Sunday, February 28, 2010

Fly Fishing for Peacock Bass

The following is a story by MRO's Bill Conlon about his recent store trip to the Amazon. This was Bill's third trip as host and he's getting pretty good at getting people in-and-out of the jungle!

MRO is proud to partner with River Plate Outfitters and offer some of the best Peacock Bass fishing on planet earth! Trips, tackle, flies, flights and visas.....we can help with everything. For more information on these trips....including the 2011 and 2012 dates, please see the "Trips" page in the bar on the bottom right.

Otherwise, read on:

Rio Cuini, Amazonas Brazil 2010

January 21, 2010 – Thursday
Unlike 2009, when wet weather in the Amazon threatened the fishing and icy weather in the north complicated travel, this year things looked promising for our peacock bass expedition. I met clients in Miami the day before our early morning flight to Manaus, Brazil. At dinner that evening, we talked of past fishing adventures and our hopes for the trip ahead. For Ian this was a return to the jungle. He had accompanied me on the first Mad River Outfitters foray to the jungle two years earlier. I hoped this return would live up to expectations for him and his fellow Hawaiian, Preston.

January 22, 2010 – Friday
This morning, we rose early and checked in for the 7:00am international flight before grabbing a quick breakfast. The flight is nonstop to Manaus and by 2:30pm we were settled in at the Tropical Hotel. The weather in Manaus was gray with on and off showers, so we opted to stay put at the hotel, relax and organize our gear. Tomorrow we are off to the jungle.

January 23, 2010 – Saturday
The travel plan for reaching the floating camps begins this year with a flight to Barcelos, a small city on the banks of the Rio Negro, upstream of Manaus. Looking out of window as we headed out, I was encouraged by the view. Large sand bars were visible in many spots even here on the giant Rio Negro. That bode well for the water levels in the tributary rivers that we would be fishing for the next week. Last year the river was full to the brim – and over the brim in some areas. When the water is up into the jungle, so are the fish. Not good for fishing. To a point, lower water is better water and things were looking great this year! In Barcelos, we loaded into a float equipped Cessna Caravan for the flight to the remote camp. An hour or so later, we saw the floating cabins, neatly pulled up to a white sand beach on a quiet corner of the Rio Cuini. The plane settled into the jungle, landing on the river a short boat ride from the camp. The guides met us at the floatplane and ferried us, our gear and fresh provisions to our home in the jungle.
Tony, the camp manager, greeted us warmly and helped us get settled into our cabins. After a light lunch in camp, it was time to chase some fish. At this point, everyone is raring to go, excited about what lies ahead. Even those of us who have been here before feel the burning desire to get started, forgetting the sore hands and exhausted sighs that will come after days of (wonderfully) hard fishing! On this first afternoon of fishing, no big fish are landed, but in four hours I catch 22 Peacock Bass including a beautiful 7# Butterfly Peacock. (Cichla orinocensis ) After about four hours of fishing, we return to camp at 5:00. The heat has got me beat. Every year, I forget how intense the fishing can be. Mostly, I am casting large streamers with a 9wt rod and 300 grain sinking head line. In the tropical heat, that will wear you out! At camp, Tony has caipirinhas waiting. This Brazilian cocktail is like a cross between hard lemonade and a margarita. The version served in the camp is cold and tart, perfect after a hot day on the water. The best way to cool down in the jungle is to take a swim in the river. Some opt to do this at lunch or during the day, but I save my swim for the evening. Each cabin has an indoor shower for those who prefer not bathing in the river, but I float in the Cuini and let it carry away all my cares. I am not even bothered by my companion’s comment that I look like a cotton ball floating downstream.
My excitement over the water levels is tempered somewhat overnight. It rains steadily from around 10:00pm until 6:00am. For an hour or so around midnight, the rains were heavy and lightning lit the sky. I was glad to be in a dry, secure cabin.

