Reel Beeg Feesh
Joe Rodriguez was racing upriver in an aluminum skiff when he began to grasp the folly of hunting wild pig by moonlight in the Brazilian Amazon rain forest packing the fishing camp's only .12-gauge shotgun shell. Joe is a fishing guide by trade, accustomed to handling sharks and rays in the brackish flats between the Florida Keys and the Everglades with amateurs at his side. But in matters of big game, he defers to a man named Rob Fordyce. Nearly 6 feet tall and 240 pounds, with what Melville would have described as a heathenish brow, Rob sat beside Joe on that night last month on the Unini River examining the shotgun. When hunting pigs in the Everglades, Rob would normally tote a box of shells. As Rob thought through the likely scenario of coming on a troop of pigs, blasting the one in the rear and then fending off a frenzy without the luxury of extra bullets, his apprehension passed almost airborne to Joe and the others in the boat.
"One shot?" said Marty Dashiell, a television producer taping the hunt. "I have five shells in my nightstand."
"I guess we should be glad to have the one," Rob replied. Then he noticed that what he assumed was a Remington shotgun was actually made in Brazil. "Great," he said. "I'm in the jungle with one shell and a pretend shotgun."
When I raised the very real possibility of an anaconda attack, Joe replied: "Bro, if a snake is coming at us, he's fucked. We've got too many things to kill him. A shot, a spear, a machete..." And of course, if anything went wrong, we were only a 20-hour boat ride from the nearest hospital.
Our guides didn't appear worried. As one drove the boat, another, Gonzaga, a tautly muscled 26-year-old native who sometimes genuflects before jumping into the river where he makes his living, cocked an ear to the sounds of the jungle. The boat slowed. Had there been pigs anywhere near, we'd have heard them. During daytime, I had encountered the beasts tromping through the woods, gnashing their tusks, fighting, vomiting, and generally sounding the way wild pigs ought to sound. Gonzaga crouched on the prow, silent, then issued a call from the pit of his chest: "YEEZH-YEEZH-YEEZH-YEEZH-YEEZH Yeeeeezzzhhh-Yeeeeezzzhhh-Yeeeeeeezzzzzzzhhhhhh..."
A moment passed. Then birds crackled, their cries rippling outward into the wild forest. The jungle recognized the call, even if we had never before heard an imitation of a jaguar. Gonzaga explained that if pigs were nearby, they would stir and that if a real jaguar were nearby, it would reply and we'd have maybe a minute to make ourselves scarce.
"I like that you're taking the temperature on that, man," Marty said.
But no pigs presented themselves. Gonzaga directed us downriver to a rare grassy clearing, tried the call again, and led the party ashore. In the tall grass and the husks of dead trees, under a haloed moon, he elected to call the hunt on account of the likelihood of jaguars.
The river party was plying Brazilian waters while making an outdoors television show, yet to be titled, to run in 12 episodes on ESPN2 in 2006. The idea for the show was to drop a couple of nonprofessionals into the world's best waters for fishing for peacock bass, a brilliantly colored, aggressive game fish found only in a few crannies of the world and, in the continental United States, only in the canals of Miami-Dade and Broward counties. Just maybe, the thinking went, these anglers would have the chops to scare up a world record peacock. For comic relief, or something, a friend at the production company thought I might be a good addition to the show. So with expenses covered, I was cast as Least Formidable Male and flown down for the filming.
That role was bearable thanks to the rest of the cast. Rob Fordyce, of Florida City, grew up wanting to be a cowboy and wound up as the South Florida equivalent, leading amateur fishermen in the waters around Islamorada in search of snook, sharks, and especially tarpon. The co-author of Tarpon on Fly, he caught his first fish unaided at 4 years old and, in his excitement to show his family, dragged the snapper up the rocky bank so that it was a bloody wad by the time he reached his house. He dropped out of the University of Tennessee, ditching a baseball scholarship, because he was going nuts without fishing. Years of hunting ducks around Lake Okeechobee, pigs in the Everglades, and deer in South Carolina have honed his aim with a rifle. ("That guy's good at everything he does," Joe says.) The 35-year-old fishes shark tournaments hammerheads are his favorite predators to watch and hopes one day to see a great white shark, so much so that he breaks out in goose bumps when he recalls footage of a great white launching itself like a missile out of the Atlantic to eat a seal. His only phobia, if he has one, is electricity. He says he has no reason to fear anything he can see coming. But electricity, well, that can kill you before you know it's there.
