The Amazon Basin is home
to the peacock bass - or tucunare, one of the most spectacular gamefish
Racing with the Rains
by Garrett VeneKlasen
Almost 3,000 miles from Miami to Manaus, Brazil; in the middle of
the night via an airline named after a prominent Bolivian
drug dealer. Up before dawn to fly 4 more hours in a single-engine
floatplane over an endless canopy of primordial jungle. Dropped off
on an obscure river hundreds of miles from the nearest human settlement
- I'm somewhere in the Amazon Basin.
The author with a big Rio Alegria peacock bass
Adding to our concern were the impending torrential
rains and, in the back of my head, all those amazing Amazonian horror stories
I heard as a kid: Man-eating jaguars, candiru (a parasitic fish that
lodges in the ano-genital region), electric eels, freshwater stingrays,
giant spiders, swarms of ants, killer bees. Scores of poisonous snakes,
and non-poisonous snakes the size of telephone poles. Malaria, dengue,
chagas, yellow fever, schistosomiasis, hemorrhagic fever. Fungus,
heat rash, infection, and inch-long bot fly larvae crawling under your
Why? Why would anybody do this? We hopelessly
addicted fishing bums are always looking for a justification to experience
exotic angling, nature, and cultures far from the so-called civilized world.
The epitome of this ideal is the Amazon and its extensive list of gamefish
- as exotic as the land itself. Depending upon the watershed, there
are as many as twenty different gamefish - all with fantastic names to
match their peculiar appearances: pirapitinga, tambaqui, aruana, pirarucu,
pirapucu, bicuda, jancunda, traida, pirarara, matrincha, peixe cachorra,
pescada, arapa, and surubim just to name a few.
Of all the great Amazonian gamefish, though, the one that truly stands
out is the giant peacock bass: what the Brazilians call tucunare azul.
Tucunare are not bass at all, but members
of the Cichlid family - a group of highly aggressive tropical fishes
that have adapted to the Amazon's harsh environment. The tucunare's
striking beauty starts with blazing fluorescent-red eyes set into a backdrop
of green, yellow, red, orange and black. Top it all off with a brilliant
black and yellow eye spot at the base of the tail - an adaptation evolved
to distract attackers and to confuse their prey.
Concentrations of giant tucunare exist nowhere else
in the world except specific locations in the Amazon Basin. The trick
is to find one of those secret rivers with the exact environmental conditions
conducive to holding big fish. It often takes months of searching
an area almost the size of the U.S. (with ten tributaries as large as or
larger than the Mississippi) to find a worthwhile fishery.
In March of 1992 I spent two intensive weeks scouting
northern Brazil with a local outfitter, Luis Brown, floatplane pilot
Bennie DeMerchant, and my jungle-wise guide, Sidenei DePassos.
So here I am again, two years later, ready to embark upon a second
Tributaries of the Rio Negro
The plan is simple, Luis and Bennie drop Sidenei
and me off on the upper Preto River, an unexplored basin that Luis thinks
to be promising. While they go on to scout several other rivers,
we assess the Preto as a possible site for a future fishing camp.
Two days later, they pick us up for more exploring.
After a 3-hour flight from Manaus, the Preto appears
in the distance like a copper-colored snake cutting its way through brilliant
emerald surroundings. Bennie circles a likely-looking spot, cuts
power, and descends onto the river. The plane, a Cessna 185 Skywagon,
is so loaded down with fuel that supplies are kept to a minimum.
A 10-foot folding boat is strapped to the pontoons; our other gear consists
of a 5-horse outboard, a 6-watt radio, two hammocks, one small tarp, one
bag of farinha (cassava flour), one small loaf of bread, and a battered
old aluminum pot for boiling water. Luis tosses me a small bag of
black Brazilian coffee - he makes it seem like a real concession.
We quickly assemble the boat and then unload our supplies. With that
he bids me luck and safe travels, then shoves us off and climbs into the
plane, which taxis into the center of the river and roars off in a blast
of water and exhaust, leaving behind an eerie silence.
