Green Hills Literary Lantern

 First-World Problems in Third-World Countries: Trolling for the Tropical Gar 

 

So I lit out for Nicaragua, to investigate the mysterious Atractosteus tropicus, alias the tropical gar. Compared to other gars, there’s just not much known about this fish. For instance, the Gar Anglers Sporting Society (GASS) website notes, “The Truth is still murky . . . . Maximum size? Unknown. Clearly they get as big as their close cousins, our alligator gar. Alligator gar of over 300 pounds have been documented.” But according to our limited info, the heaviest known tropical gar on record is 6.4 pounds, and they rarely exceed 1.25 meters in the wild―so clearly, they don’t get as big as gator gar.

Anyway, since my wife wasn’t about to let me go off alone on such an exotic adventure, she was along for the ride—to the Rio San Juan, which marks Nicaragua’s border with Costa Rica, as well as the southernmost known population of this species. The GASS website recommended the guide service San Carlos Sport Fishing, and since they were accredited with the International Game and Fish Association (IGFA), we had purchased an all-inclusive fishing trip based out of the Jungle River Lodge on Lake Nicaragua. This five-night six-day package included air-transportation from Managua, fishing licenses, guides, bait, boat, tackle, accommodations, three meals a day, and beer.

We were met at the airport by Philippe Tisseaux, who ran the show. He was a sixty-year-old French expat and veteran angler accompanied by his teenage son and daughter, and we all piled into his SUV for a four-hour trip through mountains and deserts and cattle-donkey-horse-crowded roads where barefoot peasants walked along the shoulders in the blazing sun, mesmerized by cell phones, oblivious to swerving trucks and rushing buses.

This wasn’t the small plane ride we had expected, but it allowed us to see the countryside, and it allowed me to question Philippe about catching gar. Whereas the GASS site noted Philippe’s outfit averages “five gar per outing” with the “exciting ‘by-catch’” on these excursions being “massive tarpon or snook,” Philippe told me that when he first opened his business they caught five gar per tarpon—but now, a decade later, it’s five tarpon per gar. Whatever the case, the take-away message was that gar were caught by accident trolling for trophy tarpon in the 100- to 200-pound range. According to Philippe’s website, most of these gar weighed ten to forty pounds, and according to Philippe, their numbers were in severe decline.

So we traveled by car, then by boat, and eventually got to the jungle lodge, located on La Punta del Diablo, a spit bordered by the Rio Frio on one side, and on the other side, a vast freshwater horizon misting into distant volcanoes. Robin, however, wasn’t very impressed by the “luxury room” we had been promised (no towels or bottled water as stated in the literature), and I was disappointed that there was no beer from Philippe’s alleged “private bar,” which was nothing more than a kitchen fridge inaccessible to guests. 

A few hours later, though, the beer arrived, and we sat down for an unidentified barbequed mammal that Philippe had purchased from some kid on the side of the road. This jumbo drumstick had traveled with us at room temp all afternoon and was supposedly deer, but it could’ve been a big goat or it could’ve been a small horse. Robin was wary, and thought it was greasy, but we gobbled it down and didn’t complain—to our host.

After all, as privileged tourists crossing the land, we’d seen the crippling poverty, which always comes stock with malnutrition and disease. In thousands of shacks surrounding us, shredded plastic flapping in the wind, emaciated children were going to bed with fevers and lesions and no education whatsoever. Our inconveniences, therefore, were merely “First-World problems.” And ultimately, we weren’t there for comfort and amenities; we were there for tropical gar.  

Robin and I took off at 7:00 AM with our guides, Mino and Andre. There were howler monkeys along the way, swinging from the branches of fruit trees, and iguanas and ospreys and crazy pink roseate spoonbills. In fact, there were thousands of exotic and not so exotic birds, as well as bright and brilliant complex flowers bursting from the ferny, viney jungle brush. Heading up the Rio San Juan, we saw waterplants, coconuts, what looked like kudzu consuming trees, and tarpaper shacks with satellite dishes pointed toward the sky. Nicaragua on the left, Costa Rica on the right.

