Chasing Peacock Bass in the Colombian Amazon
Ruth Sims’ Fly Fishing Journey into a World Unknown
It was the Thursday evening before my flight. In less than 24 hours I would be on my way to Bogota, Colombia. I was sitting in my Seattle living room logging into the NOAA 406 Mhz Beacon Registration site, a site for search and rescue satellite aided tracking. It was just one of the things on my list of what seemed like never-ending preparation leading up to the registration and activation of my EPIRB (emergency position-indicating radio beacon) device. In the months prior to this moment – and even up until that first cast – the anxiety and unknown of what this journey would bring ruled my waking thoughts.
Five external batteries. Check. Two solar panels. Check. First aid kit, fine mesh mosquito face net: check, check. Pint of 12 year old single malt scotch. Double check.
Let’s bring it back … who am I and what was I about to get myself into? The name’s Ruth Sims and I like to fly fish. Three and a half years ago I tied my first bug and used it to catch my first fish on fly, but today I’d say I fly fish a little more than the average person. I think in 2017 there were only five weekends that I didn’t chase fish. When I wake up, I’m consumed with wonder and the urge to research because before work, during breaks, and after work, all I do is think about fish. I think about new species, what they eat, where they are, what environmental factors affect them, how humans impact their habitats … and most importantly, how am I going to present a specimen of a fly so realistic that they can’t refuse a nibble? When I sleep, I dream of catching fish. Fish I’ve never even seen before, fish I don’t even think exist. I dream of the journey that will take me to them and the overwhelming feeling of accomplishment and joy once I finally get a take.
Making it Happen
It was February of 2017. My friend Stephen had shared with me his plans to visit the jungles of Colombia in search of Peacock Bass. And not just any old Peacock Bass – I’m talking world record-sized fish. And he invited me to come along.
The fishing operation that Stephen spoke of had only been in place for 2 years. Prior to that, reaching these waters to the outside world was pretty much unheard of. This was due to a 52-year civil war between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebels, which recently ended. On August 24th, 2016 a peace treaty was signed and the South American country was left to heal and begin their rebuild. Alas, I came to the conclusion that me feeling prepared enough to take this trip in less than a month was not realistic. There were so many unknowns. The obvious: which rods, what lines, what flies? But there was so much more that engulfed my mind –mainly worries. Worries of being able to communicate with the people we’d meet … of being off the grid and having no connection to the outside world. Concerns of contracting a rare jungle virus or getting injuries when help was nowhere to be found and even if I’d be able to endure what it would take to get there. For the time being, I made the decision not to go. But since that moment, I’ve studied every logistic it’d take to make the trip a reality. The day I decided not to go was day one of planning.
Almost exactly a year later, I was boarding a plane that would begin the 13-hour set of flights towards the capital of Colombia. The words of a house mix called “Electric Feel and Gooey” by Jovani Occomy feat Olmos played in my head … “She got the power in her hands, shock you like you won’t believe. Saw her in the Amazon, with a voltage running through her skin…” It was a song I had played over and over for months, envisioning that perfect presentation and lightning fast explosion of the first take. What did I know? I knew I had confidence that I could endure the journey, that I could cast what needed to be cast, and that I would be encountering a place and peoples so remote that it would forever change the way I saw the world and my place in it. Once reaching Bogota, I’d meet a fellow fly fisher and talented photographer form Colorado named Ryan Lee, who knew even less than I did about what we had signed up for.
Next stop, an in-country flight to Inírida, Guainía located on the eastern most edge of Colombia’s boarder. We arrived at the airport 3 hours early with 4 rods/reels, 6 fly lines (to include floating, intermediate, sinking and a few in-between), as well as every size roll of fluorocarbon between 12 and 80 pound in hand. Flies varied from articulated to your typical single hook bait fish pattern, and even a few poppers. The talk was that white flies with a red head were key to unlocking the largest bass of your life. The colors varied, though … it seemed almost day-to-day that the fish were intrigued by something different. One day it was the red/white doctor death combo, and others it was silvery-bluish-greenish with a hint of shimmer. Knowing we’d be deep in the jungle with the closest fly shop several countries away, I brought a tying kit to ensure we kept up with their change in appetite.
Inírida, established in 1963 as the capital of the multiplicity of Guainía, is easily the last glimpse of civilization before entering the jungles of the Colombian Amazon. It’s a society of approximately 11,000 comprised of various indigenous people. Just 30 kilometers from the Venezuelan border, once in the city, the only mode of transportation is by boat. Rio Orinoco, at 1330 miles in length, is most well known as a natural divider between the two countries.
