-offs and still protects line and rod.

The pull? That was no bull. The first take, even from a small fish, is a shock. You’re stripping in the line on the retrieve, when, suddenly, it stops. I don’t mean you get a jolt; I mean, the line stops.

Then it goes the other way … fast.

I’ve pulled a lot of snook out of the mangroves over the past 18 years. When a snook turns and heads for the roots, I try to steer him the way he wants to go and use his own momentum to keep him out of the bushes.

You can’t do that with peacock. You’ve got to pull straight back against the run — immediately — and not give an inch. Then you’ve got to keep pulling for all you’re worth, being careful to play the fish off the butt of the rod instead of the more fragile tip, all the while hoping your guide can get the trolling motor turned around quickly enough to ease you away from the bank.

Forget the reel. Both Dan and I lost large fish trying to put them on the reel. (On the other hand, John Waldum lost his line and 100 yards of backing to a fish he hooked in the open water and had to play off the reel).

The fight continues when you get the fish away from the woods. The peacock will jump, make short runs, dive under the boat. Once it’s subdued and in hand, the game’s still not over. More than once during picture taking, a seemingly dormant peacock suddenly came back to life while being held for the camera, wrestling itself out of our hands and thrashing around in the boat. This might happen three or four times with one fish. Even after several minutes of posing for photos, they were very strong during the release. Red eyes glaring, they’d give one powerful tail kick and be gone.

More about that pull: On the second day, when we’d gained a little experience, I got a hit from a very large fish, perhaps the largest we encountered during the entire trip. I was an instant late in controlling the line, so the fish accelerated toward the bushes. When I finally got a good grasp on the line, it was too late. He had gained too much momentum. I pulled. He pulled. The leader broke.

The 20-pound twisted leader butt section held, but the 40-pound tippet parted at the knot to the fly. I’m real careful with my knots and proud of how they hold up, but after studying the tippet for a few minutes, I abandoned the Improved Homer Rode Loop Knot I’ve used for tarpon, sails and other large critters and switched over to the knot Dan was using, the Harro version of the Non-Slip Loop Knot. No more problems after that.

We all exhibited combat wounds. Under normal fishing conditions I wear sungloves on both hands. On the middle finger of my rod hand, I place a finger guard. After three days of battling peacocks, I had to increase the protection to three finger guards on the rod hand: one on index, one on middle and one on the third finger. Under the finger guard on the third finger, over the big open bleeding blister, I placed a band-aid and over-wrapped that with a one-inch wide strip I’d cut from a bandanna. I wound the rest of the bandanna around my palm to cushion it and slid the sunglove over the whole bandaged mess so my hand resembled a small pillow with fingers sticking out of it.

On the line hand, I placed finger guards on thumb and index finger. By Day Four, the back of my line hand swelled up in a puffy mound, a reaction, I guess, to the constant rapid stripping. My back hurt, my shoulder ached. The first few casts in the morning were reminiscent of a pitcher warming up in the bullpen: A few easy throws of 20 feet or so, a few more out to about 30 feet, then a little more velocity, a 40-footer with a little heat on it, then, finally, the fast ball, a long cast into the wooded banks.

Even landing 270 fish, we encountered dry spells. We’d work a bank for a while catching nothing, then one of us would get a bite. Sometimes, that’d be the only fish in the spot, but, more often, one fish meant others, perhaps many others, in the vicinity. The last day of fishing started slowly until we found a pod of Paca lying in the deep water off a sharp point. We cast our flies up to the point, stripped a couple of times, then let our flies drop for 10 to 12 seconds before we resumed the retrieve. The hit would come on the first or second strip after the drop. We caught seven or eight fish there before they wised up.

Later that day, we worked a U-shaped indentation in the main river channel right across from a small village. In a stretch of about 40 feet, we landed 23 fish in an hour and a half, the largest running seven pounds. That afternoon, we hit the same spot again and caught another 10 or so, including our best fish for the trip, Dan’s 14-pounder. Our total for the day was 52 fish, so three-fifths of our grabs came from one spot.

Based on my experience of just one trip, fly selection is important but not critical. The most important thing was to put the fly in the right place.

