Riverboat Ride Into Amazon Abundance

Flora, fauna and fantastic fishing on the world's largest river system

Story and photos by David A. Brown

Photo of tow anglers boating on the Amazon River
Two anglers set out from their mothership to fish a stretch of abundant Amazon
waters. The river flows nearly 4,000 miles and bisects the South American continent.

It’s 9 p.m. on Rio Jatapu and the darkened stillness draping this Amazon tributary gives way to swooshing passes of sonar-guided bats gorging on clouds of moths hovering overhead. My guide, a short, burly man who goes by “Yuca,” has wedged the bow of his aluminum bass boat onto a rocky outcropping so we can fish one of his favorite spots for pirarara – the beautiful redtail catfish, whose stunning coloration bespeaks the visual splendor of the world’s most biodiverse jungle.

Stationed on that bow, I felt highly vulnerable with my back to whatever wildness may approach, so when Yuca shined his spotlight over my head to scan the jungle for a third time, I had to know what he was searching for. His nonchalant reply captured the adventurous, if not occasionally danger-laced appeal of Amazon fishing: “Jaguar no good.”

Indeed, sharing a 20-foot boat with a large, carnivorous feline would not be good. However, "good" woefully understates the magnificence of an unspoiled habitat that threatens sensory overload, while filling the soul with an instantly addicting euphoria that left me mentally clinging to this wild and wonderful memory, even as my U.S. bound plane departed at trip's end.

Go Deep, Fish Close

Photo of the riverboat The Otter on the Amazon River

Because the Amazon's prime fishing grounds stretch many miles from the river proper, and because reaching any launching point is an adventure in itself, and because the sheer vastness makes time a precious resource, you'll want to give yourself at least a handful of dedicated angling days. Best bet for such missions is the all-inclusive option of a self-sufficient river boat.

My week-long trip aboard The Otter was pure blissful seclusion – a complete departure from the civilized world with only a satellite phone, which we never touched, linking my group of 12 to lives that seemed light years away. The 60-foot, four-deck, twin diesel wooden vessel equipped a dozen air-conditioned 2-person rooms with private baths, while the Otter’s kitchen, dining hall, laundry service and sunset deck with Jacuzzi provided comfy digs with three square meals a day.

The staff, along with eight guides, slept aboard a supply boat that paralleled our course and towed the aluminum bass boats in which we took our day trips. This mother ship strategy provided a creature comfort journey with the benefit of short range vessels capable of reaching shallow backwaters rich with jaw-dropping beauty and thick with rod-bending treasure.

Angling Abundance

Photo of an angler holding a peacock bass

Predictably, peacock bass topped the target list for most of this group. Bold and beautiful, these aggressive predators are the Amazon’s top angling draw. Most common are the royals, with their olive backs, golden sides presenting dark vertical bars and reddish-orange accents on the lower fins and bottom jaw. Paint that fish with yellow dots and you have the speckled peacock.

“Tucanare” in Portuguese, peacocks hit a variety of lures, but traveling fishermen come for the surface game. Jumbo Zara Spooks and giant chuggers like Creek Chub Knuckleheads will get plenty of attention, but a properly employed Woodchopper makes the kind of commotion that really ticks off the big fish. A tight cadence of reeling and violently ripping the lure across the surface produces the noisy slurps that draw those show-stopping hits.

When fish boil and miss, follow-up casts with shallow divers like Bomber Long A’s and Smithwick Rogues often score the connection. If you value quantity over quality, stick with those subsurface presentations near stumps and stickups for non-stop action with juvenile peacocks.

Peacocks will forever rule the Amazon sport-fishing scene, but the under-utilized catfish resources offer fine diversions during lulls in the casting action. The pirarara win the beauty contest with its lemon chiffon underside, olive hue above the lateral line, dark green forehead freckles and brilliant reddish-orange tips on its tail, pectoral and dorsal fins. Fully extended, the prominent dorsal resembles a cockatoo’s crest, while the stout pectoral spines are strong enough to serve as handles for lifting the cat vertically.

The largest river system on the planet in terms of volume, the Amazon flows some 4,000 miles from its Peruvian headwaters to Brazil's Atlantic coast and moves approximately 20 percent of the world’s fresh water. Within such a sizeable flow, lots of forage – living and not – rolls past lots of holes, rock piles, log jams and points. Such is the making of dependable catfishing.

Along with the pirarara, Amazon waters hold a diverse assemblage of whiskered residents, from the slender suribim, to the speckled pintado, to the hulking jau and piraiba. Several smaller species such as golden colored barbado (known for venomous spines) and the jurupensem (called pico pato, or “duck beak” for its extended upper jaw) further the assortment.

