Game Fish Diaries - Chic McSherry
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|On the other hand, it seems to me that it is now all but impossible for the so-called emerging nations to fuel their growth in the way that the more established ones have. You know, by invading their neighbours to create an empire, ousting or murdering the indigenous peoples, using the men, women and children as cheap labour and working them near to death, or trashing the local and even international environment for personal gain. Not that this doesn’t go on in places like Venezuela today, but it is on a much-reduced scale from the systematic and businesslike rape of nations carried out by we Europeans over the centuries. And let’s not forget either that it was the European powers of Spain and Germany that squabbled over this country, wiping out most of the indigenous peoples (35 different races believe it or not) in the process. They didn't leave much of a legacy it would appear.
It’s sometimes important that we, who are outrageously fortunate by mere accident of birth, stop and recall how exactly we got to where we are before we condemn other countries’ policies and infrastructure. And, indeed, to understand that we still exert a huge economic influence on emerging nations by effectively setting (some would say rigging) international commodity prices and sucking cash out of the poorest parts of their population. I passed a McDonalds on the way to the hotel. Just what the slum-kids need – a Big Mac.
But I hate politics and I digress. I went there on a fishing trip.
For some time I had been reading about Venezuela’s “awesome bill fish action” and I wanted to put the incredible claims to the test. When you’ve just started a new branch of the sport, as I had with marlin fishing at that time, you go through a couple of distinct stages, the first being wanting to go someplace where there is a near certainty to catch lots of fish. At least that’s the first recognisable stage; before that you go to places you shouldn’t, you go at the wrong times or you go to places you’ve heard can be good but you don’t get lucky (see Gran Canaria). After the “catch-as-much-as-you-can” stage is complete, of course, you start to want to go someplace for difficult, technical fishing and the final stage is when you only want to catch the biggest fish of that species that you can. You know the whole catastrophe well enough by now.
I often wonder how fishermen managed without the Internet. I typed in Venezuela+marlin and I found Rick Alvarez at South Fishing. Based in Miami, Florida, South Fishing cater for the visiting angler to Venezuela and with a primarily US client base, I guessed that they would have to be well organised. Rick was extremely helpful and answered my emailed questions thoroughly and professionally.
Having read the warnings from the UK foreign office, which were echoed by the US State department, you will understand that I was necessarily concerned about personal safety. Rick was pretty cool about this and assured me that he hadn’t lost an angler yet. So I booked, I arrived, the South Fishing guy was there as promised, the hotel was all organised and the boat was waiting at the dockside, which was only 50 yards from the hotel, the next morning right on schedule. What more can you ask and top marks to South Fishing for a slick and professional organisation.
But before we talk fishing, let’s talk Spanish. I had studied Spanish at school some 25 or more years before. I could remember a few words and my previous visit to Gran Canaria had swelled my confidence because I had managed to make myself understood to Jose, the Spanish mate. So I bought an AA Spanish phrase book and I was feeling pretty confident when I arrived.
Speaking Spanish to a Spaniard who also speaks English is fundamentally different to speaking Spanish to a Venezuelan who has his own dialect and speaks no English whatsoever. The normal option of Spanglish does not exist. I could frame questions and some basic phrases by taking my time and checking the phrase book on the fly. The answers, however, sounded like someone had fired a machine gun: “Oibamosahpescarporlasagoohasassooleeblancaeetegustamucho. Si?” The correct answer to this is, of course, “Si!” but somehow that didn’t help me when I was still trying to translate the sixth syllable 3 minutes later.
The phrase book was useless too; I would read a phrase out as perfectly as I could, only to be greeted with “No se lo que quiere decir hombre” from the crew (“Dunno what you mean man…”). I felt as if I was in a Monty Python sketch, you know the one: the foreign guy's in the shop with the fake English phrase book and reads out “My hovercraft is full of eels?” or “Drop your panties Sir William, I cannot wait until lunch time”.
Let’s recap though; the fishing had been described as “awesome”.
It took us only 40 minutes to run out to La Guaira Bank on Joropo, the 35ft Bertram sport fishing boat that I had chartered for the trip. La Guaira Bank is sub-sea feature just offshore from Caracas which forces a cold water current up from the ocean floor, bringing nutrients to the surface and starting a massive food chain with the big pelagic predators at the top. In most other places where I had fished up until then, the enterprise is based on prospecting for the odd wandering fish. Around La Guaira, they just crank the motors up and roar off to where they know the fish are. What you might call a major benefit.
