Isla Socorro rises like a slag heap from the tropical Pacific, some 1,000 miles from San Diego and 200 miles southwest of the renowned Baja California marlin grounds. Unlike such fashionable fishing holes as Bimini or Walker Cay in the Bahamas, Punta Carnero in Ecuador, Panama's Pi√±as Bay or even Baja's own Cabo San Lucas, Socorro offers no amenities to the saltwater sportsman. Its total population consists of perhaps half a hundred officers and men of the Mexican navy, a few hundred goats and sheep to keep them company during the long lonely nights, a vast armada of frigate birds and boobies, an active volcano—and a whole lot of fish.
Here there are no cool dark wharf-side bars into which the weary angler can repair for liquid resuscitation after a day of arm-stretching isometrics under the searing sun, nor any dusky maidens to caress his peeling brow. No steel band music or mariachi mawkishness; no minstrelsy of any kind. Only the harsh atonal scream of singing drags—Mick Jagger on a 4/0 reel—and the timpani of dying tuna or wahoo beating time with their tails eight, and sometimes 80, to the bar as they thrash their lives away on the hot bloody decks. Socorro, in short, is a fisherman's paradise, provided you can take your paradise straight and strong and salty.
The island was first visited by sport fishermen more than half a century ago, when such piscatorial pioneers as Zane Grey and Gifford Pinchot, Teddy Roosevelt's house conservationist, began tapping the vast potential of Mexican waters, but for some strange reason it is still only rarely visited by noncommercial anglers. Or perhaps not so strange when one considers the fact that modern fishermen have been softened to a large extent by easy jet travel, luxury fishing resorts and fast, sleek sport-fishing boats laden with iced beer. Since most Mexican charter captains are content to fish the "inside," where marlin, sailfish and the lesser breeds still abound, and since it takes four pounding, boring, costly, fishless days to run down to Socorro from San Diego, the nearest U.S. port, it is not surprising that so few gringos have wet a line there. Five or six times a year at most, one of the big, long-range party boats operating out of San Diego bypasses the still-productive yellowtail, dolphin and grouper grounds of mid-Baja and pushes its prow into the indigo waters off Socorro. The long haul and high price ($700 a person for two weeks) are worth it: at Socorro it is possible in five days of angling to boat more than 10 tons of big grabbers, mainly wahoo, yellowfin tuna, rainbow runners and Pacific horse-eye jacks, as well as voracious whitetip and hammerhead sharks which do their best to keep the game fish out of the freezer by the simple expedient of chomping them like so many apples before they can be brought to gaff. These are fish like grandpa used to take, many and mighty, but one had better be as tough as grandpa was to try them.
On an evening last December the Qualifier 105, a 95-ton party boat under the command of Captain Bruce Barnes, cast off from Fisherman's Landing in San Diego and, after taking 150 seething scoops of live anchovies into her bait tanks, shaped a course for Socorro. Measuring 105 feet in length and with a 28-foot beam, the Qualifier 105 is the largest sport-fishing boat of its kind in Southern California, if not in the world. Even so the craft draws no more water than a fair-sized football player (6'4"); she is kind of a marine middle linebacker, shouldering aside the seas with little diminution of her cruising speed (15 knots) and little discomfort to her passengers (a maximum of 33 for long-range trips). Like everything else in the region, Southern California fishing is a group encounter, and the Qualifier is eminently suited to accommodate the hordes. From her stern taffrail and her two topside outriggers she can troll 12 lines simultaneously. The broad, low fantail, unobstructed by masts or rigging, can handle more than two dozen madmen at the same time as they cast for albacore. black sea bass, tuna or wahoo. The more timid souls who choose to avoid the whizzing iron and raucous cries of the fantail can cast more comfortably and in greater solitude from the high-sheered bow. "Bowspirits," they came to be called on this cruise.
