Dateline: May 26, 2013 – Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
Kelly is not one of my typical friends. My friends can generally be divided up into hockey players, fishermen, and Spellman, and Kelly isn’t any of these.
I dress this way for meetings and the occasional party. Kelly dresses this way on most days, even for trips to Wal-Mart.
Kelly wears matching socks, can’t ice skate, and wouldn’t know a Bimini twist from a colonoscopy. He has been one of Marta’s closest friends for years, and he and I have become good buddies despite the fact he went to USC, a school which never beats my beloved Michigan without some sort of chicanery, like the “phantom touchdown” in 1979 which ruined my childhood. It’s 35 years later, I’m still bitter, and Charles White still hasn’t crossed the goal line.
You might notice that Mr. White forgot something on his way to the end zone.
In this year of the 50th birthday parties – including mine coming up in July – Kelly certainly went all out for his. He rented a villa on the coast south of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, and invited a group of his closest friends, which includes Marta, which means I got to go. It was quite a tradeoff – I would get to go fishing, but I would be surrounded by USC football fans for 3 days.
My first trip to Puerto Vallarta was five years ago, to film a television show, of all things. (Even fishing shows have slow news days.) I dragged up 24 new species on that one, so I figured that there wasn’t much left for me. But still, it was a chance to fish someplace exotic, and I packed gear for every eventuality, hoping I could get at least four species and get across that elusive 1200 mark.
Speaking of gratuitous Trojan jokes, it’s about 1500 miles from San Francisco to PV, but because we had USC people with us, we didn’t have to go the last three yards.
The accommodations were, to put it simply, over the top. A huge villa overlooking the Pacific, every bedroom with a phenomenal ocean view, a crew of cooks and bartenders, and best of all, a gorgeous, rocky shoreline.
Now that’s a shoreline.
The walk down was a bit risky, but I got down without breaking my neck and set to fishing. I got to meet the group by yelling back and forth up to the main balcony, and while they relaxed and had Margaritas, I started catching stuff.
The bumphead damselfish, species # 1197. Only three short of 1200, so by USC rules … oh never mind.
The rocks were jammed with damselfish. This is usually bad, as I have a gift for catching ones that are plain brown and impossible to identify, but these had characteristics! I knocked off two new species in an hour, before Marta summoned me up to actually be sociable.
The Cortez damselfish. I was pretty much beside myself with joy.
This was a fun if eclectic group, mostly USC grads, consisting of some venture capitalist types (eech,) a stage actor, an aerialist, a restaurateur, an Episcopalian priest, Conan O’Brien’s sound guy, a TV producer, and a movie producer. And I thought all that came out of USC was tainted Rose Bowls and one stunning natural history discovery. (USC’s botany department uncovered a rare shrub known as the “Reggie Bush.” It grows a Heisman trophy that wilts after seven years.)
The group. Apart from the USC connection, they were a lot of fun. Marta suggested that I took the whole Michigan football thing far more seriously than they did, but that is of course ridiculous.
The next day was the real fishing adventure. I had set up two days on Mr. Marlin charters, (firstname.lastname@example.org) with guides Cesar Perez and Giovanni Padilla, for full on species-hunting on the local reefs. I rose at sunup, when most of the group was sound asleep and dreaming of ill-gotten national championships, and I headed off to the dock about 10 minutes north.
The sun rises on what would turn out to be an epic day of fishing.
The town, which had been vibrant and jammed the afternoon before, was almost completely quiet – just some shopkeepers setting up for their day and a few stray dogs wandering the streets.
I met Cesar and Giovanni and we took a short run, a few miles north and maybe a mile offshore. Oh my goodness were these guys good. Total professionals, better English than your average New York cab driver, and a perfect understanding of my perverse and petulant needs. (Marta made me say petulant.)
The fishing was immediate and surprisingly good. On my first cast, trying to get live bait, I hooked a type of leatherjack which was new for me, and it just got better from there.
The shortjaw leatherjack. Species 1199. Almost there.
The world record conehead eel. It was very unhappy about being handled, but was released safely before it got really mad.
Do not put this in your pants.
Although this burrito grunt was not a new species for me, I had never caught one heavier than four ounces before. We got at least a dozen this size.
A chocolate flounder. Yet another open world record, and finally, FINALLY, my 1200th species. This was shaping up into an epic day.
A twice-spotted soapfish. French people are afraid of these.
The business end of a striped weakfish – another new one.
The equatorial moray. I think a better name would be “That moray where the spots start small but get bigger toward the tail.”
A Verrugato croaker. I have no idea who Verrugato was, but the important thing is that Jaime Hamamoto hasn’t caught one. She will likely fly into a competitive rage when she sees this.
A final surprise on a whole squid – a diamond stingray. Even a relatively small one like this is very difficult to lift off the bottom.
The good mojo from the New York trip had carried over. While April had been a tough month for species, and it seemed like I was never going to cross the 1200 species goal line, this day alone produced seven new critters – and two world records.
That evening featured a marvelous party back at the villa. I made a point of wearing Michigan gear, to the derision of no one much except Marta, and we all chatted, drank margaritas, and waded in the pool well into the evening.
It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it.
The pool as viewed from water-balloon throwing height.
