MARLIN LOVER OF MAZATLÁN

A compassionate entrepreneur fights gringo bloodlust in an effort to save sport fishing in the Sea of Cortez
March 31, 1969

The fishing trip to Mazatlàn started off with a blast. Several, in fact. We were sitting in a saloon called Cascada on Saturday night sloshing Margaritas and turning on to the mariachi band when El Arquitecto pointed into a dark corner and said: "There sits Mexico's James Bond." James Bond? He stood about 5'6", wore curly blond hair, a tall English girl friend draped around his neck and the face of a slightly borracho Botticelli angel. His name was Major Jorge Carranza-Peniche, 28, and he packed a Colt .45 automatic pistol against the small of his back, tucked in the waistband of his trousers. We all examined the .45 with the superior air of pistoleros—even the mariachis took a look—while El Arquitecto revealed the major's record to us. Jorge worked for the Mexican narcotics bureau and in 1967 alone had captured more than 284 tons of marijuana, 640 kilos of heroin and 2½ tons of opium; he had once parachuted onto an offshore island to capture half a dozen escaped prisoners. The magic of the Margaritas and the music of the mariachis made it seem logical for me to challenge Jorge Carranza-Peniche to a shooting match.

The next day Jorge and his English girl whirled into the parking lot of the Balboa Club just before sundown, he with a fully loaded M-14 automatic rifle and his .45, she with a pussycat grin and a tight pants suit that matched her mauve Lotus Elan. On the beach we set up two coconuts and a piece of roofing slate as targets, then stood back 50 yards to shoot—long-range for the pistol, but short for the M-14. The shooting was into the sunset, and the shrimp boats were creeping down the coast, well within ricochet range. The challenger shot first, and the roofing slate burst into what used to be called smithereens. Full of machismo, I thought the shrimp boats seemed to flinch.

Some 30 shots later it was a Mexican standoff in the best tradition: a hit apiece and 31 misses. Jorge and I strode away from the pile of shell cases exchanging compliments.

"Don't take it too badly, Roberto," El Arquitecto later consoled me. "Tomorrow you go fishing with my brother-in-law, Heimpel. You can't have as many misses with the marlin as with the pistola."

El Arquitecto is Sergio Pruneda, 40, delegate from the state of Sinaloa to the Mexican Department of Tourism and principal architect of the new, attractive buildings in Mazatlàn. Heimpel, El Arquitecto's brother-in-law, is Wilhelm Kurt Heimpel, 43, known as Bill to his predominantly American clientele and owner of the largest sport-fishing fleet in the most productive marlin port of the Western Hemisphere.

About all that the brothers-in-law have in common are lovely wives, successful professions and an abundance of facial hair: Sergio wears a trim Mephistophelian beard, Bill a broad, brushy Frito-bandito mustache. Where Sergio is all winks, shrugs and Latin ebullience, Bill is reserved almost to the point of introspection, a keen listener and observer, as befits a man of the sea. In a sense, the two men typify the best characteristics of the city itself.

The seaport of Mazatlàn, 600 miles south of Juàrez, is quite unlike the better-known tourist towns of Acapulco and Puerto Vallarta farther down the line. Mazatlàn has a real live self-contained economy of its own. Its 110,000 inhabitants earn their daily tortillas in such unglamorous occupations as shrimping, shoe manufacture and the cultivation of hemp (hence Jorge Carranza). The town fathers point with pride to eight banks, a foundry, a brewery housed in a skyscraperlike structure that is vaguely reminiscent of a windowless Pan Am Building and a thriving, if malodorous, fertilizer plant.

Even during the siesta Mazatlàn's downtown echoes to the honking and huffing of small cars known locally as pulmonías (pneumonias). Its buildings demonstrate the best of contemporary Mexican architecture; a clean, hard-edged thrust coupled with a warmly Mexican concern for color and detail. And Mazatlàn is, finally, clean, clean, clean. Olas Altas, the sinuous main drag along the seawall, is spotless compared to New York's Park Avenue, while the open-air cafés and bodegas that line it are freer of flies than Stockholm. Even the old brothel on the hilltop, the Estratosfera (Stratosphere Club), which boasted the most splendid view of any bawdy house in the world, has been closed down for the sake of civic virtue.