March 19, 1973
Barnes, 46, is everything one expects in a party boat captain: tall, tanned, mustachioed and witty, he combines authority and helpfulness in just the right measure, the outgrowth of more than 20 years of this peculiar brand of fishing. California anglers in the main have always been hardy, hungry meat fishermen. They are at home on converted air-sea rescue boats and sub chasers that ride the seas like burnt-out light bulbs, trailing a steady chum composed of involuntary offerings from their seasick passengers. In the old days the only amenities were clogged heads, cigarette machines that never worked and the one saving grace called cioppino, a savory fish stew made of tomato paste, garlic, onions, oregano, potatoes, olive oil and big, firm chunks of red rockfish. For 35¢ the man or woman who chose to avoid the mob scene at the rail could relax with a bowl of cioppino, a hunk of Italian bread and a glass of homemade red wine.
Over the years the "cattle boats" of Southern California have produced their own ethics (minimal) and lexicon (voluminous). The pushier the fisherman at the rail, the more readily he earns the sobriquet of highliner or hot stick. By contrast the timid or clumsy angler is known as a farmer or a banana. Light tackle in this game is for sissies. The true highliner uses a short, heavy-butted stick (rod) and a deep-spooled crank (reel) mounted with string (line) of no less than 30-pound test and usually in the 60- to 80-pound category. Big fish are known as toads, hogs, dogs or grabbers, terms of seeming contempt that nonetheless mask a real affection and respect. The same is true of the term applied to the Japanese-Americans who constitute a disproportionate segment of the cattle boat contingent: Buddha heads. Most of them are the highest of highliners, competent and uncomplaining anglers who love to fish. The key to success in this kind of fishing is the ability to "short stroke" a fish out of the herd (school) smoothly and swiftly, a technique known elsewhere as horsing, and then to bounce the critter, which may weigh anywhere up to 100 pounds, into the boat without the aid of a gaff or landing net.
Clearly, California cattle boat fishing is for the strong of arm and the thick of hide, particularly when the iron (heavy, treble-hooked diamond jigs) is flying fast and furious. Barnes cannot count the number of hooks he has removed from the fingers, arms, backs, shoulders, necks, cheeks, scalps and eyeballs of various customers, highliners and farmers alike. "The only difference between this boat and Noah's ark," says one of Barnes' crew, "is that we load the animals every week."
On this cruise the zoological makeup of the supercargo was of a slightly higher order than usual: 26 experienced fishermen from all over the U.S., most of them sales representatives of the Sevenstrand Tackle Manufacturing Company, producers of Fenwick rods. These were men who had fished it all, or at least most of it. Steelhead and king salmon on the Dean River of the Pacific Northwest; brown trout and black bass on the streams and ponds of Pennsylvania; bluefish and white marlin off Montauk; bluefin tuna and stripers in The Maritimes; snook and sailfish out of Palm Beach; muskies and walleyes in the slow, flyblown flowages of northern Wisconsin; brim and specks and lunker largemouths in the sloughs of the Deep South; even Nile perch and tiger fish in Kenya's Lake Rudolf. For all that experience—nearly a millennium of years fished in the aggregate—there was not a man in the whole lot who would not ultimately be surprised, humiliated, bruised and exalted by the sheer fecundity and ferocity of the grabbers at Socorro.
A night and a day of steady cruising down the Baja peninsula gave the passengers a chance to prepare tackle and to sniff one another out. Almost immediately the group began to polarize into two classes which might be called the Aggressors and the Gentlemen. Since all hands had been warned that "everything at Socorro has teeth," wire for making leaders was at a premium. The Aggressors quickly monopolized the available supply, and the sound of their snippers soon threatened to drown out the roar of the Q-105's engines. The same with monofilament line, particularly in the heavier weight categories. The Aggressors dominated the spooling machines, cranking on miles of 44-pound, 60-pound and 80-pound mono with the avidity of so many Ahabs. Each Aggressor, it seemed, had at least six reels to fill. "Which one of you bananas has the 80-pound?" one of them would bellow. "I've still got three spools to fill and we'll be there in only two days!"
