By Jim Reno
We were somewhat tired that night, but we’d made an agreement to double up and do a full day of fishing with Gavino. This time, we’d head way up north to the top of the reef and then out to the blue water for some deep sea fishing for trophy fish.
“I’m so glad you’re getting to learn about fishing.” My brother said. “Gavino is a great teacher.” I began to understand what my brother and other fishermen loved about this sport. It was thrilling when the fish grabbed the hook. There was the excitement of a gambling table when you tried to pull the fish on board. It could be anything. It could get away. The skill of landing the fish and the satisfaction of a big catch helped punctuate each hook up. It was all very simply explained, but best done so from the confines of a boat at sea where it made sense. Otherwise, it was like describing SCUBA to someone who’s never swam.
“I think I’m getting it.” I said. But I wondered if it would every completely grab me like it had my brother. He was obsessed by fishing. He spent every weekend he could fishing for bass in the delta. He hated fishing for bass in the delta, but it was something nearby he could do without too much time or investment. It was something similar to what he really loved. He really loved going after the big trophy fish in the deep blue water and that was where we would go soon.
The next time we saw Gavino, he picked us up on our dock with a huge grin.
“Today, we catch a LOT of fish.” He said. Our plan was to head north and catch some sardines for a few hours of reef fishing. Then we’d head in midday sometime for lunch and a short break. The second half of the day would be all deep blue water trophy fishing.
We sped north in the early morning hours, watching the shoreline as we went. All the business of downtown San Pedro with its piers, hotels, boats and resorts soon faded as we went further north. Pretty soon, all we saw was scattered small resorts and large homes. These were for people who had money but wanted to live off the grid. No city water, scattered city power, and no road. Soon even these houses thinned out and we saw no more resorts.
“We just passed Mexico Rocks.” Gavino said. “We will head out just passed Rocky Point.”
“Are we near Mexico?” I asked.
“Almost. It will be a couple miles north of us.” He said.
We drove for some time and then finally headed for the reef. Gavino said that we came all this way because almost no one else ever did. Translation: more fish.
We began hooking up almost immediately, catching the same fish we’d caught a couple days before. We did not catch as many fish as we had that one day, but the fish we caught were bigger. They were harder to bring in and that made it that much more exciting. I caught another big barracuda and then my brother caught one.
“Take the picture!” He grimaced as I took a few different snaps of him holding the big fish. “This things stinks!” He yelled. Gavino and I laughed at him.
We steadily caught fish for almost five hours when my brother hooked up a big one.
“This one is the real deal, bro!” He yelled at me. I got the camera out and filmed him as he fought to get the fish on board. His reel spun wildly making a high-pitched wail as tons of line pulled out.
“It’s OK.” Gavino said. “We on the edge of the reef with lots of blue water to our side. He running to the deep blue, so let him run himself tired.” My brother knew exactly what to do. He had landed many fish like this. But his face read differently. He looked like he was doing this for the first time. At least his excited expression looked that way. He was thrilled, caught up in the moment, pumping his arms and arching his back to hold the fish tightly. Each time he caught a fish was like the first time to him. He truly loved what he was doing.
This would only last ten to fifteen minutes at the most, but each second ticked by slowly. We all knew the line could break at any time and then all that work was for nothing. There was no definite amount of pressure to exert, no gauge that read “That’s Enough!” It was all tactile, all natural…by hand. It was done by feeling the fish and using your instincts. He pulled hard and you let up. He let up and you pulled back. It was a tug of war. It was yin and yang. It was rhythmic. It was naturally beautiful and I was beginning to understand it.
Golfers sometimes say that just being out on the links and walking with friends outdoors is reward enough. Mark Twain said that “Golf is a good walk spoiled.” And I tend to agree. Was it similarly true the fishing was a great boat ride with a friend, or a brother. Was fishing really just a trip we took together spiced with the chance of catching a fish? Perhaps the catching of the fish was ancillary to all the set up and work we do together to “try” to catch the fish. Maybe in the future I’d get deeper into the zen of fishing, but I still had to admit that fishing without “catching” the fish might still leave me flat.
