What’s all the fuss the past few years about peacock bass? With all the hype surrounding this jungle fish, it seems like it has a tall order to fill just to simply meet expectations of anglers crossing hemispherical boundaries in pursuit of them.
This past September, I was contracted to shoot photos for a relatively new adventure fishing company, Nomadic Waters, which carries anglers deep into a tribal area of the Amazonian rainforest to target trophy peacock bass on a tributary of the mighty Amazon River. I’m from the South, where a big river is the Chattahoochee, and the Mississippi is in a league of its own. If the Mississippi were a tributary of the Amazon, however, it would be only the fourth largest by volume. The hotel where we stayed the first night of the trip, which is in the hub of the region—the former rubber capital city of the world, Manaus—sat on the banks of the Rio Negro, a tributary of the Amazon. And where our hotel sat, it was about five miles to the other side of this river. In other words, there is a lot of water in this region, and more game fish than you can possibly imagine.
I didn’t even take a rod on this trip, to the amusement of the guests during this week. “You came to the Amazon and didn’t even pack one rod?” I know myself well enough to know that I am not a multitasker. I need to either fish or shoot photos. If I try to do both I’ll do neither well. There were, however, a few times over the course of the week when I set the camera down for ten minutes or an hour here and there and stripped a Puglisi-style streamer fly or ran a jerkbait on a spinning rod through the opaque waters, around standing or submerged timber, or through a deep cut where a creek dumped into the main flow.
It was in this last scenario that I hooked my very first peacock bass. I’ve fished Alaska for salmon, Mexico and the Caribbean for bonefish and tarpon, out West for big trout, even Thailand for barramundi. But the first peacock I encountered blew my mind. I hooked it in a cut about 15 feet deep, and I had a hard time turning the fish. I was swinging a fly on 30-pound test using a 10-weight—let me repeat, a 10-weight—and this fish handled it. Then the fish came to the boat. It was a two-pounder. There’s no way. How on earth could this little dink even bend a 10-weight?
I fished maybe three hours total during the first four days of the trip, and during those brief windows I caught a lot of fish, ranging from two-pounders to seven or eight pounds. Then, on the last day of the trip, I was in the boat with angler-extraordinaire and manager of Cohutta Fishing Co. in Cartersville, Georgia, Conner Jones, and one of the owners of Nomadica Waters and the director of fishing operations, Michael Williams. Michael was one of the first people ever to take groups into Kamchatka. He guided out West and in Alaska for many years, and he’s on Winston’s Pro Staff.
Watching these two guys fish together was a treat, with more doubles happening than not. But in the mid-afternoon heat of the day, Michael (who hired me for this gig) told me to set the camera down and fish. He was hot and wanted a water break. I argued with him, but he won, and I laid my very first cast just a few inches off the bank and right next to a blowdown. I was fishing a small Puglisi streamer, yellow and chartreuse, maybe four inches long max. I stripped the fly twice and suddenly saw this massive head and a big, wide body roll over and demolish the fly. Michael, Conner, our guide Rodrigo, and I all screamed. The beast immediately started bulldogging toward the submerged tree just a few feet away and Michael yelled to me, “I’ve got 50 [pound test] on there!” The particular backwater we were fishing was a bit murkier than most everywhere else we had been during the week, and since Michael was fishing his fly near the surface, and the fact that our guides told us this area was known for especially big peacocks, the heavier tippet made sense. And I put that knowledge to quick use, pulling with all I had to clear this fish from the blowdown. A few minutes later and Rodrigo got the net under the fish on the first pass. My adrenaline crashed at that moment, and for the first time in years a fish literally made me weak in the knees—a fish that is now my lifetime favorite. And at 13 pounds, the knowledge that there are peacocks in that area that are double the weight of this animal is a fact that’s hard to comprehend, but easy to dream about.
Sitting on the open top deck of a big Amazonian cabin boat as we pulled out of port at the start of this trip, I knew this was going to be more than a fishing trip. We were still in sight of the bus we took through the jungle, but it already felt different. It felt like an adventure, and not just another fishing vacation (not that there’s anything wrong with fishing vacations!). A pair of pink river dolphins jumped just off the starboard side. A few of the guys were tying flies and telling stories. Birds of many varieties were seen all around. As the sun set and the Milky Way displayed its full glory that night, while the captain motored us upriver to our first fishing spot, many of us were wondering if the peacock bass would live up to our expectations. The truth is, you can’t understand the power this fish possesses—a strength that only a saltwater fish should have—until you experience it for yourself.
Postscript: David Cannon is a contributing photographer to many celebrated fly-fishing publications, including American Angler, The Flyfish Journal, The Drake, and Gray’s Sporting Journal. If you’re interested in fishing for peacock bass and brushing up on your photography skills, David is hosting a trip with Nomadic Waters in Brazil Sept 7–15 where he will be fishing with guests and lending advice and tips for those looking to hone their photography skills. Space is limited. Contact David at [email protected].