Some Facts about the Amazon Basin and the Rio Negro Lodge:
The Amazon Basin is one of the last great wilderness areas left on earth. Any realistic description of it must necessarily utilize many superlatives. It is the largest river basin in the world. The Amazon River flows through the Basin. Over a thousand tributaries, in turn, feed the Amazon River. With its tributaries, the Amazon system drains an area of an amazing 2,375,000 square miles – three quarters the size of the continental United States. It carries one fifth of the world’s fresh water out to sea. Its flow into the
Atlantic Ocean is ten times that of the Mississippi River.
The Amazon is, also, the largest river in the world. Its biggest tributary, the Rio Negro River, is the fifth largest. The Rio Negro is classified as a “black water” river. The water is actually a very dark brown in color (very much the color of dark tea). It obtains its colorization from the fine organic sediments suspended in it which release dissolved plant compounds, typically, tannins. The Rio Negro joins the main body of the Amazon River (classified as a “white water” river) in Brazil, just upstream of the area’s largest city, Manaus.
Manaus is approximately 800 hundred miles upriver (as the parrot flies) from the area where the Amazon River estuary joins the Atlantic Ocean. Up the Rio Negro from Manaus it is another 250, miles, or so, to the small river town of Barcelos. Barcelos is the last inhabited outpost into the rainforest jungle for many hundreds of miles in any direction. It is completely surrounded on all sides by thick, untracked and, many times impenetrable, rain forest jungle. From Barcelos it is still another 60 miles upriver to the Rio Negro Lodge.
The Rio Negro Lodge sits on a bluff overlooking the southern shoreline of the river. The lodge, and its immediate environs, is an almost completely self-contained enterprise with regard to its daily food and service needs. It has been carved out of the thick, luxuriant jungle growth that makes up the area. Surrounding the lodge is a compound that contains a small village for its service staff with associated farmed areas for its food needs.
The river waters up and downstream from the lodge are renowned as a haven for world class Peacock Bass fishing. Fishermen come from all over the world to catch this worthy prey. The sole reason for the Rio Negro Lodge’s existence is to provide such fishermen the means by which they can pursue this worthwhile sport. The entire enterprise is exquisitely designed for this purpose.
Nitro Boarding at Barcelos
The Fishing Adventures:
A Fine Morning on the River: It was early in the morning on the Rio Negro River. This day, the last fishing day of the trip, promises to be fine and clear, but hot. Most days are in February in this equatorial jungle section of Brazil. We have been fishing the area for the past week. The early morning air is very still and, combined with the early morning mists that are still rising from the water; the overall scene has a quiet, smoky quality. We have found the spot of entry into the jungle that we have been looking for - about 45 miles from the lodge. This morning’s trip had begun with the usual, exciting early morning rush in the Nitro boat, this time upriver, at speeds on the water that sometimes reached 45 mph. However, we are no longer in the main river channel and, for the past 15 minutes, or so, we have been going slower, making a winding path around small islands and through narrow channels, penetrating ever deeper into thickening jungle, before we reach this spot. Enrico, my Indian guide for the past week and newly found friend, slowly noses the Nitro bass fishing boat towards a large bare area on the shore line that fronts the dense, green jungle in back of it.
At this time of year the river is low, exposing a continuous strip of sandy/silt, bare ground that rims every shoreline. This bare strip varies in width, from narrow to very wide, sometimes as much as 100’s of yards. The ground generally tilts upward from the waterline to the green edge of the jungle. In other times of the year, when the river is high, all of this bare ground is covered with water but we are now in the dry season. Enrico runs the boat straight onto this bare shore at a point where the beach is very wide; cuts the motor, and we both jump out and pull it forward another few feet, onto the shore.
