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They’re Fishing Up a Storm in Tranquil Zihuatanejo

Stan Lushinsky was on the boat when the biggest billfish ever caught in these waters--a 1,100-pound black marlin--took the hook only four miles from the harbor. It towed him and his buddies 25 miles out over the course of so many hours that “we were out of gas, out of beer and out of chicken.”

It was midnight before help arrived with gas and, presumably, plenty more beer and chicken.

Lushinsky has seen acres of giant tuna leaping around his boat and has fought these game fish until it felt as though his arms were being pulled from their sockets.

He and his business partner, Susan Richards, once caught two dozen sailfish in a day. More recently, a mere stone’s throw from the jungle-lined coast, they found themselves in the middle of so many voracious roosterfish that “you couldn’t cast a lure and not catch a roosterfish.”

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Lushinsky raves about the roosterfish, but he has lots more to crow about.

Once, in the hours immediately after a moderate earthquake, he pulled up a mysterious creature later identified as a pescaraton, or ratfish, which he describes as having “the flippers of a seal and the skin of a seal, the head of a shark and the mouth of a shark, with fins on its tail, four small feet growing out of its rear and poisonous spines growing down his spine.”

Equally bizarre was the day he and two friends from the States, with Capt. Miguel Alvarez, had put in six hours of intense fishing with no luck whatsoever--until the sun was blotted out by the moon during a total eclipse and the ocean exploded with life.

Wearing special glasses to view this rare phenomenon, looking like a band of punk rockers, the fishermen, in the eerie dim of the day, boated 27 large tuna and, for an encore, caught and released six sailfish before the sun reappeared and the fish dived for cover.

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Lushinsky, 43, considers himself fortunate to have lived past 39. In the summer of 1994, a day after a hurricane had drenched this picturesque little fishing village 160 miles north of Acapulco, temporarily closing the harbor to all boat traffic, Lushinsky and Alvarez went out to try their luck on a tossing sea, but the hurricane reversed course and caught the fishermen by surprise.

“We were about 20 miles out and we literally had to run for our lives,” Lushinsky says.

Gale-force winds raked over the ocean. Large swells threatened to capsize the 31-foot cruiser as it limped into the protected waters of Zihuatanejo (zee-wah-tah-NE-ho) Bay--on only one engine and with only one steering cable.

Alvarez finally managed to pilot the vessel past the mouth of the harbor, but then they looked to the west and saw a smaller boat get swept up by a funnel cloud and spun around as if it were a toy, spilling its crew into the raging sea.

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“We had to go back out and rescue these guys,” Lushinsky says. “We managed to pick them up, one by one, and when we finally got them to the beach it was like the Pope landing in L.A. They bowed down and kissed the ground; they were that glad to be back on solid ground. We all were.”

Glad, perhaps. But rarely is Lushinsky on solid ground.

He loves to fish, so he’s on the water from dawn to dusk. And to get here, he has to fly across an entire continent.

You see, Zihuatanejo’s most ardent angler lives in Pennsylvania. Like the hurricanes, he only blows in from time to time, to wreak havoc on the creatures of the deep and to check on Zihuatanejo’s most sophisticated sportfishing fleet--a couple of cruisers and a half-dozen or so pangas.

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Lushinsky is the owner of Ixtapa Sportfishing, named after the more popular and recognizable resort destination a few miles north of here. He started the business after discovering this charming little paradise nine years ago.

“I used to fish the Caribbean and Bahamas and really had no interest at all in coming to Mexico,” he says. “I heard all the stories . . . you can’t drink the water or eat the food. The people are robbing you and there’s abject poverty everywhere.

“So I would [book trips] to places like the Cayman Islands, Old Caracas and fish the Bahamas, but it got to be a very expensive deal. . . .

“Finally, I was going to give up on the idea of finding affordable fishing and I bumped into a guy who had been in Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo and he said, ‘You got to go to this place. They’re catching 30 [sailfish] in a day.’

