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Fly fishing for peacock bass with a guide in the Amazon basin.  The peacock bass (a.k.a. Tucunare) is a savage adversary for the fly angler.
peacock bass fly fishing peacock bass Brazil peacock bass

Large peacock bass, or tucunare, are just one of the species 
that help make the Amazon and its tributaries 
an exciting destination for fly fishermen.  The fish take 
surface poppers savagely; but they also respond to 
streamers such as Deceivers, Sea Candy, bunnies and 
Zonkers.                               Garret VeneKlasen photo
Great Green 
Jungle "Bass" 

Chasing the Amazon's savage fish
by Garrett O. VeneKlasen 
 Reprinted Courtesy of "Fly Fisherman", March 1994
   Shattering the stillness of the primordial lagoon like an unexpected gunshot, the fish appeared out of nowhere to begin their feeding frenzy.  Like killer whales herding terrified seals in a Discovery Channel episode, three huge fluorescent shapes relentlessly chased their 20-inch prey toward the lagoon's verdant bank.  Snapping and slurping as they surged toward our boat, the big fish were seemingly having the time of their lives terrorizing the increasingly frantic baitfish. 
     It all happened so fast that I only had time for a reckless, adrenaline influenced cast, which floundered ten yards short of the boiling melee.  Midway through my pickup of the line for another cast, two of the neon-green depth charges rose through tannin stained water in a desperate race to get at my eight inch Deceiver.  Already committed, I could only watch the scene unfold in slow motion as the lead fish exploded in a washtub-size hole, and my fly disappeared with the sounding fish. 
    There was no time to react as the fly line melted off my reel as if I'd just hooked onto the back of a speeding freight train and the angry fish steamed toward the nearest rock pile.  Although I was using a 10-weight tarpon rod, a strong reel with the drag cranked down as far as it would go, and a straight length of 30-pound Mason for a leader, I could not stop the fish before it wrapped the line around two huge granite boulders and snapped the Mason.
Exotic New Adversaries
The Amazon's freshwater fishery, which is just developing as a fly-fishing destination, is the quintescence of natural selection.  Under the area's lush geen facade lies a writhing cauldron of ruthless competition.  In the Amazon, 400-pound catfish can gulp down whole schools of piranha.  Anything without teeth, spines, poison or super speed died out hundreds of thousands of years ago.  A ten-inch brookie sipping Tricos wouldn't stand a chance.
    Ther are an estimated 1,000 species of fish in the Amazon basin.  Anything that has survived here has to be one tough customer - if something isn't trying to eat it, it's trying to eat its eggs and young as fast as they can be produced.  It is only fitting, then, that out of this jungle comes a fish so ferocious that it will savagely hurl itself against a boat hull in an attempt to destroy your fly.  It's a cross between a souped-up snook and a smallmouth bass on speed.  Officially, it's known as a cichlid, but most fishermen call it a peacock bass.
     Three species of cichlid have become exotic new adversaries for adventurous fly fishermen.  Not a true bass like the largemouth and smallmouth (micropterus) found in North America, cichlids are part of a diverse family of tropical fishes (Cichlidae) found throughout Africa and Central and South America.  Although there are countless color variations throughout their range, only three species are recognized as peacock bass.  Better known as "tucunare" in Brazil, or "pavon" in most Spanish-speaking countries they will be referred to collectively in this article as tucunare in order to differentiate between the three separate species. 
    The peacock tucunare (Cicla temensis) is the largest of the three species, with an average weight of about eight pounds.  The peacock tucunare has an unmistakable mottled black patch directly behind its eye, and three vertical black bars on its side.  Sport fishermen have caught peacock bass of up to 27 pounds (16 pounds 15 ounces is the current fly-fishing record). 
     The butterfly tucunare (Cichla Ocellaris) is the smallest and most numerous species throughout its range.  This fish can be clearly identified by three black, ocellated spots (about the size of a half-dollar) running along its lateral line.  Butterfly tucunare average about three pounds. 
     The royal tucunare (Cichla nigrolineatus) prefers fast-moving water and habitats not unlike that of our smallmouth bass.  Royal tucunare average about four pounds.

peacock bass flies
    Tucunare are highly temperature-sensitive, requiring water no lower than 59 degrees F.  The peacock tucunare and the royal tucunare are much less tolerant of temperature changes than the butterfly tucunare, and for this reason, the butterfly tucunare is the species most frequently introduced into nonendemic areas.  Butterfly tucunare are now found in many tropical areas including Panama, Puerto Rico, and Hawaii.  Recently introduced in canals in the Miami area to control the explosion of African tilapia, butterfly tucunare have co-existed perfectly with the largemouth populations, because each species occupies a separate niche in the canal ecosystem.   My first experience fly fishing for peacock bass was on the Ventuari River in the Amazonas province of southern Venezuela.  Unfortunately, there is still scant literature on fishing for tucunare.  As with any relatively unknown species, you can't assume that they'll respond to the same methods of angling that are used for other species.
Incidental Species




