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A Practical Man
Rob F. Sanderson

           My rod and reel with assorted plastic baits looked curiously out of place on the rough unpainted floor of our dugout canoe. More in keeping with the surroundings was Eugenio’s apparatus for catching fish; fifty feet of pencil-sized line wire on a hook large enough to use a garter snake for a worm.

           Eugenio picked up my tackle and examined it as one might examine a bauble in a jewelry store. “It’s very finely made,” he assured me with typical Latin courtesy. “Exquisitely constructed. But not very practical.”

           It was the first time he or anyone else on this remote river in southern Venezuela had seen any fishing tackle other than a hand line or a fish trap. Obviously this native of the jungle frontier considered my 18-pound test line to be nothing more than so much cobweb filament.

           We ran the five horses outboard upstream, steering the dugout close along the vine tangled banks in order to keep out of the faster currents. On a muddy sandbar where a large creek entered the river we beached the prow and looked around. The three-toed tracks of a giant tapir, made the night before in the soft alluvium, were filled with fresh rainwater. At a shaded spot on the jungle’s edge Eugenio knelt with his machete and began digging worms from the damp clay. In this country the machete is the tool of all trades, cutting down a large palm one minute, peeling a fingernail the next, and as a makeshift trowel soon accumulating a pile of small red worms.

           These were not for fishing, but for catching the large minnow bait. We baited tiny hooks on thread-sized lines, cast them sinker less into a shallow eddy, and soon caught a supply of sizable minnows. These we baited on our large hooks and commenced fishing. However, greedy piranha stripped our baits as soon as they sank into the water, and to avoid them we moved a short distance upstream to a large deep eddy and tied our frayed bowline onto the bare stem of a sunken tree.

           My companion whirled his hook in a large arc around his head sent it out into the water. He eyed me sidewise as I easily lifted my light rod and snapped my minnow far beyond his, out to deeper water. Within minutes my spinnered minnow attracted a bite. I set the hook and reeled in what proved to be a small corbinata, an excellent table fish resembling a bass. My specimen was only about two pounds, but these fish grow to twenty pounds or more. Dropping another minnow into the same hole, well beyond reach of the hand line, another ten minutes passed before I hooked and boated another corbinata.

           We now had enough fish for the evening meal and I took the time to experiment unsuccessfully with artificial lures. Then we moved to the other shore of the channel. As I clambered up the vines to the shore of the island, which I wanted to investigate for a sign of deer and other game, Eugenio asked to borrow my tackle. I assented, and a half hour later when I returned, he was in rather of a putout mood. I sensed he had spent the whole time untangling backlashes. He handed my tackle to me, and so that he could see the effortless technique that properly handled casting equipment requires, I sent out a long cast with a quick flick of my wrist. Eugenio was not impressed; my equipment did have apparent advantages, but he plainly regarded it as cantankerous and unreliable, and therefore unsuited to jungle use where infallibility and simplicity are absolutely demanded.

           “It’s a very fine apparatus,” he assured me again. “But not very practical.”

           The next time I used my tackle with Eugenio, we were paddling down a modest tributary after a successful hunt for tigre, the South American jaguar. At a riffle below a constriction of boulders I caught a half dozen piranhas on a Heddon frog-finish Ding-Bat. These vicious little cannibal fish are excellent eating though bony. None were over six or seven inches long and when one of these fearless little devils almost bit the tip of my finger off while he still dangled from the plug, we moved downstream. After I had landed several small-sized cobinata we started our motor and followed the twisting channel as it coiled downstream between the vine-strangled shores, to our base camp on an island in the big river.

           Eugenio, I knew, considered my outfit strictly a plaything for small, unsubstantial fish, and had not revised his opinion as to its general practicality. This was not unnatural, for he was in essence a very practical sort of young man. His father had died early of his youth, leaving him the eldest of a large family. He had learned to take responsibility well and I soon made him a foreman, or “corporal”, of a mining crew and frequently took him with me on exploration work.

           It was on an exploration trip several weeks later and many miles upstream, that we reached waterfalls almost at dark. While the men slung hammocks and made camp, I surveyed the nearby waters and resolved to wet a line at daybreak. Nights are long in the tropics, being always almost equal to the day in length. The first light of dawn found me well slept out and making my way, tackle in hand, along the jumble of boulders that edged the water.

