Down and Out on the Xingu


THE GUIDE SPAT, indicating that I should cast elsewhere. I had no regard for such misgivings: if the piranha were the only fish biting, then I was just thankful for something—anything—tugging at the end of my line.

My companion, Cale, and I shared long-suffering looks, and then went back to the anything-but-elegant rhythm of chucking lead shooting heads on ten weights. It was mindless work, and my thoughts returned to events of the past few days.  The fishing party had rendezvoused in Miami the previous Tuesday. After a long wait for the redeye to Manaus, Brazil, we were faced with an inauspicious omen so early in our trip: Our flight had been cancelled, due to vulture strike. “What kind of pterodactyl does it take to knock out a 737?” I asked. “These aren’t your ordinary turkey buzzards,” our guide, Mark, shot back. I laughed and caught the others on the way to the bar. Nothing like getting the bad stuff out of the way early, we figured.  Our second flight made it out the gate, and soon enough we found ourselves in Belém, Brazil, at the mouth of the Amazon. The rubber barons had made Belém one of the jewels of their industrial empire, but those days are long gone. Now the spirit of industry, never quenched, lives on in the form of streetside vendors willing to sell anything from monkey skulls to anaconda skins to themselves to the few gringos who pass through.

Our time there being short, we ran around doing the tourist thing, until the next morning, when we found ourselves a man down shortly before takeoff for the bush. Our guide, on the verge of apoplexy, began a room-to-room search, while I stepped outside to catch a glimpse of the World Cup on a street vendor’s portable TV. When I looked up, there in mid-traffic was our missing soldier stumbling back to the hotel. The vendor, noticing his look, winked at me: “He have good time in Belém, yes?” I just winked back.

Welcome to the Jungle

Three hours into an all-dirt bus ramble down the Pan-Amazon highway, we tumbled out of our cramped vehicle onto the palmed, manicured lawn of our lodge.  We’d made a short hop by turboprop over the central Amazon jungle, putting down in Altamira, near the Xingu Indian reservation (the site of last year’s grisly airline crash). Our destination was the Xingu (pronounced Shing-goo) River, one of the major forks of the Amazon and also one of the last remaining pieces of water in the world where the major sportfish have yet to receive scientific classification. Cale was the first man to the lodge veranda, so he was the first to cough out a shocked expletive. As far as the eye could see, all was river. The Xingu was a torrent; a moving, swirling sea.  Peacock bass, the head guide, Marco, sadly told us, were out of the question. “The peacock, eh, he is under the trees.” At home, that statement would mean a moderately difficult day of bushwhacking through rhododendrons. In the Amazon? “We stay out of the trees today, yes? The anaconda, he like the trees.” No one disagreed with him.

Don’t worry, he seemed to say, the piranhas will get you first anyway.

Now the thing you’ve got to understand about Brazil is, it’s a bit of a dicey place to go fishing. From the get-go you’ve got to consider things such as contracting malaria—the “Yellow Jack”—necessitating a trip to the county health department to fill a shot card. They won’t even let you in the country unless you show the little yellow slip proving you’re not going to up and die on them. Once the microscopic bugs are covered, you’ve got the macro beasts to worry about: the Brazilian jungle has excellent populations of jaguar, anaconda, tarantula, and sundry other critters. By day two, you’ll eyeballing your morning coffee with the sang-froid of a veteran, dismissing anything less than a cockroach floating in its film as not worth the effort. On top of the ordinary daily indignities of living in a jungle—nothing we weren’t prepared for—you’ve also got one other problem: it rains a lot in Brazil. Brazil has a wet and a dry season, and as I understand it those seasons flip depending on the side of the Equator you’re trying to fish. We were about three degrees north of the line, so although we’d heard that the southern lodges had all cancelled bookings because of blown out conditions, we were hoping to get lucky.  June on the Xingu is the end of the wet season, and in a good year there’d be two weeks of fishing before our scheduled arrival. This was not a good year.

Guides and anglers prepare to load at the overflowing dockhouse.

Down in the Flood

Most of my fishing back home is done by wading; I don’t come from a part of the country where people own drift boats. So you’ll understand my ignorance when we first hopped into the long aluminum jon boats that were to take us into the maw of the Xingu. “You know anything about PFDs?” Cale shot over his shoulder. “Life vests?” I replied. “Not really.” “These are like, point oh fives,” he said, gesturing to the faded, compressed, most likely child’s model vest he was buckling up to his chin.  “Is that bad?” I asked, knowing the answer.  “These wouldn’t float a sled dog!” Cale laughed back. “Just don’t hit your head.” I heard a chuckle and looked behind me; the native guide didn’t speak English but he’d been following the conversation.  He said a few phrases in Portuguese, pointing at the water. Don’t worry, he seemed to say, the piranhas will get you first anyway.

In fishing, there’s hard going, and then there’s that next level. We’ve all seen hard going. Hell, half my season is spent marking time from meager hatch to meager hatch, counting the unknown days until I once again hit the golden moment, when the fish just won’t stay off my line. You know what I’m talking about: fishing so easy it gets boring. The Xingu in flood was the exact opposite of that; it was fishing’s dark side of the moon. Cale and I couldn’t buy a strike, and it was all our guide could do to keep us from being washed out to the Atlantic. I threw every fly in every box, sometimes just to complete a row.  At one point, we found ourselves tethered to a submerged tree, our guide acting as anchor up in the prow. I’d already gotten tired and so, when I made a half-assed cast into a cluster of boulders usually found a quarter mile from the waterline, I was unprepared for the twin streaks of silver that shot out at my fly.  “Payara!” the guide shouted.

