Published February 2002
"¡Mucho Calamar! Muchos Dorados!" The panguero was explicit in describing the action within a drifting panga fleet. "¡Son Grandes!" he emphasized. He held his hands apart, denoting fish one meter in length and longer! "All you need to do is cut a piece of squid and thread it on a 6/0 hook. Let the bait drift and
" he clapped his hands together, while grinning from ear to ear. That was enough temptation for us. We quickly decided to join him and his brethren. However, there were a few obstacles to overcome:
_ The action occurred during the middle of the night.
_ We had light tackle and small rods with ten-pound monofilament wound onto reels suited for triggerfish.
_ We had to launch the boat some twenty miles from the fishing area
_ The boat was but seventeen feet in length
_ The weather had decided to become entirely unpredictable.
_ We needed fresh squid, or some way to catch the tentacled bait.
_ We needed lights -- lots and lots of lights.
"No beer on the boat" the captain Jim ordered as we entered the mercado. "Well need clear heads tonight." We dashed around pre-siesta Mulegé, buying hooks, lantern mantles, and snacks for the upcoming adventure.
"Ive got a fluorescent twelve-volt trouble light," Jim offered.
"Ive got a propane lantern, but no way to hang it up," I chimed in.
The pangueros fishing instructions had included the necessity of shining bright lights to attract the squid that in turn would attract our quarry. "Well go around the corner to the ferretería (hardware store) and rig together something to hang the lantern onto. Flushed with excitement we raced home and started loading the boat, a Volvo powered vee-hull with outdrive.
Sawing, gluing, drilling, tying, clamping, yanking, taping, and grunting, we fashioned make-shift modifications to rig the tiny open boat for night duty. The lantern mast consisted of a six-foot piece of PVC tubing lashed upright to the gunnel with a length of nylon line. An "Ell" had been glued to the tip of the tube, which in turn had an eighteen inch PVC boom. A hole and hook would retain even a wildly swinging lantern (we hoped).
We bumped down the dirt road (four new topes) to the ice plant and purchased a hundred fifty pounds of block ice. "Theres only three of us; the weight of the ice is something like a fourth person," Jim reassured. "Ive got the GPS, but I forgot how to set the waypoints," he cautioned.
No matter, the boat could only achieve a speed of twelve knots; I could study the manual on the way -- right? The main thing was, "We Were Goin Fishing!" I fitted my eleven-foot ugly-stick surf rod with Jims open face spinning reel. The reel feet did not fit the rod slots very well, but Oh, what the hell.
Gaff, sandwiches, tool kit, suntan lotion, towels, tackle boxes, "We need something to trade for bait" I stated. A cold six-pack of Tecate appeared and was stuffed into one of the coolers.
"Armando, get the flashlights" Jim ordered as the fourteen-year-old began to run out of steam. We had been at full speed for the last five hours, time was getting short, and we were starting three miles from the launch ramp. "Got the gas cans, got the map" captain Jim declared. We towed the boat onto the street, chanting a long list of items that each of us had loaded onto the boat that the others were convinced was missing.
Satisfied that we were about as ready as we would ever be, I pointed the pickup at the Serenedad launch ramp. Twenty minutes later I had submerged the trailer into the estero and Jim was throttling the engine up. I fairly leaped off the concrete dock and took the seat aside his.
We motored down the estuary still packing away fishing equipment and loose gear. Above, the afternoon sky featured mackerel and scud clouds -- not a good omen we decided.
Ahead, popcorn chop warned of an abrupt sea and a freshening wind out of the southeast. The little boat started to bob as we ventured into the Gulf of California. "Things are a little rough out here; what do you think?" asked Jim.
"I agree. But maybe we should go on just a little further and see what develops".
He turned the wheel to port and pointed the bow at Punta Chivato. Gradually the wind abated and the sea flattened. By the time we reached Punta Santa Inez, he had the throttle set at maximum cruise.
I had since given up learning the idiosyncrasies of Jims hand-held GPS receiver. Too many menu selections and too many buzzwords for a landlubber to learn. I pushed the off button and laid the GPS on the cowl.
