Reel Beeg Feesh

Page 3 of 7

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.

KEEP NEW TIMES BROWARD-PALM BEACH FREE... Since we started New Times Broward-Palm Beach, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of South Florida, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Sam Eifling
Contact: Sam Eifling