After several guest appearances on other fishing shows, Rob was on this shoot because ESPN wanted regular schlubs and was hoping for at least one Hispanic fisherman to fill the bill. Rob's best friend and, in fact, one of about five people he would even call a friend is Joe Rodriguez of Miami, a 34-year-old, second-generation Cuban who grew up near a golf course and, like Rob, spent many of his formative years alone, sitting with rod in hand at the edge of a pond until his evening curfew. He played baseball at Miami-Dade Community College until his father died, at which point he too quit the sport. He worked construction for about ten years, hating it. He knew Rob's half-brother, fishing guide Rick Murphy, and through him met Rob.
The entourage included two cameramen. For the sexy, panoramic shots, there was Carey Barrett, blond and soft-featured, approaching 50 years of age; and for the tighter, ka-boom close-ups, Wes Miller, late 30s. Their jobs were to stand on quaky aluminum boats, shouldering 30-pound, $65,000 electronic eyes for hours at a spell in direct equatorial sunshine without missing a shot. Ordering them around were two producers, an Alabama redhead named Angie Thompson and Marty Dashiell, a tall retired fireman.
The only reason any of us was nestled in one of the least-inhabited crannies of the world, having too-vivid dreams on malaria pills, monitoring each stool for color and consistency, slogging through sun-punished equator noons, forsaking all contact with civilization save for the rare, $5-a-minute satellite phone calls home all this was to find and make and tell stories. This group will tell many tales from the trip that are, in fact, partial bullshit. The embellishment doesn't hurt the yarns nor diminish the moral standing of their tellers. Joe and Rob sneer at braggarts and fibbers, but even they add, almost as a conversational tic, the phrase "no bullshit" to their stories, as in, "The shark's jaws were no bullshit this big," as Rob extends his arms to illustrate the girth of a great white shark's mouth.
But Marty's stories are so fantastic that his friends warn listeners to "put on the Marty filter." This seems to sting him, because his recollections contain no confabulation. They merely conform to Elmore Leonard's immortal advice to aspiring writers, to leave out all the boring parts. For instance, Marty no doubt has, since returning to civilization, told the story about how his machete-maimed, jaguar-chewed fishing guide broke the engine at the end of one day's excursion, leaving Marty, clad in his pajama pants, to float down a python-infested jungle river as night fell. That actually happened, and he had to drift downriver until dark, when Gonzaga sped to the rescue in a working boat. Likewise, we actually were zooming around looking for pigs with only one shotgun shell, a spear, and a machete for weaponry. And Joe and Rob really were attacked by a poisonous snake, and one member of the entourage did go nearly a week without moving his bowels, and Rob really did slay dog-sized rats that became the next day's dinner. Where the bullshit will come in others' tales, I cannot know or say. I can vouch only for the following.
To reach their quarry, Rob, Joe, and the rest flew five hours from Miami to Manaus, a remote city of 1.6 million souls at the watery intersection of the Amazon with the Rio Negro, its largest tributary. In Manaus, we shuttled to a small airfield where, just after dawn, we jammed into a little turboprop and took off from a runway that seemed to drop out from beneath us atop a hill. The crazy quilt of Manaus' rusting roofs and mottled pools and pink city buses receded. The Rio Negro yawned below, perhaps five miles wide at its black-water mouth then the world was paved with trees, trees as a beach has sand. The next evidence of human life came after an hour and a half, when the plane dropped onto a small clay runway beside the Unini River, a sprig of black water that feeds the Rio Negro.
Home included no infrastructure of any kind, save for the diesel generators that powered the lights and air conditioners aboard the Amazon Cutter, a two-story houseboat built to shelter and feed up to eight anglers. The site had at one time supported a small village that had prospered selling medicinal sap from a couple of trees that still bear the jagged chevron scars of harvest. Then yellow fever struck, killing four children, and the villagers moved. The sova tree still bleeds white to cure a tummy ache, the calabash tree still droops with its pendulous fruit, but the nearest permanent settlement is about four hours away by boat, and the only permanent residents are those souls in the small cemetery near the runway.
