Gamefish of the Amazon Basin

A compendium of scientific and angling information for the fishing enthusiast.

BackGround

From an evolutionary standpoint, Amazonian fish species come from an ancient line of groups that were already established nearly 60 million years ago (they have changed little since that time).  The most commonly accepted theory regarding the existence of most Amazon species is that their precursors evolved during a period when what is now South America, Africa, southern Asia and Australia were a single continent called Gondwanaland.  Upon the separation of these continents, these mutual ancestors then evolved independently.  Today, although the remnant of this relationship between the Amazonian, African and Australian fish remains evident, their modern descendents have speciated into thousands of endemic varieties. The majority of Amazonian gamefish belong to only three large groups (Families): the catfish, characins (freshwater dorado for example) and cichlids (peacock bass).  In addition to these are several other odd ball Families like the osteoglossidae (such as the immense pirarucú), as well as groups with salt-water origins such as the sardinata/apapá, a shad/herring/tarpon-like fish and the corvina, which is essentially a freshwater drum.The list of Amazonian freshwater gamefish is as extensive and exotic as the land itself.  Depending upon the region there are as many as twenty different species that will take a fly or lure – all with fantastic names to match their peculiar appearances.

The Amazon Basin

brazilian amazon map

Classification

The freshwater Amazonian gamefish in this article, as organized by ichthyologists, are all members of the Class Osteichthyes or bony fish.  This group includes all freshwater evolved fish and the majority of saltwater species.   fish of similar anatomical characteristics within this differentiation, are grouped in Orders.  Within each order, closely related fish are further segregated into Families.  The two-part scientific name then specifies the Genus and Species.

 

ORDER PERCIFORMES

cichlids 

ORDER CYPRINIFORMES

characins 

OSTEOGLOSSIFORMES

osteoglossids

ORDER SILURIFORMES

catfish 

PEACOCK BASS SPECIES

Gondwanaland

Definition: A hypothetical supercontinent made up of South America, Africa, India, Australia, and Antarctica. Presumed to have  existed from 300 to 200 million years ago.History:  In 1912 a German scientist, Alfred Wegener, was the first person  to put forth the concept that the continents were joined at one time in the geologic past.  He postulated a single great landmass, Pangaea.  Later theorists describe the separation, late in the Triassic Period (245 to 208 million years ago), between the southern landmass, Gondwanaland, and Laurasia to the north. Geologic evidence for the land connection between the currently separated southern continents includes the occurrence of tillites (glacial deposits) from the time between the Carboniferous and Permian periods, and similar floras and faunas that are not found in the Northern Hemisphere.  Rock strata containing this matching evidence are found in the Karroo System in South Africa, the Gondwana System in India, and the Santa Catharina System in South America.

…An Important Note About Fishing…

Catch and Release – Almost every single fish pictured in this article and throughout our website was safely returned to the water after being photographed.  On rare occasions, a specimen may be injured or selected for our table.  We never sacrifice rare or large specimens.  We firmly believe in catch and release fishing and we do everything in our power to preserve and protect the remarkable natural wonders that we have the privilege to enjoy.

Peacock Bass

Of all the incredible gamefish in the Amazon basin, the one that has received the most press is the peacock bass.  Their remarkable, explosive topwater strike, combined with an astonishing ability to break heavy lines/leaders and straighten even stout saltwater hooks, makes them one of the most sought after species in the Amazon basin.Peacock bass are not a true bass such as the largemouth and smallmouth bass (Micopterus Sp.) found in North American waters, but comprise a genus within the family Cichlidae.  Cichlids are a diverse family of tropical fish found primarily throughout Africa, South America and southern Asia.

Although all peacock bass species are highly temperature sensitive fish, some have been successfully introduced in tropical areas from Panama to Hawaii.   The latest transplants (C. ocellaris and C. monoculus) are happily swimming in many of the major freshwater irrigation channels in Dade County, Florida.   No permanent populations of the giant species, C. temensis have ever been successfully transplanted outside of the Amazon basin and Lake Guri.

 Although there are countless color variations throughout their range, there are only four currently recognized species of peacock bass, C. temensis, C. ocellaris, C. monoculus and C. nigrolineatus (there is a raging debate among ichthyologists and anglers on this topic).  All species are commonly called tucunaré in Brazil and Peru, while other Spanish speaking South American countries use the term pavón.

peacock bass species, fly fishing

A World-Class Fighter The peacock bass’ explosive strikes and spectacular fighting prowess serve to rank it among the greatest fighting fish in the world.   Even big specimens, like this 17-pounder on the Rio Tapera, don’t hesitate to go airborne.  Bringing big,  powerful fish like these to the boat in the tight quarters in which they are usually found is a great challenge for any angler.

