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COMBING BAJA FOR ROOSTERFISH

Feb. 09, 1987
Feb. 09, 1987

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Feb. 9, 1987

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Point After

COMBING BAJA FOR ROOSTERFISH

In Baja, Mexico's Lower California, the sun-broiled, mountain-spined peninsula that stretches 800 miles from Tijuana to Cabo San Lucas, there are two worlds. This long morning Nick, Olto and I had spent in the first of them, riding the swells of a sea so mysteriously deserted that it might have figured in the log of the Ancient Mariner. For mile on mile inshore of us ran white, surf-battered beaches with, very rarely, lonely white ranchos behind them, half-hidden in the mesquite and the high cactus. And always, behind the surf, hung a backdrop of brown, baked mountains shimmering in 110° heat. Sometimes a reel would screech when a bonito or a sierra mackerel hit one of the trolled lures. But nobody walked on the beaches or came out of a ranch house door to stare at us.

This is an article from the Feb. 9, 1987 issue Original Layout

Then, at noon, the long beaches dwindled suddenly, and the dark mass to the south resolved itself into monstrous fangs of rock that broke down the power of the huge Pacific swells we had been riding. Los Frailes, the Friars, Hernando Cortès had called them when he first passed this way in 1535, and there was surely the look of cowled religious heads about them. But a less pious man might have found a harsher name: These were the carious teeth of giants, the spiked hats of witches, rocks that, if they hadn't existed, Hieronymus Bosch would have had to invent.

It was at this point that, with a yell, Oltd Scholnik, probably the only fishing guide of Polish blood in the whole of Mexico, hit high revs as his panga, a slim-beamed, open Mexican fishing boat, dipped suddenly and drunkenly into a trough, then shot through a tunnel in the rock that took us out of the Pacific Ocean and into the Sea of Cortès.

In seconds we had passed into Baja's second water world, one utterly different from the first, into a deep, natural harbor filled with such hysterical noise and color, with so many chaotically handled watercraft, that it made Long Island Sound on Labor Day seem a haven of peace and silence.

With the ease of long practice, Olto dodged the lanchas that screamed up and down, ferrying passengers from the cruise ship anchored off the beach and putting up wakes that threatened any second to swamp the glass-bottomed sight-seeing boats that rolled up to their gunwales in tourists. Windsurfers howled happily alongside us as their boards collapsed under them, and hard rock drifted out of the big white motor yacht registered in Newport Beach, Calif., now riding just off the tuna canning factory.

And, as Olto ran our panga up to the slip, one could pick up, from the brashest of the shoreside bars, the one that called itself The Giggling Marlin, the merry sound of margarita glasses shattering on hot concrete, mingled with a M‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√átley Crüe number being squirted out at high decibels through the four 1984-sized TV screens fed by the oversize satellite dish in the bar's dusty backyard.

BIENVENIDOS A CABO SAN LUCAS, BAJA CALIFORNIA SUR!

So what did we expect? The Nature Conservancy?

Well, yes, we had, Nick and I, having somewhat naively based our general research concerning Baja on John Steinbeck's Sea of Cortez, which came out in 1941.

Nevertheless, we were not daunted. By now we had learned to live with the two faces of Baja and, with Olto on our side, after a week of false starts, we felt we were closing in on the quarry that had brought us there—Nematistius pectoralis, in Spanish papagallo, in English the roosterfish. A magical fish, I thought it, one with all the èlan of a light cavalryman of Napoleon's guard, one that wears, like a badge of courage, a spectacular dorsal fin, seven long rays in black, green and silver that stand erect when it attacks—the comb, in fact, that gives it its name. It's a fish with the tough-it-out quality of an amberjack and the speed of a sailfish. A fish of the surf zone and the shallows, moreover, one that we could go after from the beach or from small boats.

For years I had had a rooster fish trip on hold, and when it seemed possible, Baja seemed clearly the place to go. How was I to know that in the 13 years since they had pushed a hard-top road all the way down the peninsula, the U.S. Social Security check would prove the biggest invader in these parts since the conquistadores?

