“Right, we are headed to Barranco Minas, flight time will be about 90 minutes, is that correct?”
“I don’t know mate, if you say so, I have no clue,” came our host Mark’s reply.
Approximately 90 minutes later… “so, are you being met or what is the plan?” asked the pilot.
“No idea,” said Mark, “I hope so but no clue.”
A tuk-tuk pulled up while we were signing in with the heavily-armed local marine infantry – a school exercise book. We simply had to sign our names like a Visitor’s book. Out got 22 year-old Laura who welcomed us with her best English. She was a chemical engineering student from Medellin headed to Germany to do her PhD when she had completed her degree. As of now, her first ever jungle experience, she was our host taking us to a camp she had never been to and may never return to as she was just helping out. The bags were loaded into one tuk-tuk, our team into another and I was invited to get on the back of a girl’s motorbike. We headed into the village and soon found ourselves at the top of about 40 steps, which reminded me of Indian ghats, down to the river. There was our ride for the next four hours or 180 kilometres. We had absolutely no idea where we were going, what the name of the town, the river, or the other river was. All we knew was it was really cool fishing. Isn’t it amazing how far good, wild fishing will entice fly-fisher folk? This was no ordinary fly-fishing trip, this was special in more ways than one. Two old friends, myself and Mark and a daughter each. Cosi, Mark’s daughter, who had never held a fly rod in her life and my daughter Maddie who had never fished with a single-handed rod. Both daughters in their early 20s and both either side of Masters degrees. If you are questioning the wisdom of this being a great idea for a starter-outer fly-fishing trip, you could be forgiven. One last detail… Cosi and Maddie had never met each other before!
We set off with our twin 200 hp Mercury engines and an iPhone plugged into one speaker blaring Mark’s play list. It reminded me of a scene from a Vietnam war film. You might be wondering if this is narcos country too. Well, yes, it is or was. This was once the home of the guerrilla regiment FARC Guerilla 15th and 44th Battalion. The local people were paid to grow coca and the FARC picked it up and took it down river. Now the farmers are paid to grow something else by the Government and the area is patrolled by the military. Any remnants of tracks through the jungle were thanks to the FARC. Finally, after hours on the muddy main stem, we reached a tributary and turned into a much smaller river. Twenty minutes later and the boat siren went off. After brief moments of concern we realised we had arrived. In the trees we could spot what was clearly a camp of some sort. Waiting to meet us were a plethora of the indigenous Indians (Sikuani) and Felipe, our main host and Paulo our very creative chef. We climbed the bank and there were six raised platforms, three with tents on, one blank, one with some outdoor furniture and one with a kitchen set up. Tents were allocated and we sat and relaxed and had a drink with Felipe as tables for drinks were built while we chatted. Felipe explained that on the 31 December, there was no camp, only a clearing. It was now the afternoon of 2 January. There was a shed which would be a bathroom but for now, no showers and it was the jungle for the loo!
For Felipe this was a dream come true. This tiny, unsophisticated camp carved out of the jungle marked the very beginnings of his dream. This camp will be the Outpost camp to his main lodge up the main river which was also being built. This had been a long journey for him. The son of a revered Argentine trout guide, he had become a guide himself. He guided throughout South America with focus on dorado preferring the wilder, jungle locations. Then he came to Colombia where he took three years to find his own gem in the jungle and this was the very beginning. Peacock bass have been around a long time on the international fishing circuit. Beautiful, highly visual, free-taking fish which are great fun to catch and reach good sizes up to and over 20lbs. Less well-known is the payara which has only really appeared on social media in 2019. It is known as the Vampire fish for obvious reasons and, having caught peacocks before, it was this species which fascinated me. Could this be the third leg of the freshwater predator stool – tiger fish, golden dorado and possibly payara? They are migratory in a huge river system (we are in a tributary of a tributary which joins another tributary which together drop into the mighty Orinoco) so one is not hammering a resident population. Were they worthy of standing alongside the other species? I hoped to discover the truth for myself. With the three peacock species and the payara came other species like sardinata, bicuda (freshwater barracuda), yamu and pacu. Getting here had been an adventure in itself but now the real adventure was to begin.
