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Brazil: Peacocks in the Jungle 04-01-2006



As you motor upstream in the rich cool morning air, green water gives way to the pale tans and browns of sandbars and eventually, it all disappears under the bow of the skiff. Looking upriver it could be a humid July morning on any river in the Midwest. But that illusion can and will be broken in countless ways. Perhaps a noisy pair of blue and gold macaws will pass overhead. Or maybe a caiman, capybara or tapir will be seen basking in the early morning light on a white sand bar. Or perhaps you'll hear, even over the purr of the outboard, a howler monkey rumbling his location. Yes, it won't be long before you know you aren't in Kansas anymore and you get a strong feeling that Dorothy and Toto wouldn't last long in that jungle. Soon your guide either banks away from the main river to slide into a mysterious lagoon or the motor stops and you drift toward the river's bank to begin your day in earnest.


We were an hour and a half by air from Manaus. Our chartered twin had set us down on an asphalt strip that had eventually appeared in the midst of countless miles of rainforest jungle. All of us excitedly piled out of the plane and had a quick snack at our headquarters for the week, the Royal Amazon Lodge. Then we quickly rigged rods and jumped into skiffs before fanning out both up and down the Agua Boa River.

We were here to catch the legendary peacock bass. Reputed to be hard chargers to a fly and ferocious fighters, our group of 12 was here to find out what all this peacock bass hubbub was about.

So let's get this out of the way right now... we had a great trip!

As Dean Kalmbach said, "On a scale of 1-10 this was a 30!"

We all caught lots of fish and plenty of big fish, more on that later. The lodge was beautiful, the rooms comfortable and the staff happy, hardworking and friendly, more on that later. The guides were great, the food delicious and plentiful... the beer was cold, more on all that later. Let's get back to the fishing!

If you'll remember, we had all fanned out in the skiffs for our first "bonus" afternoon. It was Saturday and our six full days of fishing didn't even start until tomorrow! On this first afternoon, I remember catching seven species of fish. My partner, Mike Schwartz, caught an 8 lb. peacock on his first cast! The drill was to throw your big 4-5 inch deceiver/whistler type fly at any structure or likely looking spot and strip long, fast strips. Strikes can be hard and even though the 2-5 pound smaller fish put quite a bend in my 8 wt. rod, it is hard to put in words the strike and pull of a big peacock bass.

There are three species of peacock bass present in the Agua Boa River: the butterfly or borboleta, the spotted or paca and the temensis or acu. The butterfly peacock is the most numerous in the Agua Boa River system and perhaps the most beautiful. They range from 2-5 pounds and provide the "quantity" between chances at the prime time players, the spotted and temensis peacocks. These two species often hunt together in marauding packs and reach up to 25 pounds. Unlike ambush predators who lay in wait for their prey then launch an attack that ends quickly in either success or failure, the big peacocks are pursuit predators who use their great speed and endurance to run down their prey. They will stay on an unlucky baitfish until it is either eaten or driven up on the bank. At times, we could see nine-inch baitfish flying in the air as a gang of peacocks relentlessly bobbed and weaved in pursuit. Pursuit predator seems like such a politically correct term for these garishly colored thugs. But for the flyrodder, these violent predilections can be exploited using a big, feathered fly and a quick retrieve. Peacock takes are ferocious, runs powerful and the fight brutish. The hardest part of the battle is keeping your hooked fish out of the logjams and root bundles that line the bank in most of the neighborhoods these thugs terrorize.

If you can stop a big peacock's initial run without blistering a finger or two, usually you can begin the process of slowly working the fish to the boat. During our week, we caught spotted peacocks up to 10 pounds and temensis up to 16 or 17 pounds. Every peacock we caught, whether 6 or 16 pounds, was a colorful prize. Everyone in our group caught numerous fish over 10 lbs. and on some days, many in the 10 + pound category.

We also caught many other species including: piranha (the small fish with the big teeth... they will destroy a fly and your fingers, in a heartbeat), arowana (more on this species later), pacu (small permit shaped fish that often take trout dry flies and are nicknamed silver dollars), trairao (like a walleye on steroids), jacunda (with a bright red spot and sharp teeth), matrixa (a great gamefish, these fish make repeated big jumps and fight like a rainbow trout), pirapoucou (a toothless small barracuda), payara (the vampire toothed tiger fish of the Amazon) and oscars (like those in many aquariums, but much bigger and with two bright red eyespots). Most of these fish were absolutely beautiful. Most of these species were like fish you would find in a tropical fish aquarium and lo and behold, the Amazon and its tributaries is where many of the tropical fish we are most familiar with come from. Tetras, Oscars, angelfish, they all come from these waters. We also had a brief brush with a piraucu...

