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Brazil: Pirarucu and Rio Marie Trip Report October 2022

November 3, 2022

Updated November 2nd, 2022. Written by Yellow Dog South America Program Director Jack Porter.

I just returned from an exceptional trip to two Untamed Angling’s lodges: Pirarucu for Arapaima and Rio Marie for Peacock Bass. The remote jungles of the Amazon are a long way from Bozeman, Montana, but after 30 hours of travel, I found myself in Manaus, Brazil (the capital of the Amazonas Province and home to roughly 2 million people. Unfortunately, I did not have time for a city tour on this trip, but for those who find themselves in Manaus with some time to kill, I highly recommend taking a city tour to see some of the incredible and unique things around the city like the fish market, the port, the Opera House, the junction of the Amazon & Rio Negro, and everything in between. Manaus is truly a unique city and one that I enjoy spending time in.

PIRARUCU

In Manaus, I met my good friend Jeff, and we jumped on a commercial flight to the small town of Tefe, located about 350 miles west of Manaus, further up the Amazon River. The town of Tefe is small and can only be accessed by boat or plane. Once we landed in Tefe, we took a quick ground transfer across town to the port, where we drove down on the bank of the river and jumped in a water-taxi boat. The port was busy with all types of boats coming and going, making for a fascinating and unique setting. The final leg of the journey was a 2ish hour boat ride to Mamiraua Reserve and the location of the lodge. Upon arrival, I was instantly blown away by the area’s beauty. As I stepped off the boat onto the floating lodge, I noticed countless species of fish swimming around the platforms, birds in the trees, and caiman in the water. This is deep in the Amazon, and it definitely feels like it. The lodge is a floating structure, and each pair of guests has a private floating cabin with a private bathroom. The cabins are connected by floating walkways that lead back to the main dining room and the upstairs lounge area.

After lunch, we met with Rafael, the head guide, who helped us prepare our equipment for the coming days. The preferred setup for Arapaima at Pirarucu is a 12 wt rod with a heavy sinking line or intermediate line, depending on conditions. A 10 or 11 wt will suffice, but 12 is preferred. You want to be sure that your fly lines have a 100# core, as it is common for Arapaima to break standard lines. The guides prefer a 6′ leader of straight 80# fluorocarbon for terminal tackle with a large streamer tied on a high-quality 6/0 hook. We caught most of our fish on black and red flies, but other colors also seemed to work. The water was exceptionally low for our week, so the intermediate line was the ticket. One important thing to note for travelers headed to Pirarucu is that they should be prepared with multiple backup lines. Not only can Arapaima break and destroy tackle, but you will also encounter piranhas that will nip at your line and cut it in half. This can be frustrating, but having backups is a must. In our 3.5 days of fishing, we lost 4 lines to the piranhas.

At Pirarucu, the fishing day is split up into two sessions: morning and evening. Each session is about 4 hours, and you have a few hours to rest in the middle of the day to escape the heat. Each evening, there was a cocktail hour with fresh Caipirinhas before dinner, which was served buffet style and generally consisted of fish, chicken, rice, beans, and vegetables. There is no air conditioning at the lodge, but each room is equipped with fans that make a big difference. The run from the lodge to the fishing spot for each session is anywhere from 15 minutes to 30 minutes, so we had plenty of time to fish every day. When we arrived at our first fishing spot, we immediately noticed the Arapaima rolling around us. At times it looked like the lake was being hit with cannon balls from all directions. Once in the zone, the guides set the drift with the wind, allowing us to cast and cover the water at the correct speed. Typically, we were not aiming at a target; the goal was to get the fly out as far as possible. Once we had the line out, depending on the depth, we let the fly sink to the “sweet spot” before beginning a very slow retrieve.

Some sessions we connected with 5- 6 fish; others didn’t have any hookups. This is the nature of Arapaima fishing, and it tested our patience, but we knew that if we stuck with it, we could hook a fish over 2M long at any moment. When the fish took the fly, there was no doubt that they ate it, and getting a proper set was crucial. It all happened very quickly. Because we were fishing 80# leader, and the fly line had a 100# core, we were instructed to keep the rod tip in the water and to continue strip setting as hard as we could until the fish started to run. The guides would say, “KEEP SETTING!” Some fish ran into the backing, others made a short run, and returned to the boat to hide in the shadow. Once we had a bite and we properly set the hook, it was imperative that we remain on our toes and ready to react to whatever the fish decided to do. Maintaining tension is critical, and the guides coached us throughout the fish-fighting process. At least once during the fight, every fish we hooked came to the surface with massive headshakes that I will never forget.

