The Monster Fish From Rocky Deep : Ugly, Frightening Pargo Are Thugs That Anglers Love to Challenge

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's a wild and colorful world offshore, marlin and sailfish breaking the surface of the blue sea and performing dazzling acrobatics at the end of a line; iridescent blue and green dorado streaking past boats; silvery-blue wahoo jumping.

But there is another world closer in, one not as exotic, as brilliant or well-known. The near-shore waters are ruled in the fall and early summer months by the dog snapper, called pargo. The giant pargo isn't marvelously acrobatic. It doesn't have a fancy beak or aquamarine colors. Its scales are armor-like, with a dull-red finish. The pargo has a frightening mug, a gaping mouth full of canine-like teeth.

The pargo is the thug of the region. "The pargo is the monster fish of Baja California, the absolute monster," says Walt Keza, a San Bernardino resident who comes here several times each year to face what he calls one of fishing's ultimate challenges.

You enter the pargo's world after a short boat ride from the beach at either Bahia de los Muertos or Bahia de la Ventana, reached by car about 35 miles southeast of town. The water isn't sparkling blue, but rather dull green, with patches of black indicating a shallow, rocky and cavernous bottom--the home of the tenacious pargo.

Folks around here call the crevices "hell holes," from which springs the pargo to inhale its prey and, with a thrust of its broom-like tail, dash back to the dungeons.

You will have a devil of a time trying to catch the giant pargo in the "demon sea" near La Paz.

It matters little that you have secured a large hook to the heaviest line you can find and presented the pargo with a tasty fish dinner. Or that you have an experienced Mexican skipper with his hand on the throttle of a 90-horsepower Evinrude, hoping to drag the pargo from its grotto.

The pargo will take your offering, but it will use its powerful tail to drive it back to the safety of its domain. It will snap your heavy line with its teeth or rip it with a sizzling run across the rocks.

"I hate the fish," Keza says. "You have to hate that fish, because you can't beat him. It's the only fish I've ever fished for in the ocean that you can't beat."

But Keza and others come back for more and have put a fair share of pargo on the boat--after losing the lion's share. Though it reaches weights in excess of 100 pounds, few are taken in the 50-pound class and most come in at between 15 and 35 pounds.

"You can go out and catch loads of small ones, but I'm talking about 40 pounds plus," Keza says of the unbeatables.

Don Woll, 49, who comes here half a dozen times a year, explains: "If you don't have your drag tightened really tight . . . if the skipper isn't a good skipper and doesn't get him out to deep water, they'll dive down and you'll lose him every time."

Bob Butler, 61, moved here 25 years ago and operates one of two panga fleets catering to sportfishermen off the beach near Cerralvo Island's pargo-rich southern and eastern shores. Butler hand-picks his panga captains from the life-long commercial fishermen of San Juan de Los Planes, a small village south of town.

All are versed in the ways of the pargo, having fished them commercially for generations. "You have to use heavy line, and because the water is green you have to use green line," Butler says. "They have eyes like an eagle."

Butler should know, having experienced 18 years of frustration and, at times, success with the pargo.

Bring along a stout rod and 80-pound test line and don't bother with a wire leader; the pargo won't fall for that.

Stop en route to Cerralvo to try to catch something to entice the pargo. Any fish from small to moderate size will do, but you hope to hand-line a few cocineros , small jack-like fish with spunk enough to lure the larger pargo from their dens.

Soon you will arrive at Cerralvo Island, barren except for cactus and shrubs, patrolled on land by wild goats and at sea by the giant pargo, which moves into the shallows each spring to spawn.

Toss a bait into the water and focus your attention on the slow-trolled cocinero . The pargo strikes hard and fast, allowing no room for mistakes.

The hooked cocinero falters through the water. The pargo's eyes widen, and it dashes from the rocks, the tremendous force of its tail putting it on your baitfish in an instant. It crashes the surface and heads for home. Line screams from your reel despite its locked drag, and you rear back with all your might to try to turn its head, maintaining balance while the skipper opens the throttle and heads toward open water.

If you get any chance to gain line, do so immediately with short pumps and quick reels. If the pargo reaches the rocks you've lost the fight.

If you've managed to turn its head and pull it to deep water, you have gained an edge. A rod held high and a tight line will bring the monster to the boat. You will have accomplished one of fishing's toughest feats--and have for your table some of its finest meat.

Pargo are not indigenous to this area, inhabiting warm-water regions throughout the Pacific Ocean. But the fish is notorious in these parts among commercial and recreational fishermen alike.

The sportfisherman with his high-tech rods and reels can be seen fishing side-by-side with a Mexican pangero using a hand-line attached to a slab of wood to try to catch what he sells to markets and restaurants in town as red snapper.

The commercial fisherman generally will outfish the sportfisherman, 5-1.

But the productivity of the eastern Baja shores south of La Paz and of the waters surrounding Cerralvo Island, coupled with their proximity to the fleet, makes for an ideal arrangement for the recreational fisherman here on a three- to five-day trip. The pargo's habitat is reachable within minutes, and game fish often are available directly offshore.

A sea of green can turn devilishly red at any given time.

"The eeriest thing is when they get into a frenzy, when a school feeds," Keza says.

Areas as large as football fields are transformed into a bubbling vermilion mass as the fish rise to the surface in unison.

Toss a few sardines and the mass erupts into a frenzy as the pargo and smaller and darker red mullet snapper slash and gulp at the surface in an unrivaled display of gluttony.

Hook one of the sardines and chances are great that you will hook into a pargo, yet slim that you will bring it to your boat.

"I mean you can come up with a straightened-out hook," says Jim Hormoth, an Ontario resident and La Paz fisherman for the past seven years. "We had 100-pound test with as big a hook as you can get for the live bait. We'd fight them for five, 10, 15 minutes and bingo! You come up with a hook that's straightened out. I mean actually straightened out."

Butler calls the pargo the most frustrating fish in the ocean. "I've caught everything else and these darn things. . . . I went out one night (and) I must have had 30 hookups and landed only one fish, and I was so mad," he adds. "They get you so mad sometimes you'd like to throw the rod over the side of the boat."

Anyone who has fished regularly for pargo will agree, and a few offer their reasons for fishing for them at all:

--Keza: "I've hooked them and they get in the rocks, and we've cut the line and tied it off to the boat and waited for them to come out of the rocks for hours while fishing for other fish. And they never come out. You'll catch two and lose 20. You just can't beat that fish, and I think that's the attraction."

--Bill Herder, Corona: "It's the challenge. I figure you land one out of 10, that's my estimate. You say 'I'm going to get one of these suckers; they're not going to outdo me.' I've got news for you, though. They're in control. You fish three days for those pargo, you gotta respool your whole reel because you've used all your line."

--Robert Breckenridge, Hemet: "These are the fish that when you have one, he has more chance to beat you than you do to beat him. That's why you go down and try to get the pargo."

And if you don't, you can always head offshore.

For more information, call (714) 885-6208 or at La Paz, 011-526-8-22133.

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