 

Cichlids

 

Morphology: Although comprised of  wildly differing species, cichlids share several unique physical characteristics.  All have only one nostril on each side of the head, not two as in other fish and they have both a spiny, and a soft, dorsal and anal fin.Behavior: Cichlids show some of the most complex and highly evolved behavior patterns of all fish.  Because of the family’s diversity, it is difficult to ascribe characteristics to all members of the  group.  However, many generalities effectively apply to the majority of species.  Cichlids are among the intellectuals of fish.  They are highly intelligent and it has been shown by scientists that cichlids can learn.  (The way they sometimes tear up my gear, I’d swear they knew who I was and had passed the word among themselves.)  Cichlids are generally very aggressive and pugnacious.  They are often extremely territorial.Reproduction:  One generalization that can be made about New World cichlids is that they are all substrate spawners.  Although some species may guard eggs or young in their mouths at some time during the brooding cycle, none are true mouthbreeders.   Some (notably the famous aquarium discus) provide nourishment for the young directly from their bodies.

 The “Speckled” or “Blue” Peacock – Cichla temensis

The ‘blue’ or ‘spotted’ tucunaré/pavón (Cichla temensis), better known as ‘azul’ or ‘paca/pinta lapa’ is the largest of the four species, with an average weight of about 6-pounds.  The females (and especially females not old enough to spawn) are so distinctly spotted with a fawn pattern running laterally along their back, that many people think they are separate species.  The name paca/pinta lapa comes from a 40-pound spotted jungle rodent called an agouti.  As the males mature their spots fade out or disappear altogether.  They also develop a distinct fatty lump on the top of their head during breeding season (this subsides after spawning).  There is much speculation as to the purpose of this growth.  It has been postulated that it is utilized as a food source by the peacock’s fry for several weeks after hatching.  It is also thought that the peacock’s lump may disperse a chemical marker that keeps the young close to the adult.  In clear water, one often sees tightly-packed clouds of peacock fry swarming about the head of their protective father.  If a male is caught post-spawn, the growth on the head is often rubbed raw, as if the young have been nipping away at the swollen nodule. Body coloration and markings vary greatly.  Whatever the color phase, this fish has an unmistakable mottled patch directly behind its eye.  Three vertical black bars are usually visible (intensity varies from fish to fish) beginning just behind the pectoral fin and ending underneath the soft portion of the dorsal fin.  Often, the previously mentioned lateral white spots are present, running along the top third of the fish’s body.  On rare occasions, there are neither black bars nor horizontal stripes/spots, however, the mottled patch directly behind the eye remains a distinct identifying characteristic.  This species is found throughout the Brazilian, Venezuelan and Colombian Amazon.  The largest specimens are caught in the Rio Negro tributaries of Brazil and Venezuela.

All of the specimens below and at left are Cichla temensis, exhibiting their wide range of color and pattern variability

peacock bass species

 The classical markings of Cichla temensis with 3 vertical bars

peacock bass species

An immature speckled peacock 

peacock bass fly fishing anglers 

 Note the distinct lump on the head of this mature male peacock.

peacock bass trophy

This specimen boasts both the horizontal and the vertical stripe pattern. 

peacock bass fishThe peacocks below were caught on the same river, during one week. 
The “paca” marking pattern.
peacock bass amazon fishing
peacock amazon fishingThe black cheek markings  provide a consistent identifier for temensis. This specimen is almost completely devoid of body patterning. 

Other Peacock Bass Species

The butterfly tucunaré/pavón (Cichla ocellaris) is the most numerous and widespread species in the Amazon basin.  This smaller fish has several different color phases, although hybridization is common.  The most common color phase has three black, oscelli, or spots (about the size of a half dollar, depending on the size of the fish) running along its lateral line.  Some ‘butterflies’ have no distinct body markings at all, but the absence of the black eye-patch clearly distinguishes them from their larger cousins.  Average size for the butterfly peacock is about 3-pounds.  The largest ‘butterflies’ rarely exceed 8-pounds.

A third species, the ‘gray bar’ or ‘fire belly (Cichla monoculus)’ exhibits three black triangular-shaped markings along the back, with a distinct inkblot pattern above the belly.  In the central Amazon, this fish does not commonly grow much over 3-pounds, but on the periphery of the basin (Brazil and Bolivia in particular), ‘gray bars’ can attain weightsexceeding 12 pound.  ‘Gray bars’ are also found in Florida and Hawaii. 

The fourth  species is the ‘royal’ tucunaré/pavón (Cichla nigrolineatus).  This species is normally not found in Brazil, since it prefers fast water in a rocky habitat (it is most common in several Colombian and Venezuelan tributaries of the Orinoco River).  The royal’s distinguishing features include a narrow, serrated, horizontal black ‘band’ that runs from just behind the gill plate, past the soft part of the dorsal fin (this ‘band’ is often broken up, but the fish’s coloration remains quite distinctive from the ‘butterfly.’)  Unlike the other three species, ‘royal’ peacocks prefer fast moving water and act very much like our smallmouth bass.  ‘Royals’ reach a top weight of about 5-pounds.

