Mazatlán

Mazatlán, Mexico – October 14-21, 2017

When George Brinkman called me in the middle of summer 2017 to invite me to come down and fish with him in Mazatlán I told him I needed to save money for my planned 2018 Africa trip. By the end of the same phone call, during which George presented a very long list of species present in Mazatlán waters, I committed with excitement that I would find a way to make the trip work. It helped that George offered to allow me to stay at his time-share free of charge. My only major expenses would be airfare and a few hundred dollars for five days of chartered fishing – such an excellent opportunity that I could not pass it up.

George also extended the invite to some other lifelist anglers and our friend Ken Tse jumped in on the opportunity. Ken had unfinished business from his previous trip to Mazatlán in April 2015. I’d met both Ken and George in Peru in 2016 and also fished with George in Florida earlier in 2017.

The view from our room at Mayan Palace.

My October 14th flight out of Detroit was an early one, so after a layover in the Mexico City airport I arrived in Mazatlán by 5pm local time. Ken would arrive late that evening, so George and I shared a dinner of coconut shrimp and tortilla soup at Mr. Lionso Restaurant, an open-air venue along the beach. I appreciated the food, the discussion, the salty breeze and my first ocean sunset since January.

The plan, which we stuck to thanks to cooperative (albeit hot and humid) weather, was to boat fish with Captain C on the 15th, 16th, 17th, 19th and 20th. The 18th would be a shore-fishing day, and we would all fly home early on the 21st. We stayed at Mayan Palace the entire trip, with a get-up-early, fish 6am to about 1pm, cool down in the pool, identify our catches, and go eat dinner routine. It was a pleasant trip, the fish cooperated, and we had no significant mishaps…exactly what I hope for in a trip. On the flip side, writing about unexpected travel surprises and mishaps often makes for the most interesting blog material. I won’t complain, though!

For Ken’s account of this trip, check out his blog at MuskieBait Adventures.

October 15, 2017

As we would each day, we awoke early to eat a quick breakfast, pack a lunch for the boat (side note: remembering to bring said lunch with you is a crucial step), and catch the 6am bus to the marina. We loaded our gear into the boat in the dark and puttered out of the marina and west onto the open ocean as the sky lightened, red sun rising over the Mazatlán coastline. We started fishing wrecks in the 40-60 depth range with heavy rigs baited with large, live shrimp. It didn’t take long to catch fish. My first fish was a new species, a hard-fighting Pacific Crevalle Jack. I also got my first Finescale Triggerfish, a species I would encounter frequently throughout the week. They fight very hard though, so it was a relatively fun “pest” species as long as they didn’t bite through the line. On smaller rigs I also picked up the Panama Graysby and the Amarillo Snapper. Ken got one of his top targets – an Orangemouth Weakfish.

Later that morning we motored a few miles north along the coast. We stopped at a shrimp trawler to pick up some extra bait. Behind the boat was a trail of dead fish of many species, bycatch from the shrimp operation. It was interesting seeing so many new species in the water, along with the dolphins, birds, and jacks eating them, but I also felt a sense of sorrow (and a twinge of guilt, as a consumer that helped create demand by eating shrimp and using it for bait) at the amount of wasted life…

We were pleased with the Day 1 results!

We then tried fishing some reefs. George, Ken and Captain C pulled in some species I envied, including Chihuil Sea Catfish and Barred Pargo. I managed my first Chameleon Wrasse before Captain C called for a move and we headed to one last wreck for the day. I got two more Pacific Crevalle Jack on the heavy tackle and Ken got his first Blackblotch Pompano – a powerful fish that took him a while to boat. Then we headed in for the day, stopping at the marina shop for some ice-cold Modelo beer that tasted great under the hot midday sun.

A school of catfish swarmed in the harbor near the fillet table and I was able to catch my first Tete Sea Catfish within seconds. It was my 6th lifer on the day and my 400th species total. Milestone achieved.

