Colombian River Kings

James Laverty does battle with Colombia’s giant peacock bass

A perfect climate, fine coffee, stunning national parks to explore, unique bio-diversity and thriving adventure tourism. Colombia has turned over a new leaf in the last decade — and not just the coca type. You don’t have to be a socio-political expert to know that the guerrilla conflicts from the mid ’60s and cocaine cartel wars of the ’80s and ’90s prevented most non-essential travel to the region for a very long time. But with adversity comes opportunity, and the giant peacock bass in the extensive river systems originating in the Amazon basin and its surrounds have certainly been recipients. Essentially zero fishing pressure for over 50 years has resulted in some amazing fisheries, with local entrepreneurs now keen to show them to the world. And if adversity is also a great teacher, then Medellin, the country’s second largest city, has been a great student and is now also thriving as a tourism ‘must see’ destination. Transformed from the Escobar era, the vibrant arts, culture and infrastructure of this wonderful destination is simply stunning. And as we waited to pass through customs, groups of people dancing to music in the line-up on arrival were a sign of a great trip ahead and the start of our Colombian adventure. GLAMPING After two lively nights exploring the city, our group boarded a private charter flight west towards Venezuela, arriving on a dirt airstrip in the remote town of La Primavera. Met by a convoy of 4WD vehicles, we were transported through private ranches and grasslands in the Colombian savannah towards the El Tuparro National Park. As we arrived to a greeting of howler monkeys in the distance, we met our guide team and boarded a fleet of boats before heading up river past a maze of tributaries, lagoons and stunning inland river beaches, to the Akuani floating river camp. It was a true sensory overload. Situated on a huge sandy beach near a wide river confluence, the camp facilities included five floating bedrooms with en-suite and deck, kitchen, dining tents and fifteen staff — this was indeed glamping on a grand scale. Juvenile pink dolphins playing in the back eddy of the beach, caiman nearby and prolific birdlife confirmed that we were somewhere special. SEASON & SPECIES Native to the Amazon and Guyanas and Orinoco river basins in South America, the peacock bass is a predatory species of the Cichlid family, with around 15 species in the genus. Our target, Cichla temensis — the giant Amazon (or three-barred) peacock bass — is the largest and best known of the species, growing to around 28 pounds in weight, but they are typically caught in two different forms, relating to maturity. The juvenile ‘speckled’ C. temensis up to around 10 lb in weight feature distinctive horizontal lines of dots, before developing darker colouration and the three distinctive thick bars along the flanks as they mature. Both forms have a ‘second eye’ on the tail, and bright orange colouration under the jawline, gills and pectoral fins, and are extremely aggressive in their nature. Other bass species found in Colombia include the smaller ‘butterfly’ C. orinocensis and ‘electra’ C. monoculus, which we also landed throughout the week. January through March is the best season to target them, with stable water levels, very little rainfall and perfect temperatures ranging from 23 degrees at night through to a constant 34–36 degrees during the heat of the day. ON THE BOARD After waking every hour wondering if it was time to get up, the sounds of the jungle at first light dispelled the need for an alarm clock, and it was finally time to fish. Walking out onto the front deck with coffee in hand and the river flowing past, thoughts of what lay ahead for the week resonated through our minds. After a quick breakfast, five boats headed off in all directions at full throttle. We ventured around 30 km up the majestic Tomo River, the sun rising and landscape continually changing as we wound past sandy beaches interspersed with cliffs that showed layered waterlines some three metres over our heads. Falcons soared above, the jungle was alive, and we had our buffs pulled high, ready to go. Arriving at a small creek mouth entering the main river with snags on either side, we stripped line and started frantically back-casting baitfish patterns like snipers on the job. It didn’t take long before my fly was smashed sub-surface and the tug of war was on. Not a huge fish at 7 lb, but it fought very hard and had me wondering what a giant three-barred peacock tussle would be like. It was a great start. We landed a few more fish throughout the morning before moving to a larger creek with some great shaded areas and deep drop-off into the main river. It was perfect holding ground and, after a few smaller fish, the insistence of the guide to keep peppering the same area suggested that something larger should be about. Switching to a full sinking line, I worked the same area again and suddenly came up tight. The fish sat there unmoved for a moment as though I was hooked on a snag, then with lightning speed launched itself fully from the water, its big black bars and orange gills flashing against the contrast of the shady backdrop. As it shook its head aggressively, I took a deep breath and bowed my rod to the Colombian River King, hoping that I would stay connected. It then went deep, heading for every snag in the vicinity and just would not give in. Every time I got it up to the boat to get a glimpse, it jumped and powered on down, over and over again, before we eventually tailed it. My first 3-barred