Saturday, March 12, 2011

Big Fish vs. Small Boat


The big fish struck as I was paddling my kayak toward yet another swarm of seabirds dive-bombing sardines off the Mexican coast. I heard the unmistakable zipping sound of fishing line spooling out of my reel, yanked my rod from its holder and snapped the line to set the hook.
Much of the thrill of fishing comes from the mystery—not knowing exactly what's pulling on your line from the depths. I wasn't sure what leviathan I had hooked, but I knew that it was strong and it wanted to dive deeper.
I pointed the buckling rod toward the front of my kayak, so my boat would turn toward the fish should it opt to flee and tow me across the waves like something out of "The Old Man and the Sea." I groped for the walkie-talkie dangling around my neck. "I got one!" I yelled to my guides in a nearby charter boat. They didn't respond, which likely meant I'd neglected, in my excitement, to press the call button.
Armando Perez
A jack caught from a kayak.
Deep-sea kayak fishing is a sport that pits human against big fish on the simplest of terms and offers anglers two pursuits: Hours of serene paddling on the ocean and adrenaline-soaked bouts with powerful game fish. I got both prowling off the coast of Mexico near Puerto Vallarta, in renowned fishing grounds that serve as a highway for all types of sea life, from sardines to humpback whales.
While it's been around for about 40 years, kayak fishing still isn't widely offered by charter services
in Puerto Vallarta. Ruben Gaxiola de la Huerta's EcoExplorer charter service was the only one I found there with fully equipped kayaks and years of experience.
Mr. Gaxiola de la Huerta, a stout, 42-year-old former insurance manager who moved to Puerto Vallarta in 1998, said he prefers that first-time kayak fishing clients try embarking from the beach and fishing for smaller fish close to shore. Only thereafter can they chase bigger, nastier swimmers on the open water. He made an exception for us, my Dallas neighbor David Matthews and I, since we are experienced fishermen, and I occasionally paddle a kayak on a lake near my house.
Luis Chavez
Heading out to fish
My goal in Puerto Vallarta was to snare a big fish—a marlin, a tuna or a dolphin fish—that would give me a good fight from my 13-foot boat. It is possible, though rare, to hook tuna or red snapper of 100 pounds or more or marlin of several hundred pounds that can fight for hours and tow a kayak for several miles.
We embarked the first day at dawn, just as the sun peeked over the Sierra Madre mountains. Dramamine kept our stomachs settled as the charter boat, Chololo, plowed through waves. After two hours, we arrived at a fishing area known as La CorbeteƱa, a swath of water roughly 80 feet deep surrounding a tiny rock island topped with an unmanned lighthouse.
We eagerly paddled our kayaks out from the larger boat, trailing live bait fish on hooks behind us. But the initial excitement and anxiety about being at sea in a tiny boat soon gave way as we became reacquainted with fishing's eternal companion: waiting.
We rowed for hours around the island, with little to show for it. Mr. Gaxiola de la Huerta caught a small tuna. I eventually checked my line to discover that my bait fish had escaped and I'd been dragging a naked hook around the ocean.
Getty Images

The Lowdown

  • Getting There: Flights are available from major U.S. cities to Licenciado Gustavo Diaz Ordaz International Airport. Dodge the welcomers in the airport, even those promising shuttle services—they're selling timeshares.
  • Fishing There: EcoExplorer offers guided kayak excursions from shore or by charter boat. Half-day trips start at $95 per person; full day charters are $
  • Where to Stay: Several hotels are within walking distance of Puerto Vallarta's main marina, including the Westin Puerto Vallarta,Paseo de la Marina Sur #205, For luxury accommodations, Punta Mita, an hour away, is home to the Four Seasons Resort (from $440, ) and the St. Regis Resort Puna Mita (from $295, ).
  • Where to Eat: Try Tacos and Beer for a quick bite and a cerveza (Hotel Embarcadero 1-E, 52-322-209-0197). For finer dining, head to beachfront institution La Palapa (Pulpito 103 on Col. Emiliano Zapata; or Ah Caramba! Restaurant & Bar (Ecuador 1071 on Col. 5 de Diciembre,
The rhythmic rise and fall of the waves were hypnotic. For lunch, we ate sandwiches and fruit aboard our kayaks, Mr. Gaxiola de la Huerta reclining with his cap over his face and his lines dangling in the water. But our day, while peaceful, was also mildly frustrating. There was sea life everywhere except on our lines. Sharp marlin fins sliced along the ocean's surface a dozen yards from our kayaks. Tuna and manta rays leapt from the water to dislodge parasites from their bodies. Occasionally, we saw humpback whales spout and breach on the horizon.
Our guide and captain, Luis Federico Cortez-Guittierrez, theorized that the recent full moon had allowed the fish to feed at night, leaving them satiated. "The fish are here," Mr. Gaxiola de la Huerta assured us above the beeps of his sonar detecting fish below his kayak. "You can hear them and see them." But we headed back to the marina spent and empty-handed.
Four days later, we set off again. Mr. Gaxiola de la Huerta had conferred with other fishermen about where fish were biting. He brought bait and tackle for any occasion: live fish, frozen mullet, plastic squid, big lures, jigs. We took two charter boats, so David and I could separate to chase different opportunities.
Our destination was the El Banco fishing grounds, 40 miles to sea from Puerto Vallarta. We never got there. Off Punta Mita, a picturesque peninsula home to Four Seasons and St. Regis resorts, we spotted seabirds diving into the water. Massive schools of migrating sardines attract birds—and bigger fish—to feed.
Two charter boats were already chasing the bird clouds, which dispersed as quickly as they formed. My boat passed within 10 yards of a swarm at full frenzy. Dolphins arched across the surface in chase of sardines. Below the surface, we spied flashes of reddish orange. Big snapper. The game was on.
I climbed into my kayak and paddled swiftly to anywhere I saw birds massing, digging in to get there before the sardines escaped.
I wasn't alone. Dolphins swam around my kayak, at least once passing under it. David and I weaved among towering charter boats, drawing bemused looks from rival fishermen. After an hour of paddling, as I was aiming for yet another swarm of birds, I got lucky. I was overcome with excitement spiked with relief. Finally, I had hooked something.
After determining the fish wanted to dive rather than run, I began pulling the rod skyward and reeling in line each time I lowered it. The fish tugged in powerful spurts, forcing me to keep both hands on the rod. The fight was short by the standards of deep-sea fishing, about 10 minutes long. When I got the fish near the surface, I could see its orangish form cruising through the water, occasionally fighting my line with strong kicks of its tail. It was a snapper of about 30 pounds.
Hauling it in, I saw that I hooked the snapper not in the mouth but in the eye socket. This sometimes happens when a fish spits out a hook but doesn't get entirely clear of it. It showed how close I had come to losing this fish.
As my charter boat arrived, the guides snared the fish with a gaffe, hoisting it aboard. Later, David came close to the ultimate thrill, nearly catching a big roosterfish that spat the hook. We caught five snapper that day: three from the charter boat and two from kayaks.
I didn't hook the thrashing marlin that I wanted, but the snapper haul was a decent consolation prize. And it was far more excitement than I could ever find dropping a line in a lake, or from the beach.
Write to Kris Hudson at

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