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Fishing the Rio Matupiri

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October in Amazonia

by Paul Reiss

The Luhr Jensen Woodchopper is almost seven inches long and looks like a little league baseball bat. When worked rapidly through the water it sounds like a poorly tuned outboard motor and it throws a roostertail up behind itself. What fish in its right mind would hit a giant noisemaker like this? As I worked my bait through the otherwise quiet water, a belligerent peacock bass left no doubt about the answer to my question as he smashed my lure five feet into the air. The bait no sooner hit the water than the fish slammed it again and took off. I leaned into my rod and set the hook and held on. A few minutes later I marveled at the beauty and muscular power of the glistening fourteen pound peacock finning at the side of the boat. Where in the world can you find this kind of fishing? In the Brazilian Amazon.

The Rio Matupiri

peacock bass
The author with a 21 lb. peacock caught on a Zara Spook

The Amazon River is so much bigger than any other river in the world that comparisons don't really work. The Amazon contributes 20% of the supply of fresh water deposited in the world's oceans. It has five times the volume of the second largest river, the Congo and twelve times the water flow of the Mississippi. But these giant waters really aren't where the fishing is. It's in the smaller rivers where the legendary peacock bass can be found. Anglers fish dozens of the hundreds of small to medium sized tributaries that feed the main rivers emptying into the Amazon. This past October I had the pleasure of exploring two of them.

The Rio Matupiri is a tributary of the Rio Madeira which runs northward to empty into the Amazon east of Manaus. The Amazon basin's rivers typically fall into three categories, based on characteristics of the water. Black water rivers are tannin stained and acidic . Blue water rivers are clear. White water rivers are clouded with suspended particles and appear muddy. The Matupiri falls into the white water category. At this time of year, with the water very low, it looked as though I was floating on a river of 'cafe au lait'.

The Matupiri runs several hundred miles west from its confluence with the Rio Madeira. For the bulk of its downriver length it is bordered by large, convoluted lagoons, lining its flood plain. Peacock fishing is at its best when water levels are low enough to be contained by the lagoon banks and restrict the fish to a defined area. This year the area's dry season was so extreme that no rain fell on the watershed for six weeks. Fires burned unchecked in some areas due to the lack of rain. Some experts credit this to the effects of "El Nino" dominating weather conditions in the Pacific. The resulting low water left most lagoons dry, or so shallow that the fish retreated to the relative coolness and depth of the river.

River Plate Anglers, the outfitters hosting my trip, elected to move their camp upriver to optimize our access to the fish. Way upriver. We fished our way to the river's headwaters and covered a tremendous variety of terrain. Peacock bass in the river relate to structure differently than they do in lagoons. Areas of fast water, rocks or stream inlets provide the greatest fish attractors, so we cruised along, stopping at likely looking water and probing with a variety of lures and techniques. Each different type of river structure proved to be an individual challenge.

Early into our first day, my fishing partner and I motored past a large rock outcropping in our flat bottomed tunnel boat. Our guide maneuvered the boat so that we could fish the entire structure in a slow drift controlled by our electric trolling motor. I stood on the nose of the boat and started off by working a large Luhr Jensen "woodchopper" right up against the rocks. I dropped cast after cast along the outcropping without raising a single strike from the usually quick triggered peacocks I expected to find there. Well, it was time to try something different. I tied on a 1/2 ounce jig tied with a bucktail streamer. I like to work the jig by ripping it rapidly through the water, keeping it within several feet of the surface. As we drifted, I bounced the jig off the rocks and let it drop into the water. On the third cast, halfway back to the boat, as I pulled back to rip the jig, it hit what felt like a wall. The "wall" took off running, heading straight for the rocks and within seconds, I was reeling back the frayed end of my twenty pound test braided line. Fishing a jig in the rocks was going to be a challenge and I needed to come up with a different strategy.

peacock bass fishing
My Brazilian guide, Altima, with a river run ten pounder. Note the bucktail jig in its lip.