Still, some patterns worked better than others. We both caught fish on a wide variety of flies and fly types. My favorite was a version of Rob Anderson’s Reducer tied, like almost all of my flies for the trip, by Bill Logan of Roseburg, Oregon. It was buoyant enough to swim though the branches but heavy enough to sink effectively once it reached the open water. The orange, yellow and blue bucktail and orange grizzly hackle seemed an appealing color combination. The fish loved it. The Reducer was most effective in the morning. In midday, fish seemed to want a change-up. One day, I pulled out a 3/0 black and yellow Enrico Puglisi tarpon fly. The “Rotten Banana Peel” fly worked great for an hour or so, then lost its effectiveness. Another great midday fly was a small chartreuse and white Clouser. Late in the afternoon, fish seemed to want something with more bulk, so I changed to variations of Dan’s Flashtail Whistler. The most effective color combo for me was chartreuse and white.

Dan fished a wider variety of flies than I did but probably caught most of his larger fish on versions of the Whistler.

Because of the high water levels, topwater flies weren’t effective. Everyone tried them for a bit — Dan cast a Ron Dong Crease Fly for an hour or so on our last morning — but the fish just wouldn’t come up for it. Intermediate lines with bulky or weighted flies were the ticket.

The trip was organized by Keith Kaneko of Angling On The Fly. Unfortunately, Keith was not able to accompany us. River Plate Outfitters did a magnificent job of getting us there and putting us in a position to catch fish. Our camp host, John Silvia, was a genuine delight, a great organizer, host, fishing adviser, emergency field surgeon. Guides were professional and capable. Food and accommodations on the river were first-class.

It was a great trip for a great fish.

Bill Blanton

Gallery of Bill's photos - CLICK HERE

The Third Time's the Charm - Peacock Bass in Brazil with River Plate Outfitters (Jan. 14-21, 2012) by Dan Blanton

Below is a great report and photos by Dan Blanton who fished with us in the Amazon in mid-January:

The Third Time’s the Charm

Peacock Bass in the Brazilian Jungle with River Plate Outfitters

Well, it took two years after our original booking date to get there – Where? The Brazilian jungle and peacock bass with world-renowned remote camp operator, River Plate. We had first scheduled a departure date in January of 2011 but were cancelled because the river banks were overflowing into the jungle a half mile from unprecedented rainfall. We rescheduled to March same year and again were cancelled the night before departure, bags packed, and drooling to get going – high water again. River Plate gave us a full credit for the coming year. They are extremely honorable folks.

What a let down – a serious heartbreaker for all in our group of eight anxious anglers. Only three of our group had ever fished the Amazon for peacock bass before; Keith Kaneko of Angling on the Fly travel and the Leonard boys – father and son, John and Jon. Actually there would be five Johns in our camp when we finally made it there: John Waldum (JW); John Franzia (Franzia) and his wife Mary Lynne; John Leonard; Jon Leonard and our camp host, John Silvia. I called Jon Leonard “Little Jon” just to help keep things straight. JW just fit JW...

We had a wonderful group of people who all got along splendidly. It couldn’t have been a better assembly if they had been picked by Dr. Phil.

The first leg

Our last and final re-booked date was to depart Miami International on TAM airways, January 13, 2012 (a Friday) – good thing I’m not superstitious...

We arrived at the Manaus International airport right on schedule and after a slow time getting through immigration and customs, we were met by River Plate owner, Luis Brown and his superb transfer people. After introductions and a bit of a wait until all of us had our luggage and were re-grouped, we were transferred by van to the Five-Star, Cesar Hotel; and believe me, it was 5-star, with a marvelous staff, excellent rooms and a wonderful restaurant. The entire River Plate operation and its logistics is nothing but first class – but I knew that already from reports I’d read; and from anglers I’d spoken with about their operation over the years. Now I was there with partner Bill Blanton to witness it first hand and to be able to heartily confirm that everything I’d heard and read about the operation was true.

As the old saying goes “The third time is the charm” and all went off with out a hitch this time – well with almost no hitches – nothing to obsess over anyhow.

