Dateline: November 8, 2014 – Puerto Penasco, Mexico
This is a scary blog. It deals with frightening themes such as biker gangs, Mexican drug cartels, and yoga, but the most difficult part of the trip turned out to be an encounter with a high school marching band.
First, the yoga. Marta believes yoga is a good thing. I believe yoga hurts, and should only be used as an ethically iffy substitute for waterboarding. Therefore, it pains me to admit that something good came out of yoga – namely, ten new fish species.
Yes, this connection is tenuous, but it was the best I could do with a deadline looming.
To explain – Marta teaches yoga to a local couple. The wife, Jen (who wishes to remain anonymous, so we will call her Jen X,) has a brother named Dave, who lives in Mexico and fishes constantly. Dave is in Puerto Penasco (Rocky Point to us gringos,) a pleasant beach town with shopping, restaurants … and fish, which is three or so hours south of Phoenix.
Once Marta had mentioned my fishing problem, Jen was determined to introduce me to Dave. It took six months of schedule challenges, but we finally met up at their house for a marvelous dinner. While the Silicon Valley types prattled on about market caps (you apparently wear these when you sell stock,) Dave and I talked serious fishing. This guy is the real deal – he has spent years fishing the Sea of Cortez and has caught some monstrous grouper and white seabass. I was dying to catch a big white seabass, so that Jim Tolonen would stop making fun of me. (For more detail on Jim, click HERE. Look all the way at the bottom.) Dave invited me fishing in Rocky Point as soon as I could work it out.
This took over a year. I first had to overcome Marta’s fear that I would be seized by roving gangs of kidnappers. As we own a house together, she was concerned that if a Mexican drug cartel seized me, she would have to unload the dishwasher herself and that she might be out up to $12 in ransom. I did my best to convince her that northern Mexico is not Somalia, but she would not relent until I got some serious travel insurance – https://globalrescue.com/. (Global Rescue is AWESOME.) I also feel it turned things in my favor when my estate plan was shown to give everything to her in case I disappeared. (Note – Marta disputes this version.)
We then had to overcome schedule conflicts. Most of the time, I was committed somewhere else, and when I could make it, Dave wasn’t free, and when the schedules clicked, the weather went bad. (When the wind gets going down there, it gets unfishably rough in a hurry.) But finally, early November of 2014 started to look possible. We then had to figure out transportation.
This is where we introduce Jeff. Jeff, a good friend of Dave’s, lives in Phoenix and fishes Puerto Penasco constantly. There is no way I was ever going to drive myself into Mexico, even in this relatively well-traveled, “beginner” section – remember my fear of roving kidnapper gangs. But Jeff was heading down that weekend and agreed to pick me up at Phoenix airport, drive me to Rocky Point, and let me fish on his boat. It doesn’t get any better than that, and hell yes I paid for gas.
The drive has some amazing scenery, if you like that desert sort of thing, but mostly, it had great road signs.
Don’t ask why.
This is the town on the border. Really. Look it up.
We got into Rocky Point around sunset, and despite what we read about Mexico in the National Enquirer, it was a perfectly safe and uneventful journey, except when my gas station burrito had sudden consequences. Jeff eyed me suspiciously, but I blamed a nearby refinery and changed subjects.
Of course, even though we arrived in the evening, I couldn’t keep away from an hour or two in the harbor.
My first view of Rocky Point harbor. Harbors have fish. Guess how I spent my next few hours.
If any of you doubt that I raced to the harbor to fish before I ate, unpacked, or even went to the bathroom, you must be new readers. Welcome! In a couple of hours, I added two new species – the smooth silverside and the Cortez grunt.
A trophy-sized smooth silverside.
The Cortez grunt. I am told these get larger.
Puerto Penasco looked like any other Mexico tourist destination – lots of bars and restaurants, plenty of shopping, and … thousands of bikers on Harley-Davidsons? Oh wait, that isn’t normal. Further research revealed that there was some sort of biker event, which sounds like a disaster in the making, because I wear LL Bean stuff and bikers frown on people who wear LL Bean stuff.
As it turned out, they were fine. They kept to the downtown, far away from Jeff’s condo, and the ones we ran into at Dave’s restaurant behaved like leather-clad Lutherans.
Jeff and I got back to his condo around ten and I was ready to crash. I was half asleep when a curious noise wafted into the room – it sounded like the Champs’ old song, “Tequila,” being played very, very badly by a high school marching band. I wrinkled my brow in bewilderment and wrote it off to a lack of sleep. The noise persisted. I got up and opened the window, and indeed, the local high school marching band was practicing “Tequila” over and over in a field inconveniently within earshot. They were certainly enthusiastic and persistent, and I’m sure they meant well and were trying hard, but they never did get all eight lines of the song right on the same attempt. Luckily, they stopped around 11:30.
In the morning, we connected with Dave bright and early and headed out onto the water. Even after my rather full day before, I was wide awake and rearing to go – adrenaline and Red Bull are a powerful combination.
We head out the estuary early on day one.
Catching the bait was nearly as good as fishing with it. We threw some big sabikis around the shallows and caught all sorts of interesting things, which would then be kept in the livewell, transported some 50 miles, then put out as bait for much bigger fish. The first thing I landed was, improbably, a bonefish. Further research revealed it to be a Cortez bonefish, which my spellcheck kept trying to change to “Cortex bonefish,” which has a much larger brain. This was a new species – and a bonefish Jaime had never caught.
Hey Jaime – Nyah, nyah, nyah.
In less than half an hour, I tacked on two more species. First, I landed a Cortez pigfish.
The Cortez pigfish – a member of the grunt family.