We had started on our roosterfish trail not here at Cabo but a week earlier at Buena Vista, higher up the coast, on the Sea of Cortès side, where we had made reservations at a fishing camp. "Hey, listen," said Se‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬±or Jessie Maldonnado, in whose cab we rode there from the La Paz airport, "this country is so nice an' beautiful, American people really love it! They love it so much they all want to come and die here!"

Well, sure, you could see that. When we reached camp, we found that clustered around it was a heterogeneous mix of bungalows and peeling mobile homes. HOT A LOT ? a billboard inquired, a downbeat way to start. Undoubtedly, much of Baja—the interior, a great deal of the open Pacific coast—is still puma-and-eagle territory, where the lack of small precautions can bring death half a mile from the main road. But here in Buena Vista they were sticking the new American Riviera together with ticky-tack, and, as we checked in, the lead singer in the mariachi band in the bar, guaranteed straight from Guadalajara, was belting out "Twiss' an' shou'...."

That had nothing to do with the fishing, of course, we told ourselves resolutely, and it seemed a good omen when we met our neighbors in the next cabin, Robert Allison from Seal Beach, Calif., and his pal Cecil, who told us they had had four blue marlin hookups that day. But as their story unfolded, I began to have reservations.

They had hit the first fish as soon as they started, Allison said, and he had brought it to the boat. "The captain had the gaff in the fish, and the mate had hold of the bill in one hand and his billy club in the other," he said, "and the mate was trying to hit it over the head. But he drops the billy club in the water, and the skipper is so astonished that he lets go of the gaff and that disappears also. Just like the marlin, which takes a turn around the prop and swims off with a $30 lure in its mouth.

"The skipper climbed up top and looked into the water for a while, then he said, 'No màs pescado.' Well, you can guess what that meant, and I am very pleased that Cecil here did not have his 12-gauge shotgun aboard, because he'd have blown that man right out of the flying bridge.

"Then we found ourselves a second marlin. This time—they had no ladder in this boat—the mate leapt down from the bridge, grabbed the rod before I could get to it and tried to set the hook with a couple of big yanks. Only he had neglected to set the drag, so that was the second fish gone.

"The third fish, well, that one just threw the lure, and it was nobody's fault. We thought, That's the end, but we actually meet a fourth marlin, which eventually I bring to the boat. Of course, we now have neither billy club nor gaff, so the mate is trying to hit it with a monkey wrench. But he drops this, too, and down it goes into the blue water. So I just keep the pressure on the fish while he goes off and finally comes back with a crescent wrench, a great big 14-inch wrench, and he beats the fish to death with that.

"I'm 60 years old," said Allison, "and that was my first marlin. And, 'I did it my way,' " he caroled.

He thought again. "No," he said, "let's be honest. I did it their way."

"Hmmm," I said as he finished his tale. But Nick was strangely silent and thoughtful. I should explain that Nick is my son. He's 27, a painter who lives in Europe. He has fished all his life, but always in the cold North Atlantic. When the roosterfish trip turned out to coincide with his annual U.S. visit he was delighted. But now, I saw, he was going to be sidetracked. "Blue marlin," he said, a dreamy look in his eye.

"Listen," I said, "those guys were lucky. Somebody worked out once that it takes 11 days on average to catch a marlin, and you spend those 11 days in mind-congealing boredom, contemplating a chunk of plastic called a Tuna Clone bouncing in the wake. Also, even with the peso on the floor, this is costing you $250 a day, plus tips."

"O.K.," he said. But then I thought maybe this is the only shot at a marlin he will ever have. So next morning, there we were, lined up with the marlin anglers. Half an hour later we were dragging plastic. I was saying to Nick, "Only another 10 days, seven hours and 30 minutes to go..." when the starboard rod doubled and, within seconds, 500 yards away the water erupted.

Well, you'll have read this kind of thing before. It's sufficient now to say that less than two hours after starting out Nick had his first marlin nicely damped down at the side of the boat.

