Tuesday, January 18, 2011



I loved the 1992 movie about fly-fishing in Montana titled A River Runs Through It. After all, that's been one of the themes of my life. And now fishing the Amazon River has become one of the highlights of my life.
As a kid, I taught myself to swim and spent every summer afternoon swimming and rafting on the Saugeen River in Chesley near Owen Sound.  As an adult, for 30 years I have fled the city to my point on the Trent River. I have cruised all the famous rivers  -  the Nile, Rhine, Volga, Mississipi, Danube and Yangtze.
Yet high on my wish list was to see the Amazon. I have been busy crossing dream destinations off my Bucket List (remember the 2007 movie) from the Great Wall to Easter Island. I have been to a third of the countries of the world, and to almost every country around Brazil, but never into it to see its mighty pump of life. The huge Amazon watershed has a fifth of all the fresh water on the planet and dwarfs those other famous rivers. For example, it discharges seven times the volume of the Mississipi. No wonder its name has become slang for the mightiest of the female athletes.
My chance to visit the Amazon Basin and fish for one of the most famous of its 3,000 species of fish came when Walter Oster, head of the Canadian National Sportsmen's Shows, told me he was taking a group there for the second time. Oster has been goading me for years with the adventurous tales of the trophy fish he has caught in Costa Rica, our far north and wherever there's a fabled fish to land...AND BOAST ABOUT!!! (Don't you think Oster looks a tad envious just below when I get the first bass of the day in the picture by Dick Loek?)
Lately even his tall tales have been confirmed by Loek's great pictures, who also took the wonderful shot of a peacock bass up top, with its distinctive three bars glistening in the tropical sun as the "paca" tried to dance from my boat.
Since Loek is such a superb photographer ( I worked with him at the Telegram and have also judged national photography competitions) you can even see the yellow/red bucktail jig hanging from its mouth. Just a six-pounder, which is average for a giant peacock but would be a fish to boast about on the Trent, Yet on such enormous Amazon tributaries as the Negro, bass from ten to 18 pounds are common and trophies over 20 pounds are taken weekly.
I wish I had a dollar for every cast I made with those jigs. Since peacocks love to sit under the flooded banks and trees in still water and strike like lightning at their food fish,  it was casting casting casting, for ten hours daily, to the ragged shore,  up the twisted trees, into snarled vegetation, under drowned logs, while macaws and parrots squabbled noisely and shy monkeys fled.
It is an incredible tribute to my native guide, Altamar, for me to boast that I never lost a lure. He even had to climb trees and chop branches with a dangerous machete to get the jigs we bought for $5 each on the mother ship, the Blackwater Explorer. If we weren't fighting snags, it was the guerilla attacks by piranha which could shred the flashy jigs with one slash of those teeth.
You had to listen to Altamar for guidance in his mangled English (which is much better than my Portuguese) because occasionally a pair of giant peacock bass will babysit their young in fast, deep water, and you can spot them by a circle of bubbles. Humans are the only enemy of these parents because, as Paul Reiss says in his careful academic language,  they have the attitude to other fish "that if you want to come near me and my babies, I will kick the shit out of you."
Reiss owns Acute Angling with a Brazilian partner and is working on his doctorate in ichthyology.  He
gives lectures on the Amazonian fish in the dining cabin every night and ignored the profane humour of all-male fishing parties and would-be wags who say they understand Polysporin is just the medicine to cure ichthyology.
There were 14 fishermen, two to a boat and a guide, while Loek roamed around snapping and insulting and fishing. Typical behaviour starting at 6.30 a.m., after an ungawdly wakeup knock an hour earlier, was one man casting a jig and the other a surface lure called the Woodchopper. Its rear twin props sent up a noisy roostertail as we pulled it across the water when we hadn't sailed it into a tree.
Hard to cast, but one driven fishermen, Bill Barootes, who has that good downtown Toronto restaurant, was casting like a metronome every 15 seconds. I counted. For 10 hours. More than 2,300 casts a day. I told Oster that I didn't want to be switched to Barootes boat because he wore me out just watching.  Even my wrist ached in sympathy.
Okay, you say. Just how many peacock bass, and a few piranha, did the intrepid 15 catch in 6 1/2 days? Around 820 because the water was so high. Usually, it would be around a thousand for that group.
I also hasten to add, because both the immigration officers in Miami and Toronto wondered aloud in aggrieved tones what we did with 820 fish, that it was catch and release, except for a few plump beauties for a delicious farewell shore lunch, where the guides filleted and cooked the fish on and over small branches chopped from the jungle. There was also fish every night to go with the steak, great soup like one made from piranha, and other tasty food that was part of the main meal, followed by unique Brazilian desserts. And then to the third-deck free bar.
Of course we drank. A lot. The advice from Reiss is that we were in serious danger from dehydration from the broiling sun that had us dripping with sweat in temperatures of 32 C. unless we had to stop at least once to pee while trying not to fall into the black water. In a typical day, I drank at least four icy bottles of water, several beers and a couple of Coke Zeros while fishing, and then there were long, long rum and cokes in the evening.
That's what I will remember, drinking and casting and sweating and having a wonderful time even when my main partner, Dave Walden, a successful roofer, ridiculed my technique.
He was the better fisherman. But I caught more fish. Around 50, but my biggest were six and seven pounds. He did have a bigger one at eight, and won third in the tournament. I kept reminding him of the day I fished instead with Roger Cannon, the retired boss of Rapala Canada (most pronounce it  RaPALa, which is wrong.) We caught 35 fish, which is my best day ever, anywhere.
Reiss kept moving the boat to follow the fish. Why? We only had 18 trophies between 10 and 18 pounds,  but no monster close to the one he has caught at just over 25 pounds. And then we got skunked one day because that stretch of the Amazon tributary was in full flood.
At Manaus, the city of two million where the Negro joins the Amazon, the rivers have risen in the past by 50 feet. We flew from there in a cramped small charter to a sleepy town called Barcelos in the quest for bigger fish, but the rains had the Negro rising by nearly 25 feet.
Yet each day we climbed into the seven small boats we trailed behind the new and distinctive Brazilian river boat, after extricating ourselves from the smallest boat cabins I have ever been in, and our hopes bloomed anew. Today we would catch more peacocks than we would catch trees. And then it started to happen. Hallelujah!

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