January 24, 2010 – Sunday
Just as I poke my head out the door in the morning, the rain stops. I expect to find muddy rising water, but the river looks fine. The rain might have pushed the level up a few inches, but the tannin stained water is only slightly more turbid than yesterday. Following breakfast, we set out for the days fishing. The morning was good and by 11:00, I have landed many Peacock Bass, mostly the beautiful butterfly species. The largest was just over seven pounds. In the next hour things got very interesting. A large fish was pushing bait onto the shore and making quite a ruckus. My guide, Galdamer, quickly positioned the boat and encouraged me to cast – NOW! In one of those rare moments of glory, everything went perfectly. The fly landed inches from shore and was immediately engulfed. It was as if I had cast into the open mouth of the predator. The peacock bass chose to cut away from shore and allowed me the chance to get him on the reel and begin the fight in earnest. When we had the fish netted, I was sure it was my personal best on the fly. The boga grip confirmed the weight, 15 pounds of angry cichlid. This fish was what the Brazilians call an Assu, the breeding colored variant of the largest species of Peacock Bass in the Amazon. (Cichla temensis). Not long after releasing the 15 pounder, I hooked another large fish on a fast retrieve in deeper water. The initial fight wasn’t spectacular, but the fish wanted to stay deep. When I finally had him near enough to see, the fight changed. It seems he was as agitated to see me as I was excited to see him. Despite several strong surges, we landed another personal best Assu, this one 16 pounds. Hot and happy, Glad and I pulled into a breezy spot in the shade along the shore and took a break for lunch. Here I was, on only the second day of fishing, and already I had two Peacocks that were better that any caught on a fly in our last two trips –WOW! Fly fishing tends to produce more action when chasing Peacock Bass, but the average size is somewhat smaller and the biggest fish tend to take huge top-water lures on bait-casting gear. Our clients have landed fish in the 16 – 18 pound range each of the last two years, but nothing over 13 pounds had come to a fly. Today, even lunch proved exciting. As I ate the sandwiches and cookies that I packed in the morning, I heard splashing along the shore. A short distance away, a lone giant river otter (Pteronura brasiliensis) was watching us. Before I could get to my camera, he was gone. These endangered otters can reach a length of 6 feet and are quite a sight to behold.
I landed more butterfly peacocks, “borboleta” to my guide, in he afternoon and one 12# Assu. The most dramatic peacock bass of the day was the one I never hooked. As I was retrieving a small butterfly, a huge assu chased it about the boat. I handed my rod to the guide and began casting a large diving pike fly at the chasing fish. Sorry to say, he was much more interested in a distressed live fish than my offering and eventually disappeared into the depths. (Last year I had a jumbo fish swallow a 2 pounder as I retrieved it, but after burning my fingers and stopping my heart, that beast let go and swam away as well.) You never know what to expect next when fishing in the Amazon basin. In addition to 43 peacock bass, I also landed Triara (snakehead) and Dogfish on this day.
As I took my evening swim/bath, pink fresh water porpoises (Inia geoffrensis) cruised past, headed upriver. It was just one more amazing moment on the Rio Cuini. I joined some of the others for appetizers and cocktails on the beach, clean cool and feeling quite good about myself. Just to keep me humble, Ian, 83 years young and just weeks after back surgery, trumped my 15 and 16 pound fish with a 16 pound assu and a 17 pound paca. The paca is also a Cichla temensis, but in the non-breeding phase. The colors fade and the fish takes on several horizontal rows of light spots. It seems counterintuitive, but this phase the giant peacock bass is noticeably more aggressive than the assu, or breeding variant. I bought Ian a congratulatory drink – good thing they are all included in the trip. Dinner was followed with cigars, stories and another drink or two. Before bed we made plans for a shore lunch the next day.

