Guide to Gamefish of the Amazon
Geohistory and Taxonomic Background Information
The Amazon basin and its surrounding drainage is home to over 3000 freshwater fish species, almost a third of all the freshwater fish species that exist in the entire world. The aquarium trade has long found some of its most beautiful, interesting and exotic specimens here. This extraordinary aquatic biodiversity has also created the richest freshwater sport fishery in existence. What the aquarist has long known, the sport fisherman is finally discovering. The adventurous angler will find no harder fighting or more exciting gamefish anywhere in the world.
Amazonian fish species evolved from an ancient line of groups that were already established over 200 million years ago. The most commonly accepted theory regarding these Amazon species is that their precursors evolved during a period when what is now South America, Africa, southern Asia and Australia were a single continent called Gondwanaland. Upon the separation of these continents, these mutual ancestors then evolved independently. Today, although the history of this relationship between Amazonian, African and Australian fishes remains evident, their modern descendants have speciated into thousands of endemic varieties.
The majority of Amazonian gamefish belong to three large groups (Orders): the Siluriformes (catfishes); the Characiformes, (characins, including dorado, payara and pirapitinga) and the Cichliformes, (including the aquarium stars, discus and angelfish and the king of all freshwater gamefish, the peacock bass). Several fish families from other orders also contribute to the Amazon's gamefish variety such as the osteoglossidae (the aruana and the immense pirarucú or arapaima), the Perciformes, (includes pescada — silver croaker) as well as groups with salt-water origins such as the sardinata (apapá),
The list of Amazonian freshwater gamefish is as extensive and exotic as the land itself. Depending upon the region, there are as many as a dozen different fierce species that will take a fly or lure - often with strange names and peculiar appearances to match their fighting prowess.
The freshwater Amazonian gamefishes in this article, as organized by ichthyologists, are all members of the Class Osteichthyes or bony fishes. This group includes all fishes that have evolved in freshwater as well as the majority of saltwater species. Fishes of similar anatomical characteristics within this differentiation, are grouped in Orders. Within each Order, closely related fishes are further subdivided into Families. The two-part scientific name then specifies the even finer separation into Genus and individual Species.
The Amazon Basin
Important Amazon Fish Orders
ORDER CICHLIFORMES — cichlids
Definition: A hypothetical supercontinent made up of South America, Africa, Australia, Antarctica and the Indian subcontinent. Presumed to have existed from 300 to 200 million years ago until separated by continental drift.
History: In 1912 a German scientist, Alfred Wegener, was the first person to put forth the concept that the continents were joined at one time in the geologic past. He postulated a single great landmass, Pangaea. Later theorists describe the separation of Pangaea into two supercontinents late in the Triassic Period (245 to 208 million years ago). The southern landmass became Gondwanaland while Laurasia formed to the north.
Significant geologic, paleobiological and current biological evidence for the land connection between the currently separated southern continents is clear. Some examples include the occurrence of tillites (glacial deposits) from the time between the Carboniferous and Permian periods, and the existence of similar and unique floras and faunas that are not found in the Northern Hemisphere. Rock strata containing this matching evidence are found in the Karroo System in South Africa, the Gondwana System in India, and the Santa Catharina System in South America.
Of all the incredible gamefish in the Amazon basin, the one that has received the most press is the peacock bass. Their remarkable, explosive topwater strike, combined with an astonishing ability to break heavy lines and leaders and straighten even stout saltwater hooks, makes them one of the most sought after species in the Amazon basin.
Peacock bass are not bass, but comprise a genus within the family Cichlidae. (For that matter neither are the largemouth and smallmouth bass, Micopterus Sp., found in North American waters, they're actually sunfish/Centrarchids.) Cichlids are a diverse family of tropical fishes found primarily throughout Africa, South America and southern Asia.
Although all peacock bass species are highly temperature sensitive, some have been successfully introduced in tropical areas from Panama to Hawaii. The latest transplants (C. ocellaris) are happily swimming in many of the major freshwater canals in Dade County, Florida. However, no permanent populations of the giant species, C. temensis have ever been successfully transplanted outside of the Amazon basin and Lake Guri. If you want a trophy-sized opponent, they're still all waiting in the Amazon
Until 2006 scientists recognized only five species of peacock bass, C. temensis, C. ocellaris, C. monoculus, C. orinocensis and C. intermedia. Recent rediscription of the genus now includes 16 named species. They are called tucunaré in Brazil, while Spanish speaking South American countries use the term pavón.
To learn more about the peacock bass species you'll most commonly encounter on an Amazon peacock bass fishing trip, see our: Peacock Bass Identification Guide.
Morphology: Although they include a range of wildly differing species, Cichlids share several unique physical characteristics. All have only one nostril on each side of the head, not two, and they have both a spiny, and a soft, dorsal fin.
Behavior: Cichlids show some of the most complex and highly evolved behavior patterns of all fishes. Because of the family's diversity, it is difficult to ascribe characteristics to all members of the group. However, many generalities effectively apply to the majority of species. Cichlids are among the intellectuals of fishes. They are highly intelligent and it has been shown by scientists that cichlids can learn. (The way they sometimes tear up my gear, I'd swear they knew I was coming ahead of time and had passed the word among themselves.) Cichlids in general are tend to be aggressive and pugnacious. They are often extremely territorial.
Reproduction: One generalization that can be made about New World Cichlids (in contrast to African Cichlids) is that they are all substrate spawners. Although several species may guard eggs or young (i.e. the Convict Cichlid) in their mouths at some time during the brooding cycle, none are true mouthbreeders. Some (notably the famous aquarium discus) provide nourishment for the young directly from their bodies.