I tied another jig onto my light spinning rod, rigged with 20 lb. test Fireline, sort of a compromise between braided and monofilament. I expected to sacrifice some casting accuracy and distance for what I hoped would be better resistance to the sharp, abrasive rocks. It helped. I quickly boated several extraordinarily scrappy river run peacocks. The cooler water seems to provide them with extra stamina while they still maintain their explosive tackle busting strength. Twenty pound test won't hold a medium sized peacock if you keep the drag set too tight. The impact of the strike and initial run of anything over ten pounds will easily break you off.

Halfway down the rocky structure I hooked into a good one. I could feel the fish's power as it took the jig and ran upriver. It suddenly veered shoreward through a gap in the rock ledge into a shallow pool literally sitting on top of the rocks. The fish was contained in a twenty foot circle of water and had no place to go. So it went ballistic! It jumped!!.. it thrashed!!.. and it cleared half the water out of the pool before it settled down. The only thing I could do was to keep my rod tip high and the line tight and off the rocks. My guide had maneuvered our boat to the opening and as soon as the fish calmed, I eased it back into the river. It immediately took off downstream, stripping another fifty feet off the spool before settling into a steadily diminishing tug of war, which I finally won. Minutes later, my guide slipped the net under a beautiful ten pound blaze of color.

Fishing the river proved to be unpredictable. Each day was completely different from the day before. On our second day on the Matupiri we ran upriver from our camp. An hour or so upstream, the river became narrower and faster. Many stretches were no more than fifty feet across. We experienced some of the most beautiful scenery on the river in these upper reaches.

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Rich's Twelve Pounder

Fishing conditions, however, were very different from the day before. Structure was more widely spaced and the faster water seemed to hold smaller fish. The day provided a mix of about a dozen smaller (two to ten pound), but consistently scrappy peacocks for each of us, in a setting both mysterious and beautiful beyond description. On the third day we headed back downstream. The fishing started off very much like the day before, at least until the early afternoon. Rich Valle, my friend and fishing partner for the week, coaxed our guide closer to a clear water stream mouth so that he could get his woodchopper well up into the stream. About ten feet after he dropped his cast, a huge, noisy splash marked the attack of a big peacock. Rich hooked up and the fight was on. Big peacocks find cover surprisingly fast. Rich's quarry was no exception. The big fish tore line off Rich's drag and buried itself in a tangle of limbs and roots. The line stayed tight and as our guide brought us closer to the tangle of wood, the fish shot out from under the limbs and headed into the deeper water of the river. Rich led the fish out toward open water and then slowly eased the big peacock close. Just inches from the net, he watched in horror as it summoned up new strength and headed straight under the boat. His gear held, however, and while he let out his breath, he maneuvered his rod and line around the stern of the boat and rejoined the fight. The next time the big peacock came in close, our guide was able to hoist a husky twelve pounder into the boat.

Peacock bass are a very different creature from anything I've fished for before. I've fished for tarpon, for trout, for bass, for salmon, for snook, for musky, for many species of wonderful game fish. I've loved catching them all, but none are quite the same as peacock bass. It is very true that some game fish make longer runs, some have more long term stamina and some are even more doggedly tenacious on the other end of the line. But nothing that I have ever caught displays anything like the sheer explosive power of the peacock bass. It's behavior and especially the ways in which it relates to structure have been likened to the largemouth bass. There is much validity to that comparison, at least until these creatures decide to strike a bait. The similarity ends right there unless you happen to know some largemouth bass who are on steroids and have a very bad attitude. The intensity of the strike and that first enraged run, when it realizes that something is not right, can be truly awe inspiring. It is completely out of proportion for their size and every time I experience it, I realize that it is totally inexplicable.