Cichla ocellaris:
“Butterfly peacocks from two
Amazon fisheries 
amazon fishing peacock bass
A southern Amazon specimen.
Cichla Monoculus:
 
Specimens from two fisheries

amazon bass species

A large specimen from Brazil
 

Cichla Nigrolineatus:
peacock bass fishing
 

‘Royal’ peacocks prefer fast water
 

in highland rivers.
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Conventional tackle for peacocks varies with location and fish size.  Smaller peacock species can be taken using rods and reels commonly used for trophy largemouth.  These smaller fish take a variety of topwater baits including Heddon Zara Spooks, small Luhr Jenson Woodchoppers/Rippers to name a few.  5-inch jerk baits such as Cotton Cordell Redfins or Rapalas, bucktail jigs (1/2 oz.) and weedless spoons also work well.

Trophy peacocks require stout tackle.  A stiff, musky/striper-weight casting or spinning rod along with a high-quality, fast retrieve ratio reel are essential – both to properly cast and retrieve large lures and to handle these incredibly powerful fish which tend to hold near nasty structure.  Most veterans now use 30-50-pound braided lines.  Anything less stout is easily broken. Top lures include the 6-3/4-inch Luhr Jensen Woodchopper/Ripper,  Super Spooks, a variety of 7-inch jerk baits, big weedless spoons and extra-large bucktail jigs.  Ffor more information: Peacock Primer II

Fly casters take peacocks on a variety of oversized streamer, popper and slider patterns (tied on 4/0 or 5/0 extremely stout saltwater hooks) which match a multitude of large baitfish.  For larger fish, a stiff 9-10-weight rod and both floating and sink tip lines are commonly used depending upon existing fishing conditions (an 8-weight is perfect for the smaller ‘butterflies’ and ‘grey bars.’  Heavy leaders (I use a straight 8-foot section of 50-pound monofilament) are essential to keep from breaking fish off.  For more information: Jungle Bass

Other Large Cichlids

Two other “game” species of Cichlids native to the Amazon basin are the oscar/palometa real (now also common throughout the south Florida canal system and commonly found in Bolivia)) and the jacundá / mataguaro (most common in Brazil, Venezuela and Colombia) which is a smaller close cousin of the peacock bass species in the genus Crenicichla.  Oscar/palometa real and  jacundá / mataguaro reach a maximum weight of about 6-pounds and aggressively take the same black bass-sized lures and flies mentioned above.  Jacunda relate strongly to structure and strike very powerfully.  They fight with strong, short runs and an intense, bulldog-like style.  On an ultralight casting/spinning rod or 6- weight fly-rod and floating line, both species are a hoot to catch.
peacock bass amazon fishngJacunda – Crenicichla Sp. 
amazon fishing peacock bassOscar – Astronatus ocellatus

Osteoglossiformes – Aruana and Arapaima

amazon fishing brazil

Osteoglossiformes are an extremely ancient order of prehistoric freshwater fish.  The arapaima, paiche or pirarucú as it is known in Brazil, is the largest wholly freshwater fish in the world.  Fish over 3 meters (almost 10 feet) and up to 275 kg (600 lbs) have been recorded.  Pirarucú look like some sort of Jurassic tarpon, with a similar profile save for their strange, club-shaped tail.  The pirarucú’s flesh is much sought after throughout the Amazon and for this reason, large specimens are becoming rare.

     With patience and persistence, pirarucú can be taken on tarpon-sized conventional tackle, especially using 7-inch jerk baits (CD-14-18 Rapalas), although a large live baitfish (7/0 circle hook) dropped under a heavy cork is the best bet. This fish will, on rare occasions take a streamer fished in the deep lagoons it prefers to haunt.  They are an extremely wary fish and must be approached with extreme caution.   Pirarucú have both gills and an modified air bladder that acts as a lung, which they use to gulp in air.  They have the unsettling habit of surfacing close to your boat like a giant prehistoric submarine.  Tarpon-sized tackle is a must for these giants – 11-12-weight rod, 400-grain sink-tip line, heavy leaders and large streamers tied on 4/0 heavy saltwater hooks are standard equipment.

Though pirarucú are found in ‘fishable’ numbers mainly in Brazil and Peru, it is important to note that a great deal of time must be devoted to the fish if one is to catch one on a fly rod. The aruanã (Osteoglossum bicirrhosum ) is a close relative of the  pirarucú.  They are a schooling fish that in rare cases can reach a maximum weight of about 15-pounds.  Aruanã are  extremely surface-oriented and can often be sight-fished as they cruise about just below the surface in search of prey.  They take the same lures used for smaller peacocks (and especially love Heddon Zara spooks).  A 7-8-weight fly rod, floating line and variety of medium-sized poppers and sliders (2/0) make for some exciting fishing.  When hooked, aruanã repeatedly jump like a baby tarpon.

