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Fly for Big Peacocks

Fly for Big Peacocks
Fly for Big Peacocks

Tangle with 20-pounders on fly tackle in Brazil.


The speckled peacock bass just might be the meanest fish in the Amazon River basin. And that's considering a long list of unfriendly characters. Here, everything that wasn't equipped with size, speed, poison stingers or fangs has long since become extinct. Instead of bluegills, they have piranha. There are several species of giant catfish. Even the relatively toothless arawana amuses itself by leaping into tree branches and eating birds. The speckled peacock stands out because it eats everything that it even thinks it can fit into its mouth. I personally watched a trio of 20-pounders chase a school of smaller butterfly peacocks right up onto the beach. We caught one of the group—while it was in the process of eating one of its 3-pound cousins. It weighed 24 pounds.















Duriing low-water periods, fly casters enjoy shots at trophy speckled peacocks like this.


Plug fishermen have been heading south to tackle these bruisers for years, but only recently have fly fishermen developed strategies for this hard-fighting tropical member of the cichlid family. In South Florida canals, transplanted populations of butterfly peacocks have provided limited testing for fly anglers. The big tucunare and related paca, both considered speckled peacocks by the International Game Fish Association, are altogether different game.

Water level is everything if you want to fly fish for giant peacocks in Brazil. The season for Amazonia peacocks is roughly from September through March and a lot depends on whether you are above or below the equator. You are fishing in the world's largest rain forest and the key word there is “rain.” Even the tributary rivers can be 20 to 40 feet higher at the end of the rainy season than at the end of the dry season. When the water is high, it extends well into the jungle and so do the fish. Water levels vary with each watershed and while one area may be having a flood, another can be suffering from a drought. When you are booking a trip, you cannot grill the travel agent on the lodge enough about the water levels and patterns. Every year is different, but do everything possible to fish during low water; the lower the better. You also want falling rather than rising water, so do as much research as possible before selecting a lodge and a time. Timing your trip is everything. As a rule, January and February are the surest bets for low water.

Water levels are far more important for fly fishermen than plug casters. With few exceptions, the water will be dark with limited visibility. If the fish are roaming around a flooded jungle, they are not going to come out for a streamer—they won't even know it's there. Plug fishermen throw giant propeller lures that send up two feet of spray with each jerk. It seems to me that the peacocks are attracted to the noise as much as anything else and I have had some hit the plug so hard and fast that they knocked it 15 feet into the air. The strikes are what you would expect from an amberjack being teased with a blue runner.

There are a number of excellent lodges and houseboats in Amazonia and a reputable agent such as Quest, Amazon Tours, World Wide Angling or Sweetwater Travel will do their best to give you the trip of your life—just make it clear that you want to fly fish. Most operations are not set up for fly fishing and many of the guides do not understand that we do things differently than the plug casters. Insist on a guide who knows what a fly rod is and get a firm commitment from the lodge when you book the trip. It is also important that you share the boat with another fly fisherman. If one guy is casting plugs and the other is trying to fly fish, there are going to be major problems. Most Amazon boats are 18 feet long, give or take a foot. All have electric motors which creep the boat along the shoreline, allowing the anglers to cast to pockets and structure. Well, the range of the plug rod is well over 100 feet and a good fly caster will be throwing 60 feet on average. Distancing the boat from the shoreline thus becomes a problem. It is a better plan to have the same type fishermen in a boat so that they can share the good water equally.

Tucunare flies are best made of synthetic materials—the tougher the better. You need a big, wide profile but there really isn't a need for a fly much more than five or six inches long. It has to sink quickly, so large, heavy hooks (3/0 or 4/0) are important and they have to be very sharp. If you can coat the head with epoxy, the fly will last a lot longer and big eyes are a must. When you are finished, you have something that double hauls just slightly more efficiently than a wet hamster. Casting is a major part of peacock fishing, so some compromising is in order. Try to use less rather than more materials. Combos of green-yellow-orange and blue-white-red work exceptionally well. Again, add as much flash as possible but remember, you will have to cast it over 60 feet about a thousand times a day. Don't get carried away with the materials.















Wide-profile flies tied on 3/0 and 4/0 hooks.