 Although tucunare are the Amazon's main attraction, there are other equally impressive jungle species.  You can encounter up to ten other species that readily take the same patterns used for pavon and are usually found in the same areas.  Payara, arowana, sardinata, morocoto, cubinata/pescada and numerous species of brycons are quickly gaining notoriety as top fly-fishing adversaries. 
     Many of these species prefer fast-moving water and should be fished with sinking-tip lines in the same manner as trout or salmon.  Some species, such as the payara, require the use of wire leader due to their saber-toothed teeth.
Fisheries Nuances 
One of the barriers preventing consistent angling for tucunare is a misunderstanding of the weather patterns near the equator.  It can be flooding in Manaus, with water levels running 40 feet above "normal", and 150 miles to the north, tributaries of the Rio Negro can be locked in the middle of the area's worst drought in 50 years.  Understanding these seaonal patterns is an essential element to the fly angler's success, since the variation in water levels can mean the difference between tremendous fishing and total failure.  Fortunately, reputable outfitters can provide accurate information and recommend the best times to try this fishing. 
     Tucunare are extremely sensitive to drastic changes in water levels, and to complicate matters further, when the water levels become very high, the baitfish move up into the protection of the flooded jungle.  This, in turn, disperses the pavon into the flooded timber and out of reach of even the most experienced fly caster.  Immediately after the water level recedes, the baitfish become concentrated, and the pavon begin feeding ravenously after the slim pickings of the long wet season.  With the fish out of the foliage, casting to and playing large tucunare becomes simplified. 
     Unseasoned anglers traveling to the Amazon and its tributaries can find the area's seasonal nuances (rainfall/water levels) confusing, since they differ significantly as they relate to any given fishery.  You can't just go to Venezuela, Brazil or Columbia and expect to catch fish.  If you go at the wrong time, you will encounter ceaseless, torrential rains and mosquito populations that make Alaska's mosquitos look sterile. 
     Each watershed is unique in its degree of water fluctuation, and each is dependent on two interrelated variables - water source and latitude.  Obviously, the source of each watershed is different.  Some fisheries begin as small tropical "spring creeks", while others begin in the Andes mountains, running thousands of miles before they become productive tucunare fisheries.  The rivers that have multiple tributaries are much more susceptible to constant unpredictable fluctuation than those having only one source, but even larger rivers can offer great tucunare fishing if there are enough back lagoons and "feeder streams" to rely on. 
     Whether north or south of the equator, every fishery experiences a dry season and a wet season.  North of the equator the rainy season typically starts in April or May, depending on the latitude.  After about a month of light afternoon showers, the heavy rains begin on a daily basis, and the rivers can rise as much as five feet a day.  The rains will generally subside by late August, but it takes a full four months of dry weather for the rivers to subside to "fishable" levels.  Some of the larger  tributaries rise as much as 40 feet and spread out out onto flood plains up to 80 miles wide.  Fishing generally becomes productive in December and remains so until April or May. 
    South of the equator the rainy season begins in December (again depending on the specific latitude), and water levels do not subside to fishable levels until June, or in some places, August or September.  In either case, competent outfitters can recommend the most productive angling times. 
Fish Movements
Tucunare occupy a specific niche in a complex tropical river ecosystem.  To the novice, every inch of the Amazon's watershed looks like it should hold fish.  But only certain areas provide the habitat required by each species.  Water temperature, oxygen content, water level and clarity, current speed, food availability, and spawning cycles all play an important role in determining
where to find fish.  Since these factors change with every week, tucunare move around a lot to compensate for the changes. Unlike the royal tucunare, butterfly and peacock tucunare generally prefer calm water, so they become concentrated in the back eddies and lagoons away from the river's main channel, especially during high to moderate water levels.
    Tucunare angling in a lagoon environment can be fast and furious, because baitfish tend to become highly concentrated in many lagoon environments.  If there are no porpoise in the area, tucunare are much less structure-oriented than they are in a river environment, so they roam about in schools searching for baitfish.  The key to lagoon fishing is to get your fly in front of feeding fish quickly and accurately.  This may sound easy, but tucunare move fast as they tear through the baitfish.  The faster you can cast to them after you spot them feeding, the better your chances for a hookup. When tucunare are not actively feeding on the surface, it's best to concentrate on sandbars and rock piles, since these places offer the best protection for baitfish    Some lagoons have no real structure, and tucunare can be found virtually anywhere.  Often they prefer the deeper water in the center of the lagoon.
Tucunare angling in this situation is ideal, because the fish are usually concentrated and can be taken on lighter tippets, since there are no rocks or logs for the big fish to get into. 
    Unlike lagoon-oriented fish, tucunare in the main river channel seldom move far from protective cover.  When they get in tight to any river structure, the difference of two inches in your cast can result in an immediate strike or complete disinterest: accurate presentations are essential.  During the dry season especially, tucunare generally feed most actively early in the morning and late in the evening.  When water conditions are ideal, they feed aggressively throughout the day. 
    Although tucunare are endemic to tropical rivers, they also thrive in Guri Lake in eastern Venezuela and Tucurui in northeastern Brazil. 