amazon fishing brazil

Why Breathe Air? Amazon aquatic environments are influenced dramatically by the region’s unusual characteristics.  Seasonal rains can raise and lower water levels by as much as 40 feet.  Daily variations in temperature and photosynthesis (plant respiration) can cause wildly varying levels of dissolved oxygen in Amazon waters.  As a result, many Amazon fish are routinely subjected to periods when their waters contain extremely low levels of oxygen (hypoxia or anoxia).     In order to survive these deadly conditions, many species have evolved unique respiratory  strategies.  Some absorb oxygen through their skin, others store it  in their bloodstream with multiple versions of oxygen carrying hemoglobin.   Many species simply migrate to avoid the difficult times.  The arapaima, however, has literally risen above it all. These lumbering Amazon giants have evolved the ability to simply rise to the surface and gulp air.  Their modified swim bladders act as lungs, dispersing oxygen into the bloodstream.  Their gills return the  waste CO2 gases to the water.  It’s a neat system that allows arapaima to swim blithely along in conditions that would rapidly suffocate other fish.  Millions of years of evolutionary adaptation enabled them to proliferate and prosper throughout the Amazon basin.  Nature’s work however, is often quickly undone by man.amazon fishing brazil

This once plentiful species has suffered the misfortune of beimg particularly tasty to humans.  The same air-breathing mechanism that allows them to survive the worst possible natural conditions proves to be their undoing when it comes to mankind.  They are obligatory air-breathers — and they must come to the surface in order to breathe.  They would drown, just like us,  if they couldn’t periodically gulp air.  This makes them a relatively easy target for patient, harpoon wielding hunters who bring their flesh to market.  Only recently have measures been taken to protect this magnificent .

Amazon giant

 Aruanã Osteoglossum bicirrhosum

The natives call this odd-looking silver creature “macaco d’agua“, the “water monkey” bcause of its ability to leap more than six feet out of the water.  In addition to small fish, aruanã eat , insects, small birds, bats and reptiles, which they will often snatch from overhanging branches. Their large, light-reflecting, opalescent scales and their fluid swimming movements make them underwater billboards for the sight fishing angler.  They take a bait by opening their cargo-door mouth,

brazilian amazon peacock bass inhaling it and then closing the gate.   Although not a particularly powerful fish, they are highly prized as a gamefish in Brazil. The aruanã is also a very interesting and popular aquarium fish .  One of the few remaining examples of fish surviving from the Jurassic period, they give observers a peek into an ancient prehistoric world.

 

 Osteoglossid Reproduction

The arapima fans a large circle free of debris in areas of sandy bottoms.  Eggs are laid in the 2 to 3 foot diameter nest. The aruanã, with two fleshy barbels on its lower jaw is a mouth brooder. Males carry the relatively small number of eggs and young in their mouths, thus increasing their chances for survival.

CharacinsDorado, Yatorana and Matrinchá

Freshwater dorado (Salminus maxillosus and S. hilarii) are a distinct migratory gamefish not to be confused with the saltwater dolphin fish (which is also called ‘el dorado’ in many Spanish-speaking countries).  Physically, the freshwater dorado is best described as a prehistoric golden trout or salmon with the jaws of a pit bull terrier.   Ichthyologists have appropriately given the southern species of dorado the Latin name, Salminus maxillosus. Salminus, meaning trout-like, and maxillosus referring to the fish’s immensely-powerful jaws.  Dorado are hard-hitting, incredibly-strong, acrobatic fighters that attain weights in excess of 30-pounds.  They are, in short, South America’s hyped-up version of a ‘tropical trout.’ Dorado are commonly found throughout a massive watershed between southern Brazil/Bolivia and Northern Argentina.  Incredibly, freshwater dorados remain a relatively little-known gamefish in the United States.     Conventional gear for big dorado is virtually the same as that mentioned in the trophy peacock bass section (a wire leader is essential).  Dorado are usually not surface oriented fish, so 7-inch jerk baits, Rattle Trap-type lures, spoons and jigs are most productive. Dorado are fished with an 8-9-weight fly rod and either a 200-grain, 24-foot sink tip line or a full floating line depending upon water conditions.  A heavy steel leader is a must, as these fish will chew through 100-pound like it is sewing thread!  Dorado take a variety of streamers, sliders and even Atlantic salmon-style Bombers during ideal conditions (all on 3/0 heavy long shank hooks).  Northern Argentina, Paraguay and Bolivia have the strongest populations of dorado. The bocón or palambra/yatorana (Holobrycon pesu) is a close relative of the dorado.  They are a migratory, fast water fish found throughout the Amazon basin. Bocón live and behave almost exactly like the dorado, but do not reach the latter’s size, so they can be fished on slightly lighter tackle.  Bolivia has the best populations of these fish.Matrinchá (Brycon falcatus) are a very close cousin to the bocón (they look almost exactly alike).  This fish has an affinity for small baitfish and terrestrial insects and can be taken on small spoons, jigs, and jerk baits or small streamers and ant and beetle imitations in fast water (just like trout fishing). The matrinchã’s range seems to be limited to the Brazilian Amazon.
Characins – Characidae 
 