By the first morning, Mark and I were commenting that it was as if Maddie and Cosi had known each other for a lifetime. They had not drawn breath. Our day began walking along the old FARC track past the impassable rapids to boats waiting above. We had to split into two teams, Mark and Cosi with Felipe and his Sikuani boat driver Nicolino and myself and Maddie with other Felipe (the bird expert) and Diego our boat driver. “Where are we headed?” asked Mark. “No clue,” said Felipe, “let’s go and explore!” We headed upriver as herons lifted, ospreys, eagles and vultures soared and parakeets screeched as we disturbed them. Within about 30 minutes we found ourselves at a giant waterfall. Totally impassable. The rapids below were full of payara but we were too clumsy with the boats and spooked them. The next challenge was finding a lagoon for peacocks the locals said existed. We found the channel to the lagoon and cut our way through. There we all caught our first peacocks including fish of up to 15lbs. We also broke the first rod of the trip before lunch.
It was eaten on the beach with the plethora of butterflies that gather on the beaches looking for salt and then we decided to fish our way down river to camp. Maddie caught her first payara and then we found a payara stronghold where again Maddie was first into a fish. It buried her in branches deep down but there was no need to worry, to our surprise, Diego dived in and reappeared with payara in one hand and branch in the other. It was pretty impressive and from that moment on Diego was crowned Aquaman by Maddie and the team.
As dusk approached we moved to the rapids at camp where we really learned about payara. These fish are opportunists. Like fresh Atlantic salmon they are bright silver and lie in fast water or just off it. They like to attack from below and their preferred time of day seemed to be lower light – not darkness – but lower light when they get the best silhouettes. Queenfish do the same in Dubai. They can be found in good numbers anywhere next to very fast water, breaks and riffles. Their attack is like lightning and I would say more visible than a dorado or tiger fish because more of the fish emerges from the water. When they take, hooking them is challenging because of the array of teeth. Many takes are so fast and aggressive there is little one can do before the fish is gone. What that toothy array must do to its prey I shudder to the think. Other times, when the payara has a better grip, the best and only thing to do is hold on and yield no line at all, at least to start with. This requires gloves or, at the very least, taped fingers. Warm water lines really burn on skin and they will carve their way through leather gloves and tape too. Once the fish is secure, you have a strong, wild, sizable fish (6 to 16lbs) on in fast water as Maddie did that first evening. They will take off down the rapids and leave you stranded on your rock. Maddie and Bird Felipe had to give chase for 100 yards before landing her fourth payara of the day. After the first day a plethora of peacocks had been landed and some famous battles with payara had taken place with the best landed at about 20 lbs to Mark. The biggest news of all was that a loo had appeared and there was talk of a shower!
Our plan for the second day was to find the other known lagoon. This was a longer approach through the jungle which came to an abrupt halt as we faced a tree which has fallen fully across the channel. Aquaman stepped up with his machete and began hacking his way through the fallen hard wood. It quickly became apparent that he meant business and it was not going to be as long a wait as we thought. The tree gave way, one side sank and the other lifted and Aquaman was again thrown into the water. Out he clambered and on we went to a second tree and so on. It was worth it and resulted in Cosi’s biggest peacock of the trip which was nearly 19lbs. Not bad for day two of your fishing career! To celebrate her fish, we got to have a shower!
We went to the waterfall pools again but the fish seemed to just melt away on our arrival – we hooked a few but landed none. We decided to not go back to anywhere we had been so ended up going up a small side river. It looked superb but nothing doing. As we dropped back to our main river we started to hit fish and then more and more. In fact, we caught a lot including one of 19lbs for Maddie. It was amusing because the ‘old boys’ as we became called could not catch the big ones while the ‘victims’ as the girls became called, could not stop catching big fish. Upon reflection, why would the peacocks be upriver, a change in water clarity so they can attack from dirty to clearer is the ideal place. That third evening Cosi returned unhappy: 15 payara takes in the rapids and not a payara to show for them. With no payara in the bag, day four had to be Cosi’s payara day.
