Journey to The Amazon River Brazil

After four hours from Manaus, we finally reached Itacotiara (pronounced ee-ta-kwa-shah. Itacotiara is closer to Rio Jatapu and Uatuma) and the banks of the Amazon, where out boat was docked. It was a little town almost entirely dependent on the river and the forest. It was only 10 a.m. and we were already drenched in sweat. But we didn’t care – we headed straight for the markets, to check out the fish for sale. It was a great photo opportunity. Oscars, Peacock Basses, Pacus, Arowana and even the giant Pirarucu (Arapima gigas). We finally walked the plank on to our boat, our home for the next week or so. It was a 38-foot boat with three levels, bunk beds for each person, a kitchen and two bathrooms. All in all, more than I expected.

Once the boat was moving, we were very comfortable in the breeze. Those of us who had been to the Amazon before, didn’t seem as excited as I was. We had a few hours to settle down, have a few drinks, watch the river go by and get to know the crew. An hour or so into the down river journey, we came upon a sight that put the actual size of the river in perspective. Apparently, the banks that we were seeing were only islands. We then reached a gap between the islands and were able to see the real banks the other bank was barely visible! An hour before sunset, we arrived at the mouth of Rio Uatuma, a white water river, small compared to the mighty Amazon. This is where I saw my first Pink River Dolphin; they seem to relish fishing near the confluence of rivers. Although not as acrobatic and curious as the Atlantic Bottlenose in Florida, these near-blind creatures were just as interesting. The riverbanks were densely forested and a tree with large red pods, called Mungubu fascinated me. We saw numerous Parrolets and Parakeets, Kingfishers, Fish Eagles and a few Cara Caras and a large Toucan hopping from tree to tree. We were to spend sometime collecting in this area before dark, so I knew we would anchor soon. And we did, a few miles up the river, past the town of Itapiranga.

It was barely 30 seconds after we had stopped when we were all casting hooks and lines into the water almost all if us instantly hooked Red Bellied Piranha! It was the very first fish I ever caught in the Amazon. These juvenile Piranhas were so numerous and easy to catch that we were quickly bored. So we left the boat and made our way to the banks using a 16-foot motor boat. As we were about to make a landing and get into the water, Steve Davis, who was still on the big boat, reeled in an 18 inch Black Piranha. We all looked at each other nervously and hesitated a bit.

The excitement of collecting the Amazon fish is outweighed any fear, so I stepped out on to the bank. My leg immediately sank knee-deep into the mud. So did the other leg. When I pulled the first leg out of the mud, I found my shoe missing at the bottom of the leg hole. I reached my hand in and fetched my shoes and took another step. Now my other shoe was missing, and I was only 3 feet away from the boat! Was I ever going to catch any fish if I spent all my time retrieving my lost shoes? Jeff Warned me not to walk around without shoes, so I fought with the mud till we got to a little stream.

The water was warm near the shores and cool at spots deeper in the stream. The stream emptied a vast marsh that was treeless, possibly from deforestation for cattle grazing. We could see hundreds of wading birds; some of them were quite upset by our presence but not as much as the Howler Monkeys at the edge of the marsh, who protested our presence audibly. The pH of the water was 6.3 with a conductivity of 70uS. As we caught fish, mostly Characins and catfish, we bagged them and floated them near the shore, to be retrieved on our way back to the boat. After we collected for almost an hour, we were returning back to the boat and found that all our plastic bags that we d stored fish in had been ransacked! There were circular holes in the bags and there were no fish to be found in the bags. The Piranhas had sensed the distressed fish and bit through the bags to get at the hapless fish. The Piranhas were absolutely merciless with the less than healthy members of the aquatic kingdom. Only the healthy and robust specimens get to survive in this habitat.

We were all still in the water while this was going on and none of us were hurt or bit by Piranhas. However, repeatedly warned by Miguel, our Captain and Jeff to shuffle our feet as much as we could to scare off Stingrays – the real menace in the water. We were soon in our little boat, headed out of the stream, when we decided to cast net. After just one cast, we found it was easier to just sit and wait for the fish to jump into the boat because that is just what they did. Schools of yellow and white striped Schizodon schizodon leapt up 5 feet in the air and landed in the boat! How convenient! We wanted some bait for catching catfish and possibly get some fish for dinner.

