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Fishing for Tarpon in Guatemala

Traditional fishing in the jungles of Guatemala, Part 2.

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Tarpon Caught and Lost Fishing in Rio Dulce

RIO DULCE JUNGLE, Guatemala- When departing from the fishermen after a Saturday night of hunting for sea monsters, I was invited back for another round on Monday. Alfredo told me that it is more difficult to catch Sabalo — Tarpon — on the weekends, as this is when the ricos from the capital are speeding around in their yachts, scaring into hiding all that dwells below the river surface. I agreed to return.

But as the days ebbed and flowed, as the hotel that I am working at filled up with guests to its maximum capacity, I found the life of working taking precedence over the life of fishing. I could not make it back to the fishermen until Thursday.

Diving for eels, Tarpon bait

When I arrived at Alfredo’s home for my second round of indigenous Maya fishing, I found the place empty save for his wife.

“They are at the project in the rio,” she told me.

I had just driven my kayak past the men I came to meet. They called out to me as I paddled by, I talked to them — though I could not quite recognize them behind their snorkeling masks.

I returned to the river near the docks for the Ak-Tenimit project. I found Alfredo, his son, and his brother diving beneath the water with black snorkeling masks over their faces.

“What are you looking for?” I called out to the divers from the shore.

“Fish,” Alfredo responded.

It seemed to be an adequate response.

I sat on the docks of AK-Tenimit and watched the three men bob down into the river, stay under for upwards of a minute, and then bob right back up to the surface. Sometimes they would let out woops of victory, and there would be an aguilla, an eel like fish, in their hands. These eels are used as bait to fish for Tarpon in the Rio Dulce.

I watched the men diving, talked with some kids hanging out on the docks who wanted cookies, did not give them cookies, and, soon enough, Alfredo called out to me that they had collected the bait for another evening of fishing and signaled for me to return to their home, which sat directly behind the Ak-Tenimit project.

Bait box made from jug

I walked over to Alfredo’s beach and met the fishermen by their cayucos. We greeted each other after a half a week’s absence. The men were in their underwear, there was a layer of eels spread over the floor of their main cayuco. Alfredo’s brother would pick through them, tossing the small ones back while putting the larger ones into a bait box converted from an old oil jug.

The bait box/ oil jug had many holes punched through one side of it, and, after the eels are loaded into it from the spout, the jug is dipped into the river to collect water and then it is placed into the boat. Periodically while out fishing, the bait box would be dipped back into the river and fresh water added while the old, deoxygenated water runs back into the river. In this way, the eels are kept alive until a large hook is stuck through their mouths, down their throats, and popped out of their backs just behind the head. Each time we would toss a freshly hooked eel into the river we would comment on how delicious it looked, we would also remind it to get bitten by a Sabalo.

Missed the catch of two Tarpons

As we finished greeting each other and the eels were sorted out, the Q’eqchi’ Maya fishermen had news for me:

They had caught not one, but two Sabalos — Tarpons — in my absence. One of which was quartered into 16 pieces — the fishermen’s standard for determining Tarpon size — and they estimated it to weigh 150 pounds.

“How much do you weight?” questioned Alfredo’s son. .

I admitted that I weighted in at 150 pounds.

“Iqual al pez!” the fishermen laughed.

The teenage son then showed my his battle wounds: his hands were sliced up from pulling in the fishing line, the line also cut into the meat of his arms. He showed me these wounds with pride, for he was the fisherman who pulled in the sea monster.

“It was a good fight?” I commented.

The fishermen agreed with smiles. I continued listening to fish stories.

Maya Cayucos

We were standing by Alfredo’s store of cayucos, so it seemed natural to begin talking about boats. I asked if they knew of anyone who made dugout cayucos from trees — I was looking for leads on another story — and Alfredo basically told me that he bought them from what would be the equivalent of a store. He did not seem to have much of a social connection to the vender. But he did tell me what he paid for his stable of cayucos:

For a full length, 12′, dug out cayuco the cost was 900 Q — around $120 — for a smaller wooden boat the cost was around 600.

I then asked about the fiberglass cayucos, as Alfredo’s main fishing boat as well as his daughter’s boats are both made from this material, and he responded that the price was much more. His daughter paid 1200 Q for her tiny cayuco, I did not ask how much the large fiberglass boat cost — I assumed that it was around double the price of a wooden one. From what I observed, Alfredo was the only fisherman on this part of the river with a fiberglass boat on this part of the river.

