Just before dinner, flocks of egrets came in low over Lake Petexbatún and roosted on a single tree among the thousands around the shore. "That is a 'salam' tree," Albert Gillet, my mentor, told me the first evening we were out on the water. "Its leaves and wood smell very sweet, mon. Very fine and sheltery for the birds. Only one salam tree on the lake now. Upon a time used to be a bigger one than that, but it fell down. From the burden of the birds, mon." You could assume that would be the fate of this one as well. By dusk, uncountable egrets had settled on the tree, turning it as white as if this were Christmas in Vermont, not the dry season in Guatemala.
The bird-watching on Petexbatún was incidental: egret time, Albert reckoned, might also be tarpon time—when, we hoped, the indolent, seemingly purposeless rolling of the fish would change to water-slashing action. But from the evidence we would come upon, it seemed more likely that somewhere below the surface there was a fishy equivalent of a salam tree, to which the tarpon quit for the day when the breeze dropped and the skin of the lake became calm.
Albert himself was always calm. Seventy years old, black, with a wisp of white beard, a shock of white hair and the manner and the vocabulary of an Old Testament prophet. He is a carpenter by trade, and he had first come to Guatemala 30 years ago, from what is now Belize and was then British Honduras—to Albert, and forever, "B.H." "We bulled a road in from B.H., mon," he said. "Then I stayed here in this republic, loggin'."
Albert knew that you couldn't hurry fish and that I'd been a trifle perverse in coming to Petexbatún in the dry season. "The heavy fishes, mon, they come up on the big floods in July, August," he had said, confirming what I'd been told previously. "That's when the 200-pounders come, when the waters is up. Look in the Farmer's Almanac, how the moon is in July, and you'll know."
September 21, 1980
The run of giant tarpon to Lake Petexbatún is one of the most extraordinary phenomena in the world of fishing. The lake lies in northeast Guatemala, in the Petèn, a low-lying subtropical rain forest that adjoins the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico. For much of the year the lake spills out into the Petexbatún River, a tributary of the Río de la Pasión, which in turn feeds the mighty Usumacinta, which empties into the Gulf of Mexico 400 miles from the lake.
A 400-mile freshwater migration of huge fish that ends in a smallish lake. Why? To feed? It would seem that in the ocean itself or in the Usumacinta there would be infinitely more forage. To spawn? No evidence of this. An epic journey, longer than most salmon make, and an apparently motiveless one.
It is as mysterious, indeed, as the fall of the Mayan civilization, whose great plazas, temples and overgrown pyramids are so numerous in the forest around Lake Petexbatún that many of the ruins are still waiting in line, so to speak, for the attention of archaeologists. And, oddly, if it hadn't been for archaeologists, the great tarpon of Lake Petexbatún would still be known only to the villagers along its shores.
Long before sport fishermen became aware of the odyssey of the Petexbatún tarpon, archaeologists had arrived, and upon finding the area so richly endowed in ancient wonders, they built a permanent camp on the lakeshore in the early '60s. Much of the camp's carpentry had been done by Albert, who was also its guardian. To it came such notables as Ian Graham of Harvard's Peabody Museum.
Later, there was a secondary wave of guests, archaeology buffs traveling to the lake not to excavate but merely to view the ruins. A Guatemala City travel firm refurbished the camp to accommodate the newcomers. For more than 20 years, Albert had had the fishing almost all to himself, but with more people coming in and the fact that by the law of averages some archaeologists have to be fishermen, the secret got out. Last year sport fishermen started to arrive, and Albert, pressed into service as a guide, would have little time for the lonely epic fights with huge fish hooked on his handline. "It is beautiful to mess with them, mon," he says. "They are huge beasts that lurks in the pool. I has the good judgment with my handline, but there was oftentimes when I was afraid I would be carried out of my dory."
Because we had only a few days, Albert delicately rebuked me for having come at the wrong time of year. The very big fish come when the heavy flooding of the rainy season backs the river water into the lake, so that the flow is reversed. "The drifting in of the first flood, mon, when you sees the sticks and bushes coming into the lake, that is when the heavy beasts, the noble tarpons and snooks, are here," he'd say, as though repeating a lesson to a backward child.
But I didn't think that coming in the dry season had been entirely perverse. During the wet season the banks are flooded as high as the lower boughs of the trees, so that there's no fishing except for big tarpon: the smaller species are deep in the swamps the floods create or inaccessible in the submerged bushes.
