Magdalena River Fishing Memoir
One of my favorite memories as a child was fishing on a tributary of the Magdalena River in Colombia, South America. The Magdalena is the primary river that flows from the south of Colombia and the Amazon to the coast near Barranquilla. The stream where my father, my two brothers and I would go fishing is called the Anacue which flowed into a tributary of the Magdalena called the Yanacue. The Anacue was a clear water stream that had its source in the Andean mountains, whereas the Magdalena was a muddy river. Where the Anacue flowed into the Yanacue, one could see the muddy and the clear waters mixing. There was excellent fishing at the mouth of the Anacue. Among the wide variety of fish that one might catch were bagre, a kind of catfish and picua, otherwise known as red tail. It seemed as if we could catch a fish on every third cast.
It was an exciting expedition for an eight year old boy. But to get to the fishing required a four hour boat ride downriver. We would get up before dawn, go down to the Magdalena and stow our fishing rods, camping gear and food in an aluminum boat. Then just as the sun was rising we would set out on the river. My father often invited Arturo, one of his co-workers, to guide and accompany us on our trips. It was clear to me that Dad had a great deal of respect for Arturo's boating and fishing skills.
The Magdalena varies considerably in width but always carries a significant volume of water. Because we fished in the jungle at the equator, the primary danger to boaters was a floating log or submerged snags that could puncture the boat or break the motor's propeller or shearing pin, leaving us to float perilously in swift current. Dad always positioned me in the bow of the boat and instructed me to watch for snags. I knew the consequences of hitting one, so I watched intently for the slightest swirl of the water that might indicate danger.
In those days, the Magdalena was rich with crocodiles and it was an uneasy experience watching them on the bank and knowing that one treacherous underwater snag could potentially put us at risk of being eaten. I observed the caimans watching us from the bank awaiting their opportunity. I've been told that since the 1950s most of the crocs have been hunted virtually to extinction. Tourist shops all over Colombia were filled with stuffed caimans, and purses, wallets, belts and every imaginable curio made from their hides. Once I found a baby caiman in a swampy bog near our house, brought it home and put it in a big, galvanized tin tub of water in order to watch it swim around. It emitted a strange chirping that sounded almost like a bird. It swam around and around the edge of tub, but despite some minor effort to keep it alive, it died for lack of a mother at the hands of thoughtless curiosity.
Also along the banks were troops of monkeys in the trees. They howled and made a considerable racket but spotting them was difficult. We saw them only as shadows flitting about in distant treetops. Brilliant macaws were easy to spot as winged flames of red or blue against the universal green of the jungle. Occasionally we would motor by a village of thatched roofed open houses. Children would run out to the bank to watch us go by, but adults seemed to scrutinize us with suspicion.
Finally, we would arrive and anchor upstream on the Anacue where it emptied into the Magdalena. It was an exciting moment because of the fishing that was to immediately follow. We would race to see who rigged his pole first in order to make the first cast. We had to take care not to tangle our lines in the excitement. We competed over catching the first fish, the largest and the most. It was not long before we were pulling in one fish after another. Later, we would haul anchor and move slowly a few miles upstream, casting to both sides of the river as we worked our way up to the first rapids where we camped and cooked. Then there was the rush to be the first to fish in the pools above the rapids.
I loved fishing. It was one of the few activities when an eight year old could hope to compete with my two older brothers or adults. Every cast was an opportunity to be rewarded with the thrill of the strike and the catch. On one particular occasion we were drifting back down the Anacue heading for home but casting toward both banks as we went. Suddenly I hooked what seemed to be a monster fish because line just screamed off my reel. I was sure that I had caught the prize for the largest fish. Dad shouted "Keep your rod tip up!" The fish headed for a big brush pile and I reeled the line in furiously while the fish zigged and zagged through the water. All attention was on me and on what must be a big picua. Finally I brought the fish alongside the boat and dad netted it. It certainly wasn't a picua; it was shaped more like a flat round plate and my disappointment was palpable. "What is that?" I asked Dad, or Providence. I had never seen such a fish. How could it have fought so well and yet be so small? I was almost crying. And yet it had a nice golden belly and beautiful blue gills. Dad said with an unexpected tone of respect, "That is a Bluegill, Tommy." Still disconsolate, I shrugged. And Dad said, "It is the biggest one I have ever seen." "I used to catch those back in Nebraska when I was a boy." I began to feel better and examine the fish with more interest and with a surge of pride. Then I took my place at the bow and watched for snags as we motored our way back home.