The fish are what now drive the economy at this camp and dozens of others scattered through the region. To judge by the other passengers on the flight to Manaus, the mass of tourists are white, middle-aged men who pay thousands of dollars for the privilege of living like subsistence fishermen.
What is now the Amazon basin used to be the world's largest inland sea, until the Andes sprouted in the west. East of the mountains, the continent remains level enough that the river falls only 70 feet from Manaus to the ocean 800 miles away. Its watershed encompasses an area the size of ten Texases and accounts for a fifth of the world's moving fresh water. When that river system floods, water deposits lagoons in every crevice bigger than a pothole. The Unini and Preto rivers, where we sought to wrangle peacock bass, carve into the jungle an outline as swirling as a cigarette's smoke, ever wafting toward the Atlantic.
Don estimates that his fishing grounds comprise 250 to 300 lagoons, which can be reached at different times with different water levels. As the waters recede, they leave some of the lagoons at the ends of overgrown creeks or free of the river's tendrils altogether. In those cul-de-sacs live many of the largest peacock bass. The fish themselves are ornery, hard-fighting beauties who bust hard on their prey, so much so that when one cracks the surface, it sounds like a child falling through thin ice on a frozen pond. The implements fishermen cast at peacock bass are varied, but the most common in high temperatures is what's called a top-water plug, essentially a big fiberglass cigar painted bright ugly, with a little propeller at the rear and three separate attachments of three hooks each along the body. Casting involves a quick flick of the forearm; reeling means yanking the plug across the surface, winding in the slack, and yanking again. Joe and Rob each performed this action approximately a thousand times a day.
Florida game officials introduced the fish into South Florida waterways to control tilapia and other undesirables, and in those canals, a monster peacock gets to be ten pounds. In the Unini, a ten-pound fish is a fine specimen; 15 is worth photographing; 20 is a trophy; 25 your grandkids will hear about. The International Game Fish Hall of Fame in Dania Beach cites a 27-pounder as the all-time record-holder, though that specimen's weight included a heavy lunch of a smaller peacock bass in the fish's stomach.
So it was a 28-pound lunker Joe and Rob would be looking for. Fishermen imagine the record fish as a hermit whom the seasonal ebb has stranded in some hard-to-reach literal backwater. In search of this hypothetical freak, the guides pilot the boats through a commute lasting as long as an hour, penetrating jungle so dense and omnipresent that it begs for the smell of napalm in the morning.
We all hoped to steer to the brink of danger, of getting hurt, of getting lost, of getting sick, of getting attacked, without having to pay the same blood toll that the trees and fish and spiders and resident humans had over generations. We were adventurers insulated by connections and reservations and cash, tourists of the most hubristic sort.
We rose daily at 5:30, dressed, broke fast, gathered our gear, and struck out for infested puddles. In the first boat were the anglers; the second, the cameramen; the third, the producers and the scribe. The goal for the trip was to capture enough action for a dozen half-hour shows. To accomplish this in two weeks would require everything going right and plenty of action. In the first two days on the river, Rob and Joe landed 20 peacocks, a sardine, a dogfish. Highlights were few.
Foremost was Marty trying to explain to a non-English-speaking guide to pass the other boats so he could "throw some ham," that is, moon 'em. Then one morning, Gonzaga macheted into a tight lagoon with an island of tall trees in the center, and green algae swirled around the surface like a marble rye. The clouds opened to let raindrops speckle the surface. The boats had drifted to the far side of the isle and Rob and Joe were casting to the bank when something caught Gonzaga's attention a serpent swimming, head peering up like a periscope, sliding from the trees directly to the lead boat. The guide reached for the nearest bludgeon, a rod, and set about thrashing the snake. It ducked under the water, flailed, and retreated to a low-hanging branch. Rob chastised him for using a $600 fly rod until Gonzaga managed to communicate: Veh-no-mose.
Gonzaga's Portuganglish was practical like that. In Portuguese, "big fish" is peixe grande, pronounced something like "peshy granjay." In Gonzaga's parlance, it's "beeg feesh," which is what he screamed a couple of hours later in a dolphin-infested lagoon where Joe finally snared a giant, a 17-pounder with bright orange gills.
