A Step Toward Redemption - and a Fisherman's Paradise
A Trip From the Past Although we no longer offer the trip described in this article, the stories remain available for your information and enjoyment. Over the last two decades, Acute Angling has focused on creating and polishing its own, self-operated trips. As our operations evolved, we stopped offering trips that are operated by others, for a variety of reasons. Primarily, because trips operated by someone other than the entity outfitting and offering the trip creates multiple layers of responsibility. We have elected to offer only trips that we ourselves operate, where we have total control over how your trip is delivered. One responsible entity, no excuses, no unpleasant surprises. In this particular case, we no longer operate any peacock bass trips from a fixed location. It simply isn't a viable mechanism.
Regarding the stories in this archive, we offer them for your enjoyment and to provide some insights into how our operating philosophy and our trips have evolved over the years. Mostly, they're here because some are fun and interesting to read. As for the trips themselves, we've moved on. In some cases the fisheries described have been depleted, in others, access to the region is no longer available and in a few, current governments have made travel less attractive. The fish, however, always remain interesting, so why not read and learn about them and the fishing experience they provided.
by Paul Reiss
Peacock bass fishing in the Amazon's largest nature preserve. A successfully employed example of "sustainable harvest."
Mankind is making Planet Earth smaller every day, and shrinking fastest is the list of its natural treasures. While our population steadily grows, Nature's creatures and habitats steadily vanish to make room for our burgeoning numbers. While we strive to live richer lives, we plunder irreplaceable ecosystems to satisfy our need and sometimes - our greed. No land is too vast, nor species too abundant to escape the constant churning engine of mankind's endless increase. We've greened the deserts, dried the marshes and flattened the hillsides. We've exterminated some of the most numerous animals on the planet. We've even brought modern commerce and its attendant problems and evils to the once trackless Amazon rainforest.
There are some signs of hope, however. We seem to slowly be getting a little bit smarter. Although we won't immediately stop our population growth, we're making efforts and even some progress toward curbing it. Schools are teaching Ecology, communities are offering recycling and the media is promoting conservation. Individuals are protesting abuses, governments are restricting pollution and even world leaders are stumbling toward recognition of global warming. Not an awful lot is actually getting accomplished -- not by any stretch enough -- but we're talking and thinking. There is a beginning and there is some hope.
In the wealthy First World countries people have the luxury of abundance, security and leisure. Because of this freedom from survival pressure, there is a dawning recognition of the pricelessness and irreplaceability of our natural world. We may very well have some hope of salvaging what remains of our own natural ecosystems. In many Third World countries however, people are too busy worrying about getting enough to eat, avoiding unrest or simply surviving day to day. There's no time to worry about the trees the lumbermen are stealing. There's no way to know about the poisons the miners are leaving behind. A rare, endangered animal is still often an eagerly hunted and thankfully eaten source of food. While many of the planet's greatest remaining natural treasures are located in these countries, the challenge of preserving them from the greed of outsiders and the relative powerlessness of their populace is even more difficult here.
But maybe here is where the greatest hope lies. While the industrial nations pontificate, a remarkable thing has happened in Roraima State, northern Brazil. The native people of this Amazonian region have come to see the value of their homeland and its need for protection. They united and gathered political power. They took control of their local government. They elected capable leaders and took dramatic steps to protect vast stretches of the natural treasure within their borders. The people of the community of Caracarai and the leaders of their local government have created the largest nature preserve in the Amazon.
They've protected thousands of square miles of virgin forest, pristine rivers and life generating floodplain. And they put teeth into their creation by passing laws controlling hunting, fishing, lumbering and land use. They have effectively legislated the conservation enhancing concept of "sustainable harvest" into existence in their own home. They built a system from which everyone will benefit.
The indigenous population of the region has preserved its legacy, not only for its own descendants, but for the world as a whole. For people everywhere, a small, but meaningful step was taken to help preserve the Amazon in the face of an onslaught of habitat destruction. For people lucky enough to visit this natural paradise, a great chunk of Amazon landscape remains preserved and available for their pleasure and edification. And for the sport fisherman, a unique and spectacular fishery has become available for great catch and release fishing.