           I stationed myself on a strategic point of rocks, selected a flat metal wobbler with copper on one side and silver on the other, and covered the slack water first without results. Then I dropped my lure out into a race of fast current, let it ride downstream until it settled softly, and began my retrieve. I felt a vicious strike and set the hook. Whatever had clobbered my lure was on tight!

           Immediately I sensed the size of my catch; his strength and weight were all my thin line and light telescopic rod could handle. The fish fought cleverly and rushed to gain the advantage of the swift water. Putting all the stress I dared put on my tensely arched rod I fought him out of the current again and again as each time he regained line and ran back into the fast water. Many times I could see the new cork reel spool almost bare under the few remaining feet of my fifty yard line.

           It was a magnificent fight. My opponent surfaced and jumped in the manner of a tarpon, glinting his silver sides in the light of the early day. His head shook to a blur as he poised high in the air and fell back into the water, only to leap again with the next second. I kept a tight line through it all and the hook stayed fast. The jumps grew fewer, he fought now only in the water, less and less. When he could no longer make a run I brought him gasping on his side into a crevasse between the rocks and caught him firmly over the neck with my thumb and middle finger in the top of his gill slits. I feared to lift my heavy catch and instead ran a narrow bladed knife into his brain and held him there against the boulders until the quivering ran out of his body.

           Though I was elated at my catch I felt a pang in regard to my tackle; it was definitely undersized for the fish that lay ahead of me. For pure sportsmanship nothing could excel fighting that vicious hunk of determined fast water fish on light tackle. It gave me a thrill such as I had not felt since the winter before when I fought and boated a hundred and forty pound sailfish off the west coast of Mexico.

           But here in the remote jungle south of the Rio Orinoco, my small collection of light tackle was irreplaceable. It had to last me for months. What was broken or lost could not be substituted until I was out of the jungle and my need for it finished. Here fishing was a serious business. It was a part of the business of survival; in the months ahead we could not live without fresh fish and game to supplement our rice, beans, flour, and other dried and sacked provisions.

           Philosophically considered, tackle too small was better than no tackle at all. I blanched when I thought how close I had missed being completely tackle-less. My decision to come to South America for the winter was a last minute affair; that Monday morning at the airlines terminal building in New York I had but twenty minutes to pop into the closest sporting good store. Thanksgiving time is not an ideal season to shop for fishing tackle but the choice was not mine. I made a quick selection from among the stray ends of equipment left over from the season before. When I arrived back at the terminal, breathless and packaged, transportation for my flight was being called.

           Well, I would make the light equipment last as long as possible, I thought, as I dropped my lure into the current as before. And as before, just when I felt my line settling at the end of the current and began my retrieve, I felt another savage strike. I set the rod to fix the hook and missed. Again the strike and this time the hook set firmly. For several seconds I gained line, then felt the familiar rush into the current.

           I fought the fish back into slack water, then re-lost line into the current. He surfaced, jumping high into the air with magnificent leaps, shaking his jaw with demonical determination. Once I was down to the very end of my line, but my tackle managed to hold as I turned his run recovered enough yardage to put almost a full layer of line over the cork. Bit by bit I gained more line as I strained my arched rod until I dared no more pressure. The runs grew shorter, the fish rolled on the surface, and after a few more short, easily turned runs, I brought him to the rocks.

           Examining my line end I found it badly frayed, cut off a yard and re-tied the leader. The lure itself was horribly scored; I had never seen such teeth as sabred the jaws of these bayara. Straightening the severely bent treble hook, I cast out another time. Again the strike, the miss, the follow-up and finally the successful hooking. This fish felt lighter and when he surfaced I saw he was smaller than the two fish behind me on the rocks. As I brought him to shore and dislodged the hooks, a movement under a heavily vined tree about fifty yards below me caught my attention was Eugenio, standing almost concealed, taking in the action.

