What I Learned Fishing In A Tournament In Mexico Despite Having Never Fished Before

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What I Learned Fishing In A Tournament In Mexico Despite Having Never Fished Before

Fishing is one of those activities I have always evaded unintentionally. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve indulged in it, but not so much with the number of fish I’ve caught, because that number is actually zero. Therefore, it came as a surprise to receive an invite to Baja California Sur in Mexico to not only fish but to be a part of a fishing tournament with actual, valuable prizes with monetary value. I would be entirely out of my element—a fish out of water, if you will. The entire experience seemed intriguing, if not amusing given my lack of expertise, so I figured why not?

The trip would cover the famed Sea of Cortez, a place Jacques Cousteau called the “aquarium of the world” for its high concentration of marine life. I landed in San Jose del Cabo and met Jess, a journalist with an actual fishing background whose presence on the trip made much more sense than my own, and we set out for Los Barriles, our first stop on our fishing journey. I double-checked the itinerary for the next day—we would leave at six o’clock in the morning. I yawned myself awake nine hours later, threw on some clothes, and sauntered outside to the beach, still squinting as I boarded the Bohemia, our ride for the day.

After preparing the lines with Luis, Bohemia’s captain, we engaged in “trolling.” Only knowing the internet’s definition of the word, I was amused to find the fishing version isn’t much different. Trolling involves hooking bait to a line, casting it out of the stern, and then innocently taking the boat for a spin dragging the lures behind while hoping the fish don’t realize something is up. At this point, everyone relaxes, takes in the scenery, and partakes in casual conversation that all becomes abruptly upended into chaos the moment the rod does something.

Unfortunately, the first day of the trip didn’t result in many somethings, but rather lots of waiting while huddling under the rapidly disappearing shade as noon drew near. One of the other fishermen on the water, also not finding much biting that day, gave us a humorous rendition of “La Cucaracha” over the radio. After close to eight hours with only a few catches to speak of, we returned to the shore, packed our things, and set out for La Paz, our next destination for the tournament.

5 a.m. came fast the next day. Jess and I piled into the car, where our driver Victor pointed out various landmarks as he took us into town—a hilltop rancho with a good vista, a mountain perfect for his daily hike, a trail leading to a scenic sight over the Sea of Cortez and the Pacific Ocean. We picked up Pedro Sors, a gregarious local celebrity who has hosted a fishing show, Con Caña y Carrete, in Mexico for the last 27 years. In between cracking jokes and getting to know everyone, I sensed a genuine love of the land from the two of them that is always infectious to encounter when visiting new parts of the world—and I can’t say I blame them, with the saguaro cacti-filled filled mountains creating a striking juxtaposition of desert against the piercing blue, crystalline sea.

Eager ships rocked in the marina in La Paz, with some playing party music and passing celebratory beers as the start time approached. After a short walk through the docks, we arrived at the “Plan B.” With recent high-profile marine shipwrecks and implosions being in the news lately, I wondered if this wasn’t the most auspicious name. Plan B boasted an upper level with a pleasing view of the surroundings and a shady, spacious middle floor with comfy, ample seating and fancy radars with colorful diagrams measuring speed, depth, and other esoteric bits of fishing data whose meanings I didn’t comprehend. There was a wide stern lined with tall, powerful rods and cozy lower quarters inside the hull with a bed and a bathroom whose wall held a sign reading “What happens in the boat stays in the boat.” In every corner were mysterious gadgets whose uses were fascinating to discover as the day went on. It was quite the vessel. It makes one wonder what Plan A was.

Plan B was helmed by Tom and Dorian. Tom was a friendly fellow from Nevada who owned a roofing business for several years before selling the company to his son and retiring to Mexico. Dorian, who worked with Tom during the roofing days and sharing his love of fishing, came with him down to Baja. Their affection for the sport was contagious as they told us their stories and gave us a quick tour of the ship, and Tom gave Jess, Victor, and I a rundown of the safety procedures and a plan of what to do when we had a catch. After some preparation, we sailed by the starting gate to flash our number for the tournament, which was “007.” As the number of the patron saint of suave, sneaky secret agents, whose qualities undoubtedly come in handy for catching fish, this felt like a positive omen for the tournament.

