Amazon adventures with Matt Harris
Matt Harris heads into the Amazon for a rumble in the jungle with one of the hardest-fighting freshwater species of fish he has ever done battle with.
As my three boys grow older, they grow cheekier by the day. When my teenage son, Tom, heard me discussing my next fly fishing adventure on the phone one evening, he couldn't help but rib the old man. “Cichlids? You're fishing for cichlids?” he chirruped. “Aren't they those little tiddlers you see in tropical fishtanks?”
Cichlids? No doubt you too picture some colourful but rather small, vulnerable-looking creatures, grinding out their long, meaningless lives as inmates in a tropical fish-tank.
But there are other cichlids out there.
Peacock bass are cichlids, and they are big, brutal assassins that are a million miles from those poor, wretched little creatures in the aquarium. Peacocks are big, broad-shouldered bully-boys that swagger around the waters of the Amazon jungle, looking for a fight. Splashed in a range of absurdly flamboyant colour-schemes, these psychopathic brawlers are one of the world's iconic sport-fish. Smaller ones – the butterfly peacock genus in particular – hang around in huge packs, and can offer relentless and addictive action. Then there are the paca, an exquisitely coloured variety, mottled with creamy spots and famed for punching way above their weight. In fact, there are at least 15 varieties up and down the vast Amazon watershed to keep you busy. They're all great sport-fish, but the big daddies of the family are the tucunare – Cichla temensis. These are the real hoodlums, and the ones to target if you want to experience maximum thrills and spills with a fly rod.
Most tucanare frequent the murky, turbid waters that are so typical of the Amazon basin, but one river is different. The Rio Agua Boa, in the far northern extremeties of the Amazon's vast watershed, is a rare gem. Its crystal-clear waters cascade down from the hills of Northern Roraima, close to the Venezuelan border, and, unless experiencing heavy rainfall, the river offers a very special experience. The local peacocks can be sight-fished as they range across the white sands that carpet the river's bed. And it gets better: the fish are very, very big.
At most lodges, a peacock bass of 10lbs is considered a real trophy. Forget it: at Agua Boa, fish this size don't even raise an eyebrow, and 15lb fish are caught regularly. Even 20-pounders – a veritable monster in peacock terms, and undoubtedly the fish of a lifetime – are a genuine, if rare, possibility.
After three days at Agua Boa Lodge, I had been lucky. Using huge 10" giant trevally flies, I'd pulled out a succession of fish in the high teens, including fish of 19, 18 and 18lb. I had no right to grumble, but, as yet another behemoth dragged the scales down to just 2lb shy of the magical mark, I started to suspect that the fishing gods were conspiring against me in my quest for a 20-pounder.
When I'd bemoaned my luck to lodge manager Carlos, he chided me: veteran peacock anglers go a lifetime without catching a fish of that size. I'd been lucky enough to pull out some whoppers, and I should be celebrating. However, as he passed me another delicious, icy caipirinha, Carlos suggested with a sly wink that he might just have a plan…
My guide Caboco and I are out at first light the next morning. The early dawn greets us with a pall of thick fog and we take extra care to look out for Rex, the vast, 18ft black caiman that frequents the dock, as we load the steely 10 weights into the boat. We push off into the white-out, and despite knowing the river like the back of his hand, Caboco is forced to take things slowly, weaving around the sand-bars in the opaque, grey-green mist.
There's an eerie quality to the dawn. The pale, watery sun appears briefly, flickering weakly through the mists, before receding again into the vast blank canvas of the fog. Ghostly impressions of the tree-lined banks loom momentarily before being lost again as we work our way slowly upstream. We head north, tracing the serpentine curves of the river, pushing upstream in the cool air of the early morning. When Caboco cuts the engine to negotiate a sandbar with his paddle, I hear the bewitching music of the emerald forest – the cacophony of birdsong stretching off a million miles in every direction, and the shrieks of howler monkeys, far-off in the tree-tops.
As we press on upstream, the mists start to burn off. We watch a pair of huge jabiru storks flapping irritably at our approach, before clambering clumsily into the air and gliding away into the trees. A squadron of exquisitely painted macaws cruise overhead, and as we round a sharp hairpin in the river, a magical sight: a family of giant otters are frisking innocently, midstream.
Another wide bend, and there, up ahead, lazing on a sand-bank and bathing in the warmth of the early sunshine, a small caiman. As Caboco slows the boat, I study him through my long telephoto lens. Despite his size, this prehistoric little fellow is all menace. I watch him blink his wicked eyes and then reluctantly drag his lizard-like body into the cool waters.
On and on we go. Caboco has now abandoned his earlier caution, and is rocketing along at full-tilt, confident that the sunshine is lighting up the stream and illuminating any potential hazards. The boat sends up a rooster-tail of spray, and egrets and herons lift off into the warm air. At the mouth of a huge lagoon, we catch a rare glimpse of a pair of freshwater dolphins, their broad pink flanks momentarily visible as they roll through the waters. The flat horizon of the jungle becomes punctuated by a series of jagged foothills, and the gradient of the river starts to steepen as we climb into the uplands of the river valley.