To land the fish, the guides used the trolling motor to get to the bank of the lake. Next, we jumped out of the boat and began to walk up the bank while the guide helped to beach the fish – nets won’t work for these giant creatures. Once the fish was under control, the guides removed the hook, measured the fish, and we took a few photos before quickly returning it to the water. Everything happened quickly, and each time we caught a fish, it felt like it was over as soon as it began. Each fish warranted a celebratory Brahma beer before resetting the drift to continue casting. Throughout our time at the lodge, my fishing partner Jeff and I landed several huge fish, our largest being 2.2 meters long.

Overall, I really enjoyed my time at Pirarucu fishing for Arapaima. The setting is absolutely stunning, and all types of wildlife are observed throughout the fishing day. We saw countless caiman, bird species, some monkeys, and more. The guides and staff at the lodge were fantastic and took great care of us throughout our stay there. This is a destination that I would recommend for anyone interested in targeting Arapaima, and it would be a great add-on for any existing trip to another destination in the Amazon.

RIO MARIE

To get from Pirarucu Lodge to Rio Marie Lodge, Jeff and I took a 2-hour boat ride back to Tefe, drove across town to the airport, and we were picked up by a float plane that took us 2 hours further west, deeper into the amazon. For the whole duration of the flight, we followed the river and saw no signs of any human life until the plane touched down on the river and taxied to Rio Marie Lodge. Once we got to the lodge, we were shown to our room on the boat’s first floor.

Each room has two beds, a private bathroom, glass windows that look out at the water, and air conditioning. After unpacking and settling in, we went upstairs to the second floor of the boat, which was home to the dining room, bar, and lounge, with plenty of space and comfortable seating. We met the other guests we would be spending the week with and joined them for lunch. We had a fantastic group of well-traveled anglers at the lodge for our week, and we felt fortunate to have such a great group of people to share this experience with. We spent the arrival day relaxing, getting to know the other guests, and enjoying the lodge’s specialty Caipirinhas. After dinner, the guides gave a presentation, introduced themselves, and talked about the schedule and the key points of the fishing program.

The next day we felt well-rested and were eager to get out on the water for our first day of peacock bass fishing. We were with the head guide, Rafael, who helped us rig our rods. Jeff and I each fished our 9wt rods. I used a full intermediate line with a 30ft clear tip head, and Jeff used a clear intermediate tip with a floating running line. We also rigged a 10-wt with floating line and a big popper, along with another 10-wt with a heavier sinking line and a streamer. It was nice to have both rods rigged for specific locations or scenarios so we could quickly and easily change gears. For terminal tackle, we used a 6 – 8′ piece of 60# fluorocarbon, and the majority of the flies we used were peacock bass colors (orange, green, yellow, chartreuse, & flash) on high-quality 4/0 hooks. Like the Arapaima, quality hooks are essential for these fish since they strike and run with great power and force.

Throughout our week, the houseboat moved 3 times, allowing us to see countless miles of the fishery. Each day we would set out with a different guide team (one fishing guide and one native guide) to fish a different stretch of water. The runs to the different fisheries varied from 15 minutes to 1 hour and 30 minutes. The boats at Rio Marie are explicitly designed for this fishery and set up so two anglers can comfortably fish at all times. The bow and stern each feature massive casting platforms, and the guides control the boat with electric trolling motors to ensure that you are always in position. Each day, we would spend the morning fishing the specific beat we were assigned to, and at mid-day, we would meet with another boat or two for lunch. Some days we had a quick bite to eat in the shade, and others we enjoyed an extended lunch on the beach with a barbeque of chicken and freshly grilled butterfly peacocks. For the evening session, we would fish a different beat than the morning and return to the lodge around 6:15 pm.

The waters at Rio Marie Lodge are inhabited by three species of peacock bass: Barbulata “butterflies,” ranging between 2 to 7 pounds, Paca (a larger species; river fish that are not spawning), ranging from 5 to 15 pounds, and the giant Acu (largest of the peacock species, often found in slack water lagoons) ranging from 10 – 20+ pounds. Peacock bass are not true “bass” such as the largemouth and smallmouth bass found in North American waters, but instead, comprise a genus within the family Cichlidae (the cichlid).