I then got a truly cool surprise – a finespotted jawfish.
These creatures build nest by moving rocks with their powerful jaws.
The local nickname for these things is “big mouth b***ards,” which certain relatives also called me when I was young.
Steve and Jeff, at the end of the bait session.
Somewhere in there, Jeff decided that we had enough bait. We then ran the boat for what seemed like forever. The good reefs here can be 50 miles away, but the fishing is great, so it’s just part of the deal. We talked a lot of shop on the way out, and I was excited to drop a line someplace where everything could be new.
Steve and Dave as we started catching reef fish.
We set up to fish live baits on the bottom in relatively shallow water – still around 5o feet. While I was waiting for a hit, I fished a lighter rig and got two more new species – a sargo and a gold-spotted bass. I got very busy photographing them, so much so that I didn’t pay much attention to the big rod I had down with a live bait. You know where this is going.
The sargo. I saw one of these in Ventura, but I couldn’t afford another Buddha statue. Details HERE.)
There was no second photo of goldspotted bass, as I accidentally dropped it overboard. You’ll see why in a moment.
In the middle of me doing a fish selfie, my big rod wrenched down in the holder and started paying out line hard against the clicker. Whatever was hooked, it was darn big – lifting the rod out of the holder was a two man job. (By the way, this would disqualify an IGFA record, so remember that you need to lift the rod out yourself if you’re on the record hunt.) I would have guessed grouper, but as I slowly got the fish off the bottom, it was still making some long runs. Even on heavy standup gear, the fight went on for 15 minutes. As the fish surfaced, I was stunned. It was a positively huge white seabass – many times the size of my relatively puny personal best. (Details HERE) I contemplated how to take it on board. Net? Gaff? Harpoon? I couldn’t wait to send the photo to Jim Tolonen and stop his hurtful abuse. I finally decided to reach down and get it with a big Boga, and as I swung it across my lap for the photo you see below, my jaw hit the deck. I thought of several things to say, but all that came out was “Wrong croaker.”
The wrong croaker.
It wasn’t a white seabass at all. It was a totoaba, the largest member of the croaker family, a rare and endangered beast that once grew over 200 pounds and had dominated the Sea of Cortez. Between commercial fishing and the diverting of water out of the Colorado River, the species was driven to the brink of extinction years ago, but with careful management, it is just coming back in the area.
The group celebrates releasing the totoaba.
Jeff and Dave were positively giddy – this is a rare catch and they were thrilled that I was the one who got it. And I was thrilled that I had landed it unharmed. I quickly set it back in the water and let it fin in place for a moment to get its bearings. It swam off quietly and I had added one of the rarer species I would ever see.
I hardly noticed the run home – the adrenaline from the totoaba kept me going much of the evening. We ate at Dave’s restaurant – Capone’s. Look it up if you’re in Rocky Point – tremendous food and great service. It was truly epic meal, and Dave, Jeff, and I talked fishing well into the night.
The guys at dinner. I have a feeling this place would be great even if we weren’t eating with the owner.
Yes, there were bikers everywhere, but they behaved impeccably.
We got back to the condo around ten, and yes, the band was still rehearsing and had made scant progress. I went to bed with a new appreciation for Pee Wee Herman – I never liked him, but at least he used a recognizable version of the song.
The harbor cat greets us at the beginning of day two. He expected fish.
We began day two with more bait fishing, which, as I mentioned, was as much fun for me as the big game fishing, and did not have the drawback of a fifty mile boat ride. I tried quite a while to get a larger bonefish – a pound would be a world record. I couldn’t find one quite that big, but took solace in the fact that Jaime has never caught one of any size.
With the bikers and the marching band fast asleep, morning is a peaceful time in Puerto Penasco.
Then came the long run.
We pulled up to a deeper reef mid-morning and began soaking some big live baits. We got a nice assortment of fish, but the highlight was a huge bite and run on my heavy bottom rod. I knew this had to be a grouper – it hit hard and stuck stubbornly to the bottom, but heavy braided line and a standup rod have a way of dissuading this behavior. Slowly, I got him out of the reef. It turned out to be a leopard grouper, and a big one.
They just dropped it on my lap and took photos while I tried to get up.
We spent the afternoon poking around rockpiles at varying depths, and we got several more nice fish, including sharks, a smaller grouper, and an orangemouth corvina, the final new species of the trip. We started the journey home, and as we got within 30 miles, I could swear I heard badly-played strains of “Tequila” floating over the water.
The corvina get much, much bigger, but a species is a species.
A much more dignified goldspotted bass. These are related to the calico bass in Southern California, but tend to hand out in deeper locales.
The weather report for the next day showed the wind picking up, so we decided to call it a trip. Ten species was a great haul for two days, and Jeff offered to drive back to Phoenix that evening so we could avoid another band rehearsal. After another excellent meal at Capone’s, we headed north. I thanked Dave and Jeff profusely – even though our only connection was a yoga class, they had organized a fantastic weekend for me and some species I’ll never forget.
Jeff and I raced through the desolate Mexican desert, and my mind did wander again to roving bands of kidnappers, and how awful it would be if Marta had to empty the dishwasher herself. I can just see her on CNN saying “I have never seen that man before in my life.” But nothing happened. A few bikers passed us on the road, but they were courteous and waved as they went by. This had been a safe and easy getaway, despite my varied prejudices. Indeed, the worst thing I faced on the trip, apart from the gas station burrito, was that God awful high school band. So if you’re heading to Puerto Penasco, be prepared for them. By the time you visit, they will likely have perfected “Tequila” and moved on to “It’s a Small World After All.” (Go ahead – hum it once. I dare you.)