Fish Collecting in Mexico in 2001

Take thirteen guys, some friends and some total strangers, and place them in a foreign country. Only two or three can speak the local language. Set them a series of tasks that involve spending hours in cramped vehicles driving at high speeds, followed by periods of wading through local rivers, streams and ponds. Then, after four days, when friendships and alliances have formed, add four more people to the mix. After another two days, remove three of the original thirteen and let things continue for another three days. Does it sound like the plot for a reality TV show? Well, this was the scenario for a fish collecting trip to Mexico in February 2001.

The trip was coordinated by my friend Rusty Wessel, from Louisville, Kentucky and was not initially intended to involve such a large group. The size of the group grew as Rusty acceded to more requests to join the expedition. The final number was somewhat determined by how many people, and their luggage, could be squeezed into two Chevy Suburbans and a medium-sized rental car. The group members came from various locations and all gathered at the departure gate at Houston airport.  We were all scheduled to fly with Continental Airlines from Houston to Tampico.

Upon arrival in Tampico, we soon learned that things happen differently in Mexico. Two Suburbans and a car had been booked for our arrival, but the rental company only had one of the Suburbans available. Rusty and Eric Hanneman valiantly negotiated the minefield of Mexico vehicle rentals and eventually the company “found” a second Suburban for us. With vehicles carefully examined for damage, and fully loaded with our luggage, we headed off to the Hotel San Antonio in Tampico. Many of us were expecting some pretty dingy accommodations during the trip, but we were pleasantly surprised by the quality of the hotels that we stayed at. The San Antonio had nice comfortable rooms equipped with air conditioners. That first night in Tampico allowed the group to become acquainted over a few Coronas, followed by the scariest taxi-ride I have ever taken in my life. It would have been even scarier had it come before the Coronas! Dan “Woody” Woodland deserves half of the credit (or blame) for encouraging the psychotic driver to totally disregard stop lights and junctions whilst driving as fast as possible!

The next morning, we had breakfast and we each handed over cash for the communal “pot”. Eric was elected Treasurer for the trip and did an admirable job of paying the group bills and keeping track of the finances. Following breakfast, we began the long drive south, towards Veracruz. We were on the road for seven hours before we reached our destination – the Hotel Boca de Oveja. The hotel is located on the main coastal road between Tampico and Veracruz, and is situated on the beach, at the mouth of the Rio Oveja. Some swift negotiations by Rusty and Eric brought the original room rate down by 50%, to a cost of $25 US per double room per night. These rooms didn’t have air-conditioning, but the noisy ceiling fans tended to keep things cool enough. Fish collecting was not due to begin until the following day, but some cast-netting in the creek (Rio Oveja) provided a few mollies. A local fisherman was also plying the waters and had a catch that included some good sized Tilapia. Following the long drive, a nice meal in the hotel’s restaurant and drinks at a nearby bar, were very welcome.

Everyone was up early and raring to go on Day Three. This was to be our first official collecting day and we couldn’t wait. The plan was to collect Thoricthys species at the northernmost point of their range. We drove south for perhaps an hour and first dipped our nets in a drainage canal system around the town of Zempoala (population 8,700). We tried two different sections of the canals and pulled in some mollies and a rather unattractive single Thoricthys maculipinnis (elliotti). We abandoned the canals and went looking for a river. We soon found our river, at the town of Santa Rosa. The Rio De La Antigua is quite broad as it passes Santa Rosa. Whilst it is very shallow on one bank, it drops off to a depth of about ten-feet on the other side. The town-folk were utilising the river for washing vehicles and for doing laundry. Others were out swimming or simply sitting in the shallow water. The substrate was a fine sandy-silt with some smooth round rocks that were fist-size and larger. The water was clear and suitable for snorkelling. Water temperature was 78ºF and water readings were pH 7.8, Total Alkalinity 180 ppm, Total Hardness 150 ppm (taken using Mardel Aqualab dip-strips). The GPS readings for this location were, elevation 447 feet, N 19 28.157, W 096 28.203.

