by Ken Kastorff
One hundred twenty gallons of gas, how in the world are we going to transport that much fuel? That was just one of many questions that were running through my mind this March as I started putting together an expedition to head down into the Ecuadorian Amazon in search of one of the most exciting tropical sport fish in the world, Tucanare. Better known by many as Peacock Bass, Tucanares are not technically in the bass family but are actually in the “Cichlid” family. They include fish like Oscars, Angel Fish and Tilapia. Unlike the fish you have in your aquarium or that you order for dinner, Peacock bass are a trophy for fly fishermen because they are incredibly voracious, aggressive and come out of nowhere with just one thing in mind, to kill the fly.
The idea for this trip started last summer while I was guiding a trip on the Nantahala River in North Carolina. One of the questions I am always asked is “What do you do in the winter.” “I guide trips in Costa Rica and Ecuador.” “Have you ever fished for peacock bass?” That started the wheels spinning. After spending fifteen years of fishing and paddling the rivers and lakes in the high Andes Mountains of Ecuador, I decided right that it was time to see what the Amazon Jungle had to offer.
Putting together a trip to the Amazon is a little more complicated than one might imagine in this day and age. The first problem was how do we get there? There are no roads where we needed to go, there are no airports, the river is the road and that means finding a boat and someone with the skill to navigate rivers through flooded forests over logs and around downed trees. The answer presented itself when I had the fortune to meet Joaqun. Jaoquin works as a boatman in the Cuyabeno National Reserve in northeast Ecuador. I had the pleasure of fishing with him for a few days earlier this past season while visiting Cuyabeno. He was the first person that hinted about a place far down river full of peacock bass. He and his canoe “the Mysterious King” were just what the doctor ordered. The Mysterious King is a thirty-nine foot motorized canoe that was stable, rock solid and strong enough to carry all the fuel and gear needed to make a successful multi-day trip deep into the Amazon.
The basic gear for the trip was a bit easier. Our partner, Angel Nunez at Altar Tours, had all the camping gear we needed: tents, sleeping pads and tarps; anything else we would look for in Lago Agrio—the last stop before departing civilization. Our bus had plenty of space and would get us and our gear to the put in location.
We needed another fisherman. After just one email, I received a quick reply from a friend of mine, Brad Milner. “When do I need to be there? Where are we going? What do I need to bring?” Brad is the perfect traveling partner for an expedition like this. He doesn’t bother you with a lot of small talk. He is a serious fly fisherman and gets right to the point.
Everything was coming together except for the fuel issue and getting permission from the military to travel all the way down to the border with Peru. Unfortunately, these problems could not be resolved in Quito but would need to be taken care of in Lago Agrio; which meant leaving a day early to make sure we could get everything done.
A week later after buying enough food for five people for five days we picked Brad up at the Quito airport at midnight, complete with four fly rods, a big net and a huge supply of peacock flies. “Hi Brad, good news, you are here! Bad news we need to leave right now for Lago Agrio to figure out how we can buy 120 gallons of fuel and be there in time to make sure we can get permission to head down to the border of Peru before all the head honchos at the military base disappear for the weekend.”
After driving all night, we arrived in Lago Agrio and immediately set to work on getting the six copies of our permission papers from the Military. What should have taken a half hour ended up taking two and a half hours, but in the end we had the needed paper work.
Now for the real challenge, getting permission to buy 120 gallons of fuel and figuring out how we were going to transport it. This even had Angel scratching his head for a while. Only a certain amount of fuel can be bought in Lago Agrio at one time. This was the Ecuadorian governments answer to people buying gas in Ecuador and then transporting to Columbia to resell for double the price. It took most of the day and help from several sources before we finally found ourselves at a service station with the right permission form and a 55 gallon barrel along with a variety of other containers. As the day came to a close, all that was missing were a few more food items, another cooler and lots of ice.
Early the next morning we were off to meet up with Joaquin at the entrance for the Cuyabeno Preserve. The drive to Cuyabeno passes through an area of second growth forest with periodic wellheads and oil drilling platforms. Before oil was found, this area was similar to the Yasuni National Reserve, which is just east of the Cuyabeno Reserve and is one of the most diverse biological areas in the world. It is surreal to be driving through this area in the darkness of early morning passing columns of fire spurting from wellheads burning off excess natural gas. [Note: the battle to preserve Yasuni is under way as the Ecuadorian Government struggles to balance energy production with the ecology of this unique paradise.]
As daylight broke, we could look east and see the vast panorama of the Amazon stretching out on the horizon and then moments later we arrived at the park entrance. It wasn’t long after our arrival that we heard the sound of a motor in the distance and saw Joaquin’s canoe come around the corner. It only took about an hour to load the canoe, pay the entrance fee to the park and depart. It is an exciting feeling when you departing any type of civilization for a new and unknown place. This was certainly the case for Brad, Angel and me as we watched the bridge disappear behind us.
