Some Facts about the Amazon Basin and the Rio Negro Lodge

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Phil Marsteller: We left the Amazon Queen, riding back to the plane in one of the Nitro’s, and were soon back in the air. As we gained altitude, the competitor’s boat came into view, still moored to the sandbar. I said to Phil that it didn’t look like they would be able to make their way up the river judging by all that we had been through. He looked at me with a smug look on his face but didn’t say anything.

Phil Marsteller was proving to be a truly impressive person – a many talented, “jungle renaissance man”. The entire Rio Negro experience was there because he had, personally envisioned and implemented it. He knows every inch of his domain and he had amply demonstrated that he is able to perform competently in any area that a job needs to be done.

In just the last few hours he had personally taken care of the medical needs of the injured guide, he then piloted the plane to find the stranded Amazon Queen (which he had personally redesigned and refurbished), he took over the rescue operation, personally directing the operations and piloting the boat through the tricky submerged maze of sand bars, and he was now flying us back to the lodge to host some 40 odd guest fishermen. He accomplished all of these things in a nice way, treating all of the people with whom he interacted with a compelling, respectful attitude.

In particular, I thought that he had handled the situation with the Captain of the Amazon Queen extremely well. Phil treated him with respect and deference to his ideas, never criticizing him for getting the Queen stuck in the first place and, consequently, the Captain reacted with a grateful air. He gave Phil his full co-operation, even when Phil took over the piloting of the boat. If it hadn’t been handled with tact, the way that Phil did, the captain’s attitude could have just as easily been one of resentment and tacit non-co-operation.

On our flight back Phil began to talk about his life and to point out some features of his domain. He was born and raised in the Brazilian jungle to American missionary parents. He was educated in the U.S. and stayed there to make his fortune as a successful businessman. He came back to the Rio Negro area, acquired thousands of acres along the river, and proceeded to create and build his lifelong dream. It all culminated in the Rio Negro Lodge, its environs, and the unparalleled Peacock Bass fishing experiences that it provides for its quests.

As we neared the lodge he pointed out the fields he owns that his people farm to provide the food that we were eating. Closer in we could see the village, surrounding the lodge, which he created to house the large and diverse staff that is required to keep everything in operation and good repair. This is where the native population lives who do the cooking, the farming, the maintenance, where the fishing guides live, etc. They live and raise their families here.

The village is completely self contained, with interconnecting, paved pathways and roads, its own, electric power, medical commissary, maintenance buildings, church, school, etc. All of the wetlands and swamps, local to the lodge and village have been drained and dried out to the extent that one can walk around unprotected at night and not experience a mosquito bite. The people are healthy, clean and well dressed, and exhibit an obvious sense of well-being.

Another program that Phil carries out to help provide medical care for his flock involves an open invitation to any qualified physician or dentist. Any professional of these persuasions can come to the lodge and enjoy the full, weeklong, standard fishing/lodging package, absolutely free, if he is willing to donate just 4 to 5 hours of his time during the week to tending to the needs for his profession among the village residents. Overall, the place and the venture, itself, are testaments to what one dedicated, talented man with a dream can accomplish.

Larry had a Bad Day: When we got back to the Lodge it was just before dinnertime. Many of our party were already in the pool, most with a drink in one hand. The big attraction was an otter that Phil keeps as a pet and for the entertainment of his guests. The otter was living up to its billing, swimming and frolicking with the men, to the obvious enjoyment of all. One of the men in the middle of all the play with the animal was my son, Larry. In the excitement the otter lashed out and accidentally nipped him. It wasn’t the animal’s fault but Phil decided that it was enough for one day and had the otter put away for the night.

Phil, Larry, and the Otter

Larry had had a bad day! I didn’t know it at the time when I came in that noon but it was Larry’s lure that had become embedded in the guide’s head that morning. It was an unfortunate accident wherein no one was really at fault. The boat had lurched from a passing wave, making the guide stumble into the lure’s path, just as Larry was back casting. It was a freak occurrence but it did end up with the lure tightly locked, by a double barbed hook into the man’s head. It was too difficult to extract on the spot; hence, they had to come in for more experienced help. Except for the immediate pain of the occurrence, the guide was all right after Phil removed the lure, and he returned to fishing that afternoon.

