Monday, November 16, 2015


Peacock Bass on the Rio Marie with Fins & Feathers of Bozeman

It’s great to be back in Bozeman after a long journey to Brazil in search of Peacock Bass earlier this month. The cooler weather and snow in the backyard was a welcome sight to me after a week in the relentless heat of the Amazon rain forest. Nevertheless, the trip to Rio Marie in northwestern Brazil was an awesome experience and a welcome break from the routine.

Rio Marie is a tributary to the Rio Negro, which joins the Amazon River just downstream of Manaus, Brazil. Other than the fact that Manaus is “launching spot” for most jungle fishing adventures in this part of the world, this big city in the jungle had very little appeal to me. There was some good food and a few interesting sights including a replica of the Vienna Opera house and a world famous fish market, both good for a half-day worth of time-killing. But the real purpose of this trio was to go after some large Peacock Bass on the newly opened waters of Rio Marie, so Manaus really was just a place to get some sleep, find my luggage, and get on another plane to get me closer to the jungle.

Manaus Fish Market with Fins & Feathers of Bozeman fly shop Manaus, Brazil with Fins & Feathers of Bozeman fly shop

Our group flew from Manaus to Sao Gabriel, something like 500 miles west of Manaus on the banks ofthe Rio Negro, in a twin-prop fixed wheel plane that looked like it was new in the mid-70’s. After a quick transfer from the airport to the river, we made our way downstream an hour or two to the confluence of the Rio Marie and the Rio Negro. After another 4 hours of boat time, we finally reached the mother ship from which our daily excursions would be based for the next week.

Rio Negro River with Fins & Feathers of Bozeman fly shop

The operation is run by Untamed Angling, the same group that has developed and opened the Tsimane destination for Golden Dorado in Bolivia, and their forte seems to be running seriously logistically challenged lodges that are WAY off the grid. If nothing else, they have definitely succeeded in making the grid seem much larger than ever before.

The mother ship, new this year, essentially looks like someone parked a block of urban loft condos on a barge in the middle of the jungle. Although the boat seemed out of place in the jungle, it sure as hell was nice to have air-conditioning, toilets, showers, comfortable beds, daily laundry service, gourmet meals, and reprieve from the insects. By insects, I mean bees (more than you can imagine) and some little sand-fly looking thing that they called “eye-loving flies” because they tend to gravitate towards the moisture and sweat around your eyes when they decide to swarm which is whenever the wind dies down.

Untamed Angling Rio Marie mother ship with Fins & Feathers of Bozeman fly shop Rio Marie untamed angling skiff with Fins & Feathers of Bozeman fly shop

We spent the days fishing out of some seriously tricked out skiffs which are basically 19’ john boats with custom-built decks, trolling motors, a poling platform, and 90hp Yamaha outboards. After a few minutes casting from the decks of these boats, it was obvious that someone who knew what they were doing played a big role in the final design of the skiffs.

All the glitz and comfort aside, it was the fish and the fishing that drew me to this particular Peacock Bass destination. I first heard about Peacock’s back in my early teen years while floundering my way around the local tackle store in Dallas while my focus was on learning how to properly rig a plastic worm and “Jig-n-Pig.” Fisherman would come in the store while I was debating on the colors of Producto worms and tell their tales of ferocious, colorful, bass that lived in the deepest parts of the Amazon jungle. It’s a species that had captured my interest for most of my angling life, but the opportunity just hadn’t come up over the years.

The Rio Marie “story” and Untamed Angling finally grabbed my attention enough to pull the trigger last year and start on plans for an Amazon adventure. The story is pretty simple, recently opened, remote waters that reportedly have the largest concentration of Peacock Bass over 20 pounds in the world. They had me at 20 pounds and recently opened.

The fishing is hard work, plain and simple. It’s not particularly technical or even interesting at time, but it is exhausting. Cast after cast with heavily dressed 4/0 flies on 9 and 10 weight rods in 95+ heat. Did I mention that each cast is as far as you can cast and the strip is a fast as you can strip? There was some sight casting to smaller fish in the shallows and along white sand bars, but for the most part it is all about covering a lot of water. I would throw a popper on a floating line every once in awhile just to give myself a break from the heavy flies and overweighed sink-tip lines.

