Having heard not only the legend of the “River of Giants” for several years, but also firsthand angling accounts, I thought I knew what to expect on my first trip to Rio Marie in October 2017. But even as a lifelong bass fisherman, there was no way to fully prepare for this awesome destination. To put it in context, each one of the seven fishermen on the trip caught the biggest bass of his life — and four of those anglers were veterans of Brazilian peacock bass fishing. And we did it on a week with high water . . . high enough to cause grumbling from those with experience in the Amazon. I can’t even imagine what it would be like with ideal water levels!
First, lets get the numbers out of the way. The seven of us landed five peacocks over 20 lbs, including two 24 pounders. We landed fourteen other peacocks from 15-20 lbs, and another dozen from 10-15 lbs. More than half of all the Temensis we landed were over ten pounds! The 350 butterfly peacocks in the 3 lb range were almost an afterthought, even though they eat so aggressively we often thought they were Temensis. Just incredible, mind-boggling numbers . . . but the Rio Marie produces on this level week in, week out.
Will Stephens and I met in the Miami airport to begin the trip. Five hours later we landed in Manaus and were transferred to our hotel. We spent the next day exploring Manaus, a city founded in the 1600’s that sits at the “meeting of the waters” where the clear, dark Rio Negro meets the muddy Solimoes River to form the Amazon. We visited the markets, which were eye-opening with over twenty varieties of bananas by the truckload, plus mountains of pineapple and all sorts of other exotic fruits. The fish and meat market was absolutely crazy, with stacks and stacks of all different species of fish and various meats, organs, and viscera all on display by vendors busy filleting for the local shoppers.
That night we ate dinner at Amazonico, a trendy restaurant on the same block as our hotel, the Caesar Business. I love trying new dishes, and on local recommendation ordered “fish ribs” . . . which are exactly what the name implies. They are cut from a fish called the Tambaqui, and look a lot like an order of beef ribs, but with thinner rib bones (and of course white flesh). They were superb. Incidentally, both the food and wine in Manaus were less than half the price you would pay in the U.S.
The next morning we boarded the float plane for the 3 ½ hour flight to the Untamed Amazon mothership. After we left Manaus, all we saw below was green jungle cut by watercourses for the entire flight until we landed on the Rio Marie and taxied to within a stone’s throw of the mothership. We spent the rest of the day moving downriver, organizing gear, getting to know the guides and staff, and eating delicious table fare (filet mignon the first night).
The operation has an all-star staff of guides. They are Argentine and Brazilian, but have experience guiding to the ends of the earth, including Tierra del Fuego, Iceland, Russia (both Kamchatka and the Kola Peninsula), Bolivia, Patagonia, and more. They are true fly fishing professionals and lots of fun to fish with. The native guides knew every inch of the river and haunts frequented by the big peacocks. Plus, the indigenous guides are very enthusiastic and love taking photos with giant peacocks — which they show their families and village at the end of the season to demonstrate that they did a good job!
The climate was really hard to believe. Even though the Rio Marie is right on the equator, we only broke a sweat a couple of times during the entire trip, during afternoon periods without clouds or wind. All other times (at night, with clouds or a breeze) the temperature was very comfortable. Actually, Will and I both got chilled one afternoon after driving through a shower on the way back to the mothership. That was basically the only rain we experienced all week, other than a few light showers at night. When it did get hot during some of the afternoons, a swim in the river was very refreshing. Believe it or not, the water is some of the purest natural water in the world. Clients drink bottled water, but the guides and crew actually drink the river water with minimal filtration — it is that clean and totally free of parasites and such.
Speaking of bugs, the lack of problematic pests was another pleasant surprise. Honey bees, a few bumble bees, some gnats and other flies often buzzed around the boat, but they were rarely annoying. We did not see a single mosquito the entire trip, as they cannot breed in the “black” water of the Rio Negro system. The only bites I got were from flies similar to small horseflies, that bit my bare feet a few times. Certain other times enough bees or flies would buzz around our heads to make us stop fishing for a minute to shoo them away. But for the most part, we found ourselves not noticing the bees and flies, instead engrossed in the fishing.
After reading harrowing accounts of Amazon exploration like Theodore Roosevelt’s journey down the River of Doubt, its almost hard to believe that there’s really not much to worry about this deep in the jungle. But the Amazon is a huge place, and while there are some very scary and even hellish areas within it, there are also some very civilized areas and the Rio Marie happens to be one of those. The idyllic vibe was enhanced by countless yellow, orange, blue, and white butterflies, big flocks of macaws, toucans, a lot of other bird life, and river otters. The week before, one of the skiffs photographed a jaguar swimming across the river. At night, a lot of other unidentified critters announced their presence through their unfamiliar and often hypnotizing calls. There were also many species of trees in bloom, some covered in yellow, pink, red, orange, or white blossoms.
But back to the fishing. As a lifelong bass fisherman chasing peacocks for the first time, I was struck by the similarities to largemouth bass fishing. Much of the fish-holding structure is almost identical, such as flooded or fallen trees and other aquatic vegetation, ledges, points, coves, spawning areas on flats, and so on. The fishing methods are also very similar. A largemouth bass fisherman will be very much at home — albeit a larger-than-life version of home — on the Rio Marie.