Lines were down by 9.50am on that first day. At 10.10am we rose and missed a dorado. At 10.30am we rose and missed another. At 10.40am we rose, hooked and tagged a sailfish (pez vela in Spanish, but the way they pronounce it in Venezuela sounds more like “pespela”). We also missed a wahoo in the same spread. At 11.30am we landed a barracuda. At 1.30pm we rose, hooked and tagged a white marlin (aguja blanca in Venezuelan Spanish – “agoohablanca”). At 2.20pm we rose, hooked and tagged another sailfish. That’s awesome enough for me for a first day and, unbelievably, the skipper was apologising for the rough seas and few fish that were about.
They fish a bit differently over there. Everywhere else that I had fished until then, the skipper is the man that pretty much sets the hook by accelerating the boat on a strike. On Joropo, all the reels are left on zero drag with the ratchet set so that you can hear it tick when you get a strike. The outrigger clips are fixed at just the right tension to hold the baits in the water and no more which puts pressure on the skipper as any acceleration or sudden change of speed would cause the clips to release and the reels to overrun. When a fish comes into the spread the angler has to do the work, which is as it should be.
There were only two crew on the boat; Captain Wilmer Alverado and the mate Raphael. I never did get Raphael’s second name – come to that, you rarely do get the second names of the mates. Maybe it’s a tradition or something. Anyway, I was already aware that this was an experienced and professional team. Not once was there a crossover or tangle in the lines, despite the unseasonably high winds and seas on that first day.
They fished a five bait spread; two baits on each outrigger and one flat bait close to the boat. On calmer days, they also put out a shotgun bait from the flying bridge. All the reels, apart from one, were loaded with 30lb test. The other had 50lb test and Raphael explained that this was the blue marlin rig. To attract the fish into the spread they used hookless teasers from the outriggers, one of which was towed just sub-surface and the other was on a short line causing it to leap prodigiously from the water like a demented jack-in-the-box. It looked kinda strange but it did the business, so who’s arguing.
It was a real pleasure to see Raphael calmly clear the decks and lines after a hook-up and be prepared with a tag when the fish was ready to be leadered. He leadered, tagged and then held every fish for my photos, all by himself. A remarkable level of confidence and skill.
Best of all was watching them work the baits on a fish. The two of them were the most attentive fishermen I had ever been with. Most crews spend most of the time gabbing away to each other and paying only cursory glances at the spread. These guys’ eyes never left the baits for a moment, both of them watching from the flying bridge at all times. The likely difference of course is the fact that in most places a strike is rare whereas off La Guaira it is a near certainty. But then, if a strike is rare you’d think that the crew should be totally focused on getting everything right when it happens; but maybe that’s asking too much.
I got to know the signs for action stations pretty quickly. First I’d hear the thunder of Raphael’s feet as he scrambled down the ladder from the flying bridge to the deck. Then Wilmer would shout “Derecha (right)” or “Izquierda (left)” and Raphael would head for one of the rods. When he spotted the fish in the spread, he’d shout “Lo tengo! (Got it!)” and then he’d wait for Wilmer to shout “Ha comido! (It’s eaten)”. Raphael would then pull the line from the outrigger clip before the fish felt any pressure and feed it line from the free running spool. This technique was particularly effective on white marlin, a fish that is notoriously shy at taking baits, often dropping them immediately if any resistance is felt. Once the line stopped peeling from the spool, it was assumed that the fish had effectively turned away from the boat so Raphael would increase the drag on the reel to strike level, wind like crazy till he felt the weight of the fish and then set the hook solidly.
The technique is called bait-and-switch and you could see the origins in the name when a fish would rise to one of the hookless teasers and Raphael would expertly manoeuvre a bait until it was beside the fish where it was almost always taken immediately.
Of course, I hadn’t a clue how to do any of this and so I asked Rafael to show me on the first day. He did the hook-up on the first sailfish, explaining in mime as he went. On the hook-up with the white marlin, I took the rod but missed the strike. Luckily it whacked another bait and Raphael set the hook perfectly for me.
