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COLORADO JACKPOT
Jack Olsen
September 02, 1963
An avid fisherman and amateur naturalist finds his days filled with both wonder and exasperation on a trip along the Colorado from lively Las Vegas to sleepy El Golfo, Mexico
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September 02, 1963

Colorado Jackpot

An avid fisherman and amateur naturalist finds his days filled with both wonder and exasperation on a trip along the Colorado from lively Las Vegas to sleepy El Golfo, Mexico

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By the time the river spills across the border into Sonora, the states of California and Arizona have scooped most of the water out to refresh the rich Imperial Valley and provide water for hundreds of cities. For 80 miles into Mexico the river is narrow and shallow and heavily silty. There are a few catfish and an occasional "ten pounder," a saltwater fish that moves up from the Gulf to spawn. But mostly there is desert: hundreds of square miles of it, scored and scarred by the washes and draws of the old Colorado, which plowed into the Gulf by a thousand different routes until man tamed it with his big dams.

One travels past ruins of old cultures, fields of lava from extinct volcanoes, geode beds crusted with wulfenite, fire agates, quartz crystals and fossils of dinosaur bones. Dust devils vacuum-clean the desert floor; if you perch on the edge of a mesa, you can sometimes see hundreds of them dancing across the desert. Greasewood, ironwood, mesquite and tumbleweed hang on for dear life, and the heat is so intense that almost all the animal life is on the night shift, spending the days in burrows two or three feet below the surface in air-conditioned privacy. Here and there are the parched bones of a "wetback," fallen on his way to seek work in the fertile Imperial Valley without benefit of visa, pressed on by hunger and trapped by the Great Desert.

Would anyone but a wetback attempt to cross this scorching desert so hostile to life? Of course. A fisherman would. It is impossible to spend more than a few days in the jumping-off place of Yuma without getting the itch to head down to the river mouth, because wherever Colorado River fishermen gather, they talk unceasingly about the mysterious fish that live there. And mostly they talk of the totuava, the largest of the weakfish or croaker family, which sometimes run up to 300 pounds. The totuava, they say, swims into the mouth of the Colorado, feeding on crabs and shrimp and baitfish, and it can be caught from the shrimp boats that lie along the beach.

Being a bona fide fisherman and psychopath, I succumbed to this siren song and headed south out of Yuma one morning to see for myself, accompanied by an equally demented friend. We crossed the border into San Luis and on the advice of locals hired two Mexicans: Lorenzo, because he spoke English and could act as interpreter, and Rodrigo, because he knew "all about" our destination: the fishing village of El Golfo at the mouth of the river. A few miles down the road, Lorenzo's facility in English became obvious. He pointed to Rodrigo and said, "Him say road more best than before. Him say him have nice time." As for Rodrigo, him merely sat there guzzling the sparse supply of soft drinks we had laid in against the possibility of getting stuck in the desert.

The paved road ran out at Ri�to, a small town 20 miles below the border, and now we were on sand. Everybody had said our 1963 superduper, low-slung automobile would get stuck, and everybody was right. We went over the top of a rise at about 30 miles an hour and then plopped into a bed of sand three feet deep. An hour later we had dug the car out; that is, my friend and I had dug the car out, while our two hired hands had watched and admired our industry. It was a two-hour drive across the desert, and we arrived in El Golfo shortly after noon.

The desolation of El Golfo became instantly apparent as we came near. The tide was out, exposing miles of clean brown sand and salty tidal flats, and standing boldly in the flats, eating marooned crabs, were three coyotes. The coyote, as everybody knows, is not exactly the Perle Mesta of the animal world. You can live for years surrounded by coyotes and never see one. But here they were, starkly visible, within a quarter mile of the "town." When we pulled in, we saw why. El Golfo is supposed to have 375 residents, but 370 of them must have been taking their siesta. A few children played on the beach, and a hefty se�ora was on duty at the Cafe Rita, where chickens clean up the floor after (and during) dinner, and where the walls are a melange of religious pictures, scenes of wildlife and photographs of nudes.

Rodrigo walked us down the road to find a fisherman who would take us out for the giant totuava. Stepping around the decayed heads of the totuava, which residents merely fling out the window after cleaning the fish, we came to an adobe shack where a grizzled Mexican worked lazily on the starting mechanism of his boat. Rodrigo talked to the fisherman; words and arms flew, the conversation waxed and waned for 10 minutes in the broiling sun. Finally there was silence.

"What did he say?" I asked Lorenzo.

"Him say no fishing today."

"Por qu�?"

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