Bugs, Bites and Bass: Near Death Experiences on the Geobass Trail

The snake struck at his bare foot, or maybe it was a horse fly. The answer depends on who you ask, but somewhere deep in the jungle of Papua New Guinea, Chris Owens was feeling the burn.Literally a world away from home, Owens and the GEOBASS team were on the hunt for monster bass. Like most anglers on a weekend getaway, Owens was in the midst of a medical emergency caused by a giant bird.

We’ll check on him later.

For now, the GEOBASS team—a globetrotting band of rag-tag fly fishermen sponsored by Costa— is living the dream of every fishermen who’s ever coasted into a forgotten bayou or lost lagoon in search of the next big fish. Jungles, swamps, deserts, they fish them all. And to find out what it’s like to walk a mile in those shoes, I asked to the experts—Thad Robison, Jay Johnson, Chris Owens and Brian Jill of Costa’s infamous GEOBASS project.

Together, they’ve spent years traversing the world’s jungles, backwaters and bayous living a fisherman’s dream. Here, in their own words, are lessons from the wild—the first of which should probably be to wear shoes.

Joe: In Guyana, we get to see you guys catch a ton of gnarly-looking fish, even if they’re not the peacock bass you’re looking for. Tell us what it’s like to hook-up in unknown water where anything can be on the line.

  • Thad: I don’t believe there is another place in the world that can match the diversity of fish you have the chance of connecting with than in Guyana. It was the first trip I can remember where I personally caught a dozen different species of fish within the same river, and that is pretty exciting. It’s impossible to pass up casting to an arapaima or a school of payara, pacu or arowana, especially since each one of them could be a fish that you could solely focus on, but the goal was to find the butterfly peacock bass. It was just awesome that we had the opportunity to encounter all that Guyana had to offer up to us.
  • Jay: Ya know what? Folks ask me all the time, “What’s your favorite fish to fish for?” and I say, “The next one!” My whole life is set up to hook up with unknown fish on water I’ve never been. Every time it happens I feel as alive as I ever will.
  • Chris: Your mission is to catch bass, but occasionally you hook into something that’s out of your league and you end up schooled. You literally have no idea what kind of fish, or what size of fish you might connect with on the other end of that line. If you are lucky to get that fish to hand, a lot of times it’s a fish you haven’t ever caught before … or maybe even seen or heard of before.
  • Brian: It’s one of my favorite things about fishing new unknown water—trying to crack the code and figure out what all of these other species are eating. In Guyana the peacock bass was on the menu, so most of our flies that we tied for those huge arapaima were imitating baby bass.

Joe: Before GEOBASS, how much experience did you have fishing outside of the U.S.?

      • Thad: GEOBASS is one of many projects we have done over the past decade. We’ve had quite a bit of experience traveling and fishing throughout the world. We also have a project called GEOFISH that has us driving from the top of North America to the bottom of South America. We’ve made it all the way to Peru and fished in every country from Mexico, throughout all of Central America, and into South America. I’ve also had the opportunity to fish for Taimen in Mongolia.
      • Jay: (Everybody probably answered something about our previous projects so I’ll yap about bass) As far as bass fishing goes, zero. I’ve been walking into this bass world blind and getting my whoopin’ of learning with a smile and a thank you. There is a whole world out there to see what’s out there and sometimes it’s happy to see you and other times it asks, “Who invited these dudes?” and tries to send us back with like a broken unwanted birthday gift.
      • Chris: Over the years, we have been filming fishing projects that involve travel all over the world. I’ll never forget the first international trip we did. It was an absolute nightmare! Not knowing what to bring, over-packing, under-packing, packing the wrong stuff … but at the end of the day, all you REALLY need to survive is Cipro, duct tape, a headlamp, a black belt in the game of charades, and an active membership with Global Rescue.
      • Brian: I have spent a good deal of time since 2002 traveling the world with a fly rod. The early days with AEGmedia had us traveling through Patagonia, New Zealand, Mongolia, Iceland, British Colombia to name a few. After that our current company, MOTIV Fishing, partnered up with Costa on a project called GEOFISH where we set out to travel from Portland, Oregon, to the bottom of South America, fishing the entire way. It’s a serious learning process with any new water you set out to fish. You try to research as much as you can but questions often go unanswered, especially when you’re going to a place that few people have fished before. It’s tough to fully understand what you’re getting into until you see it for yourself, but I think we can all agree that a good fly tying kit can make or break a trip.

