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Original Issue


There's an awful lot of fish in Brazil but, as the author soon realized, the natives are, shall we say, reluctant to disclose their whereabouts

Forever lost is the name of the passenger who ordered the last champagne cocktail before the Titanic hit the ice. But I am nearly certain that I can close the file on a historical parallel. Late on the afternoon of Thursday, Nov. 10, 1977, I believe I was the last man to pay the full price for a fishing rod at Abercrombie & Fitch before that august sporting goods emporium gurgled beneath the waters of insolvency.

I'd just arrived home, and I was unwrapping the rod with half an ear tuned to the six o'clock news when the tidings came. A bitter moment that became even more bitter when I realized that I would miss A&F's closing sale. I am probably the only angler in New York City who did not head down to 45th and Madison for some cut-price tackle the following week. When they opened the doors to the throng, I was 3,600 miles away, dangling a cube of filet mignon, medium rare, into the murky waters of a tributary of the Amazon and hoping for a piranha or two.

It is somewhat odd, in view of their reputation, that piranhas do not seem to care for steak bleu, or even rare. The bait as it lay on the stern of our boat gently cooking in the equatorial sun, had gone through both stages in the hour we had been on the water. Orlando, the guide, and my traveling companion were both using rods of bamboo culled straight from the jungle, but the ancient magic of pole and bent pin vs. sophisticated weaponry wasn't working, not even when we followed an old man in a dugout canoe, who trustingly held up a fine tucanarè, a fish resembling a largemouth bass tricked out like a parrot in red, green and yellow, that he had been keeping cool in river weed.

The old man had left Manaus, on the far shore, at 5 a.m. to fish this spot, so Orlando said. We harried him unmercifully, sidling up to him every time he anchored, slipping through narrow waterways behind him, until at last he turned and gave Orlando an earful of Portuguese. "Hokay," said Orlando in satisfaction. "Now he tells us where the piranhas are!"

We anchored in a bay of reeds, where saplings that had been washed down by the last flood poked through the surface. The steak cubes were nicely browned now, and maybe that was what the piranhas wanted, because they fell on them at once—red piranhas, gold piranhas, silver piranhas, all different species, Orlando said, and the little red ones were the meanest. Mr. Abercrombie, Mr. Fitch, it seems slightly shameful that the last of your rods was blooded—and that is precisely the right word—on such an essentially vulgar fish, all teeth and no subtlety, as a piranha. But that is how it was, and the collapsible spinning rod was not even accorded the honor of taking the fish of the day. That fell to my companion, who had succumbed to naked blood-lust, shouting with triumph as she swung each snapping little fish into the boat, snatching up the most promising-looking bait cubes and finally landing a black piranha, a good three-pounder. To me her smile was taking on a fangy, predatory look. "Where can we cook it?" she said.

We headed down the river to where some of Orlando's cousins lived in a house on stilts set among wild rubber trees, its main feature an enormous refrigerator, innocent of any electricity supply, crowned with a champagne bottle and flanked by models of Mickey Mouse and Snow White. The lady of the house cooked the piranha and served it with bananas and manioc grits. My companion ate hers, asked for a second helping and then for the teeth, to take home with her. She was showing disturbing tendencies.

After lunch we fished the main river, in a great brown eddy that might have had fish in it upwards of 300 pounds, fish with scales bigger and hornier than those of a tarpon, fish built like armadillos. But the beef was now curling black at the edges, and we caught nothing after an hour in the battering sun. It was time to head upstream and home, past the waterfront of Manaus, the shacks of the very poor, huts on broken stilts, almost afloat on refuse, blending into the slum of houseboats along the floating pontoons of the port.

Home to a great contrast, to the Tropical Hotel, one of the most luxurious in South America, it is said, where the Amazon Experience can be encapsulated into two days. A strange place with long, tiled, high-ceilinged corridors radiating from the lobby and pushing into the rain forest. There is an almost ecclesiastical silence, an impression strengthened by one's room. The heavy, ornate shutters of dark Amazonian wood and the high, carved closets seem to call for Gregorian chants, for requiem masses to be piped in softly.

