Before this trip the closest any of our group of ten had come to Colombia was watching Narcos on Netflix. Despite nervous comments from close family prior to departure and the need for considerable reassurance that things were unquestionably different from the days of Pablo Escobar, I am happy to say that was as close as we came to experiencing anything untoward. We were however embarking on what was unquestionably going to be an adventure.
Despite having had Peacock Bass on my bucket list for 15+ years, out of nowhere two opportunities came along within 4 months of one another. I travelled to the Rio Marie in Brazil in November 2022, an equally remote but unquestionably more sophisticated and luxurious trip. Fantastic experience that it was, the knock-on bonus was that I had a chance to ensure kit mistakes from the last trip were suitably rectified. As well as ensuring rods, 8-10 wt's being ideal, were kitted out with the correct lines, floating, intermediate and sinking, I also ensured that Shadow Flies produced a custom range of Peacock Bass flies for myself and everyone else in the group. A production run of 5 dozen of each of the 9 patterns that I had gleaned from my trip to the Rio Marie. I now just had to pray that a Colombian Peacock Bass had the same appetite as those in Brazil.
The journey out allowed plenty of time for acclimatisation, (it is a long trip). We arrived into Bogota at 3.30 am. Although early, with the time difference taken into considereation, it did not feel punishing. From there a short taxi with the allocated driver to the domestic terminal and a one-hour flight to Inirida followed by an overnight stop at Las Vegas, a simple and straightforward but entirely adequate hotel with no obvious connotations to its namesake in the US. Beers for the camp had been pre-ordered but it then transpired that some wine could be obtained in Inirida, a town of approx. 30,000. As it turned out we secured the entire region-wide stock of red wine, all 44 bottles, of which 8 were dispatched by the end of first evening, alongside 8 bottles of tonic water. My apologies to the group that followed us!
The following morning, having enjoyed a very hospitable night out at some of the waterfront bars overlooking the Inirida river, we set forth, first in a high-speed cigar shaped boat which looked like it could have been used in Miami Vice. This journey took us two hours upriver, past the border with Venezuela, to the mouth of the Rio Mataven. From there our group split into the five indigenous canoes that we would be fishing from over the week and made our way up-river, at a more sedate pace, to the lower camp. This leg of the journey was a little under four hours, including a lunch break, but with comfortable chairs and or the casting platforms to lie on, not entirely arduous. Along the journey there was a reasonable assortment of wildlife to look out for, ranging from varied birdlife, to pink river dolphins and giant otters. If the throb of the 40HP motor did not appeal, then a set of headphones and a talking book helped fill the time.
The camp is located on a large triangular sand bar, at a section of the river where it opens up, the sand bar being high enough to ensure more than adequate protection from any river rises. We were all accommodated in individual, spacious, mesh topped tents under a long-thatched hut. Each tent has a comfortable bed made up with sheets, table for kit, electric fan and a 4 plug power cable for charging cameras, phones etc. There was a primitive but flushing loo, basic showers with a complimentary river view and a tent for dining. It is unquestionably camping but at the upper end of the experience, even if not at the glamping level! Quite remarkably, courtesy of Elon Musk and a Starlight wi-fi link, the internet connection was far better than a good proportion of hotels I have stayed at, or anyone living in rural UK!!!
With little to distract us, things kick off early with the rising sun each morning. Breakfast was at 6 am and canoes depart at 7am. Two anglers on each boat, each with a more than ample front and rear casting area with no reason to worry whether individuals were right or left hand casters. The only slight distinction between fore and aft being that the front position does offer a fishing advantage of sorts, in that it can allow that person to have the first crack at a likely lie. Each canoe had a dedicated guide. The guide team that rotated each day, consisted of two indigenous guides, whose river knowledge was exceptional, even if their English was basic, two very animated and enthusiastic Colombian guides from Medellin, and two very experienced guides from the US, one of whom being our host and trip organiser, Tom.
