Although the twin-engine prop jet seemed new, the shiny plane was little consolation: The jungle would clearly swallow us. It had been two hours since we had taken off from Suriname's capital, Paramaribo, headed for the Trio and Wayana tribal villages on the Palumeu River. We were headed for the heart of South America's largest undisturbed rain forest. From my tiny window, I had been able to see only the occasional village and numerous giant granite peaks jutting from the endless sprawl of green trees.
For months, the excitement of this coming trip had kept me restless. Now, as I was about to set foot in this huge foreign wilderness for the first time, I was filled with trepidation. None of us knew which plants were poisonous and which were used for medicine. We were equally naive about predators and parasites. We didn't know the first thing about the fish that inhabit these waters. We would be utterly dependent upon our guides to teach us about their fish and ways of catching them, as well as to keep us safe from the many dangers lurking in the jungle. This despite our mission to teach them how to set up sport-fishing operations that would help support their poor economy.
Suriname (formerly Dutch Guiana) is larger than Georgia but less than 1 percent developed. Outside of the capital, much of Suriname's land is controlled by hunter-gatherer tribes and divided into "exclusive economic zones." Within each zone, tribes decide what type of industry and commerce may take place in their territories. So far, they've resisted industries such as mining and logging, which might damage their ecosystem as well as their way of life. But the tribes still need money for things they can't get through barter, such as medicines, fuel and shot shells.
"Tourism is the only economic activity they welcome that earns them money," Armand Bhagwandas, our host and managing director of Suriname's tourism ministry explained. Our group included Dan Johnson, then U.S. ambassador to Suriname; Rob Hodel, a tourism consultant; Rick Davison, a hotelier and publisher; Tom Kiwila, a legendary adventurer and angler; and Jim Henle, a documentary film producer. I had been invited to photograph and write about the expedition, as well as to assess the viability of sport-fishing operations there. It was our hope to teach the natives how to set up such businesses. But looking at the jungle, I knew at once that we would be doing most of the learning.
When we landed, our guide Ted Jantz took us directly to the communal hut, where we were introduced to the village "captain." Despite the language barrier, there was no mistaking the captain's seriousness as he laid out the ground rules. Through Ted's translations, we learned that they have a problem with foreign smugglers stealing orchids, bromeliads (plants of the pineapple family) and birds. We were told not to take anything from the jungle without permission—the tribe would consider that theft. The captain also told us that anything we killed and did not use for food would go to the tribe. Then, flashing a smile, the captain said, "We understand you are excellent fishermen. That's good. We look forward to learning from you. The rainy season is soon upon us; we must catch many fish."
Ted showed us the village: An elderly man wearing a red loincloth squatted on his haunches while notching bows; a lovely young mother in a T-shirt spun cotton into bowstrings and hammocks; her husband, a wiry young man, hollowed a dugout canoe. Their adorable 3-year-old daughter, not a shy bone in her body, took Ted's hand and led us toward a smoker. Ted tilted the cover back with a stick, and a tiny arm, eerily like the child's, fell out.
"You'll find monkey a bit gamy," Ted said, amused by our shocked looks.
Into the Jungle
At first light the next morning, we piled into four dugouts and headed upstream. The winding black river was wide and dotted with huge granite islands. Two hours upriver we came upon tiny, open-air thatch huts built on a cluster of giant rocks. The Indians use these primitive dwellings as fishing outposts. A young boy surfaced suddenly behind the granite, wielding a bow and a carplike fish impaled on a 12-inch arrow.
The rapids between the encampment and us seemed impassable, but we quickly made it across. Upon reaching the huts, we realized that they had been built near the tribe's honey hole. We piled out of the dugouts and unloaded the gear. Then the drivers, revving the boats' motors, charged up the vertical rapids as the bowmen fended off boulders with paddles.
Above the rapids we found a large, languid pool. As I fussed with a fly rod, the others grabbed spinners rigged with swimming plugs. Dan hooked up immediately. I thought the fish would drag him down the falls, but it didn't want to leave the slow water and circled the pool instead. The other guys pulled half a dozen piranhas onto the bank before Dan's fish began to tire. Machete in hand, the lead guide, Ski Wanz, strolled to the water's edge and with swift, sublime savagery dispatched the strange-looking catfish. The 40-inch fish was flat-headed and lily-bellied, yet tiger-striped the length of its body.
