Dateline: February 28, 2014 – Bujama Mala, Peru
I’ve had some questionable Valentine’s dates over the years, but none more so than in Beijing on February 14, 2005. Nic was not only surly and unattractive, he even stuck me with the check. It took him nine long years to redeem himself, but half a world away, in February of 2014, Nic, although not much of a fisherman, managed to organize an unexpected gem of a fishing weekend.
Steve and Nic outside the Forbidden City, February 14, 2005.
Nic has been a friend of mine for a long time – we have worked together for something like 15 years. A former US Marine and current IP lawyer, Nic speaks something like nine languages (four of them English) and has been to more countries than I have. He’s the closest thing I know to an international man of mystery, even if he’s more suited to International House of Pancakes.
Our adventures, most of which cannot be repeated here for reasons relating to good taste, are the stuff of sad legend, and in one unfortunate incident, we were mistaken as a Valentine’s day couple in Beijing. Before you start rewriting Brokeback Mountain, here is what happened: We had been sent to Beijing for business on very short notice. Bleary-eyed and crazed with hunger, we went into the first American-looking restaurant we saw, which happened to be an Outback Steakhouse. In our jet-lagged stupor, we had forgotten it was Valentine’s day, and when we requested a table, the staff couldn’t stop giggling at the two six-foot unshaven Americans. We made them take down all the flowers and balloons.
Nic and Steve, Buenos Aires, 2014. I grant you we would not have beautiful children.
Nic was the son of a diplomat, and spent much of his teen years in Lima. Thus, when my South America business trip continued to Peru, he was a great source of local knowledge. One of Nic’s Peru-based employees, Jose Larranaga, is quite a keen fisherman, and it was Jose’s connections – Hector and Chris – that made most of this trip happen. We’ll get to meet them about 500 words from now. So thank you Nic, but you can stop sending me cards every February 14.
Jose Antonio and a couple of fine corvinas.
The debacle in Brazil had put a damper on my enthusiasm. There is something about looking up at 20 feet of water that can discourage even the heartiest of breakfasts, but still, I was in Peru and I was going to make the most of it. If I could manage to catch a fish, I would reach the 80 country milestone – a level not reached by any smart person.
The serious fishing was planned for the weekend, but our first day in the office turned out to have the afternoon open. What else was I supposed to do? Nic and I went to a restaurant right on the beach, had a beautiful ceviche lunch, then put Nic’s fluent Spanish to work with the busboy. He wrangled five fresh prawns, more than enough bait to explore the area for a few hours.
It was a pleasant afternoon, warm but not oppressive, a bit of breeze, and a calm sea. We lounged on the seawall, enjoyed the view of Lima, and I began casting. It was a bonus session – I hoped to catch something small and interesting, and put Peru on “the list.”
The fish came quickly, and while their size was yawn-provoking, the variety was not. I managed to scratch off four new species in just a few hours, which already made the trip more than worth it. I had added my 80th country; a journey that had taken me through 79 other countries and then this one. Nic and I enjoyed the afternoon, and revisited a number of stories, especially an unfortunate evening in Saigon, that are best left untold in case my nephew is reading this.
Species #1 – the Chalapo clinid. These critters are called klipfish in South Africa and Kelpfish in the US.
Species #2 – the smooth stardrum. Nic may be smiling now, but he was not so amused when he found his rear end had fallen asleep and he couldn’t get up.
The minor stardrum. They are called this because they do not live to 18.
The shortnose stardrum. I had never caught a stardrum species before, but now, I had three. Collect them all!
As the day went on, Nic made a beverage run back to the restaurant. I asked him to bring me a Red Bull. Nic has a strange sense of humor – hence the Valentine’s cards – and he couldn’t help himself here. As he walked back to our spot with a bag full of Red Bull and beer, he yelled, in perfect Spanish “¡Senor Wozniak, Yo he obtenido tus laxantes!.” Everyone stared at me. Nic smiled, and after about 15 minutes, he admitted that this meant “Mr. Wozniak, I have obtained your laxatives.” And he stuck me with the check at Outback. Why do I hire these people?
Nic returns from the beverage run. Idiot.
Mercifully, we will not hear about Nic again until the last paragraph. That evening, Jose visited me along with Hector, and I got the pleasure of talking fishing with two professionals. Jose was heading for a family holiday, or he would have joined us, but Hector, who is both a tackle dealer and a guide, was a fantastic contact. Over some pisco sours, we talked shop well into the evening. It took some time to convince Hector that I would rather have two new species than one big corvina, but he seemed enthusiastic to help with my quest.
Hector (on the right) with a corvina. Hector has perhaps the coolest name of any guide ever – Hector Garcia de los Heros. If you’re planning to be in Lima, let me know and I’ll put you in touch with him.
After work the next day, Hector picked me up at the Westin and drove us to Pucusana, a port town about an hour south of Lima. It was an after work thing, so we only had a couple of hours to fish, but this was new territory and anything could happen.