Part of the order Cypriniformes. Unlike their close relatives the minnows (Cyprinidae), most characins have teeth.  Characidae comprise a large family of over 500 species restricted to the tropics and subtropics of Africa, South and Central America.  Recently, taxonomists have further divided the family into 16 sub-families. Characins include a wide range of species such as  piranhas, tetras, copeinas, tigerfish, trairas and payara.  Many of the most popular aquarium fish are characins.  They are mostly egg-scatterers.  Many species breed in group spawnings, leaving the eggs and young behind to fend for themselves.
brazilian amazon peacock bass

Dorado display brilliant golden coloration. 
 

peacock bass fishing amazon

Their sharp teeth and powerful jaws make wire leaders a must
 

peacock bass amazon fishing

Dorado are acrobatic fighters .  
 

South American Fly Fishing

fly fishing anglers Yatorana

Yatorana, called bocón, in Colombia and Venezuela, jump and fight like dorado and run in schools, so once you’re into them the action is fast and furious.

South American Fly FishingYatorana can grow upwards of 15-pounds.  This is all the fish you’d want to tangle with one light tackle.

amazon fishing tackle Matrinchá

Matrinchá are fierce fighters on light tackle.  They strike baits at high speed and continue moving right through the drag.  Within seconds they’re out of the water and flying through the air.

amazon fishing specimenA small specimen of matrinchá shows off its brightly marked tail and dorsal fins.  These highlights fade and ultimately disappear in older specimens.

Tambaqui / Cachama

Members of the sub-family Colossoma of the Characidae,  tambaqui (Colossoma macroponum) are physically built like a stocky permit or jack – think of a trash can lid with fins.   They have a pleasant grey-blue back which fades into a purple-brown shade near the belly of the fish.  An omnivorous distant relative of the piranha, tambaqui have dazzling teeth which look exactly like a set of human dentures.  These fish have amazing jaw strength as they often feed on rock hard jungle seeds, and they can crush a 4/0 saltwater hook as if it were made of baling wire.    A migratory fish, tambaqui reside in fast currents and are perfectly fit for such an environment.  They have huge anal fins and extremely wide, thick tails.  When hooked they use their powerful oval body against the current and make incredible heart stopping runs.   With the force of the water added to their own power, they can be unstoppable even with the heaviest of terminal tackle.  These fish are so strong that the locals fish for them with stout green saplings secured to 120-pound monofilament, heavy cable and 6/0 tuna hooks!  One in three tambaqui will jump when hooked.  To see such a huge fish throw itself out of the water is a spectacular sight.  Until very recently tambaqui were not known to take flies or lures with any consistency, but for some reason the Bolivian strain are particularly aggressive and take flies and lures with abandon.Terminal tackle for these fish is the same as that used for big peacock bass, dorado and payara.  Fifty pound-braid and an equally-stout wire leader are essential.  Top lures include Blue Fox Vibrax spinners (#5), Yo Zuri Squid, bucktail jigs, and 5-inch jerk baits.  If you really want to catch tambaqui, dead drift a sweet piece of jungle fruit on a 5/0 super stout live bait hook! Tambaqui should be fished with nothing less than a stout 9-weight fly rod as they tend to use the current to their advantage and make extremely powerful runs.  These fish will take the same flies listed in the dorado section, including heavily-dressed 3/0 Cloussers and Muddlers (they seem to prefer blue for some strange reason).  They also take “fruit flies,” which are nothing more than brightly-colored deer hair (yellow or bright orange are best) spun and clipped to look like an apricot.
Tambaqui…

South American Fly Fishing

 …the largest of the Characins.
 

amazon fishing angler

… tremendous physical power. 
 

peacock bass payara 

..remarkably humanlike dentition
 

 
The Fish, the Forest and the Fruit

Tambaqui, the largest of all the characins, are creatures of the Amazon’s flooded forest.  The pulsative nature of Amazonia’s lowland rivers creates vast flooded forests during the region’s long rainy seasons.  Rivers flood their banks and inundate adjacent varzea (flooded) forests.  As though a dinner bell were rung, the area’s wildlife flocks to the new border between land and water to feast on a banquet of flowers and fruits     Tambaqui are an integral part of the varzea’s life cycle.  Feeding on the bounty of fruits and nuts that drop into the water, they become an important mechanism for seed dispersal.  Many jungle fruits contain an outer pulp and a hard inner seed(s).  When small seeds are ingested they are not always crushed by the tambaqui’s powerful jaws.  Passing through the fish’s digestive system, the seeds are scarified by the process and then excreted, often far from the parent tree.  Later, when the waters recede, the prepared seed is able to sprout in the newly exposed land, far from where it dropped.When the varzea drains, well-fed tambaqui leave the small tributaries and form large migrating schools in the main rivers.  Their large fat reserves, built up during the rainy season are used during their upriver journeys and ensuing spawning.  It’s believed that their eggs are dispersed in the grassy levees along the river.   The dry season season provides slim pickings for tanbaqui who often turn to small fish and insects to help fill their empty stomachs. Tambaqui are an important food fish.  They have recently begun to be raised by aquaculture techniques to meet the market demand.  This bodes well for the preservation of natural populations.