On Day 3, our guide, Pedro, the "peacock warrior", shut off the motor and we drifted up to a slight depression in the riverbank. We grabbed some water, a box of flies and our cameras and dutifully followed Pedro up a dry creek bed. We only stopped long enough to pick up a long blue and gold macaw tail feather and later to examine the fresh tracks a tapir had left in the soft mud surrounding a small puddle. It was dark under the rain forest's massive canopy and without the relentless Amazonian sun, relatively cool.

Eventually, we came to a small, clear, pale green lago. Here, a small skiff was stashed. Pedro cleared the boat of leaves and picked up two arowana scales that he handed to me with a broad smile. As Pedro grabbed a hand-carved paddle from the crook of a small tree, he slid the boat in the water. We jumped in and squinted hard as we slid out from the jungle and into the full sunshine of the lagoon.

Mike and I grabbed our rods and started peppering the bank with casts. It wasn't long before we heard a big splash behind us. I looked at Pedro. With a twinkle in his eyes, he looked at me and excitedly said,

"Pirarucu!"

Now the pirarucu is the legend fish of the Amazon. It is the big boy... the denizen... it's the permit and the Moby Dick all rolled up into one impressive bundle. Some call it the tarpon of the Amazon as it reaches weights in excess of 250 pounds and makes spectacular jumps. I am told they are smart, tough to hook and even tougher to land. Only a handful of pirarucu has ever been boated on the Agua Boa. And here was one right behind us!

Under Pedro's' electric gaze, I spun around, made one false cast and shot my T-200 in the direction of the splash. I stripped only once and came tight to a snag. I glanced sheepishly at Pedro.

"Desculpa (sorry)" I said expecting him to paddle over to retrieve my fly.

"Pirarucu" he hissed just as my line started to menacingly pulse away from me.

I'm not sure I can accurately recount the next 30 seconds. I do know there was one big jump. That was when we got our only view of the fish.

"55 kilos" Pedro would later say. That's 110 pounds... on an 8 wt! To say I stood no chance seems painfully obvious now. Then, I was all drugged up on the elixir a big fish generates so I just optimistically held on as the pirarucu made mince meat of the maximum drag setting on my Abel.

Before long, the fish made a long run into a bunch of debris and limbs. I lost the fish. I really wasn't upset. Of course, I would have loved to land the monster, but a 110-pound legend on an 8 wt. is more than even my overactive imagination can manage.

We had a great day on the lago. We landed numerous 10-12 pound temensis peacocks and one 10 lb. spotted peacock. All were trophies by anyone's standards, but for me, my mind kept drifting back to that pirarucu. I'm not sure I'll ever forget that 30 seconds.

And there is one other species that deserves special mention. Often when hunting peacocks, we saw the exotic and secretive arowana slinking next to shore. Mornings were best for arowana and often they were seen in pairs. Arowana are beautiful, pale blue and pink air breathers with big scales and a hinged tarpon-like mouth. Arowana are easily spooked and require a delicate presentation and a slow, very lifelike retrieve. If it all comes together and you do manage to hook an arowana, they make huge jumps and are strong fighters. Arowana average 6-9 pounds, but we saw fish up to 14 or 15 pounds. Everyone in our group caught at least one and we were all thrilled by their beautiful, if not a bit odd, appearance.

But let's get back to the stars of the show... the peacock bass. The peacock bass is not really a bass at all. It is called a bass because in general size and shape it resembles a largemouth bass. However, the peacock (or tucunare in Brazil) is the largest American member of the cichlid family, which includes tilapia, guapote, and the "oscar" of aquarium fame. While both largemouth and peacocks take surface flies readily with their huge bucket mouths, the similarities stop there. Tucunare are tougher, more belligerent and usually bigger. And also unlike bass, peacocks feed only during daylight hours.

The peacock derives its name from their large aft mounted eyespot, which resembles the concentric circles on a peacock (the bird) tail plume. The English name peacock comes from the Spanish word for peacock, which is pavon.

The peacock a.k.a. tucunare a.k.a. pavon's eyespot is a way to deceive predators. An eyespot near the tail focuses a predator's attack there and often means an attack is made in totally the wrong direction. In addition, peacocks obscure their cryptic, red "real" eye with dark and irregular color patterns on their heads. Without a doubt, temensis, butterfly and spotted peacocks are some of the most beautiful gamefish in the world. Light bellies, dark greenish backs and a myriad of accent colors, including translucent blue and aquamarine fins, only begins the cavalcade of colors seen in these fantastic creatures.