Joe: This question is for Jay. In nearly every place you visit, fly fishing seems new to the locals. What kind of reactions does your gear get?

      • Jay: Just about everywhere we go we run into this. It’s always a battle. Most of the time we are dealing with people that fish for survival and have been doing it since the very first day they could hold a hook and line. They know what they are doing and what works. Then we show up, wide-eyed, loud, potentially slightly hung over and with long sticks with really nice hooks ruined with a bunch of dead animal feathers and fur tied to them. These native folks fish with meat so they can catch more meat, and they do it at an expert level. The nightmare people call “learning curve” dictates that we are gonna suck for at least a few days, and we will catch nothing. This whole time I’m trying to sing a song about the wonders of fly fishing to these people and by day two they get up and walk away thinking that this bearded, slightly drunk dude is singing the worst song they have ever heard. At some point, they become positive that fly fishing doesn’t work. Then we learn and start to really lay into some fish. Just as soon as they become sold on fly fishing their whole world comes to a stop as my song changes the tune to the magic and importance of catch and release. I’m fairly positive that everyone I’ve sang these songs to across the world figures I’m “touched” and would have probably put me down at birth. Sometimes they start to sing along and learn to tie a fly or cast one and I think that my voice might not be as bad as I thought.
Costa_GEOBASS Guyana_3 (1)
Johnson (front) and Robison drop line in front of a camera drone

Joe: In Season One, you guys were really struggling to set the hook on bass with flies. How did you overcome the learning curve?

      • Chris: Season One of GEOBASS was an ass kicking experience for all of us … particularly all the times when we decided it was good idea to venture to the other side of the world to catch an exotic bass species that we didn’t even know existed a few weeks before our departure. Most of the time our initial approach to these foreign bass fisheries is to first probe the water with similar tactics that we’ve deemed successful for largemouth bass in the past and simply hope for the best. But more often than not this strategy doesn’t always pan out for us, and usually by the end of the first day our confidence and egos are smashed to a helpless nothing, and we end up facing the reality that none of us really know sh!t from shinola on how to catch these bass. A lot of the time you’re stuck on the drawing board at square one, trying to put together a behavioral traits puzzle on a fish species you’ve never caught before. That’s the real struggle. Hook setting issues happen when you’re sleeping at the wheel, which can happen often after you switch your presentation a thousand times a day.

Joe: Thad, you got pretty sick in Guyana and it looks like a local remedy, a tea, helped you keep going. What was that tea made from, and what did it taste like?

      • Thad: Hands down that was the sickest I have ever been while traveling. The tea was made from boiling the bark from a tree and basically drinking an Amerindian remedy that has been used probably for eons. It actually didn’t taste as bad as I thought it would, kinda like what you would expect bitter tree bark to taste like, but it saved my trip, without a doubt.

Joe: Brian, you seem like the right guy to ask about the bugs in Guyana. What other strange insect encounters have you had while filming GEOBASS?

      • Brian: We have seen it all from giant tarantulas to hordes of pterodactyl-sized mosquitos. I’m usually not the guy that is getting devoured by them. I try to keep myself pretty well covered up to keep the flying bugs at bay, but some thing’s are tough to keep off. Ticks, for instance, haven’t been a problem until Guyana, which happened at a not-so-convenient time or place. Jay is usually the bug magnet; he always has bites from our trips. He even contracted a flesh-eating parasite from sandflies in the Belizean jungle called leishmaniasis.

 Joe: Give us your top travel tips for fishing in South America.

