"A Red Horde," Tom confirmed.
Our guest looked at him suspiciously, but continued, "Those cuberas are slow to take the plug, though. They'll roll two or three times at it before they hit. So if you are fast, you can draw them away from the reef and then you can fight them in the deep water, which gives you about one chance in five if you remember to tighten the drag and get them into the boat before the sharks come."
"Sharks?" I asked.
"More sharks around Panama than anywhere in the world. Chop even a big cubera right behind the ears so all you bring up is a big toothy head and a few fronds of insides."
A man at the next table pushed his plate away abruptly and rose. "I wish I was going with you," our guest went on. "Built myself a new rod for those big ones. There are 100-pound cuberas on that reef, like huge red bulldogs." By then he was 2,500 miles south-southeast of Seventh Avenue. "Watch for that blood-colored surge," he urged us, looking from one face to the other. Gravely we assured him that we would. "Good luck," he told us as he left the table, moving out into the sunlight and the swirling eddies around the Manhattan reefs.
"Red Horde, eh?" Tom sniggered when we were alone.
"We'll attend to the Red Horde when we've dealt with the big wahoo," I said. "And the sails on fly tackle. And the roosterfish." Lazily, over dessert, we leaned back to savor the delights of our forthcoming trip.
Three weeks later, in a light aircraft wobbling through the rain clouds toward Coiba, our mood was still buoyant. The previous evening, from the balcony of our hotel room high over Panama City, we had practiced roll-casting the No. 12 fly line we planned to use on the sailfish. Not even the rain could damp us, not even (we should be forgiven) the sight of long-term prisoners near the Coiba airstrip listlessly chipping rust from the hull of the beached World War II landing craft used to ferry them from, and maybe one day to, the mainland. Coiba has only two settlements: the penal colony on one side of the island and Club Pacifico on the other. We piled our gear into the 24-foot Aquasport that was going to take us to the far, non-penal side of the island, and as we cleared the point and put the prison out of sight, a sailfish jumped nearby. A fine omen.
At Club Pacifico Bob Griffin, the camp's founder, was in the middle of a warming story. "So there was this man from Illinois," he was recounting, "who came back for his second trip with a full set of artillery: marlin rod, 130-pound-test line, 14/0 reel, full harness and his own fighting chair to screw down into the boat." The tale was about Hannibal Bank and the mysterious monsters that lurk there; no one, it is said, has ever lowered a jig into those waters and managed to fight to the surface the fish that hit it. But the man from Illinois had returned to Coiba determined to solve the mystery. Once more, though, he had had to admit defeat.
"He came back that night destroyed," Griffin went on, "and I asked him what had happened. 'It was going fine,' he said. 'I got out there, started to jig and got a hit right away. I was all strapped up, I had powerful tackle and after a while I had that fish, whatever it was, coming up nicely—150 pounds, maybe 200 pounds it felt. Then one of the big ones grabbed it.' "