My brother took his time, wore his arms out and skillfully landed a forty pound grouper. It was so wide from top to bottom that it looked like a giant pancake. What steaks that fish would make! Grouper is my favorite fish and we had more than we could possibly eat. We lay the grouper in the ice box next to the big barracudas and the other fish. It was a perfect break time for us to head to the shore for lunch and a short break.
We stopped at a small northern resort and as luck would have it, there was a huge family of about four couples with a dozen noisy kids that had stopped with some eco-dive tour company. They were busily devouring many platefuls of fish fingers and fries and had taken over most of the small beach restaurant. The three of us looked pretty salty, having spent the last five hours fishing the reef, so we just headed straight for the bar. We had fish stories to tell so we ordered three Dirty Bananas, a local cocktail that is more like a chocolate desert than anything else. I’m sure we looked very tough with the huge cocktails complete with umbrella and long, curvy straw. My brother was explaining what we’d caught to the visiting dads. I began telling stories of our journey to Gavino as we sat at the bar.
“You have to be cautious who you drink these things with, Gavino.” I said. “Just a few days earlier, some strange American woman at a local restaurant stared at me as I drank one of these sweet concoctions. It was a very nice restaurant, completely empty except for me, my brother and the older expat couple across the bar from us.”
“So, tell me…where are your panties?” The old lady asked me loudly. I looked at my brother.
“Excuse me?” I asked.
“Your panties. Where are they?” She asked me again.
“I think I left them in your purse.” I replied.
“Oh really?” She chuckled. “I just figured you forgot your dress.” My brother shifted in his seat. He knows I have a very short fuse.
I looked directly at the man now and said, “You know, you’re brother there has a mouth on him. Perhaps he’s had too much to drink. You should shut him up.” Now my brother really began to quietly protest.
“Come on, bro…not a big deal. She’s just a drunk old lady, thinks she’s funny.” He quietly explained. By now, the man had quickly shut her down and they left shortly after that.
“I don’t know why, but some people think that a good way to open a conversation is with an insult. They are oblivious. That does not fly with him.” My brother laughed. The food arrived. We all had fish tacos and they were pretty good.
Gavino was cracking up on his bar stool. “Maybe she wanted a date with you.”
“Yeah, right. I mean, did I walk in that place with ‘screw with me’ written on my forehead? I asked aloud. It made no sense.” I explained. “Perhaps we should not be in that restaurant. Right, brother?”
“Oh jeez.” He laughed.
“Just a day or so later, we’re back in the same restaurant. Now I had just gotten some pretty bad news from home about business. It’s nothing now, but at the time it was potentially devastating to our business. We did all we could that night, but we would not know if we were OK until the next day.”
“It was pretty tense.” My brother said.
“It really was. We went back to that nice restaurant to get a quick dinner and a couple of well-needed drinks. The waitress was a local girl, in her twenties and she approached the table with this, ‘Do you want to know something?’ I looked up at her and I shook my head. ‘No, it’s been a tough day and what I want is a vodka soda.’” I just shook my head as I told this story.
“People, man.” My brother laughed.
“The young waitress went to the bar and then came back with the drinks.” I said.
“I’d like to tell you something personal.” She said.
“And here we are just trying to eat and have a conversation.” I said to her.
“Are you sure you don’t want to know what I’m thinking?” She asked.
“I am very sure.” I answered.
“Well, it must be important.” My brother said. “I’d like to know. What are you thinking?”
“You look like two celebrities.” She said smiling. Well, that was a pleasant surprise. How about that?
“That’s very nice of you to say.” My brother smiled and looked over at me. I took a sip of my drink and smiled. “See.” He said and looked at me.
“Celebrities from a TV show.” She said.
“That so?” I asked.
“Have you ever heard of ‘The Flintstones’?” She asked.
“Yes.” I said and frowned.
“Well he’s Barney and you are Fred.” She said pointing to me as Barney.
“Why not go see if the food is ready?” I asked. She smiled and left.
“She thinks she’s funny.” Eric said. “She does not know how stupid that was.”
“Oh, she’ll get quite a chuckle when she sees her tip.” I said. “And besides, everyone knows that I’m FRED.”
“You are more Fred than Barney.” Gavino said.
“How do you know this?” I asked. “You’re too young for the Flintstones and I did not know they broadcast that show down here.”
“YouTube.” He laughed.
“Of course.” I said. “Everything is on YouTube.”
