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Only photograph the fish in the Amazon

8/17/2005

Editor's note: ESPNOutdoors.com Fishing editor Ken Schultz also is a commentator for "BassCenter," which air Saturdays on ESPN2; look for his "Reel Speak" segment.


Santa Isabel, Brazil — The Yanomami hunter was barely 5 feet tall, carrying a 7-foot-long handmade bow and two arrows and wearing only white briefs, a black, feathered head band, and a red and green arm wrap crafted from leaves and plumage.

The lower half of his face, parts of his chest and arms and the palms of his hands were decorated in purple paint.

He appeared in the Indian village just as our group of anglers was attempting to trade with his fellow tribal members. He walked up and enthusiastically shook hands with each of us, his firm grip leaving purple residue on our hands.

After the memorable greeting, he turned and stood before us and I snapped a photograph — which I'd earlier been told was permitted. (The man who gave me the OK was a chieflike fellow whose ears were pierced with 4-inch-long green leaves and whose lower lip drooped from a hamburger-size plug of tobacco.)

The flash of the camera instantly changed the hunter's demeanor, however, and he shouted at me.

Known as fierce warriors, the Yanomami are indigenous people of the deep rain forest who had little contact with the outside world until the 1980s. This individual was clearly not happy with me taking a photo, even though I had snapped shots minutes earlier of many of his fellow villagers. It seemed that I'd inadvertently caused a problem.

It was quite some time before we learned he was demanding payment for being photographed — a situation that we thought we'd resolved when we arrived bearing gifts to trade, as recommended by the Indian affairs agency in Santa Isabel.

But the hunter continued talking excitedly and gesturing to Juscelino Motta, our interpreter and the manager of the Santana I, the mothership that we were using as home base while fishing in the Amazon.

Motta had previously obtained two different permits from government agencies in Santa Isabel allowing us to visit. This was important because there have been incidents in this remote area of Brazil. Other fishing groups improperly fished areas where they were not permitted entry and visited villages where they were not wanted.

Motta later explained that these tribal members, who rarely saw tourists, had not been told we were coming and there was some confusion about our visit and the outfitter with which we were associated.

Bilingual and appropriately patient, Motta politely settled the issue by speaking with several village elders. They resolved that the items we brought permitted us to visit briefly, take limited photos and trade for a few Indian crafts.

Shortly thereafter — and with some trinkets in hand and a surprising memory etched in our minds — we ended a rare and extraordinary visit with the Yanomami, then made a 90-minute drive back to the mothership to refuel our fishing boats.

Too much water, but some monster fish

That afternoon we headed back to the Rio Negro and the mouths of nearby tributary rivers on our primary mission to hook more peacock bass. A 19- and a 20-pounder were among the catch that afternoon, despite the water being so high that it greatly affected overall results.

Our March visit was planned many months earlier and intended to coincide with lower water, which usually peaks before the rainy season that normally begins in April here in northwestern Brazil.

However, our bases of operation outside the town of Santa Isabel were approximately 40 and 80 air miles from the mountainous highlands of Venezuela and Colombia, where early rain had caused the Rio Negro to rise by 5 or 6 feet.

The subsequent flooding allowed peacock bass and their prey, as well as many other species of fish, to disperse widely into areas that are impossible to reach.

When this happens, fishing is very difficult, and anglers generally scratch for a few strikes a day, looking for areas where you can see the bank and fishing cover that is fairly close to the bank with little or no current.

Fishing where any cast can produce a behemoth is a great motivator, however. And during the week our group managed to land six peacocks between 18 and 23 pounds and lose perhaps an equal number to pulled hooks, line breakage and the frustrating inability to stop a turbocharged battler from getting into clusters of trees and bushes.

All but one of these trophy hookups came on surface lures: 8-inch aft-propellered plugs that rip over the surface, making a commotion intended to draw the bass from the flooded forest while leaving a foam-bubble retrieval trail.

Explosive trophy fish and more

Few things in fishing are more exciting than a large peacock bass crashing the still surface to attack one of these lures. Explosive is a term that conveys the phenomenon well, as the surface strike of a 20-pound peacock can sound like a cinder block being dropped from a considerable height.

Peacock bass generally move so fast immediately after hookup that you're lucky if they don't instantly head back into the trees or other obstacles. They often do this no matter how tightly your reel drag is set.

While all of this activity technically occurs in the Amazon region, visiting anglers don't actually fish on the Amazon River. That river, known as the Solimoes in its upper reaches, is a dirty, brown color and doesn't support really large peacocks.

Outfitters instead concentrate on the blackwater rivers and their tributaries elsewhere in northern Brazil.

The Rio Negro, as its name implies, is one of these and the largest tributary to the Amazon River, beginning in the northwestern mountains and merging with the Solimoes to form the main-stem Amazon River just a few miles downstream of the city of Manaus.

The Santana I is perhaps the finest mothership plying these waters. It is employed to access widely dispersed fishing areas by towing bass boats that are equipped with electric motors to approach the fishing grounds back in the rain forest.

There parrots, macaws and toucans fly overhead. The forest often rings with the cacophony of assorted high-canopy birds. And during a week's stay you'll see more of the rain forest — with special up-close adventures when you hack into secluded lakes — than anyone on a purely "eco" tour.

