Monday, July 27, 2015

Fishing in the Agarope

No TV.  No radio.  No internet.  No telephone. No electronic babysitters.  So what does a 9-year-old boy do in the middle of Nowhere, Para, Brasil?

He learns to fish.

During the two years we were at Olaria, Dad chartered a boat a couple of times to go fishing.  We went back in some odd distributaries and even hooked a few plate-sized piranha.  But we also found that it was a lot harder to eat such a bony fish than we would like.  So we didn't do that too often. 

And there was one time that Dad caught a monster catfish.  After having the machinist make a huge hook, and loading it with a slab of bacon (it did not come pre-sliced...) he tied the line off to the dock.  A couple of weeks later, there was a 150-pound catfish on the line.

(That evening, sitting on the dock, Dad wove a nice tail he 'heard' from the workers that night about a full moon and the catfish feeding on the top of the water.... just before pushing me in.  Other than that moment, I have never in my life walked on water - before or since.  You can relate this little vignette to the reporters when they ask when it was that I started to turn bad)

But those trips were not the norm.  Mostly, the vignette included a boy with a closed face reel, hunting for crickets in the high grass, running to the dock to cast the hapless insect into the river, trying to catch silver-dollar fish.  For the most part, I was trying - unsuccessfully - to catch the small, flashy fish with a tiny hook.  For a hyperkinetic kid, the lessons necessary to successfully learn the art of fishing - especially the sitting still part - were far beyond my abilities. 

But after the schooling, the swimming, the canoeing and hunting were done for the day, I would often try my hand at fishing.  The end result was more reminiscent of a cane-pole-jerk-the-fish-out-of-the-water-and-onto-the-bank effort than the more traditional scene of fighting the fish to the dock, and carefully placing it on the stringer.  And I was never able to pull together enough of a 'mess' of fish to feed our family of four.  But Mom would pan fry the results of my efforts whenever they were successful enough to warrant it.  (The rules were clear, though - the 9-year old was still responsible for cleaning the fish). 

The most-productive fishing effort, however, was done one day with the neighbor.  Francisco had a long woven-reed fence, and during high tide one day, he asked for my help to stretch it across the agarope - a little tributary that ran through our property.  We then waited until low tide, and waded in to collect the fish that were left behind the makeshift seine net.  Flopping in the muddy crick were about twenty pounds of shrimp, a half a dozen flounders, and all sorts of small catfish (the fins were razor-sharp in both directions, so you had to be careful how you handled them) - enough for three families to eat for a week.

And for a family living at the margin of poverty, that was a gift.

Oddly enough, fishing for food was very much a famine-time effort.  For all of the teeming life that lived in the freshwater of the river - we saw porpoises, manatees, sawfish, and limitless other species - they were not available to the working man as a source of protein. 

Fish, it turns out, was poor-man's food.

One time, the captain of the boat that came to carry lumber to the US brought us a huge red snapper as a gift.  Dad and Mom both drooled, and immediately invited the company bookkeeper (who was native to the area) to share it with us at dinner that week.  Tilon looked up sharply at Dad, and then realized that the poor gringo was just clueless.

"Senior Macque, let me explain.  I know you didn't mean any insult, because you just don't know the customs here in Brasil.  But you can't - EVER - invite someone to your house to eat fish.  If you can't afford to put meat on the table, you just don't invite them." Tilon eventually accepted the invitation, and was delighted with the meal, even saying afterwards, "Senior Macque, any time you have that red fish, don't worry about customs.  you can invite me any time."

So when I helped Francisco gather the fish, he was perplexed that I would be willing to take a couple of the flounders as payment for my 'help'. 

But who can figure out gringos, anyway?

None of my practice on the Rio Jabiru helped me become a fisherman as an adult.  I enjoy the occasional fishing excursion, but it is more like the specialty trip - for recreations - than a regular source of protein. 

But I still remember the delight in the catch from all those years ago.   And the joy in taking home my share, to be prepared for dinner.

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