A blue, 300 pounds, approximately. "Hokay, my fren'," I said in the local patois, "that will do. From now on the roosterfish, yes?"

But that evening there were intimations that the way of the Baja rooster-fisherperson would not be easy, as I discovered when I went to the manager of the camp to explain that next day we planned to fish roosters inshore.

But of course, he said, there were people who went after roosterfish here sometimes. But not now. Not when the blue marlin were here. Pressed, though, he conceded that roosterfishing might be a possibility. However, we would have to take a big boat, a marlin boat, and a couple of men. So be it, we said. And in the morning, as all of the others sailed out for the macho glory, Nick and I found ourselves creeping along the coast in the disgruntled company of Arturo and Loco, who made it fairly clear that they felt more than a little demeaned by being selected to serve us.

We could live with that, we told one another as we picked up, at a dollar apiece, live mackerel for bait from one of the local panga men and headed out to what Arturo considered the local hot spot for roosterfish.

As indeed it proved to be. As soon as we started fishing, roosterfish began hurling themselves on the bait. We could see them in the water, combs raised angrily high. Unfortunately they were very small, maybe three pounds on average. And they just couldn't get their jaws around the bait.

"Lil' fish," said Loco superfluously.

"This bait, it is too big," Arturo announced, with a simper well-calculated to enrage.

"So why did we buy it?" Nick asked.

Arturo added a shrug to his simper. The baitman, I suspected, was probably his cousin. We fished the rest of the morning out in an unsocial silence. Grimly, all the mackerel now having died in the live well, we trolled lures, picking up an occasional sierra, streamlined and beautiful—silver, with speckles the color of fine Dijon mustard.

"Mucho ceviche," Arturo said sardonically, implying the fish was eatable only if it were marinated for days in lime juice. "What's Spanish for 'Your tip is in considerable jeopardy' ?" I asked Nick.

It was that sort of morning until, as we were heading home, something hit the red and orange Rapala I was dragging, came in without too much bother at first, then went mad when it sighted the boat, crash-diving, running fast just under the surface, the whole bag of tricks. "Don't know what I've got here," I said to Nick, but just then it leapt a clear four feet out of the water, a rooster-fish as handsome and bold as advertised, but not more than three pounds.

It was a start, though, and it just about saved Arturo's tip. All the same, Nick and I decided that evening that from here out we would go free-lance, a conclusion reinforced by the reply we had from Señor Chuy Valdez, the manager, when we asked him about the possibility of getting hold of some smaller bait, some sardinas. In his office, its walls covered with a small fortune in marlin lures, he told us coldly, "Sardinas is a service that we do not provide."

So next morning we forewent our fishing and took Señor Jessie's cab the 40 kilometers to San Juan where, in a suspiciously short time, we found ourselves legal lessees of, by heaven, a Mexican-built Jeep Renegade The windshield was starred by some stone, or maybe a sniper's bullet, the tires were bald, somebody had removed the transfer case and the speedometer registered a permanent 120 kph. But the thing was ours, and we loved it. For the moment, anyhow.

Now, on the morning we had gone roostering with Arturo and Loco, we had noticed that on the beach off which we fished there were pangas drawn up and villagers throwing cast nets from the shore. Put that all together and what did you have? Why, sardinas, of course, and a panga to fish from.

So, somehow, from the main road we found our way down dirt tracks to the village of the genuine Pescadores, found one who spoke English and struck a bargain. Would the señors find $20 a session for a panga, a man and live bait excessive? Expect us at four o'clock this afternoon, we exultantly told our negotiator.

Later, we would discover that there is a guide called The Baja Book, which meticulously maps every dirt road on the peninsula. That evening, without it, we got lost with some rapidity as we tried a surefire shortcut from camp and found that crossroad followed crossroad, like multiple-choice questions that we almost always got wrong.

All the same, we had allowed plenty of time, and we would have made it had we not found, in all of the sun-baked, desiccated, dehydrated, dry-season Baja the only deep, wet mudhole lying in wait. It was then we remembered the transfer case was gone, so the Jeep wouldn't go in four-wheel drive.

