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Woody Allen called and asked if I’d like to fish with him on the Amazon’s Xingu River, perhaps the wildest water on earth. A preview of the movie to come flashed before my eyes: I saw the frail, cagey New York star being pulled overboard by a 100-pound pirarara as he said, with that dry, glib voice of his, “I’ve been caught.” Who could say no to that production?

First I had to go to the Brazilian Consulate. It charges Americans $100 per Visa for “reciprocity,” a retaliation for the fee our government charges them. I supposed that the world’s ninth largest economy had earned its nationalism, took my number and waited my turn with a throng of would-be tourists and estranged relatives. This is when I noticed that I’d drawn “666”-the mark of the beast, according to the Bible’s Revelation 13 (another very unlucky number). Despite the odd allusion to the Antichrist, I paid up, and walked out wondering if I was being cast as the expendable sidekick.

My next stop was at the New York Medical Center. The doctor, a Brazilian by birth, advised me not to wade in the water. Actually, he simmered with his most serious doctor tone: “Whatever you do, don’t wade deeper than your knees. There’s a certain microscopic monster found in the Amazon that’s attracted to urine. It swims up your urethra (yes, that part of your anatomy), lodges there and grows to pride-killing proportions. The only way to get it out is surgically.”

I crossed my legs.

“Also, if dysentery is in your future,” he counseled, “You can try Imodium. Take seven chewable tablets all at once. If that doesn’t do the trick within 12 hours take an antibiotic. I’ll write you a prescription. To avoid malaria, you’ll have to take Malarone. I’ll also write you a prescription. You’ll also need shots-yellow fever, typhoid and hepatitis should do it.”

I felt flush.

Then, when he finished his dour speech, his demeanor lightened and he gasped, “I’m really very jealous of you. I’d love to go back to Brazil. What a country!”

What a country indeed!

Fully inoculated, visa in hand and tackle packed, I reached the airport, but instead of Woody, I found Mark Ulrich, his look-a-like from the Bronx (Woody being from Brooklyn). His voice was a dead ringer for Allen’s, but his outlook was far less fatalistic. He was a charming, rancorous guide whose optimism didn’t falter even when the plane left us stranded in Belem. Ulrich had traveled to Brazil 20 years before and had fallen in love-he now calls her his “long-haired dictionary.” She may have broken his heart, he says, but she left him fluent in Portuguese.

We met the rest of our cast of characters in Miami. Dave Parker, managing director of Orvis Travel, Jason Schratwieser, Fishing and Science Director of the International Game Fish Association and Steve DeWitt, vice president with Outdoor Connection, a national hunting/fishing booking service. We all wore excited expressions, though “naïve” seems a more appropriate word now.

[pagebreak] Touch Down
The flight time was masochistic-36 hours from New York to Belem-but TAM is more professional and up-to-date than any airline in America. Militaristic-looking women with hair pulled tightly back into buns worked with a precision Germans would be impressed with.

While in Belem we paid a visit to a trade show designed to draw tourism. Surprisingly, the event featured a 15-foot long diorama of the area we intended to fish. Pleased, we began to check the stream out. It was wider than we thought, almost like a lake. Big water means big fish, someone said. Then we saw the dams. They surprised us. The Xingu was supposed to be an unmolested river-the last of the river’s “unfound” Indians were run down by civilization in the early 1960s. Then we saw what the smiling bureaucrats were up to. This diorama was showcasing a proposed hydroelectric project. Who invited them to e trade show for tourism we couldn’t figure, even by third-world logic, but it was clear that they meant to flood the basin. “Those poor found natives better build houseboats or their link with civilization will drown them,” I joked.

Ulrich informed us the project probably wouldn’t happen anyway. The government needed to raise $4 billion to finance the project and only the World Monetary Fund is both idiotic and lucrative enough to make that kind of monumental mistake. And besides, Ulrich said, “If we can get fishermen onto this undiscovered paradise, we’ll head the government off before they can sink it.”

