Dateline: March 12, 2016 – Sonora, Mexico
What the heck was I doing in rural Mexico with “Sexy Rexy” Johnson, and more importantly, how had we gotten there without a major navigational mishap?
For those few of you who do not have my blog memorized, Rex “Sexy Rexy” Johnson is an outstanding trout guide based in Silver City, New Mexico. He has helped me catch a number of unusual species and was the indirect cause of Martini wearing an Elvis costume in the wilderness. Twice. Even on that first trip, Rex had mentioned a friend’s ranch in Sonora, Mexico that had a small river featuring several species I would never get anywhere else. He claimed it was just a few hours from Silver City, but knowing Rex, I figured this was somewhere on the border with Guatemala, or even on the border with Ecuador, and for those of you who paid attention in geography, Mexico doesn’t even have a border with Ecuador. The ideas of the species fascinated me; the idea of the trip terrified me – but new species and good judgement do not always go hand in hand. Marta wasn’t exactly thrilled with my last trip to Mexico, (Details HERE) and this place had even less infrastructure, but with my estate plans and insurance in order, she reluctantly consented. Rex and I worked out some logistics on the phone, and like that, it was settled. I was going to rural northern Mexico. Hurray?
It started, as it often does, with a business trip. This one was to Phoenix, which put me close enough to Mexico to make this worthwhile. Phoenix is within shouting distance of one of my favorite pieces of water in the southwest – the Salt River – a place I can go if I am feeling good about myself and want to get really, really frustrated. (Details in “Return to Salt River“) I did an afternoon here before my meetings started, and the river flow, which had been up a few inches the last time I was there, was down a few inches, and the fish just sat there and started at me. Stubbornly, or stupidly, I stuck it out until dark, and I was rewarded with two bites, and one fish – a Sonora sucker, which was just big enough to break the record on that species and make the afternoon completely worth it.
The Sonora sucker. There is no fish you will ever see more and catch less, except perhaps the desert sucker, which lives in the same place.
The Arizona scenery is always stunning, but if you’re taking scenery photos, it usually means the fishing is bad.
Then we had three days of work, which you would find boring. (I’m sure my employees did.) But Thursday afternoon came, and I was off on a long and desolate drive to a town just north of Mexico. It was in this border town that Rex and I connected, ate dinner, and then sacked out for the evening. (Separate rooms, I might add.)
We met a buddy of Rex’s early the next morning and headed in to Mexico.
We go south of the border.
Although I half-expected roving gangs of ruffians to be around every corner, the worst thing we saw was a very aggressive bus driver. Rex’s friend lives about an hour from the border crossing, and we got there uneventfully. The scenery was classic high desert, arid but beautiful, miles of open scrub with mountains in the distance. We reached our accommodations mid-morning – it was a comfortable place, we had food and Red Bull for a couple of days, and now all I had to do was catch the fish.
Typical scenery as we came to the end of our drive.
The creek itself was the thing of sweaty late night fishing dreams. It looked like what all of us would think would be a perfect trout stream – fast, clear water, plenty of rocks and trees. It was located in a steep canyon so there were shadows on the water most of the time, it was isolated and rarely fished … absolutely beautiful. But what was even more beautiful was the fact that there were no trout here. Give it a rest, trout snobs – native fish deserve a chance to live. Most of these creeks have long since been eradicated by thoughtless cattle ranchers, and only through the efforts of a few dedicated environmentalists have any of these original streams been preserved. This was truly a special place – a snapshot of what things were like before we stepped in and screwed things up.
The creek. The seam on the right had about 15 fish in it.
We hit the water at around noon. It was a pleasant day, warm enough for wet wading, and we headed upstream looking for whatever might be biting. The first couple of fish I spotted were micros, so out came the teensy hooks that require a frustratingly teensy fleck of night crawler. The first critter that came up was a Mexican dace. If I only had a bottle of Merlot and some flowers, it could have been the dace of wine and roses.
I should apologize for that pun.
The second micro was a bit tougher – it took about 45 minutes of coaxing, but I finally got one. The photos won’t do this critter – the ornate minnow – justice. It had gorgeous, bright blue fins under water, but I just couldn’t get this to come through on camera. Still, I had two species in the bag, and these were creatures I wasn’t going to see in many other places.
The ornate minnow.
