Tom was grunting like a baboon, his red neckerchief dark with sweat, his rod butt creaking and his reel drag making terminal noises. "Take it easy," I advised him from the shade of the canvas awning. "You have merely encountered one of their outlying pickets. The Horde itself will be in the lee of the reef. I want you to save yourself for the real test."
Like a boozy old duchess curtsying to the Queen, our 24-footer teetered on top of a swell, swooped into a trough, then staggered up onto an even keel again. Tom hung on to his fish. The line snapped like a firecracker and he let go a King Kong roar of frustration, slumping onto the cushions. "But I saw them coming for me," he panted. "The Red Horde...I saw the Red Horde!"
"Take a grip on yourself, Tom," I told him sternly. "We can hold this boat for hours yet. I'm putting you to defend the bow. I will take the stern. Meanwhile Rafael will remain amidships arming plugs and making up fresh leaders." We fell to laughing as Rafael, the skipper, turned the boat around to make another pass at the reef. At this stage of the trip, you see, the Red Horde was still a joke.
A joke, in fact, that had started in a restaurant in midtown Manhattan, where Tom, myself and our guest were having a serious, working lunch. The lunch was intended to acquaint Tom and me with what to expect when, a few weeks later, we would head down to Panama to fish Coiba Island on the Pacific coast. Fortified by several martinis, our guest, an old hand in those waters, confirmed what we had heard: that the fishing was remarkable for its variety, that we could expect acres of wahoo, sailfish, roosterfish, amberjack, miles of rainbow runners, truckloads of blue-water game fish. Was it correct, we asked him, that at Club Pacifico, the fishing camp we were booked into, the emphasis was on light-tackle fishing from small, fast boats?
February 14, 1977
"Light tackle, yes," he said. Then his expression seemed to change. "Except for the cuberas, of course," he added, absently rotating his empty glass. We hastened to have it replenished. Cubera snapper I had heard of but once, from a fisherman at Key Biscayne who told me that they always got a few there in summer and that you fished them with a live lobster. ("Isn't that expensive?" I'd asked him. "Nah," he said, "first you go out and rob a lobster pot.")
"You mean that you have to use heavy bottom gear?" I asked our guest.
"No, no," he said, sipping moodily, the look in his eye that of a man who has experienced heaven and hell and found both places lacking in color after the reefs of Coiba. "You use plugs. Huge plugs." He leaned forward confidentially. "The best place is down south from Coiba. Small island called Jicarón. There's a reef down there.... Listen," he said, "you want to take plenty of big, heavy poppers. You want to cast 70, 80 yards, you want a big conventional reel and a heavy two-handed rod." Carried away, he slammed an invisible plug at an invisible cubera snapper lurking near the checkroom, just failing to send a steaming plate of veal parmigiana, which was being proffered him, skimming into the other diners, some of whom were beginning to look around, the nearest of them pricking up their ears at our guest's dramatic recital.
"Only remember this," he went on. "As soon as that plug hits, bring it back fast. Fast! And don't be scared of what's behind it, because what you're going to see is...what the ocean is going to look like is...all red!"
"All red," nodded Tom.
"The sea turns red," intoned our guest, fixing us with an Ancient Mariner look, "with huge cubera snappers. Hundreds of them, all red, coming up at you from the reef. Sixty pounds, 80 pounds, some of them."
"A Red Horde," Tom confirmed.
Our guest looked at him suspiciously, but continued, "Those cuberas are slow to take the plug, though. They'll roll two or three times at it before they hit. So if you are fast, you can draw them away from the reef and then you can fight them in the deep water, which gives you about one chance in five if you remember to tighten the drag and get them into the boat before the sharks come."
"Sharks?" I asked.
"More sharks around Panama than anywhere in the world. Chop even a big cubera right behind the ears so all you bring up is a big toothy head and a few fronds of insides."
A man at the next table pushed his plate away abruptly and rose. "I wish I was going with you," our guest went on. "Built myself a new rod for those big ones. There are 100-pound cuberas on that reef, like huge red bulldogs." By then he was 2,500 miles south-southeast of Seventh Avenue. "Watch for that blood-colored surge," he urged us, looking from one face to the other. Gravely we assured him that we would. "Good luck," he told us as he left the table, moving out into the sunlight and the swirling eddies around the Manhattan reefs.