So we visited the Belem market in search of souvenirs. Dollars go three times the distance in Brazil, but we were forced to keep a tight grip on our wallets. We soon found that in the market we were prey. Eddie, our guide for the day, literally elbowed, pushed and threatened pickpockets stalking us from every direction. Despite this heightening of the senses, the market was well worth seeing. Malls are staid places teenagers go when they’re not working a remote control; the Belem market had everything from “eye of toad” (to work a little witchery) to toothy, prehistoric looking fish species for sale. Jason, the fisheries biologist, had to be dragged out; he was determined to discover a new species before someone ate it.

That night we listened as the governor of the state of Para gave a speech at a nineteenth century achievement built during the rubber boom that rivals the most audacious playhouses in New York. Politicians are the same everywhere we found. He blew and blew and almost shook the house down, but then a jazz band came on and the building shook with happier notes.

Next day, when our flight impatiently left without us an hour ahead of schedule, Mark called the governor. He brought us reports of his progress hourly as we drank beers at the airport, established odds and lay down bets. A plane was found, he told us, they just have to install the seats. Then a pilot was pulled out of bed, said Ulrich. The pilot showed up rubbing his eyes, we checked his breath for traces of caipirinhas (a local favorite made with sugarcane alcohol) and off we went.

“Anything is possible in Brazil,” beamed Ulrich from the cabin. “Miracles just take more time.”

[pagebreak] Then there was the Fishing
The lodge sits at the end of 50 miles of dirt road from Altamira, a town of 85,000 very poor but very friendly people. The first 30 miles are on the Trans-Amazon Highway; locally referred to as the “Trans-Bitterness Highway” for good reason-it’s not paved. It twists and ruts from one lane to two up and down steep grades for 3,000 miles from the Atlantic Coast to the Peruvian border. It’s the main (or only) thoroughfare, and so is bustling with large trucks attempting to find out just how fast they can traverse the jungle. At the end of this jolting two-hour drive I expected to see a bug-infested shack, but what I found was a palace built on a hill in the jungle overlooking the Xingu River.

The lodge has a three-story central room with couches, satellite TV and tarantulas in the rafters. Off the main room are bedrooms as good as those in any fine hotel. Three cooks slave away at breakfast, lunch and dinner with buffets that still make my mouth water. In the jungle, while we slept in air-conditioned rooms, our guides and cooks slept in wooden shacks one might find today in Louisiana’s bayou. Despite this hard way of life, these people have more humor than an Irishman after happy hour. Their first reaction is a smile. A dour attitude, it seems, has been weeded out of the gene pool through natural selection.

Then there’s the river. The first thing you notice about the Xingu is that it has no sense of direction. It was common to see it boiling in from four opposing directions into a whirlpool normally thought reserved for Hollywood exaggerations. At one such pool I couldn’t tell where the water was escaping. I asked Joao, my able interpreter, if it was dropping into some bottomless pit that swallows hapless adventurers whole. He laughed and said there was probably a violent undercurrent. It sounded like the same thing to me. (Incidentally, the next day Joao was ejected from the boat in a rapid. Luckily, he landed in an eddy and was soon retrieved.)

This stream actually has rapids and boulders-very strange things in the Amazon, a river that drops less than 500 feet from its source to the sea. The Xingu also has sandbars where mud would be on the Amazon River. When the wet season ends in June the river drops inches a day until by July or August sandbars appear between pools, teeming with all manner of fish. The lodge is the only outpost on 16 miles of otherwise unfished water.

A bass fisherman would be right at home here. Though Jason said Peacock Bass are simply an amazing example of convergent evolution (meaning they’re not related to black bass at all), they resemble them in every way but their fight-largemouths are feeble by comparison.

