Christmas Day 2000. That special time of year has arrived once again. As is the tradition in our family, we all awaken at the crack of dawn and gather around the beautifully decorated Christmas tree in our living room. I play Santa Claus, passing out gifts to my wife Theresa and our sons. All our family members smile and laugh as they open their presents. Everyone is full of joy and happiness.
At first, nothing seems different about this particular Christmas. We exchange our gifts, and later in the day, we all gather once again to eat our fill of a huge holiday feast — baked ham with pineapple on top, green bean casserole, potatoes au gratin, deviled eggs, homemade hot rolls and all sorts of cake and pies.
After we eat, though, I sit to enjoy the holiday spirit and realize this Christmas is, in fact, very different for me. For the first time in my life, content and happy at home, I realize how truly blessed I am.
Forty-eight hours earlier, I was awakened by the raucous calls of a dozen Amazon parrots in a tree outside my window. I was in my berth on the mothership Yanna, and the final day of a week-long fishing trip in Amazonas, Brazil was about to begin. I had only a couple hours left to fish before the ship took us back to the city of Manaus 300 miles away, so I hurried outside and met my guide José Guerra. The deeply tanned young man greeted me with a huge smile, as always.
“Bom dia, Señor Catfish,” he said. “You are ready to catch a grandé pirarara?”
The pirarara is the redtail catfish, and with Jose’s help, I hoped to land one of these big beautiful fishes in the short time I had left to fish. We hurried to a small boat tied to the back of the Yanna and motored a mile upstream to a spot where a small tributary flowed into the much larger Madeira River.
“I save this one special for you, Señor Catfish,” José said, holding up a 6-inch piranha that was popping its jaws like castanets. José grinned and pretended to kiss the fish for luck. Then he grasped the razor-toothed piranha firmly in his fingertips, hooked it just behind the dorsal fin and tossed it into the river.
“Cast there,” he said, pointing to a cluster of green bushes growing in shallow water on the river’s edge. “I believe there you will catch a grandé pirarara.” He smiled, knowingly.
I cast the bait, let the rig swing tight in the current and placed a fingertip on the line so I could detect any bites. When the bite came, however, there was nothing subtle about it. My rod tip plunged into the water, and I barely had time to react to keep the rod and reel from being yanked from my hands.
“Whooohooo!” José shouted as the fish surged away, taking 50 yards of line with it. As he watched from the stern of the boat, he clapped his hands and shouted encouragement. “Catch him, Señor Catfish! He’s a beeg one!”
The fish struggled fiercely to throw the hook, and for several minutes, the outcome was uncertain. But the 28-pounder didn’t stand a chance against a 225-pound man as determined as I. I soon brought the fish near enough for José to net.
I had tried hard throughout the week to catch a red-tailed catfish, without success. Now, in the final moments I had left to fish, I finally lifted from the water the fish of my dreams. The timing could not have been more perfect. On the eve of Christmas Eve, I caught a catfish with a Christmas-colored tail. For me, and for José, there could have been no more perfect way to end our adventure.
When we boarded the Yanna again, the big boat slowly made its way up the Madeira to the town of Autazes where José and several other guides live. When we arrived, José came to me and said, “There is some time before the Yanna leaves. Will you walk with me to my home? I want you to meet my family.”
As we strolled through the streets of the remote jungle community, past rows of tall palm trees, through gorgeous parks full of flowers and lush green grass, alongside the city’s beautiful blue Catholic church, I thought, “What a wonderful place in which to live. It’s like paradise.”
I was about to find out, however, that all was not as it seemed.
José’s tiny house on the edge of town had only a single room and no furniture. Two hammocks hung in one corner. There was no running water, sewer or electricity. An open tank on the rooftop collected rainwater for cooking, drinking and bathing.
The greeting José’s wife, Milena, gave me was warm and unexpected. When José had introduced us, she hugged me tightly as if she were greeting a long-lost brother.
“This is Papa’s friend, Mr. Catfish,” she said to their two daughters, Ana, 5, and Maria, 7, who giggled excitedly. Then, to my great joy, the beautiful little girls hugged me, too.
“And who is this little guy?” I asked of the baby boy in Milena’s arms.
“His name is Gustavo,” she said, pulling back the little blanket swaddling the child. I could see then the baby was very ill. He looked pale, his skin ashen. I touched his cheek with the back of my fingers. It was hot with fever.
“He has malaria,” José told me. “The doctors do not think he will live very long. Two more of our children have died because of the mosquitoes. We have no medicine for them. We worry for our daughters, too.”
José said these things almost matter-of-factly, as if he had long ago resigned himself to the fact that the loss of children to the disease was inevitable. But I knew such was not the case.
Back on the Yanna, I told the other anglers about meeting José’s family.
“I had no idea people still got malaria,” one of them said. “Isn’t there something we can do?”
“It may be too late for his son,” I said. “But we can save José’s daughters. Every one of us still has malaria medicine with us. If we collect what everyone has, we can give it to José, and maybe we can help save not only José’s children, but others as well. We can replace the medicine when we get home.”
As the Yanna pulled away later that day, José and his wife smiled and waved goodbye to us from shore. The other guides were there with their families, too.
In his hand, José clutched a large plastic bag full of pills. Every angler on the boat had contributed the last of their malaria medicine to the children of Autazes. And money several of us had brought to buy Christmas gifts for our families was given to José so he could buy more medicine.
Soon, Autazes was slowly fading away in the distance. We watched together from the rear deck of the Yanna, and as I looked around at the faces of the men beside me, in their eyes I saw tears. Without doubt, the things we experienced in that little town in the heart of the Brazil wilderness changed us all forever.
We live in a country where it is easy to forget—especially around Christmas time—how fortunate we are to have everything we need. But on Christmas Day 2000, sitting at home with memories of Autazes still vivid in my mind, I was keenly aware of how blessed my family truly is.
I hugged my wife and sons tight and said a prayer of thanks for the best Christmas ever.
Looking for fishing shows on Outdoor Channel during the months of October – December? “The Hunt for Big Fish”and “Stihl’s Reel in the Outdoors” both air in the last quarter of the year. Check the schedule for updated air times.