We were still there an hour later, contemplating walking out, when a couple of villagers came by and gave us the extra manpower to get clear. After that we took only two more wrong turns, which put us into the roosterfish village almost precisely as the sun went down, just about two hours late.

They were still waiting for us, the whole population, it seemed, right down to little girls in their best dresses. Everybody just looked at us sadly. There was the correct amount of polite refusal before our man took the 20 bucks, but the money didn't seem to matter. It was clear we had cheated them of an event.

We backed off, feeling as bad as they did. But at sunup the next morning the shame had dissipated. We checked out of the fishing camp and, on instinct, headed as far south as you can go in Baja, all the way to Cabo San Lucas.

Back in 1941, Steinbeck had called the town a "miserable, flea-ridden little place, poor and smelly," but things had changed. Crowning the cliffs were condominiums and five-star hotels. Construction work was frenetic. There were also, we would learn later, men with rare professions, like the jaded-looking guy in The Giggling Marlin who seemed to earn his living by having a parrot chew on his sombrero so that tourists could photograph the happening.

It was steamy noon when Nick and I hit town, and we drove on until we found what looked like an honest-to-God local restaurant, El Coral. At the bar, serving up the cold Dos Equis, was Josè Luis, and before we were a third of the way through the first beer we were talking to him of roosterfish. He spoke good English, but he was most eloquent when he silently spread out the palms of his hands to us. They were scarred white in crisscross patterns, cut, he said, when he had tried to hold big roosterfish on his handline. We asked him, as if unconcerned, where he had hooked them. He pointed to where the gleaming motor yachts lay at anchor in the harbor. "Right in there," he said.

Across the road was a little fishing tackle shop and outside it a boat called Ursula. Inside, after lunch, we met its owner, Olto Scholnick, 23. We had discovered our newest roosterfish pro, with snapshots on the wall to prove it! And, yes, he would take us fishing—but not until Monday, since he had to take his family to La Paz for the weekend. Today was Friday, so until then we could fish the surf. Why not? At dawn and dusk, big roosters would sometimes hit a spoon in the surf.... He gave us elaborate instructions for reaching a good roosterfish beach close to the town.

Which we would have found, I dare say, with the help of The Baja Book. As it was, we missed the track that turned off the main road and drove on for another 12 miles along the open Pacific coast. We finally made our turn where a sign said PUENTE EL PASTOR, the Bridge of the Shepherd, and saw, at the edge of the sea, a white band at its margin. Just a shore break, it seemed. Now the dirt road wound upward to a low, thatched, circular building, a half-finished bar in the middle of nowhere. We parked in its shade, then walked out to the edge of the promontory on which it was built.

And from here, at last, we could see the full majesty of the Pacific swell, with 4,000 miles of fetch behind it, crashing a single huge 10-foot-tall wave onto the steep wall of sand it had sculpted, then withdrawing with a grating, animal roar. As we watched, a new and bigger set of swells began to build.

It seemed crazy even to think of fishing. It would have been folly just to run down with the receding wave to cast. (Later, we would hear of people who had been knocked down and sucked into the undertow by a rogue wave even while they had been walking along the high ridge in seeming safety.) Nevertheless, the imperatives of fishing being what they are, this is what I now did, and I was running back up the sandbank when I was hit simultaneously by a wave and a fish.

I dug in my feet, turned sideways and hung in. The drag of my reel screeched. I worked my way up to the top of the bank and felt the hard kick of the fish. And then its weight was gone, and white water was swirling around me again. "Lost him!" I yelled to Nick, digging in against the undertow once more.

"No, you haven't," he yelled back. "Look behind you!" And there, unbelievably, leaping on the sand at the high water mark, was the biggest sierra that I had ever seen, my spoon flashing in its jaws. Nick said he had seen it just picked up by a wall of water and flung ashore.

That seemed enough for the moment. We moved back well out of danger and, hypnotized, watched the immense power of the sea. And then, from behind us, I heard a voice that could only have come from Texas. "Man," it said, "this is the meanest surf I ever see. You could get inundated here. I have nightmares about this surf."