I sat back and wondered why odd encounters like panty-lady and that waitress were commonplace in my world. For some reason, odd people said odd things to me all the time.
“Well, it sure gives you something to write about.” My brother commented.
I was looking at the bill. It was almost $100 US. Jeez, resort prices are high. At that moment I had an idea. I asked the bartender if he wanted to buy some fish. He turned me down but said he’d ask the kitchen. Shortly thereafter, a large Belizean woman came out and told me she was the manager. She was interested in the fish.
“We have a bunch of small ones, but the best is a big barracuda and a good-sized grouper. Want to see them?” I asked. She was interested. We were going to give them close to $200 wholesale in fish for $100 retail food/bar service so they were definitely making money, but I did not care. We were going to give the fish away anyway. Her bartender pulled the fish out of our icebox and they loved the fish. It was an easy deal to make and everyone got what they wanted.
I told the manager I was writing a story about this trip and asked if I could mention her and the resort.
“Please don’t.” She said. “You can trade here, but I don’t want every hungry angler tying up and asking to trade a snapper for a burger and a beer.” I agreed to keep their name a secret.
“You just trade my best fish.” Gavino said.
“Your fish?” I laughed. “Not yet, buddy. Those were my fish. Now, let’s go get some really ones fish so Gavino feels better.” I tipped the bartender $20 US and we took off. I’d been a bartender for years. I never slight them.
We headed offshore again, through the reef and for the deep, blue water. The plan was to get past Rocky Point again, almost Mexico and drop four lines that we would drag for trophy fish all the way south to our place. We planned to finish our day in this manner. We had a couple of hours left so we’d drag the lines about twenty miles at what appeared to be a pretty quick clip to me.
“These fish can catch bait moving this fast?” I asked.
“Oh yes.” Gavino said. “Dey much faster. Dey attracted to the noise of the boat and den dey see the lure near the surface.” It sounded like a great plan but it seemed very similar to what I called “fishing” before going on this trip: dropping a hook into dark water hoping for something to happen. This was not my favorite way to pass the time. But at this point in our trip, this less active more passive fishing was welcome. I was a bit tired and the sun was still beating down on us. A cold beer sounded good so I opened one and then another. I was relaxed and the rhythm of the boat on the waves was a friendly hypnotic massage. I could have gone to sleep. But we began to talk again. The bar stories had prompted us to tell more stories.
“You guys have good stories.” Gavino said. We began to talk about how the old couple at the bar was probably of the ilk that drank copious amounts of Scotch.
“I used to serve people like him at the yacht club in San Francisco. I can see him, ‘Hey barkeep…pour me about four fingers of a fine single malt.’” I imitated the old man. My brother chimed in imitating him in a ridiculous voice that sounded like Don Knotts.
“And don’t be shy with the Chablis…the lady loves her Chablis.” He said. Don Knotts was perfect so we kept using his voice. “She loves her Chablis and her More 120 cigarettes…and I get a clean ashtray here?”
“Back at my house, around the holidays, mother would call from the kitchen saying dinner was ready, so we’d gather ‘round the bar for one more quick cocktail. Ya know what we called that one?” I asked, still in yacht club character voice.
“No, what?” Gavino was laughing.
“A RAMMER.” I said in my best Don Knotts voice. “Ah yes, the holidays. Scotch, scotch and more Scotch.
“And gin, don’t forget the gin.” My brother laughed out loud like Don might have.
“Yes, I’ll need that for the red gin blossom nose I’ll be sporting by January.” I said.
“How about one for the road, Doc?” My brother laughed.
“Don’t mind if I do. But first, how about freshening this cocktail up for me, brother?” I asked, pretending we had drinks.
“Anybody mind if I have a whiz off the stern?” My brother laughed.
“Well, as they say…you just rent it, right?” I poked him. He expected that response. We’d heard it said so many times in the bathroom by the old dudes at the yacht club. It was so cliché’ and tiresome.
We were talking like Don Knotts and acting like completely pickled people we’d suffered in the past, repeating all the stupid lines they spoke.
“Hey, who needs a nightcap?” I asked. Gavino laughed out loud and my brother had tears in his eyes.
“Freshen that up for you?” He asked.