This morning I’m sporting a scruffy, week’s growth of beard and I’m dressed like a walking advertisement for the adventure travel clothing industry. I am wearing my “Travelsmith” bush clothes: vented light, composite fabric, long-sleeved shirt and light composite fabric, full- length pants that can be zippered off into shorts. On my head is the new “Amazon Adventures” baseball cap that I had been given at the lodge and, on my sockless feet, is a pair of “New Balance, All Terrain’s”. Sun glasses attached with a neckband and a small fanny pack that holds a two sandwich lunch, an apple, a stainless steel “Leatherman” utility tool, sun screen, bug repellent, and two 12 oz. plastic bottles of water complete my outfit for the day. I carry a small, “Olympus” weather proof, digital camera, along with a spare battery pack, in one of my shirt pockets and a small, pair of “Minolta” binoculars in the other.
Enrico is wearing only a long sleeve T-shirt and a pair of shorts. His feet are bare. I’m envious. For the last 6 days, except for the bare feet, I had been similarly dressed and I had really gotten into the easy negligence of it. However, I do not possess Enrico’s immunity to the environmental excesses that equatorial jungle fishing exposes one to; namely, the severity of the sun exposure and the proliferation of mosquitoes that reside in some of the jungle areas we have been fishing. Over the past week the sun has slowly been toasting my body into a deep tan. It isn’t quite a burn yet, but I don’t want to push my luck. Also, this morning, at my request, we are going much deeper into the jungle than we had since the trip started and mosquitoes are sure to make their presence known. Influenced by such rationalizations, I finally donned the full cover-up bush outfit that I had been studiously ignoring since I arrived but had brought for just such an occasion.
Enrico – Ready for a Morning’s Fishing
Enrico jumps back into the boat and ties the lures for the day onto the lines of two fishing rods: my rod, with a 6 inch long, silver spoon type lure and a spare rod, with a 6 inch long, top working, “wood chopper” lure. He puts a spare, golden spoon lure and his clamp-type fish weighing scale into his pockets. He stows the little bit of remaining loose gear that we have into the boat’s built-in cabinets, grabs his machete and jumps out of the boat, handing me the two rods. Without a word and without looking back, he proceeds to walk across the bare, silt soil towards the jungle, which is about 100 yards away. I pick up the two rods and follow him.
We are just about to enter the jungle when we hear two loud, short, coughing roars in the vegetation to the right and shortly ahead of us. Enrico holds up his hand and stops. He then points down to the ground and there, depressed in the sand, is the sharp, fresh impression of a large paw print. He says, “Jaguar”! Apparently the large cat had just passed this way. Perhaps, it had been watching when we beached the boat. Immediately, the hackles go up on the back of my neck, but Enrico just grins. He says the cat is not interested in us. There are many wild pigs in this area and they are the big cat’s main prey, probably the reason why it is in the area. It isn’t interested in us. Small solace! I keep going, following Enrico, but I still keep apprehensively looking around as we enter the jungle. Apparently, Enrico is right though for we never do see or hear any more signs of the Jaguar.
The Jaguar’s Track
The jungle undergrowth is quite thick in spots and there are repeated, intermittent areas where Enrico has to use the machete to hack a trail for us. Everywhere, underfoot, we walk on a thick matting of dead vegetation. Enrico stops again and points to the overhead canopy where the tree branches are waving back and forth. Then, I see them, too. It is a troupe of monkeys moving and swinging rapidly through the tree limbs. They are too far for me to identify by type with my naked eyes and, by the time I get the binoculars from my shirt pocket they are gone. Still, it is thrilling to see the natural wildlife like this, just going about their normal business!
A short while later, he again stops and points overhead. This time I just get a glimpse of a very large bird before it disappears into the tree leaves. However, the glimpse is long enough for me to see a flash of bright red and blue colors. It is a wild Macaw and I see one for the first time in the wild.
We proceed in this manner for, perhaps a quarter of a mile more with Enrico pointing out more of the native fauna as we come across it. We find several large, intricately patterned spider webs with strikingly beautiful, multi-colored, large spiders in residence, some small mole like animals hurrying across the path, and a short glimpse of a small snake. We come upon a trail, which is probably just a game trail because there is no other human habitation for miles, either along the river or in the jungle. This trail, Enrico says, will, eventually, lead us to a small lake, hidden deeply in the jungle. As we are walking, I begin to ruminate about the past week on the river.
