Posted by: 1000fish | March 17, 2011

A Ray of Hope

Dateline – March 17, 2011: Isla Grande, Brazil

The events in Brazil early last May still trouble me. I have bad dreams. The crew probably has worse dreams. Even the stingray was in therapy for months, and I can’t get that stupid Ricky Martin song out of my head.  Some of you may wonder what the heck I am talking about, and I should just leave it there, but if you dare to read, you will learn the sordid tale of May 3, 2010, when I caught the world record W-Mouth Stingray … while naked. Fishing just should not be a clothing optional sport. As a matter of fact, some would deny it is a sport at all, because the other side doesn’t know it’s playing.

So yes, this memory is disturbing to me, my friends, and even the family members who still speak to me.  With the help of a team of therapists, I worked through my childhood traumas and made several critical breakthroughs. I forgave my mother for grounding me until I was 26. I accepted that Cousin Chuck will never be like normal people. I figured out why I am frightened of oven mitts and why my best friend is a stuffed platypus named Robert. I started work on forgiving my stepmother for the thing with the cookies, but even the therapist couldn’t get past that one. He asked for her address and stormed out with a crowbar. I haven’t seen him since, and I had to go out and find a whole new therapist, which isn’t easy out here, since most of the good ones are already working full time with Charlie Sheen.  I looked for some self-help books on the topic, and out in California, there are self-help books on EVERY topic.

NAKED WORLD RECORDS – A Guide to Emotional Survival – This book changed my life.

Through my reading, I began to toy with the idea that if I could catch another Brazilian stingray record, with my clothes on this time, I could begin to erase this haunting Latin memory. Of course, getting to Brazil involves gigantic barriers of distance, time, culture, and whether they would even renew my visa. (Imagine the scene at customs – “Aren’t you the naked stingray guy? Leave our country.”)  Even then, there was no guarantee that I could catch a specific fish. Still, for the sake of my sanity, I decided it had to be done. But how?

In early March, the Fish Gods smiled upon me. An emergency business trip to Sao Paolo came up, and it left me a couple of free days at the end of the week. I immediately called Otavio, an old buddy and “the man” for all fishing in the area, and he got me set up again on the “Master Crabb,” captained by Guilherme Studart – the same boat and skipper involved in last year’s debacle. This time, we would go about 20 miles further out, to the back side of Isla Grande, one of the most scenic spots in a lovely coastal area likely to be teeming with new species for me to catch. But the main objective was to stay dressed and find some other species of ray that would qualify for a record. This might sound simple, but remember how badly I messed it up last year. Still, the idea that this ray was out there somewhere gave me hope for a less-troubled future.

Despite my best-laid plans (no rodents involved,) the trip came close to never happening. The Fish Gods toyed with me, the weather got crummy in the middle of the week, and Otavio and I traded frantic emails with hourly updates. By game time, it looked like we could get out to the islands, but it was going to be bumpy.  I am OK with bumpy water, so long as it doesn’t reach level three in the “I see sky/I see water/I see my lunch” scale. Besides, it couldn’t get much worse than last year, right? RIGHT? And so I took the shuttle over to Rio on Wednesday afternoon. What a lovely city it is, cliffs plunging into the water, fabulous beaches, the Corcovada, the Sugarloaf, wonderful people. Before I checked into the hotel, I had a friend drive me up to some of the incredible overlooks, just to soak in the view.

                     Not a bad view that I’m blocking.

After I got to the Marriott, I wandered around Ipanema beach – I didn’t see the “Girl from Ipanema” although she still lives there – see It was very pleasant out, and I walked all the way back to Copacabana. And yes, that Barry Manilow song echoed in my head, even though Lola and Tony were nowhere near Brazil, as Brazil is SOUTH of Havana. (Those of you under 40, look it up.)

The famous Ipanema Beach. There is quite a thong of people here in the summer months.

I woke up an hour early and couldn’t get back to sleep because I kept wondering how the water was and what I would catch. I checked and re-packed my gear, then went downstairs and watched the sun rise over the islands off Niteroi.

        Sunrise in Rio de Janeiro, just outside Guanabara Bay.

Otavio was on time at 6 – it was great to catch up with him. The ride from Rio de Janeiro to Sepitiba is a delight in the early morning hours, out through the awakening town and into the rural hills to the southwest. (The ride back is never quite as delightful, mostly because we are heading away from fishing, but also because the evening traffic is a disaster. Still, there are worse places to enjoy the view at 4 miles an hour.) I was well-prepared, with a large stock of water and caffeinated beverages, as well as a store of UMF prepared by the chefs at the Rio Marriott – pizza, chicken sandwiches, pizza, and yes, a salad.