In the dry, though, diversity made up for size. So I had been told by Andy Sherman, a New Yorker living in Guatemala City, who had fished the lake half a dozen times—except for Albert's, the most experience that anyone had there. In the dry season, he had written me before the trip, though the big tarpon were absent, there were plenty of smaller ones, up to 40 pounds or so. And the other lake species—snook, peacock bass, local fish they called mojarra and muchacha—became available. And, besides, what was so Lilliputian about a 25-pound tarpon on the right light gear?
So in April I met up with Sherman in Guatemala City and headed north with him, first in a rackety DC-3 to Flores in the Petèn and then by Jeep over a dirt road to Sayaxchè on the Río de la Pasión, where we dumped our gear into a dugout canoe in the gathering darkness and started on the last leg of our journey, a two-hour trip upstream, switching from the Pasión to the Petexbatún River. As the rain forest slipped by, alien night sounds, the explosions of birds awakened by our passing, were all about us. Only a faint sense of space, of there no longer being banks close to the canoe, told us we had reached the lake.
That night there were two separate disturbances: a scrabbling, scratchy noise on the balsa leaves that make up the roof of the two-story wooden camp building and, later, furious barking from the guard dogs. "What you heard, mon," said Albert the next morning as we edged his dugout to the lake, "was a kinkajou dancing. He's a little furry bear, but more of the cat tribe. This is a peaceful piece of the forest, mon."
As soon as we rounded the first rocky headland, we could see a spot where the water had been lashed into foam. "Snooks been eatin'," Albert said. Something had been working there, no doubt of it, but there was no response to the lures we threw all around the area. "Let us try the pool," Albert said.
When we reached what Albert called the pool, it looked no different from any part of the lake. He knew what he was talking about, though. This was a deep hole—soundings showed it to be 150 feet deep—and it was here that the tarpon seemed to concentrate.
They were rolling idly in almost exactly the same way that Atlantic salmon do when they aren't inclined to hit a lure. Spoons, Andy said, had been the most effective lures when he last fished Petexbatún, but hundreds of tarpon must have seen ours pass them and showed no interest. Those tarpon didn't care if we stayed or went, and they outlasted us. After two hours of frustration we were reduced to trolling the margins of the lake for whatever might come along. Which were a few small peacock bass that Albert called "blancos."
At a kind of jungle brunch, Albert chewed on one of the small bass, spitting the bones out expertly, while on his shoulder sat his green parrot, Lorenzo, a malevolent creature. "I'm the onliest person in the world who can handle this bravo bird," was Albert's boast, one entirely justified, Andy and I would discover later at some small cost in blood.
"That fishing this morning was very bad," Albert pronounced between fusillades of fish bones. "You hear the dogs in the night? Chepita and Lassie and Jet? They hear the people from Sayaxchè comin' to fish at night. All last week the Sayaxchè people were on the lake with their nets. They clean the fish, and they dump the remains in the water. And the other fishes scent the blood, and so they seek to find a sheltered place where they become more peaceful. That is why there is no snooks, no noble blancos. But I still have hopes."
On the cut grass around the camp, blue buntings were foraging. "We has lots of them," Albert said, "and hummingbirds. But the little hummingbirds are all hatched and gone now. I love them small little birds, mon."
In the heat of the day, a timelessness settled over our party. The dogs lolled at Albert's feet. "They hunt armadillos," he said, "all of them rodent tribes. But not as a job to go to. Mostly they sits around. Like me."
It must be a lonely job, I offered, when no anglers, no archaeologists are in camp, which is most of the time.
"I like it in the woods," he said. "I have a brother in the States. To be truthful, I can't recall exactly where he lives. But that would be too big a city for me. I went to Guatemala City once for eight days, but it was too cold."
And he'd never married? No, he said, with a patently false look of melancholy on his face. "That happiness I do not know. I never reached that distance, mon. But I have known many good ladies, and bad ladies, and I love to dance. When I was young, I got to learn to dance, because at home in B.H. they put you to dance when you are small, and if you do not dance good, you do not get chocolate, you do not get peanuts, you do not get nothin'. But once you can dance a bit, you gain pride, mon."
Late that afternoon we went out again, trolling the shores. Again, only insignificant fish hit. We worked on until we were in sight of Albert's deep pool, but even the tarpon had stopped their rolling. "When the birds come home to the salam tree, mon," Albert said, "maybe those fish start working. Sometime it happen like that." And then, incongruously, he broke into verse, maybe to pass the time for us. " 'It was the schooner Hesperus,' " he declaimed, " 'that sailed the wintry sea.' " He went through all the stanzas without error.