Yet there is sin of a sort in Mazatlàn—at least in the eyes of a few sportsmen and conservationists, Bill Heimpel foremost among them, who deplore the needless assassination each year of some 5,000 marlin and sailfish by visiting gringo fishermen. Not that there are any fewer bill-fish in evidence off Mazatlàn this year than there were buffalo on the Great Plains a century ago. Indeed, Mazatlàn is sited on perhaps the richest lode of marlin and sailfish in the world. It perches on a promontory hard by the mouth of the Sea of Cortez (known less romantically as the Gulf of California), a giant fish trap whose seaward net is the dry and empty peninsula of Baja California.

Migratory fish moving up the west coast of Mexico turn eagerly into the Gulf, where they find ideal conditions for feeding and breeding: shallow, warm waters that are soupy with plankton and therefore teeming as well with baitfish, which in turn lure the big pelagic predators—blue, black and striped marlin, sailfish, dolphin, yellowfin tuna, skipjack and bonito, sierra mackerel, roosterfish and, of course, the omnipresent and omnivorous sharks.

All of the creatures in this seagoing supermarket thrash out their lives in water so intensely blue that beside it Ektachrome pales to black and white. John Steinbeck, in his Log from the Sea of Cortez (1941), describes the color as "a deep ultramarine blue—a washtub bluing blue." Everywhere he cruised in the Gulf—from the Colorado Delta, with its 20-foot tidal bores, past the old pirate island of Tiburón, to the headlands of Mazatlàn and Cabo San Lucas—Steinbeck was struck by the vigor and voracity of the game fish: "Near the moving boat swordfishes played about. They seemed to play in pure joy or exhibitionism. It is thought that they leap to clear themselves of parasites; they jump clear of the water and come crashing down, and sometimes they turn over in the air and flash in the sunlight."

Nobody knows much more about the marlin's motives for leaping—or for any of its behavior—than was known nearly a generation ago when Steinbeck cruised these waters.

"Hell, we don't even know where the billfish breed," laments Bill Heimpel, one of the few Mazatlanos who show: as much interest in studying the billfish as in catching them. That's something of an irony, since Heimpel's Star Fleet is n√∫mero uno among Mazatlàn's sport-fishing fleets. Operating mainly from December through March, Heimpel's 12 boats (double the number of his nearest competition) capture 3,000 marlin and sail a year, plus uncounted lesser breeds. Last year 714 of those billfish were tagged and released for migratory study by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and this year Heimpel hopes to increase that proportion to one in every three. It will be difficult, he admits, since few fishermen—especially his own boat captains and crews—share his compunctions. For the norteamericanos, who pay from $60 to $78 a day for a Star Fleet boat, it is usually the first time out on the blue water, and they want that dock-side photograph to hang up on the office wall showing themselves posed proudly under the weighing hoist with their catch. As for the Mexican crew members, they get $1.25 to $1.50 a fish by selling the catch to the local fertilizer plant. And you can't sell a tagged marlin. That extra 12 bits means a lot to a skipper who earns $5 a day for eight hours of chasing tail fins all over the ocean.

In the introduction to a small handbook of fishing phrases that Heimpel gives to each charter party, he urges fishermen who prefer to tag their fish to tell the captain in advance that he will be paid the fertilizer price. Still the communications barrier stands in the way. Two highly experienced California anglers, Bud Smith of Oxnard and Brad Crow of San Marino, had a typical foul-up recently. Fishing from Heimpel's Vega, a speedy 40-footer, Crow hooked up on a small striped marlin and shouted to the captain that he wanted it tagged, not gaffed. "No, is bad hooked," replied the skipper, "will die anyhow." "The hell he will," shouted Crow. "Tag him!" "No, he just die soon time anyhow." With Crow still protesting, the mate gaffed the marlin, clubbed it to death and methodically lashed it to the stern.