"Woo-hoo!" Gonzaga yelled.
"That's what we flew a day to come catch," Rob said, admiring the creature. Then Gonzaga guided the boat near the bank to release the fish slowly, to make sure it had its breath. Dolphins know a peacock is good eats.
The river was overrun with living things, and credit had to go to the sun, which was, everyone was convinced, actually bigger. Less than two degrees of latitude south of the equator, at the Earth's beltline, the sun rose at 6 a.m., brutalized anyone in its sight, then set at 6 p.m. In that time, the sun was heat and the sun was sweat and the sun was oppression and the sun would evaporate the very fluid from your Bic just to maintain its monopoly on burns, and Mother Nature never did make anything more merciful than fluffy white clouds.
But at night, the sky is as dark and vast as anywhere. Far from the lavender rim of light pollution that locks out all but the brightest stars in urban nights, the full Milky Way chandelier is on display. Polaris is a blue lantern. Mars is a red freckle. The moon sees all. Yet the jungle is jet-black even as it rouses to life. This is when all the best animals are active: trundling anteaters, sly jaguars, anacondas so strong their muscles cannot be cut with a machete when they flex around their prey. Frogs' calls reverberate through the woods like laser-blaster sound effects from a B-movie. Insects sound like grating metal, and birds sound eerily human, whistling slow, low notes that remind the actual humans on the dark river just how thin is the filament that connects them to the comforts of civilization.
It's the perfect time to wrangle crocodiles.
"You hear those frogs?" Marty asked as the fishermen sped with Gonzaga in search of caimans, the local crocodilus. "It sounds like the interstate or something."
The guide scanned the water's edge with the spotlight until he spied the telltale reflected red dot of a caiman's eye. With the light blinding the reptile, the guide crept through the water and pounced, gripping the back of the neck and pulling up a cranky caiman. Piece of cake.
"Good job, man, good leap!" Rob told the guide. "You looked like a leopard pouncing on a pig."
Rob's turn. As a veteran alligator hunter, his biggest question was only, "Do I need to worry about rays?" He crept up on a smaller light-blinded caiman and, with less of a feline pounce, bolted down and wrapped a hand around its throat. "You know what it's exactly like you know when we catch a three-pound lemon shark?" he told Joe. The coaching was meant to calm Joe, who had never attempted such a feat but intended to now.
"Man, my heart is pounding," Joe muttered as Gonzaga went back to scanning the banks. "Damn. Damn."
Red eyes beckoned the boat over, and Joe climbed out. He hunched over and crept to the little caiman, then dove at it, clinching the back of its neck.
"Joe, that's your first alligator!" Rob said.
"I know. Thanks, bro," Joe said, and as he looked up at Rob, with Marty's camera light illuminating his face, he had an expression of such pure, dilated-pupil happiness, it was easy to imagine him catching his first fish as a tyke. "I don't want to go home right now."
They puttered around the river for a while with a three-pronged spear called a gig, stabbing small peacocks in the back and dumping them, bloody and spastic, to thump around the bottom of the boat. Then Joe lanced something else altogether. At the end of the spear twitched a rough-skinned beast that looked like a catfish but with leopard spots that covered even its eyes.
"I wish I had this for an aquarium or something," Rob said. Then he turned to Joe and scolded: "It was beautiful. And you killed it."
For a second, the laughter was even louder than the frog calls.
When preparing to hunt game in the Amazon rain forest, you expect and prepare for the insects, motion sickness, sunburn, isolation, jaguars, snakes, and microbes. But in the second week, it became apparent that there was one problem no one had foreseen. After five days of intestinal logjam, one member of the cabal was begging for a laxative, which turned out to be the last thing anyone had expected to need. (Consider too that this man usually suffers a permanent dyspepsia that compels him to go three or four times daily, meaning his body had skipped at least 15 regularly scheduled pit stops.)
The dangers seemed to come from all sides. A shower in river water requires battening down all hatches, washing your face last, and toweling off your head before opening your eyes. Even on the best morning, the burbling sounds from inside your intestines sound like frog calls in miniature. When in the river itself, the rule is to shuffle one's feet on the bottom, so as to clear the bed of rays, whose stingers point straight up. "I read about this spider," Marty said on the boat one morning. "It's like a tarantula, but it's gray. If this thing gets up on you, that's your ass."