"Red Horde, eh?" Tom sniggered when we were alone.
"We'll attend to the Red Horde when we've dealt with the big wahoo," I said. "And the sails on fly tackle. And the roosterfish." Lazily, over dessert, we leaned back to savor the delights of our forthcoming trip.
Three weeks later, in a light aircraft wobbling through the rain clouds toward Coiba, our mood was still buoyant. The previous evening, from the balcony of our hotel room high over Panama City, we had practiced roll-casting the No. 12 fly line we planned to use on the sailfish. Not even the rain could damp us, not even (we should be forgiven) the sight of long-term prisoners near the Coiba airstrip listlessly chipping rust from the hull of the beached World War II landing craft used to ferry them from, and maybe one day to, the mainland. Coiba has only two settlements: the penal colony on one side of the island and Club Pacifico on the other. We piled our gear into the 24-foot Aquasport that was going to take us to the far, non-penal side of the island, and as we cleared the point and put the prison out of sight, a sailfish jumped nearby. A fine omen.
At Club Pacifico Bob Griffin, the camp's founder, was in the middle of a warming story. "So there was this man from Illinois," he was recounting, "who came back for his second trip with a full set of artillery: marlin rod, 130-pound-test line, 14/0 reel, full harness and his own fighting chair to screw down into the boat." The tale was about Hannibal Bank and the mysterious monsters that lurk there; no one, it is said, has ever lowered a jig into those waters and managed to fight to the surface the fish that hit it. But the man from Illinois had returned to Coiba determined to solve the mystery. Once more, though, he had had to admit defeat.
"He came back that night destroyed," Griffin went on, "and I asked him what had happened. 'It was going fine,' he said. 'I got out there, started to jig and got a hit right away. I was all strapped up, I had powerful tackle and after a while I had that fish, whatever it was, coming up nicely—150 pounds, maybe 200 pounds it felt. Then one of the big ones grabbed it.' "
There could have been no better captive audience for a fishing story than Tom and I, together with the four other anglers who had arrived that day—the brothers Gore and the brothers McGinn. But Hannibal Bank would not be on our program, Griffin told us. It was a four-hour run, too long and risky a haul for small boats in the rainy season. Instead we would head over toward the mainland, where the big wahoo run should be on. Should be on? Didn't anybody know? No, because the camp had been closed for two months. Not only were we going to fish teeming waters, but also waters that had been rested all that time.
They were calm waters, too, we found next morning, the currents sliding easily through a pattern of islands humped high and green with dense rain forest. Five minutes out from the jetty we saw the ocean's mirror fretted with a hailstorm of frantic needlefish, obviously beset by some predator below. Frantically, we began grabbing for our rods. Rafael held up a sophisticated hand. "Is jus' rainbow runners," he told us kindly. He slowed the boat until we could see the runners flashing cobalt and yellow in the water, then picked up speed again, heading for where the wahoo were said to be working through a channel that ran between a small island and the mainland.
Long before we reached it we tossed out deep-running plugs. Spanish mackerel hit them at once. Next came a boisterous half hour with jack crevalle. Afterward, nothing for a spell that must have gone on for close to 20 minutes. Then Rafael picked up the radio transmitter and smiled slowly as he interpreted the crackle at the far end. "My cousin finds plenty wahoo," he told us, grinning happily. "They smash up all the tackle, them and the sharks. My cousin's tourists got no plugs left!" Tom and I regarded one another smugly. We had with us enough plugs to account for all the wahoo between there and Acapulco. Despite a slight unease at hearing our fellow anglers described as tourists (Was that what Rafael called us when the guides got together in the evenings?), we looked forward confidently to some gentlemanly sport. Red Horde, eh? Nothing so crude. This was going to be elegant fishing: thoroughbred, black-and-silver wahoo on light tackle. Well, not too light. Maybe 15-pound tackle. The Coiba wahoo ran big, we'd heard.
To begin with, all went according to the brochure. As we started to troll tight in to the rocks, so close that we were in the shade of the jungle overhanging them, Tom's rod began a wild attempt to free itself from the holder and his reel made a noise that no mackerel could produce. "Is 50-pound wahoo," Rafael told us 15 minutes later as, too big for the fish locker, it drummed its life out amidships (55 pounds 12 ounces on the camp scales that night). "Not bad for a tourist, hey?" Tom asked Rafael.