Slowly the jungle comes back to life. A guan,
the Amazon's version of a turkey, starts its jazzy, syncopated call - buh-ba-bah-bah-boom....boom!
A lone katydid answers with a series of high pitched chirps from a nearby
palm, and a whistling toucan joins the singalong. Two squawking macaws
land atop an abacaba palm, while a yellow-rumped weaver bird returns to
its intricate nest with an array of warbled notes. The whole jungle
is soon an overwhelming chorus of booms, roars, bellows, chirps, squawks
Within the hour some thirty fish between 3 and 5 pounds are boated.
Unfortunately, they are all an assortment of the Amazon's smaller gamefish.
Most of them are the barboleta tucunare - a small species
of peacock bass that seldom grows larger than 8 pounds. A few traida
are also caught and released. Sidenei calls them "sabonete com
dentes" - fanged bars of soap.
By 5 or so in the afternoon I've landed well over
100 barboleta tucunare, but still no sign of the larger paca or azul variety.
By now the monsoon clouds have formed not far to the south of us, swirling
and rising. Soon the rains will arrive, descending like a tidal wave,
and ending all fishing until next year's dry season.
We paddle out to the mouth of the lagoon, within casting
distance of a cluster of small boulders. A school of white piranha
is cruising nearby. On the first cast my fly is taken by one of the
piranha. After a brief struggle, the fish grudgingly comes to the
boat with a dozen more of its companions greedily nipping at the protruding
bucktail. Sidenei reaches down and carefully grasps the four pound
fish behind the gills, heedlessly singing an off-tune rendition of "besame
muito" to the fish. He looks away for only a split second while
attempting to remove the streamer fly, and the hook pops loose.
The business end of a white piranha
The piranha snaps its jaws closed, neatly removing
the tip of Sidenei's pinkie and a sizable piece of fingernail. The
teeth are so sharp that Sidenei feels no pain whatsoever, but the white
bone and spurting blood make him wince in disgust. The piranha's
jaws make a sick popping sound every time they snap shut on the remains
of the finger. Sidenei buries the blade of the screwdriver between
the startled piranha's eyes. "We'll eat that one," he says in Portuguese,
plucking the mangled fingertip from the fish's twitching jaws. Sidenei
inspects the finger meat and then tosses it into the water like some useless
piece of trash. It is eaten before it can settle out of sight.
We take the piranha incident as an omen, and decide
to end the day's fishing. Camp is set on a sweeping white beach void
of caiman and jaguar tracks. Sidenei dresses his wound while I clean
and cook the piranha over a small fire. The fish seems to be staring
at me with a hellish cooked-in grin.
Dinner consists solely of fish and farinha,
and somehow that seems enough. There is something ironic about eating
the finger eater, but at this point we are both so hungry it really doesn't
matter. We sit without speaking, watching the river and the thunderheads
that still loom on the southern horizon.
Sidenei and his shortened pinkie
After dinner, we pitch our hammocks and tarp, then
settle in for the night. The river's high acidity prevents mosquitoes
from hatching, so we need no netting. A small band of howler monkeys
moves into the nearby trees to get a close look at us. The alpha
male begins his horrid territorial roaring - a clamor somewhere between
King Kong and a 500-pound German shepherd - which is audible as far as
10 miles away. The roaring suddenly stops, and from somewhere far
back in the blackness a jaguar moans its deep guttural call, like a demonic
cello player sawing the same notes over and over. Sidenei builds
up the fire and restlessly settles back into his hammock, cradling a single-barrel
12-guage shot-gun he calls boca quente - "hot mouth."
At dawn the howlers again commence their roaring.
The jaguar has decided not to dine on gringo and all is well.
Sidenei brews a stout pot of jungle coffee. We share a stale crust
of bread, then head downriver toward the pickup location. By noon
we reach the confluence of the east and west branches of the Preto River.