           I hoped to put on a little show for him, but the next time I set the hook it was only a matter of moments until the line parted and my lure was lost! At this rate, how long would it take to lose my dozen or so lures? I tried a plug for several casts without success. Possibly it did not go deep enough. Then I switched to a feather squid with a long steel wire leader. I retrieved it jerkingly across the bottom. Soon it was fast to another bayara.

           The fish surfaced immediately, leapt, lunged, and somersaulted; all the antics in the book. I played him to the utmost, coaxing him to action when he sulked. When I was sure Eugenio had an eyeful and there was no more explosive left on the end of my line, I played the tired fish to shore and unhooked him. Eager to take advantage of this opportunity to vindicate my tackle before Eugenio, I cast again. Results were slowing down. Four, five casts with no takers.

           Then WHAM! My rod quivered, the line throbbed; I did not have time to set my hook. The largest bayara of the day was hooked. By now I was on to the water, knew just what my tackle would stand, and fought him as artfully as possible. At long last I worked him along shore, where I could see the hook solidly set in his outer jaw, and soon he was safely stowed on shore with the other four fish. After that, I could not raise another fish. Whether the rising sun deterred them, or whether the commotion of the fighting fish had alarmed them, they were definitely through with me and my imported devices.

           Up to this time I had heard a lot about a fish called an imara, a large scaled fish, dark in color, with huge jaws and a rounded tail. Although some of my boys had caught a few of them fishing in front of the campfire at night with a piece of bloody meat for bait, I had been unable to catch any on my artificial lures. I was beginning to suspect they would bite only on a natural bait.

           A few days travel upstream brought our dugouts to a tributary that emptied clear waters out of large mountain watershed to the south. A day and a half of journeying up this tributary found us traveling a section of river interspersed with stretches of fast water and gravel flats. Through the clear water of the currented shallows we could see small schools of three to seven fish. My men tried to catch them on hand lines without success. After several attempts on their part, using dried meat for bait without success, I decided to try a “plastic sardine”, as the natives called my artificial lures.

           Untelescoping my rod, I snapped on a redhead plug with a gold flaked white body. A school of about six fish lay in the graveled shallows just below a riffle, within comfortable casting range. With an easy flick of the wrist I dropped the plug about ten feet up current from the fish. The plug had wriggled about three feet and its return across the current when the boldest fish torpedoed forward and nailed it. The fight was on!

           My hands were full. The determined fighter on the end of my line was infuriated at the trick I had played upon him. The water about me was foul with rocks and submerged sticks. To prevent snagging the line and the sure resultant escape of my catch I lunged out into water waist deep and played the fish from there. When he tired at last I beached him on a gravel bar across the river after a heavy fight of determined lunges and runs; the imara is no aerial acrobat as is the bayara, and never leaves the water.

           My imara weighed about seven pounds, a heavy fish firmly fleshed. Soon I had two more. The third fish demonstrated the tenacity of life that is characteristic of these. If a cat has nine lives, the imara has eighteen. One of the men was scaling the fish with a wedge-shaped blunt stick, and when this fish was completely scaled, Ignacio turned to gutting the first fish. Suddenly the de-scaled imara which he had just put down came to life, did a few strong flops down the bank into the shallow water and darted off with undeterred vigor.

           Using the bellies and innards of the fish I had caught on my rod, my men baited their hand lines and quickly took a nice catch. Later, when my supply of lures had dwindled critically, I made a practice of catching the first couple of fish so the men would have fresh bait, and let them catch the rest. This saved my tackle and kept up their morale; the excitement of catching a few scrappy fish on days when I allowed a couple of hours for fishing, invariably inspired the men to more work than they would normally accomplish on a non-fishing day.

           Imara weigh up to thirty or forty pounds and their huge maws are studded with white triangular teeth. A fish of no more than five or six pounds could almost swallow a man’s whole clenched fist. They are voracious repeat biters and several times when they made off with a hook we were able to catch them again and retrieve the lost hook from their cavernous stomachs. We preserved them for days by slitting them down the backbone, laying them flat on a stick platform and smoking them thoroughly. If opened down the belly, the deep flesh around the backbone spoiled after two or three days. This was likewise true of the catfish

