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Waterfront at Zihuatanejo Offers Taste of Sea’s Bounty

No trip to this sleepy, coastal village is complete without an afternoon stroll down what often is called Paseo de los Pescadores, or Fishermen’s Walk.

From this pedestrian thoroughfare overlooking sprawling Zihuatanejo Bay, about 125 miles north of Acapulco, the local flavor is there for one to savor.

Children of the many fishermen here wade and play in bath-warm water, waiting for their fathers, uncles, brothers and cousins to return from another long day at sea.

When the skiffs begin to appear on the horizon, they follow them to the beach, bouncing from one to the other, watching with wide, brown eyes as the catch of the day is unloaded: heifer-sized tuna, slender wahoo, plump bonito and other species of fish that invariably make their way to the downtown market or to the dinner tables of the many restaurants that share the waterfront walkway.

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On the short wooden pier of Fishermen’s Walk, the relatively few captains fortunate enough to have high-paying sportfishing clients from faraway places are greeted by their loved ones, who are quick to strike a pose alongside any game fish of note.

Despite the growing catch-and-release movement, this often includes giant marlin and once-magnificent sailfish that are strung up by their tails briefly for all to admire before being carted off and stripped of their meat, which is not prized by the tourists but utilized to some degree by the locals.

For incoming anglers, of course, the Fishermen’s Walk offers an ideal chance to check out what’s biting beyond these sun-drenched shores, to see what the next day might bring.

I arrived late last week and while taking my pre-fishing stroll down Paseo de los Pescadores, I discovered that Zihuatanejo is surely the porpoise capital of the world.

I make this claim based on the fact that a tourist actually caught one of these mammals, which are alleged to be so intelligent, while trolling for tuna on the day I arrived.

Now, any serious angler knows that one of the best ways to find and catch tuna is to troll through pods of porpoises, because tuna and porpoises often travel together. But until coming here, I had never heard of anyone actually catching one.

Dave Martin, 62, from Canyon Lake in Riverside County, used a Rapala to catch a 150-pounder that apparently was smart enough to realize that putting up a fight would only heighten the pain.

“It swam right up to the boat,” Martin said, adding that he also caught a large bird.

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Martin did say he felt badly about putting such a slick and magnificent animal through such an ordeal. “I didn’t do it on porpoise,” he said, prompting laughter from his buddies.

Making his way down Paseo de los Pescadores was Stan Lushinsky, 42, who with his girlfriend, Susan Richards, runs Ixtapa Sportfishing, which seems odd since Ixtapa is 10 miles up the road and their trips originate in Zihuatanejo Bay, not Ixtapa.

But then Lushinsky and Richards run their business--which books fishing vacations trips from other Mexican fishing destinations as well--from their home in Pennsylvania, so maybe it’s not so odd by comparison.

“I put my first trip together here in 1989 and I hooked five marlin and caught 30 sailfish in five days,” he said. “I thought, well, anybody can get lucky, maybe this was a fluke, so I came back a little while later and did the same thing; and I came back a little while after that and did the same thing again.

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“I finally figured out that I could come here three times and catch 10 times as many fish as I could in the Bahamas [where he used to run trips], so here I am.”

Lushinsky said he knows of two other porpoises caught by anglers here and said it probably was because of the way the locals prepare the dead fish they troll, with the hooks protruding well above the backs.

In any case, no one seems to like catching them, and the porpoises seem to know that.

“They all swim to the boat and when you go take the hook out they cry like a baby,” Lushinsky said. “It’s really eerie. You’re picking this thing up and it’s not fighting you. But you take the hook out and off they go.”

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Lushinsky, whose booking agent in Southern California is Larry Edwards of Cortez Yacht Charters in Lemon Grove near San Diego, stopped off for a visit with one of the top sportfishing captains, Marco Vargas, 31, who promptly pointed out that porpoises are not the only unusual catches in local waters.

He pointed to a picture of himself, posing with a 15-foot oarfish on the pier. The prehistoric-looking denizen of the darkest depths, a species believed to have spawned sea monster myths in ancient times, was found dead and floating on the surface a few years ago after an earthquake.