A World-Class Fighter
The peacock bass' explosive strikes and spectacular fighting prowess serve to rank it among the greatest fighting fish in the world. Even big specimens don't hesitate to go airborne. Bringing big, powerful fish like these to the boat in the tight quarters in which they are usually found is a great challenge for any angler.
The "Speckled" or "3-barred Peacock" - Cichla temensis
The giant peacock bass (Cichla temensis), known as "tucunaré paca or tucunaré açu" is the largest of the Cichla species, reaching sizes well into the 20-pound class. These fish, when not in spawning condition, are so distinctly spotted (with a fawn-like pattern of white spots running laterally along their sides), that they appear to be a separate species from the reproductively active spawners and are called 'paca' (also pinta lapa). (The names 'paca' and 'pinta lapa' come from the pattern's resemblance to the respective local names of a 30-pound spotted jungle rodent that English speakers call an agouti.) As flood pulse rivers in Amazonia drop below bankful, C. temensis begin to feed aggressively. As individuals feed successfully and become seasonally ready to spawn, the white spots fade or disappear, the brilliant gold, black and red markings take over and they are called 'açu'. (see illustration of the progression of color and pattern variation below).
Male peacock bass in the açu color and pattern form develop a distinct fatty hump on the top of their heads during breeding season (this subsides after spawning). Scientists have shown that Cichla deposit fat in several locations prior to spawning. It is possible that this particular fatty deposit is an "honest signal” of male fitness and condition, visually discernable by females and signaling reproductive suitability in the male. There is much speculation as to possible additional purposes of this growth. It has been postulated that it may provide a material utilized as a food source by the peacock's fry for a period after hatching. It has also been suggested that the male peacock's nuchal hump may disperse a chemical marker that keeps the young close to the adult. In clear or still water, one can often see tightly-packed clouds of peacock fry swarming about the head of their protective father, who provides the bulk of the fry rearing and protecting effort.
Although body coloration and markings vary greatly in any color phase, this fish has an unmistakable mottled patch directly behind its eye. Three vertical black bars are usually visible (intensity varies from fish to fish) beginning behind the pectoral fin and ending underneath the soft portion of the dorsal fin. Often, the previously mentioned lateral white spots are also faintly present. On rare occasions, there are neither black bars nor horizontal stripes/spots, however, the mottled patch directly behind the eye remains a distinct identifying characteristic. C. temensis is found primarily in the Amazon lowlands in tributaries draining into the Rio Negro, Rio Branco and Rio Madeira basins. Some of the largest specimens have been encountered in the Rio Negro tributaries of Brazil.
Other Peacock Bass Species
Although Cichla temensis is the ultimate goal of trophy peacock bass anglers, several other species provide excellent sport throughout almost all Amazon regions.
A common Amazonian species, Cichla monoculus, may be the most numerous and widespread species in the Amazon basin. Called "sarabiana” or “papoca”" in Brazil, it exhibits three black triangular-shaped markings along the back, coinciding with the position of the black bars of C. temensis, along with the addition of a distinct abdominal bar pattern above the belly. The absence of the black opercular blotches clearly distinguishes C. monoculus from its larger cousin, C. temensis. In spawning condition, C. monoculus has a brilliantly colored red ventral region. In the central Amazon basin, this fish it not commonly encountered over 4-pounds..
Another pugnacious Amazon species is the 'borboleto' (Cichla orinocensis) This species has three black ocelli, or spots (about the size of a half dollar, depending on the size of the fish) running along its lateral line, in addition to the ever-present tail spot. Some may display less distinct body markings, a reddish reticulated background pattern or more muted colors. Here also, the absence of the black opercular blotches further distinguishes C. orinocensis from its larger cousin, C. temensis. Typical size for Cichla orinocensis is 2 to 6 pounds but they can get much larger. We sometimes encounter individuals up to 12 - pounds.
One of the biggest sources of confusion in peacock bass nomenclature (for anglers) is Cichla ocellaris. Although not found in the Amazon lowlands, C. ocellaris has gained notoriety due to its greater tolerance of cold water, hence an ability to be transplanted into new homes. Transplanted into Florida over twenty years ago, ocellaris is commonly called the "butterfly peacock" in English. Unfortunately (for naming purposes), when anglers arrive in Brazil for their long-awaited peacock bass trip, they are promptly introduced to Cichla orinocensis, locally called "Borboleto", which means butterfly (the insect) in Portuguese, the language of Brazil. The two species are promptly, inextricably confused.
The genus Cichla has 16 currently recognized species. See our peacock bass ID guide for more information.
Specimens from various Amazon fisheries
Fly casters take peacocks on a variety of oversized streamer, popper and slider patterns (tied on 5/0 or 6/0 extremely stout wide-gap hooks) which match a multitude of large baitfish. For larger fish, streamers, with a big profile are most often productive. A stiff 8 to 10-weight rod will easily cast the 200-300 grain sinking lines most commonly used (depending upon fishing conditions) to present these flies. An 8-weight is perfect for intermediate or floating lines. In tight structure, heavy leaders (such as a 6-foot section of 50-pound monofilament) are essential to keep from breaking big fish off.
For more information: Pre-Trip Info
Conventional tackle for peacocks should be selected according to the type of lure to be used. Peacocks are usually fished using rods and reels similar to those for trophy largemouth bass. A selection of three rigs is generally adequate for most fishing conditions and the four most commonly used classes of baits.
The most popular lures for peacock bass fishermen are undoubtedly the big propeller baits. Available models include the 6-1/2-inch Highroller's Monster RipRoller. When casting these large, almost 2-ounce, topwater plugs, a medium-heavy rod is recommended. It's also very important to have a fast retrieve reel (7.0:1) strung with 65 pound braid.