"Is big wahoo here," he replied cryptically, coming on course again. Did he mean that this one was a tiddler? Or was he endorsing Tom's pride of achievement? There was no chance to question him because my reel was into its battle song now and I was bracing myself in the stern. "Is wahoo," Rafael observed superfluously. "Is 50 pounds." For maybe 10 seconds my wahoo went on being an orthodox 50-pound wahoo, then changed very briefly to a 350-pound wahoo, and finally metamorphosed into a U-boat making ponderously for the ocean floor. "Shark come eat him," Rafael said, unwrapping his sandwiches. In his experience, it emerged later, a tourist always tried to land his first shark, which always ended up immovable, hanging deep under the boat, providing Rafael with a useful lunch break as the Aquasport drifted quietly and the tourist heaved and grunted fruitlessly.
And undoubtedly I reacted like many anglers had before me. "This is no shark, I tell you," I roared passionately.
Rafael sank his teeth deep into an apricot jam and peanut butter sandwich. "Is shark," he repeated, bored. "Is shark," Tom said unsympathetically. The rod was doubled over. I might have been into a coral reef except that occasionally there came a dull thump. Only a shark could act like that. "Is shark," I had to admit in the end. His sandwich jammed in his mouth, Rafael throttled forward and I hung on for the brief moment it took to snap the line. "Is many sharks in this place," he said in a moment of garrulity. And he was entirely right about that, too.
From then on, sharks hit all the time. I landed one lightweight, a 90-pound mako, but most of them were heavier and impossible to haul on our light tackle. We went around to the seaward side of the island, took two roosterfish and then the sharks moved in again. Mostly there would be just a vastly increased weight on the end of the line, but sometimes, when a small fish was on close to the top, we could see a shark attack, bulging huge and brown under the surface like a gargantuan trout sipping nymphs. "Is ridiculous," Tom said around midafternoon. Even our formidable armory of plugs was beginning to dwindle. The channel was full of wahoo but there was no point in hooking them when every time they would be fielded by sharks. Rafael sensed our desperation. "Orright," he said. "We find the other boats."
They were tucked in a little cove, refugees like us. But they had sold their plugs dearly. One of the Gores had a 58½ pound wahoo, and Frank McGinn had taken a good one on six-pound-test—significantly, at the start of the day's fishing before the tiny brains of the sharks had awakened to the fact that there were easy pickings about. "You know," McGinn said, grieving over his lost plugs, "there are actually men who go out deliberately to catch sharks." We shook our heads wonderingly. Maybe the Club Pacifico should employ a task force of such coarse-grained anglers to sweep the seas clean before the serious sports fishermen arrived. Short of that, there didn't seem to be a lot of future in Wahoo Alley. Reluctantly, we had to admit seeming defeat, not knowing at the time that one very significant trophy had been wrested from the sharks; McGinn's wahoo turned out to be 48 pounds 3 ounces, later to be ratified as an IGFA world record on six-pound line.
In the camp bar that evening, we drew up new plans. Maybe there are shark-repellent qualities in vodka martinis; the McGinns decided they would hit Wahoo Alley again next day. The Gores were going to potter around close to camp. Tom and I were going to break new ground.
"If you don't mind the half-hour haul down there," Bob Griffin said, "you could head for Jicarón, try for a sailfish on the way down, then plug the reef."
The name closed a memory circuit. "You want us to tangle with the Red Horde, eh?" Tom asked him dramatically. We were well into the third round of the cocktail hour. "We'll make a movie," I sniggered. "We'll call it The Sea Turns Scarlet."
"No," Tom guffawed, "it's going to be The Plugs of Jicarón."
Only Griffin's pet howler monkey, tethered outside where he could ambush small iguanas and eat them like Popsicles, reacted appreciatively, with cartwheels and a manic laugh. The others, Griffin in particular, looked at us curiously.
"Down there," he said, "are more cubera snappers, probably, than anywhere else in the world. And when they are really feeding, patches of the sea do change color. You'll see tomorrow."