But it’s the plethora of game fish that make this turbulent water so intoxicating. We’ve all heard of piranhas. But maybe you don’t know that black piranhas (common in the Xingu) commonly reach dinner-plate size. They mashed the treble hooks on my crankbaits and made my Rapalas look like chewed pencils. We started each day at first light, throwing crankbaits and topwater lures to the bank. A mixed bag of peacock bass, piranhas and bicudas viciously attacked our lures-it seems that survival of the meanest (not fittest) is the rule in the Amazon. Bicudas are shaped like barracudas-essentially steel rods with teeth. They jump and circle and fight with a will to live that rivals the wildest steelhead. They reach 15 pounds. A 4-pounder zinged out 35-pound test Fireline and bent my 20-30 weight G. Loomis like a palm in a hurricane.

[pagebreak] Then there were the payara (saber-toothed dogfish), which can reach 39 pounds. They like seams along raging currents-common things on the Xingu. When you see one you never forget its teeth-they stick a long way from its large mouth. One ran into my lure teeth-first and my rod doubled over. My guide, Manassés, smiled and said, “Grandé!”

Then we tried a cove out of the current. We could hear peacock bass thrashing in the rocks, eating whatever fell in the water. I cast in and a peacock bass hit my lure at full throttle like he meant to pull me from the boat. In a head-jerking romp he dove into submerged brush and wrapped me up. I could still feel him in there but there was no way to untangle the line. Without even taking off his shirt, Manassés dove headfirst into the water. Exactly 45 seconds later (I timed it on my watch) he surfaced with my lure, apologizing profusely thad exaggerations. At one such pool I couldn’t tell where the water was escaping. I asked Joao, my able interpreter, if it was dropping into some bottomless pit that swallows hapless adventurers whole. He laughed and said there was probably a violent undercurrent. It sounded like the same thing to me. (Incidentally, the next day Joao was ejected from the boat in a rapid. Luckily, he landed in an eddy and was soon retrieved.)

This stream actually has rapids and boulders-very strange things in the Amazon, a river that drops less than 500 feet from its source to the sea. The Xingu also has sandbars where mud would be on the Amazon River. When the wet season ends in June the river drops inches a day until by July or August sandbars appear between pools, teeming with all manner of fish. The lodge is the only outpost on 16 miles of otherwise unfished water.

A bass fisherman would be right at home here. Though Jason said Peacock Bass are simply an amazing example of convergent evolution (meaning they’re not related to black bass at all), they resemble them in every way but their fight-largemouths are feeble by comparison.

But it’s the plethora of game fish that make this turbulent water so intoxicating. We’ve all heard of piranhas. But maybe you don’t know that black piranhas (common in the Xingu) commonly reach dinner-plate size. They mashed the treble hooks on my crankbaits and made my Rapalas look like chewed pencils. We started each day at first light, throwing crankbaits and topwater lures to the bank. A mixed bag of peacock bass, piranhas and bicudas viciously attacked our lures-it seems that survival of the meanest (not fittest) is the rule in the Amazon. Bicudas are shaped like barracudas-essentially steel rods with teeth. They jump and circle and fight with a will to live that rivals the wildest steelhead. They reach 15 pounds. A 4-pounder zinged out 35-pound test Fireline and bent my 20-30 weight G. Loomis like a palm in a hurricane.

[pagebreak] Then there were the payara (saber-toothed dogfish), which can reach 39 pounds. They like seams along raging currents-common things on the Xingu. When you see one you never forget its teeth-they stick a long way from its large mouth. One ran into my lure teeth-first and my rod doubled over. My guide, Manassés, smiled and said, “Grandé!”

Then we tried a cove out of the current. We could hear peacock bass thrashing in the rocks, eating whatever fell in the water. I cast in and a peacock bass hit my lure at full throttle like he meant to pull me from the boat. In a head-jerking romp he dove into submerged brush and wrapped me up. I could still feel him in there but there was no way to untangle the line. Without even taking off his shirt, Manassés dove headfirst into the water. Exactly 45 seconds later (I timed it on my watch) he surfaced with my lure, apologizing profusely tha

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