Reports were that the water was still a bit high in the river system we were scheduled to fish; but with luck, it would drop and we’d experience good opportunity; hopefully, good fishing. Suffice it to say:


About the fish and the fishing

As it turned out there were only 7 out of 8 scheduled people in our group since Keith Kaneko had to cancel for personal reasons. There was one couple with us, the Franzia’s, John and Mary Lynne. Mary Lynne was our camp morale booster and official “happenings” photographer. Mary Lynne didn’t fish; which reduced our total rod-wavers to six. In just 6-1/2 days of hard-ass fly fishing, we landed more than 900 fish (the guides are required to keep accurate daily counts with clickers). My partner, Coz, Captain Bill Blanton and I landed more than 270 to 14 pounds with lots of 6- to 12-pounders in the mix; and we lost count of the 3- to 5- pounders and smaller, medium-all-purpose fish caught and released, keeping only a few daily to augment camp dinners. Bill’s largest Azul peacock was a bit over 10-pounds and I managed to best a 14-pound Azul. Of the four species of peacock bass: the Azul (or Assu), the Paca, the Butterfly and the Popoca, the Azul grows the largest – but the Paca might be meaner for its size, somewhat like a smallmouth bass, often preferring moving water.

The largest fish of the week went to JW (John Waldum) with a 22-pounder; his second gargantuan, an 18-pounder. He also got his clock cleaned by a monster that got into his backing about a hundred yards breaking off his entire fly line around a bloody stump or something. There were certainly plenty of those around – lots visible and many that weren’t. We were fishing in hazardous conditions when it came to flies and lines. Everyone in our group though, managed to land double-digit fish, a few teeners.

Casting requirements

Casting requirements and conditions (structure – blow-downs, stumps, brush trees, you name it) demanded extreme accuracy, with both long and short casts and so many of them that we all developed several blisters on our casting hand within the first day-and-a-half. Thank God JW had brought a large bottle of squeeze, instant glue, and the perfect stuff for sealing blisters and cuts after proper cleaning. I had packed a bottle of brush-on Krazy Glue for that express purpose but it never made it to camp – TSA? And, yes, we all wore Armara palmed Sun Gloves – which didn’t provide enough protection for our obviously tender casting hands. Thank God for Stripping Guards too – lest we suffered sever finger line burns. Bottom line – if you couldn’t throw tight loops and lots of them, you had better have flies with good snag guards...

Our final destination

The river we fished was called the Xeriuni, a trib off the Rio Branco which branched from the Rio Negro. It took almost two hours in our charter plane, flying over jungle so thick you couldn’t see through the canopy anywhere except when a decent-sized river cut a swath through it. The vastness of the Amazon is truly astounding and from high above it takes on the appearance of a thick, green, impenetrable carpet. We finally landed on a short, grass airstrip at the small village of Santa Maria. There we were met by our guides who led us to transport boats for another two hour ride down the Rio Branco to the Xeriuni and our floating, movable camp. I can’t tell you how happy I was to see the water color change from red/brown to clear tannin and finally to glimpse the camp as we rounded a river bend. “It won’t be long now”, I thought. I didn’t think I could get that excited about fishing anymore.

After a quick lunch, camp orientation and introduction to house staff and guides by host, John Silvia, we headed to our assigned cabins to unpack and rig gear.

Guides and gear

Our guide the first day was called “Moe” and he was a BIG boy; head guide and ran the camp maintenance and overall operation. He was a superb guide and was incredibly fly-savvy. All the guides were. It didn’t take Bill and me long to rig three rods each: a floater, intermediate and fast-sinker. The floaters and I-lines were Rio Tropical Outbound Short lines in 9- and 10-weights. Quigley twisted leaders were looped on the line-loop and a tippet of straight 40-pound about 4 feet long was decided best choice for surviving wood and other line-severing obstructions, plus twisted leaders provided stretch for shock absorption – the hell with IGFA 20-pound...

