An adventurous BoatUS Magazine editor sets out to discover what's lurking in the waters of the largest river in the world — using only traditional gear.
You can't drive to Iquitos, Peru, because the city with a half-million people is the largest in the world with no road to the outside. Iquitos can only be visited by air or water — the water in this case is the mighty Amazon River. As we walked out of the small airport into the humidity, a friendly face greeted us by name. John (pronounced Joan in Spanish) would be our guide for a five-day adventure in a small lodge on the Amazon River that would include fishing. Neither my wife, Susan, nor I are particularly experienced anglers. I'd done some bass fishing in northern lakes and fished for salmon and halibut while sailing Alaska's Inside Passage, but we were eager to see what our guide had in store for us.
John quickly brought us to a dilapidated dock at the edge of town where we loaded our two small suitcases into a 24-foot beat-up aluminum boat powered by an equally ancient (and legendary) 60-hp Yamaha Enduro two-stroke outboard. A minute later, we were on the Amazon headed downstream, the engine loudly reverberating in the partially covered boat. Over the noise, I asked John if there were many recreational boats on the river. He looked at me as if I'd just asked if the Amazon ever froze over, and I soon found out why. Here the river was a mile and a half wide, had a 2- to 3-knot current with eddies and whirlpools, and there were zero navigation aids — no buoys, no lights, no markers. Worse, the river was filled with sticks, branches, and whole trees. Every year during the rainy season, the river rises at least 10 feet, then falls, filling the river with debris and rearranging shallows and even shore landmarks. If that's not enough to discourage boaters, the Amazon's tributaries add huge fields of floating water lettuce and tough grasses ready to clog intakes and foul props.
Manuel, our captain, expertly avoided the worst of the debris, only stopping a couple of times in the murky water to clear the prop. As a boating safety expert and BoatUS editor for years, my eyes wandered over the boat as we roared down the river at 23 knots. The safety equipment, I noticed, consisted of and was limited to a single broken oar. There was no chartplotter, no GPS, no horn, no flares, not even a VHF radio. The old life jackets were securely tied to our seatbacks, not exactly "readily accessible." Halfway to the lodge, the boat stopped and Manuel pulled the engine's fuel pickup from one open wide-mouth jug and shoved it into another one, full of gas. I tried not to look.
Eventually, the boat pulled into a tiny tributary and we glided to an old wooden dock. The Otorango River Lodge had room enough for 20 people, but tourism had not yet returned to the Amazon, and we were the only guests. This would be a time to for us to unplug — there was no internet or phone service, and the lodge's basic electricity needs were powered by solar panels and a small battery. Our tidy cabin was built on stilts and completely screened in, with two bare-bulb lights and a single outlet being the extent of electrical luxuries. As we climbed the steps, two huge and outrageously colored scarlet macaws flew in front of us, screeching like dinosaurs. We were definitely not in Kansas anymore.
The next morning, we donned our long pants and thin long-sleeved fishing shirts that we'd treated with permethrin (a human-safe insecticide) before we'd left home, then we both slathered 100% DEET on anything that was exposed. This was the jungle after all, and Susan especially, is a mosquito magnet.
At the lodge house, John showed us drawings of some of the fish that live in the Amazon, including the giant 9-foot-long carnivorous arapaima, electric eels, pancake stingrays, vampire fish, and a 3-foot bass. The lodge also catered to those who wanted the big ones, but we'd be using traditional gear and angling for much smaller fish.
Soon, we loaded up into a boat called a pecky-pecky because of the sound the engine makes at idle. Peruvians, John said, often name things for their sound, like the Victor Diaz bird whose call sounds like VictorDiaz! Our pecky-pecky was about 25 feet, with about a 4-foot beam and a single-cylinder Honda engine turning a crazy 10-foot drive shaft angled only a few degrees above the water. We learned this allows the captain to pivot the long shaft left and right to steer, as well as up and down to avoid shallows and the constant stream of sticks, logs, and floating plants that clog the Amazon and its inlets. To my eye, it resembled a giant weed trimmer. At speed, the air-cooled Honda sounded like an old lawn tractor.
Watching Saul, our pecky-pecky captain, I could see that it was physically demanding horsing the engine around in two dimensions, constantly alert for hazards. The only safety gear I noted were some life jackets tied to the seats and a wooden paddle (even worse, I learned later that the paddle was made from a type of heavy wood that sinks if it goes overboard). John told us that sometimes there might be cell service from a tower a few miles away in the right conditions, and I wondered again about my decision not to bring my tiny PLB (Personal Locator Beacon). But Saul turned out to be one of the most accomplished skippers I'd ever met.
