Keith Sutton: Season of peacocks

Despite its brilliant colors, the 28-pound peacock bass is invisible in the coffee-colored water of Brazil's Rio Negro. Its flanks are gilded with lustrous, golden scales slashed with bars of ebony. The crimson fins along its belly glow hot, like iron on a blacksmith's forge.

Such a thing seems insensible  a camouflage of vivid hues. But in a world illuminated by dancing rays of Amazon sunlight, the fish's metallic complexion is the perfect cloak.

The fish waits in ambush, hoping something edible will come near. And soon, something does  or so the huge fish thinks.

In a nearby boat, Bill Gassman of Indianola, Iowa, is enjoying the sixth day of his first Amazon adventure. Already on this trip, he has caught some big peacock bass, including some 18- and 19-pounders. But when he casts a brightly colored topwater plug near a long, sweeping sandbar off river's main channel, he has no idea he's about to do battle with the peacock of all peacocks.

The fish sees Gassman's lure the instant it touches down and charges it like a cheetah after a gazelle. But unlike the explosive spectacle often seen when a peacock bass attacks, this strike hardly ripples the water.

"When the lure hit the water, it just disappeared," said Gassman, the 44-year-old chief executive of an architectural millwork company. "The fish went straight to the bottom and started spooling my line."

Gassman was uncertain of the fish's size, but his experienced guide, Elvis Fonseca knew it was a giant. "Grande! Grande!" the guide shouted.

"Then the fish stuck its head out of the water, and I realized how big it was," Gassman said.

It is, indeed, a gigantic peacock, and it fights gigantically. During the 12-minute skirmish that follows, Gassman struggles to keep the monster from spooling off all his line. The fish charges up and down the sandbar, pulling drag each time, but fortunately it stays free of entanglements. Gassman eventually gains the upper hand and lands the fish.

The Iowa angler (at right in the AnglersInn.com photo shown here), unaware he has just caught a world-record-class peacock, wants to continue fishing. But Fonseca urges him to return to their anchored mothership, the Captain Peacock, where the fish can be weighed on certified scales. The giant measures 37 inches long and has a girth of 25 inches. It tips the scales at 28 pounds, more than enough to beat the existing 27-pound International Game Fish Association all-tackle world record.

Gassman's fish, a speckled peacock (Cichla temensis) caught on February 9 this year, still awaits official certification by IGFA, although there's little doubt it should make the record book. Catching a record of this species, the largest of six varieties (blackstriped, blue, butterfly, Melaniae, orinoco and speckled) currently listed in IGFA's World Record Game Fishes, is a coveted achievement, almost on a par with the 77-year-old largemouth record (22 pounds, 4.97 ounces), recently tied by Manabu Kurita on Japan's Lake Biwa.

On a visit to Brazil in 2000, I was in the small airport at Barcelos, a fishing community on the Rio Negro. On the wall there was a photo of Gerald "Doc" Lawson holding the current 27-pound, world-record speckled peacock caught in the Rio Negro on December 4, 1994. Several experienced guides and outfitters were there as I looked at the picture of this incredible fish (photo at right), and all agreed it was a record unlikely to be broken.

As it turns out, the 2009-2010 fishing season produced not only Gassman's pending all-tackle record, but other record peacocks as well, some of which have already been certified by IGFA.

While fly fishing in Brazil's Manapolis, Rio Preto da Eva, on October 22, 2009, Jorge Massulo de Aguiar, of Manaus, Amazonas, Brazil, set a new 16-pound tippet record when he landed a 25-pound, 2-ounce speckled peacock. The previous IGFA record was a 19-pounder caught in November 1992 from Venezuela's Rio Pasimoni.

Venezuelan angler Antonio Campa G. established a new 8-pound-line-class record with a 22-pound speckled peacock (IGFA photo at left) while fishing the Rio Inirida tributary in Colombia on January 26, 2010. That fish bested the 20-pound, 3-ounce IGFA record pulled from the Jatapa River, Amazonas, Brazil 18 years ago.

This season's records weren't restricted to the speckled species either. On January 28, 2010, while fishing Cano Bocon, Colombia, Alejandro Linares, of Medellin, Colombia, landed an 8-pound orinoco peacock (Cichla orinocensis) that established a new IGFA all-tackle record. The previous best was a 6-1/2-pounder caught from Venezuela's Masparro Lake in October 2008.

And from the Rio Urubaxi, a tributary of the Negro, come reports that in mid-February, George Walters of Charlotte, North Carolina caught a potential all-tackle record butterfly peacock (Cichla ocellaris) weighing more than 16 pounds. That record is pending certification by IGFA. The current 12-pound, 9-ounce world record was caught January 6, 2000, by Antonio Campa G. in Venezuela's Chiguao River.

I asked Larry Larsen, one of the world's top experts on peacock bass and executive director of the Peacock Bass Association, why he thought so many long-standing peacock records were broken this season.

"There were a handful of 25- and 26-pounders taken this past year, as there usually are," he said. "I think the unusual, extremely low water conditions in January and February were responsible for moving some of the giants, such as the 28-pounder, to places where they aren't normally accessible to the angler. Such drought conditions (which cause navigation problems) sometimes occur in April when most of the operators have finished their 'seasons,' and few anglers have a shot at the giants then because there aren't as many fishing. That said, I don't think there were more giants caught this past season than in a normal year."

The bottom line is this: it may be tough finding them except during seasons of extremely low water, but giant peacock bass  maybe even more world records  are swimming right now in South America's rivers and backwaters. The lucky angler who's in the right place at the right time could establish another benchmark peacock fans will be aiming at for years to come.

To contact Keith Sutton, email him at catfishdude@sbcglobal.net. His book, "Out There Fishing," is available at www.catfishsutton.com