Game Fish of the Amazon Basin
Amazon Gamefish overview - A compendium of scientific and
angling information for the fishing enthusiast.
The Amazon Basin
The freshwater Amazonian gamefishes in this article, as organized
by ichthyologists, are all members of the Class Osteichthyes or
bony fishes. This group includes all freshwater evolved fishes and
the majority of saltwater species. Fishes of similar anatomical
characteristics within this differentiation, are grouped in Orders.
Within each order, closely related fishes are further segregated into Families.
The two-part scientific name then specifies the Genus and Species.
||From an evolutionary standpoint, Amazonian fish species
come from an ancient line of groups that were already established nearly
60 million years ago (they have changed little since this time).
The most commonly accepted theory regarding the existence of most Amazon
species is that their precursors evolved during a period when what is now
South America, Africa, southern Asia and Australia were a single continent
called Gondwanaland. Upon the separation of these continents, these
mutual ancestors then evolved independently. Today, although the
remnant of this relationship between the Amazonian, African and Australian
fishes remains evident, their modern descendents have speciated into thousands
of endemic varieties.
The majority of Amazonian gamefish belong to only three large
groups (Families): the catfishes, characins (freshwater dorado for example)
and cichlids (peacock bass). In addition to these are several other
odd ball Families like the osteoglossidae (such as the immense pirarucú),
as well as groups with salt-water origins such as the sardinata/apapá,
a shad/herring/tarpon-like fish and the corvina, which is essentially a
The list of Amazonian freshwater gamefish is as extensive and
exotic as the land itself. Depending upon the region there are as
many as twenty different species that will take a fly or lure – all with
fantastic names to match their peculiar appearances.
Definition: A hypothetical supercontinent made up
of South America, Africa, India, Australia, and Antarctica. Presumed to
have existed from 300 to 200 million years ago.
History: In 1912 a German scientist, Alfred
Wegener, was the first person to put forth the concept that the continents
were joined at one time in the geologic past. He postulated a single
great landmass, Pangaea. Later theorists describe the separation,
late in the Triassic Period (245 to 208 million years ago), between the
southern landmass, Gondwanaland, and Laurasia to the north.
Geologic evidence for the land connection between the
currently separated southern continents includes the occurrence of tillites
(glacial deposits) from the time between the Carboniferous and Permian
periods, and similar floras and faunas that are not found in the Northern
Hemisphere. Rock strata containing this matching evidence are found
in the Karroo System in South Africa, the Gondwana System in India, and
the Santa Catharina System in South America.
...An Important Note
Catch and Release - Almost every single fish pictured in this article
and throughout our website was safely returned to the water after being
photographed. On rare occasions, a specimen may be injured or selected
for our table. We never sacrifice rare or large specimens.
We firmly believe in catch and release fishing and we do everything in
our power to preserve and protect the remarkable natural wonders that it
is our privilege to enjoy.
Morphology: Although comprised of wildly differing
species, cichlids share several unique physical characteristics.
All have only one nostril on each side of the head, not two as in other
fishes and they have both a spiny, and a soft, dorsal and anal fin.
Behavior: Cichlids show some of the most complex
and highly evolved behavior patterns of all fishes. Because of the
family's diversity, it is difficult to ascribe characteristics to all membersof
the group. However, many generalities effectively apply to
the majority of species. Cichlids are among the intellectuals of
fishes. They are highly intelligent and it has been shown by scientists
that cichlids can learn. (The way they sometimes tear up my gear,
I'd swear they knew who I was and had passed the word among themselves.)
Cichlids are generally very aggressive and pugnacious. They are often
Reproduction: One generalization that can
be made about New World cichlids is that they are all substrate spawners.
Although some species may guard eggs or young in their mouths at some time
during the brooding cycle, none are true mouthbreeders. Some
(notably the famous aquarium discus) provide nourishment for the young
directly from their bodies.
|Of all the incredible gamefish in the Amazon basin, the
one that has received the most press is the peacock bass. Their remarkable,
explosive topwater strike, combined with an astonishing ability to break
heavy lines/leaders and straighten even stout saltwater hooks, makes them
one of the most sought after species in the Amazon basin.
Peacock bass are not a true bass such as the largemouth and smallmouth
bass (Micopterus Sp.) found in North American waters, but comprise
a genus within the family Cichlidae. Cichlids are a diverse
family of tropical fishes found primarily throughout Africa, South America
and southern Asia.
Although all peacock bass species are highly temperature sensitive fish,
some have been successfully introduced in tropical areas from Panama to
Hawaii. The latest transplants (C. ocellaris and C. monoculus)
are happily swimming in many of the major freshwater irrigation channels
in Dade County, Florida. No permanent populations of the giant
species, C. temensis have ever been successfully transplanted outside
of the Amazon basin and Lake Guri.