And tend also, it must be said, to drive one swiftly to the pool, a huge one in three concentric circles and three shades of blue-green, clearly meant to recall the vast pads of the victoria regia water lilies that fill the backwaters of the river A peaceful place in the mornings when the tourist groups, usually either French or German, are out. Later it is noisy—either boisterous or shrill, depending upon which nationality is scheduled for it. The boisterous Germans can be easily identified when they come in from shopping. They are the ones with the bows and arrows.

Probably they will have bought them at the hotel souvenir shop, just as they embarked on their Amazon trip from the hotel landing stage onto the hotel river boat. And the hotel will also make it possible for them to view the wildlife without danger of insect bites or even getting muddy. It will gladly arrange for them to be driven to the zoo.

It strains credulity, but there in the jungle, or at least within a powerful arrowshot of the jungle, is a small zoo. It is a small military zoo, where bugle calls sound, where in combat fatigues and high-heeled sandals the guide introduces the exhibits in an unpedantic style. "These are nize li'l monkeys," she indicates. "These are big-belly monkeys. This is paca. He is a big rat." No sign of paca. "Maybe he go down in groun'," she says indifferently. "These," she pauses at a pen of guinea fowl, "are all good eatin' bords." Next door, 20 carelessly heaped feet of anaconda has turned its back on the pair of live chickens that is clearly destined to be its lunch. Not far away is the Amazonian jungle, still rich in jaguars, anacondas, nize li'l monkeys, big-belly monkeys—but this, courtesy of the Brazilian army, seems to be as close as you can get to it. The animals have been captured on "jungle maneuvers," says the guide.

The wildest life there ever was on this particular stretch of the river flourished in the last years of the 19th century. Manaus, only 20 kilometers away, was a roaring, wicked boomtown then because the Amazon had the world rubber monopoly. Its days were numbered from 1876 on, when Henry Alexander Wickham, in the cause of Empire, smuggled wild rubber-tree seeds out of Brazil, had them germinated in Kew Gardens in London, then shipped the plants to Malaya and Sumatra. But it was a long time before sneaky old Wickham's action spoiled the fun. Manaus had its instant millionaires in their carriages, with splendid baroque mansions built in clearings that the jungle was swift to take back when the price of rubber fell from $3 to 20¬¨¬®¬¨¢ a pound. It was a boomtown with style, with an opera house that would not have been out of place on the Seine or the Danube. They shipped the Swedish Nightingale, Jenny Lind, in to sing, the incomparable Sarah Bernhardt to tread the boards 1,000 miles up the Amazon. No expense was spared by gentlemen who sent their evening shirts to be laundered and starched in London, express service five months.

This very evening the local ballet school would present The Nutcracker Suite in the opera house. And so we were off to the opera house, still standing, even restored somewhat. The French baroque ceiling, all rosy-rumped cupids, acanthi and generously bosomed goddesses, is bright, the Corinthian pillars regilded. Only the original drop curtain is faded. And the imperfections of the Manaus Corps de Ballet, in particular those of a large lady who achieved arabesques with all the grace and style of one who swoops to retrieve a small object dropped into the long grass, only enhanced the sense of past glory.

On the road back to the Tropical, we came upon an odd sight. A cluster of lit candles at the roadside, a bottle of wine, a bowl of manioc, some chicken feathers, a crucifix. Suddenly the hotel was 10 kilometers and 500 years away A candomblè offering, we were told later, voodoo, Brazilian style, possibly a spell to prevent a married man from straying. Very chic in Brazil just now. Wasn't Pelè himself on television the other day with the candomblè priestess from Salvador? To thank her for past favors, to repay promises he made as a young man should he achieve success on the soccer field?

Maybe, I told my companion, we ought to arrange for the priestess to spill a little chicken blood over Abercrombie's last farewell. Because now we were headed for the coast, where all things were possible, according to a brochure put out by the Brazilian Tourist Authority and entitled The Colourfull Sea.

"Listen to this," I said. "They have, and I quote, 'Snooks, drifting at will in all directions in the upper waters, staring at nothing.' And moreover, 'In places where the movement of the sea agitates the waters, the giant Permits and Pampas find their climate....' " I was packing the five sections of my rod away into its neat little case. "First," I murmured to it, "you are going to catch the great big snook with the faraway look. Later I might match you with a pampa—whatever that might be."

