There was a rap on the door of my room. “Goin’ fishin’!” bellowed Pepper. It was 5:20 a.m.
No, I don’t want breakfast. Don’t insist. I hate mornings. Period.
Pepper was all smiles and exclamation marks. If I were a casting director looking for someone to play the role of a happy-go-lucky sport fisherman, I’d jump at a chance to audition Pepper Stebbins. The Wisconsin native clearly knows his way around a lake. Chubby but not obese, he also clearly knows his way around a fish grill and a beer-laden ice chest. And though he grew up in a college town, Madison, and worked in the theater and in sales, he – like Rhodes Scholar Bill Clinton – hardly bothers to suppress the endearing Bubba within. I met Pepper when he was working for a sustainable logging company; I was writing about environmentally-correct certified wood. He quit the corporate gig to open a bed-and-breakfast and boutique tourism outfit. Gone fishing.
Pepper set up shop in Itacoatiara, a city of 80,000 on the bank of the Amazon River about 200 kilometers east of Manaus. From there in less than an hour we arrived on the banks of Lake Canaçarí. The sun was just coming up. The bar hadn’t opened yet, but it was already full – occupied by stray turkeys, dogs, ducks and scrawny little lambs. At least they looked like lambs. We were waiting for Flávio, who got up even earlier to net us some live bait – little fish they call “caratinga,” skimpy little creatures distinct from the saltwater Brazilian mojarras that usually respond to that name.
Soon Flávio pulled up in a boat that would almost be big enough for the three of us. After all, Pepper resembles the former Chicago Bears star William “The Refrigerator” Perry and my basketball build is losing its Yao Ming profile, morphing into a neo-Charles Barkley model. Flávio himself wouldn’t take up much room. Like many “caboclos,” westernized rural natives of the Amazon who live from hunting, fishing and other physical labor, he’s short, compact and muscular. A veteran version of Brazilian boxer Popó.
Flávio is probably a descendant of Indians like the ones encountered by the German ethno-linguist and explorer Theodor Koch-Grünberg in the early 20th century. “We are not exaggerating when we state strongly that the indigenous people of the Amazon live off fish,” he wrote in his book "Zwei Jahre unter den Indianern: reisen in nordwest-brasilien 1903-1905" (out-of-print in both English and Portuguese). Pepper may know his way around a lake, but Flávio seems to be one with it.
The same cannot be said for me. Fishing is one of those contemplative activities – like golf, chess and yoga – that don’t seem to make much sense to outsiders. I’ve tried all three of those others with varying success, but I never understood why someone would sit in a boat for hours in the hot sun holding a stick with a string dangling out into the water.
I was about to learn.
Pepper handed me a rod and gave me a quick lesson. You got your lure. You got your hook. And you got your gurgles in the water. One. Two. Three gurgles. “That’s what we’re fishing for,” explained Pepper. Peacock bass.
I grabbed my pole and cast my line into the water. Flávio would have none of that. He took a baited hook and line, whirled it around his head lasso-style a few times, and flung it into the water. According to Koch-Grünberg, hooks were introduced to the Amazon by Europeans but the locals soon became very proficient with them. Traditional gear observed by the German explorer included bows and arrows (including specially-designed arrows for specific fish), spears and an array of ingenious nets, baskets and weird traps. Flávio has deigned to use a hook and line, but he won’t descend to the lame level of a pole. He’s never used one, he told me.
I held mine firmly, but nothing seemed to be happening. Nothing except that I noticed the eerie rising and falling sound of a band of howler monkeys in the distance – which reminded Pepper of a story. I’d heard howler monkeys sundry times but had never seen one. Pepper had. Visiting a caboclo’s home, he was greeted with the height of hospitality: “Have some howler,” offered his hosts. “No, thanks, I’m full. Just ate,” responded Pepper tactfully. Ever generous, the caboclos chopped off an arm and a leg for him to take home. “It looked like a 12-year old kid!”
Still no bites in the lake, so Pepper began to tell fish stories. Except these didn’t involve fish. Like the one about the guy from Louisiana, same as me a novice, who got his line tangled up. As I soon learned, this is a common ailment among newbies, and Pepper is pretty patient about unraveling the mess. So here was this guy from Louisiana who got tangled up and handed over his pole. Pepper reached into the water to pull out of the snag. Except it wasn’t a snag: the hook had landed in the nostril of a silent caiman. The beast rose up – and... fortunately, the hook slipped out of the nostril and the beast away.
Still nothing, so we moved to another part of the lake. Soon, lo and behold, I felt something pulling at my line. I reeled in quickly - to reveal... a few blades of grass. “Piranha,” grumbled Flávio, a man of few words. The little buggers with those razor-sharp teeth had snacked on my bait.
At this point, believe it or not, I felt good. I wasn’t catching anything, but neither were Pepper and Flávio. It wasn’t my fault. “Zero to zero,” they kept reminding each other. “I’m Zero, too!” I wanted to chime in.
But Pepper had had enough of this Zero stuff. Time for some serious action. It wasn’t yet 9 a.m., but he opened the cooler and handed me a beer. Before I could thank him, he opened another and poured a healthy dose into the lake. An offering to the gods of the peacock bass.
I’m not a particularly religious kind of guy, but I swear it happened. After the beer offering, we trolled along to the other side of the lake. We rebaited, and... Pepper got a bite! Having as a kid watched the Hemingway-esque epic struggles of deep sea fishermen on Wide World of Sports, I found the whole thing a bit anticlimactic. It was over in seconds. But Pepper was ecstatic: “Biggest one I ever got!”
Before I could take that in, I got a bite myself. “That’s a big one!” screamed Pepper. My arms agreed. I reeled in. And reeled in. And... nada. A barren hook.
Pepper and Flávio got a few more. I came up empty and empty again – though I must admit that I became fairly proficient at holding a beer in one hand and a fishing pole in the other.
Koch-Grünberg described the entrance of a successful fisherman into his village: “If they’ve been lucky, you can hear their banter and laughs from afar. The fortunate fisherman proudly crosses the village square. On his right shoulder he carries horizontally his bow and arrow. From the tip of his bow hangs a nice bunch of fish, strung by twine which passes through their mouths and gills. In his left hand he sometimes holds to his mouth a flute made of a deer bone, from which he produces some high-pitched and monotonous melodies. Women and old folk, who remained at home, receive him with congratulatory words and lively commentary about the fish.”
When we returned to Itacoatiara, Pepper seemed to be searching for his own village square. We found it in his buddy Paul’s mini-market. Our unannounced entrance was no less ceremonious, though nobody really understood the commotion. Indeed there were no congratulatory words – at least not until we moved to the scale. Over five kilos!
That was worth a round of beers on Paul’s tab.
Information about fishing for peacock bass, lodging and other cool stuff in and around Itacoatiara, Amazonas
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