The voice, we soon learned, was that of Brad Harelson, 23, of Abilene, Texas. Like his buddy, Corey Howard of Corpus Christi, who now materialized alongside him, he was a recent graduate of Texas Lutheran. For six weeks they had been living out of the back of a Subaru BRAT, fishing their way down the length of Baja, sleeping under a tent awning except for once every couple of weeks, Brad said, "when we can't stand ourselves any longer and we check into a hotel for a shower. You can wash yourself in the sea if you use dishwasher powder, but not in a surf like this."

As the sun moved down into roosterfish time, the surf didn't ease. "We've caught 28 species," Brad said, "but we ain't seen a roosterfish yet."

"Biggest fish we got," Corey said, "was a 58-pound bull dolphin."

"Unless it was that eel," said Brad. "We didn't weigh that moray eel. Got to tell you about that. We came on some people who told us about a place called Punta Trevado and said the sailfish there swam like 20 feet from the shore. But when we went there we cast for hours and all we caught was a couple of yellowtail.

"That night, though, we took them yellowtail heads and hooked them onto a shark line on a superstiff rod. Then I went paddling out about 250 yards in the middle of the night on a boogie board with a hook full of shark bait. I tell you, this gives you a real scary feeling. It really gets to put a mix in your brains. You turn round, you start to paddle back and you can barely see the lights on shore. Then you look behind and there's all those little things in the water that glow at night and they're glowing around your legs and you know you look like the biggest lure in the world with the greatest action. I got home, though.

"Then it's hours later and I can hear eeeeee-eeeeee-eeeee. It's the reel going. I wake up Core and I tell him it's his turn. 'I know,' he says, and he commences to reel. He sits there, buck nekkid on a sandbank in the moonlight, and he reels and reels and reels. And then out of the water and over the bank comes this big snarling moray eel, and, boy, is this eel mad. We cut the line and let him go, fast."

And so we batted fish stories around until dark and arranged to meet at the beach of the Bridge of the Shepherd next morning. We were a touch late showing up. Corey and Brad had been there for a while, but they had nothing to show for it but a couple of bonito, which they wouldn't be eating because, as Brad put it, after six weeks they was all ate out, fishwise.

Nick and I knew what to do with them, though. We had brought with us, almost as an afterthought, a couple of big surf rods, the real artillery, designed for throwing heavy sinkers 120, 150 yards. They were English-designed sinkers with breakaway anchor wires meant to hold out in bad tide rips and high surf. Whether they could handle these huge swells was problematic, but at least we could give them a try. The sinkers and the surf, it turned out, fought to a kind of tie. If a fish hadn't hit after five minutes or so, the odds were that by then the sinker would be dislodged and washed ashore, its wire anchors so twisted that they had to be straightened with pliers. On the other hand, I recall this happening only twice. On all the other casts we caught fish.

Bang! A red snapper, a six-pounder by the looks. Crack! A yellow snapper this time, a little smaller. Zip! A comic interlude with a very small triggerfish. Zeee...zeee...zeeeee! A big jack crevalle that came to Nick's bait and held up proceedings for a quarter of an hour. Bop! A perfect miniature hammerhead shark of four or five pounds.

For a while, the action was nonstop. But we were running low on bait. "Last cast!" I said, and heaved.

Sock! A big, meaty striped pargo, one of the snapper family and premium eating, all eight pounds of him, took the bait. "This one we'll keep," I said, unhooking him and walking out on the rock to cast again.

"Hold it!" shouted Brad over the surf roar, "the Goddess of the Last Cast may be listening!"

Sun-fried, I decided, and I threw out again. But I had no further hits that morning. Later, Brad elaborated.

"O.K.," he said, "you're out fishing and it's about time to go, it's so dark you're wondering if the fish can see your lure. So you say, 'This is the last cast,' you chunk it out and a nice sierra hits it. You get it in and, damn, you see there's more of them out there.