Larry, however, felt guilty and was quite distraught. He’s good hearted and he decided to give the guide a sizeable tip for his troubles. For that purpose he took $100.00 and put it in his pocket, intending to give it to the guide at the end of the afternoon’s fishing. However, when he went to retrieve the money from his pocket when leaving the boat, it wasn’t there! Apparently, he had lost it, somehow, during the afternoon. To top it all off, the fishing had not been too good. All he had caught that day had been some smaller Peacocks. The slight nip by the otter was the last straw! It was, literally, tantamount to adding “injury to insult”. It had not been a good day! What Larry, or any of us, did not know at the time was that his luck was about to change, significantly for the better, within the next two days!

It had been a full and exciting day but it wasn’t over, yet. After dinner, the score sheet was totaled up and two in our group were tied with the biggest total weight of fish. My reported total weight was third but, if I had been able to include the 9 lb. Peacock that Enrico had mistakenly thrown back before weighing, my total would have easily beaten both of them and I would have won the $250.00 daily first prize. As it was I didn’t win anything.

Enrico with an Aruana Enrico’s Dinner – Butterfly Bass

Bob – A12 lb Peacock

With all of that, except for Larry’s bad luck, it had been a great day! I had tracked into the jungle and caught a total of over 45lbs. of fish; mostly fighting Peacocks, and it only had taken about 3 hours to do it! I had caught some strange looking, new (to me) species of fish, flown over and experienced the immensity of the trackless jungle, and vicariously participated in the unique event of freeing up the Amazon Queen from the sandbar maze. I went to sleep that night a happy guy!

Day 3, The Fishing gets Better: The client fishermen/women stay in cottages that string out from the lodge, through the woods, along both sides of a concrete path that meanders through the jungle along a bluff overlooking and parallel to the river. Each cottage comfortably accommodates four people. A wooded area in between separates each cottage and each one is quite private from its neighbors. There is a good-sized, common use “living room” in the center of each cottage with a double bedroom flanking each side. The living room contains a couch, a generously sized table and chairs, a refrigerator that we could stock with “free” beer and soft drinks, and 120-volt electrical outlets along the walls. Each bedroom has two, separate, double beds and is shared by two people. Each bedroom also has its own bathroom with a shower. There is electricity (supplied from the lodge’s central generator), running hot and cold water, and each room is air-conditioned. There is also an attached, outdoor screened-in porch on the backside facing the river. In our cottage, Larry and I shared one bedroom and Bob and Bruce shared the other.

Path to Cottages Our Cottage

The normal day begins while it is still dark. A member of the staff comes to each cottage door and rings a bell at 5:00 AM. The object is to get out on the river by 6:00 AM. Breakfast is served in the lodge and it is a good one! Eggs, pancakes, cereals, fruit juices, and lots of fresh fruit - all offered, in as much quantity as desired. There is a table laid out with lunch meat, cheese, bread, fruit, packaged drinks, and condiments and each person is expected to make up and wrap his/her own lunch to be eaten mid-day on the river. There is a cold box on each Nitro that is stocked with water, cold drinks and beer. Everyone meets at the dock just as the sun is rising above the horizon, about 6:00 AM, to pick up his or her boat and get out on the river for the day’s fishing.

I had risen, breakfasted, and prepared my lunch as proscribed and arrived at the dock just as the top rim of the sun was appearing over the horizon. It came up in the east (the downriver direction) and produced pleasing pink, orange, and gold color patterned reflections on the water surfaces as it did. As the sun rose further, at one point it was directly behind, and silhouetted, the moored floatplane. It made a strikingly beautiful picture. It was my second good omen for the day. I already had my first when I went to put on my New Balance’s. They had been soaked when I took them off the previous afternoon and I had put them in the sun on our back porch to dry. They had dried completely and were, now, quite comfortable.

There was a crowd of fishermen on the dock when I got there and Phil was in front of it, waiting for all to assemble. Apparently, the previous day’s occurrence of a person being hooked by an errant back cast was not an isolated incident. It had happened before, with other fishermen, and Phil, with his river guides, had come up with a method of casting when in the boat that would prevent its reoccurrence. He was waiting for all to assemble in order that he could demonstrate the technique.