The panguero had said that the calamar (squid) pangas worked the strait between Isla San Marcos and the village of San Lucas. Jim steered for the north end of the island, while Armando and I stared at the ore freighter Sky Hope, docked at the island and loading pale yellow gypsum.
By the time that Jim chopped back the throttle, the sun was setting and indeed, pangas were arriving in droves. We could see other fishermen pulling up busy squid lines. We motored over to a pair of pangas and inquired, "¿Se puede cambian un six-pack de Tecate para carnada?" (Can one trade a six pack for some bait?). The answer was an enthusiastic "¡Si!"
A few minutes later three baited lines were in the water and we had almost instantaneous action! A fierce tugging pulled down the tip of my surf rod. I tried to set the hook to no avail. The sea was squirming with squid and they were tearing cannibalistically at the flesh of their brethren! After fifteen minutes of losing chunk after chunk of bait, Jim muttered, "This isnt what I had in mind." I had to agree. The initial adrenaline rush of having our rods yanked had worn off.
Suddenly Armando yelled, "Dorado under the boat!"
It was getting dark. My rod tip made a sudden hard left turn and the drag on my reel began to howl. I tightened the drag and felt the line go slack as water erupted fifty feet off the stern. I pulled back on the rod and the fish responded in kind. A tug of war to the death ensued. Every time I wound the reel ten turns, the fish took back nine and a half.
"Hah!" Jim chided. "A long rod gives the fish an added advantage of leverage".
I managed to turn the fish and bring him close to the boat.
"Armando, get the light," Jim commanded.
The fourteen-year-old pointed my huge maxi-spotlight off to the side and suddenly it was daylight. A very angry bull dorado was flashing blue and gold. When the beam of the light hit him, he went wild! My rod tip bent into the water!
"Yeah, it might give them an advantage," I retorted "But a long rod is very forgiving of an amateurs mistakes!" The fish took a fast elevator to the basement. I grunted, and wound the reel. I pumped and wound, pumped and wound. Suddenly the fish was on the surface. I managed to pull him over next to the side. With one masterful stroke Captain Jim gaffed him and swung him into the boat and into the gigantic ice chest. I flopped the lid closed and the fish battered and banged for a few minutes while I caught my breath.
Not far away we could hear curses and whoops as the pangueros hooked into the marauding predators. Fiberglass resonated like drums in the night as the fish smacked their tails against the sides of the pangas.
It was pitch black by now and the fluorescent trouble light was swinging back and forth casting wild shadows about the boat. The three of us had our squid chunks drifting (with no added lead weight) and the wind was starting to pick up again. A bull savagely tore into Jims bait and ripped several dozen yards of ten-pound test off his reel before sharp teeth cut through the line. Minutes later, "Triple hookup!" I yelled. All three rods were cruelly bent almost double, and it was difficult to distinguish whose drag was screeching the loudest. My fish tore off line like it was connected to a diesel semi. I tightened the drag and the rod bent ninety degrees toward the stern. Not satisfied, the huge fish switched gears and the pitch of the screeching sound rose two octaves. Yeah, right! "We had em right where they wanted us".
"Cant see dammit. Armando, swing the light around so I can tell where this fish is." Jim swung his huge bull over the side with the gaff, but it jumped off the gaff and started pounding tackle, fiberglass, and human flesh with his wild writhing.
"Ouch! Dammit! Open the chest!
I cradled my bent-over rod in the crook of my right elbow as I flipped open the chest. Jims dorado flopped in with the rest of the fish. I gratefully sat down on the lid and proceeded to pull in my largest bull yet. We could not see except when the spotlight flared and lit up the sea. Squid were darting all around and streaks of silver among the black squid told us that the dorado were thick as thieves.
Another strike! The dorado pulled the rod tip into the water and with a sideways flip, shook off the hook. It traveled thirty feet in the air and lodged itself in the guide of a spare rod just aft of the captains chair!
"Were having fun now!" I yelled. My arms were getting tired but adrenaline was maintaining all three of us in a frantic orgy of predation.
Armando yelled for help. "Hes circling the boat".