The Amazon Fish List

Among the fish we caught there were:

Acaronia nassa (Basketmouth cichlid)
Aphyocharax albus
Farlowella acus
Sorubim lima (Shovelnose catfish)
Hoplias malabaricus (Wolf Fish)
Bumble bee cat
Hypoptopoma sp. (Giant Otocinclus)
Pygocentrus nattereri (Redbellied Piranha)
Serrasalmus rhombeus (Black Piranha)
Serrasalmus elongatus (Elongate Piranha)
Spotside Piranha
Triportheus albus (Yellow Hatchetfish)
Raphiodon vulpinis (Dog Fish)
Mesonauta cf. insignis
Cichlasoma cf. amazonarum
Apistogramma sp. regani complex
Geophagus cf. surinamensis
Laetacara curviceps
Phractocephalus hemioliopterus

Mylossoma sp. (Pacu-type)
Corydoras sp. Spotted
Triportheus sp.
Leporinus fasciatus
Unifasciatus Pencilfish
Crenicichla regani
Spotted Moenkhausia Tetra
Loricaria sp.
Charax gibbosus
Charax sp. Spotside
Leporinus cf. fredericki
Tetragonopterus argenteus
Carnegiella marthae
Lyretail Brown Pleco
Silver Spilurus Tetra
Laetacara curviceps

I am sure there were other amazon fish that I could not identify or collect. This was certainly one of the most productive fish collecting spots we encountered.

On our return to Manaus, we stopped here briefly and to our surprise, we caught a lot of Crenicichla reticulata using cast nets. They were hiding in the Loricariid caves (Pleco holes) along the mud banks and the vibration of the lead weights on the net scared them out into the net and we caught up to 4 of these typically solitary fish per cast. Some of the larger females were very colorful, with bright orange bands above the lateral bands. This was such a rich habitat for fish and, unfortunately, mosquitoes as well, so we were forced to get back in the boat and ride around for an hour during dusk until the throngs of pests had dissipated. This is an expensive but effective way to avoid mosquito bites. After 8 PM, mosquitoes are not as numerous as they are between 6:30 and 7 PM. Since handling live, sensitive fish is a priority, the use of mosquito repellents, however well stocked we were, was not ideal.

After acclimation and a quick shower, we were served dinner we had a chef onboard and were quite thankful about it. “Caboclas Delicias”, said the plates. Caboclas are the people who live by the river in the Amazon, they are of mixed ancestry, usually Portuguese and native, and speak a Portuguese dialect. Rice, beans and catfish. Miguel knew us well – he had stocked his ice chest with 500 cans of beer, all of which was consumed by the end of the trip. Afraid of dehydration, I never had more than two a day. This would point to Fred Krauss as the culprit since he seemed to be the happiest guy on the trip.

We had luckily timed our trip a week or so after the full moon and as a result, we had clear and dark skies to observe the stars. Having originated from highly light-polluted areas of the United States, we were awestruck by the numbers of stars, their intensity and grandeur. We spotted orbiting satellites, shooting stars and a heart-shaped constellation that I dubbed Constellation Corazon.

The next morning, we anchored near the confluence of Uatuma and Jatapu. Rio Jatapu, which became the focus of our attention for the next week, is a black water river that originates in Northern Brazil and drains the forests. Rivers that drain the Andes are typically white water; rivers that drain ancient rocky highlands are usually clear water and those that empty forests are black water. After a breakfast of highly astringent Cashew juice and toast, we began exploring a riverside lake with a pH of 5.4 and 10uS conductivity. Here, I was able to observe numerous cichlids in their natural habitat, interacting with each other and feeding. This is why I was in the Amazon – to observe nature the way it was supposed to function. A few Acarichthys heckelli, Mesonauta festivum and some Biotodoma cupido shared a few square feet of shallow lakeside with clear, still water and lot of fallen tree logs. The water here was very warm, about 90°F in the shallows and 88°F in deeper areas.

We also collected the following amazon fish :

Fluviphylax pygmaeus
Crenicichla lugubris
Laetacara curviceps
Cichla intermedia
Cichla temensis
Heros severus   
Hypselecara coryphaenoides
numerous Knifefishes
Hoplias malabaricus
Uaru amphiacanthoides
Crenicichla regani
Apistogramma agassizi

A. cf. regani
A. cf. meinkeni
A. cf. paucisquamis
Boulengerella maculata
Pinktail Chalceus
Geophagus cf. surinamensis
Satanoperca cf. jurupari
Satanoperca lilith
Satanoperca acuticeps
Acaronia nassa

Fluviphylax pygmaeus is a tiny livebearing fish that mimics surface air bubbles with its eyes. This place is obviously a paradise for cichlidophiles. I wish I could have stayed there for a year instead of a week.

