I first fished for peacock bass in the Southern Amazon basin the best part of ten years ago. It was a fantastic adventure, and I caught hordes of peacocks that really did fight like demons – but the fish, whilst almost embarrassingly obliging weren’t huge. The were predominantly the fogo or “fire” peacocks, averaging around 3-4lb, and the fishing was blind, casting into structures and retrieving the fly through murky brown water. I’m ashamed to say I ticked off the box and thought. "Well I’ve done that-what next?"
Then a good friend of mind, Justin Staal, told me about the Agua Boa in the far North of Brazil. The Rio Agua Boa – The river of beautiful water - is a tributary to the Rio Branco, which in turn feeds into the Negro and then the mighty Amazon itself.
Rio Agua Boa is special. Unlike the vast majority of the rivers that make up the Amazon catchement, this one runs clear. It’s also a malaria-free zone due to the relatively acidic waters. One other thing: it holds spectacularly large peacock bass, magnificent fish that you can stalk and cast to in the gin-clear waters of the river and the shallow lagoons adjacent to it. Crucially, unlike on many of the noted peacock rivers, spinning is forbidden, and even by Amazonian standards the river is remote. As it winds its way down from the Venezuelan rainforests there are few if any, people netting the Agua Boa for food and the river offers mile after mile of virtually unexplored habitat just crawling with big peacocks. Or in other words giant perch, fish that swim in the clear waters of one of the most exotic environments on earth and will readily take a fly. Justin reeled me in.
Waking to the sound of the myriad birdsong stretching out across the impossible miles of the rainforest, I blearily padded out on to the porch of my cottage in the jungle, stepping into the delicious coolness of the morning and watching the sun come winking up above the golden waters. The epic journey via Sao Paolo and Manaus was forgotten and I gazed out at the entrancing spectacle of dawn in the Amazon watershed.
By chance I had the place almost entirely to myself - normally hugely popular with American fly-fishers due to its unique opportunity for sight-fishing for giant peacocks, the lodge was nearly empty. I had the thanksgiving holiday to thank for that.
The lodge’s pet croc, Rex-fully 18 feet long-ambled disconsolately away as we started the skiff, and then we were racing across the glimmering mirror of the river and heading into the wilds of the upper reaches. We fizzed forever past sand bars where lazy caimen lay sunbathing in the early warmth, and watched as herons lumbered into the air at our approach. Netto slowed the boat and I watched transfixed, as a family of giant otters emerged from a sunken tree to frisk in the early morning light, while high above the treetops jewelled macaws wheeled playfully back and forth.
After nearly two hours weaving up the serpentine river, Netto finally brought us to a gentle stop and motioned for me to get my rod. I was keen to start stalking the big peacocks that Justin had talked about in the gin-clear water ahead, but Netto asked if I’d just make a cast or two into the shadows of a large and broken old tree that had slumped in the water.
I tied on a four inch streamer, a big brassy orange and yellow eyeful on a size 3/0 pike hook that had worked for me well on my first foray into the Amazon, but Netto frowned, clearly unimpressed. I asked if my fly was too big and had to laugh out loud at my guide’s poker-faced response: "No, no, my fren, eees too small."
I tied on the biggest deceiver we could find in my box, a seven-inch pink and white monster constructed from the best part of half a chicken. Netto nodded with approval as I sent it skimming low under the dead and dying branches and into the shadowy lair beyond. As the huge fly came pulsing into the sunlight, ten pounds and more of red, green and gold came dashing out of the darkness to inhale it. I set the hook and was savagely re-acquainted with the astonishing power of these fish as my rod was wrenched round into a frighteningly contorted horseshow. A fabulous flamboyant rush of colours, fresh from a child’s paint box, lit up the shadowy canvas of the jungle as the fish flipped into the air and went crashing back into the water. "Big one!" I shouted to Netto, and was intrigued by his less than enthusiastic response: "Eees okay, no eees so big."
We went at it for a while and my 8-weight rod buckled and groaned, proclaiming itself wretchedly inadequate for the week ahead. Finally, the pugnacious beast was under control. As it skulked a few inches beneath the surface, clearly not willing to come to the hand of my guide, I admired the handsome creature, shimmering in the morning sunshine. Despite catching countless peacocks further south, the first fish of the trip was by some distance the biggest I had encountered to date. It felt like a great omen for the week to come. My reverie was suddenly shattered: in a moment reminiscent of my first successful fishing trip, 30 something years and a thousand summers ago, an impossibly large peacock ambled up from the shadows, hovered theatrically for a moment or two and then opened its vast jaws and attempted to eat the fish to which I was still attached. There was a brief and violent tussle and then the leviathan had gone. I was struck dumb and, and in the intervening silence, Netto explained helpfully and with emphasis: "This ees big one." Now I understood Netto’s eagerness to tie on the biggest fly in the box.
If I were going to catch the big boys, I needed something substantial to offer them. I suddenly remembered the wallet of giant trevally flies that I had thrown into my tackle bag at the last minute. They hardly imitated a 10lb fish, but they certainly represented a serious mouthful. While Netto revived the badly shaken up 10lber I fished them out - huge 10-inch flashy profile flies tied from non—absorbent synthetic material on 6/0 hooks - and when I showed one to my guide, Netto murmured his approval and stroked the giant lure with something approaching reverence. This was clearly the talisman he had been looking for.
