Yesterday, after a long hiatus from fishing due to a broken collar bone, Felipe our caretaker, caught three fish. My dad and I were duly impressed that he hadn’t lost his touch with the fishing line. A friend of mine, who has a reputation for being a successful fisherman, says that it’s all about numbers. “You catch one fish for every thousand casts.” Felipe’s odds are more like three to ten. He’s a ringer. And unlike the guys who drive down here from Colorado, California and Portland, he uses nothing but a hand line.
Most of the local Mexicans use hand lines to fish. It is literally just fishing line, a weight and a hook with some bait, and in Felipe’s case he keeps the line organized and under control by wrapping it around a 4”x3” piece of wood. The weight is often makeshift, a stainless steel nut or other piece of heavy metal. Casting is a technique that takes some skill. He swings the line in a circle over his head as if it were a lariat and then throws it into the surf. The casting is critically timed with the surf action, so that the out-flowing water takes the line into deeper water rather than pushing it back to shore.
The fish Felipe caught yesterday were all what he calls pescado blanco (white fish). These are what other Mexican’s call “lisa” or white mullet. When I asked him what he did with them, he said he cooked one for the dogs that morning and that he’d eat one later that day. I asked him if he thought he might be able to catch a guatchinango (red snapper, my favorite fish) for me to share with my father. He looked at me confidently and said he would catch one the following day. He said he’d seen some in the waves that morning. I was a bit surprised by his confident declaration and didn’t put much faith in it.
The next morning upon rising I looked down the beach to see Felipe fishing with three of our dogs lying in the sand nearby. It was comforting to see him back in his usual position casting out into the surf. I went about my morning routine, but a couple hours later a knock came at the door.
“I have your guatchinango,” he said, nonplussed. “If you come to my house to get it in a few minutes, I will have it gutted and scaled for you.”
I thanked him, closed the door, and still not really believing it myself went out to the patio to my dad the news.
“No!” he said in utter disbelief.
Later when Felipe handed the fish to me, I noticed it was the perfect size for three people to share. My dad and I had a dinner date that evening with my friend the artist.
If you know anything about fishing, you know that this was a virtual miracle. I felt a bit like Captain Picard of the Star Ship Enterprise – it was as though I’d issued my command to Felipe, “Make it so.” My artist friend said it speaks to my ability to dictate my desires to the Universe, but I think it says more about Felipe’s ability as a fisherman.
The local ranchers have often commented to me about his ability to catch fish as though he has some kind of gift.
When the subject comes up more than once one of them has said, “Felipe is a good fisherman. He always catches fish even when others come home still hungry.”
I never put much stock in what they said and figured it had more to do with how often he fished than the results. They are ranchers after all and I guessed would be prone to making assumptions about his abilities. How could they know how good a fisher he was? I also imagined Felipe would, in his manner, smile shyly and not correct them when they said, “So Felipe you must be quite the fisherman?” But what I didn’t realize was that their knowledge was, in fact, first hand.
Yesterday, Felipe came to the house to tell me he was leaving to walk three miles to his friend Lloyd’s ranch.
“What for?” I asked, always wary of the potential for him to get fall-down drunk when he leaves the property.
He looked at me like I he was always beyond reproach and said, “I want to take the extra fish I caught to Lloyd.”
“Do you want a ride?” I offered.
“If you’re going to drive,” he said matter-of-factly, “why don’t you take it to them yourself?”
Lloyd’s ranch is a modest place, a concrete block home painted white with no stucco on the blocks. The ground around the house is bare sand with a few sprigs of dry grass, most of chewed short by the goats. I was greeted noisily by a couple of very skinny dogs, followed by Lloyd’s wife, Luisa.
When I pulled the fish out and handed it to her, she told me he often gives them his catch. I inquired further and discovered Felipe gives a great deal of the fish he catches away. To families who live in ramshackle houses with dirt floors, no electricity, no plumbing and often not much in the way of food. Families who are truly “dirt poor.” They are right – he does have a gift.