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In Search of the Red Bay Snook
by Rusty Wessel

It is early April and once again I find myself in Central America. At this time of the year, nearing the end of the dry season, the rivers, lakes and ponds are at their lowest level, providing the easiest opportunity to successfully collect tropical fish. This collecting trip leads me to the Central American country of Belize in search of wild cichlids to infuse into the quickly deteriorating and, in some instances, poor strains of cichlid stock that we usually encounter in the hobby.

My companions include Charlie Pyles and Steve Sears, both hobbyists from Louisville, Kentucky, and Vance Afford, Aquarist of the Herp-Aquarium at the Louisville Zoo.

We fly into Belize City where we are greeted by Thom Grimshaw. A former student of the great Dr. Robert R. Miller. Thom is now a Belizian African cichlid fish farmer and the owner of Black Orchid Ornamentals Ltd. In case you didn't understand his occupation, let me explain. Thom commercially raises Rift Lake cichlids and domestically caught New World cichlids in the midst of this Central American cichlid haven. I always find it an interesting twist to see African cichlids in Belize! It is through Thom's import and export license that we will be able to collect and ship fish alive back to the States. Also joining us on this trip is a native Belizian, Karl Bischof. Karl is the owner of Bela Carib Co. Ltd., an exporter of hand-caught saltwater tropical fish on St. George's Cay near Belize City.

We quickly secure transportation in the form of an expensive four-wheel drive truck, which is, as expected, in poor condition. We then head north on the Northern Highway, which incidentally is the only road leading north. The road, by Third World standards, is actually very passable and we soon find ourselves looking for accommodations in the Orange Walk District. In the tropics, accommodations are generally pretty poor and hot showers are almost unheard of. Orange Walk is the nearest town to our planned collecting destination at White Water Lagoon, so we bed down here for the night.

We awake at dawn and by 7:00 A.M. the temperature is already 90F. It's astounding how hot it gets in the tropics and how the temperature rises so early in the day. This is quite different from the climate that I'm accustomed to.

After a barely edible breakfast, we head to a small town named Guinea Grass. Here we rent two motorized boats to gain entrance to the White Water Lagoon. There are no roads leading to the lagoon, so access is only by air or boat. After a great degree of difficulty and some untold verbiage of Spanish, we manage to secure gasoline for the boats and begin loading our equipment. We travel about two hours up a winding river that eventually widens into the White Water Lagoon. It was Ross Socolof who collected in this lagoon in the early seventies and told us about the prized red bay snook (Petenia splendida) that inhabit its waters. This is the cichlid we are after.


The lagoon is surprisingly quite large and shallow. The terrain is very flat and the water reaches a depth of only eight to ten feet. Aquatic vegetation dominates the lagoon and giant Vallisneria beds reach the surface in many spots. The water visibility is very good, which is surprising considering that the bottom consists of silt and very few rocks. This allows the bottom to be visible from the boat and also makes possible some great snorkeling with a mask and fins.

To our disappointment, our large seine, a quarter inch mesh measuring forty by six feet, is virtually useless due to the massive quantities of aquatic plant growth. Our efforts at collecting or even spotting the red Petenia splendida are not fulfilled. However, we do manage to collect small specimens of "C." (Amphilophus) urophthalmus, "C." (Archocentrus) spilurus and the red-headed cichlid, "C." (Theraps) synspilus. In addition, we manage to collect some noncichlids as well, including the Mexican tetra (Astyanax fasciatus), the Mexican molly (Poecilia mexicana) and the pike top minnow (Belonesox belizanus).

Due to poor fishing, we move to the northwestern section of the lagoon. Here we find the aquatic vegetation changes predominantly to water lilies. Large schools of Mexican tetras are very common and it is apparent that this small fish is the food of choice for the bay snook. Hiding amidst the leaves of the lily pads, we finally find the Petenia we are after.

Visual sightings of the normal green Petenia are common, as well as that of large red Petenia. The red Petenia is definitely a rare fish in nature and extremely difficult to catch.

Our method of collecting employs a seven foot cast net, which is thrown by Karl Bischof. Karl is very proficient at throwing the net and rarely misses a targeted prospect. He manages to collect three green adult Petenia and two red adult Petenia ranging in size from seven to twelve inches.

As mentioned earlier, Karl collects saltwater fish for export to the United States and Europe and it is quite apparent that he uses nets exclusively to catch his fish. He speaks often about his dislike for cyanide and the illegal collecting methods that this competitors still use. Because he employs legal means to collect fish, he is placed at a price disadvantage.

We are able to make some interesting observations about the red Petenia. All of our visual sightings of this color morph take place amidst water lily pads. The red bay snook positions itself exactly alongside the new unfolding water lily leaf in approximately four feet of water. It is amazing how the red Petenia mimics the unfolding new red leaf of the lily pad. It is my belief that this color variety lives in no other place except among the red lily plants. Nature and evolution has allowed this brightly colored animal to survive despite the heavy preponderance of predatory birds and reptiles. I can only assume that the red Petenia would be gobbled up if transferred to any locality lacking the red lily pads. The resemblance of the red Petenia to the lily is so remarkable, the cast net more often yields plants rather than fish because it is nearly impossible to differentiate the red lily pad from the red Petenia.

Before dark sets in, we return to the truck, load our gear and begin our long journey to Thom's farm in Dangriga. After an hours' travel, the path deteriorates into a poorly graded dirt road filled with potholes. Traveling at an average speed of 15 mph, our badly sunburned bodies finally arrive at Thom's farm and we begin the process of acclimating the new fish to the concrete vats which will be their home. With some luck and tender-loving care the fish should be breeding shortly. Hopefully, these wild fish will provide the infusion of genes that the captive stock of Petenia in the hobby needs in order to maintain the beautiful red and green color. □

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