As is always the case, each guide had his own style and technique regarding strip speed and style. On Day 1, to be expected, my carefully curated fly selection was inspected, analysed and then a replacement proffered from the guide fly box! I was by no means disgruntled and as it turned out one of my patterns, a white clouser style streamer with a long silver tail of mylar tubing and red tag became the standout pattern of the week following my success on Day 1. As a consequence, a degree of rationing was required by day 5, with the original stock of 5 dozen reduced to a a highly prized and ever more expensive dozen ;-)
My first opportunity came when Gunnar, my fishing partner from Iceland, was working a popper in one of the numerous lagoons. A good-sized fish swirled at his fly but did not commit. I followed up by placing my fly into that exact area, achieved with the urgency that saltwater anglers will be used to, and thankfully doing so without creating the typical fangle or hook to the back of the head which comes with a rushed cast. Within a moment of my fly hitting the water...Woomph...my rod was immediately bent double followed by the typically exhilarating fight that comes from a good Temensis, a battle punctuated with multiple, hugely powerful surges as it sought freedom via any hidden structures or potential snags. Having had numerous fish break my original 40lb leader in Brazil, I had upgraded to 60lbs, far safer but still breakable if you do not give line when required. Landed, the fish was just shy of 15lbs so not quite a grande but a good start.
An hour or so later my second opportunity came. This followed a disturbance on the surface, typically made by the fry of a Temensis breaking the surface which looks like the dispersed sprinkle of water from a watering can. Temensis protect their fry inside their mouth but will let them out to ‘play’. A well-placed cast, just long or to the side will be enough to illicit an almost guaranteed protective response from the parent. The trophy after another suitably brutal and exciting battle was 70cm long and over the 15lb mark. The first ‘grande’ of the trip.
When fishing for Peacock Bass, 90% of your fishing time is speculative casting, both towards the bank, with all its structure from branches, roots and reeds, as well as into the centre of the lagoons. Action is typically much more consistent when casting towards the bank with both Butterflies as well as all the other assorted species taking refuge or more likely sitting in ambush spots awaiting prey. The closer and more accurate your casts, the more action you will receive. Our indigenous ‘motorists’ (boat drivers) were excellent at gauging casting ability and will move closer or further from the bank as appropriate. Although the outboard engines are used to get up and down the river, when entering the lagoons, or any fishy area, they take up their paddles and stealthily move the canoe into position. Rarely did we spend long in any area unless we saw some activity or indeed were having lots of action. All the time we were gently being paddled around the lagoon, each cast to a new spot, searching the widest possible area.
It is easy to become overly focused placing a perfect cast within a few cm’s of where you think a fish might be lying up. It is however important to keep your eyes open and scanning the entire area you are fishing. Every ripple, patch of nervous water or a splash has the potential to produce a Rio Mataven monster, although both the guides and motorist were permanently on the look-out. Fishing for Salmon or Trout, who typically have a defined lie, will give you all the time in the world to try and tempt them with the correct fly, so long as you do not spook them. That is categorically not true when fishing for any Temensis, other than nesting fish (usually a pair protecting its eggs attached to a branch or similar). It is worth noting that although casting into the centre of the lagoon can be a little dispiriting, that is where you are more likely to encouter the larger fish.
Big Peacock’s are constantly on the move and whilst a fly delivered over a disturbance within 5-10 secs might give you a 90% chance of a take, that ratio drops proportionately the longer the delay. As my fishing partner Gunnar found out, there is little time for a gentlemanly arrangement when it comes to getting the fly into ‘the spot’. Equally, when a fish has been hooked, the other angler should have his fly ready to instantly drop it into the same area. Where there is one, there is very often another. There is no poaching when fishing for Peacock Bass but rather opportunities to maximise your chances. It is also true that very frequently the first Temensis to take will be the smaller of a pair. The early bird does not always get the biggest worm!