Most people can’t wait to get out into the open water, but often, fishing in the harbor can be the highlight of a trip for me – and this particular harbor is loaded with oddball fish. I whipped out the trusty #3 sabiki and caught all kinds of stuff around the pilings, docks, and the rocky breakwall. I’m always fascinated to see what will live in an area at a certain time of year – I was in this same harbor last May, only 6 weeks later in the year, but caught a completely different batch of critters. Incredibly, I got 5 newbies on this trip before we even untied the boat. And to be honest, I had no idea what most of these were – but my reliable fountain of ichthyological knowledge, Dr. Alfredo Carvalho of University of Sao Paolo, nailed down every ID within a day of my emailing the photos to him. Obrigado, Alfie!

The “Sepitiba Harbor 5” – clockwise from upper left: False Herring, Irish Pompano, Guri Sea Catfish, Frillfin Goby, Flagfin Mojarra. Thank you Dr. Carvalho!!

The ride over was bumpy but no breakfasts reappeared. Isla Grande started as a misty lump on the horizon and came slowly into focus. The scenery there is ridiculously sublime – I had been to the area about 10 years ago with an old girlfriend, but we never made it to this side of the island. These islands are rounded rocky domes that come straight out of the water, covered with lush vegetation and palm trees. Exotic wildlife calls from the treetops, and the water is rich, deep blue. 

How could anyone look at this and not wonder if the bluefish would hit a popper?

             I wonder if there is an Omani tuna below that bird.

Our first couple of stops featured endless squirrelfish catches – these were the dominant pest of the day. The water was swelly but bearable, it was beautiful and sunny, and I just sat back and waited for the weird stuff to find me. (Akin to dating in college.)

I don’t know why they’re called squirrelfish either. Has anyone ever seen a red, spiny squirrel? While sober?

We moved several times, and in the mouth of a rocky bay, we started hitting some interesting stuff.  The first new species to hit the deck was a Brazil wrasse over a pound – enormous by wrasse standards. (Most wrasses, although beautiful, are of bait-stealing size and disposition.)  So not only did I get a beautiful creature to add to the list, it was also a world record – another on the list of underrepresented fishes that will now have a day in the sun.

When I told friends “I got a Brazilian Wrasse,” they presumed I had done something with my hair. And no, Masako, you can not give me a Brazilian Wrasse. (Editor’s note – Masako is the stylist who is to blame for Steve’s haircut.)

                               Closeup on the wrasse tail.

I also started catching puffers. Puffers fascinate me. Neither large nor fast, they simply inflate into an unappetizing prickly ball and dare you to eat them. And if you eat them, you die, because their flesh is poisonous. Most of them were Atlantic Smooth Puffers, a creature that can sever fingers with a single chomp, but one of them was a strange one indeed – A Guinean Burrfish, which became species #1045. He was difficult to hold even for a moment – those spines are sharp.

                       How the heck do these things mate?

I also picked up a nice little damselfish to add to my collection of plain, brown, nearly-impossible-to-identify damselfishes from all over the world. Never mind that there are squillions of damsels that are beautifully colored, I catch the plain brown ones everywhere I go. Sigh. A moment later, I pulled up a Pluma porgy, one of the more attractive seabreams in the area. It was going well, but no rays so far.

I have photos of plain brown damsels like this from all over the world.  Would it be too much to ask for a colorful one, just once?

Pluma Porgy – a seabream that looks like it rear-ended a blue car

A bonus goatfish. I’d caught the species before, but they are a beautiful critter. Much more beautiful than a plain brown damselfish.

As the sun went down, we anchored on the edge of a rocky dropoff, right where the hard bottom gave way to sand – perfect ray territory. The heavier rod had a big sardine on the bottom – a home run bait for what I hoped would be a home run fish. Small creatures kept nipping away and stealing the baits, so I found myself stripping off a sardine skeleton every fifteen minutes and putting on a fresh one. Evening gave way to night, and I was enjoying the quiet, when the rod gave a single twitch. I raised an eyebrow. Then another twitch, calling for the other eyebrow. And then, in a slight breach of etiquette, the fish simply took off like a drag-racing submarine and almost pulled the rod with it. All I could do was hang on. I knew this was it – the big ray, the record, redemption. The first run went out a blazing quick hundred yards, but luckily it was away from the rocks, or I certainly would have broken off. The fish held out in the deeper water, then reluctantly started coming in. Every time I made progress, the fish would run back out again, and just when I had him within about 50 yards, he took off again on a blazing run parallel to the shore, 80 yards or more. This was going to be the biggest ray I had ever gotten in South America. As he swam off in the distance, I thought it was swimming oddly for a ray, almost like there was some head-shaking. I eventually willed him closer, and in the dark water, I thought I caught flashes of silver. Rays are not silver, they come in more conservative browns and grays. A few more cranks and pulls and he got closer. Guilherme came out on the deck to help.

