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A Fish Story That Was All Too True
Clive Gammon
February 14, 1977
A well-toasted dream begun in a Manhattan restaurant was realized off Panama, where two anglers rode in pursuit of bounteous sailfish and wahoo and a Red Horde of cubera
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February 14, 1977

A Fish Story That Was All Too True

A well-toasted dream begun in a Manhattan restaurant was realized off Panama, where two anglers rode in pursuit of bounteous sailfish and wahoo and a Red Horde of cubera

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There could have been no better captive audience for a fishing story than Tom and I, together with the four other anglers who had arrived that day—the brothers Gore and the brothers McGinn. But Hannibal Bank would not be on our program, Griffin told us. It was a four-hour run, too long and risky a haul for small boats in the rainy season. Instead we would head over toward the mainland, where the big wahoo run should be on. Should be on? Didn't anybody know? No, because the camp had been closed for two months. Not only were we going to fish teeming waters, but also waters that had been rested all that time.

They were calm waters, too, we found next morning, the currents sliding easily through a pattern of islands humped high and green with dense rain forest. Five minutes out from the jetty we saw the ocean's mirror fretted with a hailstorm of frantic needlefish, obviously beset by some predator below. Frantically, we began grabbing for our rods. Rafael held up a sophisticated hand. "Is jus' rainbow runners," he told us kindly. He slowed the boat until we could see the runners flashing cobalt and yellow in the water, then picked up speed again, heading for where the wahoo were said to be working through a channel that ran between a small island and the mainland.

Long before we reached it we tossed out deep-running plugs. Spanish mackerel hit them at once. Next came a boisterous half hour with jack crevalle. Afterward, nothing for a spell that must have gone on for close to 20 minutes. Then Rafael picked up the radio transmitter and smiled slowly as he interpreted the crackle at the far end. "My cousin finds plenty wahoo," he told us, grinning happily. "They smash up all the tackle, them and the sharks. My cousin's tourists got no plugs left!" Tom and I regarded one another smugly. We had with us enough plugs to account for all the wahoo between there and Acapulco. Despite a slight unease at hearing our fellow anglers described as tourists (Was that what Rafael called us when the guides got together in the evenings?), we looked forward confidently to some gentlemanly sport. Red Horde, eh? Nothing so crude. This was going to be elegant fishing: thoroughbred, black-and-silver wahoo on light tackle. Well, not too light. Maybe 15-pound tackle. The Coiba wahoo ran big, we'd heard.

To begin with, all went according to the brochure. As we started to troll tight in to the rocks, so close that we were in the shade of the jungle overhanging them, Tom's rod began a wild attempt to free itself from the holder and his reel made a noise that no mackerel could produce. "Is 50-pound wahoo," Rafael told us 15 minutes later as, too big for the fish locker, it drummed its life out amidships (55 pounds 12 ounces on the camp scales that night). "Not bad for a tourist, hey?" Tom asked Rafael.

"Is big wahoo here," he replied cryptically, coming on course again. Did he mean that this one was a tiddler? Or was he endorsing Tom's pride of achievement? There was no chance to question him because my reel was into its battle song now and I was bracing myself in the stern. "Is wahoo," Rafael observed superfluously. "Is 50 pounds." For maybe 10 seconds my wahoo went on being an orthodox 50-pound wahoo, then changed very briefly to a 350-pound wahoo, and finally metamorphosed into a U-boat making ponderously for the ocean floor. "Shark come eat him," Rafael said, unwrapping his sandwiches. In his experience, it emerged later, a tourist always tried to land his first shark, which always ended up immovable, hanging deep under the boat, providing Rafael with a useful lunch break as the Aquasport drifted quietly and the tourist heaved and grunted fruitlessly.

And undoubtedly I reacted like many anglers had before me. "This is no shark, I tell you," I roared passionately.

Rafael sank his teeth deep into an apricot jam and peanut butter sandwich. "Is shark," he repeated, bored. "Is shark," Tom said unsympathetically. The rod was doubled over. I might have been into a coral reef except that occasionally there came a dull thump. Only a shark could act like that. "Is shark," I had to admit in the end. His sandwich jammed in his mouth, Rafael throttled forward and I hung on for the brief moment it took to snap the line. "Is many sharks in this place," he said in a moment of garrulity. And he was entirely right about that, too.

From then on, sharks hit all the time. I landed one lightweight, a 90-pound mako, but most of them were heavier and impossible to haul on our light tackle. We went around to the seaward side of the island, took two roosterfish and then the sharks moved in again. Mostly there would be just a vastly increased weight on the end of the line, but sometimes, when a small fish was on close to the top, we could see a shark attack, bulging huge and brown under the surface like a gargantuan trout sipping nymphs. "Is ridiculous," Tom said around midafternoon. Even our formidable armory of plugs was beginning to dwindle. The channel was full of wahoo but there was no point in hooking them when every time they would be fielded by sharks. Rafael sensed our desperation. "Orright," he said. "We find the other boats."

They were tucked in a little cove, refugees like us. But they had sold their plugs dearly. One of the Gores had a 58� pound wahoo, and Frank McGinn had taken a good one on six-pound-test—significantly, at the start of the day's fishing before the tiny brains of the sharks had awakened to the fact that there were easy pickings about. "You know," McGinn said, grieving over his lost plugs, "there are actually men who go out deliberately to catch sharks." We shook our heads wonderingly. Maybe the Club Pacifico should employ a task force of such coarse-grained anglers to sweep the seas clean before the serious sports fishermen arrived. Short of that, there didn't seem to be a lot of future in Wahoo Alley. Reluctantly, we had to admit seeming defeat, not knowing at the time that one very significant trophy had been wrested from the sharks; McGinn's wahoo turned out to be 48 pounds 3 ounces, later to be ratified as an IGFA world record on six-pound line.

In the camp bar that evening, we drew up new plans. Maybe there are shark-repellent qualities in vodka martinis; the McGinns decided they would hit Wahoo Alley again next day. The Gores were going to potter around close to camp. Tom and I were going to break new ground.

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