I chose a TFO 10-weight Baby Blue for a primary rod although I brought along two 9-weight sticks: an Orvis Helios and one of Sea Level FlyFishing’s new “Stealth” rods. After a half day of swinging the BB, developing several blisters on my casting hand and straightening three jig hooks on three bruiser fish, I made the switch to the Stealth 9 with a 435 grain intermediate and stayed with it the rest of the week. It cast, fished and fought those critters brilliantly; I fell in love with that rod. The reel happened to be a Sage 3400D but that was inconsequential – we never played a single fish off the reel all week. There was no point in it once we hauled them out of the sticks; the fight was pretty much over by then.

In retrospect I wouldn’t take any 10-weight rods for this fishing. Strong 9-weights with guts for pulling hard but with a tip for extremely accurate casting – lots of casting from 40 to 80 feet – will suffice; and you won’t destroy your hand, arm and rotator cuff. Some of our folks did break rods but all admitted to making angler errors, usually high-sticking. Bring at least three, better four rods if you make this trip. Reels should hold the appropriate line but should also be light. Beefy drags are not required from what I could tell; but one trip certainly doesn’t make me an expert.

As for fly lines: from what I learned, I wouldn’t even take a floating line next trip because I found I could cast both subsurface flies and poppers/sliders/darters and fish them properly with the ROS Tropical Intermediate. The big poppers and Pole Dancers could be cast much easier with the I-line, than with a fat floater – just something to think about. I would take a fast-sinking line of some kind just in case although Bill and I never needed one.


The boats we fished from were well-appointed 21-foot, fairly narrow, aluminum John Boats powered by fast 35 hp outboards and controlled with good electric motors that always worked – all day long! The skiffs felt a little tippy at first but you soon got your “legs”. Wider boats wouldn’t be able to snake through the many narrow, wood-choked creeks, water pathways to productive open bays and slow moving branches of the Xeriuni. The skiffs were fast, well-suited for the job and I found them perfect platforms. Bill and I would take turns fishing from the bow platform, alternating each day.


I got advice on all the hot peacock bass flies and I had the bases covered. Between Bill and me we could have supplied the entire camp with flies and a fly shop or two. I caught fish on every fly I showed them; but some did produce better than others. Pelado flies, sparse with a red tail worked very well as did any fly with lots of yellow/red/orange and orange/griz in it. Bill hammered them on a slim version of Rob Anderson’s “Reducer” fly. Bill’s version was more “Deceiver-like” and not as full as Rob’s.

I did well on a red FT Pelado. They loved it; but so did the piranha, which chomped the Flashtail off; but not before I landed a good number of fish on one. I also slew them one afternoon on my old FT White Whistler Grizzly tied on a jig hook. Of course I just had to catch my first peacock bass on a Whistler and I did it with the classic FT red/white/griz. FT Clousers scored well too, especially in white/chart with a chartreuse pearl Flashtail. I tied some Pelado flies using yellow brush tails with a flame tip made for me by Pat Dunlap of Cascade Crest Tools. The big Peacocks loved those, including a couple of Faux Fur flies Pat sent me to try. Anyhow, they are not too particular if you can get the beef through the doorway and into the dining room.

Most of my flies were tied on 3/0 Targus 9413 jig hooks; some on the old EC413 and some were on 600s J hooks. I like the jig hooks better and the only three that opened on me were the ones I pried open using the beefy 10 with the electric motor in full reverse. Next time I might go with 4/0s.

Use strong hooks!

Overall, fishing for Amazon peacock bass with River Plate was a marvelous experience, one I’ll never regret having done. I’d do it again in a heartbeat! There is no other fish that hits a fly (except for maybe a New Guinea Bass) harder, faster, with more arm-jolting power than a big peacock bass. It’s a give-no-line contest which they often win if you don’t know how to dance the “down and dirty”.

If you have been considering a trip to Brazil to fish for peacock bass I highly recommend you’re not wasting more time thinking about it. Book it! Book it with Keith Kaneko’s Angling on the Fly; and insist on River Plate Outfitters. You won’t be sorry – but don’t forget to bring the brush-on Krazy glue...


Thanks Dan for this great report and photos (links below)...

Dan's Photo Gallery links:
Gallery #1
Gallery #2