I can’t hunt in the rain and fire is a luxury here.
I pulled my legs to my chest and press my back against the sturdy trunk of a ceiba tree. My fire was nothing but a bed of hissing coals now. Dry wood supply was dwindling. Two days ago, the temperature reached 104 degrees Fahrenheit, and then last night it dropped to 59 degrees. The rainy season has arrived in the Central American jungle.
I have to stave off Nature’s waterboarding while maintaining my body’s core temperature. What can I possibly do to keep focused?
I can fish.
A weir is in its simplest form, is a fish trap. Fish are driven in by the tide, weather, or some other force and collect in a small area in which they cannot escape. Fishermen build most weirs across the horizontal width of a river. The short dam-like structures alter the flow of the water, which affect the behavior of the fish. The confused fish gather in a central area.
Now, it was raining sideways.
I shivered in the mud on the banks of an ancient Maya aqueduct in the Belizean jungle. The surface swirled excitedly in front of me as small fish darted with failure to each ripple. One by one, I slowly piled up tiny armored catfish beside me. Even steamed around my fire, wrapped in allspice leaves, armor fish tasted like river bottom… two decent bites of hot flaky mud. My core temperature continued to plummet in the saturating rainforest. Seeking to improve my conditions, I decided bigger fish, and more of them, is what I needed. Nature was telling me to get off my butt and launch a new project.
A pole, line, hook and bait requires time to fabricate. It does not, however, require much energy to sit and catch small fish. A pole and line will feed a person with a few fish each day, but a net will provide food for several days. A net will also suck the life from you while you sit freezing in the rainforest twisting and tying knots. While trying to quiet the convulsive shivers running through my body, I pondered all the different ways to catch fish. This was when I decided to build a weir.
I first encountered the concept of a fishing weir in a small town on the Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia. Some ten years ago, while camping in the maritime provinces of Canada, my hammock began to sway against the arriving breeze. Gunmetal clouds raced toward me across the Annapolis Basin as the tide swirled. Far below my cliff-top camp, barely visible in the high tide, was a hockey stick shaped contraption of poles and nets. For hours, I watched the circular motion of the tide over and again. The storm passed and silvery shapes sparkled in the trap.
That’s when I saw the old man tending to his weir. When the tide had all but disappeared, the elderly man in a paint-chipped wooden boat drifted around suspended nets. He gently dipped thousands of baitfish from the bay. Finally, after it was chock full, he snatched a dangling rope from the outermost pole and released the remaining ball into the ocean. I had just witnessed my first fishing weir.
Unlike the Bay of Fundy with the highest tides in the world (30-50ft), the moon had no power over the continuous rains high above the Belizean rainforest. Every thirty feet, the rainwater accumulated in another clear pond. Countless palms scattered the tropical jungle. The petioles or stems of the tallest palms made perfect poles for the walls of my jungle weir. The dangling fronds were a perfect net. My Maya aqueduct weir came together like a puzzle.
The third pond in the series was the deepest and longest, more blue than clear. The water gathered in a deep pool, like in a typical Florida backyard swimming pool. The shallow end was a pebbly sandbar that spilled down the next step to the deep end of another on its way to some unmapped river. Each pool held a perfectly balanced mini-ecosystem complete with diverse tiny plants and animals. Each thrived and fed its surrounding environment.
First, I grab a special vine that grows in the rainforest – a super vine. This vine has no berries or flower, leaves or root, just pencil-thin beige cords wrapping trunks, snaking out to dangle from unknown places above. They stretch and bend like rubber, but don’t crack or split. Smooth in my hands and with no thorns, they were nature’s perfect rope and so they soon became my go-to source for lashing posts and poles.
Smashing the vines between rocks produced an even thinner cord and after a few hours, there were hundreds of feet of fibers strung up like Christmas lights throughout the rainforest. Now, this super vine would make the lashings and net for my weir.
I collected vines and crafted them into various sized fibers and cords. I occasionally rested in the sweltering heat throughout the mid-day and then continued working into the evening on the palm-stem posts.
The next morning, I stuck nine four-foot poles together in the forest floor and angled them outward in a circle. Super vines wove through the posts and small fibers bound them to the next row. This pattern continued all the way to the top, which formed a cone. Unlike a typical basket-style fish trap, my trap-basket had no funnel in the top. It was completely open.
By the late afternoon, I drove the palm-stem posts into the sandbar across the tiny shoal. Bundle after bundle, I trekked down to the water, tied post to post forming a short wall with a gap in the middle. Finally, I measured the width of my coned basket with my measuring vine and fitted it in the gap.
Currents streamed slowly through the wall as a deluge of water slammed through my centered basket. I removed the basket, gathered what little dry wood I could source, and returned to my camp. Although the rain finally stopped falling, the canopy water continued to pound away on my soaked head into the night.
The next morning I awoke sore and hungry but fueled by the possibility of a solid meal of flaky white fish. I scooted down the ancient ruin I called camp right to the edge of the water. Step by diligent step, easing out across the shoal, basket under arm, I remained vigilant in my attempt not to disturb the fish a few feet below. Two of the hand-sized fish could provide me with a delicious meal more tasty and filling than the muddy armor fish I ate earlier. After fitting the basket into the weir’s gap, I slipped back out of the water and headed upstream.
I set the two longest palm fronds aside in the process of fabricating the posts. I draped each fifteen-foot post in a two-foot curtain of green foliage. I spread the palm wings to either side of the pond and dragged the curtain across the surface of the water. I shook them gently. Fish stared up at the strange green wall as I walked downstream toward my basket. One by one, they gave up their resistance to the current and retreated.
They migrated slowly at the stream’s pace and collected in the middle of the wall and then drifted right into my basket. First two, then four, then the top of the basket shook at the water’s surface. I dropped my palm curtain and snatched the basket upright. Wading to the side of the pond, juggling the draining basket in my arms, fish flopped wildly with some slipping out. The smack of fish on the forest floor continued up the ravine.
Finally, I sat in the mud and peered inside. There were over a dozen plate-sized fish in my lap. A grin tugged at the corner of my mouth as excitement rushed through my veins.
I had food. Not a little snack to get me through the day, but I had a damn basket full of fish.
A small wet fire and a tripod shrouded in palms came together as a smoker.
So, the rainforest’s wet season caught me off guard. The thought of dying from hypothermia with a belly full of muddy fish inspired me to be more creative in my approach to survival. The weir yielded many fish and helped bring my core temperature back up. This is a lesson in life and survival.