Unification News for

February 1998


Fishing in a Foreign Land

by Rick Swarts-Montevideo, Uruguay

I have had much opportunity in the past few months to experience fishing in a foreign country - specifically the Pantanal area of Brazil. The Pantanal is the world's largest wetland, and a virtual cornucopia of exotic birds, spectacular flowering plants, and myriads of aquatic reptiles and mammals. It is the home to the jaguar, the cougar, the caiman, the giant river otter, and the anaconda. And it is also home to myriads of fish, which grow very large and attract fisherman from all over the country and the world.

I have been working in the Pantanal doing ecological studies, and have been learning a lot in my spare time about the art of fishing in a foreign environment. I have also been learning a lot about mosquitoes, as part of a personal experiment for my brother-in-law Wally Kieselowsky. You see Wally developed a special concoction out of his backwoods home in Pennsylvania that he claims repels mosquitoes. Not exactly approved by the FDA, and being personally concerned about the effects of DEET found in the normal insect repellent, I decided to conduct my own field tests. After all, the Pantanal is also renowned for the size and masses of its mosquitoes, whose huge black swarms sometimes obscure one's vision. And I could get many bottles of the stuff for free. When I told a local here that I had an all-natural insect repellent that would not cause cancer, he looked at me sideways, and muttered something about it better work - because the choice down here is between cancer in 20 years or death in one day from having all the blood sucked out of you.

At any rate, I would like to pass on to you my acquired knowledge about the art of fishing in a foreign land, and specifically Brazil's unique and eccentric fishing customs and etiquette.

Actually, it is not necessary to have to speak fluent Portuguese to be part of the fishing community here. Yes, it is certainly true that a few, well-chosen expressions are useful. I have gained the greatest use out of three: (1) "Eu nao falo Portuguese ("I don't speak Portuguese"- which is useful when someone rambles on and on in Portuguese, as if you understand what in the world he's talking about); (2) "Os Peixes estan picando?" ("Are the fish biting" - usually the prelude to having the person rambling on and on in Portuguese), and (3) "Como tiro o Piranha de meu dedo?" ("How do I get this Piranha off of my finger" - usually ... well, never mind).

It is also important to know something about the fish you are going to catch. You have to know which species is which, in order to meet the fishing regulations. Here the fisherman are provided with a yard-long, white ruler with the ruler labeled with the minimum size the species must be. Take Jaś for instance. The ruler lists the minimum of this species as 90 centimeters - about 35 inches. Right away, I know that I don't have to worry about what Jaś looks like - I will never catch anything that big. Likewise, Pintado have to be 80 cm (31 inches). Again, I know that whatever I catch cannot possibly be a Pintado. That brings us to the famous Dourado. Dourado has a rich, golden color, and it likes to jump a lot when it is hooked. That should be easy to identify. Unfortunately, there is another fish called Piraputanga, which is also a rich, golden color, and which likes to jump a lot when it is hooked. How to tell the difference? Well, a Dourado has to be 55 cm, while there is no minimum with Piraputanga. Right away I know that if a fish I catch has a rich golden color, and likes to jump, it must be a Piraputanga.

When one does not know the language, it is helpful to have non-verbal communication skills. Luckily, that is my strong suit. I can illustrate how that skill works with the following true accounts about my recent fishing experiences.

It seems that during late September, the Curimbata like to migrate up the Miranda river, where I normally fish. The Curimbata is a bottom-feeding fish, which gets to be up to 20 inches long. When they migrate, there are so many of these fish, that they surround your boat and you see a literal sea of fins sticking out of the shallow areas. There are so many fish in fact, and they are so active, that the river has plumes of fountains everywhere. However, the Curimbata themselves are not a sportfish, since they don't seem to take any bait (and you only need to reach down with a hook and you can catch as many as you would like). Fortunately, with the Curimbata migration come numerous sportsfish, like the aforementioned Dourado and Pintado, as well as the Piau, all of which like to eat the Curimbata.

Now, normally one is fishing in virtual isolation in the Pantanal. The Pantanal is itself as big as the country of France, with numerous rivers, and so one pretty much has a large section of the river to himself or herself. However, when the Curimbata migrate up the Miranda, the fishermen migrate with them. Somehow, all the fishermen in the vast Pantanal are able to fit into the area with the Curimbata, which is about the size of two football fields. This results in a little overcrowding. Those fisherman who like their peace and tranquillity and who can't stand crowds, tend to keep their distance, maybe 10-15 feet from another boat. However, the vast majority like to crowd one boat with another. That way they can share their fishing nets, trade hooks, and get a close look at the size monofilament the other is using when they untangle their lines.

Curimbata migration or not, the first day I went out I could not catch anything but Piranha. Now, mind you, the first few Piranha are very exciting. They are a fierce-looking fish, have good size, and they dart every which way when they are hooked. But the Piranha will also eat anything you throw into the water, and is considered a junk fish as far as sportfishing is concerned. I quickly recognized that not everyone was sharing my enthusiasm for this fish. After about my 50th Piranha or so, I realized that it was no longer exciting to hold each one up proudly to the other fisherman, and motion to them where they can fish to get a lot of great Piranha. Usually, they moved away from me pretty fast.

Well, I was out fishing by myself the last Friday of September - my fishing guide not showing due to some freak occurrence where mosquitoes attacked him in mass, and the other guides not available due to the vast numbers of fishermen in the area. Not being able to catch any Piau, Dourado or Pintado, I began to closely observe the other fisherman. I noticed that one group of nine boats, packed against one bank of the river, were having marvelous fishing. They were catching Piau after Piau after Piau. And not one Piranha. However, they were so tightly bunched that I was not sure I could get my boat in there. However, I was wrong. An opportunity presented itself, and I smoothly worked my boat right into the middle, and prepared for the greatest fishing of my life.