"Look here," Ted said, pinching the pectoral fin. The bony spine that emerged looked like a serrated arrowhead. "They burrow into your flesh, just like a porcupine quill."
Eager to go after the big catfish, the Indians gave everyone hook-and-sinker rigs baited with chunks of piranha. Dan refused the bait and stuck with a plug. Tying on a streamer, I watched while the circus commenced. As the catfish struck, the tiny Indians fishing with hand lines dug their heels into the granite. Although they stood about 5 feet tall and weighed no more than 120 pounds, their wiry bodies were very strong. Meanwhile, the gringos weaved and bobbed as fish fought in opposite directions.
In the hope that something more desirable than catfish would be feeding at the head of the pool, I left the fray. But as I waded around the corner, I saw a catfish three times the size of the one Dan had caught nibbling algae off a boulder. It wouldn't take a fly, so I retreated slowly and whistled to Ski Wanz. Getting his attention, I extended my arms out fully in the universal sign of "damn big fish."
Ski Wanz came over with a longbow and an arrow that had a 4-foot shaft. A length of twine attached the two. As he waded around the point, the water barely stirred about his thighs. Squinting into the glare, he drew back and fired. Bloody foam billowed violently from the water as Ski Wanz dragged the monster out of the river by the arrow through its head.
We fished the pool until midafternoon and then hightailed it for camp. Camp, which was considerably plusher than the island outposts, consisted of a long wooden bunkhouse. Inside we strung our hammocks one next to the other. There was also a thatched-roof kitchen complete with a stone grill, an outhouse and a long covered picnic table. After unloading the gear and roughly 200 pounds of tiger catfish and piranha, we prepared cocktails and enjoyed a spicy mix of rice, beans and fish. As night fell our conversation subsided. The howler monkeys picked up where we left off.
In the morning, an Indian boat builder and a quiet, intense young brave took Rob and me downriver through a soft mist. Among our cargo was a single-shot 12-gauge, a box of paper shells, a machete and several fly rods—one that was very soft along with two 10-weights. The boat builder ran us close to the bank as he and the younger man intensely searched the trees. The driver stopped suddenly under an overhanging tree bearing bright yellow berries, and the bowman cut off a bunch with the machete. Then we drifted down to a run, which flowed under the same kind of tree. The bowman hooked a berry through its leathery peel, lobbed it out behind him and used a native water haul to launch it under the tree. The berry drifted into an eddy, and a huge, moon-shaped fish sipped it as gently as a cutthroat taking a Trico. The bowman struck viciously, and the fish surged upstream so fast the canoe whipped around into the current. Grabbing the machete, he raised the rod high and dealt the fish a lethal blow before plopping it at my feet. It looked uncannily like a big permit, except that it sported a bottom row of horse teeth.
"Kumalu," he said. I later learned a "kumalu" is Mylueus rhomboidalis, a vegetarian piranha.
I tied on a big yellow popper, but the kumalu never fell for anything in my fly box. (A variety of small cichlids, however, did attack my chartreuse poppers.) So I tried the unspeakable—fly-casting a berry. Unfortunately, the fly line kept the fruit unnaturally low in the water.
Rob had long since gone native and had the hang of the Wayana water haul. His skills with the machete, however, weren't quite up to par. When attempting to dispatch his first kumalu, he tore up the shoulder meat pretty badly. I wasn't sure who was more dangerous to those in the boat, Rob brandishing a machete or me making my pitiful first attempts to lob a berry.
Like a novice fly-caster, I wasn't letting the "rod" load. When I slowed down my cast, however, the berry was lobbed in a high arc that made it land on the water as if it had fallen from a tree. The Indian shot me an approving smile. The driver looked relieved.
