By David Radcliffe
After a long hiatus, due to a global pandemic resulting in limited air travel, I finally had the opportunity to once again pursue some new species with one of many fly rods. This time it was Payara, Pacu and Peacock Bass in Colombia. The big three “P”s had been on my list as long as I can remember. They each come with a generous amount of exoticism, rarity and fabled fighting ability to justify the long journey flying out of Toronto to the border of Colombia and Venezuela.
After several months of research, I finally chose the Orinoco River and one of its vast and varied tributaries, the Vichada River. From most international airports, daily flights take you first to Bogota. This is the capital of Colombia, a city of nearly 8 million, and well worth arriving a few days early, allowing an angler to take in the many sights and attractions the city has to offer. It is a safe, vibrant and modern city worth exploring.
A daily in-country flight takes you to Puerto Inirida, the last version of what most people would consider civilization before departing for Tucunare Lodge (tucunarelodge.com). The lodge takes care of booking these flights and includes the cost in the package price. Any last-minute or forgotten gear, toiletries or bug dope can be purchased before departure to the lodge and, at this point, the realization of just what you are in for starts to take hold. A four-hour boat ride upriver, and into the jungle is necessary just to get to the camp. Fear and good judgment should not impede what is an amazing boat ride in relative comfort. Slowly, as we crept further into the jungle, traffic on the river diminishes to a handful of dugout canoes and the occasional outboard powered freight or people hauler plying the river systems.
Upon arrival at the lodge, we were greeted by the staff/ residents of the small village directly behind the camp we would call home for eight days. Supper was served as soon as we finished settling into our respective cabins. The camp consists of double occupancy cabins with a shower and toilet in each, decent beds, mosquito netting and storage closets for gear and clothing. Each cabin is made from locally milled lumber and thatched roofing. If there was a cat within one hundred miles, it could easily be thrown through the gaps in the floor and walls. The accommodations are sparse if not practical. Floor fans are provided and a generator runs the power needed for the camp. The staff and lodge owner speak very limited English so a translation device or Spanish to English dictionary are advisable but a combination of hand gestures and charades will suffice.
Breakfast is at 5 a.m. and we were in the boats and off to our first lagoons by 5:45. Meals are simple fare but ample and very tasty. In order to not be covered in bug dope and sunscreen, head to toe dress is advised. You are, after all, in the jungle and there are biting insects at all hours of the day and night. The boats are perfect for the task they are needed for, stout 14-ft. aluminums with casting decks and 40hp outboards. Stable and comfortable. Casting big flies from the deck, we never felt a need to perform a balancing act.
Up to this point, value for return on investment was not proportional. This was about to change drastically. The first lagoon produced Peacock Bass on the second cast. And big fish, the first of the trip was estimated at 12 lbs, the second at 18 lbs and so on and so on. Medium to large flashy flies with sink tip lines were required but this was conveyed to us before we even got in the boats, so we were ready for what was exceptional fishing. I used a 9wt. rod but an 8 or 10wt. would do nicely as chucking flies that resemble wet dish towels takes a stout rod and matching reel and line. Getting the fly down quickly was key and a sink tip certainly did the trick. Following two days of the lagoon adventures, we switched to combating Payara or Vampire Fish as they are commonly referred to. My apprehension regarding regular hookups or even landing one of these fish was quickly shattered. Payara live, hunt and feed in the deep pools and fast water around the many rapids of the Orinoco and Vichada Rivers. Many of the same flies used for Peacocks can be used for Payara but silver, white or grey with black or red backs work best when stripped deep and fast. The take is violent and resolute butt hook sets must match the take. Payara in these river systems grow big and wire is a must if you plan on landing one. The lodge record stands at over 30 lbs and fly fishers can expect steady action all day long.
As an added bonus, the river holds Pacu, an omnivorous fish related to the Piranha, can be had using a wooden or plastic bead that resembles seeds, their main food source. Pacu can reach grand proportions and Tucunare Lodge boasts fish over 40 lbs on a fly rod. They tend to take the fly as gentle as a trout but run like a tuna.
If luxury accommodations, air conditioning and feather pillows are your expectation then this is not the place I would recommend. If you want to exceed your expectations for a fly-fishing adventure with plenty of big and varied fish species, Tucunare Lodge will be worth every penny of the cost.
David Radcliffe is a retired schoolteacher, fly fisherman, trapper and hunter. Pre-COVID he travelled the world to fly fish & experience other cultures and is now happy to get back at it.