The people of the village of Terra Preta, (located at the mouth of the Rio Xeriuini), in cooperation with local citizens, officials, and entrepreneurs have opened this pristine river (coursing through the middle of this gigantic preserve) to the sporting pursuit of what may be one of its most valuable resources, the remarkable peacock bass. Here, in surroundings unchanged for centuries and without competition from gill-netters and commercial fishermen, anglers have an opportunity to test their skills against one of the most formidable freshwater fighters in the world. The peacocks are abundant, big, aggressive and essentially unaffected by fishing pressure. This vast watershed is fished by only eight anglers each week during the river's dry season. From an angler's point of view, conservation and preservation have achieved their highest goals in Roraima State.
Xeriuini River, Northern Brazil
I get a lot of calls and e-mails from prospective outfitters. There was a time when I greeted each one with the same enthusiasm expressed by the would-be host, but after years of enduring outrageous exaggerations and fishless disappointments, I've become a lot more skeptical. As gigantic as the Amazon is, good fisheries for giant peacock bass are not simply lurking around every river bend. If a productive fishery is close to civilization, commercial fishermen harvest it. If it's easily accessible, the gill-netters get there. I avoid fishing in places like that and I'd never bring fishing clients to a place I didn't enjoy myself. So, when a young Brazilian named Wellington (whom I had never heard of before) contacted me last fall and gushed about the incredible new fishery he wanted to open, I didn't exactly fall over with excitement.
"Yeah, yeah," I thought, here we go again. I promptly filed it in my 'forget' bin and went on planning my upcoming trips.
Wellington was persistent. He told me about a giant ecological preserve in this region. He told me about a river, untouched for over a decade, newly opened to catch and release fishing. After an endless barrage of e-mails and phone calls, I finally began to take him seriously. I found that with a little tweaking of my schedule, I could get there between trips, so I decided to give it a shot. The next thing I knew, I was shaking hands with Wellington Melo on a grass airstrip in the tiny village of Terra Preta at the mouth of the Rio Xeriuini, ready to begin an exploratory trip in this new sport fishery.
The people of the village were as interested in me as I was in them. While I saw them as the indigenous authors of a model of Amazon preservation, they looked at me as a specimen of Turista fishingnuttus, the source of revenue necessary to make a sustainable harvest economy work. These people had recognized that the vast forest surrounding them was more valuable preserved than destroyed. They had agreed to become custodians of the ecosystem, preventing its abuse by outsiders and changing their own generations-old behaviors. All of this based on the promise of a successful sustainable harvest economy. They were aware that our form of sustainably harvesting peacock bass means putting them back in the water and letting them go, so that they can continue to reproduce and fight again another day. The missing piece, the piece they had never seen, was a person who would actually spend money to travel long distances to catch perfectly good food and then willingly let it go.
They had the perfect specimen in me. I'm quite capable of fishing my life away. I'm happy tossing plugs, jerking jigs and stripping flies all day long. I'm happier still when a maniacally aggressive and unexplainably powerful fish tries to turn my fishing gear into tangled trash. But I'm happiest of all when I feel the strength return to a big, tired peacock as I let him swim out of my hands. Will I spend money and travel long distances to go fishing ..... and then not keep the fish? You betcha!
Helpful hands from every direction relieved me of my gear, and surrounded by a flock of curious children I boarded one of Macaroca Lodge's flat-bottomed fishing boats and headed off on a one hour boat ride to Wellington's lodge-to-be. What followed from there were three of the best fishing days I've ever experienced. Wellington's exuberance was well founded.