Recife in Pernambuco, on the northeast coast, was where we planned to go first. But the hotel denied knowledge of our reservations, and Recife itself proved to be Hamburg or Liverpool with added sun, bars lining the long waterfront for sailors to yaw in and out of, where they could buy, brief research revealed, WHISKI SCTCH 40 CRS PER DOSE. Or, GIM. Or, GIM-TOMCA. Not a place to linger.

But Tampaú, 100 kilometers up the coast, looked more promising. Half a mile out to sea, clear blue water fractured on a pattern of reefs. Beyond, local fishing boats were working and they did not work in vain. Close to the hotel, a small but bustling fish market operated. There dolphins were being butchered, meaty ones, 30-, 40-pounders. Half a dozen wahoo were lined up for the customers and one groaning bench was heaped high with red snapper. And there, in a corner, staring at nothing certainly, were snook. Not great big ones but very acceptable six-and seven-pounders. The only question was, would the world's worst fishing-rod bargain be up to the tasks that lay before it?

But luck seemed to be holding. In the hotel was Senhor Vidal, manager, headwaiter, speaker of English, a man with every characteristic of the natural-born fixer. At dinner, after pointing us firmly at the red snapper meunière, he considered briefly the question of fishing. Luiz over there, he said, indicating a thin and elderly waiter who could have been Graham Greene in disguise, picking up a little color for his next novel, Luiz had a brother who was a fisherman. Would 11 a.m. suit the senhora? A gallant as well as a sophisticated man, Senhor Vidal.

The gallantry proved disastrous. An 11 a.m. start meant time for an hour at the pool first, during which, gallant myself, I attempted to haul the senhora's chair, with the senhora still aboard, into the sunshine. With a howl of agony I realized that an old fishing-trip wound, a back injury sustained in a hotel shower in Brisbane, Australia, had flared into violent life. Half the hotel staff helped me to the resident masseur, an enormous man smelling heavily of violet oil. After he had worked on me for three quarters of an hour, the doctor arrived. Vitamin B[Sub 12], straight into the shoulder muscle to relieve spasm. Powerful pain-killers to be crunched. I limped offstage to bed. If I could stand in the morning, new arrangements could be made.

Something must have worked. Next morning I reckoned I could not only stand but toss a light lure with Abercrombie's Revenge. Slightly crooked but mobile, I went in search of Vidal. He wasn't around. No one at the desk could speak English, but the word finally got through to me. It was Senhor Vidal's day off.

But on Day Three he was there, smiling benignly. The fishing? But of course. At noon, Luiz' brother's boat would await us on the beach. It would be no gleaming Hatteras, of course, or even a stylish runabout. The boats at Tampaú were solid old wooden, diesel-powered whalers, 36-footers, that class of thing. But who needed a Hatteras at Tampaú? On our idle day ashore, we had seen how the whalers would run out beyond the reef and return as soon as they had a few sizable fish—a couple of hours at most and a mere 20-minute run to the fishing grounds.

Luiz' brother was indeed there at noon. He greeted us on the beach. But where was his sturdy whaler? The truth dawned as he courteously indicated a craft drawn up on the sand, one so small, so primitive-looking that it could have been idly hammered together by a giant child with some slats of wood and a box of nails.

Basically, indeed, it was a slat of wood. A raft, in fact, with a mast amidships and a single foresail. The mast was a plain old bough with the twigs hacked off, as was the primitive bowsprit. There was an anchor, also made of fortunate finds in the jungle and weighted by half a dozen stones in a wicker cage arrangement.

Slowly, very slowly, we tacked out to where the sea was breaking white. There was little wind. Periodically, Luiz' brother hurled a can of water on the sail to wet it. In 20 minutes we were a good 300 yards off the beach, which seemed to satisfy him. He furled the sail and picked up another objet trouvè from the bush. He was going to pole the boat. I looked down and, yes, I could see the bottom. After five minutes with the pole, over went the anchor. A large yellowish rock could be seen maybe six feet under the surface. Fish around that. Luiz' brother indicated in sign language.

There were fish around the yellow rock, sure enough. Some of them were almost eight inches long, and all of them pretty. Luiz' brother smiled and laughed as he stowed each diminutive capture into a little wicker basket, no doubt intending them for some Brazilian equivalent of bouillabaisse.

