February 2016 took me on a spontaneous and far flung adventure to the remote headwaters of the Orinoco for a truly special and memorable fly fishing experience. What began as a casual conversation between friends somehow morphed into an expedition into the jungle in search of peacock bass in untouched waters. Great people, exotic fish, and a remote, wild setting – how can you ask for more? I do believe I have discovered a new obsession, and I will most certainly be back to tangle with these multicolored jungle brutes again.
Our trip began with handshakes at a small airfield outside Bogota. I was met with a warm welcome and big smiles from our pilots, and fishing partners Juan, Karrel, Daniel & Jorge . As we hauled our gear to the single engine Kodiak aircraft Karrel went over our flight plan and trip itinerary. We would be heading Northeast over the jungle canopy and landing in a field on a tract of private land in the Orinoco river basin just below the border between Colombia and Venezuela. A piece of land, my pilot assured me “nobody ever fishes”. After landing, we would be taking a small boat to the landowner’s private cottage, which would be our base camp for the next several days. I climbed aboard the small rugged plane and as the engines roared to life the exhilaration took hold. We were heading on a search and destroy guerrilla mission for the toughest fish in the jungle.
The view of the jungle from the airplane was unbelievable. Green as far as the eye can see divided by snaking azure rivers. The Orinoco is one of South America’s longest river drainages and only a small portion of its headwaters are on Colombian soil. These waters are difficult to reach and require special permission to access, which keeps most anglers and outfitters restricted to the many tributaries and main stem of the river in Venezuela. Our winter here in Ontario corresponds with the main dry season in the region, making it prime time to target peacock bass while the rivers are low and fishable.
Our main target on this adventure was the speckled peacock bass, which is the largest of the subspecies and are known to be plentiful in great size in this river system. These fish are characterized by their dusky olive coloration and three prominent vertical bars along with trademark white speckles running their flanks. They average 6-8 pounds and can grow to enormous proportion, with the world record near 30 pounds. The watershed is host to several subspecies as well, including the smaller “butterfly” peacock and the wildly decorated “royal” peacock. All are incredibly aggressive, ferocious predators and put up a sensational fight on fly tackle.
My first look at the river was during our boat ride from the “air strip” which was really just a grassy opening in the trees. After an exciting landing we took off down river toward our camp. We roared down the narrow river channel past gnarled branches with singing macaws and bouncing monkeys. The dense canopy seemed to crawl right to the rivers edge, where it finally gave way to crystalline blue water. We wound around bend after bend dodging fallen logs and avoiding shallow sand bars while Daniel informed me about the river’s more dubious characters. “We have piranha, but they don’t bother you unless you bleed. However, you have to watch out for sting rays when you wade, and there are crocodiles and, electric eels and anaconda too!” I wasn’t sure if he was having a laugh with me or giving me a warning, but it made the idea of wet wading for the next few days seem a bit mad.
By the time we arrived at camp I was anxious and ready to wet a line. We quickly unloaded and decided to spend a little time fishing before we got settled. Stepping into the bathtub warm water wearing nothing but sandals and lightweight pants / shirt , I thought about the piranhas, crocodiles, and anacondas Daniel assured me would be present, but the thought quickly evaporated with what came next. We waded chest deep—practically swimming—across a flat and then upstream to a shallow sandbar that ran alongside a deep hole with trees and logs along the far bank. “After you, Rebekka” Juan said with a grin as he waved his arm ceremoniously towards the fishy looking water. I loosened my fly–a near 10 inch blue and white baitfish imitation tied on a massive, sinister looking hook—and flung it out over the dropoff, letting the sinking line carry it into the cloudy depths. One, two, three hard strips and my rod suddenly doubled over as if someone had attached my line to an anvil and threw it off the side of a building. The fish dove and ripped drag off my reel, which spun so violently it bruised my knuckles as I tried to catch hold of the handle. The fish tore and tore again, fighting like no freshwater fish I’ve ever experienced. After a short, but intense battle I held my very first peacock, even more beautiful than I had imagined or hoped. We all took turns hooking fish and slapping high fives until we were sore, hungry, and battle weary. Wading back that evening as the parrots and toucans called close by, I was on cloud nine. What an incredible place this truly was.