The Rio Cuyabeno begins as a narrow river. About twenty feet wide, it looks more like a tunnel through the rain forest the way the jungle canopy spreads out over it. The river winds through 70 miles of oxbow bends, passes several jungle lodges and indigenous villages, and finally enters the Rio Agua Rico. The Cuyabeno Reserve is well known for its diverse flora and fauna, Weaver Birds commonly call Oropendulas for their pendulum shaped nests, Howler Monkeys and Caimans are just a few of the animals we saw as we wound our way deeper and deeper into the jungle. Watching my GPS it was interesting and a bit frustrating to see us head straight toward the Agua Rico only to once more motor away in a different direction. Five hours later we rounded a bend and finally did join the Rio Agua Rico. We needed one last stop to try to locate a couple more containers of oil mix for our stash of gas, and a quick leg stretch. This would be our last stop before checking in at Sancudo Cocha to find a camp helper. Oil was found and bought and we were quickly on the water heading east.
The Rio Agua Rico is one of the main tributaries to the Rio Napo, which in turn is one of the main tributaries of the Rio Amazonas. The Rio Napo is just south and parallels the Agua Rico on its journey east toward its confluence with the Amazon. This was the river that Francisco Orellana started down in 1541 when looking for the Seven Cities of Gold. El Dorado, and the “Country of Cinnamon.” He never found those cities but ended up instead discovering the largest river system in the world; giving it the name “the Amazon.” As we continued downstream we occasionally passed small thatched roof huts in the middle of nowhere. It became more and more apparent how important these rivers are to the survival of the families living along their shores. A few banana trees and small gardens of yucca, supplemented by fish from the river, takes care of most of their needs. Any other needs necessitate a long trip via canoe back upstream to a real town.
As we continued deeper into the jungle there were fewer and fewer small homesteads. Finally off in the distance we saw the village of Sancudo Cocha. Sancudo is the indigenous word for the small biting fly that is common to this area. Cocha is the Inca word for lake. The village Sancudo Cocha is a small indigenous village of about sixty inhabitants. Joaquin knew a person here that could help in camp and watch over things while we were out fishing. While he looked for Fausto we had an opportunity to visit with a couple of boys who were fixing fishing nets. Next to them was a small platform under a plastic tent where cacao beans (aka: chocolate) were drying and off to the side were a few fruit trees. They were very excited to tell us about the new electric generating plant supplied by the government. They now had electricity for the first time in the history of the village from dusk till 10:00 PM. The also told us about the Sancudo Cocha lake--a large lake situated about two hours walk south of the village in the jungle, filled with Tucanares. Only problem is there are no canoes there and it is all but impossible to fish from shore. Hopefully next year we will be able to fish it as there is a plan to clean all the dead falls out of the river that accesses it and build a couple of rustic cabins.
With Fausto we now had our team and were ready to head the rest of the way to our destination. A couple of hours later we found ourselves at the last military check point and the border between Peru and Ecuador. We were welcomed by the Peruvian equivalent of the conservation department and headed upstream on the Rio Largoto. The Rio Largoto is a beautiful clear water river with small lakes branching off each side of the river. Joaquin joined us up front while Fausto took over at the motor and explained that we would head up about an hour to a camp spot he was familiar with. He also made our day when he smiled and let us know that water levels were perfect and to get ready for some REAL fishing. Oh and by the way, Largoto means Caiman! Guess we won’t be going swimming here!
After breakfast the next morning Brad and I got to work putting our fly rods together. He and I each had an eight and ten weight rod. We were set with a variety of large streamers and poppers. Angel would be fishing with a new spinning rod throwing Rapalas. He was like a kid at Christmas morning with all his new fishing toys. As soon as we had everything put together, we loaded up and Fausto motored us upstream about ten minutes to the first side lake. It only took one look to know that we had just landed in fishing paradise. The lake was shallow, about a half mile long and full of cover for fish. It was going to be a challenge to stop any kind of big fish from anchoring themselves under a log or in a stump, but that was a problem I was happy to deal with. The shorelines had all sorts of logs and coves as well. Just a few casts and I had a hit and a miss. That happened a few more times, but it didn’t take long before the water exploded and the games began. We had our first Tucanare. These fish are amazing! They are by far the most aggressive fish I have ever caught. Once hooked they fight and jump like a large Mouth Bass on steroids. The fight is not over until they are in the boat. They will make several runs and will hone in on any thing that they can hide under, so make sure you have a leader strong enough to turn them before they take up residence under a stump or log. They are a beautiful fish, with bright red under belly and pectoral fins. They have a huge mouth, which enables them to engulf large flies. When Tucanares see what they want they attack it going a million miles an hour. I have never seen a fish move that fast. The result is that many times they will miss the fly. We missed twice as many as we caught.
That first day was a great introduction to tucanare/peacock bass fishing. There were times when we would have one on the line and have another just as big chasing the first one in hopes of robbing whatever it was eating. When we didn’t have a peacock on the line, we had piranha. One of my goals when fishing in Cuyabeno was to catch a piranha on a fly rod. All I accomplished there was to lose a lot of flies. I even tried 50 lb. braided tippet, but piranhas bit through it like it was butter. This time I was more prepared with wire leaders. By the end of the first day we had caught more than 20 piranhas of several different varieties. Whether red belly or silver; taking a piranha of your line is always a serious matter. They click their teeth on the fly while you are trying to release them. Their teeth look exactly like a sharks tooth and are just as razor sharp. We caught several other species of fish that day and each had impressive dental work.