We stuck with our no return policy for our fourth day upriver. We fished some other small rivers coming into the main channel with some success. One had a white beach with perfect round holes in it like the holes on grouse moors where they take chunks of heather. These are old peacock bass nests. You can tell if a fish is nesting because it wears the lower part of its tail out because of digging and being in its nest. The beach proved productive and while fishing the draw of faster water beyond began to look tempting for payara. So it proved to be. We took Cosi out and got her first payara but, as she pointed out, I did make the cast because right there, there were tons of trees. She was happy but rightly wanted to do it herself. The focus continued. We tried a huge oxbow lake which was productive for the girls but Mark and Felipe had discovered a gem. Lots of big peacocks feeding on a small beach in a few inches of water. We went back and hooked a fish on all the four rods we had and gave Aquaman the rods to hold as they had fish on. Of course we ended up breaking the second rod of the trip but all those takes on poppers in clear water, it was worth it. We then found some more likely looking payara water. It was another draw of fast water out of a slow pool. First time down we had some takes and lost one. Second time down a stunning 19lbs payara.
On our return to the rapids I took Cosi out and we stood on a rock right at the lip of the rapids. I knew there were fish there, we had caught some and had takes from others the night before. She was within reach of some very good lies. We started to the left and had multiple attacks but none stayed except of course the one where the line got round the reel and we snapped 60 lbs test like cotton. The same results from the right, multiple takes but nothing stayed on. We had a last try to the left and decided to give up. Cosi made one last cast and gave me the rod to wind up. A fish hammered the fly and I threw the rod back at Cosi who stood there aghast as the fish took off down the rapids with her reel screaming despite the drag being so tight. I told her to relax and called the boat to take us to the bank. There we ran down a few yards but the line was caught on a rock out in the torrent. We really were in trouble. But have no fear Aquaman is here! He appeared and before anyone could stop him he dived into the torrent, crossed the first set of rapids and then dived into the worse second set to a mutual look of horror from everybody. He made it and released the line and Cosi was back into the battle. She had to haul the fish back up the torrent and then into a side channel before I could tail it. This was a triumph for the whole team and Aquaman was still alive! It was one of those ‘never forget’ moments and the last event upriver from camp.
Our last two days were to be spent down river looking for bigger payara and visiting some new peacock lagoons. Fish number one at the junction (murky water next to clearer water again) between two rivers was 25lbs, fish number two was 23lbs and if Cosi had any last doubts about her truly catching payara on her own, they were washed away as fish after fish were landed. 15, 16, 17, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 25 and 25lbs plus a whole lot more. There is no question that a 30lbs fish is likely and a 40lbs fish possible. It was extraordinary at the start but calmed down as the midday sun took hold. We thought it might be a bonanza the first evening but it proved moody.
The typical sink-tip method proved inconsistent at best so we tried floating line with some success and the poppers but we sensed we were too late in each case. At dark, the fishing died, the endless rolling and attacking of baitfish ceased.
On the last morning we went to see the site of the new lodge before commencing a real expedition to new lagoons via seemingly endless channels. Aquaman was busy chopping and falling in round almost every corner while we were ducking under low branches and even lying in the bottom of the boats. It was worth the journey, the peacocks were big, strong and taking poppers with gusto and very effective at using the habitat of old trees and branches under the water to thwart our efforts to land them. The temptation to have one last go at the junction was too great and back we went for our last two hours. The fish were there in crazy numbers again and we had some spectacular fishing. This time we knew to change tactics with the changes in light and were far more successful. We had a spectacular last couple of hours.
We did not count the number of fish we caught for the week but our guess was 150 + between the four of us. Three species of peacock bass, the biggest was the temensis, then the beautiful butterfly and monoculus. Plenty of payara, and some of the very speedy bicuda, sardinata and yamu. We saw pacu but did not have the opportunity to catch them. It was with great sadness that we left under a stunning sunrise. By any standards, it had been an extraordinary trip. The daughters had been amazing. Their casting had come on in leaps and bounds. Keep in mind they were casting 8 and 9 weight rods with big flies on sink-tips. Not exactly what you wish on anyone starting their fishing career. It had been such a pleasure to witness a true friendship evolve and the lively evening debates will be remembered for a long time. The payara that we experienced deserve a place right alongside, if not above, the golden dorado and tiger fish. They are willing takers, very visual, great jumpers, just as strong and seem plentiful. They are also good-looking fish in their own way.
There is truly a new kid on the block to be taken seriously by the international fly fisher. Felipe carved comfort out of the jungle and though we did not have a clue about anything as we set of, our trust in him was well-placed and everything ran smoothly. We were and always will be his Group One of something I believe deserves to become a legendary destination.