The chances of seeing an anaconda or other snake are slim. But you'll likely encounter botos — the freshwater dolphins that often porpoise unexpectedly in remote locations — and you can readily catch large piranha if you use smaller lures.

You will probably not need insect repellent (the black waters are relatively infertile), but you may need a few ibuprofen tablets to care for wrist, arm and shoulder muscles made sore by many hours of violently ripping big surface lures.

Pitch those often enough in the right places and chances are good you'll have a thrilling encounter with a peacock bass — one of the world's most colorful and toughest freshwater game fish.

Game-fish profile

Species: Peacock bass.

Peacock bass are among the world's hardest-fighting freshwater fish and perform much the same as largemouth bass — and can be caught using similar methods.

Native to the rivers and reservoirs of South American jungles or rain forests, peacock bass have only recently become popular with anglers as fishing opportunities in South America have increased … and as these fish have been introduced in appropriate North American waters through stocking efforts, most notably in canal systems in southern Florida.

They are valued in their native range as table fare but are primarily of interest to anglers because of their willingness to take lures, strike hard and provide a strong and exciting fight.

Name confusion : The term "peacock bass" is a misnomer in nearly all respects but a name that has good marketing value and has stuck in the English-speaking world. Species that are called peacock bass in English are formally known as pavón in Spanish-speaking South American countries and as tucunaré in Brazil.

The actual number of species that are called peacock bass is unclear, as extensive scientific and taxonomic evaluations and reports have been lacking, particularly in the English language, and especially in the native range of these species.

What is known, however, is that the biggest species and specimens have been caught in lakes and rivers in Brazil, Venezuela, and Colombia.

Peacock bass are not true bass, although their body shape is generally basslike. All known species of peacock bass have a prominent black eyespot, surrounded by a gold ring (ocellus), on their tail fin.

North Americans at some point saw the physical similarity between this fish and the largemouth bass, observed that it was readily taken on similar fishing tackle and techniques as largemouth bass, noticed that the eyespot was like that of the eyelike spot on the plumage of a peacock and dubbed it a "peacock bass."

Peacock bass are cichlids, members of the Cichlidae family that is well known to aquarium hobbyists. Cichlids are the third or fourth largest family of bony fishes. Most cichlids have bodies that are moderately deep and compressed; this is especially so for the peacock basses, which, though similar in shape to largemouth bass, are more sleek and appear more muscular, without the sagging belly that big largemouths develop.

The two species most commonly encountered are the butterfly peacock and the speckled peacock.

  • Butterfly peacock bass (Cichla ocellaris). The full extent of its range in tropical South America is undescribed scientifically, although it occurs in the Orinoco and Amazon drainages and in the upper reaches of these systems in several countries. It was introduced to Hawaii from British Guyana in 1957 and to Florida in 1984 and 1986; it also has been stocked in Puerto Rico, Panama, Guam and the Dominican Republic.

    Butterfly peacock bass vary greatly in color. They are generally yellowish-green overall, with three dark, yellow-tinged blotches along the lateral midsection; these blotches intersect with faint bars, which typically fade in fish larger than 3 or 4 pounds. The iris of the eye is frequently deep red.

    A conspicuous hump exists on top of the head in breeding males, and spawning fish have an intensified yellow coloration. They are distinguished by the absence of black markings on the opercula (gill cover), and believed to attain a maximum size of 12 or 13 pounds; the all-tackle world record is a 12-pound, 9-ounce specimen from Venezuela.

  • Speckled peacock bass (Cichla temensis). As with the butterfly peacock bass, the full extent of this species' range in tropical South America is undescribed scientifically, although it occurs widely in the Orinoco and Amazon basins. It was introduced to Florida in 1985 and has reportedly been stocked in other countries.

    Speckled peacock bass have dark blotches on the opercula and three distinctive vertical black bars on the body; these may become more pronounced with age, although this does not appear to be absolute. There are light or faint spots on the dorsal and caudal fins, and a conspicuous hump exists on top of the head in breeding males.

    Some individuals (described as another color phase) may have 4 to 6 horizontal rows of light colored dashes or spots along the sides and speckling over the rest of the body and fins; these fish are called spotted peacock bass by many anglers, and previously thought to be a separate species.

    It is the only peacock bass that has broken longitudinal lines and spots on the head, opercula, and caudal and dorsal fin regions, resulting in a speckled appearance. Many speckled peacock bass, however, especially the largest specimens, do not exhibit this speckling along their flanks.

    There are many color variations in speckled peacock bass, with adults lighter than juveniles. Generally they are dark-green to black along the back, golden to yellow or light-green along the flanks and lighter on the belly. The pelvic, anal and lower half of the caudal fins often are reddish in color, sometimes yellowish-green.

    This species attains the greatest size of all peacock basses. The all-tackle world record is a 27-pounder from the Rio Negro in Brazil, but fish of 30 pounds and better have been reportedly speared, netted and handlined.

    For more fish species information, see "Ken Schultz's Fishing Encyclopedia," available through www.kenschultz.com.