Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Cabo San Lucas

By Bryan Mealer

JUNE 1, 1998:  Pano kept one hand on the steering wheel while the other toyed with the frequency on the CB. There were about four other fishing boats out that day, all appearing as tiny white specks tracing the horizon. We coasted at a slow speed through the calm waters of the Sea of Cortez as we made our way toward the choppy waters of the blue Pacific, where the marlin swam deeper.

The roar of the motor made it difficult to hear what was coming over the radio, but Pano still seemed to block it out. Then a voice broke over the speakers, rattled off something in Spanish, and Pano laughed.

"The boat," he said to us as he pointed to one of the white dots circling toward land. "All the gringos are sick. They turn around and go back."

He leaned over the deck and yelled something down to David, the other guide who was busy tightening one of the trolling lines. Even though watching a boat full of gringos puke from sea sickness was as ordinary as getting out of bed everyday, they both laughed as if they'd never seen it before. That particular boat had probably cost the gringo about $400 for the day. They had only been out an hour.

Pano had been fishing the waters of Los Cabos since he was a boy, and as a guide for the past 36 years. The hot Mexican sun and the year-round climate of 80 degrees had bored deep grooves into his face and left his skin cracked and deep brown.

Gringos with fish dreams hired Pano for his eyes. His hired eyes had become like those of an eagle. He and David had perfected a technique for spotting fish that swam near the top of the water. They would hold one hand up to their faces, just below their eyes like a straight edge, and span the miles of flat blue. Pano's eyes were so good that he could point out the smallest turtle 100 yards away.

Cabo San Lucas, located on the tip of southern Baja California, is where the green waters of the Sea of Cortez fuse into the mighty blue Pacific Ocean. Giant rock formations, molded over thousands of years by the sea, jut from the surf that surrounds the miles of beaches known as Los Cabos. Years before it was settled, before Planet Hollywood, Hard Rock Cafe, and KFC, Cabo San Lucas was a haven for pirates as they pillaged along the Pacific coastline.

I had come with my godfather, "El Patron" as the natives called him, the West Texas oil tycoon and fashion guru of the one-piece jumpsuit. With us were his two sons, Kyle and Denny, and my own father. El Patron had bought all plane tickets, chartered Pano's boat called "Fourplay," and booked a three-bedroom hotel villa on the beach. We had come for marlin and perhaps a sailfish if we were lucky. We had come to take advantage of "Cabo San Lucas - the best fishing in the world" as all the advertisements had read.

We had taken a small canoe from the beach to our fishing boat. Because there were five grown men aboard plus the driver, a few of the maître d's from the hotel waded out into the surf, soaking their starched whites and nice shoes, and gave the boat an extra push. We were careful when helping El Patron onto the boat. He was worried about falling into the water and getting his credit cards wet.

Around 11am, I was up on deck watching a school of dolphins swim with the wake of our boat when Pano spotted something out further.

It was the top of a fin peeking out of the water about 100 feet away.

"Marlino!" he shouted like a child catching sight of his first fish. "Vamos! Vamos!" He motioned for David to bring in one of the lines. They would drop in front of the marlin when the boat circled around it.

Pano gunned the motor and we held on tight as the boat leapt from the rear and sliced through the waves. Once we reached the particular spot in the water, David had a live mackerel on the hook and sailed it out into the water. A large swell suddenly rode from the water and BAM! the bait disappeared. David set the hook with one sharp flick of his wrist and turned around to see who was going to claim the fish.

Rushing down the deck ladder, I lost my step, nearly tumbling into the water. I grabbed the pole. Whatever it was on the other end nearly took me over the side of the boat. It was a big one, a real mother. I managed to situate myself in the chair and plant the pole into the harness before the fight really began. I thought the line might catch fire the way it was stripping off the reel, further and further out until I could no longer tell where it disappeared into the blue.

About 50 yards out, framed by the mountains in the distance, the fish leapt into the air and danced for a second on top of the water. Its long bill caught the sunlight like a sword. It was a picture right out of the pages of Field & Stream. It was a striped marlin as big as I'd imagined. My heart sank to my stomach. Everytime the fish would dance, the whole boat would burst into a roar as if we'd witnessed an amazing Hail Mary into the end zone.

By the time Pano and David had the fish strapped to the back of the boat an hour later, my arms hung limp at my side like a rag doll's. We ended up landing two more marlin on the trip, each as majestic, each fisherman a hero among us.

But what stands out in my mind the most was when we brought the fish back to land for the weigh-in. We said goodbye to Pano and David and the two of them helped the maître d' hoist the fish into another canoe and onto land.

It was a Saturday afternoon and the beach along Chileno Bay was swarming with children, people sunbathing, whole families having picnics. The maître d' dragged the two fish up the beach with thick ropes. The children followed them in awe. They began to ask their parents who the gringos in straw hats were and what they were doing with those fish, and "are they really dead?"

By the time the marlin were hoisted up by pulleys to be weighed, a large audience had gathered and were snapping pictures.

"One Hundred Thirty Pounds," the maître d' called out. Then he weighed mine. "One Hundred Fifty Pounds."

As the fish hung by their tail fins, one by one, small mackerel and other fish they'd eaten began to drop from their mouths and onto the ground, mixing with the blood and the sand. Two Mexican children, a brother and a sister, broke their way through the crowd and started picking up the half-eaten fish like they were shells. I took off my big straw hat and placed it on the little boy. He smiled and hurried over to where his mother stood and proudly displayed his treasures, like those of the men who had just come off the boat.

El Patron's face was beaming. He was circling around the fish with his arms held high. "These are my boys, " he shouted, his voice like a tuba. "These are my boys who caught these fish."

In his 18 years of resort hopping and deep sea excursions, he had never landed a fish even big enough to lie about. After we landed some of the largest marlin in Cabo that week, our stories, like those all men tell of their fish, have made them fatter by the day.

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