Cruising the Amazon
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A Step Toward Redemption
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Cruising the Amazon on the Blackwater Explorer
by Paul Reiss
Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I caught sight of water moving heavily around the base of a huge fallen tree near the center of the lagoon. For the last half-hour, I was fastidiously probing the shoreline structure to my left with my big Luhr-Jensen Woodchopper. Without missing a beat, I swung to my right and launched a cast right into the disturbance. Instantaneously, a big peacock inhaled my lure and took off screaming for the safety of the branches. While I tried to turn him, Junior, my "guide-in-training", tried to help by moving the boat to give me better position. But my quick about-face fouled-up his directions. As soon as he pulsed the trolling motor, the bow of the boat swung straight toward where Mr. Peacock was trying to go. And he quickly got there. Within seconds, the fish wound my line through the underwater limbs of the big downed tree and was happily splashing his way toward the horizon on the other side.
Junior had a pained look on his face - - we both understood what had just happened. While I drooped in disappointment, Junior launched himself into the water from the back of the boat and headed for the tree. He didn't hesitate. He grabbed the line and swam down after it. After what seemed an awfully long time, his head popped up on the other side. Junior held up the line and told me to wind it tight. With one more dive, he released the line from the last restraining branch and to my surprise, it went tight and I could feel my big fish moving again. With the line free of the branches and the fish headed for open water and I was once again in control. By the time I got him close, Junior was already back on his perch at the rear of the boat. He unhesitatingly thrust his hand into the big, tired fish's jaw and hauled him out of the water. This kid might not have had a lot of experience, but he sure had the right attitude. We both grinned as I lifted the 15-pounder into photo position with my Bogagrip. Junior happily did the honors with the camera.
My Amazon career began rather rough and tumble, with a Porta-Potti seeming like the ultimate in luxury. I had been hosting and guiding fly-in peacock bass trips to remote jungle spike camps for a dozen years. My mind had long been geared to "roughing it" -- being mano-a-mano with the primeval forest. Yet here I was grinning like an idiot on my first day fishing from our “new” mothership operation, something I never thought I'd consider. How did I wind up on a comfortable, safe and secure floating homestead? What does all this stuff about air-conditioning, comfortable lounges, electric lights and flush toilets have to do with fishing, anyhow? Shouldn't I be sleeping on the ground and roughing it to have access to great fishing like this?
To my surprise, not only did I find out that roughing it wasn't necessary, but I loved every minute of the learning process along the way. I had been forced into using a yacht by the vagaries of Mother nature and I hadn't expected to be happy about it. I would never have dreamed that a month later, and with 1000 miles of river behind me, I'd be sorry to leave the big mothership on which I found myself. When it was all over, I realized I was committed to perfecting this method of access to trophy peacock bass fishing.
Whether it's something we humans have caused or just the normal inexorable cycles of nature, weather in the Amazon can sometimes drift out of its usual predictable cycles. One year "El Niño", can dry out rivers early and then the next year "La Niña" can counter with unseasonable heavy rains. We deal with it, because that's the nature of fishing and the specific focus of our peacock bass operations. Our entire outfitting system is based on flexible logistics and the mobility to access the right rivers at the right times. We simply move our operations as necessary to find optimal water levels and counter Nature's one-two punches. So when our peacock bass season rolled around, I was ready to settle back into a normal schedule of rivers and a well-planned season of fishing trips.
But Nature had a few larger than usual surprises in store for us that year. The season began with rivers dropping 2 or 3 weeks later than expected. OK, we could deal with this by moving slowly north at Nature's pace. But then, Nature suddenly fooled us. Rivers began dropping rapidly. As soon as we responded by quickly moving our camps further north, the rains began all over again. The water levels quickly moved right back up just as our fall trips were set to begin. All of a sudden we found ourselves faced with the dilemma of having a camp ready and waiting on a river not ready to fish. As my anglers arrived, I made the only decision that I felt could properly serve my client's interests. Forget the planned camps and head for fishable waters instead. We had an ace in the hole waiting....