On the far shore a small campfire smolders next to a primitive structure
of several stacked palm fronds stacked atop a skeletal foundation of thin
We boat over to the campsite and wade ashore to
see if anyone is about, stopping to inspect an assortment of charred animal
parts atop a crudely built grill made of green sticks. A few are
recognizable: the shell and a single clenched claw of an armadillo; the
torso, head still intact, of an unlucky woolly monkey. Sidenei looks
From well inside the jungle a male voice calls out
in an indiscernible language. It is soon answered by another man
and then several more people join in until the surrounding trees are full
of clamoring voices. One by one they appear from the forest - tiny,
stoutly built people, the largest no taller than 5 feet. Most have
little or no clothing, though they all wear intricate necklaces strung
with black and red seeds of the tento tree, bones, feathers, and
jaguar, peccary, and freshwater dolphin teeth. Sidenei says they
are Pan-ra (pronounced pan-ha) Indians, a nomadic hunter-gatherer tribe
who still lead the exact lives of their ancient ancestors.
Bows in hand, the men of the group timidly approach
the river bank, bellowing at each other in their rapid dialect. The
women and children remain close to the jungle's edge, nervously chattering
like a clutch of scared chickens. It is my clothing, and especially
my sunglasses, that scare them the most. I must appear like some
giant white-skinned apparition from another planet. I take off my
hat and glasses and try to look as friendly as possible. Soon their
curiosity gets the better of them, and before long the whole boat is surrounded.
Just as they're starting to calm down, the float plane comes roaring around
the bend in the river, only 5 feet of the water, flying full throttle.
When Bennie spots us he instantly cuts power and puts down, throwing up
a great rooster tail. The Pan-ra bolt for the jungle in terror.
We quickly load our gear while Luis interrogates
me about the river. I explain that there are plenty of piranha, but
very few giant tucunare as we pile into the scorching cockpit. Bennie
taxis us into position and we roar up over the tree line toward our next
stop, the Rio Alegria, the "river of happiness." Luis has heard rumors
of that rivers giant tucunare, but its all speculative and sketchy at best.
Bennie gains as much altitude as possible, to give him "....more time to
pray if the engine quits."
At 3,000 feet the jungle looks like an
endless green ocean. There is not a single landmark as far as the
eye can see. Luis pulls out his hand held GPS and takes a reading:
63 degrees 50 minutes west, 00 degrees 07 minutes north. We're
right on the equator. To the west is the setting sun and to the south
the massive cloudbank, as thick and imposing as ever, gold and salmon in
the fading light. Bennie is becoming increasingly edgy, nervously
glancing down at several Operational Navigation Charts (ONC's), the GPS
and finally out the window. The river is nowhere in sight.
After several panicky minutes, the outline of a
river appears barely discernible on the darkening horizon. We head
straight for the nearest bend in the river where, by sheer luck, a small
boat sits moored along the bank. The chances of running into people
are wildly unlikely, but somehow we've managed to blunder right on top
of them. Bennie idles back and we float down onto the river's surface.
Another 5 minutes and it would have been too dark to land.
An old man suddenly comes madly paddling out of
a nearby lagoon in his tiny dugout. He heads straight for his little
boat; surely he's seen a float plane before. Luis scrambles out on
the float and explains that we're sport fishermen from Manaus, looking
for tucunare. The man stops his crazed paddling and looks back at
the float plane as if he's just seen a ghost. he waves us over without
saying a word, quickly docking his canoe alongside his little junk.
Several worried faces peer out of the boat's open windows.
Luis rows the plane over to the boat and we exchange
formal greetings. The man's name is Euodio Pizzerra de Araujo.
he and his small family have boated two straight weeks from Manaus to collect
pisaba - a type of palm frond used as bristles in industrial brushes.
He tells us he plans to return to Manaus and sell his harvest when the
rains make the lower part of the river more navigable.
Bennie hands Euodio a picture of himself with a
9-kilo tucunare, asking him if he's seen any such fish in the Alegria.
Euodio laughs, telling us that he speared and ate a tucunare last night
that was much larger than the one pictured. He says the river is
full of big fish, but wants to know why we've come so far from Manaus to
fish for them when they sell them in the city market. Luis explains
that we want to catch them for fun and release them unharmed. A slow
smile spreads across Euodio's face. "Sport Fishing" in the Amazon
is an oxymoron - you catch a fish and you kill it, no exceptions.
