I’ve been so curious about our local panga boat fishermen. I see them every morning before sunrise on their way out to sea. I just had to go too, so I ventured out to Punta Lobos before dawn one morning to catch a ride and find out what life is like as a Todos Santos fisherman. I waited in the dark for them to start showing up, and one of the early birds offered to take me right away… José Romero Espinoza. I went down and waited for José and his buddy, Eugenio Nuñez Villalobos, to load their day’s supplies and ready the boat for the big launch. The tides had caused the dunes to look like ominous cliffs that morning. Oh boy! I was in for an adventure.
Being the fragile milkmaid that I am, I was told to get into the panga and the guys would push it down the dune and jump in as it hit the water. That was a thrill! We were off and motoring in no time. As we rounded the point, a big boat, “The 200 Miles,” was there throwing out bags of free shrimp heads that the fishermen use for bait, along with the boxes of calamari they pay 90 pesos a box for. The decision was made to go for red snapper, locally known as huachinango. I was happy to know we wouldn’t be going for marlin, which would have been a much farther ride and a lot harder for my first time. My stomach was already doing some leaps. José was so kind to ride around the old port and show me all the barking sea lions hanging out around the rock formation known as King Kong.
As we made our way north, José pointed out the most glorious sunrise as it came through the mountains.
José. Photo by Mark Gordon
Eugenio. Photo by Mark Gordon
MM: So, José, how long have you been doing this?
JRE: For 25 years I have been fishing every day. I have a vacation only when there are storms.
MM: And you can earn a nice living doing this? You own this boat?
JRE: This is my boat, given to me by the government, as part of a cooperative. We all fish for the cooperative. For snapper we can get 26 pesos per kilo. You can get 40 pesos per kilo of marlin, but it’s against the law to sell it. Anyway, it takes lots of gas to go looking for marlin. For snapper, we can stick closer.
MM: So if you catch plenty of fish, it’s not too bad for working from 6 a.m. until one or two in the afternoon, I guess.
JRE: And I am my own boss really. I make my own hours, but if you want to earn a lot of money, you have to work really hard.
MM: So where are the fishing rods? I don’t see any.
JRE: We don’t use rods… just drop lines and hooks.
MM: NO WAY! You catch fish by hand?
JRE: We put the bait on three hooks at a time and lower the line down and we use these finger guards so we don’t get cut up as we bring the lines up and down.
MM: That’s amazing. And you catch all kinds of fish this same way?
JRE: Yes… we go further out, sometimes even 30 miles, to catch marlin, but we catch dorado, cabrilla, sierra, even sharks this way. When the water’s warmer in September and October, there might be tuna. We use nets for shrimp, too, but that’s when the water temperature is cooler.
MM: Does your family ever go with you?
JRE: You must have drunk tequila last night.
MM: We won’t go into that. Do you have a childhood nickname?
JRE: Oh, I’ve had many. I don’t like them. I tell my friends not to call me names and I won’t call them any.
MM: That’s fair. How do you know if it’s ok to go out? Things can change dramatically out here so quickly.
JRE: Oh, the weather is told by the wind, the current, the sky, and the marines come around to warn us of any storms.
MM: I bet this can be pretty dangerous sometimes. Has anything ever happened to you out here?
JRE: About two months ago I had a bad accident by Rancho Nuevo. These boats are not built for bad weather. We got caught in a huge wave and the boat flipped.
ENV: Yeah… I got out and got to shore, but José was caught under the water, under the panga. The air was being sucked out. A huge wave came and slammed into the boat. He was released, but had a dislocated arm and shoulder.
MM: Oh no! How scary. Has anything really funny ever happened?
JRE: Oh yeah… my friend caught a marlin and it actually jumped into the boat and landed smack on top of him! Knocked him to the floor.
MM: That is pretty funny. I still can’t imagine you catching marlin with just a drop line in a boat this size.
JRE: Well, you struggle for hours to get it on the boat. If you catch one, the tail hangs over the side. Sometimes we take people out sport fishing. They usually like to bring all their own equipment. We give 30% of what we make to the co-op.
MM: Is there competition between all the fishermen to see who brings in the most fish? Do you use cell phones to let each other know where different ones are running?
JRE: Cell phones are used when someone is in trouble… nobody will tell where the fish are.
MM: Oh, so there must be some friendly competition, I guess. It looks like you’re mainly catching snapper today, but what’s that fat fish you’re bringing up as well?
JRE: That’s cochito. It’s got a really thick skin. It’s good for ceviche. If a cochito sees a net, you know it actually swims backwards.
MM: That’s hysterical. I never saw a fish back up. José, did you always want to do this? Was your dad a fisherman?
JRE: My dad was a farmer. I have always loved hunting, fishing, and the sea. In fact Eugenio and I are going hunting after this.
MM: Well that’s a full day. Have you traveled at all? You speak English pretty well.
JRE: I have been to Palm Springs and Mt.Hood, Oregon. That was the first time I was in snow. I’d really like to go to Puerta Vallarta and Mazatlan.
MM: Do you have any American friends?
JRE: Yes, some surfer friends and the people who come to go sport fishing with me.
MM: You were born and raised here in Todos Santos. How do you feel about all the changes happening here?
JRE: I was born in 1953. I think paving the streets was a big change. There’s still not a lot of crime. There’s more equipment available to buy for fishing.
MM: Is there anything you’d like to say to all your friends who might read this?
JRE: In the ocean you have to take care of yourself and take care of the ocean. Just have fun and be careful!
MM: Thanks, José and you too Eugenio, for taking such good care of me today! Can’t wait to experience the rush of getting this boat back up that sand dune! I’ll have that beer now.
JRE: My whole family lives here, but only one of my four children likes to fish. They get sick.
MM: Hmmm, I can relate to that right now. Do I look green?