The idea was to start out with live bait, fishing off the bottom, so we stopped to gather some baitfish. Mino used a cast net, and brought in a bunch of primitive-looking armored catfish with suction-cup mouths and ornate fins. They called this fish pleco, then threw them on the shore—like all bullheads everywhere, hated by humans. I looked this literal sucker up later and found out it’s considered a territorial pest. In the aquarium trade, though, plecos are valued for cleaning up after other fish.

Pleco (photo by Mark Spitzer)

We also caught a lot of cichlids, which resemble sunfish, and big-ass mosquito fish, and shad-looking minnows of all kinds. Each cast brought in a strange, new, bright-colored species. So with our bucket full, we headed on…

…To a highly garful-looking spot with a slow-moving muddy current and tall grass along the shore, kingfishers diving everywhere. Then casting out, we settled in, waiting for gar, Arkansas-style.

That’s when I noticed that our guides didn’t know squat about fishing for gar, even though the GASS website claims that Philippe’s outfit targets this specific fish. If our guides knew anything about garfishing, they would’ve left their bales open, to allow the gar to run with the bait. Plus, from a conversation the night before, I’d learned from Philippe that neither he nor his guides knew the difference between tropical and alligator gar—which they basically considered the same fish: el gaspar.

Nevertheless, I saw a few rise, but I also saw a tarpon rise. This was a fish I knew nothing about, but when its head came up, followed by a sharky fin, and then another down by the tail, I glimpsed its girth. That fish was six feet long and weighed at least a hundred pounds.

megalops atlanticus – the Atlantic tarpon

And a couple hours later, after getting skunked on the bottom, I latched on to one. We’d switched to trolling and we were having a lunch of ham sandwiches and potato salad. I was sitting on a lawnchair in the bow when a heavy-duty rod sticking up in the stern bowed and Andre hit the gas, setting the hook. That’s when it broke the surface, bursting twelve feet into the air. And then it hung there, six feet above the water and six feet from head to tail, pointing straight into the zenith, shuddering silver in the light. By the time it splashed back down, I was also hooked.

That fish was a game changer. Suddenly, there was another strong reason to be in this place—a reason that instantly shifted the focus of my mission here to the pursuit of a fish that can reach lengths of eight feet long and weigh almost 300 pounds.                  

Mino handed me the rod and we all started reeling in fast—the others to get their lines out of the way, and me to bring that bad boy in. Mino, however, motioned for me to slow down, and said something that Robin translated as “no mucho pressure.” Between her lapsed Spanish and my crappy French, our communication was limited to a pretty sparse vocabulary. Detailed instructions were not possible. Gestures were employed frequently, including a lot of shoulder shrugs.

Anyhow, I kept on reeling, and that fish kept taking out line. I’d bring in five yards and it would take off with twenty, spinning that drag in a frantic frenzy. It was a lightweight Shimano baitcasting reel, a company I was familiar with due to the parts on Huffy bikes I always had to replace as a kid. Those bicycles were also pieces of crap.

Five minutes into the fight, I was exhausted, but I knew I couldn’t give up. I mean, if Hemingway’s son in Islands in the Stream could fight an epic monstrofish battle all night long, what sort of wuss would I be to ask for assistance from our guides? Little did I know, I still had forty furious minutes left.

In the second five minutes, I felt its weight. That fish was stronger than any six-foot gar I’d ever played, pulling with about 200-pounds of sheer force. So like usual, when I have a big fish on the line, I reverted to the pull-back-then-reel-in technique I’d learned from hauling in sturgeon in Oregon, which was necessary because the reel was so shitty. It just couldn’t handle the size of the fish, sometimes giving up thirty to forty yards at a time.

In the third five minutes, Mino gestured for me to lower the rod, so that if something snapped I wouldn’t go flying back and smack someone upside the head. I understood this, but what I couldn’t understand was why he kept suggesting that I let the fish take as much line as it dang well pleased, when the idea is to reel it in. I decided to try to slow its run, but when I pressed down on the woven line, that tarpon just burned the flesh off my thumb. So I wet my hat and tried to use that to slow the spool. That didn’t work either.

Twenty minutes into the fight, my back was sore and the butt of the rod was eating into my pelvis as that mofo tugged like a mad bull. I’d bring in ten, it’d take out thirty. Relentlessly! Consistently! Sometimes jumping, allowing us to fully gawk at it―maybe even seven feet long! Landing, splashing, yanking, thrashing!