The technique is really quite simple. Its basic requirement is that the lure should be hanging freely, but quite tight against the tip of the rod, with no slack line between it and the tip during the back-cast. The line should not begin to play out until the forward motion of the cast begins. It was obvious that the use of this technique would have prevented the previous day’s accident and, judging by the lack of comment or grumbling from the group (many of them very experienced anglers), it was readily accepted.

While I was standing there, Mark, one of the young men in our group approached me and invited me to join him as the day’s fishing companion. I had just met him the night before during the cocktail hour and we had gotten along most agreeably. We shared common interests in wanting to experience the jungle features of the area, in addition to the fishing, and our conversation revolved about that subject. He was really interested in my experiences fishing the land-locked lakes and, additionally, he was just as anxious to go ashore because of the possible opportunities it would provide to see the flora and animal life of the region. He wanted to meet some native Indian people if he could. We were both on the same track and, despite the great difference in our ages, we got along famously.

I had already arranged with Bruce and Enrico to hook with up them for the day, as Enrico had promised some really good lake fishing in spots that he knew about. Reluctantly, I had to turn down Mark’s kind invitation but I did direct him to the dock-master and told him to tell him his wishes for a jungle based fishing/exploring trip. He did this and, when I last saw him he was taking off in a Nitro with a guide and just himself, no other companion.

Bruce – Heading Inland

My boat, with Enrico driving, was one of the last to leave the dock that morning. I purposely delayed until I could get the dock-master to explain to Enrico how our daily fishing pool worked and the importance of weighing every Peacock. I made sure that he told Enrico how his failure to weigh the fish the previous day had caused me to lose the $250.00 daily prize and, consequently, how it had caused him, Enrico, 10% of that. Enrico gave me an embarrassed, crestfallen look. I just looked back at him and said that it was OK but that we shouldn’t let it happen again. The incident was over and, happily, we managed to weigh all of the bass I caught after that.

Bruce and I took off in the Nitro with Enrico at the wheel and, after about 45 minutes of, first, a rush straight upriver, and then a wild, winding path through what seemed like an endless array of small islands and channels, we landed the boat on the sand at the edge of a dense jungle. Surprisingly, it was not too difficult to make our way through the jungle despite its density. We followed a discernible, if not well-worn, path for about 10 minutes and came upon a fair sized lake. We followed the shoreline of the lake and it became really muddy in spots. Because of the density of the jungle edge, there was no choice but to just keep on trucking through the mud, which we did. It got to be really funny at times and, at one point, Bruce sank in almost to his buttocks. We were all in, at least up to our knees, at times, but we persevered and finally came to a stable but narrow shoreline.

After about 5 minutes along the shoreline, Enrico stopped and indicated that we should fish. Bruce and I separated a good distance, about 40 to50 yards. We had to fish while standing ankle deep in the water since the jungle came almost to the shoreline and did not provide enough room to back cast from the shore. I used the same silver spoon lure as the day before and Bruce went back to his fly rod. The action was immediate and urgent! On my second cast I got a tremendous hit that took off immediately in a strong run. However, when I attempted to set the hook, the line went slack, and I lost the fish.

Enrico was watching and he came over to me. He pointed out my mistake. I had tried to set the hook with an upward motion of the rod, which only succeeded in ripping the hook from the fish’s mouth. He recommended that I use almost horizontal, slightly angled downward and sustained, strong sweeping motions instead. He was right, as usual. I used the technique from then on, throughout the trip, and I never lost another fish that took my bait.

He pointed to the same spot where I had lost the fish and indicated that I should cast there, again. I did as I was told and, on the first cast, I got another strong hit and ensuing run. I didn’t lose this one when I set the hook! That fish and I had a really good battle. He was big enough that I had to “pump and reel” to make any progress in the beginning stages of the battle. When I finally got him in he looked like a monster and he weighed in at a full 12 pounds! I’ll never know for certain but I‘m pretty sure that he was the same fish as the first one that I lost, giving me a second chance. Peacocks have the reputation of being tenacious, not liking to lose a prey once they are onto it. They are known to strike repeatedly at the same lure, sometimes, even when that lure is in another fish’s mouth.

