It had been three long years since our last collecting trips to Central America. We (Ross Socolof, Harry Specht, and Rusty Wessel) were quite anxious when the plane touched down in Guatemala City on Monday, April 11, 1994. It was 8:00 p.m. and pitch black when we cleared customs. We had a confirma-tion number and reservations for a rental vehicle and we were worried that it would not be available, since often things don't quite go as planned in the third world. Luckily, a four wheel drive Toyota Land Cruiser was immediately available. Against our better instinct we set out on this very dark night to find the Pan-American hotel near the airport. We had a map, instructions, and brimming with confidence we departed the airport.
Guatemala City is the ultimate maze during the day and at night the city from hell. This extremely danger-ous city is equipped with few or no street signs. Where signs do exist they are cleverly camouflaged to the exact color of the buildings and are always placed high on the side corners of the building. The signs magically blend into the shadows. Perhaps one corner in twenty could be identified. Ross screamed in terror while sitting in the rear of the truck. Harry occasionally muttered "I can't see any signs." After two hours of hopeless confusion, Rusty, our fearless driver, was coming unglued. Harry was speechless and his eyes were glazed over. Ross was visible only by an occasional sound of "where are we?" Hopelessly lost we gave up and checked into the first hotel type of thing we could find. It was close to midnight when we checked in. Then the next priority was dinner since we hadn't eaten since early in the day. We managed some club sandwiches and then passed out.
The next morning after we were properly fed and armed with expert instructions and a well-marked map, we were off once more. As expected we were lost within minutes. We managed somehow to locate the road heading out of Guatemala City. We were headed for Aqua Dulce and Lake Izabal. Approximately twenty kilometers (32 miles) from the city on the Atlantic Highway, which is the best and busiest road Guatemala has to offer, we were stopped dead in our tracks. A few weeks earlier guerrilla forces had blown up the main bridge. Although reports of Guatemala indicate it is reasonably safe to travel, this ravaged bridge lay testimony that the 30-year rebellion is not over.
A barely adequate pontoon substitute allowed traffic to cross in single file. After an hour delay, our turn to cross the bridge came. We crossed our fingers and crept over the bridge. Now we were on our way again.
This was Ross's third collecting trip to Aqua Dulce and Rusty's second. The collecting area was well known to us. We were equipped with old collection data, maps, seines, hand nets, and cast nets. During Ross's 1986 trip with the late Russ Norris of Belize, Archocentrus spinosissimus and Carlhubsia stewarti were brought back and introduced into the hobby. During Rusty's 1993 trip with Thom Grimshaw of Belize, Vieja maculicauda and Thorichthys aureus were reintroduced into depleted American breeding stocks. The most want fish, which we knew existed in this area, was "Cichlasoma" bocourti. "Cichlasoma" bocourti is known as the golden mojarra and was the reason we were here. Ross was making his fourth try in eleven years to get this fish.
The golden mojarra is a very attractive fish. This moderately large heroine species has a beautiful yellow-orange coloration over the entire body with eight to nine faint black bands running vertically across it's body. It has never been brought alive out of Central America. Just a few specimens have been collected, described, and preserved and Ross had taken the only color photo of the fish known to exist. This photo was of a specimen speared by Russ Norris in the Moho River in Belize, where it was not suppose to occur and was published in April 1984 issue of Freshwater and Marine Aquarium magazine. Most published information on this species depicts hand drawn sketches of "Cichlasoma" bocourti with little or no information on it's habitat.
Now, we were determined to find this rare and elusive beauty. Harry Specht had been on the Moho River in 1984 when the first Golden Mojarra was speared and was as excited as the rest of the party. Rusty had just seen the color photo and now was driving 120 km (65 mph) per hour on a bad road heading for Lake Izabal! As obsessed cichlid collectors we were confident of success on this trip.
None of us had a clue where we might find a motel that night but were prepared for the usual mosquito infested dump for a few US dollars per night. Upon arrival at Aqua Dulce, we took a small dirt road that headed parallel to Lake Izabal and found a motel called the Marimonte. The Marimonte is a wonderful new semi-private marina and club catering to affluent people in Guatemala. The grounds were well kept and contained numerous tropical fruit trees such as lemons, limes, oranges, cashews, mangoes, coconut, and the Sapodillo tree. Sapodillo supplies the chicle for chewing gum. The gardens contained domesticated red headed parrots, coati mundi, macaws, toucans, plus a baby spider monkey, and an ocelot. Our room was nice and had air conditioning which, if left on all day, would keep the room moderately cool.