I climbed to the upper level to admire the gorgeous sun peeking eastward over the mountains and reflecting its electric yellows in the waves before the entry bell sounded and the chaos of a hundred boats raced at once towards the Sea of Cortez. Their overlapping wakes shook Plan B like a metronome to the extent that I thought I might get hurled overboard. I thanked my good fortune upon discovering that I don’t get seasick, and having the desire to stay dry and not wanting to miss a piece of the action, I went back down to the lower deck.

As we started getting into the sea proper, we countered choppy waves as the other ships cleared out. Hurricanes form in this part of the gulf during summer, and we were evidently experiencing the remnants of a recent storm. We couldn’t quite make it out where we wanted to go due to safety concerns, so once Dorian got us clear of La Paz, Tom started preparing the rods. I watched him as he engineered four lines for trolling with little more than ingenuity, a pair of cutting pliers, fishing line, and some very impressive balance as the boat bounced and smacked on the water. We took turns once everything was set up—the first catch of the day went to Jess, who caught a mahi-mahi, or “dorado” in this part of the world. My turn was next. When the bite came, I started hearing the words “toro” and “bull” get yelled out. I sheepishly took up the rod, not knowing what this meant, until I saw a massive, pissed-off fish jump and glare at me before vanishing into the deep and hastily making off with the fishing line.

Now, part of my memory had registered the fact long ago that fish can be heavy, but my brain had never connected the dots between knowing such fish exist and the effort required to catch them. Tom swooped in and quickly gave me a rundown of what I will henceforth always know as the “Tom Technique.” This involves slowly lowering the rod and then giving the reel a few fast spins as you swiftly bring it up, doing that over and over, letting the fish have the line if it fights back, and bracing yourself by holding a hunched, mild squat and trying to distract yourself from the thigh workout you’re about to receive. Essentially, you are engaging in a protracted ground game—taking what slack in the line you can, letting it have any line if it tries to fight, and overall attempting to wear the fish out.

I had always assumed fishing was the straightforward three-step process of putting a thing on a hook, casting it out, and then waiting. Turns out, it’s a bit more complicated than that. The more time I spent on these boats, the more I realized that the initial assumptions I had made about the simplicity of fishing were far from the sheer complexity, strategy, and depth that centuries have contributed to the art. I didn’t realize rods came with gears like on a bicycle or a car. I also didn’t realize how sturdy they were. There were times when the fish was putting up a real fight where the rod was in a fully bent U-shape, and I was halfway expecting either it or the line to snap, but they never did.

My legs begged for mercy after what felt like an hour of fighting when eventually an amorphous blob emerged under the water along with some annoyed splashing. Tom wielded his giant hook, and we pulled the fish in—so large that I needed both hands to hold it. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a dorado, the focus of the tournament, so we tossed it back in after posing for a few photos. I’m a reasonably active person—I teach and take several workout and yoga classes a week—but this fish kicked my ass. Did I mention this was the first one I ever caught?

We nabbed a few more catches, but overall the day was slow, and given the rough ride and the ongoing threat of storms, we couldn’t safely get out to the more populated parts of the gulf. Still, it was a fantastic time. The serenity of spending hours engrossed in the sea, coupled with the intermittent thrill of a catch alongside engaging conversation, made me understand why people love fishing the way they do. There was a captivating minimalism to fishing, and as I looked upon the desert and ocean scenery around me, I couldn’t help but compare it to how much time I spent looking at screens or peering at my phone—my brain racing to find some fleeting stimulation in those moments, whereas this was right in front of me. I could see it and smell it. I could pick out colors. I could immerse myself in it. It was real.

I also learned that I could taste it. I was informed of the possibility of taking my fish somewhere to be prepared for a meal, and my long-dormant hunter-gatherer instincts lit up. There was no way I wasn’t doing this, if not for the full circle story of eating my catch but also for the amusement I imagined of initiating that process. There is nothing quite like approaching a restaurant with chunks of fish in hand and communicating, “Hello sir, can you please turn this into dinner?” to the door person. The feast was magical—the chefs transformed the dorado into sashimi, tacos, and other delicious creations that we ate while observing a lovely waterfront sunset and the tournament’s boats bobbing in the marina. I never found out who won, but I didn’t care. The real prize was this fresh fish in my mouth, one that I personally caught, alongside this incredible view.

