Fishy Tales and Laughing Gods

While traveling in the Sea of Cortez, the crew of S/V Galapagos almost always throws a couple of fishing lines in the water, hoping for dinner. Usually we troll a rubber squid on one line, and maybe a Rapala on the other. We release anything we aren’t going to eat. But you can never tell what’s going to take your lure out here. It’s always a bit of a gamble throwing your line out and sending a wish to the gods of the sea to bless you with a fish. I feel like after this day, we probably need to be more discerning about how we wish, if not how we fish. I think, perhaps, we need to be defining our needs a bit more suscinctly. I have a distinct vision of a bunch of lesser gods looking down at us and having a hearty laugh at our expense. I hope they are seriously amused.

The scene: on board S/V Galapagos, sailing at 6-7 downwind knots under full sail, another beautiful day in the Sea of Cortez.

The location: Craig Channel, a shallow, sandy channel that separates the Baja mainland from Isla San Marcos, just south of Santa Rosalia. Currents can run strongly here, and sands are shifty, but overall if you stay in the channel, there is plenty of depth. We use the accurate-to-biblical-proportions Shawn and Heather charts from Blue Latitude press whenever possible. These have made quite a difference in my sanity out here.

Our tale commences as we are sailing smartly down the channel in the direction of Punta Chivato. We are escaping a coming north wind that was already making our anchorage at Isla San Marcos uncomfortable as we waited for the wind to build a little before setting our course south to the anchorage of spooky yet cool abandoned hotels.

Peeping through the window of an abandoned hotel, or something, at Punta Chivato. Whatever it is, it’s lovely.

We were all going about our business on board; some of us in the cockpit, some below deck. I had just been thinking about the wisdom of trolling under those sailing conditions when Mike gave the cry: “FISH ON!!” and leaped into action. By the time I poked my head up from below, he was already planted on the aft deck, feet a yard apart, both hands grabbing tightly onto the rod and reel. He was really leaning into the catch. This was a big fish, whatever it was, and it had pulled out a lot of line with its strike. We all began dreaming of a Dorado and all the yummy fish tacos one would bring. It had been a few weeks since provisioning and freezer was almost empty. Plenty of room to store delicious fish.

Andrew soon joined him, and I swung into action. I know my job when there is a fish on the line and it is to control the boat if necessary. This time I seriously needed to slow us down and level the deck. We were moving way too fast for this kind of action and were heeling nicely. I gave us 30 degrees to port to stay well clear of the land ahead, let out the mainsail as much as I safely could, secured the preventer to keep us from an accidental gybe, then yelled for Andrew to come help me roll in the powerful genoa. (One of the many times I’ve been really grateful to have crew on board. Everything is just that much easier. The boat slowed down and leveled off enough to be manageable. I thrust the camera at Jill and asked her to take photos and went back to see what I could do, other than stay out of the way. Mike was still fighting whatever kraken had taken his lure out there. The game was on.

While Mike played the fish, reeling it in slowly, Andrew gathered all the fish-killing apparatus we had on the boat. We already knew we were  not prepared for whatever this thing was because it was fighting mad and kicking up a real ruckus on the end of the line. Based on our previous fishing experience, we figured this was easily 25 pounds of raging fish.

Big splashes, followed by trying to run with the line, were the order of the day. Mike held on (probably cursing the fishing platform that is a sailboat under sail). Andrew gathered his tools: the gaff hook, the billy club, and the net. We figured a bottle of rum would just be wasted trying to pour that into the fish gills when it was still in the water and we wouldn’t be trying to bring this fish aboard still alive. Plus, we might need that rum later.

The plan was to pull the fish alongside the hull and Andrew would gaff it. Once he had it on the gaff, we could pull it aboard. I stood by with the net, which is my usual job, noticing how pitifully small and short handled it was and kind of just hoping I didn’t lose it overboard. We waited while Mike held the fish on the line and continued slowly reeling it in.