The "Blackwater Explorer" is our new, 77-foot, broad-beamed Amazon River yacht. Her classical, 'regional' design creates a wonderfully comfortable and roomy environment for Amazon anglers. We designed and built her to fish. Built of native Amazonian hardwoods, her clean white exterior perfectly offsets the richly lacquered, native wood lounge area. Launched in September of 2007, she is probably the best purpose-built sportfishing vessel plying Amazon waters today. The Blackwater Explorer is the result of that quest for perfection in the mothership method of accessing peacock bass, launched during that long ago adjustment to the vagaries of weather.
The Explorer's first deck houses many of the yacht's working areas; the pilot house, the fully-equipped kitchen and the twin water-level embarkation points from which our fishing boats leave every morning. Four of our large cabins are also located here. The second deck houses six more angler's cabins. Each brightly lit cabin contains a comfortable bunk, an ample closet and its own air-conditioning system. U.S. standard outlets provide 120 volt AC for charging your camcorder or other device's batteries. Each cabin also boasts its own private bathroom. Roomy, and with all of the expected amenities, the hot showers put a final touch of luxury into every angler's day.
The Explorer's capacious lounge and dining area is located aft, with wrap-around windows and an always open bar. Here, anglers enjoy the hearty breakfasts and full-course dinners that make a peacock bass fishing trip a weight-gaining experience. For some of the Explorer's guests, the open-air top deck rapidly becomes the favorite roosting spot after a full day of fishing. Appetizers and an always open bar accompany our customary evening cruises, punctuated by stunning Amazon sunsets. It's also a wonderful way to enjoy the southern hemisphere's spectacular night sky.
Below decks, the "Explorer's" powerful yet efficient main diesel engine provides the propulsive power to let us cover hundreds of miles of water each week in our quest for the best fishing conditions. Four powerful generators provide electricity for all of the yacht's amenities. Her ample storage area lets us carry adequate supplies to be self-sufficient for weeks at a time. Our staff quarters are located here as well. From stem to stern she's a classy yet purposeful package.
For many years, we have used a combination of modes for our peacock bass trips. This has long allowed us to provide the best possible fishing conditions at all times. We used floating bungalow camps when conditions demanded it. We used a fixed lodge when conditions permitted it, but we often were forced to scramble when conditions began to change too quickly. Now, with the Blackwater Explorer at our service, we are able to offer remarkably productive peacock bass trips during any part of the season.
Once we identify the best fishing waters (determined by water level and productivity) we can get there in a hurry. We bring the big boat into the region already loaded up with supplies, gasoline, diesel, foodstuffs, right down to the soda and beer. And if conditions change in a hurry, we move right along with them. The Explorer can cover 150 miles in a day, allowing us to completely change river basins overnight. We are always in the right place at the right time.
The real reason I do this work is to go fishing. No matter what trip I'm hosting or guiding, I always manage to get in a good amount of fishing for myself. Sometimes I'm fishing with a client, sometimes helping a beginner to get started and sometimes I just sneak off on my own. This trip, my operating manager, Norberto, had asked me to help train a new guide. Seventeen year old "Junior", formerly a camp kitchen helper, was campaigning to become a guide. Our standards for guides are high and Norberto demands and even greater level of experience, competence and capability from his guides. It takes years to qualify, so Junior needed to get an opportunity to begin gaining all of the above. Sending him off to fish with me was a perfect way to get him started, inconveniencing no one. Having a person to run the boat was a great treat for me, as well. It looked like a win-win situation all around. Little did I know that it would take quite a while until the two of us learned how to fish together.
I've been fishing since I was a kid, over fifty years now. I had been pretty much a plug caster my whole life., but a decade ago, trying to prove that you can teach an old dog new tricks, I decided to make a genuine effort at becoming competent with a fly rod. I bought some gear, I watched a video, I read a book, I got some tips and slowly but surely began to make progress. Every trip I hosted, I tried to get in a little bit of fly-fishing, hopefully improving my casting, stripping and fish-fighting techniques along the way. On this trip, I had planned to devote a major part of my time to the fly-rod, maybe even landing a double digit peacock on the fly for the very first time. All of Norberto's guides are very experienced at handling fly fishermen, carefully operating the boat in synch with the techniques and skill level of their anglers. Junior, however, had never even held a fly-rod and to my chagrin, he didn't have a clue about its use! Our first day out was a slapstick comedy. At times he must have thought I could cast 100 yards, other times he placed me 15 feet from the bank. He drifted bow first, then stern first, then turned sideways for good measure. My novice skills couldn't handle the complications and I soon sat down in frustration, my line twisted and wound around any available protuberance. This was going to take some work - but not just yet.