Alfredo also joked that he did not like to use his daughter’s little, wobbly, fiberglass cayuco, “I like to go swimming the normal way,” he said.

Fishing for Tarpon

I was again out on the Rio Dulce with Alfredo, his brother, and his son. I made four in the cayuco. Alfredo sat in the front, his son sat behind him, I sat behind his son, and his brother sat behind me. We all sat on old blue Pepsi bottle crates. The three Q’eqchi’ fishermen tied three inch hooks to their lines and stuck these hooks through the heads of three eels, respectively, reeled out enough line, and then tossed the eels into the river.

I asked if I could help. They gave me a paddle.

I sat and watched the men fish. There were around six cayucos full of fishermen on the river, they sat within earshot of each other. The air, the sea, the men in the boat all went quiet. The afternoon was calm, the worry, rush, and nonsense of dealing with tourists all day in the hotel that I am working at began to dissipate: I was on the river fishing for sea monsters with the Maya, no hotel guest could find me here. I looked down river into the distance, the scene was beauti . . .

[Fart sound]

A fisherman in a nearby cayuco farted. This made every man within listening distance laugh. Three cayucos worth of fishermen pulled their shirts up to their noses and joked in Q’eqchi’ about farting.

“Farts are funny in all cultures of the world,” I spoke to Alfredo’s son in Spanish.

The fishermen agreed with a laugh.

“Funny for the men,” I added to my commentary.

“The women don’t like think they are funny,” Alfredo’s son replied. He then asked me in Spanish what the word is for fart in English.

I said, “fart.”

He repeated it a couple of times. New vocabulary is always useful.

I asked the same question, and found that the word for fart in Q’eqchi’ sounds like, “qis.”

I laughed, “That is the same sound as the English word for “kiss,” I spoke in Spanish.

The men laughed, the Q’eqchi’ word for fart is the same as the English word for kiss. It was funny.

Hooking a sea monster

After many more farts and many more laughs, twilight began to over take the day. The sky grew orange again, the river matched it. No fish were caught between any of the cayucos, the Sabablo, or Tarpon, if they were below, were either hiding out of our range, were not hungry, or had outsmarted us.

I entered that stage of fishing where you no longer anticipate catching anything, where you no longer think about the giant fish below who are bobbing cautiously around your baited hook, and I just enjoyed being out on the river watching the sun stamp out its time card on the day to be replaced by night. But just when you become comfortable not catching anything when fishing is often the moment when you feel a tug at the business end of your line.

Alfredo’s son jumped up suddenly and yanked back on his fishing line hard.

“He is setting the hook!” I got excited.

Alfredo’s son then sat back down for a moment — false alarm.

Then, suddenly, he stood up again and yanked the line hard again. This time everyone was sure: he had set the hook. We had a sea monster on our line.

These Maya fishermen do not use reels or poles to fish, they just use a line wrapped around a plastic soda bottle — they bring it in my hand. As Alfredo’s son began bringing in the cord, I tried to help by collecting it. Alfredo’s brother gave me the soda bottle, and I began reeling in the line that was passed back to me.

The Tarpon then jumped out of the river. It was huge, glistening silver, bigger than any fish I had ever seen. It jumped at least six feet out of the water, it was probably at least six feet long, I felt my eyes bulge wide open. I had never seen anything like this before — the quiet scene before me was broken as a sea monster emerged from the deep. In that moment I became a believer: there really were eight foot, 150 pound fish in this river. As quickly as the Tarpon jumped into the air, it splashed in a melee of waves back into the river and made for the deep.

The chase was on.

Alfredo called for the long beating pole, I quickly handed it up to him. My quickly related instructions from Alfredo’s brother was to wrap the fishing line around the soda bottle. I had never fished with a plastic bottle as a reel before, so I did what I was told without further questioning. I wound the line around it fast, as our boat was being towed by the giant fish. We were soon pulled towards a little island in the river when the Tarpon switched direction. Alfredo’s son made way to give the fish some line.

I didn’t.

The line snapped.

I lost the sea monster.

