Reel Beeg Feesh

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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.

"Get you something to eat," said the camp's proprietor, a sexagenarian Pembroke Pines resident named Don Cutter, by way of greeting. "This is your home in the jungle for a week."

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Sam Eifling
Contact: Sam Eifling