We were momentarily chastened but after dinner, as we made our way through the warm darkness to our cottage, the somewhat ludicrous notion of the snapper army took over again. Even so, we both had brought heavy casting rods and reels with us. For all the fantasies, for all the jokes, something had got through to us that lunchtime in Manhattan. Clearly there could be no such thing as hundreds of fish of 50 pounds and more making a massed rush for a plug. But there was a certain depth of feeling in the way our guest had talked that afternoon. Probably the cubera fishing would make a pleasant interlude of relief after the serious business of the wahoo and the sails. If there was time, we concluded, we might just try it for an hour.
So we headed south that morning, leaving the penal colony to starboard, roaring by islands humped like camels, low and twisted like sea serpents, all of them lush and green, some alive with frigate birds. We weathered point after point as the ocean swell became more apparent, and then just off a tide rip Rafael slowed down. Time to look for a sail, he said.
Now the idea was, you see, that we would try to take at least one sailfish on fly. But, naturally, we didn't want to rush things. The right course, we reasoned, would be to have at least a couple of sails under our belts before we would be psychologically ready to use up what might be a long spell of fishing time on a problematic venture. So although the large saltwater fly rods were readied and laid out in the bow, we suggested to Rafael that first we would just act like ordinary fishermen and troll. At Club Pacifico, we'd been told, fly-fishing for sails was a kind of specialty of the house and the guides were well versed in the techniques of teasing the fish up. Rafael, though, didn't seem very much put out when we made our suggestion. Indeed, with hindsight, one might well have identified a look of relief in his expression.
So we trolled, and for a long time the trolling turned out to be what trolling is often like, that is to say, the most boring form of fishing yet devised by man. Indeed we were restlessly talking about hauling in the lines in another 10 minutes when two beauties came right up behind the plastic squids and grabbed one apiece in a classic double strike. We got them both, 102 and 109 pounds, and naturally then would have been the moment to take the hooks out of the lures and go ahunting for another sail on the fly rod. But by the time we had landed our brace we had cleared the last, southerly headland before the island that had already passed into our private mythology: Jicarón.
It was really very similar to the other small islands around Coiba, lush and verdant, a neon-green sea sluicing its rocks and falling white on its beaches. In addition, Jicarón wore, like an ornament, a rusting tramp steamer that had run aground on its northernmost point. "Trying to get away from the Red Horde," Tom said—predictably, I thought. "He don't see the light," Rafael corrected him.
We headed a point or two out to sea, and it was possible to see the reef, even though it was covered at high tide. The swells moved across it, frothing white, and as we came nearer and it became more defined, we could see its extent—a long reef, parallel with the shore, with three pinnacles almost breaking the surface.
We stood off to rig the heavy casting gear and Rafael put us in position 200 feet from the nearest break. Tom's popper went out first, splashing into a smooth hump of water that was building over the rock; then he was working it back, jerking his rod tip violently and reeling fast. "Hey! Hey!" Rafael yelled. A big, sullen swirl broke astern of the popper. Tom reeled faster. Two more swirls and then his rod was hard over and he was frantically trying to tighten the drag. Under no circumstances, our luncheon guest had told us, was any line to be given. If it was, the cubera would be straight into the reef, cutting us off. So to encourage Tom as he sweated and panted to hold his fish, I told him that he had one of the lesser cuberas there. "You have merely encountered one of their outlying pickets," I told him.
Tom lost his fish and we turned to our comedy routine again. Rafael listened silently to our plans for defending the Aquasport against the Horde, then said crushingly, "Is not cubera you have. Is little surface snapper. About 15, 20 pounds. Small cuberas is twice as big. I take you to them now, and maybe to some big cubera." He swung the boat around and headed uptide again. "You cast that way," he said, pointing. Two poppers flew out, started to jerk back on the surface and then, quite suddenly, the sea turned red.
Not an acre of red, but a patch as big as a medium-sized hotel lobby. And not primary red either, more a dull brick color. There were crashing explosions all around the plugs, then both our rods were wrenched down savagely. "Cuberas come," Rafael said nonchalantly.
Silently, Tom and I fought our fish. This time we were in better shape than during Tom's first snapper encounter because now there was a lot more water beneath us and we had some room to maneuver and to contain the repeated crash dives. Even so, and even on heavy gear, it was 15 minutes before both the fish were subdued, coming up dull red, the dog-fanged jaws moving slowly. "Is small cuberas," Rafael announced, lifting them out on the gaff. "Go maybe 35 pounds. Now you cast again."
