"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.