I spent the first day getting a feel for the fishery close to the Lodge. The Xeriuini is one of the more beautiful black water rivers in the Amazon. In its lower reaches, it wanders through a labyrinth of giant convoluted lagoons. Some of them are so large that one can spend an entire day just working through their complex waterways. The Xeriuini's upper reaches feature long stretches of clear shallows bordered by beautiful white sand beaches. The upper river's sandy symmetry is interrupted by numerous lagoon entrances, sometimes wide and obvious and sometimes small and almost hidden. Since we had decided to concentrate on the area close to the lodge, we sampled a little bit of both areas. We ran upriver, then ran down river. I fished jigs, jerkbaits, surface lures, flies -- you name it, I tried it. Everything worked! I caught over 50 peacock bass that day, from 2 pounds to 12 pounds, without ever even looking for a pattern.
The second day was devoted to the fly rod. It was our plan to concentrate on some of the gigantic lagoons in the lower river. I did well with my favorite brycon streamers in red/yellow and red/white, but it wasn't until later in the day when I tied on an oddball blue streamer with crinkly green flash, that I started to really tear them up. Shortly after lunch, we pulled up in front of the deep mouthed entrance of a fair-sized igarap? (or jungle stream). Positioning ourselves within casting distance of the opening, I dropped my fly right into the middle. Instantly, a hefty peacock grabbed hold. I yanked the line, set the hook and braced myself for the onslaught of that incredible initial run. It never happened. Instead an 11-pound "paca" (a color pattern of Cichla temensis) launched itself straight into the air, shaking its head and rattling its gills, over and over again. After almost a dozen wild leaps, I stopped gawking at her and eased her over to the boat. Wellington reached over with his Boga grip, latched on and lifted the tired fish over the side. A quick look into her cavernous mouth explained the big fish's uncharacteristic behavior. She had so effectively inhaled my fly, that it had wrapped itself around one of her gill rakers and tangled into my monofilament leader, with the barb of the hook impaled into the tail of the fly.
Over the years, I've seen hundreds of instances of peacocks crashing into bait, raising an incredible ruckus and then disappearing again as quickly as they came. But every so often, I've witnessed peacocks break into this same, wild leaping behavior when they get a fish caught in their craw. Many Amazon fish are round-bodied with bony fins. A big, spiny specimen can sometimes lodge in the peacock's gill and throat region, a fish's version of biting off a little more than they can chew. They will jump and thrash their heads until the offending meal goes flying off into the water. Peacocks use this same strategy very effectively against fishermen. When a lure is completely inside a peacock's mouth, this powerful flying headshake technique can often send the lure right back to its rightful owner. Conversely, a peacock hooked in the lip will more often simply use its power to turn tail and run.
The big paca was unable to successfully dislodge my fly because of the virtual half-hitch it had formed with the leader. The barb, meanwhile, had abraded the line so badly as a result of the fish's antics, that I knew I didn't dare use it again. I clipped off the whole tangled mess and eased her back into the water. Rather than fool with a tangle when there are fish to be caught, I tied on a new leader and a new fly, the oddball blue streamer with crinkly green flash. I clambered back into the nose of the boat, got my line into the air and dropped it back into the igarap?. Instantly, I felt a jolt run through my arm as the paca's twin sister pounded my fly. I set the hook and this time I was rewarded with the traditional peacock bass onslaught. The hefty fish charged right out of the igarap? and bolted along the riverbank. While I began to palm my reel and apply pressure in hopes of preserving my line, Wellington and the guide started scrambling to move the boat along the bank. No matter. By the time we all got organized, the big peacock had crashed through a tangle of branches. With a last upwelling surge of water, everything became still. We moved over the protruding thicket and started to sort out my line. There, after winding through a few branches, was my fly, firmly hooked into a thick trunk. I don't know they do it, but sometimes I think they have a hidden pair of hands. When you're not looking, they unfold them, reach up and take the hook off of their lip and then firmly embed it into the wood. Then they swim off a ways and laugh at me as I scratch my head trying to figure out how they did it.