January 25, 2010 – Monday
My morning again went well with consistent action and another personal best Peacock Bass on the fly. This time I hooked up on a cast into heavy structure. The fish shot up from the submerged branches and engulfed the fly just as it cleared the tangle. With some luck, great boat handling by Gladamer and stout gear, I soon hoisted a 19 pound assu on the boga grip. Soon after catching that fish, we caught a couple of 3 pound borboleta peacocks that went into the boat for the shore lunch. The pause for the shore lunch gave us all a chance to rest and share stories. Once again I was feeling proud of my big fish, but was (again) quieted by Ian. He had landed a 20# beast in the morning and was still king of the jungle. Several Caracara, a type of falcon, landed in a tree above us, noisily calling out as we relaxed in our hammocks in the shade. The guides built a fire and were soon cleaning peacock bass for the grill. While the coals burned down they also caught several piranhas to add some variety to the meal. Although the guides enjoy eating peacock bass on occasion, they prefer the piranha. Other than the many bones, I have to agree. Piranhas are good eating. As we finished the fresh grilled fish, I looked up to see our camp headed downstream.
Every few days, the camp staff connects the four guest cabins, host quarters, dining room and kitchen into a floating train and tows the whole collection to another beautiful beach. The ability to move the camp to new waters every few days avoids overfishing one area and keeps the daily travel time to unpressured waters short. Most of my afternoon was uneventful. Fishing was consistent but with nothing outstanding until the last cast. As we were nearing the new camp we stopped for one last bit of casting. I put a big Peacock Deception fly against the shore along a sandy drop-off and was rewarded with an aggressive take. By the time we landed that 14 pound peacock, I was ready for my swim, dinner and bed. I had another great day with 32 peacock bass including the 19 pound and 14 pound assu peacocks. My left hand, after stripping flies 24,000/day was sore and inflamed at my middle knuckle. Ibuprofen will be in order for the next few days. (I cast approx 1000/day and each cast yielded 20-24 strips – when not interrupted by a fish or a snag!) Overnight we had more heavy rains and another lightening show. The camp staff was up in the rain, double checking the mooring of the floating cabins and making sure we were safe, secure and comfortable.

January 26, 2010 – Tuesday
Even with the overnight rain, the water is in great shape and the day looks to be clear and dry. As I packed my lunch, I felt the weariness from several days of hard fishing. No wonder my left hand is sore from working the line so aggressively. Despite fishing hard all morning, I had only smaller fish to show for the work. I twice have piranha cut my fly line. I recovered six feet of line, my leader and fly when a piranha cuts me off while I’m hung up on a snag. I lose another piece and the fly when the toothy fish cut off a hooked peacock. The lagoon we are fishing will always be Piranha Lagoon in my memory. My 24 foot long, 300 grain T-300 line is now a 14’ long lighter line and I move it to an 8wt for back-up. It seemed like a good time to stop for lunch and regroup. I rig a fresh line on my 9wt Orvis Helios, fill up on egg sandwiches and some cookies, down some water and am set to go! Refreshed, I cast vigorously to every likely spot. Gladamer looks for the best water and we keep picking up smallish fish. It is still lots of fun, but I have a need for another big fish. I’m getting greedy. It isn’t about the numbers, but I use my personal targets as motivation to keep my retrieves aggressive. When I slow down, so does the action. Finally around 4:00 I hook and land a nice 15# paca that is shockingly savage on the strike. I’m tired and happy. I’ll sleep well tonight, but we have a bit more time before we need to make the run to camp. I retie my fly and wearily take the bow of the boat. Four casts later I am tight to another big fish. Unlike the paca, who wanted to get to structure, this fish gets into the main channel and heads straight downstream! The drag screams, but the reel does its job and soon I can see the assu peacock at the end of my line. In the open water, the strong final surges only delay the landing. Alright! Two 15 pound peacock bass in four casts. Now I am ready for camp. In addition to 26 Peacock Bass including the 2 at 15 pounds I landed a beautiful Jacunda.

January 27, 2010 – Wednesday
Even though I caught more peacock bass today than any other, I view it as the day that might have been. I had worked the water persistently for much of the morning with frequent takes and lots of fish landed. My routine was rudely interrupted by a jolting take not far from a large submerged tree. Knowing I had a big fish, Glad pivoted the boat to improve my fighting options. I was working to reel in line, steer the fish keep my balance. As the fish ripped line through my hand and approached the downed tree, I heard Gladamer call “hold line”! I didn’t want to lose this fish in the tree, so I tightened my hold and worked to angle the head away from the branches. In an instant, the fish shook its head and popped my 40# test maxima leader. I cried out in frustration and saw, for the first time ever, Glad looking unhappy. He looked at me and said “GO LINE”!! When I heard hold line, he was encouraging me to give the fish line and get him on the reel. Having seen River Plate guides dive into the water to free lines from a logjam, I shouldn’t have been so worried, but in the heat of the moment things don’t always seem so clear. When I explained what I had heard, we both laughed, but Gladamer’s final comment was a quiet “Big Fish”. That was the only shot at a trophy for the day, but landing 61 Peacocks helped ease the pain. (Except in my hand – oh yeah and on my belly where I brace the fighting but while setting the hook. I’ve got a bruise there as well, but it just reminds me how much fun I’m having) My exploits today made for another humbling story over appetizers at camp. Several other fellows had landed good fish that day including a 20.5# monster caught by Roy on a casting rod. His fish smashed a wood chopper lure on the surface and put on quite a show. Roy was a benevolent king with the new big fish in camp. He poured drinks all ‘round and basked in the glory.