After exchanging a few pleasantries, and unhooking two fishing lines that had stuck in my motor when I moved into the area, I settled down to fish. That is when I began to notice the other fisherman were staring at me. What is wrong? Am I still bleeding from that Piranha bite? Finally, in a flash it dawned on me: everyone was using crabs while I was sitting there with fillet of Curimbata for bait. It dawned on me when people started saying "#&%$#@ fillet %$#@! Fortunately fillet is the same in English and Portuguese.

Well, the next 30 minutes was one of my more event-filled and thrilling fishing experiences. I caught Piranha after Piranha after Piranha, which seem to love fillet of Curimbata. I was wrapped around everyone else line. I got caught twice in the my neighbor's anchor line. I would no sooner throw my line in the water, then a Piranha would grab it. I thought this was simply amazing, since only moments before I arrived I didn't see anyone catch any Piranha at all. However, for some unexplained reason (I couldn't understand the Portuguese), it didn't seem that the other fisherman were sharing my bubbling enthusiasm.

To complicate matters, it was also about that time that the first results of my Wally Insect Repeller experiment began to come in and I began to notice that it had an interesting side effect. It seems that the Wally repeller attracts mosquitoes rather than repels them. My boat over swarmed in mosquitoes, and I nearly slipping into unconsciousness from slapping myself, I decided to move on. Anyway, the Piau had mysteriously stopped biting anyway. And I felt I needed to get back and warn my fishing guide about the Wally Repeller, since I had given him five bottles of the repellent, and apparently he already has some kind of natural attraction to mosquitoes.

Well, the following Saturday I made sure that I had crabs, and headed out for this prime fishing area. The group of nine boats were still there, but my keen eye spotted an opening on the upstream part of the group. I knew this was my lucky day. And this was just such a day where my skills in the art of non-verbal communication came in handy.

Deftly maneuvering my boat into the area upstream of the spot and setting my anchor, I settled back and relaxed and let the current drift me exactly into the narrow gap between the boats. Well, a solar flare must have affected the currents just then, because I missed the location by a few boat lengths. Otherwise, I would not have banged into this other boat, with its three Brazilian fisherman, whose intense fishing was distracted only by their obvious admiration for my seamanship. Another less knowledgeable person might have interpreted their glaring and strong words as criticism for our unexpected meeting, but my skills in non-verbal communication allowed me the insight that they were just kidding. How else to interpret the courtesy that the fishermen extended to me in reaching out full-length over their motor in order to support my boat?

Well, I decided that we were a little too close even by Curimbata fishing standards. Fortunately, my seasoned boating mind quickly grasped that I could leave my anchor intact and maneuver the back end of the boat to the half-submerged tree and tie it there. I knew I couldn't just use the oar to get there against this current, by now affected by rip tides, since I tried it three times and kept banging back into their boat. So I fired up the motor and proceeded to the submerged tree, a plan hindered only by the fact that by the time I shut the engine off and reached out for the tree, the current (influenced by now by El Nino) had pushed me back into a meeting with my colleagues in the other boat.

By now we were having a lot of fun. They kept acting like they were angry and the more I laughed at their funny antics the more they pretended to be angry. Finally, I worried that I was encouraging them too much and they might tip their boat over with their hilarious, exaggerated movements, so I headed out for the tree once more. This time I had the correct speed, angle and vector, and I had accurately adjusted for solar flares, rip tides and El Nino. And I darn well would have made it had it not been for my anchor line getting caught up in my motor. The fellows in the other boat sure looked happy to see me, having by now decided to discontinue fishing and focus all their attention on their new friend.

Well, it is not easy to disentangle an anchor line from your motor, especially when trying to engage in good-natured banter in a foreign language with your fishing colleagues parked alongside you. Complicating matters in this case was the fact that by now my anchor had somehow got tangled up in their anchor line, causing both boats to slowly drift past the other nine boats whenever I had to lift my anchor.

A man less learned would have thought I had shot beloved Aunt Ramona or something, the way my new found amigos in the linked boat were acting. But I knew everything was alright when one of the more entertaining fellows started making thrusting motions toward me with his fishing knife, an obvious non-verbal communication of "Its alright to cut our anchor rope if that will help." And frankly it did help. Unfortunately, by this time we had drifted through the fishing spot with the other nine boats, all of which had actors and comedians every bit as talented as my new friends. Apparently acting angry is a Brazilian way for fishing buddies to communicate. As they courteously offered advice, no doubt helpful, I didn't have the heart to say "Eu nao falo Portuguese," so I just politely smiled, resulting in more of the animation.

When I finally got my anchor up, I looked up and noticed that a boat had moved into the spot vacated by my new found friends, who by now had drifted quite some distance away. I thought the fellows in the other boat would have been displeased to have lost their spot. However, I knew they were good sports when they began waving their knives toward me. Obviously showing a person how to fillet a fish is a Brazilian way of saying "Your welcome any day. Come back again soon." Nonetheless, I decided not to stay and fish in the area, since all the commotion of the other fisherman had probably scared off all the fish. I fished some distance away the rest of the day.

As you can see, I am learning a lot during my stay here in Brazil. Already I am building a reputation for myself. I cannot wait for my wife Lourdes, a native Brazilian, to come down here from the states and see how all the fisherman stare at me when I go by, like I'm some kind of superfisherman or something. I am sure she will be impressed.

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