As he got the fish closer we got a glimpse of its sheer size. At first we thought it was a 40 pound Dorado, but the colors were wrong. Then we saw the crest. A big Rooster Fish! Whoa! These are some of the best game fish in the Sea of Cortez. The jury is out on whether they are good eating, taste being a personal thing, but at this point we all just wanted to land the fish regardless because, really, what else could we do except cut the line. No way!!

Because of all the cruising clutter on the aft deck (the dinghy, solar panels, buckets of snorkel gear, plus all the standing rigging back there), Mike needed to move the fish to the beam of the boat where Andrew would have better access with his club and net. Ordinarily, that is, with an ordinary sized fish that we’ve caught many times, Mike moves the fish abreast of the solar panels on the aft deck, which are folded down to be as out of the way as possible. Then I reach through the lifelines and net the fish and he reaches down over the panel to help pull the net aboard. Once on the aft deck he clubs it or pours cheap liquor in its gills and after that it’s all over except for the cleaning. It’s a real team effort with just two of us. But this fish was much too large to be controlled that way, and was ready to fight to the death, whether that meant its own or ours.

So Mike began slowly moving it forward along the deck, around the shrouds. Oh, what excitement it is to get a fishing pole around the shrouds of a sailboat when there is a heavy fish on the line. Gently, carefully, with deliberation, one hand off, then the other, with my hands grabbing as his let go as necessary to maintain control of the rod. Andrew stood by with the gaff, ready to launch.

As soon as the fish was in position Andrew struck and gaffed the 50 pound fish perfectly behind the gills. A great ‘HURRAH!’ escaped from my own mouth in the brief moment between the gaff hitting home and the gaff hook separating from the pole. The fish slid free. WTF?? Andrew stood, empty gaff handle in hand, with such a forlorn look of surprise on his face I almost laughed. But that would have been highly inapporpriate at such a time.

It all looked good until the gaff broke.

Ok, this gaff has probably been on the boat for 40 years and we have never had to put it to the test. Actually we never even thought about it. We were like, ‘huh, we have a gaff in the lazarette. That’s fine. Whatever.’ We’ve never needed it, and just left it on board by default. Because surely we would never actually use that, right? Until this day. When the gaff showed its age by leaving a, fortunately unbarbed, hook in a behemouth fish. Fast forward to Plan B. The billy club.

Throwing the useless gaff handle down in disgust, Andrew went into action with his tiny club. It had about as much heft as a kitchen meat tenderizer. He crouched below the lifelines, clublet in hand, waiting for the chance to bean the monster on its head. Mike held the fish as high as he could with the rod. We hoped perhaps Andrew had mortally wounded the thing with the hook, which may or may not have still been embedded in fish flesh.

This club will now forever be known as The Clublet

Whack! Thwack! SHIT! CRAP!!!! One whack for the head of the fish, which while momentarily stunned, was then filled with righteous rage, one whack for Andrew’s finger against Galapagos’ hard hull as the 55 pounder began thrashing anew. We prayed his finger wasn’t broken* and were reminded that fish killing can be a dangerous business and we are in a vulnerable place, far from medical care. I wasn’t laughing anymore.

Mike handed me the rod (HAHAHAHA! CRAP!) and bent down to help while Andrew tried again. I held the thing with both hands and both thighs, memories of Suzanne Somer’s Thighmaster in the foreground of my mind. An incredulous laugh escaped my pursed lips as I sat down on the coachroof, feet against the toe rail, firmly planted against the efforts of the fish to pull me over the lifelines.

The fish was already abeam of the boat and couldn’t go anywhere, but he was also not finished with us and began his incessant thrashing again. Some of us are really attached to living in this world! Would he never understand who was master and commander here? Those lesser gods gave a draw on their cigars, sat back with their rum, and bellowed their laughter at the foolish antics of mere mortals.