"But you quit. You do not throw out your lure again. You declared a last cast, and if you cast again, boy, you may have messed yourself up. Because if the Goddess of the Last Cast was watching, she is really gonna frown on you. So what you say to yourself is, 'The Goddess came through for me! I'm not casting anymore! I'm in touch with the universe and everything is shining on me!' "

Yes, well, I told myself, it's getting late and there's a full moon. We made our farewells. For the Texas boys, the next day would see them on the road home. We would be on the beach again, I supposed, for a big repeat performance of this morning's triumph.

Strangely, it didn't happen, even though we timed our arrival perfectly, just as dawn broke. There were small fish about that nibbled on the bait and then pulled the hook under rock ledges so that we both lost several sets of terminal tackle. The swell had risen also, and there was a bad moment when a really mean wave crashed right onto the rock and brought Nick, who was out casting, to his knees, grimly hanging on to his rod and a rock spur at the same time. We quit for the day early.

That evening at El Coral, Josè Luis had the cook barbecue the striped pargo of the previous day and before we had finished, Olto showed up, back from his weekend.

"Hokay, my frens," he said, "tomorrow the roosters. We take big plugs, Rapalas, Bombers, Rebels. Maybe also we get wahoo, dorado."

"You mean you want to troll?" said Nick.

"We won't be using live bait close in?" I said.

Olto took refuge in not quite understanding, but I noted that when live bait was mentioned, a cloud seemed to pass over his face. But it cleared fast. "Plugs, si?' he said with a smile.

Nick and I looked at one another. We shrugged, something we were getting better at each day. We would have to work on Olto, that was all. We still had a few days. And something told us we were closing in, now, on that big roosterfish.

But it was still elusive next morning as we towed plugs for hours along the pristine Pacific coast of Baja before we ducked through the arch into the cacophony of San Lucas harbor.

It was time to get tough. "Hokay, Olto," I said as we hit the slip, "tomorrow we must have sardinas, live bait. If not, no fishing, no charter, no Ursula." Glumly he indicated he understood. But the shadow still crossed his face on the mention of live bait. We couldn't understand the problem. Snorkeling in the afternoons had revealed to us that the harbor was full of baitfish. And Olto actually sold cast nets in his shop.

We understood all right the next morning, though. When we launched Ursula at the slip, its live well was empty, but we assumed we would be throwing a cast net for bait momentarily. Which we did, in a way. "The bait's out there," Nick indicated. Indeed, the surface was alive with it. Olto ignored it. Instead, he took Ursula into a corner where a high stone jetty almost hid us from view, and where, looking as guilty as a damned soul, Olto flicked out the cast net surreptitiously a couple of times.

"No sardinas," he muttered. But he knew as we stared at him that the moment of truth had come, that he had to come clean.

It wasn't his fault, we realized, after we had motored over to another, anchored, panga where two men sat fishing handlines. "There are these men," Olto had said. "You must buy bait from them. Two American dollars for a mackerel. I am sorry. They have the protection of the president of the harbor. I am not permitted to catch bait."

So that was it. Even as we watched, a gleaming marlin boat, the charters aboard with their glasses already in hand, stopped by for its quota of live bait. It could be noted that the duo in the boat, the Mackerel Mafiosi, as we would soon be calling them, were not a pretty sight. To a somewhat prejudiced eye, indeed, they seemed like a pair turned down for bit parts as bandits in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre because they looked too mean and ugly. Meantime, their foot-long mackerel were double the price of the Buena Vista ones, and just as useless.

"You wanna buy?" Olto said.

"We wanna buy breakfast," Nick said. "Let's go home."

Olto looked close to tears. "I am only living here three years," he said. "I am of La Paz."

We understood, all right, but it's a tough old world, roosterfishing. "Tomorrow," I said to him sternly, "we'll try again if you can figure out a way to get small live baits. Check with us at El Coral."

Which he did—and this was a new, resolute Olto, evidently. The only way he could beat the system, he said, was by going out at midnight to catch bait, and this he would do. Until the morning then, he said, leaving us with a new lightness in his step.