Fishing on the Rio Marie with Fins & Feathers of Bozeman fly shop

There are 2 or 3 species of Peacock in the Rio Marie. The one for sure are the Butterflies and they are in mostly in the 2-5 pound range with a few reaching 7 pounds. The stronger fish were called Paca’s, they tended to be closer to the creek mouths and areas with noticeable current and structure. Pacas get up to 17 pounds or so, but are commonly in the 5-10 pound range. They pull hard and eat with serious aggression and are also much less common that the Butterflies. The third is supposedly a second stage of Pacas that the guides called Azu’s. Supposedly, an Azu is a Paca in its spawning stage and these are the fish that get to be over 20 pounds in the Rio Marie. Azu’s are typically found off the banks in the many lagoons off the main river. These are also the least common of the 3 types of fish we were targeting, but they are the draw…of course.

Butterfly Peacock Bass with Fins & Feathers of Bozeman on Rio Marie Paca Peacock Bass on Rio Marie with Fins & Feathers of Bozeman fly shop

Rising water was the theme of our trip, which is never really a good thing for fishing in rivers, regardless of where I have been in the world. As the waters rise, the jungle edge gets pushed back further, giving the fish more room to roam in the inaccessible waters of a flooded jungle. Still, we managed to find plenty of fish around points and creek mouths, but the lagoons were much larger than they had been up to this point in the season and much deeper too. After making 300 casts with the sun burning down on me while 50 species of bees and a zillion flies covered my head, feet, hands, and eyes, I found my patience for lagoon fishing to be limited to 15 minutes at best. I definitely preferred fishing along moving water, sandbars, and creek mouths to the lagoons. But, the big fish live in the lagoons and thus was thegreat dichotomy of fishing and having fun.

Asu Peacock Bass with Fins & Feathers of Bozeman fly shop

Luckily, my patience and persistence was rewarded a couple of times on the trip as I did manage to land two fish over 20 pounds, plus I was part of third huge fish to the boat as well. If I hadn’t seen them, I would have never believed that they exist and I would have chalked this trip up as another wild goose chase that seems to characterize more of my adventures than not..

Toby Swank with Rio Marie Peacock bass

Overall, the fishing here is probably a little more “hyped” up than is deserved, but it’s tough to say as we did have rising waters for the most part during our trip.  Even with the changing water conditions, I was happy with the quality and quantity of fish we found throughout the week. In my limited experience, I would say to expect lots of fish in the 2-6 pound range, a few in the 8-15 pound range, and a really big fish is a real possibility, but they are not caught everyday or every week.

If  Rio Marie in on your list, and it should be if you want to push your angling skills, see no other anglers (or civilization), and target large Peacock Bass, try to book the first few weeks of their season. I think we were week 5 and if I did it again I would shoot for week 2-3. It’s a relatively new destination and the guides are all learning the fish and the fishery, so don’t be the first group in. Also, you want to be there during low water and the earliest part of the season is historically the driest part of the season.

It’s a very challenging place to be a guide, so don’t expect to be able to run into the same guides year after year either. The challenging part is the monotonous nature of the fishing, the heat, the bugs, and the isolation that the guides spend the season in. The guides were all very fun to fish with and either Brazilian or Argentinian that spoke English well enough to converse with. They have a member of the local “tribe” with them in the boat as well. These guys don’t speak English, but understand the river, jungle noises, and fish movements best for everyone involved. They aren’t much for conversation, but definitely see and know things that the guide and angler are likely to miss or misinterpret.

As for the equipment, it’s pretty “plain Jane” with a few noticeable exceptions. I took 5 rods and broke two. I fished with an 8’ 4”, 7’ 11” and 9’ 10 wt. for the most part. I liked the 10 best as I was fishing very large flies and the 10 just handles these types of flies better than anything else. I did not like fishing the shorter rods as the casting is typically in the 50-80’ range and it’s just easier with a 9’ rod. I imagined that we would be fishing in tight quarters, but the river is actually very large and we were almost always fishing back towards the bank with lots of room for the back casts. My dad fished a 9’ 9 wt. the whole trip and it handled everything really well…I liked it a lot too but couldn’t get him to give it up after 15 minutes into the trip. The rods that I liked best and fished the most was the Orvis H2 910, the 9 wt. that was a Sage Salt. I would definitely recommend either of these rods, as they are lighter than most of the other options, which becomes important when you are making 500+ casts a day with heavy lines.  If I were doing it over, I would take a 7 wt., 2 10’s and an 11 wt.