      • Thad: Top of my list is clothing. South America is an oven on steroids. If you want to know what it feels like to be a pizza in a brick oven, then you get the picture. Breathable fast-drying, long sleeve shirts and pants are critical, not only for protection from the sun, but the plague of biting insects that want to dine on your flesh. Next would be to seriously do some research on the area you will be going to. Google maps is essential. Study the area, the waters, the terrain. We spend a lot of time going over aerial maps of the area to try and get to know it as well as we can. My last tip would be to befriend and talk with the local people. Get to know them and don’t think you’re better because you come from a place that has electricity and flushing toilets. They are humble and knowledgeable and can be your key to success.
      • Jay: Bring bug dope, ride waves by not trying to control them, and be a student of survival.
      • Chris: Sunscreen, enough Spanish for effective communication and, depending on what you’re fishing for, a few pairs of Costa sunglasses with different lens options for variable light conditions. If you don’t have time to learn Spanish, then you better master the game of charades. It’s amazing how far I’ve gotten in South America over the years by simply waiving my arms in the air while making strange shapes with my fingers with an occasional awkward sound affect.
      • Brian: Know the language and exchange rates. Pack light. Be patient. Things don’t happen as fast as you might want them to south of the border.

Joe: With Costa sponsoring the expedition, you guys obviously get a chance to check out plenty of sunglasses. Any personal favorites?

      • Thad: We have been very lucky to have Costa as our sponsor. Sunglasses are one of the most important pieces of equipment we take into the field. Not only for sun protection, as we are exposed to some of the harshest conditions being on the water every day, but also because they give us a distinct advantage of spotting fish. More so than any other brand of sunglasses I have tried in the past, I have had several favorites in the Costa line up. Currently the Fantail 580 Blue Mirror are my go to shades.
      • Jay: When I don my Hamlins, sometimes I can see the future. Not every time, just sometimes … and the future looks good.
      • Chris: You can’t go wrong with any pair of Costa sunglasses. The Bomba frame fit my face best and really does a great job at blocking out excess light. BUT … I’m sure Brian is going to copy me and also say this is his favorite model, so I’m going to say the Blackfin. Both of these frames are excellent for fishing. As far as lenses, I typically go back and forth between the 580G in Green and Silver Mirror on sunny days and Sunrise 580P Yellow for overcast days.
      • Brian: My personal favorite are the Bombas and the Blackfins

Joe: Before we head out, give us your most memorable moment from GEOBASS so far.

  • Thad: That is such a hard one to pin down. We have had so many incredible experiences. Meeting and hanging out with the local indigenous people and cultures is one of my favorite things on these trips. These people are the experts who know the area and the fish. But at the top of my list was the night we set up camp in Zimbabwe and had a herd of nearly 100 elephants come in below our camp and spent the night with us. We got to hear them calling to each other all night long. It was honestly a life-changing moment for me. And the crazy thing is I get to experience all of this because of fishing.
  • Jay: For me, I think about the fact that we could ever be so lucky as to have people support it. I had absolutely no idea that we would get the greatest sponsors the fly fishing industry has ever seen and they would keep us on the craziest adventure I’ve ever heard about. To have people that believe in you and fans that enjoy watching it has been an inspiration to me and everyone around me. Thank you Carhartt, GoPro, Yeti, Mountain Dew and especially our posse at Costa Sunglasses and all the support teams there for helping us live this dream.
  • Chris: On our last trip to Papua, New Guinea, I was trying to chase down and film an ostrich-sized bird called a cassowary and accidentally stepped on PNG’s most poisonous snake barefoot. By an act of god I survived a venomous bite to my left foot. The rest of the crew thinks I was bit by a horse fly and doesn’t believe this story so I hold this memorable miracle GEOBASS moment to myself.
  • Brian: Not including the near death experiences, which are hard to forget, I’d say it’s either landing that 18-pound peacock bass in Brazil or catching those giant prehistoric arapaima on a fly.