Throughout our time at Marie Lodge, we had exceptionally low water, which changed the fishing techniques from their standard tactics during “normal” or high water. Because the water was so low, many of the lagoons that would normally be fished were either inaccessible, or were too hot since there wasn’t enough current from the main river to bring in fresh water. The guides quickly figured out that the fish had moved to the mouths of the lagoons and the beaches, where the water temperatures and conditions were favorable.

The mouths of the lagoons held the largest fish during our time at Rio Marie, where Jeff and I caught the majority of our Acu Peacock Bass. In the mouths of the lagoons, there would often be heavy cover and structures like downed trees and bushes with deep water. The guides would carefully maneuver the boat around the edges. At the same time, Jeff and I continually cast at every little pocket, between every stick, and as close to the bank as possible. When the water looked really good, we would give it a few casts, let it sink, and change our retrieve to see if anyone was home. We caught fish more than a few times after casting to a spot for 5+ minutes.

I was surprised to experience on this trip the incredible sight-fishing opportunities we had on the beaches. The abnormally low water pushed a lot of the fish out of the lagoons and into the main river, where we saw them cruising the long, white-sanded beaches patrolling for food. These beaches had drop-offs, back eddies, current breaks, and all types of features to create great habitat for peacocks searching for their next meal. To fish the beaches, the guides would start at the top of a run and use the current and the trolling motor to control the drift while slowly moving downstream and scanning for targets. A few of the guides at the lodge are permit guides in Mexico when they’re not at Rio Marie, and it was clear that they were excited to be using their flats fishing skills on the river banks.

When fishing the beaches, we blind cast at the drop-offs and structure, but we were always ready to deliver the fly to a target when the guide would point one out. In general, the fish were moving upstream on the beaches, and with the boat drifting downstream, this made for a very short window to get the fly where it needed to be. We would usually get one or two casts at each fish, but fortunately, if the cast was anywhere in front of the target, they would find it and crush the fly. Peacocks are not too picky, and as long as the fly is in front of them, they are usually willing to play. The most effective cast to a cruising target was 6 – 8 feet in front of the fish, allowing time for them to see it and time for us to move the fly to entice a strike.

Regardless of the water we were fishing, our guides always seemed to find fish. Some sessions and beats were more productive, but knowing that a giant could take our fly at any moment kept us engaged, focused, and on our toes. We learned very quickly that if we were not ready when one of these fish took the fly, we could miss the fish of a lifetime. The big Acu can appear out of nowhere and destroy the fly with speed and aggression that will test any angler’s ability. When the fish eat the fly, it’s imperative to keep the rod tip low and to get a firm and aggressive strip-set on the fish. Often, they will run for cover in the logs, and if too much pressure is applied, or if the angler makes one wrong move, they will break the fly line or the leader. When we hooked a big fish, we maintained firm pressure with a low rod angle while listening to the guide tell us where to steer the fish to successfully land it.

At Rio Marie Lodge, the guides measure, tag, weigh, and record the GPS location of every Acu that is landed as part of a scientific study of the region. If anglers catch a fish with a tag, the guides will record the measurements and the location of the fish to add to the data set. This was a fun and interesting part of the fishing experience. Of the Acu we caught, only one of them had a tag which told me that this fishery is not pressured and that there is A LOT of giant peacock bass in the system. The benchmark for a big fish seemed to be the 80cm mark, and the largest we saw was 84cm and 19 pounds.

Our six fishing days at Rio Marie Lodge flew by, and on the last night the guides put together a barbeque on the beach next to the houseboat. This was the perfect end to the week and a great opportunity to celebrate with the guides and the rest of the group. We enjoyed a fantastic meal, great drinks, and a beautiful evening on the bank of the river under the stars of the Amazon.

The next and final morning, we were up early for the journey back to Manaus. The float plane landed at the lodge with the coming week’s guests, and we boarded the same plane for the 3-hour ride to the city. Jeff and I spent the afternoon at a few shops and bars in Manaus before jumping on a red eye flight back to the United States. I think I slept the entire flight after fishing hard for 11 days in the jungle… what a trip!

If you are interested in learning more about traveling to one or both of these fisheries, give us a call at Yellow Dog to explore your options!

 

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