I started making progress, even though the reel was falling apart. It had started out with a missing knob, and I had tightened the star drag to the max, but that fish kept taking out line. It was the strongest fish I ever fought, and the reel was now totally fried. I watched as it took off downstream with at least sixty yards I’d worked twenty minutes to reel in.

Mino came over and adjusted the handle, which had come loose. Still, when I turned the handle, line kept going out. So I started turning the drag instead, which, in turn, turned the spool, which was maddening. Because I could only turn it a notch at a time, which would only bring in a few inches at a time.

This method, however, combined with a technique I made up on the spot—of walking backwards on the boat, then walking forward while reeling in—worked well when we chased the fish downstream.  

By the twenty-five minute mark, the neon green leader was visible and we had the tarpon next to the hull. It had scales the size of beer coasters and I figured it weighed at least 120. The oversized Rapala lure was snagged on its dorsal going toward its tail, so the tarpon was swimming away from the boat.

Mino got down on his belly in the bow and grabbed the leader, and the tarpon shot off. He held on and horsed it back, but then the fish switched directions, blasting to the right side. Mino rolled with it and I found myself standing above him, the fish pulling straight down. Mino was clinging to it with one hand and looking up at me like “HOLD ON, MAN! HOLD ON!"

But we couldn’t hold on, neither of us. That fish torpedoed off and it took another ten minutes to bring it back. Mino grabbed the leader again, pulled up, and suddenly... nothing but the lure was dangling there. We stood frozen with our mouths agape, and I could see in Mino’s eyes that he’d wanted that fish just as much as I had.

But what can you do? That bastard got off―and now I had another fish to catch.

The second day began with an anteater hissing on a pile of gar, its arms outstretched like a menacing angel. When the fisherman pulled up in his dugout canoe, the staff had called me down to the dock, knowing I was there for gar. So there I was, trying to take pictures of fish, while a monkey-possum-looking-thing threatened to claw my face off.

Guardian of the Gar (photo by Mark Spitzer)

We’d watched the fishermen the night before, spreading their nets at sunset in the shallows of Lake Nicaragua, which was a hundred miles long and half as fat. Philippe had explained that the gar caught overnight would be sold at the local market in San Carlos, whereas larger gar, caught deeper in the lake, would be dried and shipped to Guatemala – helping to deplete the local population. Basically, there were no regulations. When Philippe first came down here in the nineties, he claimed there’d been huge gar all over the place, thousands and thousands and thousands of them, jamming the river. Now, however, the gar were smaller, and a lot less abundant—a story we’re familiar with here in the United States.

According to the literature, tropical gar have been disappearing from Mexico and Central America due to “habitat degradation and destruction” (Journal of Fish Biology, December 2008). But looking beneath that anteater, I could see another major cause. The paler ones were alligator gar, and the darker ones were tropical, and none of them were more than a foot and a half  long. There were about seven gar total in the boat, all of them skinny and snaky and too young to reproduce. With pressure like this, it was pretty damn clear to me that overharvesting was a determining factor in the disappearance of Central American gar.

This observation was reconfirmed a few hours later when we pulled up on the shore of La Isla del Gaspar. It was out in the lake, a small island that was part of the Solentiname archipelago system, and was covered with gar heads, because that’s where fishermen process large gar.

There was another boat already parked there and a kid with a Spiderman shirt was curing gar. There was a split-open gator gar drying on a plank, its flesh coated in salt from a sack on the sand beside it, and there were chunks of gar in a bowl. And all along the shore, there were alligator gar heads and scaly hides curling in the sun.

  

 


La Isla del Gaspar (
photos by Mark Spitzer)

These were the big ones, but they weren’t that big. From the size of their heads and the lengths of their skins, I estimated that most of these gator gar were between three and four feet long, meaning they were also barely old enough to spawn. They’d been caught in gill nets and conked on the head (most of them had fractured skulls), and would soon be shipped to Guatemala, to supply a demand that was leaving the largest freshwater lake in Central America with a clearly diminishing fishery.

