Saturday, July 5, 2014

Blue Marlin in the Sea of Cortez

This happened a few years ago in Mexico. This cold blast in Michigan has me longing for warmer climates. El Nino Blue Marlin From the window of our plane we saw the Baja Peninsula rising from the sea below us like a a writhing red dragon with the Pacific on one side and the Sea of Cortez on the other. Only the hardy survive in the Baja's harsh beauty : sharp spined cactus, armadillos wearing suits of armor, swift roadrunners. Life on this rugged peninsula brings one close to the struggle for survival: armor, weapons, cunning, speed. It is likewise in the seas offshore Baja. Few people find it an inviting place except for the hardy fishermen for the waters offshore Baja teem with sea life of various kinds. Donning a mask and flippers, I entered its clear water and found a small fish resembling a dead leaf, a skittish school of large fish that streaked away before Icould get a good look, and strange puffer fish covered with spines like the cactus in the surrounding mountains. El nino, a change in ocean currents had brought a surge of warm water to the Pacific coast of Mexico and to the Seaof Cortez. The warm water had turned the fishing upside down. El nino means the child and is associated with Christmas time since it occurs around December and brings gifts from the sea in the form of tropical species. Perhaps the captain of the fishing boat we chartered was born during an El Nino for like the child, his name was Jesus. Jesus Ariza. Due to El nino, the unexpected was about to leap up everywhere. Away from the shallows where I snorkeled, the water drops off rapidly in the Sea of Cortez and has a hard black and white glitter like a chipped obsidian spear point due to its great depth. I sat on the upper deck and chatted with the captain while gazing at a panoramic view offshore of Beuna Vista. As the mountainous shore receded I imagined fish below us like armored, colorful warriors equipped for battle with lances, spears, sharp fins and teeth--ready for fight or flight. In their submarine world, great billed and sharp finned fish were cruising the dark waters: sailfish, marlin, dorado, tuna in all their shining splendor. Trailing from the deck below were three fishing lines rigged with artificial squid, red, green and black. It wasn't long before we saw tuna leaping and Jesus circled around while our deck hand Luis threw out a bait fish to tempt them. We were rewarded by a tug on the line and our fishing companion Ben pulled in a yellow tuna with its vivid blue and yellow racing stripes and bright yellow sawtooth fins protecting the underbelly. The others in our party, Norm, Charlie, and Jean took turns pulling in fish and by ll:30, we had boated three yellow tuna, and one striped marlin with the help of Luis, always quick to dash down the ladder and cast out a bait or gaff a fish. Luis moved like quicksilver as he expertly rigged lines and tossed them out nonchanlantly. During a lull, the boat rocked gently as Jesus spoke Spanish to another boat captain on the marine radio. His alert eyes scanned the water for leaping tuna or marlin. He had grown up on this sparsely populated coast and knew the sea and its inhabitants intimately. His steel grey hair curled around his weathered face. Jesus put the radio receiver down and chatted with me companionably about his fishing career on the Baja while we waited for another strike. "I started fishing commercially for shark with my father at age eleven. At fifteen, I started working on a sportsfishing boat and have done this for the past 30 years. I had no chance to go to school," he said. "Do you like your job?" I asked. "Si" he answered. "I know a lot of people who would like to trade jobs with you," I said scanning the water for leaping tuna, the telltale scythe like fin of marlin, or perchance, a whale. "There's a sea lion," Jesus noted. Rocking gently in the sea with its flippers pointing toward the sun as if receiving a boon, the sea lion basked, oblivious us,perfectly at home in the Sea of Cortez named after the armored conquistodor who discovered it, then ravaged much of Mexico. Above us black frigate birds gliding on the wind searched the water for small fish below them, or other sea birds they could steal fish from. Frigate birds are the pirates of the air. Thinking this would be a good time to eat lunch, I pulled out a chicken stuffed tortilla. "Pass me some of that hot sauce," I asked. Norm handed it up from below. Norm and I had never fished for marlin before. We had fished the Great Lakes fresh water for coho, chinook, and pink salmon as well as lake