You're quite sure it was a toadfish you saw?" Nixon Griffis, the 62-year-old chairman of the New York Zoological Society's Exploration and Scientific Collection Committee, asked as we walked past the two white Beluga whales pressing themselves against the glass walls of the New York Aquarium. Their melodious sounds were being broadcast to us through a hydrophone. "Nothing is uglier or nastier than a toadfish," said Griffis, "but I've never heard of one more than 12 inches long."
"But I saw it," I insisted. "It was at least three feet long and had a mouth that looked big enough to swallow a basketball. Two fishermen hauled it out of a brackish creek right on the coast of Suriname and bludgeoned it to death with a rock. They eat those things down there, consider them a delicacy. They're called lumpoe, and they told me they sometimes catch them this big." I spread my arms as far apart as they would reach.
"If that's true, they'd make a fantastic exhibit," Griffis agreed while passing in front of a display of brightly colored marine tropical fish swimming amid stalks of bleached white coral. "People get awfully tired of seeing the same pretty fish year in and year out. We need something ugly and different to boost attendance, and your toadfish sounds like quite a monster. Well, we're going to Bolivia next year to collect frogs from Lake Titicaca. I don't see why we couldn't stop in Suriname for a few days."
Thirteen months later Griffis and I arrived in Paramaribo, the capital of Suriname, formerly Dutch Guiana, on an authorized expedition to collect one of the toadfish I'd described. With the help of the Ministry of Fisheries, Griffis started looking for a guide who could help us catch the biggest specimen. Everyone said, "You get Boudji [pronounced boo-GEE], he catch big lumpoe.... Boudji can catch anything."
We found Boudji mending his net down at the fisheries dock. He wasn't a very impressive figure, a squat, brown-skinned Hindustani barely five feet tall. "Ever since I was a little boy," he boasted, "I fish dis river. We catch beeg lumpoe," And he spread his arms as far apart as they would reach. "They good to eat, you cook with peppers, tomatoes and onions, very nice. You pay me $50 a day, buy all de gas and food, and I catch. No problem."
No problem? We were into our fourth night of fishing, and while we'd seen some weird creatures, we still hadn't caught a giant toadfish. On the third set that night, when almost half of the 300-yard-long gill net had been hauled into Boudji's dugout canoe, an eerie, penetrating, almost strangling sound came up from the depths of the vast muddy Suriname River, which flows north out of the Guiana Highlands into the Atlantic.
I switched on my flashlight and shined it on a small brown devilish-looking fish that was writhing to and fro in the mesh, flashing its milky-white belly and whipping its long set of whiskers back and forth. "Whaaaaark...whaaaaark...whaaaaark," emanated from the joints of the long dangerous-looking sawtooth pectoral fins that sprang out from its sides. With great force, this creature of the mud snapped its fins shut and then expanded them again.
"Good God, look at those tiny eyes," cried Griffis. "That's one of the strangest fish we've seen yet. Too bad it isn't bigger, but let's try to get it back alive anyway. What do you suppose it is?"
"Some kind of catfish, I'd imagine," I said, grabbing the writhing mucus-coated thing and trying to unravel the net cords from its serrated spines. "Almost everything we've seen in this river has been some kind of catfish." It was almost impossible to free it from the net, because with each sinuous twist the fish became even more entangled, and my gloves were making the job even more cumbersome.
"Mister, you be careful," warned Boudji. "Dat trumpet fish, he hurt you bad!"