Meanwhile, the Gentlemen stood by, pale and slightly aghast, exchanging quiet tales of the high trout streams or else just staring dazedly at the Baja shoreline, which loomed to the eastward like a string of dead blue lizards. "Bit of a mob scene, isn't it?" one might say casually. "Don't know if I like it, but we'll certainly have time enough to get our tackle ready before we reach Socorro." Not very likely; the Aggressors had an infinite capacity for wire twisting and crank turning. Finally the Gentlemen had to swallow their distaste and shoulder their way into the tangles of gear strewn about on the fantail. And just in time they were, for on the morning of the third day Captain Barnes put in at San Pablo Bay. two-thirds of the distance down the peninsula, for a quick warmup shot at yellowfin tuna.
The fish were there, all right, with the sun just bloodying the coastal mountains, the tuna began hitting—a triple-header on the troll followed by four or five hookups on jigs and baits. Soon the fantail was a tangle of crossed lines, smoking drags and raucous curses. Aggressors galloped the decks screaming, "Hot rail! Hot rail! Gangway!" The hottest railer was Jim Giesecke, a Fenwick rep from Dallas who always fished with a long black smoldering cigar in his teeth on the theory, no doubt, that if his curses didn't clear the decks, then the hot coal of his stogie would. Bill Stinson, a relatively quiet Aggressor from Seattle with a barracuda grin and a strong casting arm, brought the first fish of the trip to gaff: a 15-pound yellowfin. But the Gentlemen were not to be denied. Lloyd F. Riss, a grouse shooter and trout fisherman from Du Bois, Pa., lost one tuna on 20-pound line after a quarter of an hours fight, but then quickly jigged up another. Fighting it quietly, with none of the theatrics of the crass Aggressors, he brought it gently to the gaff and then winced pathetically as the steel sank home. "They do fight harder than a Penna. brown trout!" Riss wrote in the log that night, concluding: "My trip complete the first day."
Not by a long shot. The San Pablo interim was puppy-sized compared to what would come. When the action slowed, Barnes took the Q-105 farther into the bay and bartered for langouste with the natives. In exchange for a few bottles of whiskey, a carton of cigarettes, a box of .22-caliber bullets, some candy bars and a baseball bat, he received enough rock lobster for the evening meal. When one of the Gentlemen, touched by the seeming poverty of the lobster fishermen, threw a $10 bill into their boat, Barnes turned icy: "Don't ever do that; you'll ruin it for the rest of us."
Another day and a night and a day of running, the engine throb meshing with the pulse; more furious tackle building by the Aggressors, more delicate reminiscences from the Gentlemen. By this time a protean character had emerged from the heretofore faceless crew: Simeon Mote, 61, the ship's cook, who looked as though he had just stepped out of a Charles Addams cartoon. Bald, toothless, paunchy and a master of nautical Billingsgate, Si was the ship's alarm clock. Every morning, well before first light, he stalked into the capacious galley, delivered a few vicious karate chops to his pots and pans and then bellowed down the companionway, "All right, you lop-eared, lallygagging sons of a syphilitic sea cook, come and get it before I throw it over the side. Last call for breakfast!" By the time the first fishermen were staggering up the ladder, gummy-eyed and grumpy, their faces as long as a day without breakfast, the bacon and eggs would be frying and the coffee piping hot. From time to time Si would spice up a meal with a little live entertainment. Donning a black wig and stuffing a couple of oranges into his T shirt, he would suddenly appear among the diners to perform a grotesque parody of a cooch dance.
Socorro, when it finally hove into view, bore about as much relationship to the tropical isles of fantasy as Si did to a real live belly dancer. A sullen surf pounded at the black cliffs of its shoreline while scrofulous patches of cactus and mesquite spread like green acne over the crumbling, rust-colored lava of its upper reaches. Its 3,707-foot volcanic eminence, Mount Everman, wore a skullcap of tattered gray rain clouds while ragged skeins of seabirds, black and bent-winged in the early light, rose and fell like windblown trash over the headland of Cape Henslow. A spare, stark setting, fully in harmony (if one can use so gentle a word) for the action that was to follow. Simeon the sea cook looked on as the island drew nearer and the first trolling lines were paid out over the taffrail. "That's the only thing in the world that's meaner and uglier than me," he cackled.