I put away the fly-rod, picked up my conventional gear and we headed off to catch peacocks using techniques with which I was confident. Even this took a while. Since it was Junior's first time sitting in the guide's seat, he wasn't familiar with the variables in lures, gear and casting ranges. We started off using a woodchopper with my medium-heavy baitcaster, working the structure along the banks of a bowl shaped lagoon. At first we had some of the same problems as with the fly gear, but my ability to compensate with conventional tackle was much greater. I could readily overcome Junior's inexperience and I managed to keep everything working. With a little talking and some trial and error, Junior soon got the hang of properly placing us and maintaining a good working pace. We started to catch fish. After a few nice 3, 4 and 5-pound peacocks came to the boat, I was feeling ready for anything. That's probably why we were both taken by surprise when that first big fish got a hold of us.
After Junior made a believer of me with his diving act, we made faster progress. We took our time and worked through all of the techniques that a good guide needs to master. Each time I changed lures, we started the learning process all over. A Zara Spook doesn't travel as far and doesn't cover water as quickly as a Woodchopper. Junior learned and adjusted quickly. Using a jig called for yet another set of boat handling parameters. Again, we worked our way through each of these techniques. By the end of a week, Junior and I were making a pretty good team. I started thinking about my fly-rod again, but it would still have to wait a bit. We were no longer in particularly good fly-fishing water.
That long-ago yacht trip began with a very satisfied complement of clients, setting the stage for what was to become our most consistently productive method of accessing peacock bass. Following our cruise to the fishing grounds, we enjoyed terrific angling. The boat covered over 350-miles and put us into a wide variety of fishing waters. The first morning, the anglers headed out in their 17 foot fishing boats, working their way along the banks and lagoons of the Rio Preto, a deep, clear, rocky-banked, black water river buttressed with numerous gigantic lagoons. The Rio Preto lends itself to fly-fishing along its rocky banks, while the big, shallow lagoons favor the superior water coverage of conventional tackle. By the second day we hit the Rio Matupiri. This is a river whose lower reaches are very dependent on proper water levels for its performance. It supports a beautiful system of structure-laden lagoons. When water levels are right, the peacocks have a field day in them, chasing bait and taking advantage of the structure. This lets the anglers have a field day as well. The levels were perfect when we got there, so for three days we stayed in the lower reaches, enjoying the superb conditions. Anglers were catching 30, 40 and sometimes even 50 fish per day.
For a river not famous for giants, we were pleasantly surprised by veteran angler, Joe Crane's, 21-pound monster. Joe and I have fished together many times. He had scheduled this trip specifically to fish a river almost 500 miles north of where we found ourselves, a river known for its 20-pounders. Finding himself instead on a river more famous for its large numbers of fish, Joe, nonetheless went to work looking for his lunker. Sure enough, persistence paid off. Fishing the big lower Matupiri lagoons, Joe attained his goal and landed a beast of a peacock. As he told us all the tale of his big fish, I had to shake my head in wonder. This huge fish had grabbed his bait inches from the boat, almost causing Joe to lose his balance and join his adversary in the water. Once he overcame his surprise and regained his equilibrium, he quickly put his fishing experience to work and boated his trophy to the impressed approval of his fishing partner and dad, Ned. Numerous other anglers also caught fish in the teens. After three days of excellent fishing, I consulted with the group about moving.
The consensus, even though the fishing was great here, was that everyone wanted to see and fish the lovely upper reaches of the river. So we fired up the engines and headed upriver.
The upper Matupiri is not nearly as sensitive a fishery as the lower reaches. Basically devoid of lagoons, the peacocks here relate to riverbank structure, including big sprawling rock piles and deep cuts and bends. These places hold fish through a wide range of water level fluctuations. The fishing remains pretty consistent throughout the regional dry season. True to form, it fished well when we got there, but not quite as well as the lower river. So we enjoyed the scenery for a day, with its high-banked primary forest and stretches of quick water, while the Explorer waited at anchor at the farthest navigable section of the river. That evening, the consensus was to head back downriver. We fished our way back and finished up a great week. But the water levels were dropping, not enough to slow down the productivity of the lagoons on our last day there, but clearly dropping fast.
