It was sometime during my college days, when money was tight, but the call of adventure was ringing loudly, that I first saw a fishing show about peacock bass fishing on the Amazon.
I had probably just finished watching another awesome episode of the Walker Cay Chronicles (if you never absorbed an episode of Flip Pallot’s near-spiritual fishing-adventure series, it still holds up and is available to watch for free at https://www.hellsbayboatworks.com/videos/walkers-cay-chronicles/).
As I watched, I was mesmerized with the thought of traveling into the deepest parts of the Amazon Basin in pursuit of a fish that looks to have been water colored by Matisse! Seriously? Cool.
I don’t have a lot of bucket list trips, but this has been one I’ve held onto for a long time.
Outfitter and booking the trip
Early in 2019, three friends and I decided to do something about it and booked a trip with Ron Speed Jr. Adventures (https://www.ronspeedadventures.com), RSA, a fishing-centric outfitter based near Dallas, Texas. I’d heard about Ron Speed’s Peacock Bass trip listening to Texas Radio Hall of Famer, Norm Hitzges, on The Ticket Sports Radio station (https://www.theticket.com).
Like me, Norm likes to travel and raved about the fishing, and, more importantly, the adventure of living on a houseboat on the Amazon while stalking the peacock bass.
One or two “let’s do this” email later and the team was assembled. After a very informal booking process (a couple email and a credit card number), we began the nearly year-long wait for the south-of-the-equator journey and our date with the most colorful bass in the world.
Heading to Brazil nowadays is fairly easy. Bill Mullins, our contact with RSA, gathered some information, let their folks in Brazil know we were coming, and that was about it. Visas are no longer required for US Citizens and the flight from Dallas, through Miami, to Manaus, Brazil was a day-long process that got us there about 1 a.m.
Yes, 1 a.m.
One of the few (maybe the only) downers about going to or from Brazil is that the flights arrive and depart from the jump off city, Manaus, in the middle of the night. However, RSA has it figured out and their (very chipper) local host picked us up at the airport and drove us straight to the hotel, where we were able to get a decent night’s sleep before gathering the next morning for leg 2 of the journey.
On our trip, we stayed at a modern hotel right on the banks of the Rio Negro, the tea stained “tributary” of the Amazon that we’d be fishing for the upcoming week. “Tributary” is a relative term as, even at its narrowest point in Manaus, the river was nearly 2 miles wide!
The Ponte Do Rio Negro, an amazing cable-stayed bridge spanned the river within view of the hotel and a mile-long sandy beach made for a perfect pre-breakfast leg stretch on our first morning in Brazil.
One advantage of fishing the Rio Negro branch of the Amazon is that, due to flow rate, large amounts of leaves and decaying plant products, and lots of other scientific-sounding causes, the river is stained the color of strong Earl Grey Tea. It’s clear, like tea, but stained. This decaying vegetation results in an unusually high acidity and, consequently, a very low ability for mosquitos to reproduce. During a week of serious Amazonian heat and humidity, I didn’t see one mosquito!
Speaking of mosquitos and other nasties, we did elect to take the recommended malaria medication – Malarone – on the trip and, those of us not previously vaccinated for Yellow Fever, got shots before the trip. Both malaria and Yellow Fever are common in the Amazon. However, because of the remoteness of the area we fished, and the lack of mosquitos, many locals said malaria medication wasn’t necessary. We figured better safe than sorry, especially after we learned that Malarone is processed by the kidneys, and not the liver, so shouldn’t impact our ability to consume large quantities of Brazilian beer while fishing.
Having arrived in Brazil, via American Airlines, early, early Saturday morning, after some sleep, a walk along the beach, and breakfast, we hopped in a van for the short 10-minute drive back to the airport.
Upon arrival, we were whisked through the charter flight section of the airport -picture 4 guys in fishing gear, walking through the metal detectors drinking Itaipava Beers (in metal cans) – onto our prop plane for the 300-mile flight from Manaus to Barcelos, a tiny town in the middle of nowhere that is a major departure point for river cruises and houseboat-based fishing trips.
Fishing and Otter Life
We landed in Barcelos, after a relatively smooth flight and some amazing scenery along the way, to be greeted by Franz Schuler, our host for the week, and several guys from our riverboat home for the week, the Otter.
RSA touts the Otter as a modern day Amazon fishing marvel and, based on my experience during the week, they’re not overselling it. Supposedly the incredibly shallow draft of the boat allows it to go places where a lot of other boats can’t go. Further, RSA, puts all the extra fuel, crew, guides and supplies on a smaller, but really pretty, houseboat so that the Otter is even lighter. It’s a really great setup. Even with several crew and 9 guests, the boat never seemed crowded and the large, 2-bed guestrooms were really comfortable.