Just so. Within a minute there were multiple wahoo strikes. The wahoo is an outsized mackerel weighing up to 140 pounds, and in common with its smaller cousins it is possessed of mind-boggling speed in its initial run. That run can go in any direction, and usually does. On an earlier cruise, Captain Barnes had warned, a wahoo of about 40 pounds had jumped aboard, clearing two rails and narrowly missing a few wide-eyed fishermen before it crashed like a Stuka on the engine room hatch. Since the wahoo's mouth is full of teeth that are longer and much sharper than a dog's, it makes a mighty impressive spear. These wahoo came aboard only with the greatest of reluctance, but in the meantime they did their best to foul lines, straighten hooks and send the Aggressors into paroxysms of outraged purpose.
For two hours—from shortly after six a.m. to nearly 8:30—the wahoo strike continued, with as many as 15 fish hooked and fighting at once. Never was it necessary to troll for more than five minutes without a hookup, and then casting immediately produced more fish. Live bait, hex heads, chrome jigs, red and yellow or green and yellow hula skirts—the wahoo hit everything.
The psychology of the fishermen changed radically under this first assault, and more radically again when yellowfin tuna began hitting in conjunction with the slimmer, less durable wahoo. What began as bloodthirsty glee among the Aggressors and calm, once-is-enough curiosity among the Gentlemen slowly but irresistibly turned into a nightmare of compulsive exhaustion. There was no end to the fish. And no end to the fisherman's need to hook one. Finally the fish won. The sun was growing hotter as the men grew weaker. No wind. A dead boat. A tangle of lines. Curses slowed and softened and wound down like a record player with terminal emphysema. One by one the anglers slunk away from the fantail, easing into the galley for a rest in the shade and perhaps a "Milwaukee orange juice," as the beer was euphemistically called.
Men who remained on the fantail prayed that their next hookup would be a rainbow runner, one of those small carangids akin to the amberjack but rarely weighing more than 20 pounds. Easily short-stroked and readily tagged for release or bagged for mounting, the rainbow runner provided an honorable excuse for taking it easy. But with the tuna it was different. There is no way to rest on a yellowfin, not now that the sharks had appeared. Those who let their tuna "soak" rather than horsing them in were rewarded with a sudden flurry of scarlet water, a slackened line and a bug-eyed tuna head trailing a few tendrils of red meat when it was finally reeled in. "The more hookups we get, the more sharks we'll attract," said Captain Barnes, leaning laconically on the deckhouse railing. "It's your own damned fault if you're sharked. You can't rest a minute at Socorro. Old Man Shark keeps you honest."
One man who never rested was J. Charles Davis III, better known to the assembled company as Charlie Tuna, or C. Ahi (the Hawaiian equivalent) or Carlos Atun (in Spanish). Davis, 44, is the son of a West Coast outdoors writer and a veteran of the California sport fishery since its beginnings. An avid reader of Zane Grey as a kid, he had dreamed about Socorro for most of his life. In 1970 Davis finally got there and enjoyed a fulfillment of his wishes rarely granted to any angler, waking or sleeping. On that two-week excursion Mr. T. caught more than 60 fish, 35 of them yellowfins (the largest weighing in at 154 pounds) and most of the rest wahoo or yellowtails. "I wasn't in shape for Socorro the first time," Charlie said. "My left arm—the pumping arm—got sore as hell very quickly. This time I spent a couple of months doing exercises before we left. Zane Grey used to work out on a rowing machine, but that was because he was a little guy and always used a fighting chair. I fish standing up, so most of the strain is on the arms. I did curls with barbells, about 100 or more a day, and so far it's paid off."