Our headquarters for the week was the Royal Amazon Lodge. This facility is the only lodge on the Agua Boa River system. We did not see any other people during our stay except those in our party. The entire Agua Boa system has been placed under permanent protection and the Royal Amazon Lodge has exclusive rights to the area, which includes over 100 miles of river and countless lagos, lagunas and feeder creeks. The lodge itself was built in 2001. It is a spacious facility with a large dining room, a living room with satellite TV and CD player, a bar and a game room with ping-pong and pool tables. The lodge has a large front porch that faces the 20-meter swimming pool and the river beyond. Clients stay in one of six air-conditioned cottages. Each bungalow has a 30 x 30 main room with two double beds, mini-fridge that is well stocked with water, sodas and beer (no extra charge), TV and plenty of room to spread out. The en suite bathrooms have hot and cold showers, flushing toilets and plenty of room to unpack in an adjacent dressing room. Meals are taken in the main lodge's dining room. Breakfasts and dinners were served buffet style and were plentiful and filling. Dinners usually included two entries with fresh fish usually being one choice and chicken, steaks or pork chops the other. Desserts were delicious! Breakfasts were traditional with eggs and pancakes, fresh fruits and juices etc. We made our own sandwiches for lunch and the guides took them from the dining room to our boat's coolers.

I think everyone in our group would agree that the Royal Amazon Lodge is truly a special place made even more incredible because this oasis is smack-dab in the middle of one of the world's most remote and pristine ecosystems. And here we were... twelve souls living in absolute luxury in the midst of a very inhospitable wilderness. The Royal Amazon Lodge provided everything we needed to successfully and comfortably pursue the Agua Boa's piscine treasures. This beautiful lodge was a great spot to wake up to in the morning and it was a wonderful spot to return to in the evening.

Each evening, around six o'clock, we returned to the boat dock. Inevitably, we arrived hot, sweaty and slippery with sunscreen and bug dope. They give you along fishing day here and given our tired arms and cramped fingers, it was often tough to climb out of the boats at day's end. But, I never saw anyone pull into the boat slip without a big grin on his or her face.

We were always met at the dock by Jose' who had a big tray of ice-cold caipirinhas ready to go. After you took the first sip of this delicious landmine, you could devote your full attention to the post-fishing/ pre-shower entertainment that came in the form of 18 feet of armament and teeth otherwise known as Rex the wonder caiman. Rex weighed over 1000 pounds and parked his cold deadly eyes and massive bulk about ten feet from where the dock met land. Here he would wait like an iceberg with 9/10 of his mass hidden underwater. Rex preferred piranha so we all took to saving a few during our fishing days so we could watch Rex do his thing at night.

Here's how it works: You take a piranha and squat on the greasy wet riverbank about eight feet from Rex... seven feet if you're feeling lucky and six feet if you drank half your caipirinha. You then slap the bank with the piranha carcass. Rex will move almost imperceptibly, hiss and then slowly start to move forward. That is your cue to back off! Suddenly, Rex will charge up the bank bringing about 1/3 his body length forward. Since he is 18 feet (you do the math here) he ends up quite close, let's call it uncomfortably close, to any caipirinha-fortified, piranha-tossing, sore-armed angler who was foolish enough to squat on a slippery river bank only a few feet from one of the Amazon's apex predators. After Rex has reached the piranha, he will turn his massive head sideways and scoop mud, sticks and the now suddenly tiny piranha into his gaping toothy maw. Rex then slides slowly back into the Agua Boa, tilts his head back like a patient in a dentist's chair, chomps down once, then flings the piranha parts towards his throat and noisily swallows his prize.

"Holy s**t", someone will mutter while others will cheer, shiver or stare awe-struck. Rex will then resume his patient pose while at least three smaller, yet still gigantic, sub-Rex models watch jealously from deeper water.

On the Agua Boa, that's when I knew it was time for a shower.

The Royal Amazon Lodge's extensive area is divided into six beats. Each guide fished a particular beat during our stay and guides were rotated daily. This made it possible for each angler to see a different section of the river each day and therefore, most of the river during the trip. The guides use 20-foot aluminum skiffs equipped with poling platforms and four stroke motors. A big front casting deck and a central deck or seat allowed both anglers to cast at the same time. This was best accomplished with one angler casting to one side of the boat while the other angler worked the other side. Each boat came equipped with a big cooler jam packed with iced down water, beer, sodas and lunches.

The guides were excellent and very friendly. Even though only two of the six spoke any English, we had no problem communicating when it came to fishing. Upon our arrival, the lodge issues a list of key fishing phrases translated from English to Portuguese and this really helped when we wanted to identify a species or make a change from a lago to the main channel or vice versa. All of us felt the guides went out of their way to accommodate our needs and to make sure we had a productive and successful adventure in Brazil.