We spent the rest of that morning casting in the cacophony of one of the most roostful islands of waterbirds Robin and I had ever seen: blue herons, brown herons, green herons, techni-colored checkered herons, plus cormorants, snowy egrets, ibises et al. Then we went to a marshy bayou and went motoring up and down, looking for gar in another natural habitat. We saw a few rise here and there, but never got a good glimpse. We definitely saw more garfisherman than gar, spreading their homemade pop-bottle-float nets.

After lunch and a siesta, we were back on the San Juan, trolling for tarpon. I had the fever now, and had to get one—and since this was how gar get caught, it made sense to embrace this method.

The only problem was the triple-hot sun, which had roasted us the day before, only twelve degrees above the Equator. Though the temperature was in the eighties, it felt well over 110 between the hours of ten and two. We’d worn short sleeves the day before, but had donned long sleeves today, which seemed ridiculous, but the sweat was worth it. Even our guides kept shifting around beneath the six- by twelve-foot canopy, hiding out from the frying rays.

We hooked one tarpon and I fought it for twenty minutes on a spinning reel, but again, it was taking out too much line. So I tried to stop it by slowing the spin of the spool cover. The line got too tight, and then it snapped, making off with the lure.

But at least we caught a fifteen-pound snook right before the sun set. It was a beautiful, fat, bassy-looking fish with a prominent sloping underjaw, which the chef at the lodge prepared in a glazey, garlicy sauce.


Snook (
photo by Robin Becker)

We ate it that night with Philippe, when he finally informed us about the proper method for bringing in tarpon. Supposedly, you’re just supposed to let them run. And run and run and run and run and run and run and run and run—for at least an hour. Because the line was only thirty- or forty-pound test, because that’s how they do it. If you try to slow a tarpon, the line will break.

“You need to respect the guides,” he told us. “You must listen to them.”

To which Robin responded, “We did, but we couldn’t understand them, because there’s a language barrier.”

“No no no,” Philippe replied with a finger wag. “Language is not a problem.”

He then explained how Mino and Andre could communicate anything that needed to be communicated, so if they weren’t doing that, then they weren’t doing their jobs.

Anyway, we gave up on that conversation, and later that night, we heard Philippe yelling at our guides. He’d done this the day before after I told him how we’d lost that first tarpon thanks to that crappy reel. But here’s the thing: If I’d known that line was so lightweight, I never would’ve applied so much pressure. Sure, our guides had warned me, but since language was a problem, they hadn’t been able to tell me why. And Philippe could’ve told me why two days ago. And he could’ve told me how. And because of this miscommunication—or discommunication, rather, since it was essentially dysfunctional—we’d lost two huge fish, and still no gar.

Meaning the pressure was on, tensions were high, and Robin and I, with our “First-World problems,” were becoming increasingly annoyed at trivial things―like the surly kitchen lady who sneered when we asked for a beer, or Philippe’s bratty teenage son complaining about the clientele, and how about a blanket for our bed—since we’re paying thousands of dollars to be held hostage, in a sense, in this Colonial, down-the-Congo, Gilligan-hut tourist-gulag? Plus, maybe we’d like to go into town and get a bottle of rum, since Philippe’s “private bar” seems to be more private than advertised, etcetera, etcetera.

But at least the evening was cooling down and the mosquitoes were pretty much non-existent. Nevertheless, we went to bed listing our grievances to each other, already planning a review for tripadvisor.com, frogs burbling in the night.

The third day was hardcore, trolling all day in the broasting sun. We had five lines in the water: four in holders, one in my hands. On those rods, there were three big lures for tarpon, and two smaller ones to increase our chance of getting gar—which, by noon, I’d essentially given up on. We were definitely getting more tarpon hits, so that’s what I was shooting for. If we caught a gar by accident, so much the better.

Then it was time for lunch, but guess what? There was no lunch on board, just some crackers and yogurt our guides brought along and shared with us. So what was the meaning of this? Were we getting punished for using “too much gas”—which Philippe complained about the day before when we’d motored around all over the lake and marsh, then went up the San Juan? Or were our guides being punished for losing lures, and not instructing us properly? We figured the latter—that Philippe had ordered the guides to supply the grub, and they, being poor, just didn’t have the cash on hand.

So we kept on trolling through the broiling afternoon. Robin read a whole book and even reviewed it, while I shifted positions in search of shade, always holding tight to my rod.

