Leggett: In pursuit of giant peacock bass in Brazil

Deep into the laguna off the river, among the flooded bushes of the rain forest, close to where the jaguar is roaring and the caymans lie sunning on the white sand beaches, a red-eyed monster lurks in the sunken trees.

He’s a relative monster — about 20 pounds — for his species, but fierce in the way he conducts his business, which in this case is survival, feeding on lesser species unfortunate enough to miss seeing him hiding among the foliage that has begun to sprout from limbs soaked during the just-ended rainy season.

Bulging red eyes flick back and forth on top of his head, measuring the distance from his mouth to the prey he’s chosen on the surface of the lagoon, which is clear, black and dropping about 6 inches per day in elevation. He won’t miss at this distance, though the violence of his attack might well throw his intended meal clear at the last second.

The primitive brain fires, and synapses are crossed in microseconds; the signal travels to the broad, heavy muscles in his tail and sides, and the attack is launched. On the surface, the prey, which is actually a multi-ounce topwater plug called a Woodchopper, floats and bobs as an angler attached by 25 yards of 100-pound braided line waits for the attack to commence.

The wide mouth, armed only with scraping kinds of fish teeth, which can flay the skin from a man’s hand, opens wide and creates a vacuum as the 6-inch long lure is sucked into an unbelievable vortex. The hooks bite themselves, and the angler holds on for what seems like a lifetime, thumb pressing hard against the burning spool of line as the fish bores back into the brush.

The angler thinks for just a moment that he might have won this war, but now can feel the line scraping against wood and other river litter. The fish pulls fresh line off the spool and begins scraping his massive head against the vegetation below, eventually getting one of the massive treble hooks to catch and give him the chance to pull with all his might.

The hooks at times will give under the intense abuse, but this time they merely allow the brute to pull free. He returns to his underwater lair to sulk for a while before going out to feed again.

Above, in the small, metal bass boat where I am standing, the sweat and heat of a tropical morning and the adrenaline of the just-lost fish leave me shaky and in need of water, or a beer, to help my comeback from the abyss of fighting and losing a giant peacock bass on an Amazon River tributary.

Luckily, just a few casts later, another monster peacock slams my lure and, because he’s kind of in open water, quickly succumbs to the pressure of the rod and reel and surrenders himself to the net. The strike was just as vicious and violent, but none of the thousand things that could wrong do go wrong, and I win this round.

My friend Steve Knight and I are fishing the Ouatuma with Ron Speed Jr’s Adventures, the longtime outfitter who opened this part of Brazil’s Amazon Basin for fishing way back in the early 1990s. I fished here for the first time in 1994 and have been back several times over the years.

After a flight from Miami to Manaus, Amazonas, at the confluence of the Rio Negro and the Amazon, we spend a night at a luxury hotel in Manaus and leave by bus for the village of Itapirenga around noon the next day. We fish for five days on the Ouatuma, returning each night to the quadruple deck boat that will be our home.

The food is good and plentiful, and the boat is luxurious for its location, with showers and bathrooms, air conditioning and daily maid service for each cabin. Anglers are met each morning by their assigned guides and ferried off to various lagunas, created by the swiftly residing waters of the Ouatuma as it surrenders its rainy season floodwaters to the giant Amazon.

“We’ve been coming to this river for 25 years,” Speed says at dinner one night. “We know that the fishing doesn’t really get good until the river is dropping, and that’s what we have right now.”

When the water is spread out hundreds of miles through the surrounding jungle, the peacock bass are too scattered and can’t be reached by anglers. When the river begins to decline and the fish are pushed to the shorelines by the resulting current, fishing jumps up in quality and numbers, and anglers can enjoy the prime peacock experience.

“When we first started here,” Speed says, “the government was still allowing some commercial fishing, and we hardly ever caught a 20-pound fish. They’ve stopped that some, and now we will catch several every trip.”

Our group of anglers lands three during our five days on the river, along with 17 other fish over 15 pounds. I lost four fish in heavy brush that probably would have gone past 20 pounds, and Knight managed to lose two of his own.

It was a good week.

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