January 28, 2010 - Thursday

Today shaped up to be much like yesterday. I was catching lots of small borboleta (Butterfly) peacocks, but nothing of size. Then, late in the morning, I had a hit. There is always a jolt whether you get a hit or a snag while stripping a fly at maximum speed. I typically let the guide know right away if it was fish or stick. This time as I set the hook hard, I said “fish”. As I then lifted my rod it seemed more like a snag. The line cut the water and pointed to a stationary spot on the bottom of the river. Just as I uttered “no… stick”, the stick began to move. Glad and I cried out at the same time. Me: FISH, Glad: Big Fish. The delay gave me time to get the fish on the reel as it slowly accelerated up the river. Although there was no dangerous structure in sight, I was still nervous after breaking off the fish yesterday. The time the fish stayed deep and started to circle the boat. Then he got angry. It might have taken him a while to realize he was not in complete control, but when he reacted it was wild. He began by cutting under the boat, requiring me to swing a nearly submerged rod around the bow. As I cleared the opposite side of the skiff, the big fish headed for the surface. I worked to maintain tension as he jumped clear of the water. Now that I had seen the fish I was more excited than ever. He looked as big as any peacock bass that I had personally laid eyes on. Although the jumps subsided, he fought hard to avoid the boat. Finally, I slid him toward the net and Gladamer hoisted him aboard. This time when he said big fish, he was smiling. The tale of the scale put this assu at 21 pounds. After some quick pictures, Glad eased the fish back into the Cuini and offered me a water to celebrate. We had planned another shore lunch and I don’t think fresh fish had ever tasted so good to me. The afternoon produced more shots at some good fish, with a follow but not takes. The piranha again cut two of my lines. The T-300 was now trash and the replacement was shortened by 4 feet or so. I managed 36 peacock bass today, but will always remember the 21 pound big fish that did not get away!

January 29, 2010 – Friday
The week either seems almost too long as you work the fishery for all you‘re worth, wearing yourself out; or all too short when you are headed out for your last day of fishing. As we climbed onto the boats this morning, it seemed too short. On the water, today was Preston’s day for the big fish. He landed a colorful 18 pound peacock bass. I didn’t catch any notable fish on my last day, but I did take some time to look around and enjoy the exotic local. All week, I had enjoyed the dramatic stands of palm trees, but today I noticed the way the waterfront species seemed to grow in a colony with an interconnected mat of roots. That would stabilize the river channel during the repeated flood cycles. Something also is living in burrows under the buttressed lower trunks of these same trees. I should find out what. I wondered which species of Toucan had been making all the racket around the piranha lagoon earlier in the week. I know I saw three distinct Kingfishers at various times, but I don’t know which three. I need a better Amazon guide book…and another chance to spend some time in this magical jungle. Next year I’ll bring that guide book and a spare T-300 fly line. Oh yeah, I landed 32 beautiful butterfly peacock bass on this last day of fishing. When we returned to camp I enjoyed one more relaxing swim before dinner. The caipirinhas were particularly tasty and the conversation even more cheerful than usual. In the end the trip was just long enough. I was tired, sore and full to the brim with memories of my week in the Amazon Rainforest.

January 30, 2010 - Saturday

This morning we ate a leisurely breakfast before loading the boats with our gear. Everyone laughed recounting their personal highlights from the time spent fishing the Amazon basin As we boarded the Cessna to leave, eight fresh anglers climbed onto our boats to head to the camp. Soon they would meet the guides, have a quick lunch and begin searching for their own adventure on the Cuini. As the camp faded into the distance and we headed for Barcelos, I smiled thinking back on the week I had in the jungle.

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