The lake we fished in was fairly large and had a healthy population of Cichla species. These large cichlids are pursuit predators and often chase schools of Hatchet fishes to the surface and gulp a few. Being winged, Hatchet fishes all take to the air and hover a foot or so above the water for a couple of seconds while beating their pectoral fins rapidly. This unique escape mechanism is fascinating to watch and probably saves man of them from being devoured by the chasing Cichla. The gape and suck of a Cichla can be heard as a loud pop similar to the sound that Bass and Snook fisherman are familiar with.

Black water areas a remarkably devoid of minerals and this reduces the diversity and density of animal life compared to white water areas a little but the insects, particularly a species of wasp and bees were the first to find a new source of minerals – our sweat! At first when they began landing on me, I was quite nervous but they were not interested in stinging, just my salts. They were using me as a salt lick and would not take No for an answer. I complied and eventually began perversely enjoying my new friends. My new friends were in for a feast as the daytime temperatures were usually above 100°F with a humidity of about 85%, and we were all sweating profusely. It cooled down to a balmy 85°F at night. Fortunately, black waters areas a free of mosquitoes at night. We weren’t that lucky after all, as there was a highly aggressive Night Wasp species that stung most of us at least once.

The crew had caught a few very large Uaru amphiacanthoides which were dead by the time we saw them. They were going to be our lunch. I had never eaten a South American cichlid before. I’d eaten Tilapia but that doesn’t count. So, I watched the crew descale and fry a 12-inch Uaru! It was sad but we had to eat something. I must admit that it tasted very good with rice and beans.

The next day, we woke up early to go Cichla fishing. That morning was so peaceful and quiet that I wanted it to go on forever. On our way to a prime spot, we saw some Spider Monkeys in the trees again, my first. The technique for Cichla fishing was cast-far-and-reel-in. We caught a few this way but we also got a lot of Boulengerella species.

That afternoon, we went to another lake, Lago Leandro, a riverside lake with white sandy beaches. Perfect Surinamensoid habitat. I thought. I was right. That night, we caught two species of Surinamensoids, one was about 5 times as common as the other was. Of course, the rare one was the most brilliantly colored with a lot of red markings, even on juveniles. There were thousands of large bats all over this area and a very loud tree frog that we could hear a mile away. Jeff and I tracked down one of these and caught it to take pictures it was quite large, almost the size of a toad, with a lime green color. Sandy beaches are ideal spots for Stingrays, so we were very careful. Jeff saw a large Stingray.

The next day, I would learn something fascinating about cichlid ecology: during the heat of the midday, I took a nap while Jeff and the others were catching Taeniacara candidi. Wanting to collect it, I set out at about 4 PM to collect some along the lakeshore, but the fish fauna had changed like shift change at a factory. There were no Taeniacara candidi at all to be found anywhere near the shore, which was apparently their habitat during midday. Now, all we could catch were Laetacara curviceps, which were relatively scarce during midday. Where did the Taeniacara go at dusk? If they are not near the shore, where can they go to hide from large predatory catfish during the night? Where were the curviceps during the midday?

The next day, we saw a dead young river dolphin floating on the river and two magnificent and rarely seen King Vultures waiting for us to leave before they came down to feed. The common Black Vultures were already there at the carcass but most vultures in the Amazon rely on the heavy beaks of King Vultures to help break through the skin or hide. These are large birds with a read and yellow head and large black and white wings that span more than 8 feet. It was truly impressive.

That day, we caught a few large Laetacara thayeri and a beautiful yellow tetra that reminded me of the African Congo Tetra. Unfortunately, the tetra was impossible to keep alive. That afternoon, some of the group, including all the women, went into the jungle, exploring. They made a hasty retreat after they ran into fresh Jaguar tracks it had just rained heavily an hour ago. We were almost 100 miles upriver now and were finally beginning to see the wildlife. Constantly raucous parrots and Macaws were everywhere.

A dwarf pike cichlid (Crenicichla sp.) that I caught and thought was C. regani, the commonly caught species, turned out to be C. notophthalmus! C. notophthalmus was believed to be a Rio Negro endemic. What was it doing over 200 miles from its supposed habitat? I knew they were C. notophthalmus after 6 months when the males developed long freestanding dorsal fin spines (only the first few spines.) We also found many other fish that we thought were Rio Negro endemics there must be a rainy season connection between the two rivers in its upper courses.

Original Post : Collecting Fish in the Brazilian Amazon

by Vinny Kutty 
From Vinny’s web site “Mostly Cichlids”

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