Going into the trip I’d been a vegetarian for the past 90+ days. During the trip to Mazatlán I also vacationed from my diet. We went to Roy’s Restaurant and Ken and I each enjoyed a full rack of pork ribs, with sides and beer, for under ten bucks each. After, Ken and I went for a swim in the pool and schemed over our 2018 Africa trip (and over future wish-list trips…ahem, Antarctica).

October 16, 2017

We headed south of the marina on the second morning. We stopped briefly along a rocky point of an island to fish the surge and give Ken a shot at a Giant Hawkfish. I broke off and had to retie a few times but I did get a new species there, the Orangeside Triggerfish. This is a species I foul-hooked and landed in Puerto Escondido, Mexico, back in 2009 so I was really happy to finally add the species to my lifelist. We didn’t linger there very long, and next anchored at a deeper wreck.

Ken quickly got yet another big Blackblotch Pompano, and George got a White Snook…two species that I really wanted to catch on the trip. I soon felt a chomp sensation and after an instant of patience set the hook into a decent fish. I cranked it up to the surface and was super excited to see it was a White Snook.

The same spot was productive with small pieces of shrimp fished on hi-lo rigs using medium action rods. I got several new species in short succession: Humpback Grunt, Spotted Rose Snapper, Surf Croaker, and Thorny Stingray.

The next spot, aptly referred to as “Sea Lion Rock”, was also highly productive. This was just a tower of rock, exposed enough to allow space for about four sea lions to bask in the sun. Around it, in the azure water, swarmed numerous fishes. Each drop seemed to result in a yet a different species. There, I added Pacific Creolefish, Balloonfish, Pacific Mutton Hamlet, Cortez Grunt, and Mexican Goatfish! To Ken’s chagrin, I also got a Giant Hawkfish (a species I’d gotten in 2009 in Puerto Escondido), but he and George pulled in a few species I failed to catch, including Gafftopsail Pompano.

I was so busy catching fish, photographing fish, and adding bait to my hooks that I’m not even sure what all they got at Sea Lion Rock. Time flies when you’re having fun, and it was time to head in. We ate sandwiches and cookies on the way back to harbor, where we again snagged some ice-cold Modelo. We paid one of the mates to fillet some fish to have for dinner at Los Zarapes Restaurant in downtown Mazatlán that evening, where we had coconut-breaded snook, grilled Blackblotch Pompano, and breaded Orangemouth Weakfish. It was all delicious, but the coconut-snook dipped in mango sauce was exceptionally delightful – the stuff of dreams, really. We had enough fish left after we’d eaten our fill to have again for lunch the following day, and still enough that we gave a full plate to our waiter.

Top: Breaded Orangemouth Weakfish; Middle: Grilled Blackblotch Pompano; Bottom: Coconut-breaded White Snook

October 17, 2017

Waiting in the dark before the boat was ready, I dipped a small piece of shrimp down under the docks and got a juvenile Colorado Snapper. As the sky lightened we headed out further than we’d been yet, and Captain C put us on a huge school of fish. We started fishing the bottom, and picked up a snapper or two, but when we reeled in 10-15 feet off the bottom we got instant hits and caught Threadfin Jack – a new species for all of us. With the technique figured out, we caught fish on every drop until we moved to try and find new species. At the next spot we encountered more Threadfin Jack but these were even larger. Catching them was so much fun that we hung around for a while and boated many of these hard-fighting and good-sized fish. Ken caught a handful of them ripping a metal jig through the water column (check out this video).

After maybe an hour and dozens of Threadfin Jack, we decided to move to shallower waters and fish a sunken galleon wreck for a variety of species. It was yet another productive species-hunting day. At the galleon I got Flag Cabrilla, Mojarra Grunt, Rivulated Mutton Hamlet, Silvergray Grunt, Pacific Spadefish, and a Jewel Moray! I sort of felt bad for Ken, who has now been shunned by the Jewel Moray on two trips to Mazatlán…but it was my first one, and he did get a soapfish, which George and I did not catch.

