A true fish story

Winnipeg Free Press - Section E - - TRAVEL - By Nevin Martell

T wasn’t like this the last time I was here,” my fa­ther har­rumphed as we cast our lines to­ward the shal­lows of Lake Are­nal.

It was easy to be­lieve him. We’d been fish­ing for more than two hours and there’d been nary a nib­ble. He had vis­ited this lake in the north­ern reaches of Costa Rica nearly two decades ear­lier. His fond mem­o­ries of bring­ing up more than his fair share of guapote, a cich­lid fish with hyp­notic spot­ting, and ra­zor-toothed machaca had be­come one of his favourite tales to tell at fam­ily get-to­geth­ers, cock­tail par­ties and any­where else he could find an au­di­ence.

I didn’t mind we hadn’t caught din­ner yet. It was a sunny morn­ing in early Novem­ber of last year. A few wispy clouds punc­tu­ated the blue sky, and a slight breeze ruf­fled the lake, keep­ing us cool. At the far south­east­ern end, a wall of mist ob­scured Are­nal Vol­cano, an ac­tive peak that had ex­pe­ri­enced its last ma­jor erup­tion in 1998.

I wasn’t sure my fa­ther and I would ever have another day quite like this one. Al­though he’s the most ac­tive and ad­ven­tur­ous 86-year-old I know, his hear­ing and eye­sight have been slowly de­te­ri­o­rat­ing in re­cent years, and he of­ten gets dizzy spells — af­ter­shocks from a decade-old stroke. Back home in Wash­ing­ton, my wife was eight months preg­nant. Soon my re­spon­si­bil­i­ties and sched­ule would change, mak­ing long trips like this one dif­fi­cult.

“Let’s try trolling,” our guide, San­cho, sug­gested as he fired up the out­board mo­tor at the end of his flat­bot­tomed john­boat.

He guided us away from the wa­ter’s edge un­til we were 100 yards out, then an­gled us par­al­lel to the jun­gle­cov­ered shore­line. As we cast our lines on op­po­site sides, I men­tally crossed my fin­gers in the hope we would catch some­thing. I didn’t want this new ad­ven­ture to end in dis­ap­point­ment for my fa­ther, who clearly wanted to add some new myths to his sto­ry­telling arse­nal.

“I’ve got some­thing!” I heard him ex­claim be­hind me. Un­for­tu­nately, when he pulled in his line, he found an im­ma­ture, six-inch machaca wrig­gling at the end of it.

Thank­fully, his next strikes yielded a pair of two-pound fish that were tossed into an ice chest af­ter a few quick smacks to the head. Af­ter another hour, I man­aged to add another to our haul. It wasn’t enough to brag about, but it would be enough for din­ner

We ar­ranged for the fish to be pre­pared at El Establo (The Sta­ble), a rus­tic road­side restau­rant and horse-rental op­er­a­tion just out­side the nearby town of Nuevo Are­nal and a 10-minute drive from the villa we were rent­ing. We were the only din­ers that evening, so we took over a long ta­ble near the open kitchen. The fish were washed, bat­tered and fried whole. They ar­rived on a plas­tic plat­ter with a sim­ple salad of let­tuce leaves, tomato rounds and cu­cum­bers. The crisp, salted skin paired well with the mild sweet meat, all washed down with rum and Cokes. It was a great meal, but it clearly didn’t mea­sure up to what my fa­ther had been ex­pect­ing.

The next morn­ing, his dis­il­lu­sion­ment was ev­i­dent dur­ing break­fast at Tom’s Pan Ger­man Bak­ery, a touristy but tasty out­post on the east­ern edge of Nuevo Are­nal, a tiny fron­tier-style town of just a lit­tle more than 2,000 res­i­dents. As we tucked into plat­ters of fresh fruit and a bas­ket of still warm whole-wheat breads stud­ded with seeds and grains, he griped through rem­i­nis­cence.

“Twenty years ago, we were pulling fish out of the lake that were this big,” he said, putting down his latte and hold­ing his hands two feet apart. “We were throw­ing them back by the end of the day.”

I nod­ded gamely, try­ing not to be­come frus­trated with his com­par­i­son with a seem­ingly im­pos­si­ble-to-top ex­pe­ri­ence. I re­al­ized in that mo­ment I, too, wanted to be able to talk about this trip in such leg­endary terms.

When I was young I op­er­ated, like many chil­dren, un­der the won­der­fully naive as­sump­tion ev­ery­thing and ev­ery­one I knew would al­ways be a part of my life. Grow­ing older, watch­ing fam­ily and friends slip off into the ether, has taught me oth­er­wise.

As my time with my fa­ther in­ex­orably shrinks, I cling ever more fiercely to the mo­ments we have to­gether. The child in me thinks if I hold on hard enough, maybe noth­ing will ever change. Lis­ten­ing to him live in the past made me feel as if he was ig­nor­ing the present. How could we have a new ad­ven­ture to­gether if he kept re­liv­ing the old ones?

Af­ter break­fast, he men­tioned his dis­sat­is­fac­tion to our land­lord, Glenn McBride, who had ar­ranged our fish­ing ex­pe­di­tion.