After spending the night at a local hotel, we rose with the birds to begin our 8-hour boat ride towards camp. Thanks to GPS tracking in Ryan’s camera, we would later come to discover we traveled 168 river miles each way. The first 1.5 hours were spent in a very questionable, small speed boat. Have you ever seen one of those little busses in Central America or on a dirt road in India that looks like it’s made for 12 people but is transporting 34 people, 7 goats, and 12 chickens? It was kind of like that but the boat version, which made for a terrifying, yet exciting ride. We made our way through the Inírida River past Rio Guaviare destined for the Orinoco. Sights of Mother Mary atop mounds of prehistoric rock lie in the middle of the river to bless the people as they pass. Communities of indigenous people lined the edges from time to time with makeshift ladders stretching along cliffs towards the water. The weather was cloudy with a brisk wind and breaking rays of sun. The humidity was forgettable, I assume because at this point we knew there was no turning back.
When we arrived to the mouth of the mighty Rio Mataven, a wooden decked boat (which would serve as the boat we would fish from) with a motorist and a guide named Julian awaited Ryan and I. Through conversations with Julian I discovered that I was the first female angler to visit their operation. Sure, there’d been wives who came with their husbands for company from time to time, but never a female coming to chase these fish. The pressure was on.
Into Peacock Bass Waters
As we ventured into the mouth past small wooden structures, signs of an established village became certain. After this, we would not see signs of civilization for the next 6 days. The people of the Orinoco, known as the Piaroa, reside in communities alongside the opening of the Mataven. It was their water we would be fishing, their fish we would be catching, and their land we would be granted access to. In exchange, people who come to fish pay the Piaroa eco fees and hire members of the community as guides and motorists. Somehow, they have figured just the right amount of profit needed to continue living sustainably without damaging the resource.
How do they manage this? The rainy season of the Orinoco River Basin lasts almost 10 months long, and in that time, the rivers and lagoons are so full and turbulent that fishing is almost impossible. Thus, each year, there are 10 weeks, beginning in January, during which foreigners are permitted to fish the lagoons of the Mataven. One-hundred sixty-eight miles of the Mataven are divided into 2 sections, the upper and the lower. During week 1 of the fishing season, the first group is allowed to enter. The group is permitted 10 people max. They fish either the upper or the lower section. When week two comes, group 2 will fish the other section of river. This goes on for 10 weeks straight. Thus, in an entire year each 84 mile section of river will only ever see 50 anglers. The Piaroa are an enlightened people and know the jewel of a fishery in which they have to reside – so while greed could easily flourish here, it doesn’t. It is because of the respect they have for the resource, the land and the water, that this fishery will sustain their way of life for generations to come. Upon a welcoming first encounter, they gently yet specifically share the fishing rules which include that no fish can be out the water for more than 20 seconds for any reason And All fish are catch and release with a single hook. Can you imagine if the rest of the world saw resources in a similar light? Our planet would be a completely different place.
We were about to enter a forest so untamed, so preserved, so magnificent that nothing could take from the high of knowing that you had traveled for 3 days to the equator to be in the Amazon Rainforest and cast to fish that you may never have the chance to cast to in your lifetime. We simply took it in.
We found the rivers to be bustling with life day and night. Crocodiles, pink freshwater dolphins, capybaras, anacondas, pythons and an infinite-seeming number of fish species, including 3 types of peacock bass, or Pavon in Spanish, ruled the waters. There exists 4 recognized species of peacock bass in the world and Rio Mataven held 3 of those 4: Pavon Mariposa (The Butterfly Peacock Pass), Pavon Temensis (speckled peacock bass) and, specific to that region, the Pavon Orinoco (Orinoco Peacock Bass). In the days that lay ahead, we would encounter each of these species of Cichlids face to face. We would be mesmerized by their pure strength, athleticism, and breathtaking beauty.
And so began the last and hardest leg of the journey. Imagine sitting on the floor of a giant Easter egg basket with 3 other people for 6.5 hours. You have about a 3’ by 2’ space of floor to move about, and after sitting gets old you decide to try to nap. Then imagine you are awakened when the skies turn on you in a moment’s notice and begin pouring what seems like all of the water in the world. The structure of the river was something mathematical and repeating, a copy and paste of sorts. Ryan spoke of it as being “the lungs of the world”. And indeed, from a satellite image it resembles the many veins and capillaries of an endless piece of highly oxygenated tissue. Bend after bend, wind after wind, you could feel the reoccurring landscape. An hour past sunset, just as squinting eyes could no longer focus on an image, we reached camp.
For the next 6 days we would be sleeping in tents alongside a river whose silence would grant the most peaceful sleep you could imagine. Each morning we rose between 5 and 5:30, ate breakfast and loaded the boat with lunch and whatever gear we thought we’d need for the day. The two combos that seemed to work the best were an 8wt or 10wt setup tropical floating line with a 4/0 or 5/0 popper (learned the hard way to include a strong enough swivel) or a 4” baitfish pattern on a Rio Leviathan 26 ft sink tip made specifically for tropical environments (it was the latter that really produced). By 6 each morning we were making wake to the first lagoon of the day.
