Nothing can shatter the calm of the Sea of Cortez, which Americans call the Gulf of California, quite like a hooked dorado. This one must have hit the trolled lure at full speed—40 mph, according to some authorities—and had 50 yards of line off the fly reel before I could react. When I cut the motor and turned to look, I saw a V-shaped wake streaking away from the boat, the fish no more than an inch or two beneath the surface. After another 50 yards it jumped, throwing spray and shining bright gold in the morning sunlight. The writhing fish was a good 10 feet out of water when it shook the hook loose. I saw the lure drop back to the water ahead of the fish just as the fly rod went dead in my hands. A second later the dorado (a dolphin fish) hit flat on its broadside with a splat that sounded like a gunshot, and then the sea was glassy calm again.
"We won't get many more chances like that," I said to my wife, Hilde. "Maybe none. Damn!"
It was November—not a good dorado month in the area of Loreto, on the Baja Peninsula—and in more than two weeks of fishing, that was the first good-size one we had hooked. Other fish were plentiful—bonito, ladyfish, skipjack, roosterfish, Sierra grande, cabrilla, dog snapper—and on some days we caught them until our arms were too tired to reel. But dorado was the fish that we wanted most. Two good 15-pounders, one apiece, would make our trip complete, although there was little reason to expect another hookup that same November morning.
Ahead was a small island, about 150 yards long and half as wide. It consisted of two rocky hills of unequal size, thick with cactus and connected by a narrow arm of land that now, at high tide, was nearly under water. The smaller of the two hills was no more than 300 yards from the mainland. The water around it was 20 to 40 feet deep, and the bottom was mostly white sand, but with several large boulders showing. It was definitely a fishy place.
Just off the island's lower tip, another dorado struck. It, too, hit my lure on the run and kept on going, straight toward shore. This time I could actually see the fish, its back and tail out of water, the leader cutting the surface cleanly. Like the first one, it jumped high and threw the hook. The rod went dead in my hands again.
"Two in a row. That was even bigger," I said.
Hilde smiled and, as usual, took the optimistic view. "Maybe there'll be some more," she said.
She was right. I hooked several dorado as we trolled around the island, and they were all good ones, hitting the lure as hard as any fish in my experience. But the luck was all mine—the dorado ignored Hilde's lure. I landed only two fish, but the second one was 20 pounds—much more than I'd hoped for.
By the time I had landed and released it, the midday wind was rising, so we headed back to Puerto Escondido. "Tomorrow it's your turn," I told Hilde.
"Maybe," she answered as she reeled in her line.
In 1940, in The Log from the Sea of Cortez, John Steinbeck wrote of Puerto Escondido, "If one wished to design a secret personal bay, one would probably build something very like this little harbor." It is indeed an ideal place for boats, well protected from weather by steep mountains behind it and islands just offshore.
Our boat was an inflatable, and our motor a 6 hp; they weighed a total of 147 pounds. We named the boat Zucarita, because Zucaritas, a popular frosted cornflake cereal in Mexico, were part of our early-morning routine. Every day my internal clock woke me up within minutes of half-past five, and I would roll out of the sleeping bag, awaken Hilde and then put a pot of water on the camp stove. We ate our Zucaritas outside the tent, watching the sunrise, our cups of coffee sweetened with Kahlua.
By 6:45 we would be fishing, trolling either bucktail flies or the blue-and-white vinyl squid lures I had bought at a discount store back in Oregon. Whenever we got into a good school of fish, we stopped the boat and cast streamer flies to them. We generally came in sometime after noon. In the afternoon, we ran a little on the beach or the Baja Highway, swam and dived, had a meal of fruit, vegetables and fish, read for a while and then went to sleep. It was an extremely pleasant routine.
Several days after I landed my dorado, Hilde still hadn't hooked one. The day before Thanksgiving she had a vicious strike. Her rod was yanked so hard that it swung over my head and knocked off my hat. I looked up just in time to see the sudden disappointment on her face: The fish was gone. "That was a big one!" she said.
"It had to be a dorado," I said. "Nothing else hits so hard and runs off at an angle like that."
"I doubt if I'll catch one," she said. "We only have a few more days."
"Sure you will," I said. "I'll rig up that nine-foot Cortland rod for you to use tomorrow." Hilde laughed. She knows I think that changing equipment, or even clothing, can change your luck. That's why I brought three hats. It probably has something to do with confidence, and confidence has a great deal to do with successful fishing. Someday, perhaps, a patient researcher will explain this by proving that fish have some mysterious sense that is attuned to the moods of people who try to catch them.
That afternoon I took Hilde's reel off the 10-foot rod she had been using and put it on the nine-footer. Then, as luck would have it, her confidence got a boost from an unexpected quarter. In the little grocery store near the campground we noticed a display of lures for sale. The sign read: CORTEZ LURES: DORADO LURES MADE ESPECIALLY FOR ESCONDIDO BAY. One of these lures, called the Willie Wonder, was identical to the vinyl squids that Hilde and I had been using all along. I was never able to find out how those squids got to Escondido, but I'm glad we saw them.