I swapped the flimsy 8-wt for a beefier 10-wt and tied on the huge fly while Netto manoeuvred us stealthily into a wide shallow lagoon, using the trunk of a young fallen tree as a push poll looking like a veteran bonefish guide who’d blundered into the jungle. As we nosed into the bay two enormous shapes came swaggering on to the golden sand ahead and, hands trembling I started to lengthen the line. Just as Netto advised, I put the fly well ahead of the fish laying out a perfect ambush. As the stripes and scarlet fins appeared in the sparkling water I stripped the huge lure back and watched with my heart in my mouth as the fish simultaneously charged furiously at the fly.
The larger one shouldered his sidekick out of the way and engulfed my offering in a heartbeat. I set the hook hard and in a bristling blur, the fish tore across the bay, his huge shoulders knifing through the surface as he rocketed for the main current. Take heed: Peacock bass are titantically strong and a big one, hooked in shallow water, is not for the faint-heated. I clung on and remembered all the lessons I had learned fishing for giant trevally in the Indian ocean/keep the rod low and protect the tip. After a gruelling battle punctuated by sizzling, barnstorming runs and two stupendous leaps into the crackling heat of the Amazon air, I finally brought the fish to the boat. Now, at last, Netto was truly excited. The fish was magnificent - an impossible creature, resplendent in its absurd and fabulous colour scheme, and for all the world like some giant, surreal perch from my childhood dreams. Netto weighed it at 18 1/2lbs. It was comfortably the biggest fish of the season so far, and my guide whooped with infectious delight. I could tell from his excitement that Netto thought the outsize trevally flies might just unlock the door to catching a few more of the monsters that inhabit the waters of the Agua Boa.
So it proved - every day we woke earlier and earlier and travelled further and further upstream, nosing into the "Heart of Darkness" lagoons that the guides seemed to be discovering for the first time. I fished with a number of Agua Boa guides and all were excellent and full of knowledge and enthusiasm. Hunting quietly in the clear waters, we found hordes of peacocks of every size and colour roaming the sandy lagoons or lurking in the shadows of the sunken trees. Sometimes, we’d come across a hornets nest of butterfly peacocks: typically 3-6lbs these little hoodlums would do their level best even to eat the 10 inch trevally flies I had hoped would dissuade them from getting in the way of there bigger brethren.
We regularly run into the paca, or speckled variety, which grow into the low teens and seemed to fight insanely hard for their size. For whatever reason, I found them particularly keen to take surface flies, which made for some spectacular fishing.
But top of the pecking order, and of our piscatorial shopping list, the tucanare. These brutes are the biggest of the peacock genus, a big dose of violence swathed in a surreally vivid version of the original common-or-garden perch colour scheme of green, yellow and scarlet, with the classic black stripes. They would regularly rush out to accost a smaller fish that was in the process of being played out, and I managed a 20lber by dint of hooking a respectable peacock and then passing my rod to my guide Marcel while I snatched up a second to cast at the big predator that was trying to eat the original.
On another day we rowed around an enclosed lagoon in a tiny punt, and hunted down a monster that was cruising in the sunlit shallows. 20lbs and 8 oz of a furious Peacock bass in a foot of water is a truly memorable experience, believe you me!
There is more to Agua Boa than peacock bass: we also targeted the astonishing the arrowana, a flashing blade of a fish, not unlike a small Tarpon. They sit in shoals in the shade in the shade of trees ready to race out and would down a well-presented surface lure with fearless and spectacular abandon.
I also lost a number of lovingly tied flies to the mobs or piranha that live out there feverish lives in the deeper lagoons, and even tried for the impossible huge pirarucu – the much – feted arapaima –that like to role their two and perhaps three metre long carcasses through the shady waters of the large lagoons every now and then, but are seldom caught on fly.
Numbers can be a deceptive and crude way to judge a weeks sport, but to give an idea of the quality of the fishing I managed peacocks of 20 ½, 20, 19 1/2, 18 1/2, 18 and three at 17lbs, and reckoned to have caught more than 80 fish of 10lbs or more, along with about a million smaller ones.
You might want to consider those numbers next time you are enjoying another fishless week by the banks of your favourite salmon river. Peacock bass will fight harder, pound for pound, than just about anything that you can tangle with in freshwater, with the possible exception of another South American knuckle buster, the dorado, and the legendary black bass of Papua New Guinea. I managed to break three rods in the week and ended up using a guideline LPXe 12 weight in order to keep these bruisers from ploughing into the tangle of roots.
When you realise that the all–tackle world record for peacock bass is a little over 27lbs you have a very good idea of just how truly world-class the fly-fishing at Agua Boa really is: and if you go at thanksgiving you may well have the place to yourself.
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The morning was overcast but warm when we left the mothership, although certainly not uncomfortable and more a contrast to the air-conditioned comfort of life within! Guide introductions done, rods and gear onboard, one by one the 6 skiffs peeled off from their moorings and headed forth, destination unknown! ...