It only took a few minutes to load our stuff at the airport, drive to the river, transfer to the aluminum bass boats we’d be fishing in all week, and arrive at the Otter. After everyone, and everything, was accounted for, the engines kicked in, the anchor was weighed and we were heading up river. We sailed all afternoon and night and started our first day of fishing the next morning miles up river from Barcelos.
Fishing days followed the same schedule all week:
5:30 a.m. – Wake up tap on the cabin door
6:00 a.m. – Breakfast
7:00 a.m. – Hop on the fishing boats (2 clients and a guide) for the morning session
12 p.m. – Meet the Otter for a hot lunch and, maybe, a nap or a couple of post-lunch beers on the top deck
2 p.m. – Back in the boat for the afternoon fishing session
6 p.m. – Meet the Otter again (the Otter would often move either up or down river while we were fishing)
7 p.m. – Dinner
Our trip was in late January, during a time the Rio Negro is flooded and the fish are hanging out back in the flooded rainforest. In fact, my GPS track all week said we were fishing on dry land! To get the fish out of the trees, we used large, heavy lures, hurled them right up next to the trees (and sometimes in and over them, to the guide’s patient, but obvious, disappointment), and retrieved them with a short, hard chopping motion.
The “chop chop” caused noise and splashing, which did bring the fish out to see what’s up. It also caused blisters and interfered with beer drinking. Seriously, it was hard work and, not being a regular and/or fanatical fisherman, I was pretty worn out with it after 2 or 3 days.
The good news was that the scenery was epic, the weather was perfect, and the beer was cold. There was no shame in taking a break and I also experimented with a lot of other types of fishing, including throwing smaller, non-topwater lures that were retrieved with a less physical, steady reeling motion. I actually caught more, albeit smaller, fish on these alternative lures, but, it became quickly became clear that the guides knew what they were doing and “chop chop” was definitely the way to catch the big ones.
And, catch big ones we did! In 6 days of fishing, the 9 of us caught 359 Peacock Bass, with 59 of them weighing more than 10 pounds and 8 more than 20. One of my buddies, Brad Dean, caught the biggest fish of the week, which weighed in at 25 and a half pounds! It was a monster and not far off the river record, which is about 27 pounds.
And, I’d be in all kinds of trouble if I didn’t post a picture of Brad’s near-record fish.
Apparently, because the water can rise and drop more than 30 feet between wet and dry seasons, the fishing can vary quite a bit. Looking at past totals, though, it always looks to be good. Most weeks even more Peacocks are caught than on our trip, but, often, they vary in size. More, smaller fish one week and fewer, larger the next. We were really, really happy with the size and quantity and it was obvious the guides, and the crew, all knew what they needed to do, and where they needed to be, to catch fish. It was an overall awesome experience!!!
Being on a houseboat in the Amazon is not all about catching peacock bass. The scenery and scale is truly epic. One day, I thought we crossed the river in the bass boat, after running wide open for about 20 minutes, and I assumed we were fishing a long tributary system on the other bank. We fished for 6 hours, often running wide open at around 30 miles per hour, and snaking our way through ever smaller tributaries, filled with caiman, some over 10 feet long, and river dolphins of similar and larger size. After we returned to the Otter at lunch, I pulled out my GPS and found that we never even made it to the other side of the river. The “far bank” that I thought we crossed to was just a gigantic island! I’d have lost a big bet if someone had asked me to describe where we fished that day, but, until you’ve seen it, you just can’t believe how big it is.
While the fishing guides are really great, and they will definitely put you on the fish, they speak very, very little English. They can tell you, or show you, all you need to know to catch huge Peacocks, but that’s about it. Unless you speak Portuguese, I recommend traveling in pairs so you’re sure to have a fishing partner each day. If you don’t, it’s likely RSA will pair you up with someone, but, if not, you may end up spending the day enjoying the sounds of shrieking Macaw parrots and the splash of river dolphins. It truly is a little disappointing that the guides don’t speak a little more English, though, as I would have loved to hear more about where they’re from, what they’ve seen and done while traveling up and down the Amazon, and I’m sure they have a lot of great stories about past clients and their fishing prowess or, more likely, lack thereof.
RSA supplies good quality, appropriate for the species, rods and lures. There’s really no need to take your own. You do need the following:
I took a Lews TeamLews Pro-Ti Reel.
Pricey, but, hey, it was a bucket list trip and I thought the purple reel might inspire me to fish! Seriously, though, the main thing is that you need a really good reel with at least a 7.5:1 ratio. This cannot be overstated. Get a 7.5:1, or faster, retrieve ratio! You are throwing giant lures as far as you can throw them. I routinely threw ALL THE LINE off my reel, down to where it was knotted onto the spool. What comes next? Reeling all that line back in . . . over and over . . . for 11-12 hours each day.