Although there are countless color variations throughout their
range, there are only four currently recognized species of peacock bass,
C. temensis, C. ocellaris, C. monoculus and C. nigrolineatus
(there is a raging debate among ichthyologists and anglers on this
topic). All species are commonly called tucunaré in Brazil
and Peru, while other Spanish speaking South American countries use the
A World-Class Fighter
The peacock bass' explosive strikes and spectacular fighting
prowess serve to rank it among the greatest fighting
fish in the world. Even big specimens, like
this 17-pounder on the Rio Tapera, don't hesitate to
go airborne. Bringing big, powerful fish
like these to the boat in the tight quarters in which
they are usually found is a great challenge for any
The "Speckled" or "Blue" Peacock - Cichla
All of the specimens below and at
left are Cichla temensis, exhibiting their wide range
of color and pattern variability
The classical markings of Cichla temensis
with 3 vertical bars
An immature speckled peacock
Note the distinct lump on the head of this
mature male peacock.
This specimen boasts both the horizontal and the
vertical stripe pattern.
||The ‘blue’ or ‘spotted’ tucunaré/pavón (Cichla
temensis), better known as ‘azul’ or ‘paca/pinta lapa’
is the largest of the four species, with an average weight
of about 6-pounds. The females (and especially females
not old enough to spawn) are so distinctly spotted with a
fawn pattern running laterally along their back, that many
people think they are separate species,. The name paca/pinta
lapa comes from a 40-pound spotted jungle rodent called an
agouti. As the males mature their spots fade out or
disappear altogether. They also develop a distinct fatty
lump on the top of their head during breeding season (this
subsides after spawning). There is much speculation
as to the purpose of this growth. It has been postulated
that it is utilized as a food source by the peacock’s fry
for several weeks after hatching. It is also thought
that the peacock’s lump may disperse a chemical marker that
keeps the young close to the adult. In clear water,
one often sees tightly-packed clouds of peacock fry swarming
about the head of their protective father. If a male
is caught post-spawn, the growth on the head is often rubbed
raw, as if the young have been nipping away at the swollen
Body coloration and markings vary greatly. Whatever the color
phase, this fish has an unmistakable mottled patch directly behind its
eye. Three vertical black bars are usually visible (intensity varies
from fish to fish) beginning just behind the pectoral fin and ending underneath
the soft portion of the dorsal fin. Often, the previously mentioned
lateral white spots are present, running along the top third of the fish's
body. On rare occasions, there are neither black bars nor horizontal
stripes/spots, however, the mottled patch directly behind the eye remains
a distinct identifying characteristic. This species is found throughout
the Brazilian, Venezuelan and Columbian Amazon. The largest specimens
are caught in the Rio Negro tributaries of Brazil and Venezuela.
The peacocks below were caught on the same river,
during one week.
The "paca" marking pattern.
The black cheek markings provide a consistent
identifier for temensis.
This specimen is almost completely devoid of body
Other Peacock Bass Species
"Butterfly peacocks from two
A southern Amazon specimen.
Specimens from two fisheries
A large specimen from Brazil
'Royal' peacocks prefer fast water
in highland rivers.
||The butterfly tucunaré/pavón (Cichla ocellaris)
is the most numerous and widespread species in the Amazon basin.
This smaller fish has several different color phases, although hybridization
is common. The most common color phase has three black, oscelli,
or spots (about the size of a half dollar, depending on the size of the
fish) running along its lateral line. Some 'butterflies' have no
distinct body markings at all, but the absence of the black eye-patch clearly
distinguishes them from their larger cousins. Average size for the
butterfly peacock is about 3-pounds. The largest ‘butterflies’ rarely
A third species, the ‘grey bar’ or ‘fire belly (Cichla monoculus)’
exhibits three black triangular-shaped markings along the back, with a
distinct inkblot pattern above the belly. In the central Amazon,
this fish does not commonly grow much over 3-pounds, but on the periphery
of the basin (Brazil and Bolivia in particular), ‘gray bars’ can attain
weights upwards of 12-pounds. ‘Gray bars’ are also found in Florida
The fourth species is the ‘royal’ tucunaré/pavón
(Cichla nigrolineatus). This species is normally not encountered
in Brazil, since it prefers fast water in a rocky habitat (it is most common
in several Columbian and Venezuelan tributaries of the Orinoco River).