The Fishing’s still Good!

I went on to catch a 7 and a 5 pound Peacock in that lake in addition to another new (to me) species that Enrico called a Cara (Darling?). This fish was a lot bigger and fatter but it had the same general shape as a large Crappie from northern Minnesota waters. He did not throw that one back and he thanked me for again catching him his dinner. I also caught a small, maybe 2 lb., Butterfly bass that he also added to his larder. His family would eat well that night! Bruce had also caught some good fish but, I must confess, I was so intent on what I was doing that I didn’t pay too much attention. I was having too much fun on my own!

By this time we had to get back to the lodge, since, Bruce was expecting another telephone call. We left the lake with Enrico carrying his dinner fish, had some more fun tracking through the mud, and preceded back, downriver, to the lodge in another rapid and exciting Nitro ride. Enrico really enjoyed riding that boat at high speeds, making tremendous, “rooster tail” wakes as we knifed through the water.

After lunch, we were out on the river again to a different, but similar lake about half of a mile’s hiking into the jungle. This time however we did not have to track through any mud and the shoreline was wide enough so that we could stand on dry land to fish. We spread out as we had in the morning and proceeded to fish in the spots that Enrico indicated.

This time; however, we would only fish a spot for a short time after the immediate action stopped before Enrico indicated that we should move to a new spot. If I cast 10 to 12 times without a hit Enrico would signal a move. If I caught a fish and, then, nothing happened for another dozen casts, or so, we would move along the shoreline, again. Bruce did not like this way of fishing and he tended to hang back before moving, so we got separated after a while.

The fishing wasn’t quite as good as the morning, but it was still good! That afternoon I caught one 6 lb., another 5 lb., and three two lb. Peacocks. In addition, I caught an Aruana, two Barracudas, and a medium sized Piranha. Combined with the morning’s results, it was a good day’s catch. As it turned out, the weight of my day’s catch was good enough to earn me a second prize in the daily pool; my third consecutive day of prize worthy fishing!

The best story for that day’s fishing, however, was Mark’s. When we got back in he was already there and he was brimming over, waiting to tell the story of his day’s experiences. His day started off similar to ours. His guide had led him to a secluded jungle lake where he proceeded to have a very satisfactory morning of fishing. He caught a good number of Peacocks, in addition to some of the same, other, native species that I had been catching (Aruana, Piranha, etc.). However, the highpoint of the morning was the 18 lb. Peacock that he caught! To that point in time, it was the largest Peacock that had been caught by anyone in our group and, along with the weight of the other Peacocks that he had caught that day, the total weight of his catch beat mine and he won first prize for the day.

That wasn’t the end of his day, however. After spending the morning fishing, they moved the boat to another jungle location where his guide led him on a trek through the jungle. He related seeing many of the local fauna of the area, monkeys, flying macaws, and a caiman (the local specie of small river crocodile) among them. Also, he had come upon a group of feral pigs where, apparently, it was a toss-up as to who was the most startled, he or the pigs.

This type of pig has been known to be dangerous and, for a moment, it proved to be a somewhat scary situation. There was much snorting and milling around him before the group finally decided to take off into the surrounding woods leaving Mark unharmed but, as he said, ”rather shaky”!

They finished the day by again moving the boat to a new location where there was a native village alongside the river. In the village he was able to trade for hand made Indian artifacts. He was wearing a necklace around his neck that was composed of colorful feathers, polished wood beads, and shells that he had bartered for. It looked good on him. All in all, he expressed a lot of satisfaction for his day’s activities and he looked the part.

We all went into dinner. Our group of 17 had its own designated table and we all spread ourselves around at it. The food was served family style and the typical menu can best be described as “meat and potatoes” or, many times, “fish and potatoes”. There were ample complementary vegetables and fruits to round out a healthy diet but, overall, the fare was definitely tailored to the active masculine outdoorsman. The meals were well cooked and ample. The kitchen was always open in between meals for snacks. Coupled with the fully stocked, never closed, open bar, the gastronomy situation was quite perfect!