Jim and I were busy with our own fish. "Pass your rod under ours and go around to the other side," Jim advised.
The youngster complied and soon another big bull was thrashing in the chest.
For every fish that we caught, though, we lost ten. We had fish jumping higher than five feet alongside the boat as they wildly fought their way to freedom.
Suddenly the action abated. We were bobbing in the face of a stiffening southeast wind. "Better start thinking about finding some calmer water," I suggested. Jim did not hesitate. We wound in our lines and the little boat chugged its way toward the island. The water was even rougher near the cliffs.
We held an impromptu pow-wow. The squid fishermen were motoring toward San Lucas Cove, and we decided that perhaps they wanted to be close to home in case things got rough. Constant strobes of lightning lit up the eastern sky as huge summer thunderstorms raged over the state of Sonora.
"I vote that we try to make it back to Mulege." Jim agreed and soon we were plowing our way through four to five foot pitch black seas. "This is pretty rough, I dont know," he stated. It got worse. The boat started pitching and water was breaking over the bow.
"We arent going to make it like this" he decided. I quickly agreed. "Armando", he commanded "Get the life jackets!" In a flash, we donned the bright orange PFDs.
"Lets try to make it to San Marcos" I suggested. "Theyve got a dinghy dock, and maybe we can tie up until morning." Jim pointed the boat at the cluster of bright lights marking the loading pier and the five hundred-foot long Sky Hope. We spot-lighted our way into the tiny harbor and looked around for a place to tie up. It was decided that a mooring rope attached to a metal piling, would be the most likely candidate. Jim gaffed the rope and soon we were swinging on a wide scope as the ever-stiffening southeast wind increased in velocity.
Exhaustion finally set in. We ate potato salad, which had been stuffed into zip-lock bags and guzzled bottle after bottle of cold water. Soggy cushions, damp towels, and lumpy life-vests were utilized as bolsters to provide some cushion against the constant bobbing of the waves. I used the maxi-light to illuminate the inside of the boat. The inside was awash in a sea of Dorado Blood. I shined the light first on Jim then on myself. We were caked with squid ink, and spotted with blots of fish blood.
"Go down to the office and tell the manager of this dump that I want my money back."
I had earlier quipped that "A motel 6 would be nice right about now." The cushions and other paraphernalia had proved to be poor insulation against the knocking of the boat. The gypsum being loaded aboard "ky Hope was generating clouds of yellow dust but, lucky for us, the wind was carrying it to the north. The massive conveyor belt squeaked and clanked.
The wind whistled as it passed through the lines of our stored rods.
"At least we didnt get skunked"
"Sure as hell not!"
"How big do you figure that fish was that tore off all my line?"
"Big bastard. We needed bigger tackle tonight for sure".
"Hey Jim, Would you rate this as "An Adventure"
We slept fitfully.
The wind settled down some and we departed just before dawns first light. The sea was still roilly, but the chop had abated. By the time we cleared the southern end of the island, a fluorescent orange sun had risen and we gratefully steered toward Punta Chivato. We kept a wary watch for the freighter, which had been in the process of closing her hatches when we untied at San Marcos Island. It wouldnt do to be run over by a twenty-knot freighter after all that we had gone through.
We passed Punta Chivato and steered toward the conical island of El Sombrerito and the lighthouse at the mouth of the Mulegé estuary. When we entered the calm inlet, we observed a fishing boat on its way out. The pilot steered over to us.
"You guys are coming in a little early" He stated. Very true. It was not yet eight oclock.
"Yeah well, we left yesterday". He turned around and continued onward. I kept watching him. It finally sank in. His head whipped around so fast he stumbled. He stared at us for the longest time.
When we pulled the bloody boat out of the water, we discovered that the trailer frame was snapped clear through at the hitch. We jury-rigged some straps and eased our way down the long washboard entrance to the Serenedad hotel.
At the highway, I remembered that there was a welding shop not far away, to the south. Ten minutes later, I eased the pickup forward and the welder immediately ran four thick beads of 6013 rod down the C-clamped crack. The charge? "Twenty pesos, señor."
We headed home.