That fish, my first ever white marlin, put up an incredible fight, jumping constantly at the boat and then tearing off again into the depths with me grunting and groaning to get it back to the surface.
On the second sailfish, Raphael handed me the rod and helped me through the hook-up. As I set the hook, the sail shot out of the water and remained in the air for ages, charging towards the boat. Spectacular.
Captain Wilmer dominated the fights from the flying bridge, accelerating as the fish charged us and backing up, often into huge waves that crashed over the transom soaking Raphael and I, as the fish ran away from us or sounded.
All the fish were taken on 30lb test line, which made for high drama - big fish on light lines means vigilant anglers and hard work. The first sail was about 40lbs, the white nearer 60lbs and the last sail maybe 50-60lbs. Not Hemmingway proportions you understand, but I was here for numbers and numbers is what I was getting.
Yep, awesome just about covers it - and that was only day one.
Although we started with a nice white marlin of around 60lbs on live tuna bait, chasing sailfish took up the rest of day two. I’d never fished large live baits before and it was interesting to watch the bonito tuna being rigged with a threadline and hook set-up. First, a looped piece of wire was fed through the eye-socket from one side to the other and then a loop of thread or string was passed back through attached to this. Finally the hook was wound onto this loop. It took seconds to rig and, although it is has be said that it is undoubtedly cruel on the bait fish, the predators seemed to like them this way as we took strikes within minutes of the rigged bait going into the water. The only real problem was catching the bonito tuna, which could take some time.
I set the hook successfully on the first sailfish of the day and, at the same time, we also took a small dorado which Raphael brought in quickly and without fuss whilst I fought the sail.
After that I made The Big Mistake of the day. I decided that I wanted a picture of the fish chasing the bait and especially of the hook-up. This precipitated a nightmare for Raphael as he missed fish after camera-shy fish.
We were San Cocho’d four times in a row; twice at the same time on one occasion, and we also broke off on a solid hook-up when the line became wrapped on the reel spool and jammed.
San Cocho is the patron saint of the lost billfish and is a corruption of the name of a local dish, Salcocho (fish head soup). When you miss a strike, all that you get back to the boat is the hook and the head of the baitfish; hence San Cocho. We also raised and missed another four sails and a white with Raphael becoming more and more tense. Eventually, for all of our sakes, Captain Alvarado set the hook solidly in a sailfish which took the shotgun bait on the bridge rod and at last I got my photos. When the next sailfish rose, I took the rod myself and, with Raphael’s shouted instructions, hooked it perfectly. In classic style it took to the air immediately, ripping up the waves with its tail.
My Spanish isn’t good enough, as I’d already established, to find out just how mad Raphael was about the missed strikes, but body language speaks volumes and I could tell he was pissed off more than a little. I could only sympathise. We all miss fish sometimes and that’s what keeps us coming back. If we always hooked them, we’d get bored with just reeling them in – or is that just me?
One thing Raphael did do for me, though, was to make me fight the fish standing up that day. This was better, surprisingly, than fighting them in the chair. I had used the chair the first day but only, it transpired, because the crew thought it too dangerously rough to be standing up whilst fighting the fish. Day two was calmer so they wanted me up and mobile. Once I had my balance it was actually easier to get leverage on the fish, but it put more strain on my lower back. A harness would have helped but I didn’t want the guys to think I was a pansy by asking for one. I discovered later back at my hotel whilst in the shower that my groin area was black and blue from the kick-back of the rod butt. Lessons in how to hold the rod, it seems, were not part of the deal.
There is no doubt that fishing live and dead baits like this is highly successful, but it also results in a lot of deeply hooked fish because they swallow the baits and are therefore often hooked in the gullet or even the stomach. This must reduce their survival rate after release. Two of the sailfish we caught had prolapsed stomachs for example – a phenomenon apparently common in sailfish but nonetheless disturbing to see. The crew said they would live, but who knows? Once they are back in the ocean, you can’t track them after all.
Also, the accepted wisdom states that the hooks will rust away and fall out if they are left in the fish and I can see a case for jaw hooked fish losing the hook through normal wear and tear as it were, but internally hooked fish disturb me more than a little. I can remember from school chemistry lessons that a key component in the rusting process is oxygen. Since there is precious little of that in the ocean, it must take a while for deeply hooked fish where the line is cut to lose the hook through rusting alone. If indeed they ever do. The first sail that we took that day blew a lot of blood into the water during the fight. It could have been the live tuna bait that was bleeding, but it was more likely in my view to be the sailfish itself.