Pacu and Piranha

The pacú/morocoto (Piaractus brachypomus) is a smaller relative of the giant tambaqui.    Morocoto will take Rat-L-Traps, large grasshoppers and dead drifted fruit.  Fly casters should use 2/0 Clousser Minnows and especially fruit-colored Glo Bugs dead-drifted in trout/salmon fashion.  There are at least half a dozen other, smaller species collectively called  pacú in Brazil, Venezuela and Colombia.  One Brazilian species takes a “bread fly” in moving water like a trout sipping a dry fly. There are over a dozen species of  piranha (Serrasalmus sp.) swimming the rivers from Argentina to Venezuela.  Some grow larger than 6-pounds and can be fantastic light tackle adversaries (especially on smaller spinning/casting rods or a 5-6-weight fly rod).  Needless to say, piranha are not picky eaters and take literally anything remotely resembling a baitfish.  A small Rat-L-Trap tipped with meat is deadly. These feisty little creatures can, at times, be quite a nuisance as they have a nasty habit of destroying your lures or  that custom-tied eight-dollar streamer the second it hits the water.
What a difference teeth make!

Pacu, with their mouths full of molars are the “lotus-eaters” of the Amazon fish fauna.  Most species

amazon fishing

belong to the genus Mylossoma. Their diet consists mostly of

brazilian amazon fishing

flowers and fruits, with an unlucky bug occasionally joining the menu.  Although they look awfully similar to their razor-toothed brethren, they have a reputation for placidity.

amazon fishing BrazilAmazon Fishing BrazilThe Piranha’s dentition has made them the Hollywood horror stars of the fish world.  In spite of their vicious reputation, most species feed on fish, some specializing in  hit and run scale eating.  The greatest danger they present to the  angler is the safe removal of hooks from their horrid litle jaws.  They do, however, taste very good pan-fried.

Payara

Payara/Peixe Cachorro (Hydrolicus scomberoides) are a  ferocious migratory gamefish from the family Cynodontidae.  Think of them as a sort of Jurassic salmon.  They are built somewhat like a large Atlantic salmon and share a similar metallic silver sheen.  The mouth of the payara is what sets them apart from all other gamefish, as they sport an intimidating set of razor sharp fangs which protrude from the lower jaw like two glistening ivory framing nails.     Payara prefer to reside in extremely fast water and take both lures and flies with such savage force that one can easily rip the rod from your grasp if you are not paying close attention.  Once hooked, a large payara will effortlessly peel off 150-yards of line/backing despite a thirty-pound leader, strong drag and stiff rod.  Payara also make repeated salmon-style jumps, which adds to the fish’s allure.  Although payara receive much less press than peacock bass, many anglers rate them above peacocks in terms of both sheer strength, stamina and overall fighting ability (and that’s saying something!) Conventional gear for payara is virtually the same as that mentioned in the trophy peacock bass and dorado sections (wire leader is essential).  Payara are usually not surface oriented fish, so big Rapalas, 7-inch jerk baits, Rat-L-Trap type lures, spoons and jigs are most productive.Similar to the above-mentioned dorado, payara are fished with a slightly heavier 9-10-weight fly rod and either a 300 or 400-grain, 24-foot sink tip line depending upon water conditions.  They can be fished with a full floating line, but only during extreme conditions as they prefer to reside in deep, fast current.  A heavy mono leader tipped with stout steel tippet is essential.  Payara take a variety of large streamers, but prefer heavily-dressed Cloussers and Muddlers tied on a 4/0 heavy saltwater tarpon hook. Many smaller species of payara/peixe-cachorra (Hydrolicus and Rhaphiodon Sp.) are found throughout South America.  Although all are fast, vicious predators, most rarely exceed 5-pounds.  The best places to catch giant trophy payara are Uraima Falls, the Caura River and several sections of the Orinoco and Ventuari Rivers (all in Venezuela).
Characins with Fangs

payara amazon fishing
Subfamily Cynodontidae: The latin translation for this name means “dog tooth”.  It’s particularly appropriate for these aggressive and fast piscivorous predators.
trophy peacock bass
The    huge    pair    of    canines    in    the    lower    jaw    is    accommodated by two holes to receive them in the upper.  The huge pectoral fins aid in propelling these fish rapidly upward when attacking their prey.  Preys are stabbed by the canines and then swallowed hole.  These fanged monsters prefer elongate prey from 30 – 50% of their body length.
Another World Class Fighter
payara amazon fishing Payara take the art of the fight to another level.  They combine some of the best characteristics known among fighting fish to provide an extraordinary angling experience.  Payara are extremely aggressive and  strike with intense power.  They peel off line in long fast runs.  And when all else fails, they hurl their huge, slablike bodies high into the air.  If these fish were commonly found in the same “small-water” conditions as peacock bass, they would rarely be landed.For more information about payara, see our payara home page.