Back at camp I was pleasantly surprised with how comfortable our accommodations were, despite the rugged and isolated nature of our fishing location. A spacious outdoor kitchen awaited us where we drank cold beer as Jorge cooked supper, a traditional Colombian meal called Bandeja Paisa. We might have stayed up and told fishing tales late into the balmy evening, but we were unanimously exhausted from the days exploits, and with full bellies we sank into our individual hammocks, falling asleep with a warm breeze stoking dreams of the giant peacock bass that surely swam in the river just a few hundred feet away.
The aroma of fresh Colombian brew stirred me awake the next morning and I stumbled into the kitchen to find my companions already busy fixing breakfast and buzzing about the days plan. We wasted no time getting down to the river, and began our trek upstream in search of the ultimate bass hideout. Throughout the day we stopped at every spot that looked like it might hold fish, and they were numerous. We hooked more fish than we could count, big ones, small ones, specimens with bright colors and unique patterning. Each struck the fly with vigour and fought hard to the end. We cast our flies as howler monkeys called and sang in the trees around us, a euphoric and otherworldly experience for this Northern girl.
The fishing went on this way for the remainder of the trip. It was really some of the best fishing I have ever experienced, and we all caught our fill, but each of us pressed on in search of a true giant, or “big mama” as Juan Carlos was fond of calling them. My most memorable fish was my largest, a true brute of a speckled peacock bass that pummelled a large red and white streamer as I stripped it over a deep sunken tree. My arms were so sore after the fight I could barely keep from shaking to get a picture. The heft and weight of that fish, its hot orange fins and big black tail spot will forever be etched in my mind.
Peacocks are truly as gorgeous as they are fun to catch. We had the pleasure of landing all three subspecies of peacock during our trip, and while we all agreed that the big speckled peacocks were the stars of the show, my personal favourite was the handsome royal peacock. Royals may not be the largest, but they are the most brilliantly coloured of the peacock family. I landed one that must have featured every colour imaginable, from its candy red fins to its turquoise dorsal and obsidian star shaped markings, it was a wonder to look at. I secretly wished I could bring one home for my aquarium!
It was hard to say goodbye to that little cottage on the river, and I promised myself I would visit again as we soared over the treetops, watching the river wind out of sight. From the great company to the sublime fishing, it was one of the best trips I have ever been on.
During the remainder of my stay in Colombia, I had a chance to visit the city of Leticia, which is known as the gateway to the Amazon rainforest. We took a boat up the Amazon river into Peru. During our visit we spent time with a local native family and ate a delicious meal of fresh fried fish and plantain. We also visited a shaman who was truly a wonderful man with incredible knowledge of herbs and using what the rain forest provides, we talked in great length on the preservation of the Amazon and it’s fish / wild life. He explained to me their way of life and sustainable living. When it was my time to leave from there I could not help but feel how back wards NorthAmericans live and our greed is killing our land. We could use some lessons from our native elders, the amazonian tribes have lived in peace with the jungle for an immeasurable amount of time. I enjoyed getting to know the shaman and the local Peruvians. We took a river boat on the Amazon into a tributary river where I couldn’t resist wetting a line. I caught peacock bass and payara, a toothy fish whose nasty set of fangs are almost comically long. Later in the day the pink river dolphins came up to our boat and I could almost touch them! Completely magical! They are jaw droopingly huge! I never knew pink dolphins where so massive, but I should know better , they are a species of toothed whale.
It was an eye opening introduction to a completely different culture and way of life than I am used to back home, and while I couldn’t help but marvel at the beauty of the rainforest and the amazing wildlife, it was also sobering to see the poverty in the streets and the common people in Leticia. I was glad to have the opportunity to visit the Amazon and see this side of Colombia. In contrast to our little remote fishing cottage, Leticia seemed like a bustling city, except unlike our cities back home it is right in the middle of a jungle!
For those of you who would like to scratch the peacock bass off of your fly fishing bucket list, here are my gear recommendations:
Rod – 9’ 10wt high quality fly rod
Reel – Large arbor machined aluminum reel with a smooth drag and plenty of backing
Line – WF 10 wt intermediate sinking line for fishing streamers and floating line for poppers
Leader – Short 3-5ft of straight 40# fluorocarbon
Flies – Large profile streamers worked best for us with blue over white and white with a red head being the top producers of the trip, but peacock bass will take a variety of streamers and top water flies. A good selection of streamers and big poppers in the 4-8” range with stout hooks in sizes 2/0-6/0 will do fine.