"Learned that in St. Mary's, in B.H., mon, from my Crown Royal Reader," he said. "At home we has the Carib tribe to the south, the Mayan to the north, and in Belize we has the mixed people, the African men that speak the broken language, the Chinese and the Japanese. But in St. Mary's you learn the proper way. They force you, mon, with the Crown Royal Reader. We were forced to read the great Macbeth. 'Toll for the brave.' 'Under the village chestnut tree.' 'Into the jaws of hell rode the six hundred.' But I lost my book, mon. I lost it in Flores to a nurse. She used to permit me to read English to her, and it remained with her." Now all he had to read was the current Farmer's Almanac.
The rundown on the St. Mary's curriculum might have continued, but now, just as the salam tree looked as if it should have been equipped with a neon sign reading NO VACANCY, Albert stopped reciting, sat upright and pointed across the lake. "Mon," he said, still calm, "the noble tarpon is feeding."
Half a mile away, the water was being sliced white, the spray being sent flying. Hundreds of tarpon were crashing into shoals of baitfish. Albert pulled on the little outboard, and we started to move in a big half-circle so we could cut the power when we were ahead of the fish and let them catch up to us. But at that moment, a wind sprang up, first a breeze, then gusting, finally blowing at half-gale strength. It held our little craft as if it had us on a rope. Baffled, we saw the great shoal of feeding tarpon move away, growing faint and eventually disappearing from the surface altogether. And then the wind dropped as suddenly as it came.
"That wind was perplexing," Albert said that night in camp. "Let that wind come from the south and they cease feeding immediately. If we was in the sea now, yes, mon, the south wind fishing is good." Huge beetles made science-fiction noises and fireflies were out in strength, but mention of the sea immediately carried Albert miles away. "I used to fish my little dory in B.H.," he said, with true melancholy this time. "All the way up to the north, stoppin' to lodge on a different little cay every night. I miss the sea to a great extent, mon. I'm goin' to get out to B.H., out to the cays again. I could save up $500, build a little skiff. No fisherman starves, mon."
Our first day's experience showed that we were lucky we weren't relying on that bold statement: the few little peacock bass we had taken hardly fell into Albert's "noble" category. Still and all, I'd wanted to fish in Lilliput, had I not?
There were compensations, though. By its nature, Lilliputian fishing is a relaxed sport. Wouldn't we be crazy, Andy speculated at supper, to have traveled all this way and missed seeing something that most archaeology buffs would have signed away half a year's salary to visit? I could see his point. In my skewed mind it would equate to some astigmatic scholar bending over a Maori artifact while, unheeded at his back, leapt the great rainbow trout of the Tongariro River in New Zealand. I allowed as how it would be fine if next morning we headed across the lake and up the feeder stream that would bring us, after an hour or so, to the Mayan ruins at Aguateca. But I stipulated that we'd take a couple of light spinning rods in the canoe.
We left at dawn, and as we crossed the lake we made a few passes at the shoal of feeding tarpon that had reappeared. Our plugs and spoons passed among them unmolested. Clearly it was time for the ruins, and we made for the stream mouth at the far end of the lake.
Soon we were in a green tunnel in the rain forest. In the shallow, extraordinarily clear water, the little gray bass that Albert called muchacha skittered away—too small even for us to bother with. Once, as the stream opened out into a reedy lagoon, we found the biggest stork I'd ever seen standing sentinel—white, with a chestnut-red head and a black beak. "Javaru" Albert said. "I love all the things of nature, mon!"
As Albert spoke, a little sun-grebe, brilliant blue, incautiously surfaced close to the canoe. Whack! went Albert's paddle. There are some instincts that lie deeper than the precepts taught at St. Mary's. Fortunately, the bird bobbed away unharmed.
After the river journey came the long, sweaty climb to Aguateca and, for a moment, a sense of anticlimax. The great temple pyramid was there, certainly, and the outlines of the plaza and of the elevated walks. But the rain forest covered them; this was no tailored site, like Chichèn Itzà. But then we saw the stelae in the clearing, three great slabs of green stone that had fallen from the pyramid, carved with the elaborately headdressed, brutal-featured figures of a race that gave birth to the mathematical concept of zero some 1,000 years before it occurred to any Europeans.