The galleon was also full of triggerfish and damselfish species that we’d all caught earlier, but the nearly non-stop action they provided was a lot of fun.

12:30pm came quickly and we headed back to the marina, where I tied on a micro hook and swiftly caught a small Pacific Flagfin Mojarra – my 420th species. We met Jason Potts, who runs the website ifishmazatlan.com and happens to be buddies with John Snow of mexican-fish.com (to which many of the featured photos were submitted by George, Ken or myself). Jason briefly interviewed me, Ken and George on the topic of our lifelist fishing hobby/obsession.

It was a hot day and we took a nice long dunk in the pool before returning to the air-conditioned room to confirm our catch identities. The three of us went to back to Mr. Lionso Restaurant for dinner, where I vowed to myself that I will do my best to recreate that tortilla soup and bring it in a thermos ice fishing this winter…

Dinner at Mr. Lionso Restaurant Playa Bruja
Dinner at Mr. Lionso Restaurant Playa Bruja

October 18, 2017

Malecón
The Malecón: an oceanside walkway in downtown Mazatlán

We took a break from boat fishing on day four and hopped a bus downtown to the south end of the Malecón, where we fished from shore. The tide was high and big waves were crashing hard over the rocks, so we fished a sheltered area from a beach first. The Largemouth Blenny (another familiar fish from my 2009 trip in the Mexican state of Oaxaca) was an abundant catch there, along with some Pacific Flagfin Mojarra and small jacks. I got one jack that I dismissed (after photographing) as a young Pacific Crevalle Jack but later, when Ken and I were going over photos during a layover at the airport in Mexico City on our way home, I investigated it more carefully and determined it was a young Bigeye Trevally, an additional species! To my surprise I also pulled in a small Barred Pargo, which elicited from me shouts of celebration and fist-pumping. I had watched Ken and George catch this beautiful species and had not wanted to miss out on it. That would be the only one I got on the trip, but in lifelist angling one is enough. I thought it such a worthy fish that I photographed it alongside the can of Snowbelt Brewing Company beer that I’d brought along from Gaylord, MI.

Floralei, by Snowbelt Brewing Company in Gaylord, Michigan. La cerveza oficial de la Barred Pargo.
Floralei, by Snowbelt Brewing Company in Gaylord, Michigan. La cerveza oficial de la Barred Pargo.

We tried the rocks for a while, and pulled in some Mexican Night Sergeant, Acapulco Damselfish, and Banded Wrasse (all species I’d caught in 2009), and we got hung up and broke off several times. But I did get a Burrito Grunt and Ken got his first Banded Wrasse. There were also a lot of Pacific Frillfin, a diminutive goby species, inhabiting the shallow tide pools and I picked one up quickly on a micro rig. We were appreciative of the cloud cover, which kept us comfortable in a place that would have been very hot under direct sun. But eventually the clouds dissipated and we decided to move to a private dock on the old city marina where George had previously procured permission for us to fish.

“The Rocks” – Note the crazy surfers and body-boarders. Those rocks are jagged!

After a circuitous route around Mazatlán, due to road construction, we reached the dock and felt the brutality of the midday sun. We rigged up in the shade, but to fish we had to stand in the sun. The bite was slow, and after a few damselfish and Chameleon Wrasse George decided to head back. Ken and I stayed for another hour or so, and Ken got a pair of Round Stingray and a Longnose Puffer. I chose that time to crack open the Snowbelt beer, after taking a minute to film my first Spanish-language commercial. You can’t tell from the video, but it was probably high 90’s Fahrenheit, humid and stagnant. We didn’t last too long, either, but I did catch a Yellowfin Mojarra (the same species is also found in Atlantic waters, and I’d caught them in 2012 during a trip in Belize), another Pacific Crevalle Jack, and my second Rivulated Mutton Hamlet before we found a bus back to the hotel. We returned to Los Zarapes for another delicious dinner of coconut snook, grilled pompano and Veracruz-style snapper (smothered in juicy peppers, onions, tomatoes and spices).