Day 1, Getting Started Fishing:To digress a bit, an insight into such jungle lakes and the reasons why I was at this spot, basically alone in the remote jungle, are important for this narrative. Every year, during the wet season, the Rio Negro River rises due to the excessive amounts of rain on and around it. The river floods the adjacent shores, in some areas for miles into the jungle. Fish breed in these flooded areas (Peacock Bass, Piranha, Aruana, and other species native to the river). When the rains stop, the river lowers back to its normal levels and the jungle dries out, returning to its normal, land state. Most of the growing fish return to the river proper with the receding waters. However, some of the receding water is trapped and remains in the lower depressed areas of the land. Thus, these land locked lakes are formed. Inevitably, some of the young fish do not make it back to the river and they become entrapped within the lakes. Eventually, some of these fish grow to truly large sizes.
I had come to the Rio Negro on a pre-arranged trip with my two sons, Bob, jr. (46 years old) and Larry (45 years old) as part of a mixed group of 17 fishermen overall, all intent on catching the giant Peacock Bass that this area is famous for. We have been staying at the Rio Negro Lodge who supplied the week’s lodging and sustenance; the fishing gear and the boats; and, most importantly, the local Indian guides on whom we depend to find the right fishing spots and to provide the local knowledge on how to actually fish for the giant Peacocks.
The Dock at Rio Negro Lodge
I had teamed up with Enrico on the first day and after some “adjustment time” (for me) on how to use the fishing gear in the correct way to catch the Peacocks, I began to catch a good share of sizable Peacock Bass and many other species of native fish by utilizing his ability to find and take me to the good fishing spots. Enrico and I hit it off well and we found that, despite our severely different backgrounds and differing languages, we were able to communicate well. He spoke Portuguese (and local Indian) and talked to me in sort of a “pidgin” English. I can speak a smattering of Spanish. It proved to be enough.
The drill was for the group to split up into separate parties of two fishermen and a native driver/guide each morning and go out, each party in a separate Nitro bass boat, to fish at spots of each guide’s choosing. The parties left early in the morning and normally each party would fish alone, without seeing any of the others, until returning to the lodge in the late afternoon or early evening
Heading Out in the Morning
At the beginning of the trip we each had put money into a pool. There were several ways to win. The highest two total weights of fish each day winning incremental shares of the total, and the biggest fish for the week winning the lion’s share. I had been lucky, early.
The lure in favor, recommended by the guides to catch the largest, trophy sized Peacocks, is the “woodchopper”. This is a top running lure that is retrieved in spurts by rapidly sweeping the rod tip in a manner that makes the lure (about 6 inches long) swim rapidly along the top surface of the water on a staggering path toward the fisherman. In between each sweep of the rod the reel is rewound in a rapid but smooth manner so that the velocity of the lure stays as smooth as possible. There is a rotatable metal “propeller” mounted on the lure that spins rapidly as it interacts with the water it is being pulled through. The faster it is retrieved during each rod sweep, the more furious the “rooster-tail” of water that erupts and it makes a sound like a motor driven “woodchopper”. The theory is that it is this sound combined with the violent turbulence of the water that attracts the Peacock Bass.
Whatever the theory, the lure does work when it is used properly and, to prove it, there have been many world record breaking Peacocks caught with “woodchoppers”; most of them in this same Rio Negro area. The lure is heavy, enabling it to be thrown great distances when casting. A proper technique needs to be acquired to work these lures correctly. In addition, it requires a fair amount of effort to do this repetitive retreiving and by the end of the day it can be very tiring, especially to the forearm.
Surprisingly, the reel that is recommended for this repetitive casting type of fishing is a bait casting, as opposed to a spinning reel, type. I came equipped with a brand new Shimano Type ___ bait casting reel that had been given to me as a present by my son, Larry, just for this trip (My two sons, Larry and Bob are ardent fishermen, they fish more than me, and they both know a lot more about fishing and the gear and techniques required than I do). My problem was that I was accustomed to using a spinning type reel, which entails a much easier operating technique than the bait casting type. It took a while on the first day’s fishing to acquire the right technique.
