This pleasant conversation took place aboard the river taxi that was speeding us up the San Juan River to where the Rain Goddess was anchored, at the junction with the San Carlos River. Then I noticed something strange in the water ahead. It was the wing and fuselage of a plane that may have been shot down by the Contras a number of years back. "Ollie North's handiwork," Gorinsky said. "Ten years ago when we were fishing this river, it was not unusual to see a body float past. You couldn't touch them because they were often booby-trapped with grenades."
It was odd to be fly-fishing in such a place. The Costa Rican side of the San Juan had been cleared and was primarily grazing land. The Nicaraguan side was virgin rain forest. There were no roads in the area, and the few people we passed traveled by dugout canoe. The houseboat, which trailed four runabouts for the fishermen, drafted only two feet of water, so it was able to navigate the river the year round. It was co-owned by two doctors: an American, Paul Shirley, an orthopedic surgeon from Jacksonville, and a Costa Rican, Alfredo López. López was the only doctor the people who lived on the river ever saw. During each fishing trip he made the rounds, treating their illnesses and handing out medicine like a frontier doctor of old. In exchange Lopez accepted fishing and hunting advice and, sometimes, the villagers' offerings of huge, delicious prawns netted from the river.
Goodwill, though, couldn't guarantee fish, and during our first afternoon on the river eight rods produced a grand total of one machaca and one small guapote. We had seen any number of rolling tarpon, but Shirley was the only man who hooked one, and it jumped once and got away. Pedro, Pablo and I were all skunked using flies, but even the pieces of shrimp and the jigs used by the spincasters were unsuccessful. Floating lines, sinking lines, plugs, poppers, streamers—nothing worked. "I don't understand it," Gorinsky said. "There should be fish jumping everywhere. But nothing. I think perhaps it was the earthquake. We had an earthquake that measured 4.5 last week, and ever since there's been no fish caught in the entire country. Fish don't like earthquakes."
Still, it was magical living on the river. As dusk descended, a white fog seemed to roll across the surface of the water. It was millions and millions of mayflies. Fish bats appeared, as big as robins, buzzing wildly over our fly lines. A pair of rare green macaws flew overhead. We could hear wild animal noises from the jungle. Two sloths cried to each other. Crested guan squawked back and forth. Howler monkeys, small primates with unearthly, gorillalike voices, screamed bloody murder about a nearby puma or ocelot. Our trusty guidebook had warned us about the unseemly habits of howler monkeys. "If you should see a colony, don't get underneath," Pariser cautioned. "A favorite pastime is to urinate on Homo sapiens."
The next morning I caught four machaca. Vile creatures. We were casting poppers beneath overhanging branches when we noticed four iguanas sunning themselves on a limb. As we moved closer for a better look, one of the iguanas, perhaps out of nervousness, relieved itself in the river. I am not making this up. That splash was immediately followed by a fish splash. Feeding time in machacaville. I cast my bass bug and as soon as it slapped down—bang!—a fighting 14-incher. It even jumped two or three times.
No snook, though. No tarpon. It was pretty thin pickings all around. Our last morning we made a command decision to try to reach the lagoon at the top of one of the larger creeks, where Gorinsky hoped the tarpon and snook were holding. "It will either be an adventure or an ordeal," he predicted.
Loading our fishing and camera gear, a chain saw and a machete into three runabouts, we started up the creek. The canopy of the rain forest closed overhead, and vines hung 60 and 70 feet from the uppermost branches, brushing the muddy water. Our first impasse: a huge ironwood tree lying across the creek bed.
The tree was far too stout for the little chain saw, which sputtered and died before making any headway. One of the boats slipped under the log easily. Another we abandoned as hopeless. The third boat was about six inches too high to get beneath the log.
"Everyone in," Gorinsky ordered.
"This is a job for Gordo Blanco," Pablo said. We crowded into the craft and, sure enough, sank it enough that it floated comfortably beneath the log. That buoyed our spirits for about 30 seconds, until we rounded the next bend. Two tree trunks of slightly smaller size lay across the water. Gorinsky ordered everyone out but the pilot, whose name was Mon. Mon gave the boat a running start. It crashed into the log and teetered to a halt on top. He raised the engine, and a call came for not one but five gordos blancos. Pablo, Pedro, Eppridge, Gorinsky and I piled into the bow of the stranded boat. Our weight tipped it forward, over the log. Thus we proceeded—loudly, haltingly, accompanied by billowing clouds of blue gasoline smoke—upstream for the next two hours.