The royal’s distinguishing features include a narrow, serrated, horizontal
black ‘band’ that runs from just behind the gill plate, past the soft part
of the dorsal fin (this ‘band’ is often broken up, but the fish's coloration
remains quite distinctive from the 'butterfly.') Unlike the other
three species, ‘royal’ peacocks prefer fast moving water and act very much
like our smallmouth bass. ‘Royals’ reach a top weight of about 5-pounds.
|Conventional tackle for peacocks
varies with location and fish size. Smaller peacock
species can be taken using rods and reels commonly used
for trophy largemouth. These smaller fish take
a variety of topwater baits including Heddon Zara Spooks,
small Luhr Jenson Woodchoppers/Rippers to name a few.
5-inch jerk baits such as Cotton Cordell Redfins or
Rapalas, bucktail jigs (1/2 oz.) and weedless spoons
also work well.
Trophy peacocks require stout tackle. A stiff,
musky/striper-weight casting or spinning rod along with a high-quality,
fast retrieve ratio reel are essential – both to properly cast and retrieve
large lures and to handle these incredibly powerful fish which tend to
hold near nasty structure. Most veterans now use 30-50-pound braided
lines. Anything less stout is easily broken. Top lures include the
6-3/4-inch Luhr Jensen Woodchopper/Ripper, Super Spooks, a variety
of 7-inch jerk baits, big weedless spoons and extra-large bucktail jigs.
for more information: Peacock
Fly casters take peacocks on a variety of oversized
streamer, popper and slider patterns (tied on 4/0 or 5/0 extremely stout
saltwater hooks) which match a multitude of large baitfish. For larger
fish, a stiff 9-10-weight rod and both floating and sink tip lines are
commonly used depending upon existing fishing conditions (an 8-weight is
perfect for the smaller ‘butterflies’ and ‘grey bars.’ Heavy leaders
(I use a straight 8-foot section of 50-pound monofilament) are essential
to keep from breaking fish off.
for more information: Jungle
Oscar - Astronatus ocellatus
Other Large Cichlids
Two other “game” species of Cichlids native to the Amazon basin are
the oscar/palometa real (now also common throughout the south Florida canal
system and commonly found in Bolivia)) and the jacundá / mataguaro
(most common in Brazil, Venezuela and Columbia) which is a smaller close
cousin of the peacock bass species in the genus Crenicichla.
Oscar/palometa real and jacundá / mataguaro reach a maximum
size of about 6-pounds and aggressively take the same black bass-sized
lures and flies mentioned above. Jacunda relate strongly to structure
and strike very powerfully. They fight with strong, short runs and
an intense, bulldog-like style. On an ultralight casting/spinning
rod or 6- weight fly-rod and floating line, both species are a hoot to
Jacunda - Crenicichla Sp.
Why Breathe Air?
Amazon aquatic environments are influenced dramatically by the region's
unusual characteristics. Seasonal rains can raise
and lower water levels by as much as 40 feet.
Daily variations in temperature and photosynthesis (plant
respiration) can cause wildly varying levels of dissolved
oxygen in Amazon waters. As a result, many Amazon
fishes are routinely subjected to periods when their
waters contain extremely low levels of oxygen (hypoxia
In order to survive these deadly
conditions, many species have evolved unique respiratory strategies.
Some absorb oxygen through their skin, others store it in their bloodstream
with multiple versions of oxygen carrying hemoglobin. Many
species simply migrate to avoid the difficult times. The arapaima,
however, has literally risen above it all.
These lumbering Amazon giants
have evolved the ability to simply rise to the surface and gulp air.
Their modified swim bladders act as lungs, dispersing oxygen into the bloodstream.
Their gills return the waste CO2 gases to the water. It's a
neat system that allows arapaima to swim blithely along in conditions that
would rapidly suffocate other fishes. Millions of years of evolutionary
adaptation enabled them to proliferate and prosper throughout the Amazon
basin. Nature's work however, is often quickly undone by man.
|This once plentiful species has
suffered the misfortune of beimg particularly
tasty to humans. The same air-breathing
mechanism that allows them to survive the worst
possible natural conditions proves to be their
undoing when it comes to mankind. They are
obligatory air-breathers -- and they must come
to the surface in order to breathe. They
would drown, just like us, if they couldn't
periodically gulp air. This makes them a
relatively easy target for patient, harpoon wielding
hunters who bring their flesh to market.
Only recently have measures been taken to protect
this magnificent .
Osteoglossiformes - Aruana and Arapaima
Osteoglossiformes are an extremely ancient order
of prehistoric freshwater fishes. The arapaima, paiche or pirarucú
as it is known in Brazil, is the largest wholly freshwater fish in the
world. Fish over 3 meters (almost 10 feet) and up to 275 kg (600
lbs) have been recorded. Pirarucú look like some sort of Jurassic
tarpon, with a similar profile save for their strange, club-shaped tail.