"You can't miss now," I said. "They're especially for Escondido Bay."
On Thanksgiving morning I woke up half an hour earlier than usual. Outside the tent window, stars shone brightly in a moonless sky. No wind rustled the bougainvillea bushes, and dew covered the grass—indications of calm weather. I made myself a cup of coffee, added a spoonful of Kahlua, then sat in a camp chair and picked up Ray Cannon's The Sea of Cortez. With the help of a flashlight, I found the section on dorado and read through it for what was perhaps the 10th time:
"If asked what was the most enthralling thing I have ever seen in the Cortez, I would select the time I saw a school of about a hundred dolphin fish rainbowing up in unison for a 50-foot long leap. The last, sharp rays of a setting sun had caught the vaulters and intensified the brilliant colors.
"There seems to be no satisfying the ravenous appetite of dolphin fish. I have seen them snatch baits just a few inches in front of the noses of big sharks and billfish. At first sight of a tabogganing [sic] bait, this voracious creature often takes off from a great distance and comes bounding through the air, or rips the surface for a hundred yards to be first at a morsel. When hooked, it bounds as high as 15 feet.
"Add to this all the hocus-pocus tricks this protean showoff uses to flamboozle a fisherman: a hundred yard peel-off straight away, then a sudden reversal right toward the boat; quick, unexpected slips under the craft, across its bow, then under and up near the outboard prop. Finally, if all else fails to dislodge the hook, the creature will possum until the overconfident angler relaxes the line, then spit the hook out right in front of the premature victor. It is no wonder that most saltwater angling authorities say that no other fish of all the oceans can match the many qualities of el dorado, 'the finest game fish of them all.' "
I closed the book and then shook Hilde awake. "Time to get up," I said. "This is the day."
We began by trolling north along the coast, toward an island at the western entrance of Juanalito Bay. I had a hunch that we would find dorado in that direction. Half an hour out of Escondido I hooked a skipjack. I could tell what it was at once by the way it took line out and down in strong bursts of 30 to 40 yards until it reached the bottom. After 10 minutes, just as I had begun to work the fish back up, the hook pulled out.
"What are you using?" Hilde asked me as I reeled in.
"A yellow-and-white bucktail fly. Maybe you should switch to that."
She thought about it. "No. I'll stick with the Willie Wonder."
As we neared the island, pelicans and cormorants scattered from the sandy beach. I began to troll around the lower end, over a fairly shallow sandy bottom.
"There's an osprey nest up there." Hilde told me, pointing. "There, on the highest cliff."
A dorado hit, and my reel ratcheted shrilly as the line went 80 yards away. The fish was in the air, and then it was gone, the hook thrown as quickly as that.
"Fifteen pounds," I said. "At least. You want to change to a fly?"
Hilde looked determined. "No," she said.
Ten minutes later, on the way back to Escondido, farther out in deeper water, Hilde hooked her fish. I cut the motor, and the only sound was the line hissing from the clickless saltwater reel as this dorado did everything that Cannon had mentioned, and more. It ran at least 150 yards from the strike, then sped at a long angle away from the boat toward shore, its tail showing. The monofilament leader, a surprisingly long way ahead of that tail, cut through the blue water.
I turned to look at Hilde. She had gone pale. "My god, it's strong!" she said. "I can't stop it! It won't stop!"
"Let it go!"
I saw the fish jump and silently prayed that the hook would hold. He cleared the surface by at least eight feet, and when he crashed back down and ran again. Hilde's fly rod remained bowed. He was well hooked. "You've got him!" I shouted.
Still, there were moments when it looked as though he'd got away. With well over 100 yards of line out, the dorado ran straight back at the boat twice, and the rod went dead for a minute or more.
"He's gone," Hilde said each time. "I think he's off!"
Each time she reeled the line tight, the fish was there. He jumped often, sometimes in such quick succession that it looked as though three different fish were out there. He circled the boat. He sped beneath it. He cartwheeled. He thrashed. He ran again, and again.
When Hilde finally had him up near the boat—that critical time when so many fish are lost—she was trembling with excitement. But all the knots and the hook held. I could see that the Willie Wonder's hook was through the upper lip, but barely holding.
"Don't kill him," Hilde said.
I thought I knew what would happen when I lifted the dorado from the water. "Take a good, close look," I told Hilde as, with the hook gripped hard in my right hand, I hoisted him up, all gold and blue and green and surely the most beautiful creature on the planet.
With two feet of him out of the water and nearly another two feet to go, he shook his large, blunt head, and as I had thought and hoped it would, the hook pulled out, and he dropped back into the sea. He barely made a splash, disappearing so quickly that despite the clarity of the water, I couldn't tell where he had gone.
"I did it," Hilde said. "I did it! What a Thanksgiving!" She raised her right hand in the air triumphantly. I joined her.