By 4:00 o’clock, we were all burnt out, when Mino said, “Uno más,” and indicated one last circuit of the mile-long stretch we’d been cycling through for half a day. “Okay,” I nodded. And then it hit.

Bringing it in, I knew it was a gar: the easy way it came through the water, the lack of yank compared to tarpon. Then we saw its tubular shape: a bit larger than two feet long. All I did was lift it in the boat, and it was ours!

POW! Cheering ensued, then jumping up and down, plus high fives all around. It was like some sort of divine intervention as we broke out the cameras and started taking shots. And with no seething anteater guarding this gar, I was able to take a closer look.

It was a tropical gar, just what I had come to get, a healthy fatty with dark gray coloring on top and stripe-like markings down by the tail rather than spots. The tail skin was thick and almost opaque, colored as darkly as its back, along with its rear fins. It also had a flat, broad head similar to an alligator gar, but a bit more slim, like spotted are. And when we took the eight-inch floating Rapala from its mouth, I saw two rows of teeth on the upper jaw, just like gator gar.

   

Mark, Mino and Tropical Gar (photo by Robin Becker)

The biggest difference, though, between this gar and the other five species I’d caught so far, was that this one talked. Yep, like a frightened catfish chortling out a gurgling sound, I was surprised to find that tropical gar have a voice that comes from exhaling air. It sounded like a groan, or a grunt, or an old dog sighing with a snorey sound.

I decided we’d eat it. I mean, why not? Philippe had told us how his chef cooks gar with “real mayonnaise.” So when in Rome, I figured, we should eat a gar.

But as we motored back for another “uno más” circuit, I considered the state of this fishery, which I’d already made my judgments about. The gar here were running low, and though taking one out of the mix wouldn’t really have that much effect, it was the principle of not indulging when I could that kept bugging me, and eventually got to me. I just couldn’t sacrifice this gasping gaspar.

Gar va,” I told our guides, hoping this meant “gar go.” Then I added, “gar libre!” figuring this meant “gar free!” Andre laughed, stopped the boat, and I lowered my catch over the rail, where I held it for a few minutes. When it was strong enough to swim off on its own, I called out “Adios, Señor Gar!” and we watched it swish into the murk.


Gar Libre (
photo by Robin Becker)

Now that my mission had been accomplished, this took pressure off everyone. When we got back to the jungle lodge, Philippe was so enthusiastic that he called for a bottle of Nicaraguan wine. He poured glasses for us and our guides, raised one himself, and made a toast to El Gaspar—so it was hard to remain pissed at him for all our piddly “First-World” concerns. Like why hasn’t he arranged for our flight back to Managua, like he said he’d do three days ago? And why hasn’t he called our hotel there, to let them know when we’d be at the airport, like he also said he’d do? Nope, those issues just ceased to exist as we drank our sweet wine in the cool breeze of the night.

Our charming host then made another toast, this one to the next day’s catch. “Mañana,” he told us, “we will finish this bottle when you catch a tarpon. And we will also eat a gar for dinner. I will buy one at the local market, and prepare it with real mayonnaise.”

But we didn’t catch a tarpon―they didn’t even bite. It was just “too muy hot,” according to our guides. We did catch three snook, though, which we threw back as we trolled all day in the blistering sun. Robin read another book, and then it was time for lunch.

Again, we’d left the lodge without any grub, but when we stopped in town to get our manifest stamped, I’d given our guides some dough for tortas, with which they bought ham, bread, pastries and Coke—which we ate in the shade of an orange-flowered tree, a bright green basilisk lizard lounging in the mangrovey roots.

Basilisk lizard (photo by Mark Spitzer)

When I got out of the boat to piss, I stepped foot in Costa Rica. Needless to say, there were no custom agents around or forms to declare why I was there. Then, just as quickly, I was back in the boat, casting out my Rapala.

All afternoon we motored around, not catching anything except for more sunburn. But it didn’t feel like this was the end. It felt more like a beginning. Now that I knew tarpon existed, I knew I’d try again in the future―since they seem to be everywhere: Florida, the Caribbean, Africa, Bermuda, Nova Scotia. When we got back to the lodge, however, Philippe told me that I‘d already caught a 120-pounder.