We worked that spot for almost two hours. At first, there was a fish every cast. After a while things settled down to a strike every third or fourth cast. Towards the end, I felt as though I had personally visited with every fish in that hole. After two hours, only an occasional new candidate was applying for the line-stretching job. When we finally moved off, my arms were tired, my fly was battered into unrecognizability, and my fishing "jones" was feeling pretty satisfied. Another day, another set of techniques, and once again I caught over 50 fish.
That evening, we sat on the Lodge's big, comfortable dock, enjoying caipirinhas (a Brazilian cocktail sort of like a Margarita) and conversing about topics great and small. We had been joined by Gustavo dos Reis, one of Brazil's best known fishermen and television personalities and his cameraman, Daniel. "GuGu", as he is popularly known, was there to explore this new fishery and gather footage for a segment of his popular fishing show. As we unwound from the rigors of a full day's fishing (I know, it's a tough job but somebody has to do it), the conversation drifted onto the topic of Amazon preservation. Sitting under the velvety black night sky, ablaze with the brilliant Southern constellations, it was impossible to not be aware of the unique purity of this place. There were no distant city lights to dim the panoply of stars. There was not a wisp of smoke or pollution. And the darkened forest was alive with the sounds of myriad living creatures. The four of us recognized that we were lounging in one of the last true paradises on earth. We chatted on into the wee hours, discussing and assessing the steps that the people of this region had taken. The more we unwound, the headier the conversation became until we all began comparing our personal theories of how to preserve the entire Amazon's natural treasure. I'm not sure, but we may have solved many of the world's problems that night.
Before we finally got to sleep, Wellington and I planned our next day's fishing. We decided to run way upriver and see some of the surroundings characteristic of the upper reaches. I asked Wellington if that was where he was hiding the giants. He wagged his finger at me and he swore that the next day we'd get the big ones, if only I'd stop fooling with the "fancy" little baits and "fluttery" flies.
He said, "If you want the big ones, give them the big baits." "Use your arms the way God intended and throw the old standby, the big woodchopper." I smiled, agreed and headed off to bed.
The next day, as planned we headed upriver at the crack of dawn. Three hours and seventy-five river miles later we eased our boat into the mouth of lago Sao Pedro, over one hundred river miles from the mouth of the Xeriuini. As far as this seems, such distances don't make a dent in the overall scale of the preserved area. Although we had literally moved from one ecosystem to another, there still remained another 150 miles of fishable river ahead. We did all of our running early and intended to fish our way back downriver as the day went on.
The lagoon was big. Since we were exploring, we motored quietly through, looking it over. A long, deep central canal gave access to many shallow coves, sloping points and narrow channels. It looked great.
"O.K., enough exploring, let's get down to business," I said. We started fishing at the very back end, well over a mile from the river. The lagoon widened and flattened into a big shallow bowl. Everywhere we looked, we saw nervous water and signs of fish working bait. Sometimes you can feel the anticipation crawling through your skin when you look at a spot that you believe to be just brimming with big fish. I licked my chops as I readied my heavy baitcaster and began slinging a big, noisy Woodchopper, just as I promised the night before. Nothing happened! The feeding fish scattered when the big plug landed and nothing gave it a second look. We drifted around the big bowl, probing everywhere and stirring the water to a froth with the big baits. What's doing all the feeding? Why are baitfish skipping the surface in terror? In frustration, I reverted back to my recently acquired nasty habit of waving a fly rod in the air. Quickly, I started catching fish. Babies! One after the other. The bowl was populated with schools of baby peacocks! It was a giant nursery full of fierce little one-pound terrors.
"Well," we reasoned, "there must be an awful lot of mommies and daddies around somewhere." We slipped back into the central canal to go and see.
It took a few minutes until they found us. We eased along, casting to opposite banks, both of us catching an occasional "butterfly" peacock (Cichla occellaris) with our respective baits. As we reached a sandy point, sheltering a big shallow cove, Wellington was fighting a 3-pound peacock that had taken his woodchopper. The fish was doing his best, fighting back against the heavy tackle, when Wellington's line broke.