The result usually attained by incorrect bait casting reel technique is, very often, the creation of a tangled “bird’s nest”. This occurs when the lure hits the water before the reel stops spinning; thus the fishing line has no place to go and it just keeps blooming outward and tangling within the reel cage. The way to stop the reel from over-spinning is to hit (close) the bail at just the right instant as the lure hits the water. It is a technique that takes a bit of practice to master.
My Reel with a Tangled “Bird’s Nest”
During the learning process it is not unusual to experience a high frequency of “bird’s nests” occurrences. “Bird’s nests” are usually very visible, difficult to untangle, and they are, also, usually the cause of much derisive merriment among one’s fishing companions. In the beginning stages of the trip I was able to contribute a good share of these events for the further enjoyment of my fishing companions.
On the first day’s fishing I was teamed with my son, Bob, Jr. Enrico was our guide and Nitro boat operator. It was an abbreviated day because of our late morning arrival at the lodge; hence, we didn’t start fishing until after 1:00 PM. Phil Marsteller, the owner of the lodge and our host, had lectured us that these first, few hours on the river were principally meant as a primer, for familiarization with the area and learning the fishing techniques necessary for the “serious” fishing that would begin the next day.
The typical way of fishing for the Peacocks is to drift fish along the shoreline about 50 to 100ft out, allowing the current to bring the boat and the lures past the chosen spot where, hopefully, the big fish are lurking. During the drifting the proper fishing technique is to repeatedly cast the lure in towards the shore and retrieve as prescribed, presenting the lure as closely as possible to the selected target area (i.e., a pile of brush, a snag, etc.).
Standing up in the back of the boat and using “woodchopper” lures, Bob and I both proceeded to fish in this manner while Enrico piloted the boat. Bob took to it right away, throwing out long, accurate casts and retrieving the lures with strong, rooster-tail and noise producing, rapid sweeps. My approach was somewhat more problematical. My best casts were probably about 85% of the length of Bob’s. The casts were accurate enough but the retrievals were neither as crisp nor were the noises they produced as well defined as his. With all of that, my casts were probably good enough if it weren’t for the “bird’s nests”. In the beginning it seemed like every third or fourth cast produced the dreaded “bird’s nest”. It took time but I managed to untangle most of them by myself and I was slowly getting better at it (possibly one nest out of every 20 to 30 casts). A couple of the nests were really bad and Enrico had to help me clear them. He did it, however, with unaffected good humor and we shared some good laughs and jokes (in Pidgin English) about them. I liked him and we started to bond almost immediately.
In the first hour, or so, the action was really slow, to non-existent, and we moved to new sections of the river several times without any better luck. The only thing that happened during this time period to break the monotony was that Bob’s rod suddenly, and inexplicably, broke into two pieces. Bob had just been casting with it, in the proscribed manner, when it broke. He had done nothing wrong. It was a boat rod and, apparently, it was just worn out.
Bob’s Broken Rod
I began looking wistfully at the passing jungle and was itching to go ashore to explore it. Also, I got tired of the “woodchopper” lure. It was a lot of work and I was slowly losing faith in its efficacy to get the job done. Finally I asked Enrico if there wasn’t any other type of lure that would work, for instance a shiny, reflective, spoon type. It seemed to me that such a lure might be easy for a fish to spot in the dark brown waters of the Rio Negro. If I had one I would have tried either a large “Daredevil” or any similar type of shiny, silver, spoon type lure.
