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A Primer on Peacock Bass  at Cabela's

A Primer on Peacock Bass

Author: Ken Schultz

Big, beautiful and aggressive. What more can you ask for in a game fish?

A brilliantly colored 12-pound peacock bass.

I am often asked by people who have never had the opportunity to fish for peacock bass in their native environment, what these fish are like and what fishing for them is all about. This is when I need a few photos and an audio track to accompany my words.

The photos would capture the beautiful colors of these fish and the stunning sight of a big bass, say 13 or 14 pounds, leaping fully 6 feet into the air, golden body twisted and sun-silhouetted spray flying everywhere. Until you've seen such a spectacular display you can't believe it. It's a much better performance than you've ever seen from a largemouth bass.

The audio would capture the sound of the foremost surface lures - topwater plugs with propellers - as they repeatedly rip across the surface, creating noisy commotion and leaving behind a frothy bubble trail. This motion is best done in a swift, constant, arm-tiring fashion. The tape would also capture the sound of a large bass violently attacking this lure, which is akin to the noise made by a cinderblock when it is dropped into the water from a distance of 15 feet.

And that's not to mention that these aggressive fish live in a South American environment largely unknown to North Americans - a flooded rain forest in which many fish eat fruit that falls from trees that are inhabited by toucans, macaws, parrots, and monkeys, and where in the water they compete with freshwater dolphins, freshwater stingrays, electric eels, and caiman of assorted sizes, not to mention much larger fish, some with 2-inch-long fangs, and piranhas everywhere. The whole deal is like nothing you can experience in North America.

The Fish
Peacock bass are not actually bass but cichlids. Their body shape is generally bass-like, however. They have a prominent black eyespot, surrounded by a gold ring (ocellus), on their tail fin, which gives them their Anglo name. Species that are called peacock bass in English are formally known as pavón in Spanish-speaking South American countries and as tucunaré in Brazil, where Portuguese is spoken.

Four species are recognized for record purposes by the International Game Fish Association, but there may be more than a dozen. All have a very similar shape and a very distinguished coloration; some are especially brilliant, and, individually or as a group, peacock bass are among the most colorful of all sportfish. In addition to being superb gamefish, peacock bass are excellent table fare.

Casting for peacock bass along the flooded rain forest edges.

The most common species is the speckled peacock bass, which also attains the greatest size. The current all-tackle world record is a 27-pound speckled peacock bass from the Rio Negro in Brazil in 1994, but fish of 30 pounds and better have been reportedly speared, netted, or handlined. Speckled peacock bass up to 10 pounds are the norm in many waters; specimens over 10 pounds are common; however, in some places, fish over 15 pounds are considered trophies. Some waters consistently produce individuals from 18 to over 20 pounds.

Where They Are
Peacock bass are native to South America, but have been transplanted elsewhere. In North America they exist in Hawaii and Florida, although these fish have not attained giant sizes and often do not display the same characteristics as those in their native rain forest habitat. The biggest species and specimens have been caught in lakes and rivers in Brazil, Venezuela, and Colombia, but peacock bass also exist in Bolivia, Ecuador, Guyana, Panama, Paraguay, and Peru.

The remote southern and western reaches of Venezuela and Colombia, which are in the headwaters region of the Rio Negro portion of the Amazon watershed, have excellent numbers and sizes of peacock bass, but are relatively inaccessible and potentially dangerous places, and have barely been fished in the past 15 years.

Brazil has the lion's share of the peacock bass fishing, and is the primary destination for those seeking large specimens, which are most reliably found in northern and northwestern Brazil in the blackwater (tannin-stained dark-colored water) rivers of the Rio Negro watershed. The Rio Negro is the fourth largest river in the world, with countless large and small tributaries that feed it. There is virtually no sportfishing for peacock bass on the Amazon River proper.

The Santana I mothership and its bass boats, anchored in the Rio Negro at Barcelos.

The Fishing
The chief interest for anglers visiting Brazil is catching either numbers or sizes of peacock bass, and the chief criteria for accomplishing this is being in the types of waters that contain large fish and being present in the appropriate season. Since the rainy season greatly raises water levels and floods the rain forest, it disperses all fish populations and makes the job of locating peacock bass prohibitively difficult. The dry season usually results in receding waters, which concentrates fish in backwater regions (lake-like areas off of main rivers or tributaries also called lagoons). These seasons vary in different areas of South America, and, in some years, unusual weather patterns disrupt the norm. Generally, the period from October through March is dry in northern Brazil, especially the period from late December through early March.

In-season, peacock bass are primarily sought by anglers in flooded river backwaters. They are seldom found in swift current, but have adapted to impoundments. They are often caught by anglers among flooded timber or along the edges of timber, and occasionally are caught in open water. Casting is the main activity, but trolling is sometimes done as well. These fish strike a variety of flashy diving, shallow running and surface plugs, as well as jigs and large streamer flies and fly rod poppers. They nearly always strike hard, and their explosive strike on surface plugs is savage if not heart-surging, especially if the fish is large.

Shallow-running floating/diving plugs are excellent lures in backwater cover and also catch other species. Lipless rattling crankbaits are favored by many anglers, especially in open-water fishing. Surface lures include large walking, popping, and buzzing models. Large plugs with propellers, which make a lot of commotion, are hands-down the favorite lure for huge fish, and can be effectively trolled as well as cast; the former being a rather unique method of freshwater fishing but one that points up the value of making noise to attract fish. Luhr Jensen Woodchoppers and Amazon Rippers are by far the most popular and effective surface plugs.

A 22-pound speckled peacock bass; note the hump on it head and the large surface plug used to catch it.

Peacock bass jump often, make repeated powerful short runs, do not give up at the sight of the boat, and try to run for the security of heavy cover. In tight quarters and heavily obstructed areas it takes a lot to stop them. Stiff baitcasting rods, heavy no-stretch lines, and fast-retrieve reels are necessary where big fish are the target.

Motherships and Lodges
There are a few fixed-base lodges in northern Brazil, but the majority of outfitters here use motherships. These are large air-conditioned yachts with relatively shallow draft that have the ability to move through much of the Rio Negro watershed to fish where water conditions are most preferable. They tow sportfishing skiffs along, and use these to run up tributaries and into remote areas for fishing, returning each day to dine and sleep aboard the mothership, which may move at night to new waters as necessary.

To reach the top peacock bass areas in northern Brazil, North American anglers fly from Miami to Manaus, then either board a mothership in Manaus or fly by chartered aircraft to the town of Barcelos, roughly 90 minutes away, where they board a mothership, which then steams along the Rio Negro to the fishing grounds.

It is worth noting that today many women as well as men make these trips, that these fishing adventures are not very difficult to endure - other than the sweltering heat in mid-day, which requires drinking plenty of water - and that everyone who visits northern Brazil is delighted by the place as well as the overall experience. And when big bass slam the lures and jump nearly 6 feet out of the water, then fight furiously in an attempt to get back into the flooded rain forest, it's like having ice cream on top of a fresh apple pie - it just doesn't get any better!

Author Ken Schultz
Ken Schultz is Fishing Editor of Field & Stream and author of the books Ken Schultz's Fishing Encyclopedia (IDG/John Wiley & Sons), North American Fishing (Carlton Books), and the forthcoming Spectacular Fishing - Ken Schultz's Guide to Great Fishing Sites in North America (Carlton, Jan. '03).

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