Shortly before noon Charlie Tuna tied into a big grabber on 44-pound mono. In a matter of seconds it stripped most of the line from his reel and Charlie called for a backup rod. "Tuna!" he gasped as he spliced on the line from the new rig. "Gotta be a big one, the way he's got his head down." With 500 yards of line gone from his first reel, Charlie tossed the rig aside and continued the fight on his backup gear. The fish walked Davis twice around the boat, peeling off at least 200 yards more of line before Mr. Tuna stopped his namesake. Then the weight lifting began to pay its dividend. With sharks plentiful in the vicinity—other men were being sharked constantly during Charlie's hour-long fight—he got the tuna headed in toward the boat and short stroked like a drag-racing engine. It came to the gaff sullenly, green and gold and gigantic. The tuna weighed in, finally, at 100 pounds even. Charlie went on to boat a 70-pound wahoo later in the day, the biggest he had ever taken, though on 80-pound line.
That evening, with the glowering cliffs of Socorro shining red and black in the sunset, Captain Barnes dropped the hook close inshore to fish for live bait—mackerel and cavillito, mainly. Most of the fishermen, arm-weary from the day's action, sacked out immediately after dinner. But now a strange sea change occurred. Many of the Gentlemen, who had been a bit put off by the bloody scuppers of the day's work, found themselves in their element once the sun had gone down. Out onto the fantail they drifted, fly rods or light spinning outfits in hand. They cast easily into the pool of light that surrounded the Qualifier 105's anchorage, and they found plenty of action. Flying fish skipped across the water, sometimes crashing into the boat or even flying through the portholes of the galley in their attempts to escape unseen predators. All it took was a cast with a feather jig or a spoon into the area from which the flying fish took wing to hook up a big Pacific horse-eyed jack up to 15 pounds, or a smaller but no less voracious Socorro jack of perhaps five pounds. Amberjacks, bluejacks, carangids that no one could identify—the light-tackle boys were in their element. Then, once again, the sharks arrived. Gentlemen who earlier in the day had disdained the biggest of tuna now found themselves hooking huge slabs of cut bait onto 16/0 hooks and drifting them into the milky floodlit water behind the boat in hopes of nailing a shark. Don Hanson, a burly, slow-talking plainsman from Kansas City, Mo., became the epitome of the shark killer. "I know what they mean now by loving to pull fish," he said one night when the rest of the company was in slumberland. Beads of sweat squirted from Hanson's forehead as he cranked on a big whitetip shark. "This guy don't even know he's hooked. He just moves along as gentle and steady as can be, and I don't doubt but that he's feeding as he goes." The reel gave a painful little zizz, and Hanson straightened his back, letting the shark fight the rod, not the drag. He finally boated it after 50 minutes, then caught four more before the night was out. His nickname from then on was Sharkey.
Hanson's transformation from a soft-spoken observer to an ardent shark killer was only one of many personality changes wrought by the big soakers of Socorro over the next four days. Jack Sokol, a kindly Gent from Stevens Point, Wis., was so switched on by the mob action on tuna that soon he was shouldering even Charlie Davis aside at the taffrail. "Jack is getting so good at 'yig' fishing that he's going to go home and bounce those 'valleyes,' " said one onlooker. "Next thing you know he'll hang up his 'Yoon Bug Spinner' for good." Dave Myers, a young Fenwick fly-fishing instructor, was another mutant. He came aboard Cub Scout straight, laden with jars of wheat germ and Tiger's Milk with which to spike his breakfast cereal and a guitar on which of an evening he was wont to strum old Vaughn Monroe tunes. By the time the trip was finished Dave was chugging Milwaukee orange juice, cursing like a trooper and even using live bait—anathema to the fly-rod fraternity. "Rock 'n' Roll," as Myers came to be known, reverted to form just once—when he hooked up the trip's only marlin and fought it for 19 minutes on 44-pound line. As the taffrail rowdies gathered around him during the fight, offering rude advice and obscene suggestions, Myers stiffened slightly and in a voice as dry as a Quill Gordon fly, said: "I would prefer no conversation during the struggle." Silence prevailed as young Rock 'n' Roll subdued the 150-pound striped marlin, his first ever.
So it was that the distinction between Aggressor and Gentleman swiftly blurred under the fishing pressure. And the pressure was intense. One afternoon off The Arches, a black jumble of eroded lava pierced with blowholes and adorned with natural bridges, 60 tuna and an equal number of wahoo were' boated in 3½ hours—"the finest day of tuna fishing I've ever seen," said Captain Barnes.
