My memories of fishing in Venezuela begin at a very young age…..

The rainy season was upon us again with torrents of rain falling from the dark sky accompanied by flashes of lightning with the thunder rolling in and out again like a freight train passing in the distance. Hollywood was a rather new camp at this time and the only provision for drainage were ditches on each side of the camp streets which were really insufficient to handle the large quantities of rain that fell, so they would fill up to the brim and in some cases overflow across the streets.

This was one of my favorite times of the year because while Dad was at work, Mom would permit my brother and I to have full run of the camp and there was nothing better than running barefooted down the flooded streets with my close friends, Palmer Bazemore and Mike Peters. I guess I was about four years old at the time. The thrill of the falling cooling rain and the water was exhilarating.

Another thrill was attempting to catch the small fish that because of the high water and a poor floor control system were able to swim up from the lake. These were very small fish and they presented a challenge to us as we tried to scoop them into empty mayonnaise jars or KLIM cans using the strainers that we took from our mother’s kitchens. We would keep the fish for a while in jars in our rooms at the house. They seemed to disappear when we lost interest in them.

After Dad was transferred to Campo Verde, Tia Juana in 1949 with both my friends’ families following shortly thereafter, we eventually discovered that the camp had a flood drainage system no more effective than that of Hollywood. The small camp consisting of about four streets and no school and was prone to flooding every rainy season. The camp had been constructed in a marsh area next to the lake shoreline and at that time there was no obvious dike. When the company dredged its harbor it deposited the sand in the area where the camp was built filling in the marsh. So the land along the lakefront that had not been built upon consisted of sand and was referred to as “the dredge”. Razor grass grew well there along with other vegetation including burr grass. There were no trees, just low shrubs here and there.

Campo Verde was a beautiful camp having most of its houses on elevated concrete stilts to avoid flooding and had been fully landscaped with mature coconut palms painted with white lime at the bases and a variety of flowering shrubs, mango, mamone, tamarindo trees, guayaba and an assortment of fruit bearing trees. It was a child’s paradise.

Anyway, the street ditches discharged into a main ditch which ran parallel to the lake and into a large basin - more like a pit - which was pumped discharging into the nearby lake. This flood surge basin was a young fisherman’s delight. My friends and I would take white bread for bait from our mothers, heavy cotton string which was used for flying kites and itsy bitsy fishing hooks and off we would go to the basin. There we would find a spot near the water where we could not fall in and then take a piece of white bread rolling it into a dough ball between our fingers with the assistance of a little spit and lower the hook into the water where we could see small flat-sided fish swimming about. The fish were no larger than the palm of our hands and weren’t even edible as far as I know. I never ate one, but the thrill was just catching them and then comparing the sizes to see who caught the largest fish.

We would do this for hours under that blistering hot sun, wearing just shorts with Keds on our feet and no shirt, or hat. Always in the background was the hum of the motors and rhythm and squeal of rubbing metal from the pumping jacks that endlessly nodded and dotted the dredge accompanied by the ever present stink of spilled oil that soaked the ground around the pumps. Damn, it got hot!!! I hated the long stifling hot walk back to the camp which was way off in the distance. This was the days before we had bicycles and even then the ride back to camp was always long and stifling.

So, time passes and we approach our early teens and the Company management is beginning to think more about how to provide entertainment for its employees and their children. We now had a nice staff school and a brand new country club which was the envy of the other camps and on Sundays, the Company provided a work launch for fishing excursions out onto the lake.

Dad did not fish; I don’t think he liked the lake at this point in his career – too many years on the lake. Anyway, Bill and I liked to go fishing and we prepared for it by purchasing fresh shrimp off the fish truck which came through camp periodically, having spare hooks and lead weights and at least two spools of heavy duty string fishing line. We fished the Venezuelan native way.