Tom and I looked at each other. If those were small fish, we were not entirely certain that we wanted to cast again. The Red Horde that was a joke had now turned out to be real. Maybe another of our fantasies was real, too: the Cubera King, deep in his rocky, weed-fronded fastness, might come out and accept our challenge, all 100 pounds of him. Or something similarly nasty. Such a thought, comical thousands of miles north, was easy to entertain when you were riding an ocean swell surrounded by lumps of Central American jungle.
Even so, we cast again, and once again the Red Horde sallied out from its fortress. We dragged the plugs away from it frenetically, in the hope that they wouldn't be hit until they were over deep water, but they were engulfed before they had traveled 50 feet. There was a difference this time, though. Even before the first power dive could materialize, brown shadows appeared in the subsurface and we felt the familiar, sickening deadweight of sharks on the line.
There was no fighting them; they were simply too big. We broke off and cast three or four more times. The same. "When sharks come, they stay," Rafael said. "We shift away from here now."
So we did. We trolled a wahoo channel on the far side of the island and by the time the second fish was aboard the sharks had arrived. Landing wahoo heads is not really fun. We set out for home. "Tomorrow I want to stay away from Blood Island," I told Rafael. "Let's try to take one of those sails on the fly."
The technique of catching sailfish on flies is now well established, since Dr. Webster Robinson's first successful experiments in 1962. You troll hookless teasers until you raise a sail. Then you enrage the fish by snatching the teaser from it until it turns blue and green with fury. Then you haul in the teaser and substitute your fly. More sails have been caught this way out of Club Pacifico than from any other fishing camp in the world—or so it's said. And the guides are naturally very experienced.
Next morning, though, when we hit the sailfish grounds, we had a hard time convincing Rafael that the hooks should be removed from the plastic squids we planned to use as teasers, but finally, looking at us as if we were crazy, he consented to do this. And we hadn't been bouncing the teasers along for more than 15 minutes when everything started to happen according to the rule book.
Up came the sailfish, yawing about behind the starboard teaser, and Tom then commenced the teasing operation. Just as the book said it would, the sail became very upset. It changed color violently and tried to rush our transom. It was time to cast the fly, a big arrangement of white feathers and silver Mylar strips with a polystyrene popping head. As the rule book instructed, Rafael took the engine out of gear. Then he hit the deck as the fly whistled past him on the back cast and I launched it at the sail.
Perfect. It landed to the sail's port side, I twitched it a couple of times and it was comprehensively grabbed. The slack line slid through my fingers and I set the hook hard four or five times. The sail went into its hopping-about routine, did all its dangerous antics, and the hook held firm. By all the rules, given a little patience, it was mine. Then, as the fish surged off steadily, I realized that something unusual was happening. The backing was melting off the fly reel but the boat was still revving in neutral. "Come on, Rafael," I yelled, "let's go after him!"
Rafael said, "Se√±or," and paused. It was the first time that he had called me that. "Se√±or," he repeated, "I am sorry. But the propeller have fall off the boat." A moment later, with the line in a great arc, the fly fell out of the sail also.
That took care of most of our fishing day. It turned out to be a three-hour tow back to camp and another hour while Rafael fitted a new prop, one of the shortest-lived in marine history, because when we headed out to sea again Rafael struck a submerged log.
But at least it all made way for a longer planning conference at cocktail time. With the time we had lost, the next day would have to tell. Wahoo Alley was out for a start. The McGinns and the Gores had been fishing in the area since the first day and it looked as if the big wahoo had gone, though they had had a great variety of lesser fish, and Frank McGinn had spent the best part of one day fighting something that he never saw on his six-pound line, a big amberjack possibly.
"If it weren't for the sharks," I said to Tom, "I feel strong enough for the Red Horde again." Between us it had been agreed that my lost sail was to be regarded as a release, a piece of mild sophistry that enabled us to tick "sailfish-on-fly" off our list. And secretly we didn't want to use up another whole day looking for billfish that might never show up. A consultation with Rafael seemed in order.
"Is there any place," I asked him, "where we could throw a plug at the cuberas without the sharks arriving?"