The men also live in constant low-level fear of a vampire fish known, from a few scientifically documented cases, to burrow into the urethra of people peeing in the river. It's called the candiru, though the term "penis fish" has gained popular use. "What does that?" Rob wondered at breakfast one day. "That's just wrong. And what does it do once it gets up there?"
We were even dangers to each other. One morning, Joe was casting in a stingy lagoon when Gonzaga, in a moment of inattention, stepped into the path of his lure, which planted a couple of hooks under the guide's scalp. Rob averted a trip to the infirmary by looping a line around the hook and deftly yanking it out. Gonzaga recovered to lead the boat train into an impassable channel. The boats ran aground in the loamy mud, which in places was soft enough to suck a leg down to the knee. It's the sort of thing cameramen hate when they're responsible for sensitive, high-tech equipment. Wes endured enough thorns through his river shoes that he declared the whole venture to be bullshit. Later, he calmed enough to pronounce this the toughest shoot he'd ever faced, with second place going to an 18-day jaunt covering the Iditarod.
The next day, less hacking. As the guides wrestled the boats through a shallow lagoon entrance, the passengers loitered on the banks. I clambered through some brush on the bank and was pressing ahead unconcerned when Rob said to me: "Wait. Wait. Wait. Stop. Back up slowly." His tone was stern. I figured snake. "Peacock bass," he said, pointing to what must have been a 12-pound fish just beneath the surface. Oh, and I pointed out: A brilliant orange, black, and white snake uncoiling from beneath a log beside the fish. The fish and the snake passed within inches of each other, seemed to regard each other and decide neither wanted trouble. As the cameramen set up on the bank, the anglers waded into the shallow mouth of the lagoon and prepared to cast for the fish, with the snake out of sight.
"Do we have a snake procedure?" I asked.
"Outrun the slowest person," Wes replied.
The guides lugged the boats to the deep water as Joe and Rob stalked the lunker. Now, mosquitoes had never been a problem, but for the first time, the gnats became hellacious. They swarmed, they lighted, they crawled, they broke apart as black paste under the pressure of a well-aimed index finger. It was misery. But then Joe struck gold. A leviathan took his jig, fought hard, and allowed itself to be dragged to the boat, where Gonzaga clamped the hanging scale on the fish's lip and extracted the hooks.
Twenty-and-a-half pounds. A whopper.
"I was holding my breath," Rob said.
"This thing's a monster, bro," Joe said. "This is what we've been looking for."
"Why are your arms shaking?" Rob asked.
"Just take the picture," Joe hissed through a smile. Rob got the shot; Joe released the fish and began browbeating his buddy over his inability to work a camera.
"He had it on 'view,'" Rob explained to the cameramen.
"I was trying to show you pictures this morning," Joe said.
"So you're blaming me for this shit?" Rob replied. "When you're done, put the shit back on 'take the fuckin' picture. '"
It took little time to realize there was no escape from this trip. We were burrowed too far into nowhere. Rob and Joe wanted to make an impression on-screen because, hey, it could lead to more TV, which would allow them not to take their clients onto the water 300 days a year. Wes and Carey wanted to keep their equipment safe and their bodies sound. I read Moby-Dick and tried to regulate my digestion and watched with some fascination as Rob and Joe spent 23 hours a day together in a harmony that I've shared with no one I've known, even those I have loved.
On the one morning I spent any significant time on camera, I was to fish separate from the anglers, to determine whether a novice could ring up peacock. My lures landed in trees, my line became tangled, my rod fell into the water, forcing me to belly-flop to the boat deck to save it but when I finally saw evidence of a fish moving, cast to that spot, and felt a ten-pound fish wrench my fatigued forearms as I hauled it onto the boat, I was nearly speechless. Actually, I believe I blurted, "That's the prettiest animal I've ever seen." Then at its release, I apologized to the fish because my guide, lacking the usual pliers, had to jimmy the hook out of the fish's craw with a butcher knife. I suspect that when the show airs, I will become the worst fisherman ever to catch a ten-pound bass on television. In a way, this is the little-boy fantasy of the men who will watch these shows on Saturday mornings. Go to the jungle, kick nature's ass, return home, brag.