Other very effective surface lures include the "walking stick" type baits, such as Excalibur's Super Spook. These lures are effectively used with a medium rod and a reel to match. This can be strung with 50 pound braid and doesn't require quite as fast a retrieve. The same rig can also be used for the very effective swimming plug type baits, such as Yo-zuri's Crystal Minnow or Cordell's Red Fin.
Most important is a lighter rig to cast the amazingly effective Sidewinder's peacock rattle jigs. A medium-light spinner with a reel to match (2500 size with 30 pound braid) is perfect for the job. This rig is extremely productive, accounting for greater numbers of peacock bass per time in use than any other method.
Trophy peacock fishing requires strong hooks, split rings and lines to handle these incredibly powerful fish. Most veterans use 30-65 lb. braided line. Anything lighter is easily broken by big peacocks in heavy structure (their favorite haunts).
For more information: Peacock Primer II
Other Large Cichlids
Several other fun to catch species of Cichlid are native to the Amazon basin. The oscar (Astronatus ocellatus), known in Brazil as 'cara acu' has become common throughout the south Florida canal system, thanks to aquarist releases. It is found in many regions in central Amazonian black water. Oscars use their their flattened round bodies to good advantage, generating surprising force for their size as a rod and reel adversary. We’ve caught these up to the 5 pound class (well over the current world record size).
Jacunda or Pike Cichlid
Jacundá (pike cichlids) are members of the genus Crenicichla, a wide-ranging taxon with over 70 Neotropical species. Found in similar waters, they are commonly caught while peacock bass fishing. Although the various Crenicichla species in Amazonian Brazil vary widely in coloration and markings, they are remarkably similar in form and habit. Like oscars, jacundá don't get terribly large (under 5-pounds) but they'll aggressively take many of the same black bass-sized lures and flies used for peacocks.
Jacunda relate strongly to structure and strike very powerfully for their size. They fight with strong, short runs and an intense, bulldog-like style. On an ultralight casting/spinning rod or 5 - weight fly-rod and floating line, both jacunda and oscars are great fun to catch.
"Cara" - Smaller Cichlid Species
Although not in a sport fishing league with their larger cousins, a great variety of smaller species, collectively called "cara" in Brazil, can be taken on rod and reel. Found most often in sheltered lagoons, creeks and channels, these panfish sized species are widespread, pugnacious and lots of fun on light tackle.
Although they have long been well- represented in aquaria, the smaller Cichlids of Amazonia are among the least known. Genera are constantly being revised by both aquarists and scientists, while every newly surveyed river system yields new species. The result is a confusion of names, both local and scientific. Among the many genera that may be encountered by anglers, especially with light fly rods, are; Aequidens; Bujurquina; Chaetobranchus; Cichlasoma; Geophagus; Laetacara; and Uaru. For those interested, even more genera can be viewed with the help of breadcrumbs in clear water by day or with a spotlight at night, including; Heros; Mesonauta (festivum); Pterophyllum (angelfish); and Symphysodon (discus);
Osteoglossiformes - Aruana and Arapaima
Osteoglossiformes, as prehistoric as they might appear, are not quite as simple as they seem. The order, less primitive than the elopiformes (tarpon, ladyfish) they postdate, exhibit a fairly complex life history and fry rearing behavior. The arapaima (or pirarucú, as it is known in Brazil), is the largest, scaled, wholly freshwater fish in the world. Fish of 4 meters (over 12 feet) and up to 300 kg (660 lbs) have been recorded. At first glance, pirarucú look like an Amazon version of a tarpon, with a similar profile save for their flattened head and strange, club-shaped tail. The pirarucú's flesh is much sought after throughout the Amazon and for this reason they have become fairly rare in unprotected regions, with large specimens no longer common.
Although not widely accessible as a sport fish in the Amazon basin, when present, pirarucú can be taken on conventional tackle with a little patience and a bit of luck. They can caught using a variety of large (7-inch or so) jerk baits (Rapalas, Bombers, Red-fins and even peacock bass jigs), although a large live baitfish (on a 14/0 circle hook) dropped under a float is probably the best bet in unprotected areas where anglers are common.
Arapaima will also take a streamer fished in the lakes and lagoons it prefers to haunt. They are normally a very wary fish and must be approached with extreme caution. However, when guarding a spawning site, they have the unsettling habit of surfacing close to your boat like a giant scaled submarine, on occasion even leaping entirely clear of the water. Considering their size, and their brilliant array of gold, red and purple spawning colors, this is an impressive performance. Pirarucú are obligatory air-breathers using gills to exchange gases, and a modified air bladder that acts like a lung, which they use to gulp in air, supplying supplementary oxygen. Stout tackle is a must for these giants - For the determined fly fisherman, an 11 or 12-weight rod, 400-grain sink-tip line, heavy leaders and large streamers tied on 7/0 heavy saltwater hooks are standard equipment.
Though pirarucú are found in 'fishable' numbers in certain circumstances, it is important to note that a great deal of time, patience and probably plain luck must be devoted to the fish if one is to catch one on a fly rod. It is not an everyday occurrence in normally fished peacock bass waters.
If catching an arapaima is on your bucket list, then our one day add-on arapaima trip is perfect for you.
The aruanã (Osteoglossum bicirrhosum) is a close relative of the pirarucú. They are a schooling fish that can reach a maximum weight of about 14-pounds. They are often plentiful in certain peacock bass waters and can make an interesting accompaniment to a peacock trip. Aruanã are extremely surface-oriented and can often be sight-fished as they cruise about just below the surface in search of prey. They take the same lures used for smaller peacocks (and they especially love Heddon Zara spooks). They are a delight for fly fishermen. A 7-8-weight fly rod, floating line and a variety of medium-sized poppers and sliders (2/0) make for some exciting fishing. When hooked, aruanã repeatedly jump like a baby tarpon.
Pirarucu - Arapaima gigas
Why Breathe Air?