On our last day, I fished with Eric Callow. Eric Berger joined us to take photos. We had a slow morning although we were at time surrounded by big peacocks, which boiled the lagoon's slick surface as they chased bait. We did manage to catch a couple big peacocks and googobs of 3-5 lb. butterflies, but by Agua Boa standards, it was a slow morning. Slow enough that we tried to change our luck through the time-honored technique of beer toasting and subsequent rapid consumption. We each popped the top of an ice cold Kaiser snatched from the bottom of the cooler. We clinked cans and by the time we had reached a small bay, we were slightly addled and thoroughly convinced our luck was about to change... and it did!

Eric C. made a great cast under the branches of an acacia-like tree and a big temensis threw a wake chasing his fly. Eric strip-struck and the fish was on. A brutish battle ensued. While we watched as his rod bent at ever more sickening angles, Eric fought to keep his peacock out of the brush-lined bank. Eric eventually worked his catch to the boat and after a long stalemate that was conducted just out of reach; I slipped the boga-grip over the fishes' lip and hauled him into the boat.

As Eric Callow and I sat side-by-side posing and enjoying the moment, Eric Berger did his photographic magic. Suddenly, the big peacock decided enough was enough and he slapped Eric hard in the face with his broad tail. He caught Eric's cheek and swept up propelling his glasses with neoprene retainer attached out into the drink.

Eric B. lunged for the glasses, but they quickly sank out of sight disappearing in the stained and slightly muddy waters of the bay.

Our guide looked left, then right, then behind himself, ripped off his shirt and dove overboard. He surfaced with a bright smile.

"No way!" we cajoled.

"Don't bother" Eric C. said, "They are old."

The guide smiled, dove once again and came up empty. He immediately retriangulated his position and dove again.

"Prescriptions?" I said to Eric.

"Yep, but old ones and I would have gladly traded that fish for those old glasses." He replied. We waited patiently in the boat as our guide explored the bottom in waters that contains piranha, stingrays, 20-foot caimans and candiru catfish that are infamous for following the scent of urine into the penis of any unlucky swimmer. Maybe it wasn't too dangerous, but then none of us were in the water helping out either.

Just as Eric Berger crawled up on the poling platform to keep us from drifting any further away, Jose surfaced wearing a big grin and a pair of sunglasses!

We hauled him in the boat without even having to use the boga-grip. He handed Eric his sunglasses and then jumped back into poling position. I'm sure Eric will remember that big peacock each time he slips those glasses into a duffle to go fishing.

As I said before we used big 3-5 inch deceiver/whistler like flies. We had some luck on surface poppers, but our best luck was with subsurface flies. Red and white, yellow and white, orange and red (often with grizzly hackle tips) worked well. On one rod, we used tropical saltwater floating lines usually rigged with a popper or a smaller deceiver for arowana. On a second rod, we rigged a 200-grain sink tip with 30-40 pound bite tippets on 4-6 foot leaders attached to big fish flies. Most guys on our trip used 8 wt. rods but 7-9 wt. will work just fine. We did have no-see-ums morning and evening, but a little Ultrathon or DEET worked great. Because of the tannic acid in the water from decaying leaves, the Agua Boa has very few mosquitoes due to this acidic water. This was an added bonus!

We had a great group and I thank all of you for a wonderful trip. So to Dr. Steve Peskoe, Dr. Craig Johnston, Eric and Kathy Berger, Dr. Steve Hoffman, Dave Ernst, Doug Jeffries, Fred Abramowitz, Mike Schwartz, Dean Kalmbach and Eric Callow I say you folks are the best and I look forward to seeing all your photos!

The Brazilians have a word saudade. It is unfortunately untranslatable, but the gist is this... saudade is a mixture of joy and sadness. It is nostalgia for the good that has passed, yet is a bittersweet feeling for a life that moves only in one direction. This trip was a great experience and as I sit in Wyoming on this beautiful spring day, I think I am experiencing saudade for the Agua Boa.

Written by Scott Heywood

APPENDIX

Caipirinha
Add 1 sliced lime
Add sugar to taste
Crush the lime and sugar
Add ice
Fill the glass with cachaca and mix well
Cachaca is a kind of sugar cane rum

Flies
Deceivers 2/0, 3/0 or similar baitfish pattern 4 & 6 inches in length. Colors: Tan/white, Red/white, Red/yellow
Peacock bass deceivers 1/0 and 3/0 (red/white, brown/white)
Puglisi Tinker Mackerel 3/0
Keliher Herring 3/0
Popovic's Banger 4/0 (Silver, Orange, Chartreuse)


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