Second, take a spare reel. Mainly, we thought, in case yours breaks. More importantly, however, your guide will rig you up with two different types of lures and, often, when your buddy throws the big topwater and misses, the guide will quickly hand you your smaller spinner bait and you’ll catch your buddy’s missed fish. What could be sweeter???
Insulated Water Bottle
I travel with a Larq Water bottle (https://www.livelarq.com/shop). It’s double wall insulated, which is very nice when it’s hot out. You can fill it with ice in the morning and keep adding water all day. It also is self cleaning and self purifying. I didn’t worry too much about the water supplied by the Otter crew, but I just have gotten in the habit of traveling with it in case I need to fill it at a water fountain, or somewhere less reliable.
I also carried a 20 oz Hydro Flask to take coffee on the boat in the morning and to keep beer cold in the afternoon.
While part of getting away to the Amazon is to get away, I did take my Garmin In Reach Explorer along, which enabled me to send text messages to the States using the built in Iridium Satellite capability. It was handy and it also allowed me to geek out a bit and track our progress up and down the river.
Let’s face it, you’re in the freaking Amazon! It’s hot and humid and sunny. While you’re south of the equator, we were often less than 1 degree south and the sun was straight overhead much of the day. Hot. I took a number of options, but the following is what I ended up wearing every day:
Huk Fishing Shirts (with and without hoods) – Super light, good sun protection, awesome!
Huk Fishing Shorts – also super light, dry almost instantly.
Huk Fishing Gloves – in my opinion, a MUST. Unless you fish a lot, and have the associated calusses built up, you will get blisters. Possibly even without gloves, but these provide just a bit of protection and full sun protection, which is important when you are holding your hands out in the sun for 60 hours in a week!
Convertible pants – I took a light pair of convertible pants, but only wore them a couple times when I got a bit much sun the day before. I found them hotter and more constrictive than the Huk shorts above, but, still, good to have and to travel in.
Hat – A good, airy hat for sun protection/glare reduction is a must. Several guys wore gaiters, but I found them hot and preferred to use a hat and a hooded shirt.
Waterproof Boat Speaker – the sounds of the rainforest are fine for sleeping, but, let’s face it, after hours of fishing and beer drinking, a little music goes a long way. I’ve carried this JBL Charge 4 on several continents, and it’s landed in the water more than once, but it floats, is waterproof and sounds awesome.
Waterproof speaker is a must when you are on a boat!
Shoes – I started off the day with sandals or boat shoes, but went barefoot most of the time. The boats have the green, artificial turf-type carpet, and it’s fine for most of the day. I did find it got hot enough during the middle of the day that I put the sandals back on, but, for the most part, it was a shoes-free zone.
Rain gear – We debated whether we should have even brought it. It rained several times, but, frankly, it was too hot to wear even super light jackets and the rain actually felt good. As soon as the sun came back out, we were dry within minutes (or as dry as you get in a humid rain forest), so I’d probably leave it at home.
Don’t take a ton of stuff. The Otter crew will wash your clothes for you ever night and they’re ready by lunch the next day. I’d bring the following gear: Hat, Buffs (2) or Hooded Shirts (2-3), Shorts (2 for fishing and 1 for dinner), underwear (2-3). Fishing gloves (2 pair). Basically, you wear one outfit fishing, take it off and leave it outside your door, wear the 2nd outfit the next day, first is cleaned and left in your room by lunch to wear the 3rd day and so on. With 3 pairs of tops and bottoms, I’d actually sometimes change at lunch, wear my 2nd pair out in the afternoon, and then change for dinner, wear those same clothes the next morning, and then start over again with the clean clothes being in your room when you get back for lunch.
As light as the Huk clothes are, you really can get away with shoving the above items in a large backpack and not even taking a suitcase.
In all ways, Ron Speed Jr. Adventures, and especially Franz and the Otter crew, are on top of everything.
The entire team really takes care of you in an environment where, unless you’re MacGyver or Bear Grylls, you probably need to be taken care of! They’re really awesome and we had a great trip primarily because of them.
The trip is great if you are seriously into fishing and traveling the world for exotic species. Trust me, you will feel like you got your money’s worth, and then some.
However, it’s also really great if you’re a casual fisherman and are interested in catching some really beautiful, hard fighting fish in an out-of-this world setting.
Finally, if you’re even more casual in your attitude toward fishing, or you want to take a non-fishing spouse or friend along, Franz, and the RSA Team will happily plan other adventures for you.
I know folks who have gone on this trip and taken photographs all week, gone ashore looking for jaguars, and just enjoyed being on the Otter, floating along through the Amazon Basin and thinking how lucky they are to be there!
Bottom line? I can’t recommend this trip enough.
If you have questions or comments, we’d love to hear from you. Please respond in the comments below!