The pirarucú’s flesh is much sought after throughout the Amazon
and for this reason, large specimens are becoming rare.
With patience and persistence, pirarucú
can be taken on tarpon-sized conventional tackle, especially using 7-inch
jerk baits (CD-14-18 Rapalas), although a large live baitfish (7/0 circle
hook) dropped under a heavy cork is the best bet.
This fish will, on rare occasions take a streamer
fished in the deep lagoons it prefers to haunt. They are an extremely
wary fish and must be approached with extreme caution. Pirarucú
have both gills and an modified air bladder that acts as a lung, which
they use to gulp in air. They have the unsettling habit of surfacing
close to your boat like a giant prehistoric submarine. Tarpon-sized
tackle is a must for these giants – 11-12-weight rod, 400-grain sink-tip
line, heavy leaders and large streamers tied on 4/0 heavy saltwater hooks
are standard equipment.
Though pirarucú are found in ‘fishable’ numbers
mainly in Brazil and Peru, it is important to note that a great deal of
time must be devoted to the fish if one is to catch one on a fly rod.
The aruanã (Osteoglossum bicirrhosum
) is a close relative of the pirarucú. They
are a schooling fish that in rare cases can reach a maximum weight of about
15-pounds. Aruanã are extremely surface-oriented and
can often be sight-fished as they cruise about just below the surface in
search of prey. They take the same lures used for smaller peacocks
(and especially love Heddon Zara spooks). A 7-8-weight fly rod, floating
line and variety of medium-sized poppers and sliders (2/0) make for some
exciting fishing. When hooked, aruanã repeatedly jump like
a baby tarpon.
The natives call this odd-looking silver creature "macaco
d'agua", the "water monkey" bcause of its ability to leap more than
six feet out of the water. In addition to small fish, aruanã
eat , insects, small birds, bats and reptiles, which they will often snatch
from overhanging branches.
Their large, light-reflecting, opalescent
scales and their fluid swimming movements make them underwater billboards
for the sight fishing angler. They take a bait by opening their cargo-door
inhaling it and then closing the gate. Although
not a particularly powerful fish, they are highly prized as a gamefish
The aruanã is also a very interesting
and popular aquarium fish . One of the few remaining examples of
fishes surviving from the Jurassic period, they give observers a peek into
an ancient prehistoric world.
The arapima fans a large circle free of debris in areas of sandy
bottoms. Eggs are laid in the 2 to 3 foot diameter
The aruanã, with
two fleshy barbels on its lower jaw is a mouth brooder. Males carry the
relatively small number of eggs and young in their mouths, thus increasing
their chances for survival.
Tambaqui / Cachama
Characins - Characidae
Part of the order Cypriniformes. Unlike their close
relatives the minnows (Cyprinidae), most characins have teeth.
Characidae comprise a large family of over 500 species restricted to the
tropics and subtropics of Africa, South and Central America. Recently,
taxonomists have further divided the family into 16 sub-families.
Characins include a wide range
of species such as piranhas, tetras, copeinas, tigerfish, trairas
and payara. Many of the most popular aquarium fishes are characins.
They are mostly egg-scatterers. Many species breed in group spawnings,
leaving the eggs and young behind to fend for themselves.
Dorado display brilliant golden coloration.
Their sharp teeth and powerful jaws make
wire leaders a must
Dorado are acrobatic fighters .
Dorado, Yatorana and Matrinchá
Freshwater dorado (Salminus maxillosus and S. hilarii) are a
distinct migratory gamefish not to be confused with the saltwater dolphin
fish (which is also called 'el dorado' in many Spanish-speaking countries).
Physically, the freshwater dorado is best described as a prehistoric golden
trout or salmon with the jaws of a pit bull terrier. Ichthyologists
have appropriately given the southern species of dorado the Latin name,
Salminus maxillosus. Salminus, meaning trout-like, and maxillosus
referring to the fish's immensely-powerful jaws. Dorado are hard-hitting,
incredibly-strong, acrobatic fighters that attain weights in excess of
30-pounds. They are, in short, South America’s hyped-up version of
a ‘tropical trout.’ Dorado are commonly found throughout a massive watershed
between southern Brazil/Bolivia and Northern Argentina. Incredibly,
freshwater dorado remain a relatively little-known gamefish in the United
Conventional gear for big dorado is virtually
the same as that mentioned in the trophy peacock bass section (a wire leader
is essential). Dorado are usually not surface oriented fish, so 7-inch
jerk baits, Rattle Trap-type lures, spoons and jigs are most productive.
Dorado are fished with an 8-9-weight fly rod and either a 200-grain,
24-foot sink tip line or a full floating line depending upon water conditions.