Three days later, the Explorer was loaded up with a new complement of anglers. We spent the first day once again enjoying excellent fishing on the Rio Preto. But, by the time we reached the lower Matupiri, I was astounded at the changes. The river had dropped a full meter and the lagoons had gone from a soft, fairly clear, green tinged color to a murky brown soup. The fishing changed just as dramatically. Anglers were catching half as many fish here as the week before and big ones were suddenly hard to come by. Here's where the Explorer's mobility proved its value. After just one day on the lower reaches, with the anglers comfortably asleep, the Angel traveled through the night to reach the upper Matupiri and its dependably productive fishing. We spent three days here, enjoying good numbers and big fish in the varied environments of the upper river. During the night, after our fourth day of fishing, the Explorer once again headed downriver steaming right through the now unproductive lower reaches.
The dawn of the fifth day offered something new. The Explorer was anchored at the confluence of three rivers, giving us an opportunity to explore new waters. To our west lay the great expanse of Lago Tacquia, a forty mile long flooded forest ending in the headwaters of the Igapó Açu. We loaded the fishing boats with extra gasoline and headed off into new, unexploited waters. Some concentrated on the lake, while others cruised through it and right on into the river. That night a tired but satisfied group of anglers exchanged stories of their adventures. Most had great fishing, some caught trophy sized fish, but all enjoyed a unique Amazon experience. Mobility created these successes and the mothership operation proved that it is second to none in terms of mobility.
Two weeks after our first attempt at fly-fishing together, Junior and I found ourselves once again on the Rio Preto. Out came the fly-rod. My G. Loomis four piece, 9 weight travel rod was fully loaded with a 300-grain sinking line and a hand-tied 5/0 peacock bass fly. The rocks beckoned from the shoreline. I knew the fish were there and waiting. All I had to do was deliver the goods. So far it had been easier said than done. Junior and I talked a bit. I explained to him that being right handed, I found it easier to cast to my left. If the boat moved along a left hand bank, it would be most practical for me to stand on the bow, using the front casting platform behind me as a line collector for the rapidly stripped fly action that peacocks demand. I told him to keep me about 60-feet away from the rocky structure on the bank, with enough distance from the boat to give the line a chance to sink and the fly a chance to work.
"Don't creep up on the fly by getting ahead of the line." "If I hook up, keep the bow from swinging toward the bank." On and on I went, loading the poor kid's head with a list of demands that would have made a labor lawyer proud. Finally I was satisfied that we had it all worked out and we headed to the rocks. Three casts later, I was once again frustrated, befuddled and befouled, with line hanging from every available place I didn't want it to be. I hadn't taken into account the strong wind blowing upriver against the current, making it almost impossible for poor Junior to keep the boat parallel to the bank and for me to maintain any sense of direction. Junior said "Eu sei como concertar - I know how to solve this". And sure enough he did.
We motored across the wide Rio Preto to the opposite bank. Junior, using the electric trolling motor, set-up the boat pointing upstream. He used the motor to slowly guide a drift downstream. The grip of the prop blades biting into the water kept the rear of the boat solidly locked onto its path, while the strong winds kept the bow pointing dead-on upstream. We began grinding slowly downriver in reverse. Three casts later, I thought to myself, "Wow, what a good fly-caster I am". Junior's common sense made me look a whole lot better than I was. By the fourth cast I was into a scrappy rock-dwelling peacock and the fun started. An hour and three rocky stretches later, I boated 17 peacocks ranging in size up to 8-pounds. This was good, real good, but I still hadn't gotten what I was after, a double-digit fly-rod peacock. It took another hour and some adjustment on my part to hook up with a big one.
It seemed that the rock-dwelling peacocks were often grouped up into small gangs of five to ten individuals. When one of these hoodlums decided that my fly was indeed edible, several others often joined the chase. The problem is, smaller fish seem to be quicker and more agile than the trophies and usually win the race for the bait. I needed to avoid the gangs and look for the lunkers I was after in a more solitary pattern. The answer was to get a little deeper and concentrate on the points or transitions of the rocky structure. The bigger fish seemed to be keeping these optimal hunting lairs for themselves. By getting deeper, the big fish caught sight of the fly long before the roving gangs picked it up. We backed the boat further off the bank to get a longer stripping distance and I counted down a few seconds before beginning my retrieve. This technique began to work for me and I promptly netted a 9, and then a 10-pound peacock.
