February 9th, 2004

The Premiere OnLine Magazine for the Fly Fishing Enthusiast.
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An International Angler?

By Rex Lengacher (Satchel)

Being a typical specimen of an American angler I love to read about places I'd like to go fishing. Places in far off lands with tall mountains and cold streams. Places where no fly fisherman has gone before. Halfway round the world to a land where they don't speak the same language and don't have the same fish. The kind of trip most of us make frequently enough in our reclines, but rarely in real life.

I had become relatively comfortable with the reality that I would most likely never really get to make a trip to one of those exotic places. Resigned to flogging around the lakes and streams near home and making the occasional jaunt into a neighboring state once a year or so, I had found comfort in the familiarity of it.

All that changed in the fall of 2001 when I was asked to join a work team making a trip to Ecuador to refurbish a small clinic/hospital in a jungle village there. The group consisted of six people, most with some sort of medical background, and all with a sense of adventure and desire to give of ourselves. We were all friends and colleagues of a surgeon who had lived and practiced in our home city and had recently left her practice to devote her life to the missionary work in this beautiful South American country.

Of course being a typical specimen of an American angler as previously admitted, I found no reason in the world why this shouldn't make a great fishing trip, since I was going to be in a far off land with tall mountains and cold streams and people who spoke a different language. I figured that even if they had the same fish we have here in America it would still qualify as an exotic trip, for me.

As the time for the trip drew nearer it became evident that this was going to be a very sparse trip from an equipment standpoint. Each of the team members had been limited to two suitcases, with one being used to transport medical and surgical supplies that would take many months and great expense to get into the country by normal shipping means. That meant we had to pack 10 days worth of clothes and personal items into one bag and a carry-on. I had a rather easy time of it, but the other five members of the team were all women. I'll let you draw any conclusions from that scenario that you might like.

The first challenge was one that we fly fishers find ourselves in frequently, I didn't have a rod that would fit into the bad I was stuck with, so of course I had to buy a new one. Not having a clue what might await me in the waters of Ecuador I chose a middle of the road, all around 6-weight rod that would be useful here at home after the great adventure. It came apart into four pieces and packed into an aluminum tube for safe transport. A reel packed in a soft case which also held a couple basic spools of leader material and a small fly box was as much fishing gear as space would allow.

I won't make this a travelogue of Ecuador, but will tell you it is an amazingly beautiful country that straddles the Andes and has every extreme of climate and altitude. The one common descriptor throughout the country being poverty. The people are hard working and resourceful as those who depend on those traits for survival must be. They are a happy and friendly people who seem to enjoy lives of simplicity that most of us would find uncomfortable at the very least.

The majority of our time was spent in a village called Zapollo Grande, 35 Kilometers inland from the Pacific coast, which translates into a three hour ride in a hand hewn canoe of 30 feet with a 40 hp outboard pushing up upstream fall throttle the entire trip. To fast to allow casting into the pockets along sore, but not nearly fast enough on the hard low wooden seat proved to keep your britches above the wet bottom of the craft.

The front porch of the quarters we occupied in the village was at 47 Minutes North Latitude which translated to temperatures in the 90's and dense humidity every day. Our work was not tremendously taxing but seemed to drain our energy with every drop of sweat.

We worked each day until Sunday, when we worshiped in the village church and had a free afternoon to see the sights and swim in the cool waters that surrounded us. The settlement was situated in the horseshoe bend of the Cayapas River which ran deep and swift with little shallow water even at the edges. The water was not as clear as one might expect and much of the bottom we felt was muddy, evidence of the logging that is thinning the native rainforest of the various types of Mahogany that grow there and allowing the topsoil to erode into the river. While the river is fed by the West slope of the Andes it isn't snow melt as so many of our Western streams and rivers here in the US are. The only snow-capped peaks in the Andes in the Northern and Southern parts of the country are in the eastern range. That's not to say it wasn't cool enough to take your breath away with the first dip into it, but it was a refreshing swim rather than a hypothermic affair.

Sunday found the Cayapas River to be muddy from an overnight rainstorm far upstream that had also raised the level several feet and added noticeable speed to the current. We set off in the canoe with our motorista, or driver, Alphonso to find cleared water to swim in. This was to be my only chance to fish during this trip, a fact that made it all the more anticipated and savory. The sense of adventure was thick and palpable, inducing near frenzy when we finally found a beautiful place on the Zapollo River which flows into the Cayapas in the middle of the bend around the village.

Alphonso beached the canoe at a spot where the river narrowed and rushed through a 30 or 40 foot wide cut, tumbling over rocks and rushing along a steep bank on the far side. When I was finally able to settle down and get my rod strung and a leader and fly knotted on, I stepped to the edge of the stream and took a first furtive step into it. That first step was to my knee, the second was to the crotch so I held there and stripped out line. I had chosen to start with a #8 Black Woolly Bugger I had tied because it is such a dependable pattern here at home. I don't usually fish it in as big a size but this was an adventure and I was hoping for big fish. The situation really called for a weighted line, but I didn't have one along, which made the lead wrapped on the shank of that particular fly another reason for its selection.

I cast the fly across and slightly upstream and let it swing on the current until it was below me where I stripped it in and picked up to repeat the drift. I had three or four casts when I felt the line go tight when it reached the end of the swing and I was into a fish. I'm sure that the current and locale and the anticipation all had a hand in the battle and each of those things made the fish seems strong and determined. When it was finally landed it seemed to be much to small for the fight it put up.

Alphonso called it a Cebolleta, which roughly translates to Onionfish. It was bright silver with a slash of red and orange through its eye and the shape of a Perch or Smallmouth Bass. At 10 or 11 inches it was evidently an average specimen from the comments of Alphonso and his son who had come along to see the Gringo with the funny long pole try and catch a fish. When I had our interpreter ask him how big these fish might grow he indicated maybe 15 or 16 inches to be the top of the spectrum. If this was typical of their grit one of that size would be quite a handful.

I would like to say that I went on that afternoon to catch several specimens of different species and that each was bigger and more game than the last, but it would be a lie. That was the only fish I caught. I cast a few more times into the current and then moved downstream to where the flow widened out and slowed a bit. I cast into the pockets and back flows and couldn't raise another fish. I could have stayed at it for hours but a cloud had darkened the horizon and the others were ready to get back to the safety of the village. I broke the rod down and put it back into the tube.

So that one small Cebolleta goes down as likely the most expensive single fish I've ver caught by many times over, and at the same time the most valued. If I had been there solely for the purpose of fishing I would have been sadly disappointed at catching only one ten-inch fish but in those circumstances my adventure was all that I could ask for and more. I had traveled to a far way place where I couldn't speak the language. I had caught a fish I had never seen before, one that was strong and pretty. I had even caught it on a fly of my own making. I may never get to go on another adventure outside the confines of my recliner, but I will always have the treasured memories of the one time I did. ~ Satchel

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