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Just before dinner, flocks of egrets came in low over Lake Petexbatún and roosted on a single tree among the thousands around the shore. "That is a 'salam' tree," Albert Gillet, my mentor, told me the first evening we were out on the water. "Its leaves and wood smell very sweet, mon. Very fine and sheltery for the birds. Only one salam tree on the lake now. Upon a time used to be a bigger one than that, but it fell down. From the burden of the birds, mon." You could assume that would be the fate of this one as well. By dusk, uncountable egrets had settled on the tree, turning it as white as if this were Christmas in Vermont, not the dry season in Guatemala.
The bird-watching on Petexbatún was incidental: egret time, Albert reckoned, might also be tarpon time—when, we hoped, the indolent, seemingly purposeless rolling of the fish would change to water-slashing action. But from the evidence we would come upon, it seemed more likely that somewhere below the surface there was a fishy equivalent of a salam tree, to which the tarpon quit for the day when the breeze dropped and the skin of the lake became calm.
Albert himself was always calm. Seventy years old, black, with a wisp of white beard, a shock of white hair and the manner and the vocabulary of an Old Testament prophet. He is a carpenter by trade, and he had first come to Guatemala 30 years ago, from what is now Belize and was then British Honduras—to Albert, and forever, "B.H." "We bulled a road in from B.H., mon," he said. "Then I stayed here in this republic, loggin'."
Albert knew that you couldn't hurry fish and that I'd been a trifle perverse in coming to Petexbatún in the dry season. "The heavy fishes, mon, they come up on the big floods in July, August," he had said, confirming what I'd been told previously. "That's when the 200-pounders come, when the waters is up. Look in the Farmer's Almanac, how the moon is in July, and you'll know."
The run of giant tarpon to Lake Petexbatún is one of the most extraordinary phenomena in the world of fishing. The lake lies in northeast Guatemala, in the Petén, a low-lying subtropical rain forest that adjoins the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico. For much of the year the lake spills out into the Petexbatún River, a tributary of the Río de la Pasión, which in turn feeds the mighty Usumacinta, which empties into the Gulf of Mexico 400 miles from the lake.
A 400-mile freshwater migration of huge fish that ends in a smallish lake. Why? To feed? It would seem that in the ocean itself or in the Usumacinta there would be infinitely more forage. To spawn? No evidence of this. An epic journey, longer than most salmon make, and an apparently motiveless one.
It is as mysterious, indeed, as the fall of the Mayan civilization, whose great plazas, temples and overgrown pyramids are so numerous in the forest around Lake Petexbatún that many of the ruins are still waiting in line, so to speak, for the attention of archaeologists. And, oddly, if it hadn't been for archaeologists, the great tarpon of Lake Petexbatún would still be known only to the villagers along its shores.
Long before sport fishermen became aware of the odyssey of the Petexbatún tarpon, archaeologists had arrived, and upon finding the area so richly endowed in ancient wonders, they built a permanent camp on the lakeshore in the early '60s. Much of the camp's carpentry had been done by Albert, who was also its guardian. To it came such notables as Ian Graham of Harvard's Peabody Museum.
Later, there was a secondary wave of guests, archaeology buffs traveling to the lake not to excavate but merely to view the ruins. A Guatemala City travel firm refurbished the camp to accommodate the newcomers. For more than 20 years, Albert had had the fishing almost all to himself, but with more people coming in and the fact that by the law of averages some archaeologists have to be fishermen, the secret got out. Last year sport fishermen started to arrive, and Albert, pressed into service as a guide, would have little time for the lonely epic fights with huge fish hooked on his handline. "It is beautiful to mess with them, mon," he says. "They are huge beasts that lurks in the pool. I has the good judgment with my handline, but there was oftentimes when I was afraid I would be carried out of my dory."
Because we had only a few days, Albert delicately rebuked me for having come at the wrong time of year. The very big fish come when the heavy flooding of the rainy season backs the river water into the lake, so that the flow is reversed. "The drifting in of the first flood, mon, when you sees the sticks and bushes coming into the lake, that is when the heavy beasts, the noble tarpons and snooks, are here," he'd say, as though repeating a lesson to a backward child.