Webber in Tefe
Written by D. Webber
In October 2000 I traveled to the Brazilian Amazon, to see for myself
the environment where Discus are found & how they are caught.
I was introduced by a mutual friend to the owner of one of the largest
wholesalers in Manaus, part of an extended family network, who sent his
brother with us to Tefe to try to find a crew of his fishermen working
somewhere in that area. Without this direct family introduction this trip
would have been impossible, as often locations for catching the better
quality fish are jealously guarded.
From Manaus we flew a light aircraft into the small town of Tefe, where
we took a room in the only hotel, of course I stood out from the locals,
& not speaking any Portuguese was a definite disadvantage.
After a day we had located a young boatman who knew where our crew were
& would take us there. The next morning at dawn we set off on a long
narrow aluminum boat with a powerful outboard motor. For many hours we
went South on lake Tefe at high speed until we were nearing our
fishermen's location, and then another few hours to find their main boats
in the confusion of inlets & forest. The fishermen come up from Manaus
with the large boats towing their canoes and 'camp' for a few weeks in a
As we arrived we got some very suspicious looks until our family guide
was noticed, when big smiles were evident all around, possibly also
because we had brought a good supply of beer. After introductions were
made we set off to check out the contents of the many holding pens the
fishermen had built to hold their catches and hidden. I was amazed at the
vivid colors of even the common greens, they were very green/purple in
color all over their bodies, and many with red spots, and very large fish.
After this we returned to the boats to prepare for the evenings fishing.
About an hour before dusk we all clambered into the dugouts and set
off, 6 dugouts in all, the fishermen sit perched up at the front with
their feet hooked under a plank. Their rowing strength was impressive as
we moved rapidly and silently into the flooded trees & bushes. The
night was very dark, how the men navigated was a mystery to me, all the
trees and bushes looked the same, especially by torch light, and there
were no stars, in fact there was a constant light rain to subtly chill us.
Sometimes we were pushing through undergrowth so dense that I could not
see the guy at the front of my own dugout. With aggressive poisonous
snakes hanging from the trees the fishermen need to be very aware of
everything around them, not just what is under the water. By shining the
flashlight across the surface of the water we could see the red eyes of
the thousands of young Cayman, which are easily caught by hand, but they
are escape artists also, & by the next morning had all got out of
their boxes and back into the river.
When they are fishing the fishermen use a low power flashlight hooked
up to a boat battery, held in one hand, & a wide weave hand net in the
other. Sometimes it seems as if they will fall into the water, their noses
are at the surface as they reach down to the depth where the Discus hang
out, usually a full arms length. There is great skill attached to this,
from above, in the darkness, a Discus appears very small, many times I was
unable to see any fish, & suddenly the fisherman would pull up a large
fat Green, and show it to me before putting it in to the bucket.
After many hours of this, the buckets were all full so we headed back
to the large boats, we arrived back just as the sky was beginning to
lighten, changed into dry clothes & drank hot sweet Brazilian coffee
to warm up from the rain. Even in the tropics it can make you cold, and
then we climbed into hammocks for a good sleep.
During the day the fishermen prepare food & relax, so the next
morning I borrowed a dugout from them & rowed around, not daring to
got too far in case of getting lost, even with a compass, we found a sandy
beach and took a swim in the tea colored water. I then took temperature,
pH & conductivity readings in a few different spots around the river
that I could now see we were on, air temp was about 90F, water temp
82F-84F, pH 5.8-6.2 ( it would vary in different spots) & conductivity
was 8 microsiemens. This is very low, and is explained by the huge volumes
of rain ( distilled water) that falls from the sky. In Amazonia there is
an expression " in the dry season it rains every day, in the wet
season it rains all day". On the return journey to Tefe with our
selected fish we ran into a brief butdramatic storm, nearly 3 inches of
rain fell in one hour. We found shelter on a trading boat until the storm
passed. The small boats have only a low clearance above the water &
sudden winds easily whipped up 2 foot waves. Every year many boats sink
and people drown.
We arrived back in Tefe and put our selected fish onto a large ferry to
go to Manaus, a trip of 2 days down river from Tefe, where our fish were
transported to our wholesaler friend's Manaus facility, there we did more
water changes & put them back into the van to take to a place about 30
kilometers into the jungle where he has many holding ponds and big holding
tanks with a constant flow from his own little river. Here our fish could
rest for a few weeks after their trauma, before international shipping.
Discus represent about 1% of any Brazilian tropical fish wholesalers
business, the vast majority of trade is in cardinals & plecos and
small species, which take up less space and are far easier to catch &
In Manaus it was not the best season to go Discus fishing on the Rio
Negro, but I did visit nearby parts & take water readings, temp 84F,
conductivity, 14 uS, pH 2.8. I was surprised at such a low pH, but I could
not deny it, as I put my foot into the water to put my meters in a small
scratch on my foot began to burn like I had acid in it! the hulls of boats
that work the Rio Negro have to be repainted very frequently because of
the corrosive nature of the water, & they pull them out whenever they
can rather than leave them floating.
I am told ( by the locals) that Heckels are not found in the Rio Negro
'proper' because of this acidity, but are found near the mouths of the
various tributaries, where the water is much less acidic.
From Manaus we flew to Belem, a center for Brown Discus (Rio Xingu) and
especially for plecos, where I visited another wholesaler & did more
river readings. Here on the lower Amazon the pH was 6.5 and conductivity
12uS, the water was brown & muddy looking. We rented a Cessna at the
local flying club and flew over the forest & and rivers for a few
hours. The planes are all painted in bright colors so that if they should
go down they can be more easily seen in a search. This flight was
exhilarating but also disturbing, as we could now clearly see columns of
smoke in every direction, and a smoky haze as far as the horizon as
clearings are burned out of the forest. One amusing aspect of this though,
was that as we flew at about 400 feet I could also see that in every
clearing, even new ones still burning, the people had erected goal posts ,
no wonder the Brazilians are so good at soccer.