I did have one complaint, however. It had to do with the stocking of the open bar. On the first evening, during cocktail hour, Phil categorically inquired if everything was OK. I informed him that things were in pretty good shape except that there was one glaring error. There was no bourbon or sour mash whiskey anywhere in his stock, especially, no Jack Daniels! If I had not brought my own, private stock I would have been more concerned but, taking into account sharing with others because of the bar’s lack, my stock was quickly disappearing. In the next few days the situation could quickly deteriorate.

Phil said not too worry. New supplies were due to be flown in in the next few days and that he would personally see that the proper supplies would be on the flight. True to his word, two nights later a large bottle of Jack Daniels appeared on the bar shelf and the crisis was averted. I never had another complaint.

Day four: Barney’s Ladder: The more that I saw of our native guides in action, the more apparent it became just how multi-talented these gentlemen really are and the more respect I gained for them.

Although each guide has his own individualized, recognizable physical features and each one, certainly, has his own, individual personality, all are easily identifiable as belonging to the same Indian derived race and they all seem to possess the same admirable traits when it comes to their job performance. They all are shorter in stature than the average USA American, have dark, suntanned complexions, straight black hair, dark eyes, and each is uniformly dressed in shorts, tee or sweat shirt, and bare feet.

Each one that I inter-acted with was uniformly intelligent and exhibited a high degree of self-initiative. Invariably they make a real effort, indeed, go to great lengths, to please their assigned clients, sometimes, in creative ways. They uniformly go about their guide duties, uncomplainingly, with great enthusiasm. Without exception, they appear to be well trained for their jobs and they execute them well. This day’s activities were destined to bring out all of these fine traits in a most demonstrative and positive way.

Larry and I had decided to fish together on the same boat for the day. When we arrived at the dock in the early morning Enrico informed me that, today, we were going to fish differently than I had become accustomed to during the previous days. He was busy tying a trailing rope to our boat, the other end of which was attached to the bow of an open aluminum skiff, approximately 16 feet long with a small outboard motor on its stern. Alongside our Nitro, the guide on the next Nitro was doing the same thing with a duplicate aluminum skiff. Today, we were going to fish as a team of two boats.

We met our companions to be for the day. They were two fishermen who were staying at the lodge but were not from our group of seventeen. They were friends, both from the southwest, USA. The older of the two was named Barney. He appeared to be in his late 30’s or early 40’s. As it turned out, Barney had been crippled from birth and had all he could do to sustain a hobbling walk, which he did, whenever necessary throughout the day, with no complaint and unfailing good humor. His friend was younger, appearing to be in his early 20’s and in fine physical shape. Both were enthusiastic, experienced bass fishermen. They each had natural, “regular guy” personalities and we all hit it off good, right from the start.

The two Nitro’s sped side by side up the river, at speeds in the order of 40 mph, each pulling its aluminum skiff behind. Barney’s Nitro had two native guides in it instead of the normal, single guide. After about a 40 minutes long run, sometimes weaving our way through small, scattered islands, we beached the Nitro’s onto the shore.

Landing at the Sand Cliff Beach

The point that the guides had chosen looked extremely unpromising. There was only a narrow, approximately 15 feet wide, beach that butted up against a vertical sand cliff about six to seven feet high. At the top of the cliff, very thick jungle undergrowth came right to its edge. As it turned out the beach area was cluttered with debris and it was severely infested with mosquitoes.

We helped the guides pull in the aluminum skiffs and beach them alongside the Nitro’s. Then, all three of the guides picked up their machetes and scampered up the sand cliff, telling us to wait there until they returned, and, then, disappeared into the jungle.

We waited, having a brisk time battling the mosquitoes. In a short while we could hear hacking sounds from inside the jungle. In another short while the three guides reappeared, laden down with loose bundles of trimmed, straight tree limbs, each about 8 feet in length, and several coiled lengths of vines. They, then, immediately set to work to fabricate an 8 ft. long ladder. One hacking evenly spaced notches into two of the 8 ft. poles, another to cut shorter lengths for the ladder cross-steps, and the third guide started stripping down and trimming the vines. They quickly assembled the cross-steps to the notches in the poles using the trimmed vines for lashings.

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