The shallow bank was fished using a 20-foot seine, 6 feet deep with one-eighth inch mesh, that resulted in catches of Thoricthys maculipinnis and mollies. The opposite bank was too deep for the seines, but cast-nets and dip-nets were used with good results, pulling in Paratheraps fenestratus as well as the T. maculipinnis and ever-present mollies. The T. maculipinnis from this location are beautiful. They have red coloration that runs from the lower jaw back through the belly to the anal fin. The gill plates and belly are covered in iridescent blue spots. My “target fish” for the trip was the T. maculipinnis and these were great. I was very happy.

With fish in the coolers, we had to get back to the hotel to take care of them. All of the fish were sorted and placed in coolers in one of the hotel rooms. Polyfilter® was placed in each cooler and air-stones were set up. A water-change was done about two hours later before we headed out for dinner. From this point on, water changes would be performed whenever we had the opportunity. In any event, there would be water changes each morning before we headed out, in the afternoon upon our return and every evening. Additional water changes would be fitted in when possible. It was Mardi-Gras time in Veracruz, so we made the long drive (over two hours) to see the sights, eat, and drink a couple more Coronas.

There were two Suburbans making the trip back from Vera Cruz. Fortunately, I was able to get into the one departing ‘early’. The second group partied hard and the van only arrived back at the hotel a couple of hours before we were scheduled to head out in the morning!

Despite a very late night in Veracruz for some, Day Four started fairly early and we were out collecting after breakfast. The previous day, a small number of our group had gone out scouting locations and had found a promising location near the town of Palma Sola. We turned off the main road at the town and headed inland along a narrow road until we came to a shallow pond (GPS reading N19 45.747, W96 27.837). The pond was fed by a stream that runs down from the mountains. It was quite shallow and had a rocky substrate. A culvert allowed water to flow under the stone bridge. We stood on the bridge and threw crackers into the water and watched as fish mobbed them. Before doing any collecting, we donned our masks and snorkels and swam around observing the fish for a while. As with most of the places we visited, there was a dearth of vegetation. Judging from the sites we visited, it appears that aquatic plants are generally not part of the natural habitat of Mexican cichlids in this region. Large striking mollies, with red edges to their fins, swam about in front of us, but the cichlids stayed close to the rocks. Omnipresent Astyanax mexicanus flashed their colours as they dashed past.

Once we started collecting at this spot, the cichlids were found to be Paratheraps fenestratus. This proved to be very interesting because we were informed that the location was supposed to be too far north for P. fenestratum. Perhaps our discovery would cause a rewrite of the rules. The water at this location was 78ºF. Water readings were: pH 7.6, Total Alkalinity 240 ppm, and Total Hardness 200 ppm.

With fish stowed in the coolers, we headed north to the Rio Nautla. A couple of our group were in search of Herichthys sp. “Nautla” (probably H. deppii Heckel, 1840), a species depicted in a book that Joe Middleton had with him. We located the Rio Nautla, at a location about 50 km north of our hotel. At that location, the river was quite wide and deep, with high banks. Ian Tapp found an intriguing crab. One of the crab’s claws was shaped like a long flat shield and was unlike any crab we had seen before. Jeff Cardwell pulled out his cast-net and threw it into the Nautla from the bank. In his first cast, he pulled in a large adult Paratheraps fenestratus cichlid. Again, this was supposed to be too far north for this fish. We took photographs and released it, as it was too large to take with us. More cast-netting at the same location failed to catch any cichlids and we moved on. We continued further along the narrow side road that gradually took us away from the banks of the Nautla. We passed through the settlement Poblado de la Union and stopped at a nearby bridge over the Rio Chapa Chapa (GPS readings  elevation 135 feet, N 20 05.230, W 96 53.360).

The Chapa Chapa flows under this bridge at a fairly swift pace. The river was quite shallow at the time of our visit, but a huge pile of driftwood was proof that, in the rainy season, the river can flow over the top of the bridge. The temperature there was 76ºF and the water readings were pH 7.6, Total Alkalinity 180 ppm and Total Hardness 120 ppm. A group of adult cichlids in breeding colour were observed from the bank, displaying to each other. Attempts at seining for these fish proved useless. Perhaps the cichlids were able to see the seine through the very clear water and avoid it. Cast-netting proved a little more successful and a grand total of six of these Herichthys sp. “Nautla” (probably H. deppii Heckel, 1840), were caught. They were subsequently entrusted to Eric to take home to raise.