That was Tampaú. Further investigation proved that the owners of whalers did not approve of do-it-yourself fishing. That afternoon a broadbill, small but indisputably a broad-bill, was brought into the market. In vain I tried to make myself understood, that what I in fact wanted was to go to sea. We came away with a couple of pounds of wahoo wrapped in newspaper, a result of the senhora's ill-advised pointing at the fish in an attempt to make our message clear.

In Brazil, I was coming to understand, they are reluctant to share their fish with you. In Salvador, 1,700 miles down the coast, there was ample opportunity to stroll on the extensive beaches, to look at churches, to samba and to sear your mouth with the hottest chili sauce on earth. But it took five days to rent a boat, a very old boat with a canopy over it that prevented the Abercrombie Special, which had now been lugged more than 6,300 miles, from being cast properly upright. With this handicap, however, the little rod accounted for an electric ray and a sort of bluish fish the shape and size of a dinner plate.

All I had left now was Rio and the thinnest of chances to get some fishing action. Sport had to compete, after all, with mandatory trips to the Christ statue and Sugar Loaf, with Copacabana Beach and several thousand restaurants. And, unexpectedly, with the Jockey Club. My companion had learned that the club was a perfect replica of the old Longchamp track in Paris, as it was before they rebuilt it in 1966; too much to be resisted by a fervid racegoer.

I was just about ready to swim with the tide. It is far easier to go to the horse races in Rio than to fish. My companion had soon ingratiated herself with what seemed to me the foolishly simpering apparat of the Jockey Club. Free membership. Lunch with the president. One evening I said, "Why don't we get a car and drive up the coast for a few miles?" Impossible, she said. Baron Hubertus von KapHerr had invited her to drive out and inspect his stud farm.

All I was trying to do was prepare her for a little outing I had set up. Idly glancing through a tourist brochure I had happened upon in the hotel room, I had come on a section that described Cabo Frio, a summer resort down the coast. The usual thing. But in the restaurant section, extolling the seafood, the writer had mentioned the deliciously prepared, locally caught robalo. In other words, snook!

I seemed to be, just barely, in business again. The little rod went into a rented car, and leaving my companion to the tender mercies of the baron, I headed north. Or I tried to. Half an hour later I was still inextricably tangled up with the Rio freeway system, but then I had a stroke of luck. A double one. I picked up an American trying to hitch a ride north, a novelist, it seemed, a very young one. Not only did he find the right exit, but he also told me that the village where he lived was on a wide lagoon. People fished there all the time.

What he failed to tell me was that they fished with nets. The lagoon, indeed, seemed perfectly constructed for snook. The sea ran into it, a big, turbulent saltwater river, and the fish would run with the tide. Only one thing prevented them. A series of nets that spanned the entrance to the lagoon.

But it was too late to turn back. People fished from the bridge, the young American had said, where the road crossed the lagoon at its narrowest. Before I headed there, I bought half a kilo of mushy sardines from a fishmonger. It was Abercrombie's Last Stand.

People were fishing from the bridge all right. With cast nets. Occasionally the high tides might let a few fish through, I reasoned. And there would always be a few small enough to swim through the meshes. Feeling a little foolish. I took up my stance in a gap between the netmen.

There were small fish, certainly. Little catfish mostly, some shadlike fish. I caught several on my sad fragments of sardine, though I was chiefly occupied in seeing what the netmen brought up. "Robalo?" I'd asked them earlier. They merely shrugged, but the message must have got home because one of them called me over, smiling. "Robalo," he said. It was the only word we had in common. He pointed at a fish less than a foot long, with silvery sides and a black lateral line. "Robalo," I said, giving him a look indicating I congratulated and envied him.

Several catfish later, he called me over again. He had something for me. An enormous speckled shrimp. A master-shrimp he had just netted. Unforgivably, for a moment I thought he wanted to sell it. But no. "Robalo!" he said, gesturing for my hook. He mounted the tail section and indicated the water. I cast.

Mr. Abercrombie, Mr. Fitch, I have a happy ending for you, as you pace above the clouds in your heavenly safari suits. Your rod caught me a robalo. I will not say how large it was, but it certainly had a faraway look when I slid it gently back into the lagoon. After all, that little fish had a place in history. The first snook to be caught on the last rod with a full A & F price tag. Or I am almost sure it was.