“You could al­ways try Lago de Cote,” Glenn mused, “but only lo­cals go there.”

That was all my fa­ther needed to hear. If there’s one thing he craves on va­ca­tions, it’s an au­then­tic ex­pe­ri­ence.

Af­ter Dad au­to­mat­i­cally agreed to the idea, I asked Glenn to give us a lit­tle more back­ground. Just to the north­west of Nuevo Are­nal, the heartshaped lake is sunk into the cen­tre of an ex­tinct vol­cano, he told us. The guapote and machaca are plen­ti­ful, and Glenn knew just the guide to take us — Jim Har­vey.

Un­for­tu­nately, Jim could only take us on the day be­fore we were due to leave. If we didn’t catch any­thing then, I knew I was go­ing to hear about it on the plane ride home (and ev­ery time our trip came up in con­ver­sa­tion). Worse still, we weren’t go­ing to have the ad­ven­ture we were both seek­ing.

When we woke early that morn­ing, rain was lash­ing against the win­dows, a thick blan­ket of mist clung to the jun­gle, and the tem­per­a­ture was cold enough to re­quire long sleeves and pants.

“I hope we can still go,” my fa­ther. said as we nursed steam­ing cups of rich Costa Ri­can cof­fee sweet­ened with dark cane su­gar. “I’d hate to have come all this way for noth­ing.”

A short while later, we were stand­ing in Jim Har­vey’s slate-paved liv­ing room. In front of the fire­place stood an ar­ti­fi­cial Christ­mas tree cov­ered in lights and sen­ti­men­tal dec­o­ra­tions that re­called a snowier hol­i­day sea­son. Jim him­self sported a gray-and-white goa­tee, well-worn hands and a sun­wrin­kled face.

“This is noth­ing,” he told us when I wor­ried aloud the weather would scut­tle our plans. “We’ll catch a lot.”

When I in­quired why more peo­ple didn’t go to Lago de Cote if the fish- ing was so good, he ges­tured to­ward a black-and-white aerial pho­to­graph hang­ing on the wall.

“Most peo­ple come here be­cause of the fly­ing saucer,” he said.

Taken in 1971 by a map­ping crew from the Costa Ri­can Na­tional Ge­o­graphic In­sti­tute at 10,000 feet, the pic­ture clearly cap­tures a slightly peaked disk hov­er­ing above the lake. UFO en­thu­si­asts con­tinue to de­bate its va­lid­ity online and fre­quently make pil­grim­ages to the lake in hopes of mak­ing fur­ther sight­ings. Nei­ther Jim nor his wife, De­bra, had ever seen any­thing out of the or­di­nary, other than the ufol­o­gists who oc­ca­sion­ally showed up unan­nounced.

Af­ter hitching his small boat to the back of his bat­tered Land Rover, we rum­bled down the muddy road, which was of­ten just wa­ter-filled tire ruts run­ning side by side, to the lake. The scene re­in­forced my grow­ing sense we were on the set of The X-Files. There was no de­fined shore­line; in­stead, the edge of the lake in­dis­crim­i­nately flooded the fields and forests sur­round­ing it. Trees de­voured by the ad­vanc­ing waters jut­ted out of the dark lake like hands grasp­ing in sup­pli­ca­tion.

THE fog was so thick you couldn’t see the far side, even though the lake is only about two-thirds of a mile wide and cov­ers just un­der 1.25 square miles. As the boat chugged across the white-tipped waters, we hud­dled be­neath its mea­gre awning to avoid the worst of the rain. To help ward off the damp, Jim poured us shots of guaro, a slightly sweet Costa Ri­can liquor dis­tilled from su­gar cane juice.

On the far side of the lake, near a pair of gi­ant sunken trees, we let our lured lines fly for the first time. Given the de­press­ing weather and the sur­real sur­round­ings, my hopes weren’t high. The boat hadn’t glided 20 feet, how­ever, be­fore my fa­ther’s pole bowed to­ward the wa­ter.

“It’s a hit!” he yelled as he reeled in. This time, there wasn’t a throw­back on the end, but a three-pound machaca. Min­utes later, he was re­peat­ing his per­for­mance. He made it a hat trick within the first half-hour. Hold­ing up his third catch, he flashed a smile that took decades off his face.

De­spite the foul weather, he took a seat up at the ex­posed front of the boat. Bun­dled up in a sala­man­der orange wind­breaker, tan rain pants and a long-billed hat with a back flap to keep the nonex­is­tent sun­shine off his neck, he stood out against the dream­like sur­round­ings.

A mo­ment later he was tri­umphantly crow­ing, “Another one!”

I wasn’t do­ing too badly ei­ther, hav­ing pulled up a pair of de­cent-size machaca. We would feast tonight.

I could al­ready imag­ine the sto­ries he was go­ing to tell about this ex­pe­di­tion. Our catch would be mul­ti­plied, the bad weather am­pli­fied and the odd­ity of our sur­round­ings ex­ag­ger­ated.

And I would never con­tra­dict his ver­sion of events, even though, for me, the sim­ple fact we were spend­ing time to­gether was the per­fect story.


Ralph Martell shows off a Machaca fish he just caught in Lago de Cote out­side Nuevo Are­nal, Costa Rica.

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