The small town of Poblado de la Union provided an enjoyable place to stop after the collecting. An open-air bar, complete with pool tables and taco-stand, were a welcome sight. The tacos were delicious, as were the cold Coronas! We ended up eating every taco that the stand had available, and could have eaten more. We couldn’t stay for long though, as we wanted to get the fish back, so we hit the road and headed to the hotel. On our way back to the hotel, one of the Suburbans developed a problem that forced us to stop for emergency repairs. We didn’t get back to the hotel until midnight.

Day Five began with 7:00 am wake-up calls. All of the fish had to be given water changes before being packed for the drive north-west. At this stage, the fish were secured in large plastic ‘box-bags’, inside the coolers. They wouldn’t be individually bagged for a couple more days. It took us until 10:30 am to get things stowed away and to eat breakfast. Following a group photo session, we bade farewell to the Hotel Boca de Oveja and drove north. With some good navigating, we made good time and arrived at our destination at 5:30 pm, with another seven hours of driving under our belts.

Our home for the next few days was the Hotel Taninul – a place that was ideally suited to relaxing after a long drive, or a day collecting fish. The Taninul was a quality hotel that charged $42 US per double room per night. The rooms were good and were air-conditioned. A major attraction was the sulphur pool out back. The swimming pool is built on a natural sulphur spring. The spring water constantly flows through the pool, which is like a huge hot tub. The pool was a great place to unwind and most of us jumped in each evening. There were also tennis courts and a volleyball court for those who had energy to burn – none of us did. Like all of the hotels we stayed at, there were no telephones in the rooms. However, at Taninul, calls could be made from the reception desk at a cost of $2 per minute. Once the call was connected, the clerk started a stop-watch to time the calls and charged for the call immediately after it had ended. Many of us were able to call home for the first time in the trip. We booked an extra room at the hotel just for the fish. That ensured that nobody would be stuck sleeping in a humid room without the benefit of an air-conditioner (running AC would make the room too cold for the fish). Once the fish were set up in their own room, we headed out to a nearby restaurant for a nice dinner.

The destination for Day Six was Tamasopo Falls (GPS – elevation 1196 feet, N 21 56.370, W 99 23.801). Tamasopo Falls was a very scenic area and a popular picnic and swimming spot for locals. Cascading waterfalls fed the various pools and made this a very photogenic location. Water readings were pH 8.0, Total Alkalinity 180 ppm and Total Hardness 425 ppm.  These readings came as quite a shock to me.  They were not what I expected to find in Mexico. The high hardness reading is probably caused by the abundance of limestone in the area.

Snorkelling in the pools was an outstanding experience. Breeding pairs of Herichthys “white” labridens and Hericthys tamasopoensis were everywhere. The black and white spawning colours of these species were stunning. Watching pairs of these fish guarding their fry in the wild was awesome. Once again, there was next to no vegetation growing in the pools. The cichlids occupied territories near banks, rocks, or pieces of wood. They were fully exposed with nowhere to hide. The labridens tended to shy away when approached by swimmers, but not so for the H. tamasopensis. In an attempt to take underwater photos, I got a little too close for comfort for the male of a breeding pair. He fearlessly charged my foot, flaring and displaying with all his might, in an attempt to drive me back and protect his mate. I couldn’t see any fry so I assumed the pair had eggs. There were also a few Herichthys steindachneri in the area. A small number of Xiphophorus montezumae swordtails were collected in pools above the falls and other swordtails were caught below the falls, using dip-nets.  An assortment of attractive butterflies flitted about a sulphur spring next to one of the pools, providing yet another photographic opportunity. This was a beautiful area and a great place to spend a day.