A heavy steel leader is a must, as these fish will chew through 100-pound
like it is sewing thread! Dorado take a variety of streamers, sliders
and even Atlantic salmon-style Bombers during ideal conditions (all on
3/0 heavy long shank hooks). Northern Argentina, Paraguay and Bolivia
have the strongest populations of dorado.
The bocón or palambra/yatorana (Holobrycon
pesu) is a close relative of the dorado. They are a migratory,
fast water fish found throughout the Amazon basin. Bocón live and
behave almost exactly like the dorado, but do not reach the latter’s size,
so they can be fished on slightly lighter tackle. Bolivia has the
best populations of these fish.
Matrinchá (Brycon falcatus)
are a very close cousin to the bocón (they look almost exactly alike).
This fish has an affinity for small baitfish and terrestrial insects and
can be taken on small spoons, jigs, and jerk baits or small streamers and
ant and beetle imitations in fast water (just like trout fishing). The
matrinchã’s range seems to be limited to the Brazilian Amazon.
Yatorana, called bocón, in Colombia
and Venezuela, jump and fight like dorado and run in schools, so once you’re
into them the action is fast and furious.
Yatorana can grow upwards of 15-pounds.
This is all the fish you’d want to tangle with on light tackle.
Matrinchá are fierce fighters
on light tackle. They strike baits at high speed and continue moving
right through the drag. Within seconds they're out of the water and
flying through the air.
A small specimen of matrinchá
shows off its brightly marked tail and dorsal fins.
These highlights fade and ultimately disappear in older
...the largest of the Characins.
... tremendous physical power.
..remarkably humanlike dentition
||Members of the sub-family Colossoma of the Characidae,
tambaqui (Colossoma macroponum) are physically built like a stocky
permit or jack – think of a trash can lid with fins. They have
a pleasant grey-blue back which fades into a purple-brown shade near the
belly of the fish. An omnivorous distant relative of the piranha,
tambaqui have dazzling teeth which look exactly like a set of human dentures.
These fish have amazing jaw strength as they often feed on rock hard jungle
seeds, and they can crush a 4/0 saltwater hook as if it were made of baling
A migratory fish, tambaqui reside in fast current
and are perfectly fit for such an environment. They have huge anal
fins and extremely wide, thick tails. When hooked they use their
powerful oval body against the current and make incredible heart stopping
runs. With the force of the water added to their own power,
they can be unstoppable even with the heaviest of terminal tackle.
These fish are so strong that the locals fish for them with stout green
saplings secured to 120-pound monofilament, heavy cable and 6/0 tuna hooks!
One in three tambaqui will jump when hooked. To see such a huge fish
throw itself out of the water is a spectacular sight. Until very
recently tambaqui were not known to take flies or lures with any consistency,
but for some reason the Bolivian strain are particularly aggressive and
take flies and lures with abandon.
Terminal tackle for these fish is the same
as that used for big peacock bass, dorado and payara. Fifty pound-braid
and an equally-stout wire leader are essential. Top lures include
Blue Fox Vibrax spinners (#5), Yo Zuri Squid, bucktail jigs, and 5-inch
jerk baits. If you really want to catch tambaqui, dead drift a sweet
piece of jungle fruit on a 5/0 super stout live bait hook!
Tambaqui should be fished with nothing less
than a stout 9-weight fly rod as they tend to use the current to their
advantage and make extremely powerful runs. These fish will take
the same flies listed in the dorado section, including heavily-dressed
3/0 Cloussers and Muddlers (they seem to prefer blue for some strange reason).
They also take “fruit flies,” which are nothing more than brightly-colored
deer hair (yellow or bright orange are best) spun and clipped to look like
The Fish, the Forest and the Fruit
Tambaqui, the largest of all the characins, are creatures
of the Amazon's flooded forest. The pulsative nature of Amazonia's
lowland rivers creates vast flooded forests during the region's long rainy
seasons. Rivers flood their banks and inundate adjacent varzea
(flooded) forests. As though a dinner bell were rung, the area's
wildlife flocks to the new border between land and water to feast on a
banquet of flowers and fruits
Tambaqui are an integral part
of the varzea's life cycle. Feeding on the bounty of fruits
and nuts that drop into the water, they become an important mechanism for
seed dispersal. Many jungle fruits contain an outer pulp and a hard
inner seed(s). When small seeds are ingested they are not always
crushed by the tambaqui's powerful jaws. Passing through the fish's
digestive system, the seeds are scarified by the process and then excreted,
often far from the parent tree. Later, when the waters recede, the
prepared seed is able to sprout in the newly exposed land, far from where
When the varzea drains,
well-fed tambaqui leave the small tributaries and form large migrating
schools in the main rivers. Their large fat reserves, built up during
the rainy season are used during their upriver journeys and ensuing spawning.
