Exploding Fish of the Amazonas

Walter Delazari of Sao Paulo, Brazil, poses with a nice peacock bass caught on the Rio Negro. (Keith Sutton photo)



Despite its brilliant colors, the 15-pound fish is invisible in the tea-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.

Minutes earlier, a red-bellied piranha was its breakfast hors d’oeuvre. Now the fish waits, hoping to be served an entrée. Its sanguine eyes probe the crystalline water from which its meal will come.

When Walter Delazari casts his lure to the treetop where the fish lays hidden, he senses the unseen creature’s presence. “Senor Peixe Gato,” he says, gesturing with a tilt of his head. “Tucunaré is there. Prepare yourself.”

I raise my camera and try to focus on Walter’s dog-walking “isca”—a 4-inch Brazilian stickbait much like a Zara Spook. The lure is much smaller and less noisy than those employed by most peacock bass anglers, but in the skilled hands of the pescador from Sao Paulo, it proves once again an irresistible enticement.

The huge peacock bass sees the lure the instant it touches down and charges it like a cheetah after a gazelle. Briefly, I can see its wake as I look through my viewfinder. I press the shutter. The camera fires a rapid burst of continuous frames.

The water beneath Walter’s lure erupts, and suddenly, the invisible fish is visible. It seems suspended, momentarily, three feet above the river’s surface, shaking its head like a dog with mouth full of porcupine quills. Then it plunges headfirst back into the river.

Keith Sutton managed to freeze a high-jumping peacock bass exploding on a lure in this image. (Keith Sutton photo)
Keith Sutton managed to freeze a high-jumping peacock bass exploding on a lure in this image. (Keith Sutton photo)

Walter looks at me and smiles. “Grande!” he shouts.

It is, indeed, a gigantic peacock, and it fights gigantically. Walter struggles to keep it from its treetop lair. His rod bends so much I fear it will shatter, and the shrapnel will kill us both. I move away and crouch in the far end of the boat, watching, mesmerized, the horrific battle. Never have I witnessed a more violent struggle between man and fish.

The tucanaré takes to the air again and again, soaking us with spray as it tries to shake the hook. It surges away then, peeling line from the pescador’s reel. In seconds, the spool shows through the few wraps of line that remain attached. Then I hear a sickening crack!, like the report of a small rifle. Walter’s line is gone, trailing behind the one that got away.

Walter reaches for another rod, and quickly casts to another treetop. There is no time to worry over lost fish. In the Rio Negro, peacocks this size are as common as bluegills in a farm pond.

Two weeks pass before I view the photos I shot in early January, Y2K. One among the hundreds stands out. It is a photo of Walter’s grandé striking the lure.

In the center, against a dark background of slick water reflecting green foliage, is a washtub-sized hole ringed with white spray, as if someone had just tossed a boulder off a bridge. The focus is a little soft; the dark background made the camera select a sluggish shutter speed, and the violent action captured on the slow film makes the final product a little fuzzy.

I treasure the photo, however, because I know what it shows. The washtub-sized crater wasn’t the result of a boulder splashing down, but rather of a peacock bass attacking Walter’s surface plug.

In the frame that follows, shot one-thirtieth of a second later, the peacock is frozen in mid-air, head down, mouth wide, gills flared. As the fish thrashes, water droplets shoot in all directions like the remnants of a rocket exploding at the finale of a Fourth of July fireworks show.

The frames around these two show nothing. I was too slow; the fish was too fast. There are others, though—many others—that show Walter smiling as he cradles a nice peacock bass in his hands after a battle that ended successfully. The fact is, during the two days I fished with him, Walter lost few of his skirmishes with peacock bass. The clash described above, however, is the one I remember most, for it is the only one where I was able to capture the moment of truth—the exploding fish—on film. And it is that explosion, more than anything, that exemplifies the ferocious, no-holds-barred nature of this incredibly beautiful South American sportfish.

You’ve probably heard of peacock bass. Some of the luckier among you have fished for them. And those of you who have known what I now know: once you’ve seen a 10-pound-plus peacock explode on a topwater lure, you’re ruined for everything else. Even the small fish (5- to 8-pounders are considered small on the Rio Negro) will knock a lure clear out of the water when they hit it. They don’t just strike a lure; they try to rip the hooks out of it. And many fishermen have learned they can do just that.

Jim Spencer, my boondocking buddy and friendly competitor in the writing business, accompanied me on my trip to the Rio Negro. After our first day of fishing for peacocks, he noted, “The only freshwater strikes I’ve seen that were anywhere comparable have come from schooling striped bass. And judging from what I’ve seen of both species, the strikes of a 40-pound striper and a 10-pound peacock are about equal … except that after the strike, the 10-pound peacock will fight a little harder than the 40-pound striper.”

Peacock bass aren’t related to the largemouth and smallmouth bass of North American waters, but comprise a genus within the cichlid family, a diverse group of tropical freshwater fishes found primarily in Central and South America, Africa and Asia. While four distinct species are generally recognized, some ichthyologists suggest that as many as 12 or more might actually exist throughout South America. Almost all peacock specimens, regardless of species, have a circular black “eye spot” or ocellus on the tail, and it is this spot, which resembles the spots on the tails of peafowl, that gave the fish their common Spanish name “pavon,” which in English means “peacock.” Brazilians know the fish as tucanaré, a word derived from the Tupi-Guarani Indian language.

Peacocks are native to the Amazon, Orinoco and La Plata Basins in South America. Transplants to Panama and Hawaii have been successful, and I’m told you also can catch peacocks in the drainage canals of south Florida where they were introduced in the 1960s. I’ve seen many of those canals, though, and I imagine fishing for peacocks there would be like eating a gourmet meal in a storage shed. It might be delicious, but the ambience would suck. For the true peacock experience, you must visit the jungle waters of South America.

During our two days together, Walter and I saw many unforgettable things on the Rio Negro. Scarlet macaws flocking to a roost like blackbirds to a rice field. Giant catfish and freshwater rays. Fifteen-foot anacondas. Five-pound piranhas. Baré Indians. Jungle villages. Howler monkeys and pink dolphins. And exploding fish—tucanaré.

I will always remember all these things, but thanks to a single photograph, I will remember most the tucanaré.

Looking for fishing shows on Outdoor Channel during the months of October – December? “The Hunt for Big Fish”and “Stihl’s Reel in the Outdoors” both air in the last quarter of the year. Check the schedule for updated air times.

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