Sunset was just around the corner as we returned to camp late that afternoon. It had been a great day of fishing. We had fished three different lagunas and had great fishing in each. Macaws and giant Green Parrots were just a couple of the many different bird species that flew over us as we caught fish.
That night before dinner we showered in the canoe using the clear cool water from the river. No swimming here because of the Largotos (crocs)! After dinner we relaxed under candlelight and recalled the excitement of the day. One rod was broken trying to stop a Tucanare from taking up residency under a stump. This just reinforced the importance of having spare rods along on a trip like this. While we were talking, Fausto began calling to the Caimans. Yes you read correctly, he would grunt and a grunt would come back from several locations. After a while he disappeared only to return with a small Caiman. We had our own Crocodile Dundee right here in our camp.
We awoke the next morning to the chatter of birds and after a quick breakfast headed out for another awesome day of fishing. Today we were going to try to find a lost lake named Laguna Imoya. We motored downstream a ways and entered beautiful lake and followed it up through a narrow opening and into yet another lake. At the end of the second Laguna we were stopped by chest high saw grass. One of the interesting things about this area is that whole islands full of trees will float from place to place. This is what happened here and in doing so had closed off the entrance to Laguna Imoya. Fausto wasn’t comfortable trying to get through the saw grass, it not being his boat and motor, and we agreed with him. We fished the two lakes and had another great day of fishing, with lots of action from both Tucanares and Piranha before finally heading back to camp.
Joaquin’s first question when we arrived in camp was whether we made it to Imoya. Fausto explained the problem with the entrance and not being comfortable trying to enter the lake. Another great dinner was ready to eat after a cool river shower. Later over rum and cokes we contemplated the problem with the entrance to Imoya. Before heading off to bed, Joaquin said he would go with us the next morning and take a look at the entrance to Imoya.
That next day was one of the most exciting days I have ever had on the water. The ride in the canoe and the fishing was off the charts. To start the day off right, on the way to the lost laguna we saw a Manatee and some pink Dolphins. Later, I learned what the “Mysterious King” could do at the hands of a master boatman. Angel and Joaquin had cut some poles earlier that morning and loaded them in the canoe. We arrived at the blocked entrance to the lost lake and after a quick look, Joaquin backed the canoe up and it was full steam ahead. We sailed over the saw grass fully fifty feet before coming to a stop. Wiggling the canoe back and forth loosens it enough and by doing some cutting with the machete, we could use the poles to slowly move it forward. We eventually broke through the first barrier. We now found ourselves deep into a labyrinth of saw grass with a narrow channel of water. There was an amazing amount of current here. We followed the channel upstream and encountered another island blocking our way. Again Joaquin hit the grass going as fast as the motor would push this icebreaker of a canoe. We stopped and had to pole again. But this time we could see the light at the end of the tunnel! Moments later we had broken through and were in Laguna Imoya.
The first view of Lago Imoya was a large area of unusual rose-colored algae. It looked like a huge carpet of tiny pink roses. This was followed by a large section of the lake that was covered by surface weeds where we could see periodic disturbances caused by fish feeding under the weeds. These lakes get cleaned out each winter with the floods brought on by the rainy season. This being the end of the dry season, the lakes were low and weeds had a whole season to grow. Through this area flowed a channel of moving water and off in the distance we could see a large section of water that was clean of weeds but looked like an old flooded forest. We motored over to check out that section of the lake. Brad took one look and decided to try using a surface popper that was recommended to him by his local fly shop back in Atlanta. Two casts later and it was Tucanare time. It seemed like if we didn’t have a fish on the line we were talking about how one had just over shot the fly. It was one explosion on the water after another. We broke through into another small inlet of the lake and the first cast had a Tucanare that missed my fly four times before finally just jumping on it! After a good fight and lots of airtime we boated one of the bigger fish of the trip. This was a fantastic morning and early afternoon fishing that we had on the trip.
We returned to camp in a light afternoon rain, which cooled things off a bit. I had time to reflect on the past four days, knowing that this would be just the first of many trips that I would lead to this fantastic fishery. Next year the plan will be to fish Sancudo Cocha and also check out a couple of huge lakes further upstream on the Rio Largoto.
Is this a trip for everyone? This is truly more of an expedition for people who like to visit and fish the unusual and inaccessible areas of the world. Our camp was comfortable, but it was a camp. There was no air conditioning to give us relief in the heat of the night. The food was not prepared by world-class chefs or served on fine porcelain; but were every bit as good as any I have eaten elsewhere and Brad and I were impressed with the quality and quantity of the food. Although this is a fishing adventure, it is more that that when you add in just getting there. The canoe trip into this part of the Amazon Jungle is worth the price of admission alone. It is an opportunity to see how another part of the world exists and certainly gives the traveler a new perspective on how different our lives are back home.
At day break the next morning, it only took a few minutes to take down tents and pack for the trip back to civilization. I remember taking one last look at our camp as we motored off toward the mighty Agua Rico thinking to myself, I will be back….soon!