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Day 1, posted Oct. 6, 2006
One hour and 40 minutes. That's how long it took to fly on a chartered plane from Manaus, Brazil, to the jungle airstrip where we were about to land.
One hour and 40 minutes of green, green and more green with no signs of civilization. We followed a ribbon of silver river snaking through the rainforest until the red dirt of the airstrip appeared below.
Manaus sits in the middle of Brazil, where the Rio Negro meets the Solimões to form the Amazon River.
After a commercial flight from Miami and a shuttle to the airfield where we met our charter, we are in the air again moments after the morning breaks.
The river here is huge; it looks bigger than the Chesapeake Bay and we are hundreds of miles from the coast. When we fly over the city of Manaus, we see the paved roads ending abruptly in the rainforest.
We land on the jungle airstrip and the plane pulls to the right when the wheels touch down. I'm sitting behind the pilot's seat so I can see him lean hard into the controls to hold the Caravan on the strip. We are all glad to be on the ground.
We are all looking around, wide eyed, at what is to be our home for the next few weeks.
We are in the middle of the jungle.
The names at the top of the crew list are Rob Fordyce and Joe Rodriguez, two saltwater fishing guides who are best friends from back in the day.
They have both handled plenty of big fish, from 100-pound tarpon on a fly rod to ugly hammerheads off shore. They each spend 250 to 300 days on the water every year, mostly in Florida Bay and the Everglades.
They are both former ballplayers and their sense of competition has managed to weather the years since college intact. They spent the majority of the trip to South America one-upping each other on fishing stories.
The cameramen are seasoned outdoor photojournalists. Wes Miller, Carey Barrett and Marty Dashiell can see their work every Saturday morning on ESPN Outdoors television.
They've traveled the world shooting outdoor shows from "The Spanish Fly with Jose Wejebe" to "The Fishing Hole" with Jerry McKinnis to CITGO Bassmaster Elite Series with the best bass fishermen in the world.
This is not their first rodeo and certainly not the first time they've had typhoid shots or filled a prescription for malaria suppressant.
A writer is with us, as well Sam Eifling who writes for the New Times in south Florida. The only baggage he had when we met him at the Miami Airport was smaller than most tackle boxes in the waiting area for the South America flights.
This guy travels light and the miniscule bag also carries a battered copy of Moby Dick and a book on conversational Portuguese that will come in handy in a few days.
Our host is Don Cutter, a genteel Kentuckian who owns and operates Amazon Fishing Adventures. Our home is a well-appointed houseboat moored against a steep, red bank near the airstrip. We're here seeking a world-record peacock bass, and Cutter believes we can catch it on the Unini.
After our bags are unloaded from the plane by a dozen smiling Brazilians, we are led to the dining area of the houseboat, where a breakfast is laid out that includes pork, homemade doughnuts, fresh-baked bread and these delightful breaded balls filled with cheese that we will come to anticipate every day. We nap for a few hours and then go out to test the water.
The guides speak Portuguese and we do not. So Cutter sends his camp manager, Jerry ,out with us to help. Jerry is from Guyana and speaks Guyanese, English, Portuguese and Hindi. He helps us translate our needs to the two camera-boat operators, as well as to Gonzaga, the guide with Rob and Joe.
Good guides are indispensable here as every turn of the river begins to look the same and the hundreds of little tributaries are seemingly indistinguishable.
The Rio Unini flows into the Rio Negro 200 miles northeast of Manaus. There are hundreds of lakes and lagoons behind the trees that line the river. There is also a waterfall and three rapids at the lower end, so big riverboats cannot reach our location except in the rainy season, when the water may rise 50 feet.
Because of the inaccessibility there is no fishing pressure here.
We catch some peacock bass. The percussive sound of the big monsters attacking a topwater lure is like a small bomb going off.
These fish are big and mean, made strong by the river current and wily nonetheless. I count the casts and calculate that they guys make more than 950 casts with the big plugs that day. When I mention that to Rob, he says, "All those casts are going to pay off."
The world-record peacock bass, or speckled peacock (Cichla temensis), is 27 pounds and was caught in 1994 by Gerald "Doc" Lawson on the Rio Negro downstream from where we are now.
When Joe catches an 8-pounder, he remarks to Ron, "Imagine catching the record is 28 pounds bigger than that."
Our work is cut out for us.
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