SI Vault
Clive Gammon
February 09, 1987
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.
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February 09, 1987

Combing Baja For Roosterfish

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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 José 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.

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