The next day would be relatively low-key, as we wouldn’t start fishing until the late afternoon. I changed out of my shirt—stiffened by the ocean air and holding the smell of the sea—to have a swim at the hotel and ran into Pedro again at the pool. I enjoyed his ability to seamlessly transition from jokes to sage-like wisdom that can only come from someone who has felt what I experienced on the boat many times in one’s life. Pedro’s words about fishing being an act that takes us back to our origins—an activity we can trace back as far back into human history as possible and connect with our ancestors—rang abundantly true for me. I left the conversation feeling very reassured. Despite all of our technology and advancements in our modern era, it was nice to recognize the truth that we can still find activities like this to take us back.

We arrived in La Ventana later, a cute seaside village about 30 minutes from La Paz. Our accommodations were unbelievable—a boutique hotel called the Ventana Blue, whose charming cabin rooms offered a full kitchen, living room, and rooftop balcony with a view of the gulf. The outside included an earthen pool, a jacuzzi, and a full bar and restaurant, all of which were decorated with lights that added some dazzling color to the grounds after sunset.

At about five in the afternoon, Jess and I boarded the Wild Hooker. The ship’s name was accurate—it was the smallest and fastest vessel yet, and Cano, our captain, showed us the most frenetic fishing of the trip. I wasn’t sure at first how productive we would be given our late start time, and I didn’t understand why we were grabbing so many buckets of sardines for bait at first, but things began coming apparent as I amusingly learned Cano’s method for luring fish. Resembling something out of Grand Theft Auto, I was entertained by the spectacle of him steering with one hand on the wheel and the other frantically chucking sardines out of the bucket as the dorado, flashing their greens and blues in numbers too numerous to count, gobbled them up.

It wasn’t long until we had our first bite, and I heard Cano cheer “toro!” as a gigantic fish leaped out of the sea and glinted in the sun. Jess began reeling it in as I started snapping pictures on her fancy DSLR camera that I hoped I wouldn’t drop overboard. Bringing in this fish was quite the undertaking with all of us working in tandem, strategizing second by second—Jess steadily gaining ground on the line, Cano at the ready with his hook, myself taking shots whenever I saw a hint of green flailing in the water, and all of us moving about the limited space accounting for the angry fish’s laps around the bow. After some considerable effort, Cano and Jess finally brought it in. It was a whopper of a dorado measuring nearly six feet long, taking all four of their hands to hold up. It was the biggest fish of the trip.

Despite the late start and the brief time on the water, the third day ended up being the most fruitful day of the trip. After Jess’s catch, I snagged another dorado, not quite as large but more sizable than the one I caught yesterday. According to Cano, this was the “fiesta” fish we’d dine on in the evening. Several catches later, and with the sun nearing the horizon, we all started returning to shore. What began as an unassuming, quiet boat ride turned into a festive atmosphere in light of our successes, and the colorful sunset over the Sea of Cortez certainly didn’t hurt.

Back at Ventana Blue, Cano and the cooks worked their magic and fed us a smorgasbord of delicacies—sashimi, ceviche, tacos, fillets—there was more than enough fish to go around and experiment with as they expertly prepared it in every way they could. There was so much food that we couldn’t eat it all, and we shared what we couldn’t eat with the kitchen and anyone else present. I had to stop and remark upon the entire beautiful sequence of events leading to this moment. The connection with the meal, the fulfilling ordeal of catching, the joy of cooking, and seeing how many people could be brought together to enjoy the feast. This was all remarkable to live through in real-time, and I couldn’t help but think about how something that was probably very common in years past was exceedingly rare for me in my 36 years.

We woke up the next day, and I remember feeling a bit of sadness as I reflected on Pedro’s words—the idea of doing an activity like fishing taking us back to our past selves. Although I can’t say whether or not it’s something I’ll continue doing, I know that I got a firm glimpse of what he meant and, in whatever form it comes, I knew I wanted to prioritize and cultivate more memories like this. One of the great joys of traveling is being able to sample other people’s everyday lives, and this trip was no exception. Despite having zero background in fishing, I was very happy to have been there. It’s nice to know that, despite the differences in our lives, these fresh experiences are still out there for us, waiting for us to discover them and learn something new about ourselves the moment we decide to step out of our comfort circles.

John Sizemore is a travel writer, photographer, yoga teacher, and visual entertainment developer based out of Austin, Texas. Follow him on Instagram at @sizemoves. In his downtime, John likes to learn foreign languages and get immersed in other worlds, particularly those of music, film, games, and books in addition to exploring the world.

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