SI Vault
Robert F. Jones
March 19, 1973
When 26 mad fishermen, some hot sticks and some bananas, voyaged to a piscatorial paradise south of Baja, their purpose was to find the big grabbers. What they found was each other
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March 19, 1973

Highlining With The Soakers Of Socorro

When 26 mad fishermen, some hot sticks and some bananas, voyaged to a piscatorial paradise south of Baja, their purpose was to find the big grabbers. What they found was each other

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That evening, with the glowering cliffs of Socorro shining red and black in the sunset, Captain Barnes dropped the hook close inshore to fish for live bait—mackerel and cavillito, mainly. Most of the fishermen, arm-weary from the day's action, sacked out immediately after dinner. But now a strange sea change occurred. Many of the Gentlemen, who had been a bit put off by the bloody scuppers of the day's work, found themselves in their element once the sun had gone down. Out onto the fantail they drifted, fly rods or light spinning outfits in hand. They cast easily into the pool of light that surrounded the Qualifier 105's anchorage, and they found plenty of action. Flying fish skipped across the water, sometimes crashing into the boat or even flying through the portholes of the galley in their attempts to escape unseen predators. All it took was a cast with a feather jig or a spoon into the area from which the flying fish took wing to hook up a big Pacific horse-eyed jack up to 15 pounds, or a smaller but no less voracious Socorro jack of perhaps five pounds. Amberjacks, bluejacks, carangids that no one could identify—the light-tackle boys were in their element. Then, once again, the sharks arrived. Gentlemen who earlier in the day had disdained the biggest of tuna now found themselves hooking huge slabs of cut bait onto 16/0 hooks and drifting them into the milky floodlit water behind the boat in hopes of nailing a shark. Don Hanson, a burly, slow-talking plainsman from Kansas City, Mo., became the epitome of the shark killer. "I know what they mean now by loving to pull fish," he said one night when the rest of the company was in slumberland. Beads of sweat squirted from Hanson's forehead as he cranked on a big whitetip shark. "This guy don't even know he's hooked. He just moves along as gentle and steady as can be, and I don't doubt but that he's feeding as he goes." The reel gave a painful little zizz, and Hanson straightened his back, letting the shark fight the rod, not the drag. He finally boated it after 50 minutes, then caught four more before the night was out. His nickname from then on was Sharkey.

Hanson's transformation from a soft-spoken observer to an ardent shark killer was only one of many personality changes wrought by the big soakers of Socorro over the next four days. Jack Sokol, a kindly Gent from Stevens Point, Wis., was so switched on by the mob action on tuna that soon he was shouldering even Charlie Davis aside at the taffrail. "Jack is getting so good at 'yig' fishing that he's going to go home and bounce those 'valleyes,' " said one onlooker. "Next thing you know he'll hang up his 'Yoon Bug Spinner' for good." Dave Myers, a young Fenwick fly-fishing instructor, was another mutant. He came aboard Cub Scout straight, laden with jars of wheat germ and Tiger's Milk with which to spike his breakfast cereal and a guitar on which of an evening he was wont to strum old Vaughn Monroe tunes. By the time the trip was finished Dave was chugging Milwaukee orange juice, cursing like a trooper and even using live bait—anathema to the fly-rod fraternity. "Rock 'n' Roll," as Myers came to be known, reverted to form just once—when he hooked up the trip's only marlin and fought it for 19 minutes on 44-pound line. As the taffrail rowdies gathered around him during the fight, offering rude advice and obscene suggestions, Myers stiffened slightly and in a voice as dry as a Quill Gordon fly, said: "I would prefer no conversation during the struggle." Silence prevailed as young Rock 'n' Roll subdued the 150-pound striped marlin, his first ever.

So it was that the distinction between Aggressor and Gentleman swiftly blurred under the fishing pressure. And the pressure was intense. One afternoon off The Arches, a black jumble of eroded lava pierced with blowholes and adorned with natural bridges, 60 tuna and an equal number of wahoo were' boated in 3� hours—"the finest day of tuna fishing I've ever seen," said Captain Barnes.