Over the week Gunnar and I managed seven Temensis over 15lbs and an additional two that were a just under. Three of these were a result of blind casting which including the largest fish of the week, caught by Gunnar, a magnificient 22lb specimen. We had just fished, somewhat unsuccessfully, a large circular lagoon, with just a few Butterflies hooked at the very beginning. Although cloudy, it was certainly humid and hot and the temptation to reel in and sit down as we approached the exit was strong…I had! It ios however worth noting that the entrance and exit areas of lagoons are some of the best places to pick up some action, both from Butterflies, but also big Temensis, that frequently guard the entrance.
The fish that took Gunnar’s fly was really outside the lagoon, on the edge of the river and beyond where you would normally expect to hook a big fish, although his fly was probably just inside the slack area on the edge of the current. As soon as it took, Gustavo our motorist was immediately on his paddle, pulling us away from the bank with its innumerable underwater branches, roots and snags. Gunnar quickly found that he was fighting it in the main current of the river, and it was several minutes before we had a glance at what he was attached to. The water of the Rio Mataven is neither muddy nor clear. The first sight of the fish was nothing short of mesmeric, it’s flank blasting back a wall of reflected green from the depths!
The guides prefer to use a Boga Grip to secure the fish. Unlike when using a net, when everyone can see the moment of victory, a Boga Grip extends the suspense. There is an additional few seconds’ delay, whilst the guide reaches down to get a grip of the fish. As we all know, this is so frequently the period when dreams are shattered. Those extra nerve wracking seconds of uncertainty can feel unbearable, until the triumphant whoop from the guide signals success. 80 cm and 22lbs. What a fish!!
There are many species of Peacock Bass, but our quarry was Butterfly and Temensis. Butterfly Peacock Bass are the smaller and more numerous variety, with three distinct spots, whereas Temensis have three black tiger stripes, but come in varying colourations depending on their maturity. A large Butterfly would be about 60cm long and around 8lbs. A large Temensis would be over 70 cm with a ‘grande’ being a fish of 15lbs and a giant 20lbs+. There are also a wide range or interesting and exotic fish that inhabit the Rio Mataven. Whilst I am sure some fly patterns might be more effective than others when it comes to catching these exotic varieties, they all seem happy to have a go at pretty much any of the 5-7 inch streamers that we presented to them.
Mornings and evening were seen as the best time to fish with poppers. When the fish were active this was an extremely exciting way to fish, takes always being explosive and naturally very visual. By mid-week Gunnar and I would have a friendly tussle as to who would be using the popper rod, with the other on a streamer. Smaller poppers seemed to be the all-round recipe for attracting both Butterfly as well as Temensis and the larger Giant Trevally sized offerings that I had used successfully in Brazil, were quietly replaced after a few outings.
The individual incidents and stories experienced by everyone on the group are far too numerous to mention. Notable catches included a speckled Stingray, a Caiman and a Surabhi Catfish. Nature spots included an Anaconda found in the camp which was deftly removed by the chef at 6 am in the morning, alongside an entourage consisting of much of the group clad in nothing more than underpants, edited out from the pictures!
I have enjoyed and appreciated what might seem like excessive comfort in numerous remote camps around the world. Our camp on the Rio Mataven offered no excess in this regard, whist at the same time being entirely adequate for everyone on our team. We had eight igloos containers full of ice and consequently we never went without ice for our rum or whisky in the evening or beer/soft drinks that were not ice cold throughout the day. Diving into the river at any stage of the day was unbelievably refreshing and I would go as far as saying, an essential remedy to revitalise hot heads and tired limbs during the hotter days.
Even after a cold journey home following some torrential rain, jumping into the river for a bath and wash was not only pleasantly warm but felt incredibly liberating and totally in tune with our surroundings. The sand under our feet was so fine that it squeaks, in a not dissimilar manner to eating Halloumi! Although the same sand invariably found its way into our tents, each day when we returned, thanks to the diligent camp staff, there was not a speck remaining. Clothes could be washed daily and although a few pairs of pants initially ended up in the wrong piles, all were reunited in due course!