Almost all of the fishing takes place in still water. Around most of the bends of the main river channel are oxbow lakes, lagoons, protected areas behind islands, or flats. There are also creek mouths that form coves off the main river channel. All of these areas are fished like you would bass fish back at home. They have the feel of small private lakes. Most of our time was spent using the trolling motor to cruise the shoreline of these stillwater areas casting to structure. The inside bends of the river also form large sand deposits that act like beaches, but with lots of cuts, bars, and ledges due to various currents. In the afternoons, a few big peacocks hunt in the shallows on each of these beach flats, leading to great sightcasting opportunities if you are there at the right time. Will was there at the right time on one afternoon, seeing and shortly thereafter connecting with an 18 lber from a beach. With lower water levels, there is also plenty of sightcasting to spawning fish on the flats in the lakes and lagoons.
Also similar to bass fishing back home, there are slow periods. We would go hours casting to perfect-looking water and structure without a bite. The fish — like all other fish species — have periods of inactivity. But when they wake up, game on! We had several periods where we caught butterfly peacocks every cast, landing fifteen or twenty in a row. The action on Temensis also came in bursts. Unlike butterfly peacocks, Temensis are more territorial and typically not found in big schools, so they are not caught by the dozen. You are fishing for a handful of Temensis per day. But many times we would catch these big boys in close succession. For example, Will lost a huge fish in a pile of logs, then landed an 18 lber and 15 lber all in less than an hour in the same small lake on our second day.
The differences from largemouth bass fishing (in addition to being surrounded by rainforest instead of southern hardwoods or pineywoods) is mainly the size of the fish, the flies, and the tackle. The fish are enormous and so are the flies. We used mostly gigantic baitfish imitations on 3/0 or 4/0 hooks. The weeks before we arrived, when the water was lower, huge poppers produced the biggest fish. I’m talking baitfish patterns and poppers at least twice as big as anything you would throw for largemouth. Light colored flies tend to work better than dark colors. Chartreuse was the best color for us. Streamers that had large rattles built in worked very well. Flies should also have large plastic eyes.
To cast these huge flies (as well as to handle the huge fish) we used 9 and 10 weights. Both of us brought 8 weights but put them back in the tube after day 1. An 8 simply isn’t enough to throw the flies. We used a 3 foot section of 50 lb test mono as leaders. The guides prefer 60 lb test, but we did not bring 60 with us. The only fish we lost on the 50 was Will’s big one that buried in a pile of sticks. We used mostly intermediate fly lines, and even though we had success, with our water levels we probably should have used full sink lines for many of the scenarios we encountered. All fly lines should be extreme weight forward tapers to turn over the giant flies.
I brought fast action rods but realized a few days into the trip that a medium action rod would be best — one with a sturdy butt and flexible tip. The reason is that fast action rods do not load well without much line out. Thus, fast action rods require extra false casts. Those extra false casts add up into the hundreds or thousands over the course of a day and become a big deal, especially with 9 or 10 weight rods and big flies. Bring advil, as this trip will put your casting elbow and shoulder to work!
One more note related to the number of casts and size of the fish: gloves or effective stripping guards are MANDATORY. If you make 600-700 casts per day, you probably strip 25,000 times or more per day. Plus you are hooking into some fish that will try to rip your fingers off. It is essential that you protect your stripping fingers. I used some cheap finger sleeves that did not stay in place very well, and burned through when a big fish made strong runs. I also tried athletic tape, but the stick’um on the tape quickly gummed up my fly line so I abandoned the tape.
My biggest piece of advice to anyone headed to Rio Marie is to test your essential pieces of gear. First, make sure your stripping guards stay in place, are comfortable, and durable. Second, try out your rod/fly line/fly setup — a combination you probably have never cast before (maybe its just me but I had rarely if ever tried to cast flies that big on a 9 wt). Make sure the fly line turns over huge flies. Make sure the rod loads quickly but is still beefy enough to carry and cast huge flies. Make sure you can easily pick up and make your cast with minimal false casts. Try different line and rod combinations. You do not want to get to the middle of the jungle with a weeks fishing and thousands of casts ahead of you, only to find that your setup does not work well.
Ok, back to the trip report. Other species we caught were several jacunda, another cichlid (peacock bass family) that is beautiful. Will caught a huge arowana, a species prized by many Amazonian anglers. We also caught dozens of dogfish, which is basically a 1-2 lb freshwater barracuda. The guides caught huge catfish on trotlines. All of those species added some nice variety to the fishing.
Another nice bonus to the trip is the shore lunch of grilled butterfly peacock that the native guides prepare one day during the trip. Upon stopping for lunch, the guide builds a grill entirely out of green wood, and builds a fire underneath — a process that only takes around 15 minutes. The guide fillets the fish and lays them over the grill, and serves them up with sides prepared ahead of time such as lime, rice, shredded cabbage and carrots. Delicious and unforgettable.
On the week, the Untamed Amazon moved over 150 river miles! On our arrival day, the mothership moved a long way downriver. Almost every day after that, we would leave in the skiffs to fish our way upriver, and the mothership followed us. That brings me to my overall thoughts on this fishery: so much prime water that is barely fished. We passed by so many lakes, creeks, lagoons, beaches, etc. that we did not even touch. Even on most of the lakes we fished, we only fished small sections of them. That is obviously what makes the fishing so consistent on the Rio Marie — spreading the fishing pressure so thin as to have no noticeable effect on the fishing, which is proven up by the catch records kept by the operation. There are as many fish caught, and as many big fish caught, today as when the operation opened. Such a rare and special operation in today’s world, where most wild creatures are under intense pressure from mankind.
I could go on and on about how plush the accommodations were on the Untamed Amazon, the wonderful cuisine, and the rest of the experience, but I’ve gone on long enough! Please contact me with any other questions about any aspect of this remarkable fishery and operation.