Once you have found the right fly, you will need tackle that is heavy enough to cast it, yet light enough to be thrown constantly for 10 hours a day. Last February, I fished the Rio Negro Peacock Bass Fly Tournament and, by the time it was over, my casting was greatly improved but I felt like a fiddler crab with blisters. Nevertheless, I can safely say that everyone in the tournament used a stiff 10-weight rod with an 11-weight intermediate sink line—tarpon taper monocores to be specific. I carried a backup 10-weight rod with a 10-weight monocore, but it had trouble handling the bigger flies, especially as the day wore on and I got tired. The heavier line is a big help in turning over the big flies. The reel is less important. You need a good drag and about 100 yards of 30-pound or heavier backing, but try to keep the combo as light as possible.

Peacocks are not known for long runs. When they feel pressure, they simply look for the closest tree and head for it. The jungle is usually not far away if the water is high and stopping that first run is a real problem so bring a few spare rods just in case the fish wins. During my first trip, the water was very high and most of our strikes were in the middle of a forest. I had fish straighten out 3X hooks, tear hooks right off the plugs and two snapped 65-pound braid. Now you see why I stress low water for fly fishing. Watching your $65 fly line disappear into the bushes is a painful experience since it never comes out in quite the same condition that it went in. When the water is low, the trees are way up the bank, on land, where they should be—separated from the water by a sandy beach. Low water makes all the difference.

There is a calmer side to all this. In low water, the sandbars form gullies and beaches. Schools of 3- to 5-pound butterfly peacocks cruise the shallows like bonefish and are great fun on lighter rods and more civilized flies. We spent at least an hour each day walking the shoreline, occasionally kicking alligators out of the way, and casting to butterflies. These fish don't look much like the imports that now inhabit South Florida canals. Lime green with black spots, yellow and orange trim and iridescent blue fins, they are probably the most beautiful fish I have ever seen.















Amazonia peacock country is remote jungle, where you're as much explorer as angler.


You needn't worry about tippet strengths—most people don't even use one. Peacocks are not leader-shy and it is acceptable to simply use five or six feet of 40- or 50-pound test right from the fly line to the fly. A tucunare's crashing strike on a surface plug is one of the most exciting moments you can have on the water, but once hooked, they just dash deeper into whatever structure is closest.

Having a few spare lines, and everything else, is always a good idea on the Amazon. If you like poppers, bring a floating line and it is always a safe bet to have a Teeny 300 just in case the fish are holding in the deeper pools. In my opinion, the monocore is the easiest to cast, which makes it my first choice.

If you really want to fly fish and follow the rules, a 20-pound tippet of a hard mono such as Masons and a 50-pound shock is the way to go. If you are looking for records, don't cast near structure; work the beaches, gullies and flats and keep your eye out for “bubbles.” Tucunare are very protective of their young and guard them for weeks after birth. When danger threatens, the fry will actually hide in the parent's mouth. Every so often, the parents will take the school of babies out into open water and let them swim around at the surface, which creates raindrops or a “bubbles” effect on calm water. If you can spot one of these small patches of bubbles and get your fly into it, it will be instantly attacked by the parent. I caught my biggest fly fish, a 21-pounder, casting to bubbles. Since the fish was hooked in open water, I probably could have caught it on most any tippet. If you want a record, keep a rod rigged for bubbles, but don't waste your time throwing a 12-pound tippet near structures unless you have lots of extra flies.

There is another twist to this fishing if your journey is to the Aqua Boa. This is a clear-water river, wide but shallow. Most of the fishing there is sight casting, which means you can get by with smaller rods and civilized-size flies. Fly fishing is so effective on the Aqua Boa that two prime months (January/February) are now fly fishing only at the Royal Amazon Lodge. This is the most fly-friendly operation that I have found and I have already booked a week there next season.

The final question you must ask yourself before boarding a plane to Brazil is how do you react to heat? By heat, I mean “August in Islamorada bake-you-to-death heat.” In the Amazon, you will be fishing right on the equator and your outfitter will give you a good checklist for clothing—pay attention to it. It is extremely hot, humid and often windless. I nearly died on my tent camp experience. Most of the guys had no complaints but I would have killed for an air-conditioned room and a hot shower. As I get older, I appreciate my creature comforts more and more. If you enjoy roughing it, then you will be fine anywhere, but many of the lodges are literally four star hotels in the middle of the jungle so you do have a choice of comfort levels. FS




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