Amazon aquatic environments are influenced dramatically by the region's unusual characteristics. Seasonal rains can raise and lower water levels by as much as 40 feet. Daily variations in temperature and photosynthesis (plant respiration) can cause wildly varying levels of dissolved oxygen in some Amazon waters. As a result, many Amazon fishes are routinely subjected to periods when their waters contain extremely low levels of oxygen (hypoxia or anoxia).
In order to survive these deadly conditions, many species have evolved unique respiratory strategies. Some absorb oxygen through their skin, others take advantage of multiple versions of oxygen-carrying hemoglobin in their bloodstream. Many species simply migrate to avoid the difficult times. The arapaima, however, has literally risen above it all.
These lumbering Amazon giants simply rise to the surface and gulp air. Their modified swim bladders act as lungs, dispersing oxygen into the bloodstream. Their gills return the waste CO2 gases to the water. It's a neat system that allows arapaima to swim blithely along in conditions that would rapidly suffocate other fishes. Millions of years of evolutionary adaptation enabled them to prosper and proliferate throughout the Amazon. Nature's work however, is often quickly undone by man.
This once plentiful species suffers the misfortune of being particularly tasty. The same air-breathing mechanism that allows them to survive the worst possible natural conditions proves to be their undoing when it comes to mankind. They are obligatory air-breathers -- and they must come to the surface in order to breathe. They would drown, just like us, if they couldn't periodically gulp air. This makes them an easy target for patient, harpoon wielding hunters who bring their flesh to market. Only recently have measures been taken to protect this magnificent Amazon giant.
Aruanã - Osteoglossum bicirrhosum
The natives call this odd-looking silver creature "macaco da agua", "water monkey" because of its ability to leap high out of the water to snag prey in bushes and trees. In addition to small fish, aruanã eat insects, small birds, bats and reptiles, which they will often snatch from overhanging branches. In addition to being a great sportfish, the aruanã is also a very popular aquarium fish — in a well-covered aquarium!
Their large, light-reflecting, opalescent scales and their fluid swimming movements make them underwater billboards for the sight fishing angler. They take a bait by opening their cargo-door mouth, inhaling it and then closing the gate. Although not as powerful as peacock bass, they strike aggressively and take to the air acrobatically. They can tolerate nearly any water type, since they are facultative air-breathers (like a tarpon), not obligatory, like arapaima.
For much more information about these big cats, see our new and expanded Angler's Guide to Amazon Catfish
There are countless species of catfish throughout the Amazon basin (actually, about 1300). They range in size from the diabolical candirú (Trichomycteridae), a tiny parasitic catfish found in white-water systems that lodges itself in the urethral openings of other fish or animals (or occasionally, even humans) to the monstrous piraiba (Brachyplatystoma filamentosum), which can grow over 10-feet long and have been reported to weigh in excess of 450-pounds.
One of the most sporting of the giants (above) is the brutish jau (Zungaro zungaro). A heavy bodied linebacker of a fish, the jau is surprisingly mobile (it is a common migrator) and agile (wait till you've got one on the end of your rod). These bareknuckle fighters have been estimated to exceed 200 lbs. and will wear the arms off of even the most determined anglers. They are experts at utilizing current and sometimes lead anglers on a merry chase through rapids and waterfalls before giving you the satisfaction of bringing them to the boat.
The aforementioned piraiba is bigger yet. Longer, slimmer and even more athletic than the jau, they have been known to jump; a very un-catfishlike behavior. Imagine 7-foot of catfish launching itself into the air! These creatures are not easy to bring to the boat.
Pirarara (Phractocephalus hemiliopteris) is an extremely husky catfish characterized by its striking black, white and red coloration. Its bony head and forequarters allows it to dominate river bottoms with no fear of predation. Although not an acrobatic performer on rod and reel, it is a tough bulldog-like fighter that doesn't quit until it's exhausted enough to have to leave the bottom. The question is, will you have enough stamina to fight it out.
Cut or whole bait, fished deep on a 14/0 circle hook is appropriate for all three of these giant species. A stout rod/reel combo spooled with heavy braid is recommended. These monsters can literally tow a 16-foot boat upstream!
There are even several Amazon catfish that have been known to take a fly, including several species collectively called sorubim (Pseudoplatystoma sp.). It is important to note that these catfish are nothing like our North American 'cats' which tend to be bottom-feeding and rather lethargic in comparison. Many of the larger species of Amazonian catfish are migratory, extremely active and aggressive predators that live in fast water and actively feed with the other previously-mentioned gamefish. Pound for pound, these 'cats' are as strong - if not stronger - than any other fish you'll encounter on a rod and reel.
Over 3000 species of fish occur in the Amazon. The order Siluriformes (catfish) is the most diverse and probably the most spectacular group of Amazon fishes. With 15 families, including over 1300 species, the Amazon accounts for almost half of all the catfish species in the world. Anglers pursue giant species of the Family Pimelodidae.
Although catfish have a very low mortality rate when caught with circle hooks, they should still be carefully resuscitated on release.
When do we say “fish” and when do we say “fishes”?
It seems confusing at first glance, but it’s really pretty simple. When you refer to more than one fish of the same species, the plural is still “fish”. For example, if you caught 10 peacock bass today, you caught 10 “fish”. When you refer to more than one species, the plural becomes “fishes”, as in in the “Fierce Fishes of the Amazon”.