This is why every conservation minded angler should switch to circle hooks. With their odd shape, they can’t find an easy purchase in the gullet yet they slip neatly into the bony scissors of the fish’s jaw and hold hard, causing less damage. Which is the point of tag and release, after all.
However, hook problems aside, my second day ended with total satisfaction as well as a number of new skills learnt. Back at the hotel, I had dinner with a couple of American pilots who were flying a private charter flight for some oil company or other. They told a couple of chilling stories about what they called the “red-neck flying” that went on in Venezuela and much of South America. “Look around you,” said one “Nothing here works so why should air traffic control be any different.” That was a comforting thought for the flight home.
There is a big Tournament in March every year at La Guiara called The Annual Billfish Shootout and in 1999, they caught an incredible 256 blue marlin between only 40 boats. Those are staggering, mouth watering numbers. The year I visited, however, because of the damage from the mud slides, the tournament was being held in September rather than March and the target species was to be primarily white marlin. The boats were already arriving for the event, which was to start the week after I left and millions of dollars worth of them were bobbing majestically in the marina.
Blue water fishing boats just have to be the prettiest boats you can ever see; palatial craft of 70ft are not uncommon and you can even come across massive ocean-going vessels of 120ft or more. The mind boggles at the amount of cash it takes to buy, equip and run one of these things. I used to think that salmon fishing was a rich-man’s sport.
As I strolled along the pier side looking over the assorted boats, I was struck by the thought that every nation has its foibles. The Scots and the Irish drink too much and like to fight. The Americans are obsessed with self-analysis and competitiveness. The French are rude and are incapable of queuing in an orderly fashion. The Venezuelans, it would appear, love to drop litter, and the marina was full of it.
Even the guys on the boat were prone to tossing empty coke cans, etc. over the side. The sea around La Guaira has debris floating everywhere; it’s like no other place I’ve ever been in the tropics. It’s strange; they just don’t seem to notice it. I tried to keep my rubbish in a bag that I took away with me back to the hotel each day. I’m willing to bet, though, that if I were there long enough I’d be tossing it over the side too. When in Rome, after all. And anyway, I had the feeling that even after I stuck my carefully collected garbage safely in the bin onshore, it would still end up on a street someplace.
But then it’s hard to know just what it was like before the mud slides. Raphael in a mixture of Spanish and mime told me that his house had been swept away and his uncle killed. Wilmer’s house had been split cleanly in two. What’s a bit of trash, eh?
And there is also a lot of “natural” debris around in the sea – logs and so forth brought out of the rainforests by the rivers. Debris in the water is actually not a bad thing in many ways. It creates shade, shade brings small fish and where there are small fish there are big ones. Dorado in particular are found near floating logs or mats of vegetation. Or trash, for that matter.
But back to the trip; day three dawned calm and peaceful and the run out was smooth and fast. We tried again for live tuna bait but it took a long while to get one. As soon as it was rigged, however, a sail smashed it as it was being positioned in the spread and we had our first billfish for the day. That was followed by two plucky dorados that came out from under a log for some pitched ballyhoos. But we weren’t getting many tuna for bait so we trolled steadily to a place where we had been told that a boat had caught an unbelievable twelve white marlin the day before.
The whites were there alright. Every so often one would cruise majestically into our spread and inspect the baits one after another, but then maddeningly cruise off without taking. There were loads of sails around too and, thankfully, they showed no such reluctance to strike.
At 1.00 pm we were treated to the phenomenally exciting sight of four sailfish in the spread simultaneously. I hooked one, Raphael hooked another, Wilmer got San Cocho’d and the fourth just played with the teaser. A double billfish hook-up is an interesting experience to say the least and I hung on to my prize whilst Raphael landed his first. My back was aching as the sailfish I was attached to had peeled off about 200yds of line in a determined run, all of which I had to recover as Wilmer backed up on it. The value of fighting the fish standing up was now showing through as Raphael and I played cockpit tag, depending on which way our respective fish was running. They call it The Tuna Two-step, but it’s just as effective on sailfish.