"So much for checking your knots!", I goaded. Suddenly, I stopped laughing. As we watched the escapee turn to leave, a huge "V" raced across the surface and simply exploded all over Wellington's fish, lure and all. Fourteen, maybe fifteen pounds of hungry peacock was trying to take advantage of what seemed like an easy meal. But the scaled Harry Houdini wasn't done yet. Somehow, he avoided the blast and made his way, with the lure bobbing on the surface, around the point and into the shallow little cove on the other side. The big peacock turned and disappeared in a flash of gold and red and electric blue.
While Wellington tied on a new woodchopper, I reached for my big rod and cast it across the point. Slam! The still water erupted and a big peacock pounded my bait. While I was busy dealing with all the fish I could handle, Wellington launched his plug right behind mine. Slam! Another explosion and we were into a big, wild double. My fish headed across the point and into the deep water, while Wellington's ran farther into the shallow cove. We were each on our own now. Our guide, unable to do much for either of us, extended in opposite directions as we were, simply sat back and watched the fun. Five minutes later, we were giving him photography lessons as we hoisted our big fish for photos. My 12-pounder didn't quite make a bookend with Wellington's 14-pounder, but clearly we had found some of the missing peacock parents.
We paddled quietly into the shallow cove. Now we could see them. Dozens of big peacocks, glowing in fluorescent blues, golds and reds, cruising slowly in the meter-deep, acre-sized pool. I had no idea why they were gathered like this, but that didn't stop me from tossing my woodchopper at them. Slam! One hit me and missed! Slam! Wellington hooked up! Slam! Slam! I raised another one. Someone listening in the adjacent jungle would swear we were heaving cinderblocks into the water. After a while the peacocks got wise to us and disappeared, but not before we had boated an even dozen fish, none smaller than 10-pounds! To cap it off, as we prepared to leave, Wellington's tired 3-pounder went wriggling by, towing the lost blue woodchopper along, like the Eveready Bunny. He tossed his lure and snagged the bobbing bait. The stoic peacock pulled loose and the bait came back to the boat. All was well in Amazonia.
What an incredible start to a great day! We visited lagoon after lagoon. From morning 'til evening, I threw nothing but the big surface prop baits, and the fish did nothing but smash them all day long. I landed 82 peacocks that day. And boy, I sure found the big fish - 24 of them - ranging from 12 up to 19?-pounds. Every time I think about that day, even sitting here writing about it, I still grin from ear to ear.
This certainly turned out to be a perfect place to bring clients. I returned six weeks later with a group of my clients and not only brought the grin back to my face, but got them all smiling as well. They all caught lots of fish (as I expected), but what was even better was the continuation of that remarkable proportion of big fish. Almost 40 percent of the fish caught were over 10-pounds! Wow! Everyone got trophies (including a pair of twin 18?-pounders). I landed some of my biggest flyrod fish ever during that week. One beast, in the 20-pound class, grabbed my streamer right next to the boat. I wasn't ready. I set the hook and the fish took off like an express train. While I frantically tried to clear my stripped line, loops of rapidly accelerating line curled around my tackle box, sending it skittering across the boat. With my rod pointing forward, my head pointing back and one foot and one hand trying to recover the flying box, I must have presented a classical picture of human imbalance. As I teetered out of control with my attention diverted by the box, the big fish vanished, leaving me tangled in line and sputtering. You can bet I'm coming back to find him. In fact, I have a feeling that the whole group will be heading back with me next year to the newly completed Macaroca Lodge.
The ecological understanding and the good intentions of the people of the Xeriuini bode well for the long-term well being of the region and the fishery. With intelligent management and controlled utilization, this river can continue to produce fishing experiences like the ones we enjoyed, for generations to come. Macaroca Lodge is committed to this effort, providing employment to the local residents, bringing in tourist revenue and helping to support a viable, "sustainable harvest" economy. Best of all, for the fisherman, a 300 mile long "hot spot", buffered by thousands of square miles of protected rainforest, is open and accessible for one of the greatest of all freshwater gamefish.