Mike held the 50 pound test line with one naked, vulnerable hand (NOT COOL, MR!) and pulled the clearly-60-pounds fish as close as possible to the boat. Andrew, shaking off the pain in his middle finger, tried to net the creature from behind, because netting it from the front was impossible. The boat was still sailing at a strong 5 knots as the wind had picked up and the net, a pitiful excuse for a tool in this instance, was just too short and too small to do the job. But it was our last hope and Andrew has always had a healthy dose of perserverance in his person.

The net, our only, dim hope of landing this fish. And I’m unhappy about those vulnerable hands on the line but fortunately no harm done.

Holding the net by its very end with one hand, his body hanging over the edge of the boat, my mother’s brain let go of thoughts of the Thighmaster and how Suzanne Somers had aged incredibly well and began planning for how I would rescue my son should he actually fall into the waves and onto the thrashing 70 pound piscean leviathan. Between the speed of the boat, waves working against the net, the size of the fish, and the fish’s untenable will to live, his position was utterly ridiculous. He got the net over the tail of the creature and that’s about as far as it would go. Still, as I saw the net encompassing a whopping 10% of the fish’s length (about 12 pounds worth), hope sprang in the old maternal breast that we would succeed in bringing this fish aboard and all live to tell of it. Except the fish, of course.

Just as we thought Andrew was actually going to manage it, as we were just that close to getting the job done, the gods threw the fish another bone and the thing snapped the line with Mike somehow still holding the part attached to the fish. I mean, how does that even happen? ‘I’VE STILL GOT HIM!’ he bellowed, giving one last heroic heave and Andrew attempting one last manly swipe with the net to finish this game winners.

But the fish was also manly and the gods were on its side. It gave another powerful surge against the line in Mike’s hand and the line snapped again, at the lure. Mike was left holding 8 inches of useless 50 pound test line dangling sorrowfully from his (fortunately) intact hand. Woe and gnashing of teeth to Team Galapagos.

Aww. Dang it. Nothing to show but broken line and a bunch of bruises.

Alas! Forlorn expressions all around watched the fish drift away on the waves. “We can recover him!”, I shouted, swiping at the engine key and jumping for the steering wheel. I turned the boat around. “Keep your eye on him, Jill! Stand by!” Like our son, I don’t like to give up. And everyone on board deserved that fish. Plus, we felt like the thing would probably die anyway, and that felt wrong to us all.

Our last view of him was thanks to Jill, who did keep her eye on him, pointing the direction to go. But the waves were fair sized and the wind had been picking up. Everything was headed to shore: wind, waves, boat, and our Rooster Fish. Jill saw his great splash as he gave one final crow of victory and return to the deep, expensive Rapala lure still at the side of his cavernous mouth. Wordless, I turned the boat around and we began to set the sails again.

Although we were all pretty sure he could not have survived the beating he took, we all hoped that valiant fish lived another day to recover. We felt unaccountably sad about leaving a fish behind like that. Even though nothing like dead fish goes to waste in the sea, we truly absolutely hate to kill a creature and not eat it. We don’t fish only for the sport of it, although we do enjoy fishing. We fish because we like to eat fish and are grateful for the fish we catch. This fish offered us a chance to realize what a pathetic excuse for a fishing platform Galapagos really is, and it was great sport, but we hope our Rooster Fish didn’t give its life for that.

Since we don’t plan to stop fishing, we need to up our game considerably. You think? Fortunately, we’ve lost so many lures and snapped so much line this trip that we need to buy more supplies anyhow.  See how I made that a good thing?

So far we’ve caught 4 dorado. Three of them have lived to see another day because they fought themselves off the hook. One broke the line, but it was only 12 pound test and had already sorely been tried. But that’s another story.

I leave you with this cute photo of Mike and his fishy friend, a baby Golden Trevally who decided to pilot Mike around the anchorage at Playa el Burro. It’s nice to have a pet for awhile. 

We’re crossing tomorrow, back to San Carlos to let Andrew and Jill drive our car home to Washington. We’ve had such a terrific trip with them and are sad to see good times end.

Until next time, S/V Galapagos, standing by on Channel 16

*His finger wasn’t broken. Just a nasty bruise.

 

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