We did want big fish and big fish tales. We also, by Gulliver, wanted to see a pig get capped. So late in the trip, as Joe and Rob sat dehydrated, tired, phlegm-packed, and sore on the houseboat's deck, Marty sidled between them, his hands behind his back. "You guys want to see something really cool?" he asked, opening his hands to reveal a pile of shotgun shells. "Slugs, bitch! That's what I'm talking about!"
After nightfall, we once again piled into a skiff with a couple of guides and the producers and, this time, ample ammunition. The full moon offered enough light to read by, but Gonzaga still squatted at the prow, scanning the banks with his spotlight, looking for a reflection.
A couple of minutes after leaving the camp, Gonzaga motioned to Sandro, the driver, to slow. He pointed at the bank with the lamp. Something was moving. Rob stood and dutifully blasted away from perhaps 15 yards away. The critter fell still.
Sandro guided the boat to the bank, and Gonzaga retrieved the corpse not of a porker but of a 20-pound rodent with curved ice-pick teeth and spots like Bambi. "Paca!" Sandro said. "Good to eat."
"He's got a deer hide, but otherwise he's just a big rat," Marty said, and tried to explain to the guides: "We didn't come out here for rats. We came for pig." Rob had snuffed the big rat with a slug to the thing's armpit, a crack shot in the dark, a feat he repeated a few minutes later at the next paca sighting. Joe later managed to blow away a caiman, putting a slug through the beast's eye and leaving the top of its head attached to the body only by the skin at the top of the creature's mouth.
Rat and croc in place of pig was not the end of the world. That didn't seem to arrive until the 13th day of the journey, when everything fell apart. Rain from the previous day left the cameras with cataracts that threatened to sink the whole shoot. The boats' trolling motors kept shorting out. The anglers were exhausted. Marty was fighting some kind of jungle flu that had him popping a morning cocktail of Cipro and NyQuil on top of his regular malaria pills.
Then for perhaps the first time all trip, Gonzaga dipped into an old well. He led the anglers into a lagoon with recent chop marks showing on logs fallen across its entrance lo, this was the pond where Joe had caught his 20-pounder. The water was a little higher, the logs already showing signs of decay, but this was the same place, seven days later. With the water temperature lower after the rains and the fish loitering lower, Rob was casting jigs, which sink. Then there was a terrific splash. Peixe grande. And Rob in a temporary, vein-straining panic, realizing he had the largest fish of the trip hooked on the smallest rod in his quiver.
"That's a good fish, bro," Joe said as Rob rocked the beast closer to the boat. Gonzaga hurried with the scale, putting the clamp on the lip.
"Twenty-two," the guide said.
"Kiss him, Gonzaga," Joe said.
"I'm gonna kiss him," Rob said, and did. The fish was the length of a man's arm, with bright-orange eyes, a yellow throat, burnt-orange fins. Of the more than 200 fish the men caught over two weeks, it was one of their final ten that was the largest of the trip. No one held out realistic hope to top the 22-pounder, not the day before breaking camp to head homeward, not after a dozen days of standing in the brutal sunshine, of running foreign food through protesting guts, of a homesickness that hit Joe so hard he could stave it off only by writing letters to his girlfriend on a legal pad, trying not to, in his words, "lose it."
We returned to the initial camp the next night and, in the morning, boarded a small Cessna for Manaus. There, we feasted on steak and beer, slept in separate rooms, and flew back to Miami. The world had moved very little in two weeks. The Chicago Bears had been winning. The mail had piled up. My grandfather had died three days earlier, and I found out about it just 16 hours before the funeral, which I attended, in Oklahoma, and there fielded questions from cousins about the Amazon, grateful to have a topic for such easy discussion.
Of the bullshit tales I did then tell, of snakes and crocs and jumbo sun, there was no time to explain the only moment of the trip I missed that I would have liked to have seen. On the night after Rob landed the 22-pounder, their 14th straight sleeping in the same room, flying in the same planes, eating at the same tables, fishing from the same skiff that night, Rob and Joe took a little time apart. Rob went to the lounge while Joe stayed behind, writing. When Rob returned, there was a note on his pillow. Joe had written two sentences. He couldn't bring himself to say them aloud, but by then, he didn't have to.
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