Sunday, March 1, 1998
PALMILLA, SAN JOSE DEL CABO, MEXICO -- It was just another time love had gotten in the way of fishing. Gerardo chose the warm comfort of his new girlfriend’s bed instead of an early morning boat launch with the boys. "Ah, amor," was all Paco had to say when it became obvious that Gerardo was not where he told us he would be at 5:30 in the morning. Sure, we knew where he was, but we were five minutes from putting our boat in the water.
It was the second day of three I would have with Prez Ja -- the sweetest 14-foot aluminum boat that has ever been dragged across the sand. The boat belongs to Jay Crawford who bought it two years ago in San Diego for $700. In two days he was taking it with him as he and his wife, Marj, return to Montana. Prez Ja is a starkly white, relatively shallow-veed, inauspicious, 300-pound boat that after a couple hours requires minor bailing maintenance. There are three bench seats, supporting four Crawford-engineerd pvc pole holders. A mid-sixties blue and white18-horse Evinrude is clamped astern. Two vintage oars round out the standard equipment. Crucial to the launching of the boat into the surf, these heavily varnished oak oars are the sole means of preventing any of the first couple waves from depositing the boat back on the sand, potentially capsizing it, or at least filling it up with water. The previous owner claimed the boat had been in storage for ten years. Jay’s intuition tells him the boat had been recently salvaged from the bottom of some murky, muck-filled lake. I felt an instant kinship with the boat.
Taking on the Sea of Cortez in Prez Ja always imparted in me the same feeling as does fishing Lake Superior from my 17½ -foot aluminum canoe. There is an undeniable smugness about playing hard ball with the big boys; them in their multi-hundred thousand dollar operations, twin diesels, trailing ten lines; me in my $350 beat-up canoe, .8-horse electric motor, from each side a pole arching back. With Prez Ja we would often find ourselves navigating amid an armada of deep-sea fishing vessels, especially after their hired help spies us catching fish.
The boat has been tested. It has taken water. Its bow has plowed through breaking whitecaps. It has been swallowed by suddenly appearing six-foot troughs. It has exited the water atop cresting surf. It has also capsized in cresting surf. Like a living thing I have come to know its capabilities and am not afraid to push it.
Fish have been caught. On two occasions, in a morning’s outing, the boat has contained over a dozen fish. The wickedly entertaining sierra is what mostly fills the burlap fish bag. Yesterday Jay and I caught a dorado—my first and his second. We are also fairly certain that, shortly thereafter, he had a small marlin boatside, before it shook the hook.
Two strong people can drag the boat across the sand into the ocean. A 50-meter hemp rope the diameter of the handle of a baseball bat is attached to a vehicle and is used to drag the boat back across the beach where it can be trailered. Prez Ja has accompanied me on many a memorable Baja camping jaunt.
But after tomorrow the boat will no longer be available. The Sea of Cortez will revert back to being just another daunting body of water. I do have a blaze-orange Prijon kayak I could use to escape the land. It will take time for us to get acquainted and if all goes well, I will fish from it. But for the time being, my dream of doing battle with a 50-pound wahoo will be stowed somewhere in the bow of a brave little 14-foot aluminum boat in Montana named, Prez Ja.
My hair is all stiff-like. Seems whenever I get back from the water it’s all weird. Not that I mind. It’s all just hair. And I’ve been out on the water! Lots! Sometimes getting really wet. I love it out there. We have a car. It zooms around on the water. Loud. I get to ride right up front. There is no clear hard stuff to look through. Lots of wind. Going up and down. There are animals to bark at. "Hey! Get outta the way! We’re comin’ through! I’m in the car and you’re not!" And they go up into the air. Sometimes there are other animals in the water. I saw some black animals the other day. Just swimmin’ along. I saw some like them last year. They bark kinda like a dog, but goofy. Loud! I see them in the water and then they just disappear, like Peter does when he walks into the water and disappears.
And there were lots of those other animals flopping around the bottom of the car. They all go in this bag thing. Yucky things. Slimy. At first they hardly smell at all. Later they really smell. Actually, I think I eat a lot of these things, but somehow they smell different. It’s hard to tell…after all it’s just human food.
Otherwise, I’ve just been sleeping. Getting up when it’s dark. Eating. Going for rides in cars.
Been fishing. My remaining three days with the little 14-foot aluminum boat, Prez Ja were put to good use.