Apapa (Sardinata) and Pescada - Saltwater Adaptees
Ever catch a violent, top-water-blasting SARDINE? Probably not, unless you’ve explored the Amazon. Apapá, (Pellona castelnaeana), also known as sardinata and as the Amazon pellona in the IGFA record book, is an exceptional, yet little-known migratory Amazon gamefish that strikes aggressively and fights like a miniature tarpon. A clupeid fish (think sardines, anchovies and herring), they average about 4 to 10-pounds, but can attain upwards of 16-pounds. Apapá look a bit like American shad, except that they’re way bigger and sport a brilliant golden holographic coloration. These 'golden freshwater sardines' typically reside in very specific rivers during the low water season and when found there will take both flies and lures with reckless abandon. During high water seasons, they will form gigantic migratory schools. Stumbling across such an aggregation of these fish can be an anglers dream. Apapá are extremely topwater oriented and actually prefer to take noisy surface flies and lures over subsurface alternatives. Zara spooks and popping-type surface baits are great for these scrappers.
Fly casters have the best luck throwing 2/0 Gaine's-style poppers on an 8-weight rod spooled with a weight-forward floating line. The strike of an apapá can be nearly as violent as that of the ferocious peacock bass, and once hooked, these fish run and jump repeatedly just like a gold-sided freshwater version of a tarpon. Because they are a schooling fish, once one is located, more strikes are sure to follow. Apapá can be difficult to encounter on organized fishing trips because of their transient habits, however, some of our recent exploratory trips have enabled Acute Angling to deliver the experience of tangling with these great fighters to its anglers.
The pescada, also known as corvina (Plagioscion squamosissimus) is a freshwater croaker related to saltwater drum (including black drum and redfish). This fish is considered an 'incidental' species that is sometimes taken on deep-diving crank baits, jigs and/or streamers fished deep for other river oriented species. Once hooked, they'll fight surprisingly like a largemouth bass. Specimens up to 11-pounds have been taken. Like their better known saltwater brethren, pescada are a valued food fish in the Amazon.
The Order Clupeiformes includes herring, sardines and shad. Although mostly a marine Order, the Amazon has three families and many species of these freshwater adapted schooling fishes. Aggressively predatory apapá are the largest. These surface-oriented piscivores have a mouth structure reminiscent of the tarpon, designed perfectly for attacking small Amazon forage fishes.
Their jaw opens immediately in front of their eyes and is canted at approximately a 30-degree angle from the water's surface. Apapá attack in zig-zagging rushes, scooping their prey into the gaping mouth. Possessed with only a few small teeth, they depend on their speed and running-back agility to outmaneuver the baitfish on which they feed.
Migratory in nature, apapá move in medium to large schools close on the heels of huge baitfish migrations. It's an incredible sight to witness a wave form itself in perfectly still water and realize it’s made up entirely of fleeing silvery baitfish bodies. The bait, panicked by the slashing attack of a school of apapá sound like a rainstorm moving across the river.
Why marine fishes in fresh-water?
The Amazon today is a river flowing east that empties into the Atlantic Ocean. This wasn't always so.
Geological evidence suggests that tens of millions of years ago, the Amazon Basin was a huge Pacific Ocean bay. When the Andes mountains pushed their way toward the sky, the Basin and its waters were permanently cut off from the Pacific.
Many marine animals, trapped into a now disconnected bay by the rising mountains, slowly adapted as the waters changed. Rainwater gradually freshened the system and ancestral rays, drums and other marine fishes gave rise to today's Amazonian freshwater versions. The waters ultimately forced their way through the eastern lowlands and found their way to the Atlantic, creating a complex river system with an array of adaptees from saltwater.
Characiformes are not only among the most numerous, but are also the most morphologically diversified Order of Amazon fishes. They have been classified into 16 (now reclassified into 13) extremely diverse Families. The characins include the oddly elongate leporinus, the almost round pacu and the streamlined but broad shouldered dorado, pretty much running the gamut of piscine body shapes. Their behavior and habits are just as diverse. The predatory, fanged, fast water payara, the flower eating pacu and the razon-toothed, scavenging piranha are all characins. Characins are found only in Africa, Central and South America (with one exception in southwest Texas - the genus Astyanax). Of the approximately 1500 species identified, the great majority (over 1200) are found in the Amazon.
Characins have long been extremely important fishes for several economic reasons. Many species, especially the large fruit and flower eaters are highly valued food fishes. Tambaqui are so highly prized, that they are now being raised in fish farms for the marketplace. Aquarists place great value on these fishes as well. Tetras, piranhas and pacu have long been staples of the aquarium trade. The characins are also among the world's greatest sportfish. Dorado have long been a favorite quarry of South American anglers. The payara, one of the world's ultimate fighting fish, has more recently become a highly respected gamefish and the wolfish and pirapitinga are just now being discovered as superior sporting fishes. Anglers around the world (Africa's tigerfish is also a member of the group) are recognizing that characins include some of the toughest, fiercest and strongest of all freshwater gamefish.
Dorado and Matrinxã
Freshwater dorado (Salminus brasilensis) are a migratory freshwater gamefish not to be confused with the saltwater dolphin fish or mahi mahi (which is also called dorado or 'el dorado' in Spanish-speaking countries). Physically, the freshwater dorado is best described as a golden salmon-like body with the jaws of a pit bull terrier. Although recently renamed, ichthyologists had appropriately given the southern species of dorado the Latin name, Salminus maxillosus. Salminus, meaning salmon-like, and maxillosus referring to the fish's immensely-powerful jaws. Dorado are hard-hitting, very strong, acrobatic fighters that attain weights in excess of 50-pounds. They are, in short, South America's hyped-up version of a 'tropical trout.' Dorado are commonly found throughout a massive watershed between southern Brazil/Bolivia and Northern Argentina. Although not really an Amazon species, they can be found in a few southerly locales at the edges of the Amazon basin, thus making them worth mentioning here.