Photo of a man holding an Amazon catfish

Amazon cats – especially the aggressive suribims – will hit artificial lures, but consistency comes by soaking something smelly in an area of opportunity. I discovered that a freshly cut piranha, plus moving water plus submerged structure equals a good shot at Amazon catfish. Between peacock outings, several in my group used this formula to create memorable moments, like our first night on the river, when a river giant that never surfaced had Bassmaster Elite Series pro Ish Monroe doubled over before snapping 80-pound braided line.

My turn came the following night when Hall and I talked Yuca into an after-hours mission that yielded the poignant jaguar comment. We ran about three miles from the Otter and when Yuca located an attractive stretch of rocky bank, he spent several minutes idling 30 yards out as he scanned the shore with his spotlight. Judging by the dozens of ruby glimmers dotting the shallows, I figured he was looking as much for caimens as he was for a suitable banking site.

Mine was the first bait out – a silver piranha head weighted with a half-inch bolt. It didn’t take long for the current to roll my rig into the rocks and when my line came tight with a constant angle, Yuca casually grabbed my rod and worked his magic. After a 20-minute soak, my line tightened again but Yuca didn’t assist. Instead he spun his index finger in a circle for the universal “reel, reel, reel” signal. Ten minutes later, my chunky redtail hit the deck and we decided to leave the jaguars to their evening agenda.

Traditional fish finder rigs comprising 2- to 4-ounce egg sinkers and 7/0 circle hooks work best for catfish, but Amazon tackle shops are few and far between, so improvise as needed. When my supply of lead weights dwindled, Otter owner Gilberto Castro provided stainless steel nuts and bolts as replacements. Twice anglers returned from catfishing with river stones tied to their braided line.

Hungry And Hostile

Photo of a piranha caught on the Amazon River

Tugging on thick Amazon catfish was great fun, but we also had a blast trying to convert the lightning fast strikes of ravenous piranhas into fresh catfish bait. The areas we fished hold silver piranhas, which max out at a pound or so and the ghastly black piranhas that regularly reach pie plate proportions. I boated a big black that went three pounds on the hand scale. Thirty minutes later, fellow Floridian Larry Thornhill lifted one that could have beheaded mine in one bite.

For bait, the Otter cooks gave us chunks of beef, the tough fibers of which hold well to hooks. We also caught piranhas on chunks of small peacock bass and various river oddballs like the bicuda – a slender, toothy fish similar to a pickerel – and a large sardine-like forage fish called “apapa.”

Wire leaders or at least long-shank hooks are a must. We also fared well with 1/4-ounce jig heads, as this kept the bait and weight in-line for a streamlined presentation. Banking the boats against vegetation inside creek mouths off the main river produced the best action for black piranhas. The silvers seemed less particular and we caught these smaller but more numerous fish around rocky outcroppings and along current lines off sandy beach points.

Because piranhas feed in packs, usually on carcasses, theirs is a grip-and-shake style of feeding intended to saw bite-size chunks with their triangular teeth. I hooked more fish by steadily reeling on the strike than I did by trying to out-quick piranhas with a snappy hook set. (We had only J hooks, but circle hooks would help this game.) Any shake-off was always followed by a new attacker, as long as some sliver of bait remained. Between bites, guides showed us how to beat the surface with our rod tips to create distress sounds that attract piranhas.

Memories Made

Photo of local children paddling on the Amazon River

Making new friends is one of traveling’s greatest gifts and I found the Otter’s fishing guides and staff a warm and friendly bunch. Guides had their personal styles, but when they learned of my interest in flora and fauna, they patiently endured my photo shoots. Most did a good job of pointing out animals I would have overlooked.

I also found the Brazilians living in the river’s sparsely distributed farming and fishing settlements warm and welcoming. A widow and her son offered fresh coconuts from their backyard; kids at the tiny village of Santa Luzia invited us to join their soccer game; youngsters often paddled out to mooch soft drinks from anglers.

Locals readily showed us their modest abodes and most accepted fishing tackle and sometimes a little cash for priceless items such as hand-carved canoe paddles and weathered machetes. Unique souvenirs, no doubt, but none so priceless as the memories of this ecological wonderland for which my heart yearns.

Amazon At A Glance

Map of the Amazon River

Originating in Peru’s snowy Andean peaks, several river systems feed into the Marañón River, which combines with the Ucayali River in northeastern Peru to form the Amazon River. Locally known as Rio Amazonas, the Amazon changes its name to Solimões across parts of western Brazil, but returns to its common name after merging with Rio Negro at the rainforest port city of Manaus.

With the planet’s heaviest river volume, the Amazon moves approximately 20 percent of the world’s fresh water. Draining some 2,722,000 square miles – roughly 40 percent of South America – the river’s freshwater discharge into the Atlantic Ocean reaches as high as 300,000 square meters per second in the rainy season.