I made my joke about the Reggie Bush, and it was immediately pointed out that USC had another relatively recent Heisman – Matt Leinart. Remember him? Me neither. Isn’t he backing up Tampa Bay’s practice squad guy? When was the last time the Westminster “Best in Show” poodle ended up guarding a junkyard? (And then one of them had to trot out the old classic – “Why do Michigan coaches eat their cereal on a plate? Because if it was in a bowl, they would lose it. Ha ha ha. ) I am pretty sure the banter stayed in good humor – but I guess you all can be the judge of that.
The next morning, I had some thought of taking it easy around the house, but the shoreline called.
This is the shoreline. I can still hear it calling.
I raided the kitchen for some prawns (which may have been lunch – oops) and headed down on the rocks with surf rod in hand. After a few damselfish, I pulled in a very attractive wrasse that turned out to be a new species.
The banded wrasse. I need a new camera – this one didn’t do the colors any justice here. The bands were a bright aqua color, and Jaime must have been green with envy because she has never caught one. Oh boo hoo.
Then I got broken off. It wasn’t a violent snatch and grab – something just pulled me into the rocks and would not leave. This means eel. I quickly tied on a heavier leader and cast to the same spot, and sure enough, something started thumping on it again. I set the hook hard, and although the fish dove back into the structure, I slowly wrestled it out. Flipping it up onto the rock, I could see it was a moray of some kind, which means a high stakes game of chicken while the angler tries to get a grip on the eel and the eel tries to get a grip on the angler.
The jewel moray. Another world record no one cared to turn in – until now.
Even a small moray can do considerable damage, but I finally got the upper fin on the beast and photographed it. It was a beautiful fish – the aptly-named jewel moray, and it was an open world record. The shoreline had been very kind to me, and I released the beast unharmed but deeply annoyed.
Steve carefully handles the jewel moray. The woman in the background is an actress and professional aerialist – how cool is that?
We all went into town for the big official birthday dinner. It was held at an outstanding rooftop restaurant, and we carried on well into the evening. There were many toasts to Kelly’s next 50 years, some of them coherent, and it was marvelous to see a group of lifetime friends be able to spend time together. Several stories regarding Kelly’s college antics were shared, but my attorney has advised me to not repeat them here and, indeed, to burn my notes.
The group stops for a photo while we were all still capable of following simple instructions.
Kelly enjoys dinner with two great friends, Marta and Kelly. We call her “the smart Kelly” to tell them apart. In a moment of graciousness, I told them both “I forgive you for Charles White.” They looked at each other and said “Who the hell is Charles White?”
Of course, USC football came up again. What kind of place do you need to kill two people just to tie the school record? Conversation moved to deeper topics, like the meaning of life, which was clearly an attempt to hide their shame about USC football. Marta again suggested that they might not care all that much, but this is preposterous.
The guy on the right is a stage actor and does an awesome one man show on Groucho Marx. The guy on the left is showing exactly how far Charles White’s knee was from the two yard line.
I had one more day booked with the boat, and foolishly, I brought Marta along. There is, of course, always the risk that she will catch something that I have not – one of her great joys in life. I was willing to take this chance just to spend the day with her, because I am kind and good-hearted.
The very first thing she caught was a gulf coney. I have never caught a gulf coney. You have to be kidding me – one drop and she gets a species I don’t have? I had a full day out here and didn’t sniff one, and she gets one on her first drop? Where’s the justice? Moments later, she got another one. The crew understood perfectly that this was very funny, and try as they might to be polite, they kept giggling.
Marta and her gulf coney.
I insisted on staying in the area where Marta had gotten these fish long past when anything else was biting. I stuck with it, and after an hour, I was rewarded with a somewhat unlarge gulf coney. When she was taking the photograph below, Marta kept up a spectacularly unamusing pantomime that she couldn’t see the fish through the viewfinder. Ha ha.
I am more experienced at making small fish look big, but there is no hiding that Marta’s fish was a touch larger.
The crew. Look these guys up if you are planning a trip to PV.
We hit a few more reefs and continued to catch a nice variety of species. I still wanted to move and fish the rocky shorelines, but I always have trouble leaving when I’m catching stuff.
A spotted rose snapper – one of 4 new species on the day. Marta is holding the largest blue bobo I have ever seen in my life.
Bussing’s croaker. Another of the new species. I don’t know who Bussing was either. Ask Jaime.
I have to confess it was Marta who actually insisted that we pull the anchor and try a different area. It shames me to confess this led to the capture of a beautiful new species – the giant hawkfish.
Mind you – this one wasn’t very giant, but a lovely capture nonetheless. That was species number four for the day and number 15 for the trip.
How DO these things mate?
This species of triggerfish travels as much as I do. I have caught them as far afield as Panama and Hawaii.
At Marta’s urging, I spent the last day of the trip around the villa, enjoying ceviche made from the flounder we caught and perhaps a few margaritas. The fishing gear actually got packed, and unthinkably, I was sociable for the evening. (The tide was wrong anyway.)
I still trotted out a few choice USC barbs, but by and large, I let it go that night. I had to have a moment of maturity here. I couldn’t blame them personally. After all, these people didn’t personally carry the ball across the goal line against Michigan all those years ago.
And neither did Charles White.
Maybe he tripped on the big white arrow and dropped the football.