We at Tailwaters Travel recently made our first scouting mission to Colombia with Afloat Fishing, and were rewarded with phenomenal fishing and a great trip overall. But before diving into the details of the trip, a number of folks have asked “why Colombia?”
For starters, Colombia is safe for a country that was so recently a “no go.” Shows like Narcos, recounting the demise of large-scale drug trafficking in Colombia, have reached a wide audience. Perhaps less well-known — but just as significant for anglers — political violence in Colombia has also diminished to the point that it is a non-factor. After decades of conflict between the Colombian government and rebel groups (most notably, FARC), a peace treaty was signed in 2016. The peace accord has held so far, even earning then-President Juan Manuel Santos the Nobel Peace Prize.
One unintended but positive consequence of the rebel activity in Colombia was to keep wilderness areas unspoiled and protect fisheries. Vast areas of the Colombian “bush” have never been explored by sport fishermen because of the country’s violent reputation going back more than 50 years. Now that the violence has quelled and these areas have opened up, anglers are discovering some unbelievable fishing, as we did with Afloat Fishing.
Colombia is a gorgeous country, and with safety concerns allayed it is becoming a popular destination for travelers. Medellin is perhaps the cleanest, prettiest spanish-speaking city that I have visited. It has great parks, restaurants, night-life, shopping, and museums, and has been recently praised by the Urban Land Institute as the most innovative city in the world. The coffee-growing region of Colombia is a beautiful, mountainous region with quaint small towns, many with cobblestone streets, colonial architecture, and warm hospitality. In other words, there are a lot of reasons to visit Colombia besides fishing.
Colombia is also CHEAP right now and we were amazed at how far our dollars went. For example, our rooms at one of the nicer hotels in Medellin were $38 per night. Taxi rides across the city cost only a few dollars. Beers, drinks, and meals at wonderful restaurants cost a fraction of what they would in the U.S. The bargain prices extend to the fishing: Afloat’s package price is half that of other popular peacock bass operations.
This trip with Afloat came about through a Key West guide, Ryan Erickson, who spends his off-seasons in Medellin. Ryan is totally dialed in on Keys tarpon, permit, and bonefish. As it turns out, he has a nose for good Colombian fishing opportunities too. Ryan is in the mix for some exploratory Colombian fly fishing — with his sights set on record-book payara — and we look forward to his findings. Let us know if you’d like to get in touch with Ryan, either for fishing Key West or for Colombian exploratory trips.
Ryan Erickson with a nice peacock bass
Ryan has become friends with and vouched for the Afloat operators, so we decided to check out the operation. Will Graham made the trip, as he has several times with Tailwaters Travel (www.willgrahamphotography.com, @willgrahamphoto on Instagram). His work is top-notch, as you can see from the imagery here. Will is becoming indispensable when we check out new operations. Two clients, Steve and Graham, took a leap of faith on an unproven destination and joined us. They were awesome traveling and fishing companions; we are so glad they made the trip.
Travel was relatively easy. The direct flight from Miami to Medellin is only three hours, arriving mid-afternoon with plenty of time to check out the city. The night in Medellin en route to Afloat was a bonus, allowing us to sample the city’s great food and lively atmosphere. Travel to camp the next day began with a 1.5 hour charter flight, followed by a 4 hour drive through mostly private ranches — not long enough to be a deterrent (especially with the fishing as good as it is) but enough to make the point that the fishery is remote.
In this area of Colombia, there is jungle along the rivers but savannah in between. The wide-open landscape is not only unique and offers great vistas, but has a benefit to the fishing as well. Deep in the rainforest, it rains even during the “dry” season, meaning constant water level fluctuations that sometimes ruin fishing trips. This area of Colombia, however, receives hardly a drop of rain during the fishing season, January – March. Thus, water levels are very stable when fishing.
The Afloat camp is designed to be mobile, in order to rotate and rest sections the fishery throughout the season. The camp consists of five double occupancy safari-style tents built on floating platforms, plus another two for the kitchen, supplies, and generator. There are no permanent structures, and with footprints in the sand seemingly the only evidence of human presence, the operation embodies the conservation ethic of “leave no trace.”
Afloat Fishing’s floating camp
Even with its minimalist style, the camp is very comfortable. Each room has two beds and a private bathroom with a shower. The climate is generally warm to hot during the day, but cool enough at night that we were chilly without blankets. With the generator being turned off at night and pleasant temperatures, we slept like logs.
We had several authentic, delicious, and memorable meals at camp. For breakfast one morning we had piranha soup made from piranhas caught by the guides — visually striking and one of the more unique dishes I have ever eaten. One of the dinners was catfish caught by our group, prepared in the local style, and mouth watering. The last dinner was pork prepared traditionally by driving huge wood stakes through each side of pig, staking the meat next to a fire on the beach, and rotating it periodically for several hours. It was some of the best slow-cooked pork I have ever had.