It's believed that their eggs are dispersed in the grassy levees along
the river. The dry season season provides slim pickings for
tanbaqui who often turn to small fishes and insects to help fill their
Tambaqui are an important food
fish. They have recently begun to be raised by aquaculture techniques
to meet the market demand. This bodes well for the preservation of
What a difference teeth make!
Pacu, with their mouths full of molars are the "lotus-eaters" of
the Amazon fish fauna. Most species
belong to the genus Mylossoma. Their diet consists mostly
flowers and fruits, with an unlucky bug occasionally joining
the menu. Although they look awfully similar to their razor-toothed
brethren, they have a reputation for placidity.
Pacu and Piranha
The pacú/morocoto (Piaractus brachypomus) is a smaller
relative of the giant tambaqui. Morocoto will take Rat-L-Traps,
large grasshoppers and dead drifted fruit. Fly casters should use
2/0 Clousser Minnows and especially fruit-colored Glo Bugs dead-drifted
in trout/salmon fashion. There are at least half a dozen other, smaller
species collectively called pacú in Brazil, Venezuela and
Colombia. One Brazilian species takes a “bread fly” in moving water
like a trout sipping a dry fly.
There are over a dozen species of piranha
(Serrasalmus sp.) swimming the rivers from Argentina to Venezuela.
Some grow larger than 6-pounds and can be fantastic light tackle adversaries
(especially on smaller spinning/casting rods or a 5-6-weight fly rod).
Needless to say, piranha are not picky eaters and take literally anything
remotely resembling a baitfish. A small Rat-L-Trap tipped with meat
is deadly. These feisty little creatures can, at times, be quite a nuisance
as they have a nasty habit of destroying your lures or that custom-tied
eight-dollar streamer the second it hits the water.
|The Piranha's dentition
has made them the Hollywood horror stars of the fish world. In spite
of their vicious reputation, most species feed on fish, some specializing
hit and run scale eating. The greatest danger they
present to the
angler is the safe removal of hooks from their horrid litle
jaws. They do, however, taste very good pan-fried.
Characins with Fangs
Subfamily Cynodontidae: The latin translation
for this name means "dog tooth". It's particularly appropriate for
these aggressive and fast piscivorous predators.
The huge pair of canines in the lower jaw is accommodated
by two holes to receive them in the upper. The huge
pectoral fins aid in propelling these fish rapidly upward
when attacking their prey. Prey are stabbed by the canines
and then swallowed hole. These fanged monsters prefer
elongate prey from 30 - 50% of their body length.
||Payara/Peixe Cachorro (Hydrolicus scomberoides)
are a ferocious migratory gamefish from the family Cynodontidae.
Think of them as a sort of Jurassic salmon. They are built somewhat
like a large Atlantic salmon and share a similar metallic silver sheen.
The mouth of the payara is what sets them apart from all other gamefish,
as they sport an intimidating set of razor sharp fangs which protrude from
the lower jaw like two glistening ivory framing nails.
Payara prefer to reside in extremely fast
water and take both lures and flies with such savage force that one can
easily rip the rod from your grasp if you are not paying close attention.
Once hooked, a large payara will effortlessly peel off 150-yards of line/backing
despite a thirty-pound leader, strong drag and stiff rod. Payara
also make repeated salmon-style jumps, which adds to the fish’s allure.
Although payara receive much less press than peacock bass, many anglers
rate them above peacocks in terms of both sheer strength, stamina and overall
fighting ability (and that’s saying something!)
Conventional gear for payara is virtually
the same as that mentioned in the trophy peacock bass and dorado sections
(wire leader is essential). Payara are usually not surface oriented
fish, so big Rapalas, 7-inch jerk baits, Rat-L-Trap type lures, spoons
and jigs are most productive.
Similar to the above-mentioned dorado, payara are fished with a slightly
heavier 9-10-weight fly rod and either a 300 or 400-grain, 24-foot sink
tip line depending upon water conditions. They can be fished with
a full floating line, but only during extreme conditions as they prefer
to reside in deep, fast current. A heavy mono leader tipped with
stout steel tippet is essential. Payara take a variety of large streamers,
but prefer heavily-dressed Cloussers and Muddlers tied on a 4/0 heavy saltwater
Many smaller species of payara/peixe-cachorra
(Hydrolicus and Rhaphiodon Sp.) are found throughout South America.
Although all are fast, vicious predators, most rarely exceed 5-pounds.
The best places to catch giant trophy payara are Uraima Falls, the Caura
River and several sections of the Orinoco and Ventuari Rivers (all in Venezuela).