On the seventh day, we were scheduled to visit the Laguna Media Luna.  I almost didn’t make the trip due to a bout of “Montezuma’s Revenge!” Like many on the trip, I had been taking Pepto Bismol tablets daily as a preventative treatment. I had forgotten to take them the previous day and I had been hit by a bout of “the runs”.  Immodium came to the rescue and I was able to make the trip, albeit in a subdued mood.  During our time in Mexico, a few members of the group had their own moments with stomach upsets but, in the main, they seemed to be minor ailments.

The lagoon at Media Luna is spring-fed and, like Tamasopo, was a picnic and relaxation spot for locals.  Media Luna lacked the stunning cascades of Tamasopo but, nevertheless, it was a nice area.  The lagoon itself is large and very deep (approximately 120 feet) at the point where the spring enters.  It was also one of the few areas where we saw aquatic plants.  Running from the lagoon were a number of man-made channels that were also home to cichlids and other fishes. 

The first man-made channel was built many years ago to irrigate the southern edge of the Rio Verde valley.  The rest of the valley has a high sulphur content that is not suitable for crops.  An additional concrete channel and a network of smaller channels were built in the early 1970’s to extend the reach of the earlier channels.  A concrete vat and pumping system was also built on a trial basis, to determine the amount of water that could be removed from Media Luna throughout the year without affecting the level and stability of the terrain.  The channels and locks that were present at the time of our visit controlled the flow of irrigation water, which was closely monitored by government agencies. These channels eventually join up with other water sources and have created a route for Herichthys carpintis to infiltrate Media Luna.  As a result, in addition to the carpintis, there were some carpintis-hybrids in the area.

Of more immediate concern to us, however, was the foreboding sight of the beginning of a brick structure close to the channels.  We feared that homes were about to be built in the area and that resulting sewage would bring disaster to the flora and fauna of the lagoon and channels. I was pleased to hear from Juan-Miguel that the “Human Settlements Development Code” in Rio Verde County prohibits home-building in the Media Luna area.  He believed that the building being constructed was an administration office, or something similar.  There were ongoing efforts to have the Media Luna area classified as a “Protected Fauna and Flora Area”.  If that were to happen, control of the area would pass to federal agencies.  Such protection would result in tighter controls and fish collecting would be much more difficult.

The GPS readings for Media Luna were elevation 3,222 feet, N 21 51.881, W 100 01.476.  Water readings were temperature 80 degrees F, pH 7.6, Total Alkalinity 180, Total Hardness 425.  Fishes we saw in Media Luna included Herichthys bartoni, H. labridens, H. carpintis, some Tilapia and the killifish Cualac tesselatus.  A number of our group were interested in obtaining some of the yellow labridens and a good quantity of cichlids were caught.  Some difficulty was encountered in differentiating the young bartoni from the labridens and actual identification was put off for later.  When Juan Miguel Artigas-Azas assisted with the identification a couple of days later, the Media Luna cichlids were found to be almost all bartoni. There were less than a handful of yellow labridens in the bunch, much to the dismay of those who were hoping to take some home.

On day eight, we headed out to collect at the Rio Salto, at a spot near the town of El Naranjo (GPS elevation 976 feet, N 22 31.464, W 99 20.072).  We found the water readings to be pH 7.6, Total Alkalinity 180, Total hardness 250, temperature 76 F.  The river was quite shallow at this location with some aquatic plants growing near the banks.  Dip-nets and cast-nets seemed to have the best results there and a variety of fish were caught.  An undescribed species of Herichthys was caught and was temporarily being called Hericthys sp. “Rio Salto”.  We also caught the green H. labridens. Non-cichlids that were caught there included the livebearer Flexipenis vittatus, Astyanax mexicanus, Poecilia mexicana and Xiphophorus nezahualcoyotl swordtails.

A number of our group wanted wild swordtails, so on the way back we stopped at a small tributary of the Rio Salto, approximately 20 km south of El Naranjo.  Rusty had found swords there previously and he and I headed down the steep bank to catch some.  A large snake dropped into the water from a branch as we descended.  We saw more snakes in the water whilst collecting, which was a little unnerving.  Thrusting a dip-net into the vegetation at the banks resulted in a large catch of X. nezahualcoyotl swords and within 30 minutes we had enough for everyone.  We were soon back in the vehicles and we headed back to the hotel.