Our explanations are useless. Euodio looks at me in a pitying manner
and offers me a bowl of macaw stew. I've never eaten macaw, so I
ask him how they taste.
He grins his wide, toothless smile. "My son, much
like parrot, but there's more meat." Euodio takes out an ancient
aluminum bowl and pile various macaw parts atop a mound of cassava flour.
A drumstick, with clenched claw still attached, rolls off the top of the
heap. To refuse the meal would be an unforgivable insult, so with
a forced smile, I accept it. The macaw is delicious.
Bennie, the pilot, with a beautiful "tucunare"
At sunrise, Euodio and his eldest son are ready
to fish. Their little dugouts are only large enough for two people,
so I go with Euodio while Euodio's son takes Bennie. Together we
paddle upriver into a huge lagoon rimmed with towering kapok trees.
Large schools of tilapia, silver dollar and discus fish skitter nervously
along the shoreline. From somewhere out of sight comes the terrific
splash of a feeding peacock bass. Euodio laughs hysterically when
I pull out my fly rod and begin casting. He wants to know what on
earth I plan to accomplish with the xicote da agua - water whip
- I' using. I do my best to make him understand but he can't see
why I won't just use live bait. The tucunare always ".....swallow
the bait deep in their stomachs; they never escape."
From the center of the lagoon comes a great commotion.
It looks like children thrashing in a pool on a hot summer day. The
giant tucunare have surfaced to feed. Panicked baitfish, some 20
inches long, desperately skip across the water's surface. Three tremendous
wakes follow in hot pursuit. The stampede heads straight for Bennie's
boat. He flips his fly into the chaos and the water explodes where
it lands. One of the peacocks engulfs the streamer, then races away,
dragging the canoe along like a toy boat. Euodio paddles us over
so we can get a good look at the fish. The tucunare surfaces like
a green crocodile with the 4/0 bucktail looking insignificant in its huge
mouth. The fish doesn't even know its hooked.
Suddenly two others appear out of nowhere and attack
the hooked fish, trying to get at the protruding fly. Water shoots
10 feet in all directions. I quickly cast my fly toward the shock
wave, while Euodio struggles to steady us. A tucunare pounces on
the fly and races toward a fallen tree. Line peels off my reel and
the fish instantly snaps my 50-pound tippet under a submerged log.
Bennie's fish stays out in open water, making several deep, powerful runs
before coming to the boat. It surfaces as if to get a good look at
its antagonist and then boils off again, easily towing the boat another
100 yards or so before stopping. After 15 minutes of struggle, the
fish finally comes up on its side. Bennie carefully tails the giant
tucunare and gently lays it on the gunwale of the dugout.
The fish is one of the largest tucunare
I've ever seen. I lay my tape measure across it. Thirty
seven inches. My scale says 24 pounds exactly. Bennie
carefully lifts it up, places it in the water, and rocks it back and
forth. Euodio shrieks in protest. With a powerful sweep
of its tail the fish disappears into the depths.
Bennie glances up and his smile suddenly disappears.
A curtain of rain is bearing down on us like a biblical catastrophe.
We must return to the plane immediately or there will be no way out.
We race back to the plane. The wind has already started to pick up.
Luis hastily pays Euodio with an assortment of flies, lures, hooks, and
fishing line, which has more value to him than money.
Bennie taxis us out into the main river, full power,
flaps down. He crosses himself and we roar up over the canopy, circling
around once to wave goodbye to Euodio and his family. The river slips
from sight behind the first layer of clouds. Rain blasting the windshield,
we are enshrouded in a nightmarish wall of water. With any luck we'll
be back in Manaus before nightfall. I sit back, close my eyes, and
think about Bennie's monstrous tucunare. The psychedelic fish has
captured my soul.
Copyright © 1995 Garrett VeneKlasen
All Rights Reserved