The culmination came for me as we drifted onto a prominent rocky point. To my surprise and pleasure, I let fly one of best and longest casts I had made in my novice fly-fishing career, dropping the fly between two boulders standing as sentinels on the point. As I began rapidly stripping the line, my arm was suddenly almost jerked out of its socket. The line whipped tight and I knew I had a big fish. I told myself, "O.K., now think, don't just react". I flicked the loose line into the water while I swept the rod-tip over the bow and away from the bank. The peacock chose the path of least resistance and I took advantage, cranking line simultaneously onto the reel while the fish pulled it out through the rod guides. In a moment, I had the fish on the reel. Now I could let the rod and drag absorb his powerful mad dashes and violent rushes. When he finally tired and came to the boat, I sighed in relief, realizing that I finally put all the pieces of a fly-rod catch together. What better time to make everything work than with a big, 12-pound fish on the line. Boy, was I proud of myself.
When I glanced over at Junior, I realized that he had his chest puffed out just as far as mine - and with good reason. He had managed a complex set of parameters just to make it possible for me to make a good cast in the first place. In fact, now that I thought about it, the bow of the boat had conveniently swung outward just when I needed it to turn the fish and clear my line. Looking back at the fight I realized that I had always been able to keep the fish in front of me and that we had ended the fight well away from the rocky banks and any chance of a hang-up or cut off. That didn't just happen accidentally. Just like that first big fish we caught together nearly three weeks before, this was Junior's fish just as much as it was mine. We had both come a long way together, improving our techniques and our ability to act as a team.
The Blackwater Explorer's ability to provide a safe and secure home base while accessing some of the most remote Amazonian real estate affords anglers the opportunity to comfortably explore their surroundings. We often set off on a variety of non-fishing adventures. We mount nighttime spotlighting expeditions to view some of the nocturnal fauna in the surrounding jungles, from the safety of our fast fishing boats. Caiman wrangling is one of the favorite activities. Our young, competitive and seriously macho guides have an ongoing competition for who can wrestle the biggest caiman (an Amazon relative of the alligator). When a set of red-glowing eyes reflects in the spotlight trained on the river's edge, the boats make a beeline for the spot. The first boat there drifts in slowly while one of the guides kneels on the bow. If the caiman cooperates by holding still, the guide will drop off the boat and onto its back while grabbing and holding its jaws closed. Usually, all hell breaks loose thereafter. The surprised reptile will thrash its powerful body to escape, often throwing off the guide while it scoots into deeper water to the great delight of the guffawing anglers. Once in a while the guide will get a solid grip and manage to hang on to the caiman. This is greeted with cheers and a flurry of photo flashes. The caiman are always released unharmed afterward. The caiman's generally shy and retiring nature ensures that the guides are unhurt while the unruffled reptiles make good their escape.
The spotlight often reveals other nocturnal animals on the shoreline. Sightings sometimes include agouti (a large, capybara-like rodent), a variety of nocturnal birds such as owls, night-hawks, and greater curassow. Occasionally we'll glimpse an ocelot, a margay or even the king of Amazon cats himself, the jaguar. If a small clear-water tributary, called an igarape, is close at hand, we can even spotlight fish. In addition to big peacocks and their gamefish brethren, many familiar aquarium species can be seen. Angelfish, discus, geophagus, piranhas, characins and catfish all are readily identified under the beam in the clear blackwater.
Occasionally, we make late afternoon forays into the jungle. Our hikes start at high banks, bypassing the often thick igapo or flooded forest and enabling us to easily access terra firme or primary forest. Our guides are all born and raised in the Amazon and have an intimate knowledge of the plants and trees of the rainforest. Anglers get an overview of the fantastic diversity of Amazonian plant-life. We're generally too noisy for any animals to hang around long enough to be sighted, but we'll often see their dens or spoor. The eerie darkness of the rainforest is only rarely punctuated by a brightly lit clearing and leaves a lasting impression on all who visit.