We crossed the wide Amazon, dodging logs of all sizes along with the ever-present floating water lettuce and grasses. On the other side, we entered an open area and suddenly we saw a pair of rare water mammals, pink dolphins, feeding in the shallows close enough to see but too shy to photograph. In the trees along the shore we saw monkeys, sloths, parrots, and toucans.
As we watched the pink dolphins, mesmerized, John casted a bait net for some 3-inch sardines, which Saul expertly cut to size using his enormous razor-sharp machete and the wooden paddle that doubled as a cutting board. It was February, but it was summer here south of the equator, and it was hot. Fortunately, a wind had come up from the east as we headed farther up the lagoon until it turned into another small river, this one not muddy like the Amazon, but dark with tannin. Up the river a few miles we pecky-peckied along at about 5 or 6 knots, the Honda and skipper working hard.
Eventually, we stopped under some overhanging trees and John brought out several traditional fishing poles, slender sticks about 6 feet long, with 6 feet of fishing line, a small weight, and a small hook. It was stiflingly hot while stopped, so we took off our long-sleeved shirts, which we'd regret later while we burned and itched in our cabin. As we put the bait on the hooks and cast into the shadows, almost immediately I got a hit!
And no wonder, John had taken us to a place teeming with red-bellied piranha. These fish are small but have a giant attitude, as you might expect. Unhappy with being caught, they snapped their razor-sharp teeth as we removed the hook. When I say "we," I mean Saul. No way was I going near those snapping jaws, so I handed the fish to him and as he held it, he deftly maneuvered the hook from around the teeth with his bare hands. He'd obviously done it before and grinned at the American who was afraid of a little fish.
Every time I cast with the primitive rig, I could feel something striking, sometimes nonstop, as the piranha swarmed, and I frequently brought up a bare hook. The trick, I found, was to move the bait slowly through the dark water until a piranha would strike hard, then set the hook and bring them up where they dared us to get close to their teeth. I barely noticed the mosquitos as I hauled in some more angry piranha that, in a reversal of their fortune, would be part of lunch at the lodge. I knew there would be little meat on the fish, but how often do you get to catch and eat a fearsome little creature?
Susan struggled with the delicate gear to eventually land a foot-long catfish with sharp spines and she squealed with delight. It would be the biggest fish of the day. We had several more catfish strikes but no landings, unlike the ravenous piranha that kept hitting our bait. John said the river bottom was filled with catfish and they were a staple for local villagers. We'd have fresh-caught catfish at least once a day at the lodge. Some of them, he said, were easily 3 feet long and no way would our light gear bring them up. Farther up, the river turned into a lake a quarter-mile wide, where we fished some more. Some piranha struck, but they were wiser (or better fed) than the last school, and the catfish seemed to be sleeping, so we headed back toward the river.
Eventually, we crossed the Amazon again, where it was nearly 2 miles wide, Saul hugging the shore as long as possible, as a 1- or 2-foot chop had come up with wind opposing the current. I respected Saul's seamanship even more as he expertly navigated around acres of floating trees and miles of water lettuce in the chop and fierce eddies. Back at the lodge, we had lunch of catfish and our fresh-caught piranha, which was very tasty.
On our last day at the lodge, John asked if we wanted to head up a long tributary of the Amazon that night, looking for cayman. Yeah, no lights, no safety gear, and South American crocodiles. What could go wrong? But we figured we're too old to die young now, so why not?
How we later navigated back in a moonless night through what often looked like floating cornfields of weeds I'll never know, but I realized that those, like Saul, who grew up on the huge river, were very competent skippers who, without electronic gear, navigated by feeling the current and the wind, and looking at the stars.
In the darkness on the way back, through clouds of flying bugs, small fish jumped ahead of us, some of them landing in the boat. I asked John what they did if one of the boats broke down somewhere remote. The Amazon would save them, he said. They'd simply float downstream where they'd eventually wave down another boater who would lend a hand. Sound familiar?
How To Get There
The fastest way is to fly to Lima, Peru, then catch a smaller flight to Iquitos. Your guide can then pick you up at the airport. A more fun (but complicated) way is to fly into Bogota or Medellin, Colombia, to Leticia, Colombia. From there, you can walk or taxi into Tabatinga, Brazil, to get tickets for the "fast boat" (about eight hours) to Iquitos, Peru, where your guide can then pick you up. You'll need passports, and you may need proof of Covid vaccination and/or be tested to enter or leave some countries; check CDC.gov for specifics. Global Entry and the Mobile Passport Control app are helpful for reentering the U.S.