 

South American Fly FishingPeixe-cachorro: 

Rhaphiodon vulpinus, a smaller and more elongate relative of the payara is common in the slower lowland waters of the Amazon Basin.  Like its larger, fast-water cousin, it’s a fast, fierce predator.

Readily taken on flies, they are a pugnacious light-tackle target.

Traira and Aimara

One of my Brazilian guides once referred to guabina/traira and aimara/trairão as giant bars of soap with a mouth full of teeth.  These ferocious, prehistoric looking fish are reminiscent of the ancient coelacanth, or a cross between a bowfin and a carp.  The  guabina, or traira in Brazil, is the smaller of the two species, reaching a top weight of about 10-pounds.  They are found from the northern Amazonian periphery in Venezuela all the way to central Argentina in the Paraná River drainage.  These fish prefer slack water and attack largemouth bass-sized topwater lures or fly rod  poppers and sliders with reckless abandon.  Don’t forget your wire leaders though – one look at this fish’s choppers and you’ll understand why.  A 7-8-weight rod spooled with floating line and a stout butt section tied to fairly heavy wire is just the ticket for these bruisers.    The traira’s larger cousin, the aimara or trairão is truly the stuff of angling nightmares.  It attains weights in excess of 50-pounds and eats anything it damn well pleases.  Big jerk baits, spoons, jigs,  streamers and or large sliders/poppers fished in the eddies and pools adjacent to fast water are all susceptible to attack.  Once hooked, this evil-looking fish thinks it’s a tarpon and jumps repeatedly.  Heavy conventional tackle is key to get one of these bruisers in the boat.  Anything less than a 10-weight rod, stout 4/0 stainless saltwater hooks, heavy butt and wire leader would be a big mistake as these monsters have a nasty reputation for heading headlong into the nearest available timber and rocks.  The best place to catch these fish is at Uraima Falls, in the tributaries feeding into Venezuela’s Guri Lake and several western and southern tributaries in theBrazilian Amazon.
fly fishing amazon

Traira Hoplius malabaricus 
 

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Traira possess impressive teeth. 
 

 
 

peacock bass anglers

Aimara grow to huge sizes.
More about breathing air… 

Traira, members of the characoid sub-family Erythrinidae, are examples of  facultative (part-time) air breathers.  Using vascularized (blood-rich) tissues in their skin, stomachs and swim bladders, this group of  fish uses air to augment the oxygen they receive from water during hypoxic (low oxygen) conditions  .  This ability allows traira to utilize an unusual niche within their environment.  They can often be found patrolling  the very ends of quiet lagoons, or lurking, hidden at the edge of  muddy, shallow shorelines.  They suddenly explode into action engulfing any unwary bird, mouse or lizard that comes to the water’s edge to drink. 

Pike-like Characins

The bicuda/aguja (Boulengerella maculata) is a powerful, fast water fish that can be found mixed in with the other previously-mentioned species.  It reaches a maximum size of about 10-pounds and is a powerful, acrobatic fighter.brazilian peacockbass fishingPicúa/cachorra (Acestrorhynchus falcatus) is a sort of freshwater barracuda that roams about (mixed in with the peacock bass) in small packs terrorizing schools of baitfish.  These fish don’t grow very big (2-pounds maximum), but they’re extremely aggressive, plentiful and hard fighting on light conventional rods or a 5-6-weight fly rod.

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Boulengerella species can exceed 2 feet in length.

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Acestrorhyncus species make short work of fancy flies. 

Sardinata – Saltwater Transplants

The Sardinata/apapá (Amazon pellona), a clupeid fish,  is an exceptional, yet little-known migratory gamefish that fights like, and is related to tarpon.  The fish averages about 8-pounds, but commonly grows upwards of 20-pounds.  Sardinata look a lot like a small tarpon, except they have a brilliant golden holographic coloration, reminiscent of the freshwater dorado.  These ‘golden freshwater tarpon’ typically reside in fast water and will take both flies and lures with reckless abandon.  Sardinata are extremely topwater oriented and actually prefer to take noisy surface flies and lures over subsurface alternatives.  Zara spooks and popping-type surface baits are best for these scrappers.Fly casters have the best luck throwing 2/0 Gaine’s-style poppers on an 8-weight rod spooled with a weight-forward floating line.   The strike of a sardinata is nearly as violent as that of the ferocious peacock bass, and once hooked, these fish run and jump repeatedly just like their silver-sided cousins.  Sardinata are a schooling fish and once one is hooked, more strikes are sure to follow.  Sardinata are found throughout the Orinoco drainage (Venezuela’s Caura River has the best populations of the fish I have encountered) as well as many Amazon tributaries.