Diehard anglers, who still haven't had enough after more than ten hours of plugging away each day, can try a nighttime catfishing expedition. Sometimes, with a couple of boats loaded with anglers, cut bait, tackle and snacks, we'll tie up together at a deep hole or confluence on the river. Soon the heavy baits can be heard pelting the water like a rain of rocks as the fisherman stake out their spots - - then silence. Most often nothing more happens. The silence will slowly turn into tall tales. The snacks, accompanied by 'caipirinha' the national drink of Brazil, can become the highlight of the evening. But every so often, someone's line will take off like a shot behind a big, heavy, red-tailed cat and the chase is on. The boats disengage. All the other lines come out of the water and the surprised angler is in for the fight of his or her life. We've boated big cats over 100 pounds in this manner. Even if the catfish don't show up, however, it's always a fun night of story-telling and camaraderie.
The last week of our unplanned mothership expedition began relatively uneventfully. Junior got better and better as a guide. Although he would not be 'soloing' with his own clients for at least a year or more because of Norberto's strict standards, he was gaining invaluable fishing experience to complement his innate knowledge of his homeland. One thing he knew right off the bat, was where to find fish. He always took us into productive waters, in each of the rivers we visited. Even when we found ourselves in a tough fishing situation, such as the rapidly drying lagoons on the lower Matupiri, Junior had a knack for finding the action.
We were fishing the mouths and deep entries of lagoons in this rapidly-drying area for the better part of a morning, working hard for our fish. As we drifted further into a big, convoluted lagoon, I could see the sun-dried mud banks left by the receding waters.
"Let's get out of here - there won't be a lot of fish in the hot, shallow water deep in the back of this lagoon", I said to Junior.
"No, wait, I hear something splashing back there, let's go and look" Junior responded. I nodded agreement and we worked our way deeper into the lagoon. Suddenly, I heard it too, but it wasn't the swirl of a feeding fish or even the slap of a striking peacock. This sounded like a compact car being dropped into the water. If this was a peacock, it had to weigh 100-pounds. Even from a distance we could see that it wasn't. We beached the boat and quietly walked along the hardened banks until we reached the very back of the lagoon and the source of all the ruckus.
There, in a little shallow cove, was a pink dolphin, boto vermelho cavorting in the water with a series of lithe pirouettes and surface glides. What was this all about? As we slipped in closer to the cove, we saw the reason. Watching just outside in the deeper water of the main lagoon was an obviously interested female dolphin. This was a courtship ritual! But they saw us, and everything went silent for a few moments. Then the male boto lifted his oddly human-like face out of the water and looked directly at us. Sinking slowly back into the water, he began his dance again. We sat stock still on the bank, jaws agape, watching the Delphic ballet. As the male's gyrations increased in intensity, the female entered the cove and slowly circled her dancing paramour. I was afraid to move a muscle, let alone take a picture, but I couldn't just let this extraordinary event go undocumented. Quietly, I slipped out my camera and snapped off a shot. They didn't react at all. Either the big aquatic mammals had decided we were no threat or they were so enrapt in their behavior that they no longer noticed us. Gradually the female joined the dance, twisting and rolling, closer and closer to the male. Then she intertwined her movements with his, making short contacts, more and more often, until they moved as one through the shallow cove. We watched the pair for almost an hour, from their shy initial behavior to the culmination of their mating. When they left the cove, swimming out together, neither Junior nor I had anything to say. This was not an everyday experience.
I was truly sad to leave the yacht when my hosting for the season came to an end. I never expected how quickly I'd become accustomed to the level of comfort and the pleasant atmosphere that she would provide. And I couldn't have been more pleased at how satisfied my clients were with the big boat. Many of them already asked to come back to the Blackwater Explorer the next year.
What started out as an emergency response to a vagary in equatorial weather patterns, had shown itself to be a terrific way to access Amazonia's explosive peacock bass. Our response was simple. We designed the best mothership in the Amazon. Today, the Blackwater Explorer is plying the waters of the Amazon basin in pursuit of the mighty peacock bass. Our clients can look forward to a comfortable, productive, first-class stay aboard our beautiful yacht. As for me, I can't wait to return.