"Dammit," said Crow later, "Bud and I have hooked a lot of fish much deeper in the throat than that; in fact, we've brought in some that had their stomachs hanging out. It looks awful, but the marlin has a free-floating stomach that he can shove right out of his mouth at will to regurgitate something he doesn't like. You can just stick your arm down his gullet and push the stomach back in and let 'em go. They're a tough fish and they can survive." The reason for the captain's reluctance to tag the fish soon became clear: neither Smith nor Crow had arranged in advance to pay the $1.25—a faintly ludicrous situation, since Smith is a bank board chairman and Crow a Dean Witter partner.

Back at the dock Heimpel chewed out the skipper in smoky Spanish. The marlin was carted off, wrinkled and gray as a worn-out truck tire, to fertilize some Sinaloan bean field. Esthetics aside, Heimpel's concern over the fate of the Gulf's billfish makes good business sense. If the fishing falls off he will sport only a lean billfold. Russian trawlers and Japanese longliners are making vast inroads on Mazatlàn's fishy riches, and Mexico City can do little about it. At Heimpel's urging, the Mexican government has extended the limits of its fishing jurisdiction from nine miles to 12 and imposed a three-marlin, three-sail daily limit on each charter boat. "It's not much," says Heimpel, "but at least it's a beginning."

To look at Wilhelm Kurt Heimpel, you wouldn't peg him as a bleeding heart for any cause. In addition to his mustache and the hardest eyes this side of John Wayne, he favors leather-thonged vaquero shirts and a sporty Ford convertible that he whips through the blind curves of Mazatlàn's side streets with the insouciance of a Latin Wolfgang von Trips. In fact, the crosscultural simile fits, since Heimpel belongs to one of the Western Hemisphere's most curious minorities: the German-Mexicans. In theory, at least, the two cultures would appear about as miscible as fire and water, but in reality they complement one another. The Teutonic excesses of order, obedience and punctuality are mellowed in the Mexican ambience of sun and ma√±ana. At the same time, the Germanic virtues of cleanliness, thrift and self-control supply a valuable plus to the Hispanic side of the equation. Heimpel is a most mellow blend.

He was born 43 years ago in Yucatan, where his father, an electrical engineer from Stuttgart, had arrived in 1906 to bring light and heat to the coffee plantations. Since the only German-speaking schools were in Mexico City, der junge Willi was shunted north to study for a CPA degree and a life behind a ledger book. Instead he took to the sea. A Mexican friend asked him to crew on a schooner trip from New York to Acapulco. That voyage on the 56-foot Barca d'Oro led to another—a 34-month circumnavigation of the globe. Heimpel served as navigator on the cruise. "We made all the storybook landfalls," he recalls, "the Marquesas, Tahiti, the Seychelles and Portuguese East Africa. In the Tuamotu Archipelago we ripped out a mainsail and put into an atoll that had never seen a yacht before. The old chief there was wrinkled and toothless, but he could still dive to 180 feet like most of those pearl divers. I could make it to about half that depth. Anyway, after that cruise I could no more return to accounting than that old chief could become president of Mexico."

The Barca d'Oro was the first Mexican vessel ever to circle the world, and with the publicity attendant on its return Heimpel was able to get a job as a shrimp-boat captain in Mazatlàn. Soon he was in charge of 14 shrimpers, and with his savings he built his first sport-fishing boat, the Polaris, which is still running 16 years later (on its fourth engine). The Sea of Cortez was just becoming popular with U.S. anglers, and Heimpel's fleet burgeoned, along with his knowledge of the saltwater community.