By about 3.00 pm we were starting to wonder what was going on with the white marlin as we’d raised five but none would eat. Then a big fin appeared in the spread with the characteristic azure pectoral fins glowing like neon signs. It cruised determinedly behind the ballyhoo bait on the left outrigger until, with a sudden surge, it struck it solidly. I was photographing it all as Raphael free-spooled and then tightened on the fish, striking hard. The rod doubled and I clicked away furiously as the fish exploded out of the water. Raphael then handed the rod to me and set about clearing the deck for action. And what action there was.
This white was total power. It ripped up the waves, greyhounding and jumping before sounding with authority. I had it in leadering distance twice but it was too strong for Raphael to hold and it peeled line away from me once more. My back ached. With 30lb test line, you just can’t put too much pressure on the fish otherwise it will break off. Thankfully, the crew put a harness and rod belt on me during the fight and I could rest my vice-like grip on the rod. It was the need to hold the rod so tightly that caused me most discomfort actually; the rest was just effort, and effort like that I could handle. It took thirty minutes to get it to the boat and release it and we estimated it to be around 80lbs.
I hardly had time to catch my breath when, just as we passed sunken rain-forest tree, Wilmer shouted excitedly from the tower and suddenly we had a triple dorado hook-up with all three fish catherine-wheeling through the air simultaneously.
What a day. But Mr. Blue still hadn’t showed; time was running out and my last trip was only a half-day because of my flight times. Pressure.
At 9.00 am on my last morning, we hooked a marlin. As I took the rod, Wilmer spotted another in the spread so Raphael teased it with another bait and hooked it beautifully. Now we had the nirvana of many billfish anglers - a marlin double-header. I fought my marlin for twenty minutes and it was a strong fish. It jumped a lot at the beginning but then sounded and was a real grunt to bring to the boat. It proved to be a big white marlin, so big that during the fight the crew thought it could have been a blue marlin. It looked about 90lbs worth of fish and both of us were pretty tired after the battle.
Raphael, meanwhile, had been holding the other fish stationery behind the boat, keeping it calm and relaxed and making sure the lines didn’t cross whilst I fought the other one. We had one nervous moment as my white jumped over the other line but it cleared it like a racehorse and Raphael and I switched places in time before the lines touched. Now, with my white released, Raphael passed the other rod over to me.
As I started working it, Raphael and Wilmer shouted “Aguja azul! Aguja azul!”
It was a blue marlin. Up until then, the fish obviously hadn’t a clue that it had been hooked or that it was in any danger, but now it took off enthusiastically and Wilmer backed the boat up hard to chase it. It quickly decided that it couldn’t outrun us and it dived for the ocean floor.
What looked like 400mtrs of line disappeared from the reel vertically into the depths and my back felt as if it would snap with the pressure. I had been on my usual fitness regime before I had come on this trip and I was glad of the 200 sit-ups per session I had been doing as my abdominal muscles were squeezed ever tighter by the rod belt.
On other boats I have fished on, when a fish sounds, the captain moves the boat gently forward to plane the fish upwards. You lose line during this stage, but it’s better on the angler later; lifting an uncooperative fish from that kind of depth is hard work. For some reason, however, Wilmer didn’t use this tactic. If I had been in the chair fighting the fish, he would have had to as the angle of the line would have meant that unless he planed the fish, the line would have nicked the transom and inevitably broken.
So I was on my own and I fought that fish for every single inch of line, getting it to the boat twice only to watch in dismay as it ripped all the line off again and sounded. At times like that, you have to remind yourself you’re having fun. Raphael sat on the transom and said “Come on my friend” with a huge grin on his face. “Intento!” (I’m trying!) I shouted back, in between grunts. The Shimano reel developed a fault half-way though the fight - the same fault that every Shimano I have ever used has. The handle just jams solidly or, worse, cranks away with nothing happening. It's maddening and it's either me or it's a design fault that only afflicts me, but at least I have learned to work around the problem, so I carried on regardless.
It took over an hour of total exertion and commitment, but I eventually managed to get the estimated 150lb blue to the boat and for Raphael got a good enough grip on the leader to hold it steady and tag it. Then he and Wilmer hauled it into the boat for photos. It was hooked perfectly in the scissors of the jaw and was therefore easily unhooked. A couple of quick photos and we all lifted it back to the sea. When it was returned, Raphael tried to hold it to make sure it was recovering, but his grip failed and it slipped under the waves, rolling belly-up. I was worried that it would die. Mercifully, after a few seconds, it turned over and swam slowly, and majestically, away.