Conventional gear for big dorado is virtually the same as that described in the trophy peacock bass section, although a wire leader is essential. Dorado are usually not surface oriented fish, so medium jerk baits, Rattle Trap-type lures, spoons and jigs are most productive. Dorado are fished with an 8-9-weight fly rod and either a 200-grain, 24-foot sink tip line or a full floating line depending upon water conditions. A heavy steel leader is a must, as these fish will chew through mono like it is cotton candy! Dorado take a variety of streamers, sliders and even Atlantic salmon-style Bombers during ideal conditions (all on 4/0 heavy, long shank hooks). Northern Argentina, Paraguay, Southern Brazil and Bolivia have the strongest populations of dorado.
The Matrinxã (Brycon falcatus) is classified in the same family as the the dorado. It comes with an unfortunate case of common name confusion. Even the spelling varies (sometimes spelled matrinchã). Large members of several species within the genus Brycon may be called matrinxã by locals in different regions. Also depending on the region, large Brycons may be called bocón or yatorana or mamori. The genus contains a mix of resident and migratory species, both still and fast water oriented and found throughout the Amazon basin. Brycon species behave similarly to dorado when hooked, but do not reach the latter's size, so they can be fished on lighter tackle. We have encountered them on several of our exploratory trips and they are great fun on light tackle.
Characins - Characidae
Characidae comprise a large family within Characiformes, restricted to the tropics and subtropics of Africa, South and Central America. Recently, taxonomists have redivided the Order from 16 to 13 families.
Characins include a wide range of species such as piranhas, tetras, copeinas, tigerfish, trairas and payara. Most Characins that are considered gamefish have distinctive teeth. Many of the most popular Amazon aquarium fishes are also characins. They are mostly egg-scatterers. Many species breed in group spawnings, leaving the eggs and young behind to fend for themselves.
Matrinxã (Brycon falcatus), although much smaller, they jump and fight like a faster mini-version of dorado. They are generally encountered in schools, so once you're into them the action is fast and furious. Matrinxá are fierce fighters for their size. They strike baits at high speed and continue moving right through the drag. Within seconds they're out of the water and flying through the air. This is all the fish you'd want to tangle with on light tackle. They have an affinity for lures that resemble small baitfish or terrestrial insects and can be taken on small spoons, jigs, and jerk baits or small streamers and ant and beetle imitations in fast water (a bit like trout fishing for crazed trout). Matrinxã are found in widespread locales throughout the Brazilian Amazon.
Tambaqui and Pirapitinga
Which is Which?
Amazon fish often seem mysteriously difficult for anglers to identify because of seemingly indecipherable confusion about their common names. Local names for the same fish often vary by region, while completely different fish may be called the same name in different areas. To make it worse, related fish species may be very similar in appearance, complicating even scientific classification. The amazing diversity of Amazon species alone is often enough to confound simple field identification.
This is certainly the case with the largest members of the of the Characiforme Order, tambaqui and pirapitinga. Not only are they commonly confused with each other and a whole range of other smaller characins (called pacu as a group), but they have even undergone changes in their scientific names and classification in recent years. These two giants (formerly classified as Colossoma and currently split into the genera Colossoma and Piaractus) are unique not only in being (after the arapaima) the two largest scaled fishes in the region but in occupying an ecological niche that has few parallels anywhere else in the world.
Members of the genus Colossoma, tambaqui (Colossoma macroponum) are oval-shaped, physically built like a stocky permit or jack. They have a golden to olive green back and an inky purple to black ventral area. An omnivorous relative of the piranha, tambaqui have dazzling teeth that look eerily like a set of human dentures. These fish have amazing jaw strength as they often feed on rock hard jungle seeds. They can crush a 4/0 saltwater hook as if it were made of baling wire. These fish are so strong that the locals fish for them with stout green saplings secured to 120-pound monofilament, heavy cable and 6/0 tuna hooks!
Tambaqui can get huge. Specimens of 3 feet in length and weighing in at over 70 pounds are not exceptional. Unfortunately for the sportfisherman, these highly prized (and pricey) food fish are heavily harvested by commercial fishermen, especially during their spawning migrations when they are at their most accessible. This doesn't leave too many options for a successful sport fishery, although pockets of these big characins are sometimes encountered by peacock anglers in small tributaries of some southern Amazon peacock bass rivers.
Thankfully pirapitinga (Piaractus brachypomus) are not as highly desirable a food fish and they are not heavily harvested in any organized manner in the Amazon basin. This fortuity enables sportfishermen to more readily access them in their low water habitat. These broad shouldered and brawny fish can be found in or near fast current and are perfectly fit for such an environment. They have huge anal fins and extremely wide, thick tails. When hooked they use their powerful oval body against the current and make incredible heart stopping runs. With the force of fast water added to their own weight and power, they can seem almost unstoppable.
Typical tackle for these fish is similar to that used for big peacock bass and payara. Thirty to sixty-five pound-braid and an equally-stout wire leader are essential. When water levels are extremely low, denying them access to fruit from overhanging branches, they will opportunistically take a variety of lures. Some of the best include; Blue Fox Vibrax spinners (#5), Yo Zuri Surface Squirt, and 5-inch jerk baits. When the waters rise just a bit, pirapitinga will quickly apprehend a sweet piece of jungle fruit dead-drifted on a big circle hook!
Pirapitinga can be taken on fly with a fast action 9 or 10-weight fly rod. They will take some of the same flies listed in the dorado section, including heavily-dressed 3/0 Cloussers and Muddlers (they seem to prefer blue - for reasons they haven’t disclosed). They also take "fruit flies," which are nothing more than brightly-colored deer hair (yellow or bright orange are good) spun and clipped to look like a chestnut-sized jungle fruit.
Even though poorly known, Pirapitinga are one of the best fighting fish in freshwater. Recently explored fisheries in Brazil have given easier access to sport fishermen. It won't take long for the word to spread and for these big bruisers to be recognized and valued for their extraordinary sportfishing prowess.
