A Shake of the Head

by John Dutton
Fly Fishing Catalog 2006

Fly fishing, I grant you, takes skill to cast, a practiced eye to find fish and a subtle presentation to convince the fish to take a collection of feathers, and perhaps some fast reflexes to hook the fish when the opportunity rises. But an action sport? No. Whenever I’d read fishing writers’ reports of heart-stopping action I always just shook my head.

Yet here I am, on the bow of a panga on Baja’s East Cape, swiveling my head like someone in need of an exorcism, and sweating, not because of the heat, but in anticipation of the jacks’ next strike. Michael, in the rear of the boat, is equally ramped up. When the pangero tosses out a handful of live bait, we wait, fly rods in hand. The jacks come in low in packs of three or four, and then explode on the bait at the surface in a blast of white water.

When I toss a popper in the middle of the ensuing frenzy, a 30-pounder grabs it and runs for deep water. I desperately try to clear the line, and end up with a loop around my thumb. The line is now almost down to the gelspun backing, a material notorious for being so thin it cuts through flesh like butter. I manage to get untangled, but not before it takes a healthy gouge out of my thumb.

Up top the roosters come in, singly and in pairs, their dorsal fins splayed out, knifing up into the air and throwing off spray. Fishing for roosters requires a desperate grab for a rod rigged with a sinking head and sparsely tied streamer, followed by a fast cast in the direction you think the fish will go. With two people fumbling around for spare rods in a narrow and tippy panga, it takes a while before we manage to hook a rooster.

But when we get it right, we both do at the same moment and pandemonium ensues. Michael’s fish dodges left; mine dodges right. I clamber over the seats to get to the back of the boat; Michael makes an equally desperate dash to the front, passing his rod over mine. Then both fish change directions again. In the end, my reflexes prove too slow, but Michael stays connected and lands his fish.

We’re still applauding Michael’s accomplishment when what looks like a car-sized boulder lifts off the bottom and starts to swim slowly toward the edge of the reef. Still pumped full of adrenaline from our double hookup and streamer rod in hand, I figure what the hell — and cast in front of the monster fish. The fly line sinks slowly to the bottom; the grouper passes the fly and takes it absentmindedly. Michael and I exchange knowing glances, the pangero fires up the outboard for the chase, and I ready myself for the fight of a lifetime. The trick will be to protect the 20-pound leader from the full weight of the 200-plus-pound fish.

The grouper swims majestically away, descends over the lip of the rock ledge, and pulls out more line ever so slowly as it noses down. And then, as indifferent as the take, comes a shake of the head — and the parting of the leader. My heart is done stopping for the day. I reel the line back in as slowly as it had gone out.

About the Author

John Dutton is an editor at Patagonia, and divides his time between reading Scuba Bunnies to his daughter and fishing, surfing and paddling the Santa Barbara Channel.