We continued a leisurely hike up the river, with Rex going ahead to scout out the pools, and in case we encountered a mountain lion. (Rex could defend himself by giving the mountain lion directions back to the cabin – it would be so confused by the time he was finished it would just give up.) There were long, bubbling riffles and the occasional pool formed by boulders or a downed tree. It was these pools that held great fascination for me, for in these pools could be two species that were my main targets for the trip – the Mexican roundtail chub and the Yaqui sucker.
The chub is a close relative of the fish we caught in the Fossil Creek excursion mentioned in “Return to Salt River.” It’s a predator, and I had high hopes that I would be able to get a few on lures. About half a mile upstream, we ran into a big pool behind some timber, and I gave it a try with some small jigs. It didn’t take long. Keeping a low profile behind some branches, I let the jig drift along the deep edge of the pool and four or five chubs raced out to fight over it. I hooked up, dropped, then hooked up again and landed my third species of the afternoon. The chubs were everywhere, they fight hard, and they are more than willing to take lures – pretty much an ideal fish. I saw some that looked close to a pound, which would give me an unlikely world record, but these were a bit more cautious.
My first Mexican roundtail chub.
We worked our way further upstream, catching dozens of chubs along the way, all the while keeping an eye out for the Yaqui suckers.
The sucker was a bit of a different story. We looked and looked, and Rex finally spotted one on a rocky undercut. It was a beautiful fish, with bright orange fins clearly visible under water, but every time I drifted a bait by its nose, it ignored me. It ignored me like Marta ignores me when I say things like “We should take a vacation to Rwanda – they have huge tigerfish.” So we kept moving along, enjoying the scenery as the sun got lower, and catching at least two dozen more chubs. I kept seeing the stray example over a pound, but these continued to ignore me.
A chub in spawning colors.
I was casting a piece of crawler under a big boulder when I got a small strike and pulled a fish out of the water. Anticipating another chub, I had flipped it up into my hand and was preparing to remove the hook when I noticed it was not a chub at all. I had gotten my sucker. Everything I had read on this species indicated they didn’t get very big, a la the Rio Grande sucker, and anyone who thinks I’m worried about the size of a species is clearly a new reader. Welcome!
Steve and Rex with the Yaqui sucker. This is my 19th sucker species; Martini has the Mountain sucker, which I do not, and Jaime doesn’t have either one.
This was a beautiful fish in a beautiful location, and I was thrilled. I was up four species that I wouldn’t find anywhere else, and the trip had already been a success, presuming that I got home safely tomorrow. Sure, Mexico has had its share of issues, but with everything going on in the world right now, it felt as safe as anywhere except of course my garage, where I can hide behind all the fishing awards and hockey gear. The hockey gear makes me feel especially safe, because it smells like vomit and even a hardened terrorist would run screaming.
We got a few more chubs, and then began heading downstream toward what promised to be an excellent fajita dinner. (Little did I know that my choice to take French instead of Spanish in high school would cost me dearly that evening.)
As we got to the house, we both agreed we had about 30 minutes of daylight left, and we could fish a while longer with no fear of chupacabras. We went downstream, picked off a few more chubs, then got to a lovely pool above a pile of branches.
The pool in question.
I approached it cautiously, as it was getting to that perfect few minutes of dusk and I didn’t want to spook anything. That’s when I saw it. In hindsight, I got perhaps a bit overexcited, especially when I grabbed Rex, physically lifted him into a vantagepoint where he could see it, and whisper-shouted into his eat “Holy **** will you look at the size of that chub!!” This one was clearly over a pound, and I was going to get it.
This is where bad planning came into play. I had two rods with me, one set up for micros with a #22 hook and a one pound leader, the other set up for larger fish with a #12 hook and a 6# leader. Moments before, I had broken off the larger rig. Light was fading, and I didn’t think I had time to re-tie, so I just cast the micro setup. I threw it four times, each time drifting it in front of the beast, which just sat there and watched it go by as the evening grew more crepuscular. (Look it up, Cousin Chuck.) But on the fifth cast, when I could barely see the bait tumbling down the current, the fish made a definitive movement toward it. The line jumped. I lifted back gingerly, and all hell broke loose.