Day Nine was a significant collecting day. It was to be our last one of the trip and we had been joined by Juan Miguel Artigas-Azas, the pre-eminent expert on Mexican cichlids.  Juan Miguel led us to three sites.

The first site of the day was on the Rio Tambaque, near to the town of Aquismon (GPS readings: Elevation 364 feet, N 21 41.123, W 099 02.449).  Water readings were pH 7.6, Total Alkalinity 180, Total Hardness 425, Temperature 76 F.  The river was very shallow at this location and flowed slowly over a pebble bottom.  Some attractive ferns grew along the bank and on fallen trees.  This site yielded Herichthys “blue” labridens, X. multilineatus swordtails, Flexipenis vittatus, Gambusia panuco and Poecillia mexicana, most of which were caught by seining.

We moved on to a second site but it proved to be a brief visit.  This location was at a spring on the Rio Huichihuayan.  At 68 F, the water temperature was too cold to enjoy collecting and also limited the number of fish to be found there.  We soon departed for the final collecting location of the trip.

The final site was also on the Rio Huichihuayan (GPS readings: Elevation 518 feet, N 21 28.743, W 098 56.014).  Water readings were pH 7.6, Total Alkalinity 120, Total Hardness 120.  The water temperature of 71 F was slightly warmer that the last spot.  More aquatic vegetation was present there than at any of our other collecting sites.  We found Herichthys carpintis, as well as some Gambusia atrora and Astyanax mexicanus.  The most exciting catch, however, was a small minnow.  Rusty and Juan-Miguel had been trying to catch this minnow for the past three years and had seined this location previously without success.  Our success on this occasion may have been due to my seine net.  My seine has 1/8 inch mesh and previous seining attempts had used a ¼ inch mesh size.  The minnows may have been there all along but had been able to escape through the larger mesh net.  The minnow was an undescribed species and Juan-Miguel indicated that specimens would be sent to Dr. Miller for identification.

We wrapped up the day with a visit to the “Crazy Englishman’s Castle” at Poza Rica.  Las Pozas de Edward James, or Xilitla’s Pools, is located up a mountain at an elevation of 1,778 feet.  Around the middle part of the century, Englishman Edward James moved to the area and began building a bizarre estate in a surrealistic art form.  He worked on the project for 35 years and the estate contained a number of pools or ponds that were fed by a cascading stream.  The buildings are truly bizarre and feature spiralling stone staircases that go up to nowhere.  Our visit was enhanced by low cloud and mist that created an eerie rain-forest effect.  Driving back down the narrow mountain road was probably more scary than the Tampico taxi-ride.  The low cloud reduced visibility to about 10 feet and the right side of the road terminated with a sheer drop of over 1,500 feet.  We crawled down at a snail’s pace and followed the tail-lights of local vehicles that overtook us and headed off into the mist.  I breathed a huge sigh of relief when we came out below the clouds.

We got back to the hotel about 10 pm but there was still much work ahead of us.  All of the fish had to be bagged that night and a veritable assembly line was created to deal with the task.  Some prepared the breathable bags whilst others obtained and treated the water.  Some filled the bags with the water whilst others netted fish or tied the bags.  Eventually, at 2.30 am, the fish were all bagged and we could get some sleep.

We awoke at 9.00 am on Day Ten.  It was time to divide up the fish ready for departure.  We had all submitted our “wish-lists” to Rusty, with an order of preference for certain species. The fish were allocated amongst the group in as fair a manner as possible.  Everyone then had to pack their fish and belongings ready for a 12.30 pm departure.  We drove to Tampico for a final night at the Hotel San Antonio.  We had time to dry-out our nets and wet gear in the sun before going out for dinner.

The next morning, we flew out of Tampico to Houston, where we all bade farewell to our compadres and headed in different directions.  A very enjoyable trip was behind us and we were all taking home a nice variety of wild-caught Mexican fishes.

Note: This is a lightly edited version of an article that I wrote in 2001. Sadly, I have no surviving photographs from the trip. I am posting the article here so that it will be preserved, after I shut down my old web-site.

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