Telling them apart
Pirapitinga are more deeply rhomboidal than their evenly oval cousins. Their coloring is more muted, typically a light blue-gray to steely gray above and gray to brownish gray below. The pirapitinga's dentiton is different as well, sporting a second row of molars in the upper jaw as opposed to the tambaqui's single row.
The Fish, the Forest & the Fruit
Tambaqui, the largest of all the characins, are creatures of the Amazon's flooded forest. The pulsative nature of Amazonia's lowland rivers creates vast flooded forests during the region's long rainy seasons. Rivers flood their banks and inundate adjacent varzea (flooded) forests. As though a dinner bell were rung, the area's wildlife flocks to the new border between land and water to feast on a banquet of flowers, seeds and fruits
Tambaqui are an integral part of the varzea's life cycle. Feeding on the bounty of fruits and nuts that drop into the water, they become an important mechanism for seed dispersal. Many jungle fruits contain an outer pulp and a hard inner seed(s). When small seeds are ingested they are not always crushed by the tambaqui's powerful jaws. Passing through the fish's digestive system, the seeds are scarified by the process and then excreted, often far from the parent tree. Later, when the waters recede, the prepared seed is able to sprout in the newly exposed dry land, far from where it was dropped.
When the varzea drains, well-fed tambaqui leave the small tributaries and form migrating schools in the main rivers. Their large fat reserves, built up during the rainy season are used during their upriver journeys and ensuing spawning. It's believed that their eggs are dispersed in the grassy levees along the river. The dry season provides slim pickings for the small fraction of tambaqui who do not migrate. Those remaining in small tributaries will often turn to small fishes and insects to help fill their empty stomachs, providing an opportunity for lucky anglers.
Tambaqui are an important food fish. They have recently begun to be raised in fish farms to meet the market demand. This bodes well for the future of natural populations.
What do they eat?
Although known primarily as fruit, nut and flower eaters, pirapitinga, when the waters recede, will give up their vegetarian ways for a more opportunistic diet. With their main food source gone, they will eat small fish, invertebrates, leaves or grass. Perhaps the oddest thing is their penchant to eat Yo-Zuri surface squirts. These day-glo plastic baits are designed to resemble saltwater squid. What makes them eat these lures? Surely they've never seen squid in their native waters!
For more information about payara, see our payara home page.
Payara/Pirandira (Hydrolicus armatus) are a ferocious Characiforme gamefish in the family Cynodontidae. They look like an Amazon version of the salmon from hell! The mouth of the payara is what sets them apart from all other gamefish, as they sport an intimidating set of razor sharp fangs which protrude from the lower jaw like two glistening ivory framing nails.
Payara can be found in habitat ranging from extremely fast water to quiet deep pools within the same river system. They take both lures and flies with such savage force that one can easily rip the rod from your grasp if you are not paying attention. Once hooked, a large payara in fast current can effortlessly peel off 50-yards of line or backing despite a heavy leader, strong drag and stiff rod. Payara also make repeated salmon-style jumps, adding to the fish's sporting allure. Although payara receive much less press than peacock bass, there are devotees that rate them above peacocks in terms of both stamina and overall fighting ability (and that's saying something!)
Conventional gear for payara is virtually the same as that mentioned in the trophy peacock bass sections (wire leader is essential). Payara are usually not surface oriented fish, so big Rapala CDs, 7-inch jerk baits, Rat-L-Trap type lures, spoons and jigs are most productive.
For fly anglers, payara are generally fished with a slightly heavier 9-10-weight fly rod and anything from a 300 to a 500-grain (you essentially slung the 500, not so much as cast it), 24-foot, density-compensated, sinking line, depending upon water conditions. They are not typically fished effectively with a full floating line, as they are usually hooked in deep water or fast current. A heavy mono leader tipped with stout steel tippet is essential. Payara take a variety of large streamers, but prefer heavily-dressed Cloussers and Muddlers tied on a 5/0 heavy saltwater tarpon hook.
Many smaller species of payara and payara-like fishes (Hydrolicus and Rhaphiodon Sp.) are found throughout South America. Although all are fast, vicious predators, most rarely exceed 7-pounds. The giant trophy payara are Hydrolicus armatus and the best places to catch them are in high gradient fisheries such as our Multi-Species lodge on the Rio Travessao in Brazil.
Characins with Fangs
The latin translation for this name means "dog tooth". It's particularly appropriate for these fast and aggressive piscivorous predators.
The huge pair of canines in the lower jaw is accommodated by two holes to receive them in the upper jaw. The huge pectoral fins aid in propelling these fish rapidly upward when attacking their prey. Prey are trapped behind the canines and then swallowed whole. These fanged monsters prefer elongated prey from 20 - 50% of their body length.
Another World Class Fighter
Payara take the art of the fight to another level. They combine some of the best characteristics known among fighting fish to provide an extraordinary angling experience.
Payara are extremely aggressive and strike with intense power. They peel off line in long fast runs. And when all else fails, they hurl their huge, slablike bodies high into the air. If these fish were commonly found in the same "small-water" conditions as peacock bass, they would rarely be landed.
Rhaphiodon vulpinus, a smaller and more elongate relative of the payara is common in the slower lowland waters of the Amazon Basin. Like its larger, fast-water cousin, it's a fast, fierce predator. Readily taken on flies, they are a pugnacious light-tackle target.
Pacu and Piranha
Throughout the Amazon, the name pacu has been given to a range of flattened, rounded fishes primarily from the genera Mylossoma, Myleus and Metynnis. Like their larger cousins, the tambaqui and pirapitinga, pacu favor the vegetarian lifestyle. That doesn't mean, however that they can't be convinced to join in on a little sportfishing activity from time to time. Several species can readily be caught on light tackle and will put up an impressive tussle.
