We went to Mexico for a friend's wedding. To a small town on the south Pacific coast I never would have traveled to if the groom hadn't been from there. Like every place I’ve been in Mexico it’s beautiful in some ways, sad in others, inspiring, and frustrating. In a certain way you are conscious of the fact that your experience is a bit different than many others are having around you. Privileged is the word I guess. Mexico is a place of contrasts. But beyond that guilt, or whatever it is I often feel, I found that like every other place I’ve been in the country, the locals are nice, the food is terrific, and unlike Maine, it has fish. A lot of them.
DIY seemed impossible due to the heavy beach break that has made the place famous as a surfing destination. So I looked up a local guide, Jorge “Popperman” Pantoja. I did not have high expectations and often don’t have the best luck on guided days anyway. But I’d heard Popperman was the man. As it turned out, he was the man, and he treated us to two of the best days of saltwater fishing I’ve ever experienced.
The first part of the week we poked around a bit.
No shortage of secluded, empty beaches within hiking distance.
Given the opportunity, and enough booze, I eat like a drunk barn animal.
I got carried away with the cheap, delicious street food, let my guard down a bit and YP and I both came down with norovirus and spent a full day dragging ourselves between the bed and the toilet. Luckily it was a mild case compared to other times I’ve had it, and we were back on our feet for the wedding and the rest of the trip. Turned out that it was going around town, and almost all of the wedding guests got to experience it at some point before or during the wedding or in one case, during a 14 hr flight back to London.
Our guide days rolled around and I was happy we had them booked. I’d spent a few days walking up and down the beach watching mysterious fish blow up schools of sardines out beyond the surf and was feeling like a caged animal. I tried casting once, doing my best to time the big swells. I made half a cast, and then almost lost my shorts, and then my rod to a breaker that hit me so hard it made me instantly furious. I stomped back up the beach with a bunch of wet sand between my ass cheeks, looking for someone to blame.
I shook Jorge’s hand on the beach. In my shitty Spanish I asked him how he was doing.
“Best day of my life, amigo.”
I can’t say why, but that made me happy.
He said he’d seen wahoo the day before and we were going to troll plugs. I’d never fished blue water in my life, and had no idea what to expect. That first day we fished with the newlyweds, neither of them had ever caught a fish in their lives even though the groom Leo was from just up the road. Leo asked why wahoo are called wahoo.
Jorge smiled, “Because when you hook one, you say…” he tipped his head back and howled at the sky, “Wahooo!”
He said wahoo bite best at first light. Captain Nacho had the boat running fast when Jorge dropped the first line back, a blue squid plug. He set it in the rod holder, turned around, and the rod doubled over and a fish started ripping drag.
Leo started yelling “Wahooo! wahooo!”
Jorge handed me the rod as the fish ended its first run. He watched the rod suspiciously for a moment, before declaring it wasn’t a wahoo. “Tuna.” He said. I asked how he knew. “It is being too nice to you.”
It was just a skipjack, and I was annoyed how much strength the damn thing had.
Once we got out to what Jorge called the breaks, via “Nacho GPS” (how capt Nacho navigated using the mountain peaks) rods started ripping again, and this time the fish showed themselves right away, cartwheeling end over end way out behind the boat.
Big schools flashed under the boat, including some giant bulls lit up electric blue, chasing sardines around. Jorge fly fishes himself, and was excited to see I’d brought a couple rods. He chucked a teaser plug and we had a couple close encounters with some very turned up fish.
After one fish came in slashing at my fly all the way to the boat, my hands were shaking so bad it was all I could do to force a follow up cast.
At the end of the day Jorge decided we needed a snapper for dinner so we got one jigging. He made it very clear to me it was to be cooked whole, with nothing but salt, butter, and lime.
So we made that and a pile of fresh mahi for some friends who were still hanging around town.
