Peacock Bass: The Powerful and Merciless Kings of the Amazon

Powerful, handsome, territorial, and ferocious; peacock bass have it all.  While payara became my true love during our fishing trip in Colombia, the idea of massive peacocks was the trigger for me to drop everything during the middle of a pandemic and head to South America on three weeks notice.  During the short dry season in the Orinoco basin, donkey-sized peacock bass briefly become accessible to fly anglers.  We withered in the tropical sun, had our skin destroyed by voracious no-see-ums, and casted to the point of sheer exhaustion.  For these special fish, it was worth it and then some.

With no relation to the bass of North America, peacock bass are actually cichlids like many species in Africa, derived from an era millions of years ago before tectonic plates separated the coast of Brazil from western Africa. Nearly a dozen types of peacocks are known to science, and we encountered two of these species while in Colombia.  Cichla temenesis, or the “speckled peacock bass” is the king of the genus, and the largest type of peacock bass.  These were our main target, as they can grow larger than 25 pounds.  They are prized gamefish, and the type of fish that attracts anglers from faraway continents.

Speckled peacocks exhibit both juvenile and adult morphology.  The juvenile fish possess coloration known as “pinta de lapa,” and this coloration may be found in fish up to 15 pounds.  Pinta de lapa peacocks are complete psychopaths, and exhibit a capacity for fighting I have not previously witnessed in a freshwater fish.  These fish display flanks with a blue-grey translucence, with overlying white dots and dashes that seem to mimic a visual display of Morse code.  The mature version of the speckled peacock possesses bright green flanks, three black columns down its sides, and fins that range from blue, to orange, to green that matches the majority of the body.

We also caught a different species called Cichla orinocensis.  Known locally as “butterfly peacocks,” these fish provided ample action in between our encounters with the larger speckled peacocks.  The butterflies were generally smaller, but can grow upwards of 10 pounds.  We often found them in feeding frenzies, which produced boils of aggressive fish.  With three black dots down their sides and a hue of green that seems unnatural, I was truly blown away by the beauty of these fish.  With their amazing colors and brutish feistiness, the butterflies were certainly an alluring target.

We fished for peacock bass with a similar technique one would utilize for most other large freshwater predator species.  Using 6-inch long streamers, we casted toward structure with 8 weight rods and varied our retrieve.  White patterns seemed to be the color of the week, and the fish favored patterns that possessed a good kick, as to imitate an injured baitfish.  We found most of our peacocks in “lagunas” attached to the main rivers.  These lagunas are lakes of various sizes attached to the main river by small passageways that can seem hidden at first glance.  We would wind our way in to the lagunas via small connecting waterways barely large enough for our 14-foot boat, which would subsequently open up in to the majestic lagunas.

Peacock bass are known as tucunaré in Brazil, a word which is derived from an indigenous word for “friend of the tree.”  These fish lived up to their name during our trip.  While the guides mentioned that many of the biggest peacocks live out in the middle of the lagunas, we found virtually all our fish tucked deep in to the shoreline woods.  This probably was a result of the exceptionally wet year Colombia is experiencing, as the floodwaters from the wet season had yet to completely recede, and many fish were residing in the flooded jungle.  The fact that the fish were so close to the shoreline structure created a difficult circumstance.  The first 20 seconds of fighting a large peacock is an absolute rodeo.  Add in ample nearby structure, and the power of these fish becomes a serious problem.  We often had no choice but to palm the reel and hold on for dear life, as giving up line to the fish would result in a hopeless rootball tangle.  Meanwhile, our guide would frantically row backward toward the middle of the lagoon, often with the peacock leaping multiple times with vicious head shakes.  We had multiple fish snap our 40 lb fluorocarbon.  The Colombian peacock bass grow to behemoth sizes and they are accustomed to dominating their environment.  Pound for pound, I am not aware of a stronger freshwater fish.

One interesting feature of peacock bass is their propensity to become hyper-aggressive when another fish is hooked.  Most species I have encountered will spook if another fish is caught nearby.  But peacock bass become supercharged predators if another member of their school is thrashing on the end of a nearby line.  This resulted in multiple “dobletes” as my friend Brian and I hooked fish nearly simultaneously.  With one fished hooked, we often saw up to a half dozen other fish frantically chasing the hooked fish.  A well-placed fly behind the first hooked fish often resulted in a second.  The mayhem of two large peacocks fought simultaneously from the same boat is something that must be experienced to be believed.

While peacock bass are special in their own right, the experience is potentiated by the surrounding environment.  I’ll never forget the moments after landing my first “grande” peacock bass, as the entire scene was truly absurd.  As I released the fish, a troop of howler monkeys swung through the trees above us.  Moments later, a pod of Amazonian pink river dolphins surfaced just feet from our boat.  On the shoreline, we got a side-eye from a couple of wary caimans who carefully examined the gringo out in the boat who was shouting and laughing maniacally after catching one of the most impressive fish of his life.  Parrots screeched as they flew over our boat, echoing the chaos they had witnessed in the laguna below.  Every serious fly angler should get to experience the beauty and wildness of the rainforest, not just for the incredible fishing, but for the unsurpassed surrounding environs as well.