"No, se√±or," he said. He was a much chastened Rafael since the two props had gone, and he waited a few seconds before telling me that nevertheless there might be a way of coping. He and his father had once worked together as professional snapper fishermen, he said. They had the shark problem, too, and they solved it, simply enough, by catching some sharks to start with.
"Then, se√±or," he said, "we kill them and put them back in the water. Soon there are no more sharks. Maybe the others don't like the taste in the sea."
So we had to cut our way through the sharks if we wanted the cuberas. Our problem was that the heaviest tackle we had brought was 25-pound-test and that was totally inadequate for the sharks around Blood Island. Heavy handlines perhaps? We went to Bob Griffin to see what he had in his tackle store. "There's just this," he said.
It turned out to be a heavy marlin outfit. There was no fighting chair and no harness in the Aquasport but it might be possible to manage. Rafael approved the gear and bore it away to the boat. "Light tackle, eh?" scoffed the Gores and McGinns as it was carried past them on the patio.
"In war all tactics are fair," Tom told them intensely. "The artillery will clear the ground for the infantry to move in."
A small tuna feather attached to a heavy wire leader on a mighty marlin rod looks faintly ludicrous, admittedly, but next morning, off Jicarón, that seemed to be the logical approach. We would troll close to the reef of the Red Horde, not with cuberas in mind but in the hope of contacting a school of bonito or small yellowfin tuna. Shark bait.
That morning the sharks were lazy. We actually boated three yellowfin before the first shark struck, swallowed and sounded. I bent into it with the big rod and started to pump. There was no possible chance of it breaking the 130-pound line, but on the other hand, standing up in a 24-foot Aquasport with a cumbersome 14/0 reel to hold and a great deal of shark at the other end is a somewhat demanding occupation. After 10 minutes I had gained a bit of line, but my knees were beginning to feel as if they were melting in the sun. I passed the rod to Tom. "Work him a little," I said.
So Tom worked him, then I worked him, and Tom again, until finally we were handing the rod back and forth like a pair of jugglers. It was half an hour before Rafael could get hold of the leader and a brute of a white-tip, 350 to 400 pounds by the look of it, was in range of the bang-stick. The shark was dispatched and sent to float downtide with its belly open, but at this rate both Tom and myself were going to be too exhausted for the cuberas when the time came.
But help was at hand. As we labored over that shark, Rafael was hard put to conceal his amusement, so much so, indeed, that after it was beaten I told him courteously that the privilege of landing the next shark would be his. "Orright, se√±or," he said, "but I do it different."
That was an accurate remark. When the next shark hung on, Rafael screwed the drag all the way down, planted the rod in the holder and opened the throttle. "Orright, tiburón," he yelled happily. "Come up and see the butcherman!" A 300-pound white-tip being pulled haplessly to the surface and then aquaplaning behind an Aquasport is a formidable sight. From the moment of hooking, Rafael had him bang-sticked, butchered and drifting away from the boat in, overall, not more than 10 minutes. Then he performed the feat over again. Would three sharks be enough, we asked him.
"Take about one hour to work," Rafael said. "Three is enough."
If the Cubera King were really down there, he should have awarded us the Order of the Red Horde, because, it proved, we had done his people a real favor. Unmolested by sharks, they surged out of the reef that afternoon and grabbed plugs. Oddly enough, though, when it was time to head back to Club Pacifico there seemed to be only four cuberas in the boat. At least we could not blame the sharks for that. The big snappers were just too strong and the rocks were just too close. We could only get midgets, up to 40 pounds or so, to the side of the boat.
It was strange to think how we scoffed at the honest fellow we had taken out to lunch so recently. At the bar of the Club Pacifico that night I listened to Tom, with that haunted, Ancient Mariner look in his eyes, lean forward to give the message to the McGinns and the Gores. "The ocean turns all red," he was saying. "They come at you from out of the reef...."
"Look for the blood-colored surge," I found myself telling them. One of the McGinns rose uneasily to pour more drinks. I could see they didn't believe us. But it didn't seem to matter. When we left they would be sniggering, "Red Horde, eh," at each other, but the spell would start to work on them. Gravely we bade them good night. They would thank us one day. As we walked off into the night, I'm fairly sure I heard Frank McGinn say to his brother John, "Do we have any of those, uh, big popping plugs with us?"
The Red Horde, I reckoned, was about to claim another victim.