The next morning it was just YP and I, and we met Jorge and Nacho on the beach again. The day started slowly, the wind had changed overnight and the current we’d fished in the day before was slack. It was enough to put the mahi in a bad mood. They did their damnedest, but plan A wasn’t going to work. After a short, fevered debate in Spanish, the two guides went to work, and turned what might’ve been a nice boat ride into a day I’ll remember forever.
Running full out, Jorge yelled that we were going to “the point,” and to string up my 8wt. We found mackerel and gafftop pompano busting bait, and very willing to come to a fly. The pompano would come balls out at a quickly stripped clouser, their long yellow fins zipping through the water like roosterfish. Their first runs corked an 8wt, and I wondered if anybody would give a shit about permit if they ate as easily as their rug rat cousins.
As I balanced on the front of the panga, smiling, laughing, yelling, unhooking fish and chucking my fly back out as fast as I could, Jorge handed a rod with a jig to YP and told her to drop it down to the bottom.
He was very animated as he explained his theory, waving his hands and motioning like diving birds and feeding fish. “Sometime when fish are eating sardinas, and birds are diving, the snapper are happy…” YP leaned back on the rod, “Got one!” Jorge beamed at me, clearly proud of himself.
YP quickly boated two nice barred snapper back to back.
Then an African pompano kicked my ass around the rocks for a few minutes.
On the way to another spot, the ocean suddenly erupted around us. Sardines flying through the air, the backs of a thousand tuna stirring the water to a boil. I jumped up front with a 10wt and did what I often do, dropped the fly into the water and prepared to start a cast. It was instantly gone, ripped away from me back under the boat. I never saw the backing knot go out of the rod, it was well gone before I got my bearings. It was like standing along the highway, reaching out, and grabbing the sideview mirror of a passing car.
The big blitz was over in moments, but we picked at smaller schools that exploded here and there for the next hour. I’ve never had more fun with a fly rod.
It was already past the time we should have been heading in, but the way things were going we all had sort of an unspoken optimism. A feeling that we needed to stay out on the water, and something incredible was bound to happen.
Jorge had told us stories about how sometimes snapper will come up and feed on sardines near the surface. Like the tuna, “but all red, red red red, krrrrrsshhhhhhh,” he’d make a motion like churning water and chaos with his hands.
We decided to troll crankbaits along the rocks back toward town, to maybe pull a snapper or grouper off the bottom. We’d no more than got the rods set when I saw what looked like another tuna blitz up ahead. Except there was red. “Jorge!” I pointed. “Red!...”
He jumped up on the side of the boat to see ahead. “Snapper!”
As we worked up to where I’d seen the commotion, and the big red fish glowing like brake lights on the surface, he said “Ok, ok, we have the right baits out. Just wait.”
We stared at the rods bent lightly in their holders, trembling with the action of the lures. I couldn’t believe it would actually happen like that. It never does.
The rod on the left doubled over, Jorge leapt for it. “Snapper!”
He yanked the rod up and moved to hand it to YP when the rod on the right doubled over, drag buzzing. I grabbed it and spun the drag to stop the fish’s hard run for the rocks.
YP got hers in first, the biggest snapper I’d ever seen (I haven’t seen many, but Jorge seemed excited as he pulled it out of the net so I figured it was a good fish). Then I worked mine towards the back of the boat. It made one last dive for the bottom before Jorge could net it. It filled the net, thick and wide, bright as a stop sign. I wish I could adequately describe what Jorge did when he got that fish in the boat. It’s a dance and song I’ll look back on and smile at until I’m gone. There was jazz hands, some sort of dance like a young girl losing her shit at the sight of Justin Beiber, and a “Yee yee yee yeeee!!” and then a bunch of Spanish that sounded like a string of expletives.
At the end of it, when the fish were all in the box and we’d shared Pacificos from the cooler, he looked at me, smiled, and said, simply, “Best day of my life, amigo.”
YP, Jorge, and Capt Nacho.
Jorge took pompano home to his wife, Nacho took his wife’s favorite, mackerel. We all had snapper, and I was reminded what true, simple happiness feels like.
They don't wanna have to die