Brazil's big, blackwater bass

Ken Schultz displays a 21-pound peacock bass, which came from the flooded trees behind him. 

AUTAZES, Brazil — The radio on our bass boat crackled with the fast-talking Portuguese words of one of the Amazon Santana's guides. It sounded urgent, but these conversations always sound that way to me.

My guide, Wilson, answered and then went to the front of the boat to stow the electric motor.

"Beeg fish," he said, gesturing that we were going to run upriver.

A few hundred yards away, around a bend and by a thicket of flooded trees, Ron Sherwood of Arkansas and his guide, Iggy, were clinging to an over-the-gunwale net that was keeping a large peacock bass captive.

"We got a big one," said an excited Sherwood. "But I don't think our scale is working right. It said 18 pounds, but the fish looks bigger."

Wilson handed over our scales and soon Iggy was hoisting up a fish with a huge head and a mouth that a man's hand could disappear into.

"Twenty pounds," said Iggy, smiling and shaking his head up and down to signify that Sherwood, who has fished in the Amazon several times, was right.

It was a gorgeous peacock bass, typical of so many caught here.

Yellow-green on the sides, it had red-tinged fins, strokes of orange under its gill cover and throat, a malevolent red eye and a distinctive tail ocelot.

Sherwood handed me his camera so I could take pictures of him with the fish; afterward we let it go.

The bruiser had taken a Woodchopper, a large surface plug that is the primary producer of trophy peacocks in Brazil. It's a tough lure to work in a fast-moving surface-churning action all day.

Nevertheless, when a fish like Sherwood's strikes, it does so in a ferocious explosion, and for a short while the heart-thumping angler at the other end of the line is engaged in a frantic battle.

Blackwater is best

The river we were on, the Rio Preto do Pantaleão, is a smallish blackwater tributary that feeds the Madeirinha River.

It has a reputation for producing trophy bass, and is only fished a few days out of the entire year.

Located southeast of Manaus in the northern Brazil state of Amazonas, it twists and winds northeasterly through the rain forest, offering steep banks in some locations and backwaters with large stands of flooded trees, eventually meeting the Madeirinha above the village of Autazes.

The Madeirinha later merges with the larger Madeira River right near its confluence with the Amazon River.

The biggest Brazilian peacocks come from blackwater rivers (dark, tannen-rich water), virtually all of which are located in northern Brazil several degrees on either side of the Equator, and all of which eventually flow into the Amazon.

Here the primary quest is peacock bass of 10 pounds and up to and exceeding 20. But tangling with such leviathans in flooded timber is a challenge requiring pretty good stick work and some measure of luck.

On a previous trip to this region, I lost a monster that broke 80-pound-test super line within seconds of being hooked.

It had been chasing bait along shore — pushing one frantic 10-inch-long fish onto the bank! — when we intercepted it.

But there were large trees in the water where it crashed my plug, and it headed for one a split second after I set the hook, giving me no chance to avoid having the line frayed.

Many anglers lose enormous bass because an inferior hook gets straightened.

Each dry season (September through March) in northern Brazil, anglers join mobile groups who sleep and dine aboard motherships that tow fishing craft where water conditions and fishing are most favorable.

On this expedition, 20 of us used the 120-foot-long Amazon Santana as our base camp, venturing into new waters each day in aluminum bass boats operated by Brazilian guides.

The areas we fished were replete with wildlife, particularly toucans, parrots, and macaws. Freshwater dolphins — botos — were plentiful, often signaling their nearby presence by forcing air through their blowholes.

Fishing partner Darrell Vore and I one day watched a pod of dolphins chase peacock bass along a line of flooded trees by a point, astonished to see these mammals chasing away the very predators that we were trying to catch.

Good cast, good catch

About an hour after taking photos of Sherwood's big fish, Wilson and I were rounding a point when I cast to a particularly good-looking tree.

It's hard to explain what makes certain trees among a gazillion look like a better place to cast, but sometimes you notice a pattern.

It seemed to me in previous days that larger-diameter trees, and those with forked trunks that are below the waterline, more frequently produced strikes.

I had recently switched from a chartreuse-and-black-colored Woodchopper to a black one with orange belly. Then I cast it a few feet behind a forked trunk so that the retrieve would bring it right through the alley the fork created.

Two rips of the lure accomplished that, and just as the plug came through it was slammed by a big peacock, the explosive strike sounding like the noise created by a brick being dropped off a bridge.

Fortunately the fish's momentum and an instant hook set pulled the bass far enough from the tree so it was unable to get back and wrap my line around it right away.

Prevented from going into the forest, the bass streaked toward the middle of the river, then reversed course and headed back toward the boat.

When I stopped it for the third time, the fish was close to the boat, so I quickly pulled up on it, and as its mouth broke the surface Wilson reached out and shoved the net under the fish's head.

Unfortunately the bass wasn't fully in the net, and the hooks of the lure stuck in the webbing. A good part of the tail was laying over the back rim of the net. Wilson pulled forward and I dropped my rod and grabbed the net rim. Together we hauled in a flopping fish that looked like it was all head. It filled up the net.

Twenty-one pounds of heavily speckled peacock bass lay on the floor.

Perhaps because of being landed so quickly, the bass was in good form after high-fives and a few photos. And when I placed it back in the river, its departing tail swipe splashed water over my face and the entire front of my shirt.

Wilson, who gets as excited as his anglers when a big peacock is landed, was smiling from ear to ear.

I was, too.

Ken Schultz is the author of the new book "Bass Madness," as well as "Ken Schultz's Fishing Encyclopedia," available through www.kenschultz.com.