Lots of people don’t hold with lifting the fish aboard for photos, and I have to confess that I agree with them. But the boys on Joropo were pretty determined to do it and, to be honest, the fish all swam away well enough, albeit a little dazed, after their experience.
That blue marlin was one tough fish and it gave me a little more understanding about why I love big game fishing. I am fit enough, but I’m not an obsessive weightlifter; I certainly could not lift weights for an hour solid. I just wouldn't have the motivation. But when fighting that marlin, I was determined not to give in. When my back was breaking, when sweat was running down my face and when there was nothing whatsoever I could do to stop the fish taking line, I would not let it beat me. Or when I simply could not move it an inch when pumping the rod and winding, and had to watch in disbelief as it took yet more line… I would not let it beat me. That feeling of personal achievement in what could be classed a near combat situation is addictive, primal, even a bit scary. You can easily learn to love it.
A Grand Slam is the accolade given to an angler who catches three species of billfish in one day. All I needed was a sailfish.
Within twenty minutes, we found a large tree trunk in the water and Wilmer circled it. Without warning, all five lines started singing and we had five dorados on. It was madness with dorados streaking everywhere across the surface, changing from blue and silver to green and gold as they went. One went under the boat and fouled the prop, but Wilmer and Raphael calmly, as usual, cut the line, tied a knot to join the two pieces of line up and finished the fight.
But no sailfish were showing so Wilmer decided to run back to the tuna area where we had caught so many in the previous days. After a forty-minute ride, we rigged to catch some live bait. That day, of all days though, it took a while to catch any and time was running out - I had to be back at the hotel by 1.00pm and it was mid-day before we caught a bait.
The guys worked the area hard and waited until the last possible second before bringing in the lines, but, apart from a barracuda, we caught nothing.
Fishing is a funny game. All week we’d been raising sailfish, especially with live baits. Sailfish, it seems, are like the number 36 bus; one minute there are dozens of them but when you need one there isn’t one around.
I started the trip one blue short of a Grand Slam and I finished one sail short of a Grand Slam. That's something I don't get to say every day.
As I left for the airport, there were bulldozers working on the sewage outlet by the hotel. Maybe in time, Venezuela will fully recover from the devastation of 1999. I hope so. All the people that I had met were great, the country looks as though it would be phenomenal to spend time exploring and the fishing; well, the fishing is awesome. No other word will do.
Was I disappointed about missing the Grand Slam? Not in any way, shape or form. Well, that’s a small lie. I was disappointed for the crew - they had worked extremely hard for me and I didn’t want them to think that I would leave unhappy. I tried hard to get the Spanish right and I think they knew that I had had the best time of my life. Unquestionably.
The tips helped too.
In three and a half days fishing, we rose forty six fish, caught a blue marlin, four white marlin, eight sailfish, ten dorados and two barracuda. We were also San Cocho’d six times, had a double header of sailfish and a double header of marlin. What a score.
South Fishing is to be congratulated for a fantastic operation as is Mr. Schummer, the owner of the Coral Way Fleet of which Joropo is one of his three boats. The boat was great and the crew were fabulous – the best I’d ever worked with. If I had a negative comment, I think it would be that they should definitely start to experiment with circle hooks to see if it reduces the deep hooking inevitable with the fishing techniques employed. After all, it would be a tragedy if catch and release, the very practice that is supposed to conserve the quarry, diminished this incredibly prolific and increasingly popular fishery. I have to admit that at present I believe that there must be a fair number of billfish sinking slowly to the bottom, dead or fatally wounded, at some point after release, because of deep-hooking. Pointless.
Oh yes, another complaint; there were far too many sandwiches delivered for lunch. They were, of course, cheese and ham specials - the staple diet of marlin fishers the world over. But after a successful fight with a marlin and when chased down with a cold Polar beer, they tasted like best fillet mignon.
As often happens, what started as a hobby website grew arms and
legs until it eventually became a full-blown book. In February 2004
it was published under the slightly enhanced title Game Fishing Diaries: Details from Fishing in Life and is now available from most outlets from as little a $2.99
on Amazon Kindle. In November 2011 Volume 2 made an appearance also
available on Kindle