peacock! At 12 lb it was beautiful, quite dark in the body, but the red eye and orange colours popped like something from a Pixar movie, cementing a memory and experience that will never be forgotten. It was fantastic to get one on the board, and I was ready for the week ahead. We stopped as we did every day on a random beach under the tree canopy, meeting up with the other guys for the main meal of the day — lunch. They sure do it well in South America, with a sit-down spread overlooking the river, a few cold refreshing beers and fine wine. We traded stories, with everyone landing fish, before lazing about in shady hammocks that the guides had kindly strung up for us, and hitting the reset button. HANG TIME As the afternoon continued we fished up river again, this time around rock bars and outcrops providing prime pocket water. Swinging flies past large boulders we landed fish after fish. The bigger peacocks were quite astounding in terms of the speed with which they could move, often following a fly for ten metres in crystal clear water before inhaling the fly and getting back to their snag or rock in an instant. I have never seen a fish move so quickly over a short distance. It was quite remarkable, and fishing this water added a great contrast to the downstream areas where the water clarity and depth was a little more challenging. As the fishing slowed down mid- afternoon we headed down river to a small junction with a creek mouth, barely deep enough to get the boat into. We shuffled our weight around and clawed our way for five minutes on full trim through thick overhanging trees before it opened up into a huge backwater lagoon, like a large feeder lake with steep banks and snags around its perimeter. Things were quiet, but our guide was insistent that we keep working the same area. The water seemed too still, and we had cast for an hour without a hit. It was time to change something. Perhaps donning a Colombian Fedora hat purchased from a street vendor in Medellin would help change our luck? It was pretty hot, so on it went, and I went big, cowboy style, tying on an 8-inch streamer with a curled calf tail to give it some added life. Switching to a clear intermediate line I decided to hang my fly at the end of the retrieve, about two rod lengths out. Similar to loch style fishing back home, my fly just sat there… I could see it hovering clearly. One, two, and at that moment a huge peacock bass rose up from the depths beside the fly, its bulging red eyes resembling mine, staring at the offering momentarily before committing and smashing it sideways with full force. Watching the eat and the theatrics that followed was unbelievable, with the fish launching itself into the air as I tried to stay connected, then pulling all the line from my feet as it slapped onto the reel and took off in an instant. We chased it with the electric, the fish continually lapping the boat, backwards and forwards, and staying in deep water. Every time we thought it was done and got its head to the surface, it flicked its powerful tail and surged deep again, or jumped. After 20 minutes we finally led the fish into the shallows, hopped off the boat and my mate Murray tailed the magnificent giant peacock. After a few photos and high fives we bade farewell, I tipped my hat to her, we let out a group Yee-Haw and wrapped it up for the day. TACKLE & FLIES Casting large flies all day can be tiring, so 9/10-weight fast-action fly rods that load up quickly, with stopping power in the butt, are ideal. Three rods, set up with tropical floating, intermediate and full sinking lines, allowed a quick change to suit the water depth or structure, with a short 3 to 4 foot length of 60 lb fluorocarbon leader. Early in the morning and late in the afternoon, big peacocks worked the sand flats, backs out of the water, providing great sight casting and surface action on poppers, with arowana, payara (vampire fish), and tiger catfish also landed in the faster water on streamers. Unweighted flies with Real Eyes were effective, using the fly line to work the water column, with the biggest flies generally catching the biggest fish. Eight-inch patterns with strong 6/0 hooks and wide gapes proved ideal, while smaller flies racked up the numbers. Having a variety of colours to suit the water clarity was also important, with bright peacock imitations and hot spots, like red on white — dynamite. COWBOYS ON DIRT BIKES With well over 500 bass landed by the group for the week, we were ready for the journey home. The only problem was that the ELN guerrillas announced a three-day nationwide transport strike the day before we were due to leave. This prevented us getting our return 4WD rides back to La Primavera and planned flight through to Medellin. However, with the assistance of a local ranch owner, we loaded our luggage on a tractor and waited as 12 cowboys turned up to collect us on dirt bikes. After a 30-minute ride through the Colombian savannah with arms locked around the waists of guys we had only just met, the thrill of the whole journey was at fever pitch. On arrival, two immaculate private planes were waiting for us on a private grass airstrip and whisked us away to Bogota. The smiles on everyone’s faces lit up the cabin, with something telling us that the planes had done this journey plenty of times before. Probably best not to ask questions. And as we arrived safely back in Medellin we raised our glasses, all planning our return to relive the true adventure of a lifetime.

Current FlyLife Subscribers can login to read the full article.
To access this article, back issues & more Subscribe to FlyLife today.