By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Native to the Amazon River and its tributaries, the greenish-yellow, large-lipped freshwater fish has a reputation of hitting a fishing lure like a raptor and then fighting like hell. As one fishing guide puts it, "The peacock has evolved as a world-class game fish, flourishing in an environment filled with vicious piranhas, Volkswagen-sized catfish, alligators and an assortment of other unsavory characters possessing fangs, stingers, toxins and never-ending appetites."
These rod-shattering, line-breaking, tackle-destroying game fish, which can weigh more than 25 pounds, cast a spell over well-to-do U.S. fishermen, and a cottage industry sprang up in the '90s to fulfill their lunker-sized dreams. For roughly $4,000, not including several thousand dollars of airfare, several tour operators offer trips to remote lodges in the interior reaches of Brazil or Venezuela. Their ads are filled with promises of "uncompromising luxury" in plush jungle lodges, complete with resort-like amenities, fine dining and satellite phones to keep in hailing distance of the office.
But lately there's been trouble in fishermen's paradise.
Phil Marsteller, owner of Coppell-based Amazon Tours Inc., says a rival tour company has been trying to steal his prime peacock-fishing locations--his honey holes, in bass-fishing parlance--and he filed suit in a Dallas court this summer asking for damages for business theft.
Since 1992, Marsteller has operated the 85-foot Amazon Queen, "a three-story floating hotel with all the comforts of home," and more recently has built two fishing lodges from which fishermen depart in boats or sea planes in search of peacock bass. He is widely regarded as the king of peacock bass fishing.
His dispute is with Quest! Global Angling Adventures, a Marietta, Georgia, company run by two brothers, Scott and Steve Swanson. It works as a booking agent for Amazon Tours and several of its rivals.
Marsteller and his lawyer declined to comment on the suit. "I don't want to fight this in the press," Marsteller says.
Dallas lawyer Bill Brewer, who is representing Quest! Global Angling, provided the Dallas Observer with a stack of letters leading up to the lawsuit, and taken as a whole they tell a story all their own.
Peacock bass may be scrappy, but they're nothing compared with the fighting among tour operators for American peacock bass anglers, who, following the stock market crash, appear to be more difficult to land than trophy fish.
"[Marsteller] overdeveloped and got overextended, and he started squeezing people for business. He's a developer, and that happens," says Brewer, who has taken steps to move the case to federal court. "He wanted my guys to book with him to the exclusion of everyone else, and they didn't want to do that. It's like someone who books ski trips. They don't want to send clients only to one resort. They were trying to resolve that when this broke out with all these wild and crazy accusations...like Marsteller saying my clients wanted to have him killed."
The relationship between Marsteller and the Swansons began in 1997 as an amicable one, the letters and lawsuit show. The Swansons were so tight with Marsteller, whom they regarded as the premier peacock bass operator, that they bought a pair of his $25,000 Amazon Anglers Club memberships, allowing them discounts on their own future trips.
Business was good in the late 1990s and, using money raised from selling memberships, Marsteller and Amazon Tours expanded and built two new lodges, including the Rio Negro Lodge done in high-end rustic with thatched-roof buildings, a swimming beach and rooms for 36 guests.
By late 2000, though, things began to sour. In a December letter to Marsteller, Quest! said it wasn't sending along as many customers because of "factors outside of our control, including the roller-coaster stock market." Soon, the two sides were accusing each other of stealing customers and failing to live up to past agreements.
Earlier this year, it all boiled over.
The occasion was a weeklong trip in January by the Swansons on the Amazon Queen. The brothers booked the trip on the floating hotel for themselves and eight paying customers. They say they were using slots they had paid for in years past and were taking advantage of their continuing membership in the anglers club.
According to a demand letter by the Swansons, Marsteller deliberately showed them a bad time. He sent the boat to "unproductive fishing areas" and provided worthless guides, they claim. When questioned why he would deliberately sabotage the trip, the letter states, Marsteller said he did not want Scott Swanson to see any of his good fishing locations "because Mr. Swanson was using the trip to scout locations to be divulged to Amazon's competitors." He also accused Swanson of conspiring to put him out of business and alleged that "Swanson had put out a contract on Mr. Marsteller's life."
Marsteller's lawsuit asserts that he provided "the same quality service that would be extended to any other touring party" despite his suspicions that they were there merely to steal his good fishing spots.
A few months later, this matter of fangs, stingers, toxins and big appetites landed in the 14th District Court.