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“So I put a trip together in 1989. I hooked five marlin and caught about 30 sailfish in five days. I thought, well, anybody can get lucky, and I came back a little while later and did the same thing, and I came back again a little later and did the same thing again.

“After those three visits I saw that there was an excellent business opportunity here because I know how many people went to the Bahamas and everywhere else and paid a fortune for far less fishing than you have here.

“The thing that turned me off, though, was that the quality of tackle was horrible. The boats were shaky at best. There was no safety policy. There was nothing. The pangas were crude with hard, bench seats. As for good gear, if you didn’t bring it you didn’t have it.”

That’s still the case with some of the local operations. Zihuatanejo’s vast and beautiful bay provides safe harbor for many a traveling sailor, and the small luxury hotels along its southern arc offer guests from around the world lovely beaches and colorful sunsets.

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But Zihuatanejo does not have the fancy fishing boats of, say, a Cabo San Lucas. In all, there are about 40 pangas and 25 cruisers. Some are well-kept and dependable, many aren’t. Sportfishing here, to be sure, is still in its infancy.

But Lushinsky has done a lot to change this. He has built close relationships with the skippers he uses. He keeps his captains informed on the latest advancements in tackle and techniques. He keeps their pangas and cruisers outfitted with high-end gear that traveling anglers have become so accustomed to in other locales. For the sake of convenience, he has hired Larry Edwards of Cortez Yacht Charters in Lemon Grove near San Diego as his West Coast representative to deal with prospective clients in the Southland. Such changes, he says, are important as they benefit the local economy and fishermen who want to try a new destination. But they are different enough for most people. They don’t want Zihuatanejo to become another Cabo San Lucas. This is their secret spot, the Cabo San Lucas of yesteryear.

The pace is still slow and the people are still friendly here. Tourists can stroll the beachfront boardwalk and not have to worry about a time-share salesman pestering them to give up one of their mornings to check out the latest development project. They can shop in any of dozens of small shops and dine in any number of small sidewalk cafes that proudly offer authentic Mexican cuisine.

There are no KFCs or Baskin-Robbins shops in Zihuatanejo. There isn’t a raging night life, although that’s certainly available up the road in Ixtapa. Petty theft and price-gouging are not yet serious problems.

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The cost of fishing is certainly cheaper. A 31-foot cruiser in Cabo costs $400-$500 for a day. Here they run about $300. Super pangas, which are unlike pangas found anywhere else, with wooden roofs, padded seats running the length of boat beneath the roof and room to fish only at the stern and bow, cost between $120 and $190 per day.

Zihuatanejo skippers are not as customer savvy as the experienced Cabo San Lucas skippers, but they do know the local waters, which are usually as productive as those off Land’s End.

There’s a steep drop-off just outside the bay, so it’s not uncommon to find wahoo, tuna and marlin four or five miles out. The large black rock four miles from the harbor entrance is where the 1,100-pound black marlin was hooked, before high-tailing it toward the horizon.

There are a series of towering white rocks (made so by the many sea birds that nest there) beyond black rock where, Lushinsky says, “We’ve caught everything from African pompano, blue-tailed trevally, wahoo, barracuda, sharks, sailfish, tuna and jack crevalle.”

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Outside of that is an open ocean teeming with sailfish for most of the year and with behemoth-sized tuna in the winter and early spring.

Lately, Lushinsky has been exploring areas much closer to shore, notably a stretch of remote, jungle-lined coast south of town that is patrolled by huge schools of roosterfish and jack crevalle that are under hardly any pressure by sport fishermen because most of them come for the sailfish.

On a recent such outing, while doing battle with 30- and 40-pound roosters just beyond the breakers, without another boat in sight, he acknowledged that Zihuatanejo does have one major drawback in the summer months--hurricanes.

“I remember one hurricane that blew the windows out of some of the hotels,” he says. “The pressure built up inside and blew the windows out, not in, which seemed weird to me. Coconuts were flying around like cannon balls.”

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And Lushinsky was right there dodging them.

* FISH REPORT, C13


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