           In the larger rivers, catfish were plentiful. My men fished these verge with a large hook of two inch spread and six inch shank, and sometimes even these were bent straight. Larger fish weighed over a hundred pounds and required quarter inch lines. A turn of the line around a rock or tree was often necessary to prevent the fisherman’s hands from being cut to ribbons. A good verge will fight an hour or more before giving up. Sensibly realizing that my tackle was not in a class with these fish, I stayed clear of them

           The only local fish I had not hooked was the fabled morocoto. This fish is unqualified the exquisite table delicacy of all the jungle fish, comparable to the pampano of the Florida coast waters. The meat is fine, sweet, clear, firm and not bony. From what I could gather, it was a weak biter and seldom caught. Natives assured me that the only way to catch them was by baiting with a small fruit, which grew on trees overhanging the water.

           One morning after the sun was well up we arrived at a lusty rapids. One side of the river was a magnificent swirl below a twelve foot drop in the water level. While my men poled and lined the dugouts up the far side, where the fall was more gradual, I fished from shore. Aiding me was one of my new boys who talked a fluent line of fishing, and as with all smooth talkers I was beginning to suspect certain deficiencies in the action department. Very soon I was to confirm this suspicion

           Snapping one of my most effective lures onto my leader, I cast across the back water to the edge of the rapid current. When the current had finished with it and the lure began to settle, I started a retrieve. There was a light tap on the lure - it could have been a twist in the current. Then came another harder tap and this time I was ready. I set the hook.

           To keep the fish out of the current I walked downstream along the rocks, giving and taking line as I made my precarious way from boulder to boulder. He insisted on fighting his way into the fast water, and once I was barely able to turn him and coax him out. At last I had him in the backwater, and as he surfaced this way and that way, I saw I was up against a new type of fish even sportier than the bayara in his combination of surface leaps and deepwater lunges. He was a large round muscular fish of about fifteen pounds. His sides glinted like blued mirrors as he arched through the air, always able to land on balance and leap again immediately. Whatever sort of fish this was, I wanted him badly for a specimen.

           Time after time I brought him to the rocks at my feet only to have him lunge away for another round of fight. At last I fought him to a weak roll. As he went by my on the surface, I motioned for my expert “assistant” to catch him by the fingers through the eye sockets, as I brought him to the rocks. But Jorge just stood there in perplexed confusion. After a lapse during which I could have caught the fish myself had not the bungler stood squarely in my way, he brought up his machete for a mighty blow and whacked the blade down fiercely. The blade missed the fish and cut the line neatly in two just above the leader

           The fish sensed the slack line, gave a flip, and struggled into deeper water. Unable to do anything about it as I stood on those slippery rocks, I watched my first morocoto swim on his side down into the depths, taking one of my best lures with him.

           I tried in vain to hook another fish. The morocoto are not like the vainly brave bayara. Both fish fight all over the place, covering every foot of water within the radius of the line. But after all this rushing around and surfacing you can’t kid any of the morocoto who stood watching. They will have nothing more to do with bait or lure. Further fishing is useless until the next day.

           This, Eugenio explained to me one time, is one reason why the hand line is superior as a food-getting implement. If the fish is hauled out of the water by over handling the line immediately, nearby fish are subject to a minimum of alarm. But despite his overt objections I discovered he was watching my wrist and arm motion any time he found me casting. Occasionally he would ask to borrow my rod for a few minutes when I was not using it. Afterwards he would study my technique anew.

           In return I was able to point out to Eugenio several flaws in local tackle techniques. The large hooks standard on the native hand lines were effective on both imara and vagre, and even on corbinata. But the mouths of the morocoto and bayara are too small to take these huge sky-hooks and for this reason they were seldom caught. My explanation of the fable that small fruits were the only successful lure for morocoto was that to use these small fruits small hooks were necessary. Eugenio’s protest that these small hooks bent straight too easily we solved by putting two hooks side by side, in the bait.

           I caught some morocoto on a standard treble hook but they usually needed a complete re-shaping with a pair of pliers, and sharpening, before using again. Even using a moderately sized treble hook many fish will be snagged on the outside of the jaws or head. Apparently the object of these fish is not necessarily to take the bait in their mouth first thing. They are just the opposite of the imara, who cannot get the bait into their stomach fast enough.