From 7AM until 5PM your buff, face net, and sun gloves became the most important things you owned. Although we had the necessary vaccines and were poppin’ Atovaquone (anti-malaria) pills daily, and dousing our bodies in lemon eucalyptus and deet sprays, we would not leave this place unscathed. By about noon each day the bugs peaked and they began finding holes in our nets or little tunnels in our buffs. The worst part was that you couldn’t feel them or their bites until the next day, when they’d flare up and itch beyond belief. I don’t know the name of this particular breed of mosquito, but they had an affinity for trying to get inside your eye … this, you could definitely feel.
Each lagoon would be fished the exact same way. In the narrow openings of the lagoons laid the “guardians” aka butterfly peacocks. They, along with Dogfish, Piranhas, and a variety of other species, guarded the entrances. Upon approaching a lagoon, the motor would cease and Jaime, the motorist, would begin to paddle by hand along the edges of the water. Being a right handed caster, we made sure to navigate each lagoon in a clockwise direction, hitting the openings on the way in as well as on the way out. Along the banks of the lagoon, we always kept an eye on the middle —don’t forget the middle!— Jaime would carefully be scanning for nervous water. Every now and then, Ryan and I would think we spotted a Pavon rise, but the answer from Jaime was always the same: “No, boca chica.”
The mornings and evenings were when the Pavon seemed to be the most active. Before sunbreak, rod in hand as you stood at the bow of the canoe, a grenade the size of a walnut would explode from inside the mangroves, followed by echoing thrashing and splashing and then: silence. You knew a Pavon was somewhere back there taking care of business. Casts were made and sometimes you would strike gold … other times, a piranha would samurai your line right off.
The gems though, the kings and queens of the lagoons, appeared to always be in the back at a point furthest from the entrance. It was day 1, maybe around 8AM, and little guys were being caught at each lagoon. But I was secretly hoping for their grandfathers. I do this thing when I’m fishing sometimes, where I pretend I’m watching a narrow viewed underwater movie of the fly. I see it darting and making bubbles in the murky still water, I envision the fish taking notice, then rushing to closely follow the fly and finally the take. I was doing this in my head with each cast, but it wasn’t working. Plan B: add a song. This sounds absolutely crazy, but I swear it works! Since we were in South America, I thought it would only work if I sang in Spanish. “Abuelita, Abuelitaaaaa, donde estasss…Abue..” [BOOM!] And there she was (Abuelita means ‘little grandma’). In mere seconds it was absolute and complete chaos. The kind that, when you’re texting your friend, is then followed by 37 drool and heart eye emojis. She burst from beneath the surface completely airborne as if to perform gold medal acrobatics that I personally had never witnessed before. With each jump, the early morning rays diffracted around her silhouette and it seemed time would slow. Ten-second-long leaps and head shakes while everyone in the boat went into ‘land the fish’ mode. Jaime paddling away from the mangroves, the guide Julian hollering crucial orders and Ryan camera in one hand, reaching for the bogagrip with the other and all with time for a fist bump between runs. It was a group effort when a good one was caught: everyone laughing, smiles for days, and photos to show your future grandchildren.
A Story to Write Home About
I traveled to the southern side of the world to hold six new species, experience rain storms like I’ve never seen before, and withstand conditions that I’d normally deem unbearable. I took in an entirely new world that I never imagined I’d have the opportunity to experience. I think that the preparation was the most difficult part of this trip. You imagine worst case scenarios and plan for as much as you can carry. While you’re there, you make it work, and in the end, you have enough stories for a lifetime.
It wasn’t just the fish and their stunning habitats that I was after. What stood out most was the contentment of the people and the harmony they have with their surroundings. The Piaroa are a wholesome people who care for their land and waters; they will never allow money to take precedence if it puts the health of their environment in danger. I journeyed to the jungles of the Colombian Amazon in search of adventure, and came home with a Greatest of All Time moment. This GOAT tested my patience, my physical well-being, and my confidence. I came home feeling renewed and thankful. Thankful for the time I spent there, thankful for the people I met, and the knowledge I gained.
Ruth Sims was born and raised in Seattle, Washington. As soon as she could walk her father exposed her and her sisters to one of life’s simple pleasures – conventional fishing. Little did he know he was instilling something in her that would completely captivate her adult life. Today she is an Electrical Engineer 40 hrs/ week and a fly fisher woman the other 128 hours/week. As a self taught fly angler, she takes great joy in casting, tying flies, teaching others and most certainly researching new species in distant waters unknown to her. You can follow her on Instagram @navajoflyfisher.