October 19, 2017

As we motored through the marina, Captain C gave us a pile of plastic toys including a dolphin, shark and topless mermaid. The mermaid (if you were wondering) was cursed. The tides were very strong, making it very difficult to keep our baits on the bottom, and that negatively affected the fishing. Ken began taking bait shrimp from his hook, peeling the shell off, and eating them raw. The heat, paucity of sleep, and nearly non-stop concentration on fishing were perhaps wearing on our sanity. We changed spots frequently on Day 5 but I failed to add a new species from the boat. I did catch a couple decent-sized Spotted Rose Snapper and replaced my photo of the juvenile specimen I’d caught earlier.

This cursed mermaid summoned unbelievable tides, ruining our fishing.

When we called it a day and returned to harbor I think we all felt a little disappointed with the morning. We decided to head to the rocks we’d fished the previous morning and give the spot a shot at low tide. We turned a dismal morning of fishing into a relatively successful day. I got three new species in the tide pools: Bumphead Damselfish, Longfin Silverside, and Giant Damselfish. We also caught lots of Tinsel Squirrelfish (a new species for Ken) and Mexican Night Sergeant, and Ken also added his first Giant Damselfish and Bumphead Damselfish. George was happy to add a species, too: Acapulco Damselfish.

October 20, 2017

We had one last morning with Captain C. We dipped lines while passing one of the islands and I picked up a Longnose Puffer. Then we tried fishing heavy rods on a deeper wreck, but the current was still very strong and we had “no customers.” In an effort to maximize our shot at picking up new species, we split the rest of the morning between Sea Lion Rock and the galleon.

Sea Lion Rock was again productive. Ken got a colorful Mexican Hogfish and we all caught the handsome Blackbarred Grunt.

Blackbarred Grunt
The studly Blackbarred Grunt. George and Ken caught several while I looked on with rapt attention. It took a while, but I finally got one!

We also caught a good mix of other grunts, damselfish, Green Jack and more before winding down our boat time at the galleon. There we found calmer water and lots of huge, bulldoggish triggerfish. Ken and George each caught a few Pacific Moonfish, and I captured my first Yelloweye Croaker, species #36 on the trip – putting me up to a very satisfying 430 species overall.

Yelloweye Croaker
Yelloweye Croaker – My 36th and final species of the trip and species #430 overall.

When we returned to the marina we packed down our gear, said adios to Captain C and the crew, and returned to the hotel. George and Ken decided to head back to the rocks for some unfinished business. Ken and George each got a Longfin Silverside and George also picked up his first Bumphead Damselfish.

Believe it or not, I was actually feeling a bit burned out with fishing and highly satisfied with my effort and results that week. I wanted to check out the city a bit, so I hopped a bus downtown to wander around. I explored the city forest, toured the Mazatlán Aquarium, wandered into a mall, and walked around a university campus, where I found a baseball at the baseball field and threw about 50 pitches into the concrete backstop.

I bought lemonade from a street vendor and hopped a bus back in time to savor the chips and salsa and coconut shrimp and tequila shrimp and tortilla soup one last time. Then we had to pack up our stuff and rest. The following morning we awoke at 3:30am to catch taxis to the airport. We were all on the same flight itinerary through Detroit, and when we landed there we parted and I drove home to Gaylord, with the SiriusXM Alt Nation Top 18 Countdown playing and the windows down (and oh did that 65 degree air feel refreshing after a week in the heat!).

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Almost three weeks after returning from the trip, I am still thinking about the awesome fish we caught and all that wonderful food we ate in Mazatlán. I may not be able to catch Mexican fish species in my own home, but I can do something about the cuisine. My first crack at tortilla soup hit the mark…

Homemade tortilla soup!

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