Before dark set in we had to snorkel the shores of Lake Izabal. We were able to view many cichlids, but no luck finding the golden mojarra. Seining and cast-netting provided a few specimens of Thorichthys aureus, Vieja maculicauda, Archocentrus spilurus, "Cichlasoma" salvini, Amphilophus robertsoni, and Parachro-mis managuense and some non-cichlids such as atherinids, Hypressobrycon milleri, Astyanax fasciatus, Belonesox belizianus, Carlhubsia stuarti, Gambusia luma, Poecilia mexicana, and Rhamdia catfish. We saw lots of fish, but no golden mojarra.
Dinner that night consisted of a 3 pound black belt cichlid, Vieja maculicauda. This was the special for the evening and was called "Mojarra Marimonte" and consisted of a huge whole black belt baked and topped with a wonderful red sauce. Unaware of our entertainment for the night, we would soon be joined by two tame raccoons that spent the majority of the night playing at our feet and occasionally stealing bread from our table. More than once the waitress would have to come and beat the raccoons away from our table, with the brooms they kept handy for this purpose. The entertainment was delightful; the meal delicious.
The next morning we traveled to the interesting Mayan ruins at Quiriga. The gigantic stelae (large stone slabs) were in good condition and worth the trip. We collected several promising sites on the return home. The only notable collection site was a farm pond which contained some Jack Dempseys "Cichlasoma" octofasciatum. These jacks sported a beautiful reddish cast under the chin and through the belly region. The non-cichlids included the merry widow livebearer (Phalichthys amates) and a huge Synbranchoid eel. This eel was a monster four feet long! It came up biting viciously at everything within its reach. After a few photos this guy was returned to the pond as we were convinced it planned to eat us.
Fishing was becoming discouraging, as we had no sight of the golden mojarra. We decided a change of pace was in order. The following day we rented a motorized boat and headed out at dawn's first light. In our broken Spanish we directed our captain to take us south about 20 miles to try the seine, push net, and cast net. The only worthwhile catch was Vieja maculicauda and a most unusual freshwater pipefish. While taking a break, we spotted a local fisherman pulling in a gill net and approached him to check his catch. Surprisingly, we found he had eight large snook and a six-foot tarpon. We showed him our picture of the golden mojarra (which we took everywhere) and he instructed us to go to a nearby fishing village where local fishermen unload black belts from their dories. After checking with a dozen or so fisherman we found no golden mojarra.
A late fisherman arrived in a crudely constructed dug out canoe and to our amazement his boat was piled full of Vieja maculicauda and a few golden mojarra. Most of the fish were dead, but we found nine about the size of your hand with some life left in them. We quickly threw them into styros and were in awe. We finally had live golden mojarra! Four of them soon died and were preserved. The five survivors looked good and were immediately taken back to the motel and put on air and medication. We paid a total of 18 Quetzals ($3.00 dollars) for the nine fish. The natives informed us that golden mojarra were quite rare in their habitat and are seldom seen in daily catches. In fact, they had not caught more than one in the past few months. We were nearly exhausted with excitement of our good fortune.
Nearing the end of the day, Harry wanted to pull the seine a few more times in an attempt to collect more specimens of Carlhubsia stuarti before we left the next morning. Since the main prize had already been awarded, Rusty reluctantly joined Harry for one more final collection, although Rusty's heart was not in it. The final pull netted large adult Carlhubbsia and several distinctly striped juvenile cichlids. At first glance we thought we had seined up Tilapia buttikoferi. Further inspection told us we had landed the first juvenile golden mojarra the tropical fish world had ever seen. The small "Cichlasoma" bocourti look completely different from the adults but are also very attractive. We were just plain lucky to seine through a nest of baby "Cichlasoma" bocourti. Our efforts yielded six young.
"Cichlasoma" bocourti reach a length of at least 12 inches (30 cm). Juvenile coloration is basic light brown with vertical barring spanning the entire length of the fish. The adult fish have rightfully earned the nickname golden mojarra (golden cichlid). Adults are brightly colored with a golden sheen of yellow, green and orange over the entire body. Vertical barring spans the length of the adult fish, but not quite as distinct as the juveniles. There is no apparent difference in the sexes with the exception of the females getting a little more rotund through the abdomen. The adult males generally have slightly longer dorsal and anal fins. However, these differences are not always readily apparent. The most reliable method of sexing is to simply observe the behavior pattern of the fish. The males generally are much more territorial and aggressive.