trout, steelhead and football sized brown trout. A marlin had just been a dream until our friend Charlie introduced us to his favorite place on the Baja, Spa Beuna Vista, and his favorite captain. It was easy to see why Jesus was much sought after. He was unfailingly considerate and usually found fish. The results today were in the fish box. For some weeks before we arrived el nino had been blowing. This was fortunate for us we were told, since el nino blows across the Baja every three or four years and is likely to bring good deep sea fishing. The day, February 26, was sunny with a breeze blowing, not too rough, not too calm, a perfect day for fishing. The previous days had been too windy for comfort causing the boat to pitch drunkenly. Even so we had caught three yellow fin tuna and had seen ten marlin near the surface. This day was perfect. I was happy to be on board. At high noon suddenly, out of the black and white sea, a magnificent fish struck--Norm grabbed the rod from its holder cranking the reel. He knew the fish was hooked well on the artificial lure. Within seconds it stripped off hundreds of feet of line, rocketing out of the sea, and splashing down again and again. I caught my breath at the sight of the fish leaping so far ahead of the boat. Could this really be the same fish on the line? It was too far away from the boat. It didn't behave like the other marlin. Even from a distance I could see its lance like snout, its large dark eyes its scimitar shaped tail and its flying grace as it arced back into the water. I could see that Jesus was excited. "It's a blue marlin," he shouted turning the wheel of the boat. "We are lucky today," he said. "It is early in the season for a blue marlin." Luis reeled in the other lines to keep them clear of the great fish on the other end of Norm's line. Norm played the fish in a welter of waves amid our cheers and whoops. The marlin sounded tugging the 80 pound test line, down, down, down. Again the great blue broke water as Norm played it. It ran with the line and he played it, letting it take its time, reeling, playing it out. At last he reeled it in close to the boat and we caught sight of the marlin's luminous markings, periwinkle blue shading to violet fins appeared above the water, and Luis gaffed the fish grabbing it by its lance like bill. He lashed it securely to the stern of the boat with a rope. Blue marlin are so highly prized for their white flesh that a fish like this was a bonanza for our captain; it would feed a lot of people in a country that is none to prosperous. If this were not so, we would have released the fish. On our way again, Charlie said he'd like to catch a dorado so we begin trolling again. Jesus observed seven marlin fins nearby. The fish were basking, enjoying a fine day. Luis threw out a bait fish to interest them and one of them hit his line, but the reel fouled. We tried again. All about us we saw marlins leaping, tuna leaping. At his vantage point on the upper deck Jesus could see 360 degrees and never missed any movement on the water. "Why do fish leap?" I asked. "Because they are happy," Jesus replies. It seemed to be true. Another marlin struck and this time Ben grabbed the rod. After another leaping, heart-catching battle, he landed a striped marlin, then released it back into the sea. "I want to see a whale," I say to Jesus. At this time of year and through the month of March, humpback whales breed in the warm waters off the Baja peninsula. The words were barely out of my mouth when the leviathon materialized, leaped high in the air right directly in front of the boat. I let out a cheer that brought the rest of the crew topside. The whale leaped again and sounded leaving a dark blue hole in the black waters. Awesome. "Where did he go?" We all peered in every direction. Then we saw him spout and the great back curved gracefully beneath the water, its rakish tail, grey on top and white underneath, disappeared as I wondered if the whale was as interested in us as we were in him. He seemed in no hurry to leave, but after he did, we decided to call it a day. Back on shore, the crew hoisted the blue marlin onto a scale and it weighed in at 356 pounds. The striped marlin weighed l65 pounds and the three yellow tuna about 60 pounds a piece. That evening the dining room at the resort Spa Beuna Vista served us a delicacy, suchi, thin slices of red raw tuna dipped in soy sauce, and the piece de resistance, the fine white meat of the blue marlin a dinner fit for the most finicky gourmet. El nino gifted us with a tremendous boon from the sea.

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