A day's fishing with Heimpel amounts to an oceanographic field trip, replete with cold beer, ecological lectures and plenty of marlin action. On the way out of the boat basin, Heimpel's flagship, the Vega, passes beneath the Creston lighthouse, at 508 feet above sea level the third-highest navigational light in the world (Gibraltar's, at 1,396 feet, is the highest). Beneath Creston, its cactus-studded crown wreathed with pelicans and frigate birds, a cave meanders 350 yards into the rock through oddly canted limestone strata. A few hundred yards offshore a pair of guano-whitened rocks ascend like cathedrals from the sea, and beyond them, their black granite teeth flicking through the waves, lie the Tortugas, an unbuoyed reef. "Take a look at those fellows," says Bill, pointing to a herd of California seals sunning themselves on the rocks. He and the mate begin howling and barking at the seals, which raise their heads like so many lonely Labrador retrievers and bark back. This is about as far south as seals will migrate, Heimpel explained. Farther south the water is too warm for them. By the same token, warm-water fish—like the black and blue marlin, sailfish and wahoo—usually leave the vicinity of Mazatlàn by late October, when colder water moves in from the northwest. This year the water stayed warm longer than usual, and boats were still bringing in blacks and sails in late January.

By now we were into the blue water, and billfish were rolling everywhere, their dorsals and tails spiking the surface like frozen waves. The red-and-white teaser cavorted in our wake, and the mullet trolled from the three rods kicked up roostertails. But the marlin weren't feeding; one of the ironies of the Gulf's fecundity is that no fish ever goes hungry, and a strike is too often a matter of whim. Suddenly the drag sang out; a dolphin striking from below had hooked himself solidly without our help. Two minutes of muscle along the overpowering angle of the rod and he was on the gaff, dead in a flash of gold and green and beaded blood. Next came a skipjack, which hit a small red-and-white feathered jig that we were trolling from an ultralight rod. This fish lasted 20 minutes, stripping off yards of six-pound line every time he came near the boat, a marble-colored anchor reluctant to break the surface.

Then came five marlin, not a one of them boated. At each sighting Heimpel played the bait into the marlin's reach; each time the fish only slapped at the mullet with its bill or else mouthed it indecisively. With a scarred finger on the line and his thumb on the reel, Heimpel waited as long as he could; then, with his mustache crimped in concentration, he leaned into the strike. Each time he came back with only the head of a mullet. The marlin were playing with the bait, not swallowing it.

There's a kind of a Zen factor at work in fishing, just as in karate, fencing or archery: the harder you concentrate, the less likely are you to score. Only with the casualness that comes with the shedding of inhibition can you really succeed. After the fifth marlin had stripped the bait, we fell into that casualness and within 20 minutes were hooked up solidly to a fair-sized striped marlin. When it jumped it was evident that this was not one of those monsters whose leap Hemingway likened to throwing a horse off a cliff. Maybe a Shetland pony, or perhaps a good-sized Newfoundland. In 10 minutes it was within gaffing distance, but we wanted only to tag the fish and that took a bit more work. While the mate grabbed the marlin by the bill and pushed the hook free, Heimpel jabbed a yellow rubber tape at the end of a short lance into the fish's back, just below the dorsal. It contained a number that would later be recorded in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife files, along with the name of the fisherman, location of the catch and the date. When, and if, the marlin was caught again the tag would be logged in the migration route chart and the fisherman notified of the fact.

Heimpel watched the tagging with some concern. "I knew a mate who took a marlin like that one by the bill when the fish was still very green," he said. "The marlin surged and the bill went into the mate's face just below the eye. It bent back around and came out of his mouth. They can be a mean fish up close to a boat."

The light by now lay like the color of wheat on the Creston, and the Sierra Madre Occidental, looming in the background just an hour and a half's drive from Mazatlàn, seemed to writhe in the impending sunset. On the way back in, the mate fed the leftover mullet to the frigate birds, whose forked tails worked like mad tailors' scissors as they caught the baits in midair. "You haven't seen birds until you go to the Islas de las Tres Marías, about 130 miles south of here," Heimpel said. "Nobody lives on the islands except a prison load of convicts. The rest is really wild—mahogany trees and lignum vitae and lizards and birds. I've put about 200 sika deer on the island. We go down there in the slack season in the smaller boats and just fish and skin dive and shoot doves.