“Holy @#$%, Batman, that’s a fish”, I yelled, forgetting that this wouldn’t translate well. Guilherme got the idea, and we both peered into the dark water, where, just on the edge of the light, something big was swimming – and it was not a ray. ” @#$%”, I said. “That’s not a ray.” We would see a flash now and then, and slowly, stubbornly, a fish came into view. It was a snapper. A mutton snapper. A huge mutton snapper. A mutton snapper over 20 pounds – the snapper of a lifetime. We netted it, and Guilherme was practically skipping around the deck in pure joy.  I sat there scowling, disappointed that it was not a lowly stingray. My emotional healing would have to wait, perhaps even for another trip. My ray of hope was fading.

The accidental trophy – the only time in recorded history a fisherman was disappointed with a snapper of this size.

We tried a few more spots, but nothing too exciting was biting. As the evening went on, I couldn’t shake the idea that that had been my shot at a ray, and I settled into trying hard to just enjoy the moment.  Ray or not, I was out at night in the isolated tropics, fishing rod in one hand, beverage in the other. We had anchored in a calm area for sleeping, well back in a shallow, protected cove. The crew finally went to bed, but I sat out there on the back deck, enjoying a Pepsi and the last of the Marriott pizza, with a spread of rods along the rail. I didn’t know what to expect in this shallow, sandy back bay, but I suspected rays were off the menu. It was still a lovely night and a lovely trip, even if I faced years of continuing therapy.  I was still grudgingly thrilled with my batch of new species, and I had all night to wait for something to happen along. It didn’t take long before one of the rods started shaking, and with great curiosity, I reeled in a solid fish. It was a smooth weakfish, a species I had caught before in 1999, but I had terrible photos so it was nice to get some new ones. Then another fish, with a different fight, which turned out to be a threadfin – a new species for me, part of a very cool group of fish that use their branched pectoral fins to search for food on the bottom.

 The smooth weakfish. Still prettier than a plain brown damselfish.

The littlescale threadfin. In Mexico, these are called “bobos.” In Australia, oddly enough, they are called “salmon,” but what do you expect from a country that requires a felony conviction for citizenship?

Those two species continued to light up the rods well into the early hours. At about 2am, I hooked what I thought was a bigger threadfin, reeled it to the boat, grabbed the leader, and swung it on to the deck. But wait a minute, that’s no threadfin – that’s a guitarfish. Yes. YES! An unexpected, totally thrilled, guttural, crew-waking YESSSSSSSSS! A guitarfish, a member of the RAY family, and undoubtedly one without a world record because everyone else who has ever caught one has had too much shame to turn it in. These curious little animals look like the result of a shark and a ray sharing an ill-advised night together, and I have caught related species in the US, Africa, and Australia.

I should have taken this picture with a wider angle, just to definitely show I was wearing pants.

                 Species #1048 – the shortnose guitarfish.

I looked down. My clothes were still on. The curse was broken.  “La Vida Loca” was no longer stuck in my head like “It’s a Small World.” I painstaking reeled up all the rods I had out, checked multiple times to make sure there was no tackle in the water, and finally took a shower. While wearing a swimsuit. I drifted off for a few hours of sleep, content that I had finally overcome this terrible obsession, knowing that I could finally concentrate on tackling the thing with the cookies.

            More outside reading for me.

The next day was very relaxed. (That’s not a word you hear from me very often, eh?) We cruised around the smaller islands off of Isla Grande and picked up some beautiful creatures, but there were no new species to report. And for once, this actually didn’t bother me, because I was in a state of ray afterglow. A gigantic burden had been lifted from my psyche. I felt 100 pounds lighter, although with the amount of pizza I had consumed in the past 24 hours, the opposite was likely true.

                                  Sunrise over Isla Grande.

   Queen Triggerfish – I never get tired of photographing these.

Another good Brazilian Wrasse. Luckily not quite big enough to break my record from yesterday, which would make me hate myself.

                    Steve and Guilherme make gang signals.

To tell the truth, with 11 new fishes on the scoreboard and that wonderful little ray, I was all good with it. We had a long run in to port on water smooth as glass, and I kicked back with a Gatorade and took in the tropical view. After that, I had a slow drive to Rio de Janeiro to look forward to, and dinner in Ipanema with an old friend. This was a place where some of my love for international fishing was born, and now it was a place where I had regained some of the dignity that had been lost on that slippery wooden deck 10 and a half months ago.

Fully dressed,


The moon rises over Sepitiba. This is vastly preferable to the moon from last May 3.


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