Tackle and Techniques 
Fly fishing for tucunare is an aerobic adventure.  Although sight fishing is common, you must be prepared to cast saltwater-size tackle repeatedly in tropical conditions.  Ideally the tucunare are concentrated and feeding recklessly,  but between these feeding 



Native Indians can still be seen along the Amazon. Juvenile pavon can have many color phases.  Because pavon prefer to live near structure, rocky lagoons can provide excellent fishing.
The Amazon Basin
- more than just great fishing

Fly fishing the Amazon and its tributaries is more than just a fishing trip.  It's a total immersion into a primitive culture and a raw, unchanged ecological process.  
     You must experience firsthand the Amazon's size and power to truly appreciate it.  Because most jungle camps are located in some of the most remote areas of the river, there are often Indian tribes located nearby, and they offer testimony of a culture's struggle.  Anglers have a rare opportunity to witness a cultural phenomenon reminiscent of the North American Indians at the turn of the century - suddenly confronted by a culture much more "advanced" than their own.  Although the main focus of the jungle fishing camps is on angling, the native agricultural techniques, medicinal practices, arts, crafts, fishing, hunting, and social norms all make up a fascinating cultural experience.  I strongly urge everyone to take at least a half-day to explore and learn about the lifestyles of these rapidly changing peoples.  
     The main emphasis, of course, should be on the mighty tucunare.  These large, extremely aggressive, remarkably powerful, and explosively topwater oriented fish have come to be regarded by some fishermen as the hottest fly-fishing species of the '90's.
sprees, you must work the fly over structure as in largemouth bass or snook angling.  Before you go on a trip, it's wise to condition yourself daily with the rod you plan to use, to incease your casting stamina.
    Tucunare are completely piscivorous, feeding only on a variety of large flashy baitfish.  Your fly selection should include a complete array of large topwater and subsurface baitfish imitaions.  Most patterns should have a good deal of Flashabou, Crystal Flash or tinsel, because pavon respond well to flashy flies.  Many fly fishermen wonder why they have to use excessively large patterns, until they see a five-pound tucunare chasing a 20-inch baitfish.  Most of the forage species tucunare prefer are from six to ten inches long, so your patterns should be about that size.
     Trophy tucunare generally prefer to eat large baitfish and seldom bother with anything less than six inches long.  Fly fishermen looking for fish over 15 pounds should use as large a fly as possible.  Many of the larger patterns are heavy and
wind-resistant, thus requiring the use of a 9 or 10-weight rod, but some patterns, such as a Lefty's Deceiver, rrepresent a large silhouette yet are extremely light, aerodynamic, and easy to cast.
    Like many saltwater species, tucunare prefer to hit a rapidly moving target and often lose interest in a fly if they can easily catch it.  Forget the subtle "twitch and let sit" largemouth method - anything twitched and floundered in the Amazon has long since become extinct.  Baitfish species that have survived there have done so because they have lightning speed and an ability to skate on the water.  A fast, erratic retrieve best imitates a panicked baitfish.
    A flashy, light-colored pattern is most effective during light conditions, while subtler, darker flies seem to work best during low light.  All patterns should be tied on stout, saltwater-caliber hooks, since tucunare can straighten standard freshwater bass hooks.

