Isla Socorro rises like a slag heap from the tropical Pacific, some 1,000 miles from San Diego and 200 miles southwest of the renowned Baja California marlin grounds. Unlike such fashionable fishing holes as Bimini or Walker Cay in the Bahamas, Punta Carnero in Ecuador, Panama's Pi�as Bay or even Baja's own Cabo San Lucas, Socorro offers no amenities to the saltwater sportsman. Its total population consists of perhaps half a hundred officers and men of the Mexican navy, a few hundred goats and sheep to keep them company during the long lonely nights, a vast armada of frigate birds and boobies, an active volcano—and a whole lot of fish.
Here there are no cool dark wharf-side bars into which the weary angler can repair for liquid resuscitation after a day of arm-stretching isometrics under the searing sun, nor any dusky maidens to caress his peeling brow. No steel band music or mariachi mawkishness; no minstrelsy of any kind. Only the harsh atonal scream of singing drags—Mick Jagger on a 4/0 reel—and the timpani of dying tuna or wahoo beating time with their tails eight, and sometimes 80, to the bar as they thrash their lives away on the hot bloody decks. Socorro, in short, is a fisherman's paradise, provided you can take your paradise straight and strong and salty.
The island was first visited by sport fishermen more than half a century ago, when such piscatorial pioneers as Zane Grey and Gifford Pinchot, Teddy Roosevelt's house conservationist, began tapping the vast potential of Mexican waters, but for some strange reason it is still only rarely visited by noncommercial anglers. Or perhaps not so strange when one considers the fact that modern fishermen have been softened to a large extent by easy jet travel, luxury fishing resorts and fast, sleek sport-fishing boats laden with iced beer. Since most Mexican charter captains are content to fish the "inside," where marlin, sailfish and the lesser breeds still abound, and since it takes four pounding, boring, costly, fishless days to run down to Socorro from San Diego, the nearest U.S. port, it is not surprising that so few gringos have wet a line there. Five or six times a year at most, one of the big, long-range party boats operating out of San Diego bypasses the still-productive yellowtail, dolphin and grouper grounds of mid-Baja and pushes its prow into the indigo waters off Socorro. The long haul and high price ($700 a person for two weeks) are worth it: at Socorro it is possible in five days of angling to boat more than 10 tons of big grabbers, mainly wahoo, yellowfin tuna, rainbow runners and Pacific horse-eye jacks, as well as voracious whitetip and hammerhead sharks which do their best to keep the game fish out of the freezer by the simple expedient of chomping them like so many apples before they can be brought to gaff. These are fish like grandpa used to take, many and mighty, but one had better be as tough as grandpa was to try them.
On an evening last December the Qualifier 105, a 95-ton party boat under the command of Captain Bruce Barnes, cast off from Fisherman's Landing in San Diego and, after taking 150 seething scoops of live anchovies into her bait tanks, shaped a course for Socorro. Measuring 105 feet in length and with a 28-foot beam, the Qualifier 105 is the largest sport-fishing boat of its kind in Southern California, if not in the world. Even so the craft draws no more water than a fair-sized football player (6'4"); she is kind of a marine middle linebacker, shouldering aside the seas with little diminution of her cruising speed (15 knots) and little discomfort to her passengers (a maximum of 33 for long-range trips). Like everything else in the region, Southern California fishing is a group encounter, and the Qualifier is eminently suited to accommodate the hordes. From her stern taffrail and her two topside outriggers she can troll 12 lines simultaneously. The broad, low fantail, unobstructed by masts or rigging, can handle more than two dozen madmen at the same time as they cast for albacore. black sea bass, tuna or wahoo. The more timid souls who choose to avoid the whizzing iron and raucous cries of the fantail can cast more comfortably and in greater solitude from the high-sheered bow. "Bowspirits," they came to be called on this cruise.
Barnes, 46, is everything one expects in a party boat captain: tall, tanned, mustachioed and witty, he combines authority and helpfulness in just the right measure, the outgrowth of more than 20 years of this peculiar brand of fishing. California anglers in the main have always been hardy, hungry meat fishermen. They are at home on converted air-sea rescue boats and sub chasers that ride the seas like burnt-out light bulbs, trailing a steady chum composed of involuntary offerings from their seasick passengers. In the old days the only amenities were clogged heads, cigarette machines that never worked and the one saving grace called cioppino, a savory fish stew made of tomato paste, garlic, onions, oregano, potatoes, olive oil and big, firm chunks of red rockfish. For 35� the man or woman who chose to avoid the mob scene at the rail could relax with a bowl of cioppino, a hunk of Italian bread and a glass of homemade red wine.