November through June sees Amazon water levels rising with the rainy season. During this time, the river reaches up to 25 miles wide with an average depth of 120 feet (40 meters). When late June-October brings the dry season, the river narrows to 7 miles or less. The Amazon and its tributaries cover 350,000 square kilometers during the wet season; 110,000 during the dry. Rio Negro’s later rainy season begins its rise in February, with a dry season roughly matching that of the Amazon.

Often called The River Sea, the Amazon flows approximately 4,000 miles (6,400 kilometers) - the world’s second longest river behind the Nile. Most of the Amazon flows across Brazil and enters the Atlantic at the country’s northeast corner. Best part about this aquatic wonderland – tannic acid from abundant vegetation stains Amazon water tea-brown and prevents mosquito breeding.

Enjoy The View

Flying over the Amazon region, the dense canopy gives the illusion of verdant sameness; however, nothing could be further from the truth. From water level, I marveled at a mix of dense jungle foliage often spiked with the umbrella shaped ceiba trees, high barren bluffs of reddish orange clay, smooth white beaches and even isolated creeks strewn with chunk rocks as big as king size beds.

Photo of the Amazon River at sunset

Each morning, we could count on spotting several tucans high in tree tops or flying across the river. Scarlett macaws, parrots, kingfishers, gavions and many other colorful species made frequent appearances. Deep within the flooded forests of macarecuia trees spiking backwater lagoons, colonies of yellow-rumped caciques built their distinctive woven basket nests high above the placid waters. Caimens (Amazon alligators), pink river dolphins and fast-moving monkey troupes accented the experience.

On foot, the rule of avoidance is watch where you grab for balance. There’s no lack of creepy crawlies, including spiders and several species of aggressive ants. Amid the leaf litter, our guide Amarol twice spotted tiny poison dart frogs. About the size of a quarter, these shy amphibians are harmless to the touch, but the slime they excrete holds a neurotoxin often used by indigenous hunters who dip their blowgun darts in the paralyzing potion.

Back in Manaus, a completely natural tract of rainforest habitat abuts the Tropical Hotel, where we stayed before flying back to the U.S. Exploring the property’s outer boundary, I found leopard tree frogs, various lizards and centipedes crawling along branches and came nearly face-to-face with a two-toed tree sloth hanging upside down in a web of vines as she enjoyed a nocturnal feast of leaves.

When trip schedules afford tourist time in Manaus, visit the ornate Teatro Amazonas – an opera house built in 1896. Also worth a visit are the Justice Palace near Teatro Amazonas, the Rio Negro Cultural Center and Mercado Adolpho Lisboa (the city's oldest marketplace, circa 1882). The popular beachfront park of Punta Negra has volleyball courts, a playground, bars, eateries and an amphitheater for spectacular Brazilian dance performances.

Trip Pointers

Our trip originated in Manaus, the capital of Brazil’s northwestern Amazonas state. The main port and hub for regional river traffic, Manaus sits near the mouth of Rio Negro, where this dark flow converges with the relatively clear Amazon at The Meeting of the Waters. (Aerial view and satellite charts show a clear convergence.)

A commuter flight from Manaus took us northwest to the modest riverside town of Urucara on Rio Uatama (pronounced “wah-ta-ma”), a northward branching Amazon tributary. We launched around 4 p.m., cruised all night and by the next morning, we had reached Rio Jatapu (“zha-ta-poo”), a smaller artery where we’d spend most of our week.

Most North Americans traveling to Brazil funnel through Miami. We flew Brazil’s TAM Airlines (http://www.tam.com.br) and the service was remarkably thorough and generous for coach travel. A shuttle van took us from the main terminal to the jet port where we packed into a small twin engine plane for a 30-minute flight to a small landing strip in Urucara. Another van drove us about a mile through the sleepy town to the river, where a rickety gangway spanning the steep river bank led to a barge now serving as a loading dock for cruise boats and the many commuter vessels traversing this area.

Portuguese is the national language of Brazil, but I found a few English speaking staff at the Manaus Airport, as well as the Hotel Tropical Manaus where we spent our final night. During our week on the Otter, I was able to communicate with several guides and boat staff in basic Spanish, while a couple of guides knew enough English to offer instruction.

Brazil requires a passport along with a tourist visa for entry (convenient service at www.traveldocument.com). Proof of a current yellow fever shot is also required. Optional Hepatitis A & B shots, along with Malaria medication are worth considering. Large levels of tannin wash into the Amazon system, thereby making the water ineffective for mosquito production. However, if you spend much time in the cities and towns, the Malaria risk increases.

Brazil’s national currency is the real (pronounced “hey-al”), but American dollars work for just about everything but small street vendors. Pay attention to currency exchange rates posted at banks and hotels to ensure proper conversions.

For trip details, contact the Otter or the Amazon Clipper through Ron Speeds Adventures at www.ronspeedadventures.com/. For information about various trips throughout the Amazon region, visit www.brazil-travel-guide.com/Amazon-Cruises.html

Photo of three men boating on the Amazon River