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Record Hunters: Reel Beeg Feesh, Part 2

12/7/2006

Editor's note: Sam Eifling is a writer for the New Times Broward-Palm Beach in south Florida. He joined the crew of "Record Hunters" on its Amazon adventure seeking the world-record peacock bass to document the experience. His account of the trip is serialized here. For part one of his story, click here.


My role here in the Amazon as part of the "Record Hunters" crew was bearable thanks to the rest of the cast. Rob Fordyce, of Florida City, grew up wanting to be a cowboy and wound up as the South Florida equivalent, leading amateur fishermen in the waters around Islamorada in search of snook, sharks, and especially tarpon.

The co-author of "Tarpon on Fly," he caught his first fish unaided at 4 years old and, in his excitement to show his family, dragged the snapper up the rocky bank so that it was a bloody wad by the time he reached his house.

He dropped out of the University of Tennessee, ditching a baseball scholarship, because he was going nuts without fishing.

Years of hunting ducks around Lake Okeechobee, pigs in the Everglades, and deer in South Carolina have honed his aim with a rifle. ("That guy's good at everything he does," Joe says.)

The 35-year-old fishes shark tournaments — hammerheads are his favorite predators to watch — and hopes one day to see a great white shark, so much so that he breaks out in goose bumps when he recalls footage of a great white launching itself like a missile out of the Atlantic to eat a seal.

His only phobia, if he has one, is electricity. He says he has no reason to fear anything he can see coming. But electricity, well, that can kill you before you know it's there.

After several guest appearances on other fishing shows, Rob was on this shoot because ESPN wanted regular schlubs 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 bs. 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 bs" to their stories, as in, "The shark's jaws were — no bs — 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 bs 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, FL resident named Don Cutter, by way of greeting. "This is your home in the jungle for a week."

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.


Please check in for occasional updates to the blog for "Record Hunters" on ESPN2 TV, and click here for more details and photo galleries on the showpage. And should you decide you'd like to experience the trip of a lifetime fishing for peacock bass in Brazil, here are some recommendations.

For Angie Thompson's "Record Hunters" blog, click here.