The Amazon basin and it's surrounding  
tributaries encompass the world's largest 
freshwater ecosystem.
Topwater Patterns 
Tucunare are notorious for their explosive topwater strikes, so you should use surface flies as often as possible.  One of the most productive topwater patterns is a balsa-wood or closed-cell-foam saltwater popper tied on a #3/0 or #4/0 hook.  Productive colors include dark olive/pearl, black/pearl, black/gold, and red/gold, and solid colors such as gold, silver, yellow, chartreuse, and red.  Poppers work best when fished with a fast, splashy action that closely imitates fleeing baitfish.  Retrieve the fly with ceaseless ten-inch strips, varying your retrieve rate until you find the speed that provokes the best response. Poppers also function as good locator patterns and seem to work best when the water is off-color or there is a slight chop, because the fish can key on the noisy action 
of the fly.  Poppers can attract fish from a great distance and even from deep water.  Start with a popper fly, if it doesn't produce, switch patterns until you start taking fish.
     Often tucunare swirl under the fly in an initial effort to size it up and then return seconds later in an explosive take.  Wait for the fish to actually strike the fly.  While you are retrieving your fly, make sure you keep your rod tip close to the water, eliminating slack and allowing optimal fly control. When the water is completely calm and clear, subtle topwater patterns tied on #2/0 or #3/0 hooks seem to be more productive than large poppers.  Patterns such as Popovic's Siliclone Mullet and a variation of the Dahlberg flies - a Megafly (olive/white, chartreuse, and red/yellow), Super Swimmer (olive/white and red/yellow), or Shineabou Shad (olive/white and grey/white) - are all top producers.
     Fish these flies a little more slowly than a popper, concentrating on a constant, erratic retrieve with ten-inch strips.  As in popper fishing, the fish often boil under the fly and refuse it on the first pass.  When this happens, with a super-fast retrieve make the fish think the fly is desperately trying to escape.  The result will raise your blood pressure.  Tucunare are a bit more cautious in clear water.  The subtle erratic movement of these patterns can entice the fish into striking.

Subsurface Patterns
Finding a productive streamer pattern on any given day is basically an exercise in trial and error.  When you've exhausted your topwater selection, switch to streamers.  Streamers are an important part of the overall picture and generally take trophy fish

Tucunare fly fishermen use realistic patterns for 
clear water and bulky attractor patterns for 
cloudy water.  Some effective patterns include 
(top to bottom) Epoxy-bead Deceiver, Sea 
Candy, Chartreuse Bunny, Olive Bunny, and 
Olive Prism Zonker.
more consistently than surface patterns.  Dependable flies include the following, tied on #2/0 to #4/0 hooks:  Jungle Bunny (flourescent yellow, olive, and white), Epoxy Prism Tape Zonker, Popovic's Sea Candy (olive/pearl), Lefty's Deceiver  (olive/white, blue/white, black/white, grey/white, red/white, and fluorescent yellow/white), and the Clouser Minnow (olive/white, chartreuse/white, black/white, red/white and brown/yellow).  When the water is clear, subtle, realistic baitfish imitations are best.  If the water is off-color, bright, bulky flies work best because they push a lot of water. Streamers enable you to fish at a variety of water depths, depending on the fly  you use, invaluable since pavon are always on the move.  During a typical fishing day, there is often a "transition period" in the late morning when tucunare refuse surface patterns but readily strike streamers fished just below the surface on a floating line (especially if the water is clear).  With streamers fished in this manner, a rapid, erratic retrieve is most effective.  Again, tucunare will typically boil under the fly and then pounce on it, and a super-fast retrieve just after the fish's initial look often provokes an arm-wrenching strike.  As the day gets hotter and brighter, tucunare typically move into deeper water, and then you need to use high-density full-sinking or sinking-tip lines.  The clearer the water, the faster the retrieve you need. 
    Tucunare can be difficult to hook when you are using sinking lines because the fish have strong jaws and hard mouths.  Like muskie and pike, a large tucunare typically rushes the fly, sucks it in, and then clamps down to stun it before repositioning for easy swallowing.  Very aggressive hook setting is essential.  To eliminate line slack, always keep your rod tip right on the water while you are retrieving the fly.  Strike firmly by pulling on the line with your stripping hand and pumping the rod sideways with short, sharp tugs. 
Tackle for Playing Fish
When you fight large tucunare, it's important to know when to pressure the fish and when to ease off.  If the fish decides to dash into a rock pile or snag, there is seldom anything you can do to stop it. If you can't slow the fish down by exerting pressure with the rod and drag, it's usually best to back off right before the fish goes into heavy cover.  With the pressure on the tippet minimized, the fish will have a much more difficult time breaking off or straightening the hook.  If a fish does get into rocks or brush, you can usually scare it out by positioning the boat as close as possible.  The fish will often bolt for deep water when it comes out, so keep your drag loose.  This holds true when a fish is near the boat, since tucunare often make a final, desperate surge just before being landed.
    Rods:  A stiff, fast-action, strong-butted 9 or 9 1/2 foot rod is ideal for handling large pavon flies and applying pressure on the running fish.  Some tucunare anglers prefer 10 weight rods, since they can cast many of the bigger, wind-resistant flies with ease.  Few fly-fishermen can cast a 10 weight all day long, however, so a 9 weight suffices for most conditions.
    In some situations a 9 1/2 foot 7- or 8-weight can be used, especially if you are casting less wind-resistant patterns with floating lines.  It's best to carry two rods in the boat at all times.  Fish often strike at one fly (say a popper) and lose interest in it.  If you immediately present a streamer to the same fish, it will usually pounce on it without hesitating.  This is especially true of trophy fish.
    Reels:  Tucunare seldom make long runs, so you don't need a lot of backing, but the reel should have a smooth tight drag to slow down the fish on its initial runs.
    Fly Lines:  You should always carry several lines to adapt to where the fish are holding.  Generally, a heat-resistant, salt-water taper, weight-forward floating line and a high-density full-sinking line will handle most situations.  Make sure that your sinking line has a "uniform" sink rate (such as the Teeny 300 or Scientific Anglers/3M Uniform Sink series), which minimizes a
belly between you and the fish.  This ensures a  more direct hooking angle to the fish.  Lines in the 300 to 500 grain weight are best, since the rapid retrieves normally used tend to plane lighter lines up to the surface and out of the productive feeding range of pavon holding in deeper water.   Leaders:  Tucunare are not leader shy.  When you fish a floating line, five to six foot leaders are perfect.  Because large flies are used, the butt, class tippet, and shock tippet should be made of a stiff, heavy leader material (Mason).  A three foot 40 to 50 pound-test butt connected to a 20 to 30 pound test tippet is ideal.  These butt/tippet suggestions are not overkill.  Large tucunare have no problem breaking 20 pound test tippet, even when they are not around heavy cover.  When you fish sinking lines, use a leader no longer than four feet, to minimize slack and aid in hook setting. 