Black flies were the only annoying insects, and we did not see any mosquitos the entire trip. Even the black flies are only out during the day, and are easily avoided simply by covering exposed skin. Although we received plenty of black fly bites, it was mostly our fault as the majority of the bites happened the afternoon of our arrival as we lounged around camp with our feet and hands exposed. After that, we wore socks, gloves, and buffs while fishing, which largely solved the issue.
The fishing skiffs are 14 foot aluminum johnboats with carpeted decks and cushioned swivel seats. I expected these to be too small for two anglers to both fish comfortably. But while they are a bit cozy, they actually work pretty well especially if the anglers are comfortable casting off-shoulder and/or backhand. It was also nice stepping out of our bedrooms and into our skiffs.
Afloat’s fishery seemed huge, centered at the confluence of the Tomo and Gavilan rivers and including over 20 private lakes (oxbows and lagoons that are cut off from the main river). There are miles and miles of productive water up and down the Tomo and up the Gavilan. We only fished two of the private lakes but the fishing was as good or better than the river. We could have fished those lakes every day without hitting all of them, without making a cast in the main river or its lagoons. With so much water and a short, three month fishing season, fishing pressure is the last of our concerns.
Tomo River, Colombia
The fishing was even better than we hoped. Lots of fish. Lots of big fish. Lots of doubles. A surprising number of sight casting scenarios. Some action on poppers. The fishing was pretty steady all day long almost every day, with some flurries of fast action but few extended slow periods. The average size fish was a lot bigger than at many other peacock bass fisheries, where butterfly peacocks (a different species that are generally about 3 lbs) often far outnumber the much larger Temensis, dragging down the average size. At Afloat, however, about half of the fish are Temensis that average close to 10 lbs, with plenty in the teens and more than a few over 20 lbs.
Every day of the trip, each of us raised several fish over 15 lbs. While we managed to land a lot of these, we lost even more. When hooked, some would beeline into submerged brush despite being latched to 9 or 10 weight rods. Each of us also had fish break straight 50 lb tippet while we tried to keep them out of the sticks. We also lost some huge fish that simply shook the hook. These fish emphatically deserve every bit of their reputation as aggressive, tackle-busting, badass predators.
The fish will test your mettle, and the fishing style does as well. Casting a 9 or 10 weight all day with a huge fly and intermediate or sinking line is a recipe for sore muscles, joints, and blisters. A lot of that physical stress can be avoided, however, by using a fly line and rod paired together for ease of casting big flies. Your favorite 9 or 10 weight rod/line combo for saltwater flats may perform miserably in peacock bass lagoons. Rods should have a stout butt section, but a flexible tip. Extreme weight forward tapers on fly lines help to carry and turn over the big flies. Matching rod/line/fly in this way cuts down on the number of false casts and takes less effort overall, which adds up over the course of a week and thousands of casts later. Gloves or stripping guards are a must, not only for when the big one hammers the fly and takes off, but also simply for stripping big streamers or poppers aggressively, cast after cast, day after day.
Peacocks often school, either congregating around preferred structure or hunting as a team. Because of that, a hooked fish is usually trailed by other fish, offering the second angler an easy opportunity and accounting for a lot of double hookups. In fact, most of the biggest fish tend to hunt in pairs and we often had back-to-back hookups on the big boys. At one point I was hooked up to a 2.5 lb butterfly and a huge fish chased it all the way to the boat, smashing it over and over again trying to eat it! I have no idea how much that fish weighed, but I know it takes a heckuva bass to eat a 2.5 lber.
Productive flies for peacock bass on the Tomo River
We also saw many of the big hunting pairs blow up bait right before we tangled with them. One of my most memorable fish encounters happened in that scenario. We saw a blowup on the bank nearby, and as we eased over there I could see one of the big ones slowly cruising just a few feet off the bank. I fired a cast in front of her, only to have it annihilated as soon as it landed by an 8 lber. As I was fighting that fish, the big one followed and inhaled Steve’s well-placed streamer. After a tense battle, we were weighing and photographing Steve’s 18 lber.
While most of the fishing is in lagoons, we found a good number of fish on beaches in the main river late in the afternoons. Another encounter etched into memory was a big fish laid up in about 15-18 inches of water on a beach. The fish’s back was sticking out about an inch, but the fish was motionless so we thought it was a snag until too late. But just to see a huge Temensis up close with her back out of the water was special.
Graham landed his biggest fish of the trip on a beach, on a popper — does it get any better than that? Will caught all of it on camera, telling the story far better than my words can:
We are definitely headed back and I would encourage anyone interested in peacock bass — especially on a budget — to do the same. We know of no other peacock bass operation for the price that is this well-run, with fishing this good.
P.S. Do your part for conservation by visiting fisheries like this one. Catch and release fly fishing operations are the front line “boots on the ground” ensuring the protection of the fish and environment they inhabit. These programs are only made possible by the support of anglers going fishing. #flyfishingconservation