Over the years the "cattle boats" of Southern California have produced their own ethics (minimal) and lexicon (voluminous). The pushier the fisherman at the rail, the more readily he earns the sobriquet of highliner or hot stick. By contrast the timid or clumsy angler is known as a farmer or a banana. Light tackle in this game is for sissies. The true highliner uses a short, heavy-butted stick (rod) and a deep-spooled crank (reel) mounted with string (line) of no less than 30-pound test and usually in the 60- to 80-pound category. Big fish are known as toads, hogs, dogs or grabbers, terms of seeming contempt that nonetheless mask a real affection and respect. The same is true of the term applied to the Japanese-Americans who constitute a disproportionate segment of the cattle boat contingent: Buddha heads. Most of them are the highest of highliners, competent and uncomplaining anglers who love to fish. The key to success in this kind of fishing is the ability to "short stroke" a fish out of the herd (school) smoothly and swiftly, a technique known elsewhere as horsing, and then to bounce the critter, which may weigh anywhere up to 100 pounds, into the boat without the aid of a gaff or landing net.
Clearly, California cattle boat fishing is for the strong of arm and the thick of hide, particularly when the iron (heavy, treble-hooked diamond jigs) is flying fast and furious. Barnes cannot count the number of hooks he has removed from the fingers, arms, backs, shoulders, necks, cheeks, scalps and eyeballs of various customers, highliners and farmers alike. "The only difference between this boat and Noah's ark," says one of Barnes' crew, "is that we load the animals every week."
On this cruise the zoological makeup of the supercargo was of a slightly higher order than usual: 26 experienced fishermen from all over the U.S., most of them sales representatives of the Sevenstrand Tackle Manufacturing Company, producers of Fenwick rods. These were men who had fished it all, or at least most of it. Steelhead and king salmon on the Dean River of the Pacific Northwest; brown trout and black bass on the streams and ponds of Pennsylvania; bluefish and white marlin off Montauk; bluefin tuna and stripers in The Maritimes; snook and sailfish out of Palm Beach; muskies and walleyes in the slow, flyblown flowages of northern Wisconsin; brim and specks and lunker largemouths in the sloughs of the Deep South; even Nile perch and tiger fish in Kenya's Lake Rudolf. For all that experience—nearly a millennium of years fished in the aggregate—there was not a man in the whole lot who would not ultimately be surprised, humiliated, bruised and exalted by the sheer fecundity and ferocity of the grabbers at Socorro.
A night and a day of steady cruising down the Baja peninsula gave the passengers a chance to prepare tackle and to sniff one another out. Almost immediately the group began to polarize into two classes which might be called the Aggressors and the Gentlemen. Since all hands had been warned that "everything at Socorro has teeth," wire for making leaders was at a premium. The Aggressors quickly monopolized the available supply, and the sound of their snippers soon threatened to drown out the roar of the Q-105's engines. The same with monofilament line, particularly in the heavier weight categories. The Aggressors dominated the spooling machines, cranking on miles of 44-pound, 60-pound and 80-pound mono with the avidity of so many Ahabs. Each Aggressor, it seemed, had at least six reels to fill. "Which one of you bananas has the 80-pound?" one of them would bellow. "I've still got three spools to fill and we'll be there in only two days!"
Meanwhile, the Gentlemen stood by, pale and slightly aghast, exchanging quiet tales of the high trout streams or else just staring dazedly at the Baja shoreline, which loomed to the eastward like a string of dead blue lizards. "Bit of a mob scene, isn't it?" one might say casually. "Don't know if I like it, but we'll certainly have time enough to get our tackle ready before we reach Socorro." Not very likely; the Aggressors had an infinite capacity for wire twisting and crank turning. Finally the Gentlemen had to swallow their distaste and shoulder their way into the tangles of gear strewn about on the fantail. And just in time they were, for on the morning of the third day Captain Barnes put in at San Pablo Bay. two-thirds of the distance down the peninsula, for a quick warmup shot at yellowfin tuna.