Now, a word about payara. Everyone who’s been around fishing for a few years has heard of peacock bass, the main sport fish in the Amazon, but few North American anglers would be able to pick a payara out of a lineup. The fish resembles nothing so much as a baby tarpon, right down to the silver-mailed sides and the underbite, except that this monster has two enormous saber teeth jutting up from its lower jaw. The payara is a strong, acrobatic fighter—like practically everything in the Amazon, it jumps when hooked. Its closest analogue in North American fishing would probably be the pike or the muskellunge, and like those fish, the payara is a bit of a loner. Whereas a decent angler might catch twenty or thirty nice peacock bass during the height of season on the Xingu, he’d never manage more than five or six payara.

I moved exactly three payara in the Xingu, and every one of them nearly stopped my heart. These are the wolves of the river; they’ll track your fly down and slash back and forth at it until they subdue it or you retrieve it right into your tip top. Conditions made landing these fish extremely difficult, but I did bring the first to the boat before he snapped off, victim of our tenuous anchor situation. Amazonian fish live hard lives, it seems: while my payara was being subdued, his companion—that second streak of silver—took slashes out of his tail.

At the end of a long day, Cale gets in one last cast.

A Taste of What’s Possible

By the last day of the trip, our party was basically running on empty. The water had been dropping about five feet a day, but it still had more than a hundred to go to get to dead low. We’d been slinging heavy line on billfish rigs for hour after hour, only occasionally being rewarded when a pod of swarming piranha or the lone payara managed to find our flies in all that water. At one lunch break, another fisherman, Jim, an ex-guide, was smiling. He’d caught a few bicuda—a sort of long nosed gar dressed in redfish drag, complete with beauty spot—and a few piranha. His eyes looked wild, however, and he heaved a big sigh of relief as the boat touched the dock ramp. “Do any good?” Cale yelled over. “Yeah,” said Jim, “but we’ve just been down the West Branch of the River of Death!” Jim’s partner Tom silently cracked a beer. I found out later he had caught what is probably the new world record piranha (which we later dined on), but right then he just looked glad to be on dry land. After lunch, I grabbed the head guide, Marco, and explained that I wanted him to fish with me. He agreed, but first he glanced out the back door at the river and looked back at me with a different glint in his eye. Marco knew that for the first time, the water had dropped enough to form pools in the rocks. “We try for the peacock bass, eh?” he said. Somewhat skeptically, I agreed.

If You Go

Seasons: The most important factor in targeting peacock bass is timing. To avoid many of the dangers and difficulties of out-of-season angling, you want to be on the water in the dry period of the year. Due to the size of the Amazon Basin, that time varies from region to region. If you decide to take a crack at peacock bass from June through December, pick a location in the eastern Amazon region, such as the Xingu. If you want to go from October to March, head to western Brazil, for instance to Rio Negro. The height of spring is also the height of flood, so April and May are effectively unfishable. Plan your trip during one of the two low-water seasons.

Travel: Traveling to the Amazon jungle is not something you want to plan on your own. There are daily flights from Miami to Belem, with connecting flights to Altimara. Aside from plane tickets and ground transport, you’ll also need evidence of vaccinations, a visa, and a passport. You’re better off letting one of these outfitters take care of all the details.

High Hook Fishing Tours—(212) 535-2336;

Yellow Dog Flyfishing Adventures—(406) 585-8667;

Just so long as he didn’t have the trees in mind. We headed well downriver, farther than anyone had gone that year, to a basalt pinnacle that was now clear. We beached the boat on the jagged, spongy rock and I crawled over the crest of the ridge, looking down into a picture perfect peacock-bass hole. “We have the yellow and black baitfish, here, yes?” Marco explained, picking out a black-and-yellow Clouser from my third-string box. I nodded and lobbed the fly into the pool, letting it sink and rest on the bottom. When I lifted the rod, my first peacock bass exploded from the water.

The Xingu River peacock bass is most likely a unique species, but scientists are currently considering reclassifying every peacock bass, so we’ll have to wait a while to find out. It lacks the color of its more famous brothers, and its stripes—up to ten of them—are subdued, almost transparent. The Xingu peacock doesn’t lack in fight, however. In a limited space, there’s nowhere to go but up, and that’s the option the peacock will take.

Marco grinned like the Cheshire Cat as strike after strike yielded peacocks and piranha. In the height of the dry season, in September, most of the Xingu pools up, and bass and prey alike are concentrated into much smaller confines. The fecundity of the river in its enormous stages is concentrated during its anemic ones, so fish counts per square mile of water explode, and aggressive behavior increases. For just a few minutes, I was experiencing the potential of the fishery.

My biggest peacock came moments later. “The female,” Marco intoned, “she is eh-smaller. The male—he is the big fish. You catched the female. Right now, the peacock is like the black bass. He make the nest, and he defend it. You want to cast again.” A few casts more and a much bigger golden flash than anything we had seen yet brightened up the water. “Big peacock!” Marco yelled as I scrambled down the basalt, watching the peacock pirouette out of the corner of my eye and simultaneously trying not to rend my flesh on the sharp rock. I beached the fish and held him up for Marco to inspect. “This fish, he is above three kilos,” he said. “How big is that?” I replied. “Maybe seven or eight pounds.” I pumped both fists this time and high-fived Marco. He laughed and said, “this is very good fish for now, very good, but you come back in September—then he is only average. You come back in September?” I laughed and nodded, wondering how I would manage that but knowing I would jump at the chance. Just so long as I get to bring my own life vest next time.

This article originally ran in the January/February 2007 edition of American Angler magazine.

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