As the newfound seagoing solidarity developed among the fishermen, some strange alliances arose, none stranger than that between Nick Elowitt and John Beck. Nick was the only longhair in this merry band, a quiet, shaggy, thoughtful Los Angeleno whom the straight types quickly labeled Hippie and kidded mercilessly about his hair, his clothes and his granny glasses. Beck, by contrast, was Mr. Fraternity, and his idea of a good time was a fantail water fight in which he could douse the Gentlemen with buckets of dead anchovies from the bait tank. Yuckety yuk! Beck, who came to be known as Fumbles and /or Big Bad John, held a territorially imperative perch on the port quarter of the taffrail from which, three mornings running, he caught the first fish of the day, usually a tuna. On the fourth morning he was hooked up again when Captain Barnes stalked quietly up behind him and cut his line. When Fumbles turned in outrage, Barnes pointed to Beck's bare feet. "You will wear shoes while you're fishing on my ship," he snarled. "I don't want to go cutting hooks out of those gummy gunboats." The Beck-Elowitt Alliance was forged soon afterward, and quickly took revenge on Barnes by dumping a bucket of anchovy water over the captain's head as he emerged from the galley with a cup of coffee in his hand. The daily series of Beck-Elowitt water fights that ensued, each perfectly timed and executed to achieve maximum wetness for all hands, became a welcome and cooling diversion during the scorching midday lulls in the fishing.

And so the days—and nights—thrummed on: a welter of fish blood and salt water, pearl-gray mornings yielding to the fierce wince of high noon and then fading toward a harsh blue and black and bloodred sunset, nights full of sharks and starlight, arms numbed by short stroking, hands stiff and sore with line cuts and hook punctures, lips pustulant with sun scabs, the eternal outrage at being sharked and the self-reproach; the slow realization that on this vessel 26 men, each a distinct individual, had learned to work as a team, avoiding both tangled lines and tangled egos. When stately, plump Buck Buchanan, Fenwick's supervisor of plastic products, tied into the largest tuna of the trip, not a man begrudged him the catch even though it meant that Buck would win the lion's share of the $500 jackpot put up at the start of the cruise. It was late afternoon of a tiring day. For an hour and a quarter the big grabber led Buck around the deck. Finally he asked for a chair, and eager shipmates accompanied him on his rounds yelling "Hot seat! Hot seat!" whenever another man with a hookup was in the way. Simultaneously, hard-boiled little Hu Riley of Seattle—an inveterate steelheader whose suntan lotion, it was alleged, was concocted of turkey fat and vin ros�—had nailed a big fish on a chrome jig and was being dragged by his grabber directly into Buck's path. At one point the two men met at the port quarter taffrail, and their rods bowed to one another over the gunmetal backdrop of sea like two stately gentlemen. There were no tangles. When Buck's fish finally came to gaff it proved to be a yellowfin of 130 pounds, the jackpot winner free and clear. Cheers and rebel yells filled the air, and Buck collapsed with a wan smile and a hefty belt of Scotch. Moments later, when Hu Riley's fish hove into view and proved to be a whitetip shark, albeit a game one, groans of dismay ensued, along with enraged shakings of the fist and a heartfelt sorrow that Hu, too, had not boated a truly big grabber.

Finally, of course, the killing had to pall. Statistically the 26 anglers on this cruise of the Qualifier 105 had caught and killed 207 wahoo, 235 yellowfin tuna, 78 rainbow runners, one striped marlin and a motley assortment of groupers, jacks, sharks and reef fish totaling just over 12 tons in gross weight. Spiritually of course they had captured much more: they had transcended the cattle boat nature of this type of fishing, partially bridged the gap between dry-fly purist and live-bait fisherman and emerged finally as a well-coordinated team, each man pulling for himself, for the others and for the ship as a whole. Lloyd Riss, the Gentleman from the grouselands and trout waters of northwestern Pennsylvania, summed it up best: "Socorro tested us at all levels, and no one failed, not even the fish."

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