So, Dad would drop us off at the pier where we met mostly bachelors who were going out to fish. They would load coolers of iced beer and some sodas and ice for the fish we caught. The Venezuelan boat crew would untie the boat and take it lazily rocking out of the harbor. I loved the rumble and sensation underfoot of the powerful twin diesel engines under the red painted steel deck access doors – this was one of the new faster workboats. The hot engine exhaust would boil to the surface leaving a small short-lived puff of steam and lingering small of diesel fuel in the air. Everyone would settle down either in the few deck benches or below deck where there were additional benches in two rows and the faint odor of sweaty bodies. I would walk along side of the cabin topside to the bow of the boat and sit on the roof of the passenger compartment to feel the breeze on my body as the boat capitan pushed the twin engine throttles full open. What a treat!! The launch would speed towards its objective.

At some point, the capitan would call either Bill or I over and let us take control of the boat while pointing out a well or flow station in the far distance that was our fist fishing location. Now this was a thrill, to guide that huge powerful workboat at full throttle. When we hit choppy water it was even more thrilling. The capitan and his crew were down below deck stretched out sleeping on the benches. When we approached the objective one of us would call down below for the capitan and he and his small boat crew would come up and take control of the boat. I was amazed as his skill as he would approach the well or flow station platform with the boat rocking back and forth by swells and he would back it in close enough for a crewmember to jump to the plantform and secure the launch.

That was when serious fishing began. If we were at a well, then our objective was to drop the line close to a piling as the fish congregated around the pilings. We were way out in the lake fishing in about sixty feet of water. Bill and I would make sure the hooks and lead weights were securely fastened and then we would bait the hook with a shrimp then sitting on the side of the boat we would drop the baited hook over the side of the boat playing out the line until we felt the lead weight hit the bottom and then we would lift the baited hook about a foot off the lake bottom. Now, if you ever watched the Venezuelans fish from their skiffs they would let the rise and fall of the boat and an occasional lifting of the hand held line as a means of attracting the fish. Well, that’s how Bill and I fished.

The lead weight was heavy enough to old the line fairly taunt so when a fish nibbled on the bait or for that matter rubbed against the bait you could feel the vibrations and all we had to do was jerk the line upward. In most cases, believe it or not, that meant a hooked fish. Since we were not sports fishing, - the objective being catch fish and get into boat quickly so you can catch another – we would quickly pull in the line and bring the fish on board. A real treat was to catch one of the huge lake perch. The black perch being most prized. The fish could up to 15 inches long and were so so tasty!! The next favorite was the corbina and then the palometto. These fish also could be very big and were highly prized.

It wasn’t unusual to catch a damn bagre (a form of catfish), the filth things. When you got them on deck, you had to watch out for they had a dorsal fin containing a sharp spine which they would raise as they bounced about the deck all the while emitting croaks. I knew of two occasions where my brother in his haste to get one off his hook, drove a spine through the sole of his tennis shoe and into his foot. Fortunately he did not end up with a nasty infection. The second time the fish spiked his knee while whipping around on his line. The best way to handle the damn things after you caught one was to club it to death and then remove the hook. The slimy filthy things……

Occasionally you would hook something immobile on the bottom and that was it for the hook and leader and maybe even the lead weight. I once saw a guy catch a freshwater ray – it was huge. Another time a guy standing on the platform of a closed-in well which was about 20 feet above the lake surface caught and brought to the surface after a long fight with a spinning road and reel a huge lake catfish. Well, there was no way he could lift it from the water so he cut his line. Using a rod and reel to fish in that deep water made no sense at all.

A day fishing could involve visiting several different wells or flow stations as we searched for “the” spot and all the while that glaring sun beat down on you from above and from the reflecting water surface. At the end the ice chests were full of fish and everyone was exhausted and the captain would take the launch back to the harbor. Bill and I would take our catch back home where Mom would gut and scale the fish. I would help her, but Bill could not stand the smell or sight and was out of sight before we even began the work.

The next day, for lunch, Mom would serve baked fish, scalloped potatoes and stewed tomatoes with a nice fresh cold salad and iced tea. Hmmmm….. Life couldn’t be any better than that.