The local beach – quite the hotspot.
Pucusana is a small, colorful place, a working harbor on the edge of the desert. This is not a country big on planning. We simply showed up at the docks and found a local boatman who was willing to head out until sunset. The water was a touch sloppy, but after the perfect storm in Brazil, it felt like a bathtub. We slowly motored out to some rocky headlands, and started casting plugs and spoons after corvina. Corvina are the big game fish here, and this was the critter I hoped to catch the most.
Despite our efforts, no corvina were found, but I did spend about an hour dropping baits over some rocky dropoffs. I was rewarded with two more new species – the Cabinza grunt and the Valparaiso chromis – as well as the bewildered stares of the boatman. I don’t think Hector fully got it either, but he was thrilled that I was thrilled.
The cabinza grunt. Yes, I was ecstatic.
The Valparaiso chromis. Another plain brown damselfish, but luckily, the only one in the area.
Sunset at Pucusana.
We talked fishing the entire drive back to Lima – this guy really lives and breathes fishing 24 hours a day. Apparently, the very best fishing in Peru is off the beach for corvina and big flounder about 300 miles south of Lima – not a possibility for this trip but definitely a reason for a return visit.
The really big day of fishing came on the last day of the trip – an adventure south to Bujama Mala to meet Hector’s friend Chris, who has a boat and a lot of experience in that region. It would be a brutally full day, with a 4am wakeup call, a two hour drive, a full day of fishing, another two hour drive, and then an 11pm flight back to San Francisco.
Hector got me bright and early, and he may have been more excited to head down to Bujama Mala than I was. He positively loves to cast lures, and this is apparently a top spot. We filled up on gas station empanadas – the local version of UMF – and got to our destination just as it was becoming best not to be locked in a small car with each other.
Hector and I celebrate fresh air.
The Bujama Mala beach at dawn. A fantastic day awaited us.
Chris was just as pleasant and enthusiastic as Hector, and we talked over the species he thought would be available and set up a basic game plan.
Chris and Hector as we head out to the islands.
We worked our way over to some rocky cliffs, where the surge washed over a steep, boulder-strewn shoreline, and began tossing soft plastics into the white water. It reminded me very much of fishing Catalina Island for kelp bass, (details here) and little did I know that we were actually hunting for a close relative – the Peruvian rock bass. They were out in force. I got a bite on my first cast, then hooked up on my second. The fish ran hard back to the rocks, and for a moment, I regretted going with my lightest spinning rod. But the Fish Gods smiled on me, and I landed not only a new species, but also a world record. My 92nd world record, on a fish I hadn’t even known existed until I caught it. Eight to go.
The Peruvian rock bass. At three pounds, this one was big enough to enter in the IGFA books.
That would have been enough for the day, but we had many hours to go, and the fishing stayed solid all day. I checked off three additonal species – four for the day, which is pretty much epic for me. Action was steady and great fun, and there was the occasional big surprise thrown in, like a triggerfish on a #3 sabiki. Each new species was greeted with cheers and high-fives.
Peruvian clinid – second species of the day.
Oh yeah – it was also scenic. I keep forgetting that because I rarely look up from the water.
This was quite a surprise on three pound leader.
The giant blenny. This is the beast of the blenny world.
The final species was another surprise. Both Chris and Hector had caught Peruvian morwongs – a colorful inshore fish reminiscent of California’s surfperch. I had just about given up on this one – there will always be at least one you don’t get – when I got a small one on a sabiki.
The Peruvian morwong. My Mother’s favorite color was orange, so she would have liked this picture, or at least the part with the fish.
Thrilled at the species, I kept fishing the area with a larger bait, and about half an hour later, got a bigger one, north of a pound. Several weeks later, after quite a bit of research, the fish turned out to be a world record. Number 93. Thank you Dr. Carvalho!
The bigger morwong. A lucky catch, even if it left me wondering where I was going to find seven more records.
We fished until late in the afternoon. It was a calm and pleasant day, and the scenery, where desert meets ocean, was stark but beautiful. I knew I would be back. I had gathered up five records on the South America trip, as well as 15 new species. There were dozens more waiting for me, and Hector and Chris had been incredibly welcoming and generous. (And both now have credit as guides on two IGFA world records.)
Chris and I in front of his vacation house in Bujama Mala.
Hector got me back to the Westin on time – what a fantastic day of fishing. I raced to shower and pack, and then, as I went through the lobby, there was an ugly surprise. Nic was there.
We had a quick drink before I headed to the airport. He’s not much of a fisherman, but he politely inquired as to my results and even more politely looked at the pictures. Jokingly, I told him “You’re forgiven for that Valentine’s Day in China.”
He looked me right in the eye and said “We’ll always have Beijing.”
“Shut up.” I replied.
SPECIAL BONUS SECTION – THE LLAMA SWEATER
My new favorite sweater. It has llamas on it.