Unraveling the Puzzle 
The Amazon and its tributaries encompass the world's largest freshwater ecosystem.  Its vast tropical fisheries hold more species of fish than exist in the entire Atlantic Ocean, yet it has remained an uncharted angling frontier, in part because the Amazon is one of the least accessible places on earth.  Impossibly thick jungle (most of which is submerged in water) makes for slow, perilous travel,  The only way to get around is by boat, and when you're talking about an area the 

Guided peacock bass trips are available throughout most of August, September, October, January, February and March.
Fly-fishing success is dependent on  selecting the right location at the appropriate season.  You must be able to depend on your outfitter to ensure that you'll be traveling during a productive period, with the right water levels, and configuration of the prospective fishery.  Many programs are not well-geared toward fly anglers, and this can make for a disastrous trip.  Proper boat control - both speed and distance from the structure you're fishing - dictates success.  Guides who are used to spin fishermen and bait casters usually move much too fast and keep the boat too far from the most productive water. 
size of the United States, it's easy to see the dilemna at hand.  The logistics of operating fishing programs in the interior of South America present a multitude of problems similar to those plaguing Alaskan outfitters.  Jungle camps must have competent managers who maintain a dependable infrastructure and source of supplies.  Reliable sources of food, gasoline, building materials, generators and much more can be hard to find.  From an outfitting point of view, it can be very difficult to establish legitimate, dependable contacts.
    Until recently, only a handful of outfitters catered to sport fishermen, and these were dominated by hard-core "bassin' boys" who adamantly opposed the mere mention of fly fishing.  Increasing awareness and the rapid development of patterns and techniques for jungle species have caused outfitters to offer more programs catering to the needs of fly fishermen.
    Due to Colombia's political situation, Venezuela and Brazil are clearly the two top destinations for pavon angling, and both offer several locations with promising fisheries discovered each year.  (Unfortunately, Columbia has some of the most prolific pavon fisheries in South America.)  Although there is still excellent tucunare fishing in Venezuela, recent events have made access to some of the better areas difficult while the more easily accessed areas have received relatively heavy fishing pressure.
    Brazil, which encompasses most of the Amazon basin, including ten tributaries larger than the Mississippi, has incredible, thriving tucunare fisheries.  Excellent, safe access to these areas has been established with professionally staffed, movable, safari-style camps.  Many new fisheries are being added to the list of world-class areas already serviced, offering exciting exploratory fishing in areas never before fished with modern angling techniques.  Fly-fishing for tucunare in Brazil is still experienceing those years which, in the future, will be called the good old days.

Copyright © 1994  and 1997 Garret O. VeneKlasen
All Rights Reserved - Reprinted with permission from "Fly Fishing" March 1994
Photo Credits: Val Atkinson


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