What do you mean?” I asked, and he replied that both Mino and Andre agreed that the tarpon I caught the first day weighed 120.

“But I didn’t catch one,” I replied.

Philippe then explained that according to IGFA rules, if someone on the boat touches a leader with a tarpon on it, then it’s officially caught in this neck of the woods. The logic, he went on, was that since tarpon are protected, you’re not supposed to bring them into the boat, because taking them out of their low-gravity habitat can damage their organs. That’s why they don’t use gaffs, and that’s why all the trophy shots around the lodge were of people hanging over the bow with their hands down a tarpon’s throat 

But I wasn’t buying it. I never touched that fish and we never got a photo of it under anyone’s control.

“Whatever,” I said, then sat down for dinner, which wasn’t gar with real mayonnaise. This was fine with me, since I wasn’t sure I wanted to play a part―no matter how miniscule―in contributing to the weakening of this already compromised ecosystem. Still, it was frustrating to be promised something, then have that forgotten the very next day.

In the morning, we waited half a day for our change and receipt. Since Philippe never booked our flight, we also had to wait for a guy to drive us four hours back to Managua. And on the way, he fell asleep―twice. The first time he crossed the center line and the second time he drifted onto the shoulder, almost mowing down a girl with a fruit juice bottle, running toward us to make a sale.

The flight the next day was just as hectic, with some pushy ladies shoving their way to the front of the plane when we landed in Houston. I jumped up and got in line according to standard disembarking protocol. This led to a heated verbal skirmish in which both parties, experiencing typical traveling tensions, allowed the worst in themselves to boil over.

Then, at the Little Rock Airport, my luggage was missing. After an hour and a half of being inconvenienced, we arranged for it to be delivered. My car key, however, was in that bag, so out in the rain, I had to crawl beneath my Jeep and lie in a puddle to retrieve the hidden key. I was so soaked that I threw my shirt in the backseat and startled the parking attendant, who thought I was some sort of creepy late-night nudist pulling up to get his kicks.

To complicate things even more, our parking ticket wouldn’t swipe, so she entered the info by hand and ended up charging us $35 extra, which I realized after she’d made change. It took her twenty-something annoying minutes to fix this mistake, while Robin and I sat there with the engine idling, definitely back in the USA.

But we finally made it back to our First-World house, where collapsing on the Ikea couch and turning on the HD TV, I liked the idea that down in Central America the Tropical Gar groans for Man. From what we’d seen, though, I knew it should be the other way around. That is, due to an economic desperation in which Third-World people sweat and scratch and starve every day, Man should really be groaning for Garwhose highly exploited populations are going down, thanks to a dearth of anteaters sticking up for El Gaspar.

 

Mark Spitzer is the author of 18 books, a professor of creative writing at the University of Central Arkansas, and editor of the national, award-winning literary journal Toad Suck Review (toadsuckreview.org). An expert on the poetry of Jean Genet and a leading authority on the primitive fish known as gar, he can be seen on the “Alligator Gar” episode of the Animal Planet series River Monsters). He has hundreds of publications in creative nonfiction, fiction, poetry and literary translation.

Books include: Season of the Gar (creative nonfiction, University of Arkansas Press), Writer in Residence (memoir, University of New Orleans Press), After the Orange Glow (memoir, Monkey Puzzle Press), Monstropocalypse Opus IV (horror/fantasy novel, Twilight Times Books), Chum, novel (Zoland Books), Sick in the Head (memoir, S A M Publishing), From Absinthe to Abyssinia (Rimbaud translations, Creative Arts), The Collected Poems of Georges Bataille (Dufour Editions), Divine Filth, Bataille translations (Creation Books), The Church (Céline translation, Green Integer), The Genet Translations: Poetry and Posthumous Plays (Polemic Press), Bottom Feeder (novel, Creative Arts), Riding the Unit (creative nonfiction, Six Gallery Press), Age of the Demon Tools (poetry, Ahadada Books), The Pigs Drink from Infinity (poetry, Spuyten Duyvil), Proze Attack (creative nonfiction, Six Gallery Press), CHODE! (novel, Six Gallery Press), Films without Images (Cendrars translation, Green Integer, in press), and After the Octopus (memoir, forthcoming from The Black Mountain Press).