The fish took off for the timber, and I leaned back as hard as I dared, but with one pound leader there is very little margin for error. Branches thrashed back and forth on top of the water, and the fish rolled on the surface several times trying to get free. I expected the sickening feeling of a breakoff at any second, but then the fish bolted back out into the open water. It stayed there for several minutes, slowly tiring, and after what seemed an eternity, Rex took the $1.99 net I had bought at Walmart (ALWAYS have a net) and scooped up my fish.
It wasn’t a chub. It was a sucker, and a big one.
I didn’t know they got this big, but they do. And so I entered an unlikely freshwater world record from Mexico.
There was appropriate whooping and celebrating, but then we realized it had gotten fairly dark and we didn’t want to attract any chupacabras.
Dinner was excellent, except for one minor hiccup. Being that I speak less Spanish than the average houseplant, I misinterpreted the written warnings on the salsa and had a rather bumpy first round. Who knew that “Yo Gringo! Peligroso! Caliente!!” represented a problem. (You would think the skull and crossbones would have tipped me off.) I adjusted to the milder option for my second plate, but this is still the kind of mistake that carries about 36 hours of reminders.
With no Milk of Magnesia around, it was a difficult morning, but I managed to struggle out of the cabin, slightly bowlegged, and get back onto the river for a few hours. The chubs were everywhere, and I managed to up my personal best up to around 12 ounces. They were hitting just about any small lure I could get in front of them. Rex had promised this place was going to be magical, and it was.
The sharp-eyed among you may have noticed I am wearing the Devil’s Hole Pupfish hat Martini gave me two years ago. Strange indeed that a hat representing a critically endangered species would give me so much luck, but I believe the fact that I have made peace with the idea that I will never catch one of these somehow pleases the Fish Gods.
We also got several more suckers, in smaller sizes but still in lovely colors. In the species hunting world, there are some who say you aren’t **** until you catch a sucker. So I guess I’m **** in Mexico, which I actually could have told you about 30 seconds after dinner last night.
Another Yaqui sucker.
The fact this fish is still on earth is owed in large part to a very small group of environmentalists who have fought tirelessly to preserve the remaining native high-desert habitat. I’ll be publishing more on them in future episodes, so stay tuned.
At about noon, I was seized with one more reminder of dinner, and then we were off on the road back to the USA. The drive and customs went smoothly, although I am told the wrong day can see several hours of waiting time. There were no strip searches or removal of the fenders, and we were back in the US in the late afternoon. Rex and I parted ways there, so I could head four hours northwest to Phoenix for my flight, and so Rex could head “a mile or two” northeast to Silver City. Speaking of historic miscalculations, my drive took me through Tombstone, Arizona, one of our most infamous wild west towns and scene of the legendary Shootout at the OK Corral. (Where Kevin Costner shoots a bunch of local misfits because the director ran out of plotlines.)
This is across the street from the site of the shootout, but you could describe almost any corner in a major US city that way.
It’s amazing to think that just a little more than 100 years ago, our society was so chaotic that there was a major gunbattle on a crowded urban street in the middle of the afternoon. Of course, we changed things a lot since then.
Tombstone is also the site of Boothill Graveyard, a monument to both the short and brutal lives led by many in that era and also to their amazing ability to write clever epitaphs, often, I imagine, while under fire.
The gate to the graveyard.
My favorite marker memorializes one Lester Moore.
“Here lies Lester Moore, Four slugs from a .44, No Les, no more.”
Another favorite concerns one George Johnson, who apparently had very bad defense counsel.
“George Johnson, hanged by mistake, 1882.” Oops.
And of course, a classic that speaks to one of the lowest-budget funerals in history –
“Johnnie Blair. Died of Smallpox and a cowboy threw a rope over his feet and dragged him to his grave.”
After that cheerful little trip down America’s memory lane, I finished up the drive to Phoenix, where I would catch a flight home the next day. Although I could have eaten anywhere I wanted to, I ended up with a small salad and a glass of ginger ale. Fajitas would be off the menu for some time.
PS – A big “THANKS FOR NOTHING” to my Spanish speaking friends, who shall go nameless, except that Marta is one of them. When I asked for simple translations for titles for this missive, harmless things like “The Secret Stream” or “The Hidden Canyon,” I got back suggestions that ranged from “La Comadreja Enferma” to “El Calzoncillos Del Destino.” If it weren’t for Google Translate, one of these might have become the title.