“Some other guy found it,” Vargas said. “I just wanted to be in the picture.”

Lushinsky chimed in with a yarn about an even more bizarre creature he actually reeled from the depths alive in 1994 or ’95, and said that also came a day or two after a sizable earthquake.

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“I’m reeling this son of a gun in, I see it and I’m thinking, ‘What the hell is that?’ ” Lushinsky recalled. “It had the flippers of a seal. It had the skin of a seal. It had the head of a shark. It had the mouth of a shark. It had fins hanging out of its tail. It had four feet growing out of its rear and it had poisonous spines growing down its spine.”

The fish eventually was identified by a local biologist, Lushinsky said, as a pescaraton, or ratfish, a species that inhabits waters several thousand feet deep.

Asked if he considered getting out his filet knife and slicing off a piece of this beast to see what it might taste like, Lushinsky shook his head and said not for an instant, adding that he donated it to a museum in Mexico City but acknowledging that it probably would have tasted like chicken.

Surely, normal things are caught off Zihuatanejo and normal people fish for them, but some of these people don’t normally fish for such abnormally large things and aren’t quite sure what they’re getting into when they get their hooks into one.

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Kim and Tim Oliver are two such people. They came all the way from Boston and the biggest fish between them had been a 50-pound striped bass pulled from the East Coast surf.

Not surprisingly, they attracted quite a crowd when their cruiser pulled up to the pier toting a black marlin that could have swallowed the 50-pound striper in a single gulp.

It took five strong Mexicans to haul the billfish to the hoist at the base of the pier, and then to the scale, where the needle stopped at just over 375 pounds.

“We caught it 20 miles out and it towed us eight miles further,” Kim Oliver said. “We would have let it go, but at the end of the fight it dove straight down and died.”

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Her husband Tim, his arms hanging limp at his side, was beside himself.

“I must have brought it in seven or eight times, and then as soon as he saw the boat, he’d take the whole spool out again and we’d have to put the boat in reverse so we didn’t lose the line,” he said. “And I’d have to do it all over again.”

Welcome to big-game fishing, I thought, before walking with Lushinsky and Richards to one of the outdoor eateries on Paseo de los Pescadores, where I decided against a fish dinner and opted for a breaded chicken dish which, because the story was still fresh in my mind, tasted a lot like pescaraton.

PEOPLE, PLACES AND THINGS

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* Last year at this time, one of the best albacore seasons in years was well under way. This year? Well, the San Diego 1 1/2-day boats are picking up a few longfin tuna at 150 miles-plus. “That’s a long-range trip for a 1 1/2-day boat,” said Gary White, a spokesman for Fisherman’s Landing.

The Pacific Queen returned to the landing Monday morning with nine albacore weighing 15-25 pounds. A few trips are planned this weekend out of Fisherman’s, H&M; Landing and Point Loma Sportfishing. But business won’t boom as it did last season until one of them hits the jackpot much closer to home.

* The same team of explorers from the Woods Hole Institute in Massachusetts that located the Titanic is at Midway atoll in the North Pacific searching for the U.S. aircraft carrier Yorktown, the destroyer Hammon and four Japanese carriers and one Japanese destroyer sunk during the 1942 Battle of Midway, which turned the tide in favor of the United States.

None of these vessels is believed to be shallow enough to dive on, but Capt. Rick Gaffney of Midway Sport Fishing & Diving said a U.S. plane shot down during the battle has been located at 110 feet and has become very popular among divers.

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“The cockpit is open and you can sit in the cockpit and generally see a bunch of big fish like trevallys and sharks, and people really get a kick out of that,” Gaffney said. Midway Sport Fishing and Diving can be reached at (888) 244-8582.

* Catches of the week: a 520-pound blue marlin by two anglers from Ohio and New York while aboard Gaviota III out of Cabo San Lucas; a 385-pound blue marlin by Herbert Alperstein of San Jose while aboard the Adriana I, also out of Cabo San Lucas.


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