Another World Class Fighter
Payara take the art of the fight to another level.
They combine some of the best characteristics known among fighting fish
to provide an extraordinary angling experience. Payara are extremely
aggressive and strike with intense power. They peel off line
in long fast runs. And when all else fails, they hurl their huge,
slablike bodies high into the air. If these fish were commonly found
in the same "small-water" conditions as peacock bass, they would rarely
For more information about payara, see our payara
Rhaphiodon vulpinus, a smaller and more elongate relative
of the payara is common in the slower lowland waters of the Amazon Basin.
Like its larger, fast-water cousin, it's a fast, fierce predator.
Readily taken on flies, they are a pugnacious light-tackle
More about breathing air...
Traira, members of the characoid sub-family Erythrinidae,
are examples of facultative (part-time) air breathers. Using
vascularized (blood-rich) tissues in their skin, stomachs and swim bladders,
this group of fish uses air to augment the oxygen they receive from
water during hypoxic (low oxygen) conditions . This ability
allows traira to utilize an unusual niche within their environment.
They can often be found patrolling the very ends of quiet lagoons,
or lurking, hidden at the edge of muddy, shallow shorelines.
They suddenly explode into action engulfing any unwary bird, mouse or lizard
that comes to the water's edge to drink.
Traira and Aimara
One of my Brazilian guides once referred to guabina/traira and aimara/trairão
as giant bars of soap with mouthsful of teeth. These ferocious, prehistoric
looking fish are reminiscent of the ancient coelacanth, or a cross between
a bowfin and a carp. The guabina, or traira in Brazil, is the
smaller of the two species, reaching a top weight of about 10-pounds.
They are found from the northern Amazonian periphery in Venezuela all the
way to central Argentina in the Paraná River drainage. These
fish prefer slack water and attack largemouth bass-sized topwater lures
or fly rod poppers and sliders with reckless abandon. Don’t
forget your wire leaders though – one look at this fish’s choppers and
you’ll understand why. A 7-8-weight rod spooled with floating line
and a stout butt section tied to fairly heavy wire is just the ticket for
The traira’s larger cousin, the aimara or trairão
is truly the stuff of angling nightmares. It attains weights in excess
of 50-pounds and eats anything it damn well pleases. Big jerk baits,
spoons, jigs, streamers and or large sliders/poppers fished in the
eddies and pools adjacent to fast water are all susceptible to attack.
Once hooked, this evil-looking fish thinks it’s a tarpon and jumps repeatedly.
Heavy conventional tackle is key to get one of these bruisers in the boat.
Anything less than a 10-weight rod, stout 4/0 stainless saltwater hooks,
heavy butt and wire leader would be a big mistake as these monsters have
a nasty reputation for heading headlong into the nearest available timber
and rocks. The best place to catch these fish is at Uraima Falls,
in the tributaries feeding into Venezuela’s Guri Lake and several western
and southern tributaries in the Brazilian Amazon.
Traira - Hoplius malabaricus
Traira possess impressive teeth.
Aimara grow to huge sizes.
Boulengerella species can
2 feet in length.
Acestrorhyncus species make
short work of fancy flies.
||The bicuda/aguja (Boulengerella maculata) is a powerful,
fast water fish that can be found mixed in with the other previously-mentioned
species. It reaches a maximum size of about 10-pounds and is a powerful,
Picúa/cachorra (Acestrorhynchus falcatus) is a sort of
freshwater barracuda that roams about (mixed in with the peacock bass)
in small packs terrorizing schools of baitfish. These fish don't
grow very big (2-pounds maximum), but they're extremely aggressive, plentiful
and hard fighting on light conventional rods or a 5-6-weight fly rod.
The family Clupeidae include the herring, sardines and shad.
Although mostly a marine family, the Amazon has more than
ten species of these freshwater adapted schooling fishes.
Sardinata are the largest and are entirely
predatory. These surface-oriented piscivores have a mouth
structure, reminiscent of the tarpon, designed perfectly for
attacking small insectivorous fishes.
Their complex hinged jaw opens immediately in front of
their eyes and is canted at approximately a 30-degree angle from the water's
surface. Sardinata attack in zig-zagging rushes, scooping their prey into
the gaping mouth. Possessed with only a few small teeth, they depend
on their speed and running-back agility to outmaneuver the baitfish on
which they feed.
Migratory in nature, Sardinata move in medium
to large schools close on the heels of huge baitfish migrations.
It's an incredible sight to witness a wave, made entirely of fleeing silvery
baitfish bodies, form itself in perfectly still water. The bait,
panicked by the slashing attack of a school of sardinata sound like a rainstorm
moving across the river.
