Friend of a friend, small town car mechanic, when presented with any sort of philosophical question about life, likes to shake his head and say “ya just can’t know.”
I love that phrase. The way he means it has no deeper meaning, it’s not an attempt at aloofness. Sometimes ya just can’t know. Total release from responsibility like that first breath of mountain air through a rolled down window, better than a Xanax, the sweaty car seat with french fry crumbs in the cracks is new again, a feeling that runs straight through the brain like two fat fingers of Kentucky brown wine.
So I got it into my head that I was going to catch a roosterfish from a desert beach, then fly across the country and catch a grand slam in the jungles of the Yucatan. Never been to Mexico before, never even seen a permit. Why did I think,
The first week would be just the girl and I. We stayed in a guest house owned by a couple from California, two dusty arroyos north of the fishing town Los Barriles. Offshore cruisers anchored in the bay with names like El Oso Blanco and Desperado II, cattle and goats on main street, flowers hanging over the stucco walls, a few old gringo fisherman with skin like well-conditioned baseball gloves bellied up to the rail of a tin-roofed cantina.
Between google, a couple email addresses I’d found online, and the homeowner, I had what I thought was a good spot in mind. Mid-April wasn’t prime time, but it was what worked. Just find the bait, and you’ll find the fish. Get a fly in front of them, strip it as fast as you can, try not to screw up. Didn’t sound that hard. We packed the cooler, strung up a few rods, and pointed the Jeep down the coast.
My first thought was “damn there’s a lot of beach here …. ya it’s the ocean stupid.” Not sure what I’d expected. Despite being a 4x4 the Jeep didn’t handle the soft sand well with its road tires so we parked in a spot that looked like every other spot along the miles of beach to the north and the south. Yoga pants practiced her casting, chased after crabs. I had another cup of coffee, snapped the only spinning rod I’d brought in half casting a spoon for mackerel. Esta bien. Rigged up the fly rods, sat on the cooler and waited for visibility. A couple of guys rolled by in quads, rods rigged in pvc pipes clamped to plastic cartons on the front racks.
When the sun got high enough I noticed a submerged rock pile about 100 yards down from us. Despite having no idea what a roosterfish looked like in the water, I was pretty sure I hadn’t seen any yet, so I grabbed a rod and walked toward the rocks. Maybe there would be baitfish. From above I could see what was actually two rock piles, so I hucked a cast between them, still learning the 10wt and outbound short line. I tucked the rod under my arm like I’d seen done, and got about two and a half strips in before a shadow, a swirl, and a jolt through the rod like I’d slammed it in a car door. I lost the line at my feet, then the line on the reel and enough backing to make me glance down and tighten the drag. I pumped and reeled down on the strong mystery fish, and after another smaller run worked it back into the surf.
El torro, jack crevalle. A good one too, I thought.
Excited, I kept casting. Which is how I discovered challenge #1: Needlefish. The little fuckers were everywhere. I had half a dozen flies shredded before I learned to recognize their shape and stupid jumping pursuit after my fly. Annoyed but still buzzing from the quick success I sat on the cooler and multiplied the feeling with a few Pacifico’s.
I actually think starting by staying still helped. I noticed things I may not have had I been cruising around on an ATV. Dolphins rolling off the break line, sea lions diving to clean up the scraps, clouds of bait moving up and down, always the same depth and distance from the beach, crabs peeking from their holes, all sorts of beach birds, pelicans diving, rays jumping and slapping back down, the occasional sea turtle.
There was a pescadora’s shack a few hundred yards down, with three old pangas and one new one scattered around. Earlier in the morning I’d watched two guys in the new panga hit the beach at full power, expertly tipping the motor just before impact and plowing halfway up the sand to the shack, then hopping out and winching it the rest of the way up. They had a friendly guard god that kept watch all day, every day from the scattered shade of the shack.
A third of the way through what I’d allotted for the day’s cervezas, I grabbed a rod and walked back down toward the rock piles. A few casts went without response before I bent down to address challenge #2: line around my feet. Always. Caught on ankles, toes, tied in impossible knots by the arriving and receding surf. I looked back up and immediately fixed on something long, dark, and coming in hot. It was pez gallo, and it was grande.
Sitting on the cooler I hadn’t really been sure what I was looking for. I was pretty sure they’d look dark, but other fish look dark. Would I be able to see the comb? I was confident that somehow I’d recognize one when I saw it, they were supposed to be fast.