           The very best demonstration of a lure and hooks too large to be effective occurred while I was fishing a rapids on our return trip to civilization. With different stages of water in a rapids I would find completely different assortments of fish. This day the water level was just right for the water level to hit eagerly.

           The bayara has the most vicious looking teeth I have even seen in a freshwater fish. The under jaw has two tushes up to two inches in length, as sharp as a hypodermic needle. These points fit smoothly into pockets in the upper jawbone. The filmiest exterior membrane keeps the tushes from going all the way through the top of the jaw. Somehow these membranes are immune to puncture by the sharp points. If a bayara put his teeth through your hand it would be as firmly fixated as if the devil drove his pitchfork through your hand, pinning it to the ground.

           My lure was a musky sized Pickie-Minnow, with over-size treble hooks. The pattern and action were effective and I got strike after strike, without hooking a single fish. Pausing to examine my bait, which was practically new when I started, I was amazed to find almost all the enamel chipped off the head, and no less than a dozen bayara teeth imbedded in the head of the lure like so many porcupine quills. Some of the tooth fragments were over half an inch long.

           Now I knew how the small-mouthed bayara caught its prey. Striking like lightning, they clamp their vicious tushes through the head of their victim, then swim away to dissect and eat it at leisure. By doubling my rate of retrieve I caused them to strike short on my too-large lure and eventually caught two fish, which snagged themselves on the large side trebles.

           At the end of five months hard usage my rod had a prominent bend in the butt segment a few inches out from the handle. Like a cracked bat in baseball, it had to be handled a certain way to keep it from being snapped altogether. The reel spool was no longer tight, and when reeling in, the reel handle wobbled like a crooked buggy wheel and sometimes unmeshed gears. Now I was fighting a large fish deep-sea style; recovering line by hoisting up and back on the rod, then reeling in the gained line as I lowered the rod tip. But dilapidated as this light outfit became, it had my sincerest respect, both for many hours of royal sport and for many meals of satisfying fish. One develops a very practical affection for a piece of equipment that keeps his stomach from going hungry. I can say unqualifiedly that, pound for pound, it was the most useful apparatus on the entire expedition.

           At last we arrived back at the edge of civilization. I was disbanding my men at the jungle outpost whence we had set out, many months before. It was my plan to distribute many of my personal effects and items of equipment, things which were almost impossible to get here and very valuable for jungle subsistence, among my men. In a large pile I grouped my jungle hammock, plastic tarp, six cell spotlight, primus stove, medicine kit, and numerous other impediments.

           Seeking out Eugenio, as a special reward for his faithful service, I offered him first choice from my pole of gear. He looked it all over carefully and then turned to me questioningly. It was a very direct question, which, in his Latin politeness, he was hesitating to ask.

           “And your fishing apparatus, Senor? You are taking it with you back to your country now that you are leaving us?”

           Of all the things this man might want, brought up as he was from childhood to use the heavy hand lines customary to jungle river fishing, my light rod and reel was the last thing I would have suspected. I withdrew the telescopic rod, with its tired reel and what few leaders and lures remained, from my miner’s bag. As I handed them over to my corporal, his serious eyes lighted. He withdrew the telescoped tubing to full length and held it out as one holds a fencing foil.

           “Why in the shades of Simon Bolivar did you choose the fishing apparatus?” I asked, knowing he did not even possess a mosquito proof hammock.

           “Well, Senor Sandy, as you have often times told others, I am a very practical man. After much thinking and reconsideration, I have decided this is a very practical apparatus. It is natural that I should be pleased to have it for my own.”

           “In that case,” I suggested, “you better have something waterproof to wrap and protect the apparatus.” I picked up the folded jungle hammock he needed so badly, and handed it to him

           “Gracias, muy gracias. Each night I will think of you, and with each fish. Si, senor, each night and with each fish. May St. Christopher guide you in your travels to come. Adios.”

           He turned and descended quickly through the palm trees to the graveled shore of the river. There he unwrapped the rod, stowed the hammock by itself in the bow, and paddled his battered dugout rapidly into the evening current.

           I have a knowing hunch that I would be thought of at least twice that night with very practical thoughts by a practical man using a very practical outfit.

© 2003 Chronicles of Bob