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The author with the 17 lb. victim of the neighborhood bully

By the fourth day, I thought I had determined the pattern of the river and the fishing conditions. The river and the fish conspired to spring a total surprise on me. We headed downstream once again, fishing the same structure that we had worked so thoroughly the day before. This time, by early afternoon we had boated over 25 fish. Later that afternoon, I hooked up with my best fish of the week. We had come to a broad, gently flowing stretch of river with widely spaced rocks, both submerged and exposed. As we drifted through, we concentrated our casting toward a large grouping of exposed rocks paralleling the riverbank. We had no action at all until we passed beyond the last of the rocks and reached a deep, sandy bottomed pool where the disturbed waters swirled and then settled back into the normal flow of the river. I cast back towards the receding rocky section and was rewarded with the violent theft of my jig. From the moment of the hookup, I knew I had a big one on and I braced myself for the expected run to cover. It never happened. The fish headed left, then right, then upstream, yanking my tackle every which way while it continued to constantly change directions like a pinball. It seemed as though it was unwilling to make up its mind on any one direction. Within several minutes, as it tired, I was able to bring it into eyeball distance. I mean that quite literally. A really odd characteristic of big peacocks is their curious habit of peeking at you as they approach the boat. I've seen it so many times on so many rivers that I've learned to use it as a signal of the end of the first run and the beginning of the second. The fish turns sideways to the pressure, maintains its distance and lifts its head and one eye out of the water, appearing to assess the fisherman while the fisherman is busily assessing the fish. Sort of a staring contest, really. It generally doesn't last long, ending when the peacock decides he's seen quite enough of the ugly creature on the other end of the line and takes off again. When this big bruiser lifted its head, a second, even larger peacock pounded at it, trying to steal the jig hanging from its lip. We were all dumbfounded for a few seconds until my fish turned on the jets and headed down river. The second fish had been bullying my fish all through that first disjointed run, trying to steal what looked like a prize tidbit right out of its mouth. We all got another view of the neighborhood bully as my fish came in close enough for the net to be lowered. The second fish then finally decided it had had enough of this fuss and took off. If we had been able to keep our heads and react quickly, there was a good chance that my partner might have been able to hook the second fish by offering it a jig of its own. Well, life is full of a lot of "if only's". As I hoisted my seventeen pound prize into the boat on my Bogagrip, I still felt very much like the king of the river.

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Big Peacocks will often give you the eye

The rest of the week saw a steady stream of beautiful peacocks testing our tackle, maintaining the unpredictable patterns of the first few days. On the afternoon of the last day, we fished our way further downstream, in order to rendezvous with the riverboat that would take us back to the town of Borba on the Rio Madeira, to meet our plane. The morning began disappointingly. We fished rocks, we fished stream inlets and we fished rapids, but when we stopped for lunch on a bluff overlooking a bend in the river, we had only a single fish to contemplate as we digested our meal. No one could have predicted the way things changed later that afternoon. As soon as we began fishing again, I hooked and landed a tough fifteen pounder on a jig, and minutes later a thirteen pounder burned my supply of adrenaline down even lower. It was only the beginning. We landed fish on woodchoppers, zara spooks, rattletraps, red fins and jigs at an increasingly rapid pace. The disappointing morning was quickly forgotten in this bonanza of peacocks. By late afternoon we had caught a good days worth of fish. When we saw the riverboat loom into view, steaming its way down river, I was pretty satisfied and ready to call it a day. My guide, however, said he had another spot we should try. So we blew right on by the riverboat and headed further downstream to a jagged rocky bank. The first cast brought a ten pounder to the boat and it didn't stop there. They pounded every bait we threw at them and when we reached the end of our drift and started again, they pounded us some more. Our peacock bonanza was turning into an absolute peacock blitz. As the sun went down and the riverboat once again loomed into view, we had caught an incredible total of forty six fish.

The Rio Caures

The fishing on the Matupiri was great and so was the Rio Caures. We caught some of the biggest peacocks I have ever seen. After leaving the Matupiri, I headed off to Barcellos, to make my way to the Rio Caures. (Pronounce it "cow race".)
Click here to move on to The Rio Caures

Guided peacock bass trips are available throughout most of September, October, November, December, January and February.
For more information on booking a Peacock Bass fishing adventure, contact:
Paul Reiss at (866) 832-2987
E-Mail Paul Reiss, or:
Garry Reiss at (866) 431-1668
E-Mail Garry Reiss

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