I’d been right, every tightened muscle in my body knew it, my vision tunneled to the dark sports car roaring in from the deep blue, just under the chop. It’s like I’d been sitting on the sand watching a pickup ball game featuring a bunch of short, suburban white kids and Shaq had just walked onto the court and ripped the rim off the backboard. You’d notice that, and I noticed this, and it was headed right for me. Challenge #3: Roosters are fast. As it neared the beach, it veered to my right, comb slicing at what might as well have been 100mph. My first cast landed where the fish had been when I’d shot line, which was now 15 feet behind it. Mid way through my second attempt, I noticed the rock piles were no longer in front of me, but down the beach, moving away. What the fuck. With my feet planted in the sand I tried to catch up with a longer cast which not only hit the steep sand bank behind me on the way back but also tangled around the reel, my hand, and my foot simultaneously. By then I was yelling a lot of unintelligible stuff like the dad from A Christmas Story, realized I needed to move, hopped for a few feet on one leg as I shook the other free from my running line, and then took off down the beach at a dead sprint. It was corralling what I now understood weren’t rocks, but a dark, thick school of bait under the surf line, slashing and circling and somehow still moving fast away from me. I kind of caught up once, close enough to land a desperate, shitty cast 10 feet short. Seconds later it was over, the bait scattered, leaving me bent over on the beach, hands on knees, lungs burning, feeling incredibly pathetic, amazed, and intimidated. Like I’d just been dunked on and gotten a face full of ballsack. On the long walk back to the cooler I began to think rooster fishing might be difficult.
I sat on the cooler the rest of the day, drank the remaining beers, burned my feet to a crisp, watched yoga pants sun tan, practice her casting again, then opened the tequila as afternoon turned to evening.
The food in town was incredible, we dusted off old Spanish class lessons and tried everything. Ceviche, tamales, empanadas, salsas, guacamoles, tacos of every kind, breakfasts, fish dinners. It was cheap, fresh, and redefined my understanding of Mexican cuisine.
Tacos de cabeza from a roadside stand where the lady pressed the maize tortillas fresh to order, served with some type of fruit juice drink called agua fresca that wiped the heat from my mouth with every sip. Five tacos and two juices for what amounted to $5, she was horrified with my equal tip, I think she thought I didn’t understand the bill and needed change.
After the first day, a hard north wind blew for the next 3, unusual for that time of year I was told by the local shop rat, which cut down the fishable beach significantly. Despite the conditions, each day brought a new lesson. Eric from Seattle helped me recognize the difference between sardinas and mullet, and tossed me a few of his favorite flies, declining my offer to share my beers. I learned to recognize schools of jacks from a distance, even saw a school of 50 or so dorado working bait way out of casting range. Watching the guides fish, I decided most fish from the beach probably aren’t caught the way I was trying, they were all throwing large teaser plugs way out to the deep water while their clients stood ready with fly rods. We caught some smaller jacks, yoga pants caught a needlefish that she wouldn’t let me kill unless we ate it, which I wasn’t going to do, and then a pompano which I gladly tossed into the cooler.
I saw another rooster in the morning of day 3, much smaller than the first. I managed to put a fly in front of it, only causing it to speed up on its course down the beach.
That afternoon I got the Jeep stuck in the sand during a trip up to a reef to snorkel. The snorkeling was incredible but I was pissed at the Jeep for not being able to do what it wasn’t equipped for. Naturally it wasn’t my fault. So for the final two days we coughed up a little space in the budget for this bad MF’er.
Thing ate the beach and rough dirt roads for breakfast. It was nice to be able to load everything up and see a lot more beach than we ever could have on foot. All of the gringos in town rode around on quads, and it made us feel a little less like tourists than the shiny, four-door Jeep had.
My favorite part of the whole experience was roaring down the winding, cactus and scrub lined dirt roads out to the beach. First thing in the morning, the land smelled like an incredible mixture of pine, sweet flowers, manure, and something else I couldn’t place, almost like fresh cut hay, and intensified where the cold air settled into low spots. I couldn’t believe arid land could smell like that.
The wind shifted the fourth day, and died the fifth. We were settling into the life, up early, out late at the beach bar or one of the cantinas on main street, fishing, learning, trying to take it all in, never enough time for everything.
Homeowner was nice enough to let us borrow one of his spinning rods so yoga pants could get in the game. Didn’t improve our success any but was fun.
I saw two roosters on day 4 with a shot at one. Unlike day one, I never saw it coming into the beach. A school of sardina I’d been watching suddenly split in half and I recognized the culprit. One good cast, a heart stopping follow, a heart breaking refusal, tossed on my pile of evidence suggesting rooster fishing might be difficult. I kicked the sand back to the shade of the quad, opened a beer, looked up the beach, down the beach, took it all in. In that moment I knew this wouldn’t be the trip. I was worn out, ankles swollen, feet sunburnt, shoulder sore, matched against a fish far superior to any other I'd ever known. I’d be back again, that was for sure, maybe next time. Ya just can’t know.
In part two, we join a bunch of friends in the jungle, and I start to think permit fishing is difficult.[/report]
They don't wanna have to die