"That's what I want to keep here—the chance to go somewhere really wild. My father came to this country as a man of science, a bearer of progress. As an accountant, I suppose I could have helped cement that kind of progress, but I'm looking for a different kind. Mexico has so much more than it needs; it's got riches. It's wild. My son is studying up in the States, and when he comes back he's going to the oceanographic institute in Ensenada. Maybe he'll take over the Star Fleet when he gets old enough. But maybe there won't be enough fish to make it workable anymore. What I have to do is keep the fish."

Back at the landing, the ubiquitous Margaritas were flowing, and a dozen dead marlin dangled from the weighing hoists. The big fisherman of the day was Lorenzo Donarico, 70, of Omaha, who had taken two dolphin, three marlin and 11 yellowfin tuna. His boat was festooned in the colored pennants of the kill: black for marlin, green for dolphin, red for yellowfin. Donarico, who came to the U.S. from Milan 48 years ago, runs a chain of beauty parlors in Nebraska called the Maison Lorenzo. He had his picture taken with the bigger of the two dolphins, a 52-pound 12-ounce bull with a head like the butt of a log-splitting wedge. He did not plan to eat any of the fish, since he did not really care for fish that much. The nonfish-eating syndrome was evident in another fisherman as well, but for a different reason. Norman Levin, 29, of Des Plaines, Ill. can't eat fish because he loves them too dearly. Back home he has nine tanks full of Singapore angels, Lake Nyasa cichlids, discusfish and exotic Chinese goldfish called orandas. "I'll kill my first marlin," said Levin, "because everyone has a right to the big thrill—once. After that, I'll tag."

There were other norteamericanos at Heimpel's dock reflecting other views of the matter. On hand from Houston, Texas were C. F. Mann, a grizzly-browed plumbing contractor in a blue jump suit, and his wife, Chestene. They took a big sail and two marlin, but scoffed at any pretension toward success. "Hell, boy, I killed 34 billfish off Freepo't just this spring," said C.F. There were also Al and Jean Spangenberg of Cincinnati, who discovered almost too late that their eight-foot sailfish was headed for the fertilizer plant—and retrieved it for $185 to be mounted. And there was Hugo Rohde, 63, of Wall Lake, Iowa ("Andy Williams' home town, of course"), who had taken a citation wahoo in Florida and king salmon in Alaska and who seriously adjudged his Mazatlàn marlin "a hard dragger—he'll fight ya for a little while."

Above all those petty debates about the quality and edibility of saltwater fish, there stands Mamuca's. Of Mazatlàn's many restaurants, Mamuca's is both the most austere and the most inventive—with everything from octopus to oysters on the menu, not to mention paper napkins, Formica tabletops, Plasticene porters wearing looking-glass ties. Over his oysters, El Arquitecto was commenting on the lust of the gringo for the murder of the fish. "Don't get me wrong," he said, "gringo isn't a bad word to us. It comes from a song that your soldiers sang when they stormed Chapultepec—'Green grows the grass....' Da da de dum. Or maybe it comes from the green coats that they wore. Some say it comes from Greco—Greek—but that sounds a bit absurd, since it is a shift in linguistic metaphor. It's Greek to me, ha ha." Someone mentioned to Sergio that there was a Greek vocabulary at work in Mazatlàn fishing. He cited Steinbeck's Log: "We in the United States have done so much to destroy our own resources, our timber, our land, our fishes, that we should be taken as a horrible example and our methods avoided by any government and people enlightened enough to envision a continuing economy. With our own resources we have been prodigal, and our country will not soon lose the scars of our grasping stupidity."

Sergio, the architect, sat for a moment over his oysters and stroked his Mephistophelian beard. "Heimpel understands that," he said, finally. "I think I do, too."

PHOTOBILL HEIMPEL SCANS JOHN STEINBECK'S DEEP BLUE SEA AND PONDERS ITS FUTURE

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)