“Don’t mind if I do. How about four fingers of a fine single malt scotch?” I asked.
“How about some gin and an ashtray?” He asked.
“Why not just pour the gin into the ashtray?” I asked. “Let’s save some time!”
“There you go! One ashy gin for the road. And I took the liberty of mixing the cocktail weenies with the the mixed nuts and tossed it lightly with a gallon of sweet vermouth.” He laughed.
“Mmmmm…kind of like a nutty, meaty Manhattan!” I kept laughing.
“Ahhh, Manhattan….those were the days. If you can make it there…you probably won’t have enough money to get back! Get a job boy!” We repeated the stupid things we’d heard bar cronies spout and we were laughing at them.
We were running out of lines and our stomachs hurt by now. We stopped the jokes and let the laughter die down a bit.
“I never had anyone as funny as you guys.” Gavino chuckled. Then he laughed again, remembering some joke he liked. “How about some more Scotch?” He yelled. We began all over again and laughed for an hour. No one really noticed or commented that the lines were quiet but we periodically checked them, reset them and talked little about the lack of action.
“Some days dey bite, some dey don’t.” Gavino said.
“Some days is scotch, some is gin.” I said acting like Dean Martin.
“Some days you’re Errol, some days you’re Flynn.” My brother said.
“But I’m in awfully good shape for the shape I’m in!” We both laughed.
Finally, we gave up and began pulling the lines in. As we stowed the gear and prepped for the quick ride to our dock I kept thinking.
I began to get more of the Zen part of fishing. It was a sport, or an activity. I was not sure yet. I began to understand why the worst day fishing is better than the best day at the office. I wholeheartedly agreed. The worst day fishing would involve gearing up and spending a day in a boat with friends and family.
It was going to be just like every other thing in life and depend on your attitude. If you headed out in the morning expecting to catch fifty fish, you would probably be disappointed. If you headed out in the morning expecting to spend time with your brother and enjoy some scenery on the water, have a few laughs and see some places you’ve never seen, then you were sure to be satisfied. If you dropped a line in the water and caught something, that was a bonus.
Fishing is too unsure to make it the sole goal of the day. Perhaps we could still call it “fishing” but what we really mean is “spending time together on the boat”. Perhaps what golfers call “golf” is really spending time together outdoors, same with hunters and a great walk through the woods. Hikers are more honest. They are just going outside to go outside. I’d just give fishing a new definition that lowered the expectation of actually catching fish and focused more on the activity itself as a good bonding time among friends and family.
I was getting it. I remembered playing cards with my grandfather when I was about nine years old. I would get angry when I would lose and he said,
“Playing cards is fun. Don’t just play to win or you will miss most of the fun.” I did not get what he was teaching me for years. I was too competitive. Later, it made sense.
It was the same with fishing. I had been too focused on the catching of the fish and missed the rest of the activity. Granted, actually catching fish is the goal, and the day we caught one every five minutes was thrilling. But setting lines and dragging them for twenty miles while we laughed was even more fun and we never hooked one fish. I’m guessing that if every time we went fishing we caught a fish every five minutes that we’d eventually get bored of that and a good day fishing would suffer from inflation so it became necessary to catch a fish every two minutes just to keep people satisfied. We are never satisfied. We always want more.
We got back to our dock. I tipped Gavino and gave him all of the fish. We all bro-hugged and promised do it again. The day was over. We walked down the dock towards my condo as Gavino sped off and waved.
“No race to the condo, bro?” I asked.
“Nope, I’ve been feeling better. Finally.” He said.
“Me too.” I said.
“So, you get it now, right?” He asked.
“That depends.” I said. “Are you having a good trip?”
“Best ever.” He said.
“Me too.” I said. “We’ll have to do this again.”
I had tried a new angle on learning something old: put down your preconceived notions, discard your past experiences and open your mind to something familiar that you may not have really liked. Take another look at it, a fresh look, and see what’s there.
I figured that there were other things out there I’d discarded that I needed to try again now that I was older. But that was not the reason for this. This whole trip was centered on my brother. I wanted him to relax and have fun, to take a break from work and I wanted to share in the thing that he loved most: fishing. I was so glad to have been able to give this trip to him.
We joked about it a lot, but come to think of it… I hated Scotch and I detested golf. Perhaps another time.