Ultralight spinning rods that can deliver a kernel of corn or wadded piece of bread or even a grasshopper can make for a diverting afternoon (not to mention a delicious dinner). Fly casters should use 2/0 Clousser Minnows and especially fruit-colored Glo Bugs dead-drifted in trout/salmon fashion. The Brazilian specimen at the top, left, took a "bread fly" (spun deer hair, cut and trimmed to look like a piece of floating bread) in moving water, just like a trout sipping a dry fly.
There are many species of piranha (Serrasalmus sp.) swimming the rivers throughout the Amazon basin. The black piranha (Rhombeus) can grow larger than 8-pounds and can be excellent light tackle adversaries (especially on smaller spinning/casting rods or a 5-6-weight fly rod). Examinations of piranha stomach contents have shown that their typical food consists of about one half fish matter while the other half includes fruit, seeds and bottom detritus.
Needless to say, piranha are not picky eaters and will take literally anything remotely resembling a baitfish. A small Rat-L-Trap or Yo-Zuri tipped with meat is deadly. These feisty little creatures can, at times, be quite a nuisance as they have a nasty habit of destroying your lures or that custom-tied eight-dollar streamer the second it hits the water.
What a difference teeth make!
Pacu, with their mouths full of molars are the "lotus-eaters" of the Amazon fishes.
Their diet consists mostly of flowers, nuts and fruits, with an unlucky bug occasionally joining the menu.
Although they look awfully similar to their razor-toothed brethren, their diet and aquarium behavior gives them a reputation for placidity. That’s not the case when hooked on light tackle, however. They can be determined fighters and are far more of a fishing challenge than anglers expect.
Great fun on light tackle
Both Piranha and Pacu are members of the family Serrasalmidae. They are, of course, distinguished by their very different teeth. The Piranha's dentition has made them the Hollywood horror stars of the fish world. In spite of their vicious reputation, most species feed on carrion or fish, some specializing in hit and run scale eating.
The greatest danger they present to the angler is the safe removal of hooks from their horrid little snapping jaws. They do, however, taste awfully good pan-fried or grilled!
Traira and Trairão (Wolfish)
A Brazilian guide once referred to traira and trairão as giant bars of soap with mouths full of teeth. These ferocious members of the Characiforme Family, Erythrinidae look superficially like an Amazon version of a bowfin. The traira (Hoplias malabaricus) is the smaller of the two species, usually well under 6-pounds. They are found from the northern Amazonian periphery in Venezuela all the way to central Argentina in the Paraná River drainage. These fish prefer slack water and will attack largemouth bass-sized topwater lures or fly rod poppers and sliders with reckless abandon. Don't forget your wire leaders though - one look at this fish's choppers and you'll understand why. A 7-8-weight rod spooled with floating line and a stout butt section tied to fairly heavy wire is just the ticket for these ugly but tough bruisers.
The traira's larger cousin, the wolfish or trairão (Hoplias aimara) is truly the stuff of angling dreams (or perhaps nightmares). It attains weights in excess of 30-pounds and eats anything it darn well pleases. Big jerk baits, spoons, jigs, streamers and or large sliders/poppers fished in creek mouths or the eddies and pools adjacent to fast water are all susceptible to attack. Once hooked, this evil-looking fish thinks it's an obese tarpon and jumps repeatedly. Stout conventional tackle is a key to getting one of these bruisers in the boat. Anything less than an 8-weight rod, stout 4/0 stainless saltwater hooks, heavy butt and wire leader would be a big mistake as these monsters have a nasty reputation for heading headlong into the nearest available timber, rocks or current. One of the best places to catch these fish is in Northern Brazilian shield rivers such as the Rio Travessao, where our Multi-species Variety Lodge provides easy access to these huge river monsters.
More about breathing air...
Traira, members of the characoid sub-family Erythrinidae, are examples of facultative (part-time) air breathers. Using vascularized (blood-rich) tissues in their skin, stomachs and swim bladders, this group of fish uses air to augment the oxygen they receive from water during hypoxic (low oxygen) conditions. This ability allows traira to utilize an unusual niche within their environment. They can often be found patrolling the very ends of quiet lagoons, or lurking, hidden at the edge of muddy, shallow shorelines. They suddenly explode into action engulfing any unwary bird, mouse or lizard that comes to the water's edge to drink.
Bicuda and other Pike-like Characins
The bicuda/argulha (Boulengerella spp.) is an agressive, fast water fish that can be found in many of the waters holding the previously-mentioned glamor species. A species found in high-gradient river systems, Boulengerella cuvieri can reach sizes of over 15-pounds and is a powerful, acrobatic fighter. Once hooked, they launch themselves into the air, rattling their gills and throwing hooks in a fashion that would make a tarpon jealous. Larger specimens are found in the fast water Rio Travessão of northern Brazil.
Picúa/cachorro/joel (Acestrorhynchus falcatus) looks like a freshwater caricature of a barracuda. They are often encountered in small packs terrorizing schools of baitfish. These fish don't grow very big (3-pounds or so), but they're extremely aggressive, plentiful in certain regions and hard fighting on light conventional rods or a 5-6-weight fly rod.
Anglers often learn much about the species they pursue by studying what they eat. Predator species typically base their movements, behavior and even life cycles on the habits of their prey. There are literally thousands of species of baitfish throughout the Amazon basin, because let’s face it, if something eats you, you’re bait. And unless you’re lightning fast, armored to the teeth or just too big, something here is likely to eat you. Below are some of the most commonly found (and eaten) species…
Many of these can be recognized as common aquarium species.
Fast Water Species
These species prefer faster water and are typically found in rivers, creeks and igarapes..
Still Water Species
These species prefer slower water and are typically found in lagoons and backwaters.