On losing a Tarpon

It did not occur to me for a moment as I sat in the boat on two occasions of fishing for Tarpon what I would actually do if anybody in the boat I was in caught one. Fishing for 150 pound fish with a pop bottle and reeling in the line with bare hands seemed so abstract to me that I did not feel myself a true part of the process. I did not imagine that if we caught a Tarpon that I would be called into action in any pertinent capacity. I figured that I would just get out of the way and observe how it was done for next time.

I was not afforded such a luxury. Every man in every position of a fishing boat has a job. I was located directly behind the person who caught the fish, it was my job to reel in the line. I took to my new found roll quickly — there was no other option, everybody in the boat was excited — there was no time for asking questions.

I held onto the soda bottle horizontally — like a reel on a standard fishing pole — rather than vertically, which would have allowed line to easily slip off of it was pulled. As I held the bottle in both hands laterally across my body, the line was not able to slip off of the reel easily, when Alfredo’s son made to give the Tarpon some line the message was not communicated to me. It snapped.

I sat in the boat in shock, holding my end of the now limp line, while the giant Tarpon stole away with his. Everybody in the cayuco looked at me, I lamely passed forward the now hook and bait less reel of fishing line.

I lost the fish.

There was nowhere to go.

When the fishermen realized what had happened, Alfredo’s son almost jumped into the air in anger. He yelled something in Q’eqchi’ that contained the word “Gringo.”

Like I said, there was nowhere to go.

I know more about fishing than to have made such a bush league mistake, and I knew it. There was no excuse for me.

And everyone in the boat knew it.

Everyone on the river soon knew it, too. As we paddled by the rest of the cayucos full of fishermen, Alfredo’s son kindly informed them all as to how that giant Tarpon that they just saw jump out of the river was lost. I became the laughingstock of the river. Now instead of laughing about farts, the fishermen laughed at me. I heard the word “Gringo” ringing out from within the Qi, Oosh, and Kha sounds of Q’eqchi’ Mayan.

I took the ride of shame past the other cayucos full of laughing fishermen, as the men in my boat had their anger transformed into hysterics. The gringo lost their sea monster. I suppose this is funny.

As they laughed at me, Alfredo picked up the soda bottle with the severed fishing line and showed me the proper way to hold it. He held it out perpendicularly from his body, so that the line could easily slip off the end of the spool to allow the fish to run.

“It was beautiful, though,” I spoke of the glistening silver, six foot Tarpon that we had just seen jump out of the river.

“Yes, but they are more beautiful when I hit them with a club,” Alfredo’s son responded, as we floated back home with only a story and a laugh to show for our efforts.

Though the fishermen, surprisingly, did invite me back to go fishing with them the following day.

This article is part of a series about the indigenous fishing methods of the Q’eqchi’ Maya in the eastern jungles of Guatemala. To navigate through the other articles in this series, use the links below.


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Filed under: Adventure, Culture and Society, Fishing, Guatemala, Rain Forests

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3720 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

6 comments… add one

Leave a Comment

  • Mike Crosby July 25, 2010, 10:35 pm

    That’s almost an other worldly story. Wow.

    Wade, it seems you’re becoming fluent in Spanish. Congratulations.

    Link Reply
    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com July 26, 2010, 2:09 pm


      Really appreciate this feedback. Yes, my knowledge of Spanish is coming together decently, not yet fluent, but I fully know what is going on around me and can communicate whatever I want — so sometimes it comes out pretty rough, I must admit.


      Link Reply
  • erik July 27, 2010, 4:10 am

    finally some fishing!!

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com July 27, 2010, 10:26 am

      Figured you would like this. Should come down and try to catch yourself a Tarpon.

      Link Reply
  • Joe July 27, 2010, 2:06 pm

    Great Fantastic story Wade I love fishing and you had me going with your Calm than Excitement and finally Disappointment as if I was their fishing in the boat. Hope you find the time for some more fishing.
    Any idea what they make on a fish that size for the family does the whole village share in the profit or just the family that gets lucky to catch one that day Just curious on the village and family structure.

    Link Reply
    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com July 27, 2010, 11:31 pm

      It is unclear to me what they make on the Sabalo. The thing is that they are not good eating fish, so I don’t think they sell for too much money. I have asked twice about how much they sell it for, and my question was passed off each time. They have told me what they make from the other fish, just not the Sabalo.

      I sort of think that, along with sustenance, they also fish Tarpon for the sport of it. These guys truly love catching these fish — just as all other fishermen all over the world.

      Link Reply