Finally, three long hours after leaving the dock, we arrive at the spot that Carlos has suggested might just produce a monster. Caboco cuts the motor and noses us into a narrow channel off of the main stream. Kingfishers and woodpeckers fizz by and, as Caboco paddles us up into the thick, overgrown bush, it is clear that no-one has been here for a long, long time. My guide goes to work with his machete, clearing a path through the dense foliage. Up ahead, a wide, shallow bar and a fallen tree threaten our progress, but somehow we manage to negotiate the obstructions, and glide quietly into the hidden lagoon.
Steam is rising in the searing heat, and the rapidly climbing sun gives us perfect visibility in the shallow water. Just as Carlos predicted, the thickly weeded waters are not churning with peacocks – the lagoon is an oxbow, and is virtually completely cut-off from the main stream, except in the high waters of the rainy season, preventing access for peacocks for the majority of the time. But the lagoon has that special, indefinable quality that suggests that it just might be the place where a real leviathan could be lurking.
As we peer into the deep shadows under the dense canopy of trees that line the banks, the hunt becomes all-engrossing. The relentless blur of colours and noises that the jungle throws out slowly recedes as Caboco and I fix all our attention on the dappled recesses and fallen trees that – similar to most ambush-based predators – peacocks tend to favour.
I throw a few blind casts into the slots and hidey-holes, but nothing stirs. The treescape at the far end of the lagoon shimmers in the laser-bright sunlight, and sweat trickles from my forehead as the temperature climbs into the low 40s˚C.
I spot a bow-wave up ahead, and a quick, low cast produces a handsome paca that fights like a demon. As I draw it to the boat, I admire its surreal, fauvist colours, but whilst anywhere else a 12-pounder would be cause for celebration, here it is just getting in our way and Caboco returns it without ceremony.
Caboco then poles us quietly through a dense shoal of small red-tailed catfish, listlessly sunning themselves in the still waters, and I toss the fly lazily at them, but they are utterly unimpressed. Up ahead, a huge arapaima rolls its three-metre fuselage through the glossy surface, but a series of deep-dredging casts produce nothing, just as my guide predicts, and I curse the feverish horde of
piranhas that follow the huge Deceiver fly up out of the depths and give it a savage haircut with their razor fangs.
Our circuit of the lagoon is almost over, and I start to question the wisdom of our early start and the long, long trek up the river, when lagoons much closer to home are heaving with hefty peacocks. I start to formulate a few wisecracks with which to admonish Carlos once we have endured the long ride back to the lodge, when suddenly, from out of nowhere, there he is... A truly huge peacock, gliding nonchalantly through the inky shadows of the forest, hugging the shoreline and protected by the tangled cage of branches provided by a fallen tree.
Caboco is ahead of me – he spots the single gap in the sprawling mass of branches and poles deftly into position to give me a shot. There's no time for complicated calculations – the peacock is closing on the gap and if I don't make the shot now, I will have missed my chance. I work the huge streamer into the air and keep the rod low as I sweep the cast in, low and fast. The line fizzes through the gap, but just as I'm congratulating myself, the fly catches on the very end of a slender branch. The whole day – the whole trip – may come down to this crucial moment. I hold my breath and draw the line back gently. For a moment, time stands still, and then, mercifully, the fly drops off of the end of the branch and down onto the dark water. I see the big, white streamer hovering in the shadows, and watch as the great fish comes ambling slowly towards it. I give the fly a long, slow strip to announce its presence, and suddenly the huge peacock bristles angrily and shoots forward, demolishing the fly in an instant and erupting from the glassy water as it feels the hook.
I pull back hard and try to hold the fish. Peacocks are unstoppably powerful, but somehow I get lucky and the fish goes rushing out into the lagoon, rather than heading into the sunken tree that would surely provide its liberation. The water boils as the fish bulldozes around the lagoon in a demented rage and the rod creaks right down to the cork as I try to make an impression on the fish. For long moments, we go at it hard. Finally, the peacock realises its mistake and heads for the sunken tree, but he's burned most of his precious energy fighting in the open water, and the crisp 10wt rod and 44lb leader refuse to yield as I hold the fish hard.
Everything holds together and, finally, the huge fish is reduced to skulking in open water.
A protracted tug-of-war and eventually it is wallowing drunkenly by the boat. Caboco creeps quietly down from his platform and, as I draw the mighty fish to the gunwales, my guide leans out, attaches the Boga Grip and heaves the fish aboard.
It looks vast. I think of my son, Tom, back home on the far-side of the world. “Put this in your fishtank!” I'll grin, as I dig him in the ribs and show him the picture a few days from now.
We hold our breath as Caboco reads the scales and then he is high-fiving me and cheering wildly. Despite his innate natural aptitude for guiding, Caboco is still young – this is the biggest peacock he's ever seen, and he is truly elated.
He turns the scales for me to read, 20lb 8oz – the fish of a lifetime.
Agua Boa Amazon Lodge is an Orvis-endorsed lodge and is owned by Lance Ranger, who is committed to preserving the lodge's pristine fly-only fishery and all aspects of its local environment. The lodge is run by two hugely likeable characters, Carlos Azavedo and Charlie Conn. Despite being right in the heart of the jungle, the lodge offers luxurious, air-conditioned accommodation, wi-fi, a large swimming pool, great, exotic food and delicious, high octane caipirinhas. The guides are all hard-working and highly professional. Despite limited English, they are also very friendly and great company.
For further information, contact Tarquin Millington Drake of Frontiers Travel UK.
Tel. +44 (0)845 299 6212