First day was a rare afternoon run. Took out Anni, Roberto, and the recently six Quenamaya. The afternoon breezes were breezin’ making the bright blue Sea of Cortez even more festive-looking with random whitecaps. These three were not fishermen. Roberto had never fished and the classic Penn Senator reel looked out of place in his grasp. He was holding the pole upside down. Anni, in her knit sunhat, lounged in the bow eating peanuts, fully ready for a lively ocean outing. Quenamaya was further in the bow, in her over-sized life jacket, sitting on the coiled rope. I was calmly terrified.
I was anticipating decreasing winds as the afternoon waned. It wasn’t happening. The wind gathered. The waves became unpredictable, coming from different directions at different speeds, a bit like being in a washing machine. Besides overseeing Roberto on the operation of the reel and intermittently unfouling his line, I my own pole to maintained while plotting a course through the cresting waves. With my entire crew facing astern, none was witness to the increasingly large waves the boat was avoiding. The wave that swept over the bow, completely drenching Quenamaya, leaving her thoroughly hysterical, was enough for me. I announced our return to port. Still they failed to grasp the seriousness of our plight. They were all having a grand time. Why go back after such a short while, they questioned. Without jeopardizing their confidence, I wove a way back into the bay. Just before I was to ask Roberto to reel up, he hooked a small sierra. The multi-hooked Rapala was snagged to the fish’s middle, offering up the illusion of a much larger fish. Roberto slowly took up line, complaining how tired he was becoming. I lifted the sierra into the boat amid cheers and a beaming Roberto. He began to proclaim his prowess. I couldn’t help myself…I reminded him that this was the same fisherman who, en route, so innocently asked, "Where is the boat?" I told him it was following us.
Second day. It was to be Paco, Gerardo, and me. Gerardo never showed. Along the horizon the sky was vaguely violet as Paco and I pulled the little 14-foot aluminum boat across the sand and slipped it into the womb-like waters of the Sea of Cortez. All morning we canvassed the water between the elegant Hotel Palmilla and the boldly evident Hotel Westin-Regina. We zigzagged and looped about. We went slow. We went slower. We went out into the open ocean. We fished along the shore. After five hours the burlap fish bag held six bigger-than-average sierras. Paco caught five of them. I caught the biggest one. We lost a dozen. It was a perfect day—light chop from a gentle, subsiding offshore breeze, brilliant Baja sun. On our way home we stopped at Gerardo’s restaurant where we dropped off a couple sierras. It seemed like the right thing to do.
Day Three. Jay and his wife, Marj, returned to the Hotel Posada Señor Mañana from a month spent traipsing about mainland Mexico’s Pacific Coast. They would be in San Jose del Cabo for but a couple days, taking Prez Ja with them when they left. Of course, we went fishing. It was another day that promised perfection—the same light chop as the day previous, from the same sweet offshore breeze. The swell was almost imperceptible. We had a full tank of gas and a cooler full of what remained from the two dozen fresh ten-inch baby mackerels purchased from Ramone two days previous. The night before, while in that delicious state of almost sleep, I had conceived a double-hook rig with the idea of reducing the number of little mackerels with heads and no bodies which all too frequently was all that remained of our bait upon its retrieval. Whatever had been feasting on our fresh bait, they were very adept at avoiding the hook. Early on, Jay and I were getting strikes. We were still losing fish. The bait was being destroyed. Chomped on. Sawed in half. One time something had apparently come from behind, engulfing the whole fish including the first foot of 50-pound leader. We also lost a couple sierras boatside. Also lost boatside was what we discerned to be a small marlin, the distinctive dorsal fin in display as it rolled on the surface after tossing the hook.
It was on Day Three I hooked my first dorado. It hit hard and, as Paco says, the reel began to make music. The line was disappearing so fast that I was forced to hand over the pole to Jay while I restarted the outboard in order to give chase. Jay began to recover line. Fifty meters out the dorado broke the surface, splashing in the sun’s glaring reflection. Jay maneuvered the fish near to the boat, where it began a series of leaps, jumping completely out of the water, in a frantic attempt to shake the hook. It dove for the bottom. The line zinged through the water. Again it was coaxed upward, the luminescent greens and yellows of the dorado’s body shimmered under the surface. With a quick forceful jerk of the gaff, the dorado was flopping in the bottom of the boat. My first dorado — a team effort.
Even though by morning’s end we had but one fish in the fish bag, the bag had never seemed so full.