Amazon peacock bass The pescada, also known as corvina (Plagioscion squamosissimus) is a freshwater croaker closely related to saltwater drum (including black drum and redfish).  This fish is considered an ‘incidental’ species that is sometimes taken on deep-diving crank baits, jigs and/or streamers fished deep for other fast water species.

Clupeids

The family Clupeidae include the herring, sardines and shad.  Although mostly a marine family, the Amazon has more than ten species of these freshwater adapted schooling fish.   Sardinata are the largest and are entirely predatory. These surface-oriented piscivores have a mouth structure, reminiscent of the tarpon, designed perfectly for attacking small insectivorous fish.

Their complex hinged jaw opens immediately in front of their eyes and is canted at approximately a 30-degree angle from the water’s surface. Sardinata attack in zig-zagging rushes, scooping their prey into the gaping mouth.  Possessed with only a few small teeth, they depend on their speed and running-back agility to outmaneuver the baitfish on which they feed. Migratory in nature, Sardinata move in medium to large schools close on the heels of huge baitfish migrations.  It’s an incredible sight to witness a wave, made entirely of fleeing silvery baitfish bodies, form itself in perfectly still water.  The bait,  panicked by the slashing attack of a school of sardinata sound like a rainstorm moving across the river.

 

Why marine fish in fresh-water?

The Amazon today is a river flowing east that empties into the Atlantic Ocean.  This wasn’t always so.

amazon fishing peacock bass

It   is   theorized   that   tens   of   millions   of   years   ago,   the Amazon Basin was a huge Pacific ocean bay.  When the Andes mountains pushed their way toward the sky, the Basin and its waters were permanently cut off from the Pacific.  Many marine animals, trapped by the rising mountains, slowly adapted as the Amazon changed.   The waters, forced their way through the eastern lowlands and found their way to the Atlantic.  Rainwater gradually freshened the system and the rays, dolphins and marine fish evolved into today’s Amazonian saltwater transplants.

Catfish

There are countless species of catfish throughout the Amazon and Paraná drainages.  They range in size from the diabolical candirú (Pygidiidae), a tiny parasitic catfish that lodges itself in the urethral openings of other fish or animals (or humans) to the monstrous lau lau or valentón/piraiba (Brachyplatystoma filamentosum), which is said to grow over 10-feet long and weigh in excess of 500-pounds).

Cut or whole bait, fished deep on a 8-10/0 circle hook is deadly.  A stout offshore rod/reel combo spooled with 130-pound braid is recommended as these monsters can literally tow a 16-foot bass boat upstream! amazon peacock bass anglers

The golden catfish, Dourado (Brachyplatystoma flavicans), Suribim display bright markings.

There are several Amazonian catfish that will aggressively take a fly, including several species collectively called bagre rayado (Pseudoplatystoma sp.).  It is important to note that these catfish are nothing like our local ‘cats’ which tend to be bottom-feeding and rather lethargic.  Many of the larger species of Amazonian catfish are migratory, extremely active and aggressive predators that live in fast water and actively feed with the other previously-mentioned gamefish.  Pound for pound, these ‘cats’ are as strong – if not stronger – than any fish I’ve had on a rod and reel.

For more information about these big cats, see Giant Catfish Home Page

It’s estimated that over 2500 species of fish occur in the Amazon.  The order Siluriformes (catfish) is the second most diverse and probably the most spectacular group of Amazon species.  With 14 families, including about 1000 species, the Amazon accounts for almost half of all the catfish species in the world. Anglers  pursue giant species of the Family Pimelodidae.

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The Tiger flathead, or suribim (Psuedoplatystoma fasciatum)

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Forage Species

Anglers often learn much about the species they pursue by studying what they eat.  Predator species typically base their movements, behavior and even life cycles on the habits of their prey.  Although there are hundreds of species of baitfish throughout the basin, below are some of the most commonly found (and eaten) species . . . Many of these can be recognized as common aquarium species.

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Still Water Species

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Mesonata Festivum
 

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 Chichlidae sp.
 

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 Chichlidae sp. 
 

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 Leporinus
 

South American Fly Fishing

 Leporinus
 

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 Leporinus – Anastomidae sp.
 

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 (Hemiodidae sp.)
More Stillwater Species

fishing brazilian amazon

Chalceus macrolepidotus

Fast Water Species
 
These species prefer faster water and are typically found in rivers, creeks and igarapes..

 

amazon species

(Bryconinae sp.)
 

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 Myleinae sp.
 

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 Myleinae sp.
 

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Semaprochilodus kneri. 

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Triportheus sp 
 

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 (Triportheinae sp.)
 

More Fast Water Species

 

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Lycengraulis batesii

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 Moenkhausia sp

 

Catch and Release – Almost every single fish pictured in this article and throughout our website was safely returned to the water after being photographed.  On rare occasions, a specimen may be injured or selected for our table.  We never sacrifice rare or large specimens.  We firmly believe in catch and release fishing and we do everything in our power to preserve and protect the remarkable natural wonders that it is our privilege to enjoy.