The Peacock Bass: Brazil's Aquatic Ambassador

by Andy Hahn

It was a hot Amazon afternoon, without so much as a breeze stirring the thick vegetation mirrored in the lagoon’s still waters. The sun, low on the horizon, bathed the scene in golden light and made it difficult to keep my eyes on the stickbait as it twitched its way back toward the boat, when suddenly...Kaboooom!

The explosion was immediately followed by a violent attack. No time for thinking. Instinct and reflex guided my reactions as a creature, both hideous and beautiful, blasted a hole through the surface and took my lure hostage. Like a guerrilla warrior staging an ambush, the green and yellow monster quickly fled the area while the victims were still dazed.

Although not yet fully recovered from my surprise, I managed to snap my wrist back and set the hook. Our roles were soon reversed when the fish realized that it had become the victim. All I could do was hold on and pray while fourteen pounds of fury yanked line from my reel in a desperate attempt to free itself. After several short, strong runs in the lagoon’s tepid water it surrendered and I passed the net under a fine specimen of one of Brazil’s most precious natural resources: the peacock bass.

This gamefish could well be called the Aquatic Ambassador of Brazil because it attracts anglers from all over the world, inviting them to experience the most exciting fishing this country has to offer. Powerful, mysterious and exotic, the peacock bass (called tucunaré in Portuguese) embodies Brazil. Its colors, green and yellow, are the colors of the Brazilian flag.

The peacock bass (Cichla ocellaris) is a native species of the Amazon River basin, which includes parts of Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela and Peru, but it is an extremely adaptable species and has been successfully introduced to other areas. Certain lakes near the city of São Paulo have good populations of peacocks, as do the canals in Miami, Florida.

The secret to the peacock’s adaptability is probably its voracity. It will eat anything in the water that is smaller than itself, and it will often try to eat things that are larger. I witnessed an example of this law of the jungle when I found a two-pound peacock bass floating belly-up, with a large baitfish stuck in its throat. The baitfish couldn’t free itself and the peacock couldn’t swallow its prey, and both fish had died in the struggle for survival.

Despite their greedy appetite, oversized lures are not always best for tucunaré. Like any other fish, they have their moods and it may take some time to discover which lure is best in any given situation. Noisy topwater lures are usually the angler’s first choice, but I advise you: this type of fishing is not for the weak of heart. The peacock bass has a short fuse and there is something about a propeller lure splashing across the surface that ignites a savage, murderous response. The Big Game Woodchopper by Luhr Jensen is well known for its ability to drum up huge peacocks. Surface lures must be worked rather quickly or the peacocks will lose interest. If you notice a fish following your lure, you can usually trigger a strike by speeding up your retrieve as if the lure has seen the bass and is trying to escape.

Steady nerves are required because the fish often miss on their first attempt to torpedo the lure. If the angler maintains a steady retrieve, the fish usually returns for another shot at its victim. This advice is easy to put into writing. Putting it into practice is an entirely different matter. Peacocks attack with such ferocity that the water surface shatters and the angler rears back to set the hook without thinking, almost in an act of self-defense. The problem is that if the fish has missed the target, the lure becomes a dangerous projectile flying through the air toward the angler. With a bit of experience, you will learn to wait until you feel the line tighten before pulling back on the rod.

Another trick is to keep two rods rigged and ready, one with a surface lure and the other with a shallow diving minnow plug. If a peacock boils behind the surface lure without actually taking it, a quick follow-up cast with the diving plug usually produces a solid strike. Armed with incredibly powerful jaws, peacocks are capable of simply clamping down on a lure so forcefully that the hooks do not penetrate, so after setting the hook in a peacock bass, confirm it with several sharp, upward sweeps of the rod tip.

When the tucunaré ignore large, noisy propeller lures, try using smaller, quieter stickbaits worked across the surface. If surface lures fail to produce, switch to diving plugs and jigs. No matter what kind of lures you use, they must be doctored up before you begin casting them. Remove the standard rings and trebles and replace them with reinforced split rings and 3X or 4X strong trebles. These fish have uncommon strength. I have had small peacock bass of less than two pounds tear treble hooks and screws completely out of my lures.

Peacock bass are primarily structure oriented, and submerged trees are the most predominant structure in the Amazon. The combination of strong fish in flooded timber requires heavy duty tackle. Stiff rodsand strong line (25 to 30 lb test) are required for two reasons. First, in order to apply muscle and prevent the fish from reaching the cover. Second, when the fish does make it into the cover it will swim in andaround the branches, so your line must withstand the scraping as it is wrapped around obstructions. For this reason many anglers use 50 lb shock leaders or several feet of double line ahead of their lures.

After hooking several fish you may notice that they do not all have identical coloration. Some peacocks have several dark vertical bands on their sides, some are olive green with dark green and yellow spots covering their bodies, and others may be almost yellow. Scientists are not in complete agreement; some say these differences are simply color variations within the species, while others say there are distinct subspecies. One characteristic remains constant no matter what the color may be: there is a hump on the male’s head which becomes especially prominent during spawning and while protecting the young.

The Amazon River and its tributaries go through a yearly cycle of high and low water seasons, and the peacock bass are nearly impossible to catch when the rivers are high. The best fishing occurs when the receding water levels form countless lagoons and hidden bays along the river’s course. The peacocks prefer the still water and enter these lagoons to spawn and feed on the baitfish. In a few areas the fishing is productive year round because dams have been built to maintain water levels constant.

No matter where you find him, you’ll soon discover that the tucunaré is one surly ambassador who does not rely on charm and good manners to lure foreign visitors to his country.