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Peacock bass fishing a powerful thrill

By Mike Leggett

RIO JATAPU, Amazonas, Brazil - In Brazil, the river is everything.

Supermarket and septic tank, shopping mall, public park and public transportation, fishing hole and hunting lease. That's the river to the people who dot its shores and canoe its backwaters, the cliched cradle of life.

A fifth of all the fresh water in the world cycles through the immense Amazon basin. Rising and falling through its seasonal turns, drooping during the dry season into sandy courses still wider than a bullet can measure, then rising like an overflowing tub in the rainy season flood tide stretching a hundred miles across, the river is alive.

And life springs from the river in stunning abundance: aquatic mammals such as manatees, dolphins and otters ply the waters; reptiles such as the cayman and anaconda snatch meals from its shores; macaws and orioles and parrots squawk and squeal from the jungle canopy; and the rainbow of tropical fish would shame any aquarium.

Near the top of the fish food chain, the top spot would have to be occupied by the gigantic, gray and white catfish that are considered babies until they pass 100 pounds, is the peacock bass. Thousands of Americans and Europeans travel to Brazil and other equatorial countries annually in search of the splendidly colored peacock, which can be green and orange and blue and red and black and pink, all at the same time.

But the beauty of that coat of many colors can be deceiving. Behind the devilish red eyes, beneath the odd hump on the head of mature fish, lies a brain that's brutish and mean. The peacock bass, not a bass at all, but a cichlid, doesn't just rise and swallow his prey. He launches a savage attack, brutal and swift, part bully's statement, part athletic stage show of Olympic speed and power.

It's that attack, which can stun a bait fish careless enough to swim too close to a big peacock, that is like a narcotic for the sport anglers coming to the Amazon basin. Armed mostly with over-sized topwater plugs known as Woodchoppers, anglers buzz the black waters in searing heat and stifling humidity just for one quick fix, one explosion that lasts only a portion of a second in real time but is burned into the brain forever.

Violent may be too mild a word to describe the surface strike of a peacock bass. It's fatally efficient as a feeding mechanism but when aimed at an artificial lure, it's shocking.

The water behind the moving lure bulges ominously as the peacock, which often makes an initial exploratory pass at the bait, swims in close enough to attack. The observant angler often can see the peacock bass just before he actually strikes the lure and, after a while, can hear the audible "zzzzzzuuup" of the fish's body slicing through the surface on the way to the lure. The strike itself sends skyward a spray of water that cascades down around a hole in the river where the lure used to be.

Too often, even though his mouth is big enough to completely inhale the 7-inch-long plug with its three sets of treble hooks, a peacock bass manages to evade being hooked. Everything is so fast and random that the angler really can't do much about it. But should a hook strike home and the fight begin, a monster peacock immediately takes off on a supersonic run toward the nearest sunken log or jumble of limbs to try to scrape off the offending lure.

The angler lucky enough to still be attached to the peacock, while still weak-kneed at the power and savagery of the strike, realizes in that moment that he's not in charge. The fish ultimately may be caught and released, but the angler won't have much to do with it other than holding onto the rod and reeling at the proper time. The hooks may pull out. The reel's drag may disintegrate under the stress of the big fish. The rod itself could give way, but it will be chance more than any other factor that determines whether a big peacock is brought to net.

Austin's Jon Pfluger learned that in a big way last week. A seasoned bass angler, who also loves to chase trout and redfish on the Texas Gulf Coast, Pfluger made his first peacock trip count, landing a massive 22-pound male that turned out to be the largest fish caught among the eight anglers, mostly Texans, who traveled to Brazil from Oct. 12-20. "I can't stop smiling," Pfluger said after catching the giant peacock. "That's what I came down here for."

Over the years, peacock bass fishing has changed from a simple quest for the topwater "blow-up" to a true hunt for trophy fish. "I don't think my emphasis has changed, but I do think the anglers' has," said Ron Speed Jr., whose Amazon Angling Adventures in Kennedale arranged our trip.

"People came to Brazil after fishing in Venezuela sort of looking for a new place to catch peacocks," Speed said. "It really didn't sink in on most people how big the fish were until the new world record (an even 27 pounds) was caught down there in 1994 that it was a heck of a place for big fish. Now everybody wants to catch a fish that weighs 20 pounds."

Ten pounds once was the standard for a trophy fish and still is a way of measuring quality peacocks. But improving angling methods, plus better knowledge of the river by guides and boat captains, have shifted the standard upward. "Everybody shoots for 20 pounds, but our goal is that everybody catch at least one 15-pounder on our trips," Speed said.

Our group blew past that in a hurry. All eight anglers caught at least one 15-pounder during the trip. There were three fish of more than 20 pounds, two more that weighed 19 1/2 pounds, half a dozen 18-pounders and a total of 55 fish that weighed in excess of 10 pounds. "The average is two 20-pounders a week for 10 anglers on the boat," Speed said.

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