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
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