Possibly they had hit on it after tarpon fishing in Lake Petexbatún, was the unworthy thought that came to me as we headed back downstream. We came again to the lagoon, from which the Javaru had long since flown. "Try your baits," Albert said, and we flipped out spoons in the hope a noble peacock bass might be hiding under the stumps. Nothing. "Let me try," Albert said.
I handed him my rod, but he didn't want it. Instead he was fumbling in his bag, coming up with a bottle. "Just a vermouth bottle." he said. "Not so good as a burgundy, not so much room." I looked at it mystified for a moment, and then I traveled back a good many years, to catching minnows as a kid in Wales. Take an empty wine bottle with the cork in, knock the glass disc out of the blunted cone at its bottom, tip in some bread crumbs. Lo. a minnow trap.
It worked in Guatemala, too. Inside two minutes we had fresh bait, 100 silvery slips of minnow. Albert presented us with a hook apiece. "Fish!" he said.
Now we were doing it his way. Freelined, the minnows worked their way to the shoreline. Then, each time, thump! "Did I not tell you we have noble blancos?" Albeit crowed. They were two-and three-pounders, and for Lilliput fishing they were noble indeed. Who cared about such a vulgar concept as size, anyway? We caught them until the sun was high and the water went to sleep. Next day, our last, would be time enough to deal with the recalcitrant tarpon, because Albert promised us more bass fishing, right at the camp's landing.
And so, in the evening, we caught yet more noble blancos, and when it grew too dark to fish we walked up the bank and broiled them, having turned down Albert's seductive urgings to get in the canoe again. "We has some noble catfish in this lake." he told us temptingly. "Fish for them in the pool at night. Huge alligator gars as well, mon. And we has about three classes of fish that hauls its way up here from the sea. We has the drummer. We has the goathead, plenty of good flesh it has. And we has another fish here that has a small mouth but it is huge: we calls it the mountain mullet."
Good talk to go to sleep on after a nightcap. Had there been time, it would have been fascinating to hunt down the drummer, the goathead, the mountain mullet. But we had just the morning left and a last shot at the tarpon.
Maybe the fact that it was my last shot on Petexbatún sharpened my wits the next day. There were the tarpon again, predictably rolling, predictably scorning everything thrown at them, until I recalled an autumn morning in Costa Rica when much bigger tarpon than these had behaved the same way. What was it the guide had said? Yes, the tip of the iceberg. The fish we could see on the surface were the tired ones, the satiated ones. The hungry tarpon would be deep.
I put on a silver-and-black deep-swimming plug, counted 30 while it sank, retrieved slowly, a quick twitch at long intervals. Whack! The first Lilliputian tarpon, 20 pounds maybe, had slammed the bait and headed, high out of the water. That first one threw the hook. But there were others. And others. Once you had it figured, it was absurdly simple.
Albert wanted two to take back to camp. He liked to smoke them, he said. He also smoked alligators when he got the chance—though not the dead one he discovered as we returned to camp and which he displayed with the bravado of a 1930s-style great white hunter.
"Maybe the next time you come here there'll be a bar, showers, ice...," Andy said. And indeed, as he spoke, there were carpenters at work building cabins for future fishermen. "The Mexican and the Guatemalan governments are talking about a joint hydroelectric project on the Usumacinta River." he added. "That's five years off. but it could be the end of the tarpon run."
"I'll be gone before that," Albert said. "Five hundred dollars, buy me a skill Get out to the cays. In B.H. we has freedom, and the newspapers, and the legal courts. In this republic, mon, they can beat you and grab you and carry you off, but in B.H. they have to prove you done wrong in the courts. But society all changes, I suppose, everything moves on. Maybe I don't know anybody up there anymore, except my sister. She lives amongst the nuns. I'm 70 years old. I just want to make my tables and chairs and fish my little skiff in B.H." He brightened. "Mon, there is huge beasts up there on the coast, the noble marlins. They take the shad bait and you use a hook and a chain...."
It was time to leave him to it, cleaning the tarpon, throwing the offal to Lassie and Jet and Chepita, handing a tidbit up to Lorenzo the parrot. In a few weeks, the big water would be pusning up again into Lake Petexbatún, and with it the big tarpon, the 200-pounders. Maybe Albert will be waiting for them and maybe not. We pushed out our dugout with our gear loaded in it, yelled our farewells, but Albert had his nose in the Farmer's Almanac. I hope it forecast a long voyage for him, in a small skiff.