As the newfound seagoing solidarity developed among the fishermen, some strange alliances arose, none stranger than that between Nick Elowitt and John Beck. Nick was the only longhair in this merry band, a quiet, shaggy, thoughtful Los Angeleno whom the straight types quickly labeled Hippie and kidded mercilessly about his hair, his clothes and his granny glasses. Beck, by contrast, was Mr. Fraternity, and his idea of a good time was a fantail water fight in which he could douse the Gentlemen with buckets of dead anchovies from the bait tank. Yuckety yuk! Beck, who came to be known as Fumbles and /or Big Bad John, held a territorially imperative perch on the port quarter of the taffrail from which, three mornings running, he caught the first fish of the day, usually a tuna. On the fourth morning he was hooked up again when Captain Barnes stalked quietly up behind him and cut his line. When Fumbles turned in outrage, Barnes pointed to Beck's bare feet. "You will wear shoes while you're fishing on my ship," he snarled. "I don't want to go cutting hooks out of those gummy gunboats." The Beck-Elowitt Alliance was forged soon afterward, and quickly took revenge on Barnes by dumping a bucket of anchovy water over the captain's head as he emerged from the galley with a cup of coffee in his hand. The daily series of Beck-Elowitt water fights that ensued, each perfectly timed and executed to achieve maximum wetness for all hands, became a welcome and cooling diversion during the scorching midday lulls in the fishing.
And so the days—and nights—thrummed on: a welter of fish blood and salt water, pearl-gray mornings yielding to the fierce wince of high noon and then fading toward a harsh blue and black and bloodred sunset, nights full of sharks and starlight, arms numbed by short stroking, hands stiff and sore with line cuts and hook punctures, lips pustulant with sun scabs, the eternal outrage at being sharked and the self-reproach; the slow realization that on this vessel 26 men, each a distinct individual, had learned to work as a team, avoiding both tangled lines and tangled egos. When stately, plump Buck Buchanan, Fenwick's supervisor of plastic products, tied into the largest tuna of the trip, not a man begrudged him the catch even though it meant that Buck would win the lion's share of the $500 jackpot put up at the start of the cruise. It was late afternoon of a tiring day. For an hour and a quarter the big grabber led Buck around the deck. Finally he asked for a chair, and eager shipmates accompanied him on his rounds yelling "Hot seat! Hot seat!" whenever another man with a hookup was in the way. Simultaneously, hard-boiled little Hu Riley of Seattle—an inveterate steelheader whose suntan lotion, it was alleged, was concocted of turkey fat and vin rosé—had nailed a big fish on a chrome jig and was being dragged by his grabber directly into Buck's path. At one point the two men met at the port quarter taffrail, and their rods bowed to one another over the gunmetal backdrop of sea like two stately gentlemen. There were no tangles. When Buck's fish finally came to gaff it proved to be a yellowfin of 130 pounds, the jackpot winner free and clear. Cheers and rebel yells filled the air, and Buck collapsed with a wan smile and a hefty belt of Scotch. Moments later, when Hu Riley's fish hove into view and proved to be a whitetip shark, albeit a game one, groans of dismay ensued, along with enraged shakings of the fist and a heartfelt sorrow that Hu, too, had not boated a truly big grabber.
Finally, of course, the killing had to pall. Statistically the 26 anglers on this cruise of the Qualifier 105 had caught and killed 207 wahoo, 235 yellowfin tuna, 78 rainbow runners, one striped marlin and a motley assortment of groupers, jacks, sharks and reef fish totaling just over 12 tons in gross weight. Spiritually of course they had captured much more: they had transcended the cattle boat nature of this type of fishing, partially bridged the gap between dry-fly purist and live-bait fisherman and emerged finally as a well-coordinated team, each man pulling for himself, for the others and for the ship as a whole. Lloyd Riss, the Gentleman from the grouselands and trout waters of northwestern Pennsylvania, summed it up best: "Socorro tested us at all levels, and no one failed, not even the fish."