An area that invariably gives rise to worries, in a jungle environment, concerns biting insects! The slightly acidic water of the Rio Mataven meant that it is unsuitable for Mosquitoes and outside of our stay in Inirida, we were not troubled by them once. At night all biting insects seem to make themselves 100% scarce. Whilst I would have normally advised on long sleeves and trousers in the evening, this was an unnecessary precaution. Thankfully you can safely nip out for a pee in the night without the need to don a full bug proof suit!
During the day there are biting flies. Unprotected they will make themselves a nuisance and you can easily pick up a great many bites, although they give a fraction of the itch that you would expect from Mosquitoes or sand flies! The best remedy is simply to ensure that exposed skin is covered. Socks for feet in the boat (shoes are not needed), sun gloves for hands and a good buff for the face if they are bad! This is no destination to try and top up a winter tan. Equally if you are disadvantaged with a degree of hair loss, make sure the rear of your baseball cap is not made with mesh - a useful observation gleaned from Gunnar!!
My ex-military insistence on being clean shaven did me a disservice and by contrast, wearing a beard will afford an extra level of protection. Foolishly, over the first few days, I did not apply insect repellent to my face, with only a buff around my neck for protection. This was an area where the Rio Mataven differed from the Rio Marie in Brazil, where repellant was not really needed. It was only after a few days, having received some comments regarding whether I had an allergy, that I found a mirror to see what the fuss was about. I had indeed picked up a veritable hoard of bites on my exposed cheeks, even though they barely itched. Lesson learnt. I applied repellent and kept covered up and subsequently was not really worried for the rest of the week. More importantly, by the time I arrived home, I did not look like an advert for the next tropical pandemic and happily avoided a stint of segregation and confinement at the centre for tropical diseases.
Although we did come across lagoons with irritating, albeit non-biting flies, these can be avoided using a head net. On our week they were rarely an issue, in my case a bonus as I had failed to follow my own pre-trip packing instruction and was netless. If they got too bad, simply moving lagoons was the best and immediate remedy, combined with a regular dousing of water to wash away sweat which seemed to be the main attraction to this variety of insect.
A trip of this nature will not be for everyone, if you have read this far you probably know whether it may or may not be suitable without need for further elaboration. Our group was unquestionably open-minded to all that the trip entailed, the vagaries and peculiarities that come with such an adventure. On the flip side, it was unquestionably an incredible and eye-opening experience, the likes of which most of our group had certainly never entertained before. It also gave us the opportunity, reason or even excuse to travel to a part of the world and live in an enviroment that very few people will ever encounter.
I feel entirely confident that we all came back having learnt and experienced a lot; the environment, the style of fishing, the variety, the hospitality of both the indigenous guides and camp staff as well as the wider Colombian team that made it all possible. There were days when success seemed frustratingly unachievable and days when the fishing was spectacular. We did not quite, as a group, reach the goal where everyone caught a big Temensis, which although frustrating, needs to be considered in one’s overall expectations. That is not to say days were ever devoid of action or variety. Peacock Bass on a fly are fantastic sport and of course the experience of hooking a big fish is electric, along with the fun had from the myriad other species encounterred, combined with the camaraderie of a really good group.
For my part, I can happily say that my goal of a twenty pounder still eludes me, giving me every excuse for a return visit!
For me this was a trip of a lifetime. A quite incredible experience. Thank you. Gunnar -Iceland Mar 2023
I have been doing some adventurous fly fishing trips around the world, but this trip to Rio Mataven certainly was extraordinary. We ended up in the middle of nowhere with a great camp and fantastic fishing of the most spectacular species. This was a trip that I really can recommend! Krister -Sweden -Feb 2023
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