Crimson Tide

The contrast is perfectly beautiful—the crimson of the red snapper tugging at my line in the sapphire-blue water of the clear Pacific Ocean. This is the twenty-third snapper I have reeled up from a reef 140 feet below the surface, but the brilliant coloring of this one amazes me no less than the first. The pink fish with ruby eyes is stunning.

I have heard that the snapper’s vibrant red color comes from pigments in the shrimp it eats. Our bait is shrimp. And each time I look at the fresh bait, I think how much I would love a fresh shrimp dinner after our fishing trip. When my fishing pal Chappy Chapman notes I am starting to get a bit red from the hot Mexican sun, however, I decide a shrimp dinner isn’t such a good idea after all. I look enough like a snapper already.

Chappy and our amigo Steve Babbidge have joined me for a day of fishing off the coast at Mazatlán, Mexico, the Pearl of the Pacific. In the distance, I can just make out the hazy silhouettes of hotels and condos in the city’s Golden Zone. Between us and the sugar-sand beaches there, the sky is teeming with graceful frigatebirds and huge pelicans. Now and then, bottle-nosed dolphins and table-sized sea turtles appear in the water around us.

“Look!” our guide Chalio shouts, pointing to the starboard side of the panga. “A humpback whale!” The massive creature surfaces ever so briefly, then disappears into the depths.

Each time I fish the beautiful waters off Mazatlán, I am surprised at the wealth of wildlife here. At every turn, there’s something incredible to see.

The fishing is incredible, too. Every turn of the reel handle brings another catch.

“Fish on!” shouts Chappy. The bass rod he’s using is bent double. I wonder, for a moment, if it might snap. “Two dollars says it weighs more than 5 pounds,” he says.

“I’ll take that bet,” Steve says, confidently.

Steve wins. Chappy has snagged the fish by its dorsal fin, and it fights all out of proportion to its 2-pound size.

Seconds later, Steve gives his rig a hard upward snatch. “I’ll bet two more dollars it’s a double,” he tells Chappy as he steadily turns the reel handle. Chappy accepts and again loses. Steve reels up two snappers on the tandem rig he’s fishing—a pair of 3s.

My buddies’ friendly wagering continues all morning as we reel in one snapper after another. As soon as we drop a shrimp or piece of squid to the bottom, there is a tug, then a jerk and another fish is on. Each line has two hooks and two baits, and at least half the time, we reel in two fish at once. Doubles like that keep things exciting, and they keep Chalio and his son Alex busy baiting hooks and removing fish.

We did not start our morning fishing this spot. Chalio, who has been guiding here for more than four decades, has more than a dozen good fishing holes marked with buoys. For two hours, we hop from one to another trying to determine where the fishing is best. At one spot, I hook and land a beautiful blue-and-gold dorado, but no more of its kind are tempted by our ballyhoos. We move on, first to this spot, then to that—one buoy after another, with 10 minutes fishing time at each.

Finally, luck is with us. The ballyhoos are replaced with shrimp and squid enticements. And instead of skimming the surface, the baits go down and down and down—100, 120, 140 feet. Then, wham! Three rods go down simultaneously, and we know this is the spot we’ve been seeking. We’ve found the crimson tide.

For two solid hours, we catch red snappers as quick as we can get our baits into the strike zone. The strike zone, however, is constantly changing. At first, the snappers are right on the bottom. We catch 5, 10, 20, and then the bite slows. Not to fret, though. Chalio tests other depths, and soon he finds the snappers again.

“They’ve moved up!” he says as he reels in another. “Ten cranks up from the bottom.”

The baits rise. The snappers bite. The anglers smile.

My friend Chalio has guided me three times in the blue waters off Mazatlán, and each trip has been incredible. Roosterfish on trip one. Dorados on trip two. Now snappers—lots of snappers. Steve, Chappy and I enjoy the morning immeasurably. And I am sad when it all must end.

As it turns out, I did not eat shrimp for dinner that night. Chappy took a bag of fresh snapper fillets to the chef at the Holiday Inn, and that night, the cook prepared them for us and our families and friends. We all feasted on the fish of the day, and as the sun set on the blue Pacific, we were grateful for the bounty we’d been given. It was a fitting end to a wonderful day.

Get Your Fish On.

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