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Bocas del Toro is a shallow reef fringed island archipelago dotted with jungle and mangrove islands off the borders between mainland Costa Rica and Panama. The Caios Zapatillas, Zapatillas meaning ‘footprints’, are two tiny sand fringed islands just beyond and before heading to open Carribean beyond their protective reef. Native Indians and fishermen hire their boats and navigation to gringo tourists. This is where my daughter Lydia lived for a few years and where we made three visits, one of which included this adventure.
Two, perhaps three miles out to sea, beyond the reef to Zapatillas,
Bocas’ dual sand-edged footprint jewels with jungle centre trees,
Francesco’s outboard boat heads out to Caribbean’s deeper blue.
Where sun burns softer gringo skin, but canopy saves that paining hue
from deceiving rays bounced bright by gentle glass reflecting waves.
Francesco’s legs look saddle bent as though a horse led life was spent
beneath his goucho hat, but though it was not spoken by him, others said
that they were broken, an accident, not set.
Francesco lived not on a ranch but on a floating island, mangrove's root and branch, not higher than his hut front door. His wife and children out of school wait daily his setting sun’s return, their father fisher pescador.
Indian brown and weather beaten, today he boats pale gringo, whose wallet dollar pays a better sum, whose wife and daughter lie in sun, reclined with son, on one of Caios Zaptilla’s foot print sand-lined jewels. They too await their fishing father, anticipating his return, with yet another disappointed tale.
El Nina's year with weather clearer, girl-child brings the fish much nearer. With Zapatillas out of sight soon deeper waters darker light sees first the bait fish shoaling past, then the Spanish Mackerel follow close. Wahoo at last begin to show, dark shadows silent glide below Francesco’s twelve foot boat.
And there is a quickening of hope, a hope of fishermen’s vain glory, a hoped-for fully laden boat, a hope of bolder story, told as children hear their fishing fathers’ words unfold, and thankful wives find, and finely hone, their sharpest fillet knives.
And so Francesco follows a caravanning line of fish, and gringo casts his fishing line, and makes his silent wish. But soon the bait fish, drop-netted from the mangrove margins, and sloshing in their water hold, are lost to Wahoo's razor teeth which cut the line and take the lot 'cause we forgot the wiry trace.
At last, a single fish on board and that because the line is caught and wrapped around its tail. But hooks and bait have almost gone.
Francesco must head gringo home. Though on the way a final try.
A shark hook find amid assorted debris stowed, and with a fillet cut from fishes tail, the rig is starboard pitched and trolled some 50 yards behind.
Gringo sits and finds the shade and eyes begin to glaze in hottest part of midday's sun, and outboard's throttled churning hum the only sound as fishing day is done.
But as eyes droop they look and scan just one last time and find a dorsal fin on trail of where hook and bait must be, with black and waving tip of tacking tail close following behind.
At once alert. No sooner gringo points than rod is slammed down to the gunwale and reel screams sparking nylon from reel funnel. Falling bruising to his knees and nearly pitching to the sea the gunwale tips to water's level nearly losing man and rod as propeller tops and breaches wavy trough and engine screams its airy throttle. Francesco’s hand hold grip is lost.
Slack just for a moment as flimsy boat returns upright but barely seconds pass before the line is tight and muscles clenched are taught, and breaching port just front of prow, fish shape begins his freedom leap.
Francesco's shout from back of boat as black-backed sail and tail and bill all mighty leap and iridescent body stripes hang high at crest of arc, and bold black eye comes eye to eye with gringo as tormentor.
Then leaping arc’s momentum takes a downward path to enter scarcely with a splash sleek fish’s depthward pass, and once again boat's jolting lurch tips gringo to his ar se.
Now reel begins to strip. Francesco pescador wheels to point the prow and follow diving fins towards their darker sunless deep, towards their deepest sea bed floor.
Direction changed, now out to sea, with shadow gone from canopy and gringo takes Francesco's hat to shield from burning sun, as both are sat now balanced in the follow.
The steady stripping line begins to sing. Elastic stretched to breaking strain with whine in gentle wind, no inch gained on diving fish and yard by yard the pull is hard and muscle feels the pain. Boat prow is tipped by downward pull and steady cuts slight waving blue as time stands still close heading for the hour before a word is said.
‘How big?’ The gringo‘s question comes, with no more power, his legs are dead his arms are numb. ‘400 pounds,’ comes the reply and gringo thinks they both might die. But reel has peeled close to the core and soon the line will be no more and fish will hold, or fish will snap, but either way a story told, composed far longer miles in heading back.
And then that moment comes. All line is out and rod bend touches gliding sea and descends a little further. Francesco slides to balance port as boat tips close to water's edge with gringo braced to what is caught both arms are wet in water salt as line ascends its whining pitch.
Then gringo falling on his back. And now there is a longer track to Zapatillo’s island.
Wahoo’s skin has dried and skin and eye have lost their shimmered iridescence. And beauty’s essence of that fish has died beneath the burning sun.
Yet, Marlino’s sleek and black bold eye makes a story for the family, a story for the son. And pescador Francisco sits to pat the gringo’s aching back. To silent sit in sympathy, and with silence say well done!
Copyright © Bob Kimmerling | Year Posted 2020