As we drifted through the world's largest tract of virgin tropical wilderness and over the Guiana Shield, the world's oldest geological formation, we became engrossed in a rhythm. We fished in two-man teams, so that two brown arms and two white arms made X's as they cast in opposite directions. As the sun topped the jungle wall, the quiet bowman missed a big kumalu and shouted something I'm sure he wouldn't say in front of his mother. He lobbed the berry back in the same pool. This time the fish crushed it, causing the once quiet native to let out a whoop.
"Isn't that amazing?" Rob said. "They must fish, yet they get just as fired up about it as those of us who don't get to fish enough." The Indian stood up and raised the stick and the machete. The sun silhouetted him perfectly; it was the image of everyman in his natural state.
Back at camp, three 50-pound fish resembling Sigourney Weaver's alien nemesis lay on the bank. The other party had found anjumara (Hoplias macrophthalmus) upriver in the narrower rapids, where these fish ambush big animals such as deer and capybaras, enormous rodents native to the region. At dinner, we found out the fish tastes like grouper. We were fighting over the last bites when a loud rustle sent the Indians running for the bunkhouse.
"Bushmaster," Ted said, acknowledging the approach of one of the continent's largest and most venomous snakes. We hastened behind them. I waited for one of them to laugh, but they kept still in their hammocks.
Dan and I chose to join Ski Wanz and the intense young Indian the next morning for a South American-style blast-and-cast. Our boat was making its way along the river when the two Indians shut the motor off at the calls of curacaos (jungle turkeys). How they heard the curacaos over the outboard I do not know. Barefoot, I followed the Indians into the jungle, and Ski Wanz pointed at plants I wasn't to touch. Suddenly, the flock flushed with such pandemonium overhead that no covey of bobwhites or huns will ever startle me again.
Both Indians fired their shotguns and two wounded birds coasted away in opposite directions. Ski Wanz motioned for me to sit, then evaporated into the jungle. I heard him shoot again moments later. I watched a wounded bird fall down in some brush and kept my eyes locked on the spot as my father had taught me when I was a boy shooting snipe in the Everglades. When Ski Wanz rematerialized, bird in hand, I made a throat-slashing gesture to indicate that another curacao was down. Cautiously, I got up and led him to the bird, which lay dead in a creek. Ski Wanz shot me a thumbs up. I haven't felt so proud since I killed my first buck.
A few hours before sunup the Indians raced to the river. It was flooding, and the rising water caused the canoes to bang loudly against each other. Now the fish catching intensified. We left in the dark, running far upriver and veering off into tributaries where the anjumara move once their main-river ambush spots are flooded. The tributaries were too tight for flyfishing, but after catching a couple of fish with traditional methods, I'm convinced they're prime candidates for a bait-and-switch technique.
The Indians tie four feet of jump cord to a short, thick branch. They slide a 4-ounce sinker onto the jump cord and attach a twisted triple strand of steel wire. They bait it with half a piranha and then thrash eddies with the sinker. They want the bait to sound like a struggling animal—anjumara don't care what it is as long as it's an easy meal. These fish fight like amberjacks, if amberjacks jumped, and they made me realize how strong those wiry Indians are.
I watched a 10-year-old apprentice wedge himself between two boulders to fight a big one. It was his first trip upriver, and this was his first anjumara. I was afraid for the boy—afraid he might lose that fish. But the fish eventually tired, and when Ski Wanz harpooned the 60-pounder, the youngster was ecstatic.
We parted ways with our Trio and Wayana friends, assuring them that they have the resources to offer anglers one of the world's most exotic fishing adventures. Besides the base camp, there's a relatively luxurious lodge in the village that makes a great base for day trips and overnight expeditions. Here, we added the most exotic of species to our angling life lists and had the rare opportunity to fish and hunt with men whose senses have been honed, without intrusion, by pristine wilderness. They showed us that our passion for fishing and hunting has its roots not in some cultural malaise, but in the shared wilderness itself.
Grabbing the machete, HE RAISED THE ROD HIGH AND DEALT THE FISH A LETHAL BLOW BEFORE PLOPPING IT AT MY FEET. IT LOOKED LIKE A BIG PERMIT.
He drew back and fired. BLOODY FOAM BILLOWED VIOLENTLY FROM THE WATER AS SKI WANZ DRAGGED THE MONSTER OUT OF THE RIVER.