The lines are the critical piece of the equipment puzzle. Most folks recommend the Rio Tropical Outbound with a floating running line and a clear/intermediate sinking head. The problem with this, especially in the heavier sizes is that the head is actually 2 line weights heavier which just gets heavy in the 9-10 wt. range when casting much past 60’. I liked the Rio Tarpon Quickshooter line with a clear/intermediate head the best of all the lines I messed with on the trip. It handles all casting rages very well, for this type of fishing and has a shorter sinking head when compared to the Outbound. I liked the Rio Tarpon taper best for fishing poppers and lightly dressed flies on the sandbars. Whatever you go with, you definitely want something that has a slow sinking tip with a core designed for tropical conditions. Do not use a textured fly line as you clamp down on running fish with your hands and are constantly stripping line on every cast.

A wide selection of heavily dressed flies on circle style hooks in the 3/0 and 4/0 size range are what you looking for. The guides prefer flies with Rattles; I didn’t fish them and didn’t find that it mattered. Flashfire Mushies, Super Mushies, , Pole Dancers, Bangers, Aggravators, Meat Whistles are a few commonly found Umpqua patterns that all worked reasonably well for me. Chartreuse, Orange, Yellow, and Red fly combinations were all effective. However, I would contact Warpath flies and tell Brent to tie you up 2-3 dozen flies for Rio Marie and go with confidence…just do it several months in advance! No matter how well you think you can tie flies, his are better and worth the money.

Rio Marie Peacock Bass with two flies in mouth

The only leader/tippet you need is 50-60 pound fluorocarbon. The fish are not tippet shy and you need that heavy line to get fish out of the trees where they run to immediately once they are hooked. This makes the reel pretty much irrelevant as you essentially just clamp down on the line once a fish is hooked and strip them in rather than fighting them on the reel. I was grateful to have a Hatch Finatic on both of my rods for the largest fish as the drags will stop a heavy fish and save your fingers!

This trip will go down as one of the better ones for me in recent years for many reasons, but also one that I won’t be doing again.  The simple experience of the actually seeing and being immersed in the Amazon jungle was worth the trip alone. I had no idea how big the jungle is, but it goes on forever and is the same mile after mile along these rivers. The area is vast beyond my comprehension, even now. The monotony of green is overwhelming at times. The fish are beautiful, eat a fly really well, and pull as well as anything else their size that I have come across. However, it is hot, there are a ton of bugs, and it is a relative pain in the ass to get to, plus it’s an expensive, once in a lifetime trip for me. For me, it was worth the effort, time, and money…but only once. If you want to go after large Peacock Bass on the fly in a truly remote setting where you don’t feel like someone was just fishing their yesterday…this is the place.

If you want to learn more about the Rio Marie trip or fishing for Peacock Bass in the Amazon, just shoot me an e-mail or stop by our Bozeman fly shop to shoot the breeze.  If you want to book the trip for next year (I would strongly recommend hitting it within the next two years) contact John Hudgens at Yellow Dog Fly Fishing and get your dates reserved ASAP as space is limited and they have a relatively short fishing season at Rio Marie. The trip is going to run you $7-$8 grand by the time you pay the Indian Reservation fee (not including airfare to Manaus) and pickup and extra night or two of lodging in Manaus (I would plan on arriving one day ahead of your scheduled departure).  The Brazilian Visa process is involved and lengthy, so be prepared to take care of that months in advance of your trip. It’s a great trip, but be prepared for intense heat, lots of bugs, and lots of casting…this was the most exhausting type of fly-fishing that I have ever done and I’m not just saying that…it will wear you out!

Toby Swank of Fins & Feathers of Bozeman with a Rio Marie Peacock Bass

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