A chance encounter on a Mexican beach changes a surf fisher's outlook on life.
By: Michael Osias
As I sit on the beach at dawn, the wispy mist rising from the warm ocean surface greets the colder air and brings with it a sense of calm. In the distance, I see a lone figure walking toward me, a boy perhaps, moving slow with an awkward gait, distracting me briefly. I will not allow my daily fishing routine interrupted for long.
My gaze returns to the surface, watching for swirls in the water, prepared to cast my line at the first sign of movement. My fishing rod is not a fishing rod at all. It is an old beer can with slippery nylon line wrapped around it. A foot above the lead weights tied to the end a sharp hook is buried within scraps of shrimp leftover from last evening’s fiesta.
Through the mist, fifteen yards from shore, I see a small bump rippling the calm surface. Fish!
Standing, I let out six feet of line and slowly begin spinning it above my head, increasing the momentum with each revolution. Like David’s sling, I let go, and the spun monofilament slides off the surface of the smooth metal rapidly, arcing upward until the weight drops into the water a few feet from my target.
Before the lead weight has time to settle on the shallow bottom, I feel a strong pull. Yanking hard to set the hook I start wrapping the line back onto the can, the tugging, and resistance telling me this fish is substantial in size.
Unexpectedly my catch leaps, breaking the surface. Golden hues with patches of metallic blue and green reflecting the rising sun revealing the broad side of a large bull Dorado. Rarely caught offshore, I am stunned by the spectacle, and although it can’t be, he seems to sense I am off guard, diving into the deep water.
The line on my can unravels quickly; the bull is moving fast, luckily the secure knot at the end holds, for now. Struggling against the tension, unable to swim further out to sea, the Dorado takes off parallel to the shore. Up to my waist in the warm surf, I have no choice but to follow him. If I do not my line will inevitably break; it is stretched to the limit. The fish jumps again, a kaleidoscope flashing in the brightening sun. He shakes his whole body, suspended in the air, as long as gravity allows. His attempt to free the hook may have succeeded as the strong pull is gone and my line slackens.
Disappointment replaces my excitement, I back out of the warm water and slowly begin to wrap what is left onto the can.
Sensing quiet movement behind me, I turn and a few feet away; the beach stroller I saw earlier, smiling. He is not a young boy but an old man. I am mesmerized for a moment, for I can see that this fellow is unique in so many ways. Mysterious, yet at a quick glance, his appearance reveals so much. The lines etched into his thin, leathery face reflect the seasons, and I know immediately he has spent his life in the outdoors. The battered straw cowboy hat he wears looks to be as old as he, and in contrast, the cloth band adorning it imitates the bright colors of the Dorado. Hanging around his lizard neck, many leather thongs holding beautiful intricate wood carvings of various creatures and nature’s finery. The weight of these necklaces lead me to think they are causing him to bend awkwardly, but I quickly realize he is a hunchback, a Latino Quasimodo, barely over four feet in height. I see a hand-woven bag at his side, the straps holding it encircle his back bump. I can tell by the detail of the design and the protective grip his child-size hand has on it, within lies something special. Held in his other tiny fingers, a wooden walking stick planted in the sand towering above his head. I have never seen anything like it. The entire staff is covered with carved figures both crude and expertly crafted. Those at the bottom are primitive as if done by a child, simple animals, faces, and symbols. Following the rod upward I see a steady transformation unfolding as each new carving is more beautiful and intricate, until the final figure, six inches from the top is a stunning mariposa Monarca in flight, Like the butterfly that migrates across a continent annually, I suspect this man does the same. I realize this artistry is a totem, his identity, his life story.
The smooth unfinished area at the top is reserved for the rest of his life. Of this, I am sure.
Stepping closer to greet him he stares beyond me to the sea gesturing and pointing with his chin. I turn to see what the interest is and feel a sharp tug at the same moment. The fish is still on! Was he resting or swimming toward me to cause the slack? I have no time to question, he rapidly heads along the shore, and the bit of fishing line that I recouped is his again, the knot still holding. He becomes erratic, fighting for his life, zig-zagging and stretching the nylon line to the extreme. Afraid it may break I attempt to wrap it around the can thinking I might gain a little on him. That doesn’t work, so I try to pull him in hand over hand, but that too is hopeless.
The bull jumps out of the water for the third time and causes a huge splash on the calm surface. I hear a strange sound, a wheeze. It is the old man laughing, and I share the moment with him, both of us chuckling with excitement. Somehow, I know that simple action has made us friends. He points to the top of the large sand hill that rises from the beach and begins walking up it, beckoning me to follow. I understand what he is telling me. Slowly backing up the slope, taking tiny steps, I can pull the fish along with me, he is tiring. Soon he will be mine.
Already I am thinking of my prize. Perhaps I will have it stuffed or a barbecue and share it with everyone, along with telling the story of the great battle, of course.
From the top of the hill, I can clearly see into the translucent turquoise water. Slowly rewinding the line, I feel his weight as his fight weakens. Perhaps he has given up. I am elated, barely able to contain my excitement. A fisherman’s dream. Snapping out of it I know that my task is not complete, I must get him to shore.
The Dorado comes into view, he is a monster, and not alone. Circling him is another, smaller but still a good size, his mate. I have seen this behavior before when out at sea, and the local fisherman talk of it often. My new friend taps me on the shoulder to get my attention. He points to the female and slowly shakes his head. His silent message is obvious but I choose to ignore it, I want this fish.
I prepare to slowly step down the dune, careful not to lose my catch at the last moment. He is near the shore with his belly scraping the beach and his back visible above the foam. The female is swimming frantically in dangerously shallow water within a few feet of her mate. The bull thrashes about, a final desperate attempt to break free, stirring up the sand and clouding the water.
Before I depart to bag my prize, I glance at my new friend. Considering the look his clear brown eyes convey I feel his sadness, and it is overwhelming; a physical force. I want this fish, to show it to my friends, to have pictures taken with it and boast to every one of the experience. I know I will be the talk of the town for days if not weeks.
He knows what I am thinking, and his sadness seems to deepen, he won't even look at me, he turns away and starts walking down the other side of the hill. What am I to do and why should I care what he thinks?
I then see myself through his eyes; I am a thrill seeker, not a fisherman, I don't need the food, I want to kill this fish to feed my ego, not my stomach. I feel small, much smaller than his four and a half feet.
Walking down to the gently lapping waves I wade into the water until I am knee deep. The big fish is very still; reaching inside his mouth I pull the hook from his bony jaw and still, he doesn’t move. I gently maneuver him to face the sea. With a flick of his tail, he brushes against me and darts away, his mate following. Gone in a flash, they both break the surface briefly leaving only a faint ripple in the water.
A sense of peace washes over me as I stare out at the tranquil sea, imagining where these two beautiful creatures might be heading.
I turn around to get back to shore and atop the dune, my new friend, the little man beaming as bright as the early sunshine. He is pleased, and I am as well.
Near exhaustion, I slowly do the steep climb. Reaching the top, I am alone; he is gone. I look everywhere, but he is nowhere to be seen, vanished like the morning mist.
He left behind a single word, ‘GRACIAS’, scrawled in the sand and beside the word, a small leather package bound with turquoise twine the color of the sea. I undo it and inside find an exquisite carving of two Dorados.
A bull and his mate at play.