Enrico gave me a kind of secretive but happy smile, reached under the deck, and produced what proved to be a 6-inch, silver, spoon lure. After I got to know him better I found that he was very partial to this particular lure and he preferred fishing with it, himself, when he fished on his own for “food” fish to feed his family. The lure is very effective in catching the Peacocks although the “woodchopper” still seems to be the more consistent one for the really big Peacocks (over 20 pounds). However, the further attraction of the spoon lure is that it consistently catches a greater variety of fish that are native to these waters, such as the smaller, but succulent Butterfly Bass, Piranha, Cara, Aruana, etc. He changed the lure for me and went back to steering the boat, which he brought somewhat closer to shore. I soon found out why because, while I could still cast the new lure a good distance, it was only about 2/3 as far as I had been able to cast the “woodchopper”.
During this time Bob had kept fishing with the “woodchopper” (attached to a new rod) and I could tell by his demeanor that he thought my actions were not a good idea. After about my 4th or 5th cast he started to tell me that I should have stayed longer with the recommended “woodchopper” and proceeded to lecture me on being impatient, why the new type of lure was not a good idea, that I would miss out on catching fish, etc.
During this lecture I felt a definite tug on my line. The tug became persistent and I set the hook. It was a good battle. There was definitely a big fish on the end of the line! It made a good-sized, sustained run and, for a while, we had a standoff battle, with the fish intermittently stripping off as much line as I was able to gain. Eventually, it tired and I was able to bring it to the boat. Enrico removed it from the water. It had been a good fight that proved to be the forerunner of many in the following week.
It proved to be a big Peacock and I don’t think that I have ever seen a more colorful fish. It looked really big for a fresh water species. The basic color is bright gold, morphing into a dark green color on top and into a brilliant red color on the bottom. Its fins are a bright red and its general shape is that of a very large, large mouthed bass. There are three very pronounced, vertical black stripes on each side as well as two bright yellow ringed, irregular black spots on each side – one on the tail and one on the head. The eyes are large, bright red circles with very pronounced, jet-black pupils in the center. It weighed in at 10.5 pounds! I held it up while Enrico took my picture holding it and then, we released it, as we would all the rest of our catches during the ensuing week.
A 10.5 lb Peacock – My First!
We resumed fishing for a while in the same manner but, again, the action was slow – not so much as one bite. Enrico suggested that we move and this time, instead of casting, try trolling in another spot that he knew. We agreed and, when we got there, he changed Bob’s lure to a gold colored spoon similar to the silver lure on mine. We proceeded to slowly troll along the new shoreline, dragging the two lures behind the boat. After about 10 minutes I got another hit, Enrico slowed the boat, and I set the hook. This one felt big, also, but not as big as the first one. A very spirited fight ensued and we had a good tugging match before I landed it. The Peacocks were proving to be really exciting game fish! When we got it to net, it was a good-sized Peacock that weighed in at a very respectable 6.0 pounds. After another photo taking we returned it back into the water.
We trolled for a while longer without much action except that, at one point I felt a slight tugging. I asked Enrico to stop so that I could check my line, which he did. When I pulled the line in there was, indeed, a small fish on the end of the line. It was about 10 inches long, had a long thin shape and it resembled a very large sardine. When we opened its mouth, however, it was like no sardine, or other small fish, that I had ever seen. It had a full set of long, needle shaped teeth that were reminiscent of a vampire. It was kind of scary. I nicknamed it the “vampire fish”. As I was later to find out, the possession of an extremely dangerous set of teeth or other formidable attack armament was a phenomenon typical of this jungle area.
Not a Money Winner!
The jungle is a mean place and there are many species, both plant and animal, that, at first glance, seem to be benign but on closer inspection prove to possess either mean looking teeth or sharp spines that are used for either protective or carnivorous purposes. For instance, when in the jungle it is not wise to grab hold of any plant or tree limb without first inspecting it, as many plants contain protective thorns or spines, some of which might even prove to be poisonous.
By this time the shadows were growing long and it was time to return to the lodge. That evening at cocktails everyone in our group of 17 fishermen signed a sheet denoting their catch of Peacocks (and their collective weights) for the day. At 16½ lbs., I discover that I was tied for the day’s lead and that I had won $125.00. I kind of smugly noted to my sons that it was not too bad a day’s work for an old man who was using the “wrong lure” and prone to producing “bird’s nests”.