Fishing for Sabalo Tarpon with Maya in Guatemala
This article is part one of a series on indigenous Maya fishermen and fishing methods in the Rio Dulce area of eastern Guatemala.
RIO DULCE JUNGLE, Guatemala- I looked down at a collection of gigantic fishing hooks that were laid out upon a white plastic lawn table as Alfredo caught my gaze. “They are too small,” he spoke in stark contrast to my reaction. The hooks were over a couple inches long each, and in all of my childhood spent fishing in the ponds, rivers, and lakes of the USA I had never used a hook half the size of the ones I was about to go fishing with on the Rio Dulce, in the eastern jungles of Guatemala.
But, then again, I have never went fishing for sea monsters before.
“The hooks are too small,” Alfredo continued, “because we are fishing for big fish, they can take this hook and bend it.” Alfredo then made a motion to show how the fish could easily bend these giant hooks.
“How big are these fish?” I asked in wonder.
Alfredo then stood up from his white plastic lawn chair that matched the table and held his hand out from the top of his stomach, indicating that the fish we were going for were over half his size in length. It must be stated here that Alfredo was not a tall man, but a fish that was even half his size would be a very large fish indeed.
“Sabalo,” Alfredo told me the Spanish name of the sea monster that we were looking for. He spoke matter of factly about our prospects of catching one. I was about to go after a sea monster in a cayuco with a group of Maya men armed with large hooks, empty soda bottles with fishing line wrapped around them, and a small wooden club. Perfect.
“How much does a Sabalo weigh?” I asked Alfredo anxiously. He answered that a big one could weigh 150 pounds without raising an eyebrow. His matter of fact demeanor led me to momentarily think that he may have misunderstood my question or, perhaps, I misunderstood his response as Spanish is a second language to both of us. I asked again, and again, “Ciento cincuenta libras” was the response.
I glanced at the beating stick, I imagined what a 150 pound Sabalo could look like. I had not yet considered how we would pull one in even if we did hook it. I was in for a lesson in Maya fishing.
It then occurred to me that “Sabalo” was more than likely the Spanish name for a giant fish known to English speakers as a Tarpon. Sometimes foreign sport fishermen come out to the Rio Dulce to try to catch them — I have not yet met one who found success. “I think the locals ate them all already,” I said to one Australian fisherman to ease his disappointment.
Megalops are considered one of the great saltwater game fishes. They are prized not only because of their great size but also because of the fight that they put up and their spectacular leaping ability. -Wikipedia Tarpon
I was now about to go out fishing with the jungle Maya to see how they do it, how they catch and bring in these monster fish with such regularity — using just a hook, bait, and fishing line held in the hand — no poles, no reels, no nothing.
What is a Sabalo? What is a Tarpon?
Tarpons, whose scientific name is Megalops, come straight out of the Miocene. They are a truly ancient sea animal that can live in both fresh and saltwater. They are ultimately air breathers, using a special swim bladder to suck in air from the surface while rolling before diving again into the water’s depth. They can grow up to 8 feet in length and weigh over 150 pounds.
Megalops are obligate air breathers, and if they are not allowed to access the surface they will die. The exchange of gas that occurs is done at the surface through a rolling motion that is commonly associated with Megalops sightings. It is believed that this “breathing” is mediated by visual cues and that the frequency of breathing is inversely correlated to the dissolved O2 content of the water in which they live. –Wikipedia Tarpon
This was the sea monster we were going after.
I was at Alfredo’s home that he built with his own hands on the shore of the Rio Dulce just behind the Ak-Tenimit NGO. His home was complete with an open air kitchen, unpainted plank board dormitories, a little store, palapa thatched roofs, and many people of all ages sitting around talking. I stared out upon a scene that could have been taken from just about any jungle village the world over — the air was humid, trees rose overhead, everything made from local materials, the men preparing for the evening fishing, the women preparing the evening meal.
I introduced myself to everyone who passed my way, as Alfredo seemed to be feeling an emotion close to, though not exactly, embarrassment over my presence in his little village. Perhaps “spot lighted” would be a better word to describe his disposition.
The Q’eqchi’ Maya in the jungles of Guatemala seem to feel more comfortable as unspecified trees in the background of the social forest than as a lone standing Oak commanding attention in the forefront. When I entered the village from the bank of the river I had to ask who Alfredo was, even though he was standing with a group of men right in front of me. Alfredo was expecting my arrival but he did not step up and wave me down, call to me, or indicate in any way that he was the man I came to meet. When I walked up to the group of men they all just sort of looked at me, none breaking rank from any other, nobody saying anything or engaging me in any way until I spoke up and asked for the fisherman I came to meet.
“I am a friend of the daughter of Alfredo, where is Alfredo?”
The group of men then split to the left and to the right, leaving Alfredo in the middle to welcome his guest. I was welcomed, I then helped the group of men carry supplies up from the river to Alfredo’s little store up on top of a little hill on the river bank. Alfredo followed me up the trail and then welcomed me into his home. I was sort of introduced to his family — the ones who felt bold enough introduced themselves, the others remained quiet. I had to ask the quiet ones who they were, and had to take the initiative to introduce myself.
The family spoke in Q’eqchi’ Mayan to each other while addressing me in Spanish. I knew that when I heard Spanish it was for my benefit, that it was my cue to listen to what was being said and join the conversation. When they spoke Mayan it was a sign that what was being said was not for me to hear. I write this tale as if the conversations had been in English — as this is the language of this travelogue — but my use of this language had been exhausted after Alfredo’s teenage son tried out a couple phrases he learned in school. The talk that I participated in was in Spanish, though it is all recorded here in English for ease of reading.
After introducing myself to a few family members, my attention was diverted towards the gear that we would be going out fishing with. Alfredo asked me to remove a long wooden gondola pole from the rafters of his kitchen. He was a little too short to grab it, and, although I am no hulk of a man, the height difference between us was enough to allow me to take down the pole with little difficulty. We then assembled all of the fishing gear on a white plastic lawn table outside of the kitchen:
- 5 – 10 2 ” – 3″ hooks
- 3 reels of heavy duty fishing line tied off to a large hook and wrapped neatly around empty plastic soda bottles
- 1 long gondola pole to beat in the heads of our catch at long range
- 1 bait box made from an old plastic oil jug
- A bunch of eels for bait
- 1 club for bashing in the heads of our catch at close range
This was it.
These men were professional fishermen — they fish these jungle rivers each day and transform their catch into their sole source of income — but their combined gear would not even come close to equaling the amount of tackle in even a novice fisherman’s box in the USA. These jungle fishermen had only what they needed to catch fish: hooks, line, bait, boats.
Who needs anything more?
The fishermen and I then gathered up this small collection of tackle and headed back down to the river. Climbing into two boats, the fishermen split themselves up: I went with Alfredo and his brother, Alfredo’s son went with some other men. Now, there were three men in each of two cayucos. We began paddling out on the river.
I looked down into the water — it was dark, deep, could a 150 pound sea monster be waiting beneath, ready to fight against jungle men in wobbly dugout cayucos holding the fishing lines in their bare hands? I braced myself for what may come, I stared down into the deep. Alfredo stuck a large hook through the mouth and out the back of the head of a foot long eel. He threw it baseball style out into the river.
We were fishing.
This article is part of a series on indigenous Maya fishermen and their fishing methods on the Rio Dulce, continue reading by clicking sequentially on the links below.