Sardinata - Saltwater Transplants
The Sardinata/apapá (Amazon pellona), a clupeid fish, is
an exceptional, yet little-known migratory gamefish that fights like, and
is related to tarpon. The fish averages about 8-pounds, but commonly
grows upwards of 20-pounds. Sardinata look a lot like a small tarpon,
except they have a brilliant golden holographic coloration, reminiscent
of the freshwater dorado. These ‘golden freshwater tarpon’ typically
reside in fast water and will take both flies and lures with reckless abandon.
Sardinata are extremely topwater oriented and actually prefer to take noisy
surface flies and lures over subsurface alternatives. Zara spooks
and popping-type surface baits are best for these scrappers.
Fly casters have the best luck throwing 2/0
Gaine’s-style poppers on an 8-weight rod spooled with a weight-forward
floating line. The strike of a sardinata is nearly as violent
as that of the ferocious peacock bass, and once hooked, these fish run
and jump repeatedly just like their silver-sided cousins. Sardinata
are a schooling fish and once one is hooked, more strikes are sure to follow.
Sardinata are found throughout the Orinoco drainage (Venezuela’s Caura
River has the best populations of the fish I have encountered) as well
as many Amazon tributaries.
(including black drum and redfish). This fish is considered an ‘incidental’
species that is sometimes taken on deep-diving crank baits, jigs and/or
streamers fished deep for other fast water species.
|The pescada, also known as corvina (Plagioscion squamosissimus)
is a freshwater croaker closely related to saltwater drum
Why marine fishes in fresh-water?
The Amazon today is a river flowing east that empties into
the Atlantic Ocean. This wasn't always so.
It is theorized that tens of millions of years ago, the Amazon
Basin was a huge Pacific ocean bay. When the Andes mountains
pushed their way toward the sky, the Basin and its waters
were permanently cut off from the Pacific. Many
marine animals, trapped by the rising mountains, slowly adapted
as the Amazon changed. The waters, forced their
way through the eastern lowlands and found their way to the
Atlantic. Rainwater gradually freshened the system and
the rays, dolphins and marine fishes evolved into today's
Amazonian saltwater transplants.
that over 2500 species of fish occur in the Amazon.
The order Siluriformes (catfish) is the second most
diverse and probably the most spectacular group of Amazon
species. With 14 families, including about 1000 species,
the Amazon accounts for almost half of all the catfish species
in the world. Anglers pursue giant species of the Family
The Tiger flathead, or suribim (Psuedoplatystoma
There are countless species of catfish throughout the Amazon and Paraná
drainages. They range in size from the diabolical candirú
(Pygidiidae), a tiny parasitic catfish that lodges itself in the
urethral openings of other fish or animals (or humans) to the monstrous
lau lau or valentón/piraiba (Brachyplatystoma filamentosum),
which is said to grow over 10-feet long and weigh in excess of 500-pounds).
For more information about these big cats, see our
Giant Catfish Home Page
Cut or whole bait, fished deep on a 8-10/0 circle hook is deadly.
A stout offshore rod/reel combo spooled with 130-pound braid is recommended
as these monsters can literally tow a 16-foot bass boat upstream!
There are several Amazonian catfish that will aggressively take a fly,
including several species collectively called bagre rayado (Pseudoplatystoma
sp.). It is important to note that these catfish are nothing
like our local ‘cats’ which tend to be bottom-feeding and rather lethargic.
Many of the larger species of Amazonian catfish are migratory, extremely
active and aggressive predators that live in fast water and actively feed
with the other previously-mentioned gamefish. Pound for pound, these
‘cats’ are as strong – if not stronger – than any fish I’ve had on a rod
The golden catfish, Dourado (Brachyplatystoma
Suribim display bright markings.
Fast Water Species
These species prefer faster water and are typically found
in rivers, creeks and igarapes..
Anglers often learn much about the species they pursue by studying what
they eat. Predator species typically base their movements, behavior
and even life cycles on the habits of their prey. Although there
are hundreds of species of baitfish throughout the basin, below are some
of the most commonly found (and eaten) species . . .
Many of these can be recognized as common
More Fast Water Species
More Stillwater Species
Still Water Species
Leporinus - Anastomidae sp.
Catch and Release - Almost every single fish pictured in this
article and throughout our website was safely returned to the water after
being photographed. On rare occasions, a specimen may be injured
or selected for our table. We never sacrifice rare or large specimens.
We firmly believe in catch and release fishing and we do everything in
our power to preserve and protect the remarkable natural wonders that it
is our privilege to enjoy.
Copyright © 2004 - Garrett VeneKlasen and InterAngler LLC
All Rights Reserved