When we met him on the slip, though, at first light next day, all the jauntiness was gone. He had caught the bait, all right, he said, muchas sardinas. But this morning they were all dead. He had had no means of aerating the tank. As proof, he showed us the little corpses.

What could we do? Only one thing. We headed over to the bait banditti and paid up. One of them counted the money carefully and passed the overgrown mackerel across. One, I noted, was already dead, and we lost another five minutes arguing over this. And then we headed to the outer harbor, where the sea was alive with big roosterfish harrying shoals of six-inch ballyhoo. And, trembling as we fumbled to set up our tackle, we saw in the clear water pods of roosters swim under the boat.

They loved very large mackerel, it was evident. For a while, each time we lowered a bait, within moments it was seized and a sizzling run developed. Each time, also, though, we failed to set the hook, and the baits came back mangled. Even very large roosters have comparatively small mouths and they couldn't handle these crude, marlin-sized baits, all of which, eventually, were used up. That seemed to be that. We turned for home.

And here we were lucky enough to meet the man who is the real hero of this story. He was, I suspect now, as much of an outcast from the Cabo San Lucas bait-catching establishment as Olto. When we first saw him, as we motored in, he was crouched in the manner of his Indio ancestors in the bottom of a decrepit wooden skiff that had no motor. But, on a handline of monofilament nylon that couldn't have been less than 150-pound test, he was playing a very large fish. The whole of his thin body strained until he was compelled to let the fish run, and I remembered the scars on the hands of Josè Luis. It must have been a full 15 minutes that we watched him before he got a gaff into a rooster that was 30, maybe 35 pounds.

"Gilberto," Olto shouted when the fish was safe aboard. There was an exchange in Spanish which left Olto grinning broadly. "He will give us small baits," he said, and this was just what the finest gentleman in Cabo San Lucas now did, scooping us over a couple of sardinas from his live bait well, which was a wooden crate covered in chicken wire that he hung over the side.

At this point my roosterfish story should end neatly with both Nick and me taking trophy roosters on our perfect baits. Indeed, it came close to happening. We were both using 20-pound-test spinning outfits, and Nick's went into action first as his reel screamed and he hooked a good fish. But Olto had become considerably overexcited by this point, and in any case he had no real faith in rods. Unforgivably—well, almost—he grabbed Nick's line, just to make absolutely sure that the hook had gone home.

Pop.

Now my fine was running out and my manic snarl was enough to stop Olto from indulging in a repeat performance. I set the hook. I have taken a good many fish on this particular outfit and I knew this was a good one, a 50-pounder, maybe. To a screaming drag, the line level sank low on the spool, but Olto didn't start up the motor. He sat without moving, immobilized, it seemed, by the earlier disaster.

I couldn't increase the drag. My big rooster went screaming across the harbor until it crashed some moorings. Marlin boat moorings, I noted wryly. Pop.

Nick and I sat in total disarray. Hell, I told the unforgiving Goddess of the Last Cast up there in the blue, it was just one lousy extra shot I took the other morning. I was angry with her. And she might have unbent just a little because the next thing, there was Gilberto calling over to us again. "He invites you to get in his boat," said Olto.

It might be as well if members of the International Game Fish Association and other sensitive anglers quit reading at this point. Because what I did next, of my own free will, was to borrow Gilberto's handline. Smilingly he baited up for me with a fresh sardina, then deftly tossed it into the water.

I had to wait all of 10 seconds before a big rooster hit, and then the line was snaking through my fingers, interminably, it seemed, until Gilberto gave the signal to strike the fish. What followed was that I learned, the hard way, how Josè Luis had earned his scars as, again and again, the fish tore the line out of my hands, but at last I had the big beauty in the boat. It was trophy, wall-mounting size, but it belonged, evidently, to the boat and to Gilberto. I thanked him courteously, and transferred once again to Olio's panga.

"So you think you've got it straightened out with the Goddess, now," Nick said that evening in El Coral.

"I don't know about that," I said. "But I guess she's put me on probation, anyhow."

EIGHT ILLUSTRATIONSVIVIENNE FLESHER