“Yellowtail Blues”— a short story —
“Yellowtail Blues,” will be in Flyfishing Journal in the new year (https://www.amatobooks.com).

He’d read somewhere that Hemingway had invented some of his war correspondence, that those dispatches were too similar to some of his fiction to be genuine. If true, and the reporting contrived, then the malefactor was incriminated by his own hand. Yet were they lies or just hyperbole? And did anyone care? Had it read less well because it hadn’t been thoroughbred fact? Isn’t journalism just man’s first opinion of history?

Besides, what right did anyone have to expect the plain truth? Papa was a fisherman.

#

Today, for our sins, we have computers that duplicate, then surpass, man’s grandest calculations.   For all their power, though, machines can neither paint the thinker’s creative dream nor match a fisherman’s vivid fantasy of how it should have been.

So it had been in that elongated instant this morning when, his fly-reel wailing its strident song, Michael Lessing’s line had sliced across the broken waves, the panorama in his mind snapping into HD 3-D.   In that timeless second, across the silver screen of his imagination, he strode to the dais in pomp and glory.   The darling of a sportswriters’ banquet, and cheered on by his admirers, he accepted the grand prize for his piece about fly-fishing on the Sea of Cortez.   With his byline gracing the great outdoor journals, literary agents stuffed his hand with calling cards, and Heidi Klum trying to get him on the phone.

The flickering scene had stalled, and then ended, when the butt of his rod fell dead in his hand, the fish tearing off like a runaway train.

#

After that, hours passed.   The towering Baja sun bounced its heat off everything in creation. Even the fish were lethargic, and Lessing studied the pain on the side of his face, the raw rash of a thousand pinpricks. The day before, he’d gone out without enough hat, and got burned. Now though, worse than the broiled skin, was his sense of failure, his mordant frustration over the morning’s defeat.

            Lessing thought about these things as the boatman’s panga motored east toward Isla Carmen. From a mother-of-pearl sky above the island’s peaks, the sun spilled its metallic tracks across the water. Squinting to his right, through the glare, Lessing studied Carmen’s ragged shore and, jutting above, its furrowed cliffs, crosshatched and craggy, their flanks frosted white with primeval plumes of pelican shit.

            To his left, away from the harsh glint, stood Joaquín, bearded and weathered, a face impassive but riven by dreams. Joaquín’s eyes, like bloodshot oysters, scanned the ocean for a sign, as if vision alone could lead him to the fish. You’d imagine he was looking for fish, but he spoke so little, and the sea’s surface revealed so little, that it seemed all a mystery.

            “I’m such a goddamned fool, Joaquín.”

            “Jurel very strong. Very smart.”   He was talking about the yellowtail.

            “Yeah. Yeah, I know. But I had him. He took the frigging fly. Hell, he ran with it. I had plenty of strain on him. I thought he was hooked.”

            “Not so many fish today.”

            “Yeah, gracias, Joaquín.” He regretted his sarcasm. “Sorry—yeah, it’s thin fishing, all right. Any ideas?”

            “Punta Lobos.”

            “Near the split rock?”

            “Si, Miguel, y cerca canal estrecho. Vamanos.   Muchas sardinas allá.” The big ones would be chasing baitfish there.

“Vale, Joaquín.   Vamos.”

The panguero let his mouth twitch once and eased the throttle down, working the wheel to port. Carmen’s bays and cliffs slid away to starboard as the panga rode the chop with a gentle throb.

Lessing thought about his chances. It was still February, prime yellowtail season, but the ocean had stayed cold, spoiling the spawning run and the fish counts, making his sense of despair all the greater. When there are a lot of fish to be had, losing one is not such a trial, but when the fish are scarce, the spirit not on the water, the fish you lose may be the only one you’ll touch all day, all trip. When it’s a fish like this morning’s, then, the images can haunt you.

Visions of failure were the things Michael Lessing had come to Loreto to escape, the confrontation between his dreams and the obstacles to those ambitions.   Fishing never rid him of the risks of falling down; it just gave him some freedom from thinking about it. Dropping this fish had freshened the worry.

#

His flight from Los Angeles had touched down in Loreto in the afternoon two days before. Riding into town in Geronimo’s old dunger of a taxi, they’d rattled and rumbled along, mariachi tunes cascading from the radio, and roadside saguaros saluting the passing cars. Near town, Lessing had seen a huge billboard, parallel to the road, visible to all the traffic. From it, a redheaded woman, outdated in her style—clothes, hairdo, domesticity—looked out at him over her shoulder. A hair-coloring’s slogan angled across her twisting torso in heavy, white script: ¡Cambié sus expectativas! Change your expectations! The sign’s plywood backing was beetle-drilled, the paint of the ad peeling, giving the impression that the product for sale was extinct.

Lessing had been tiger-fishing in Zambia the year before. As then, he’d come down to Mexico prepared for the challenge. He’d studied his quarry in the guidebooks, and knew from the get-go that yellowtail on the fly was going to be an iffy proposition. Big ones run to forty pounds. They run deep, they run fast, and they run hard for the rocks if you horse them. Taking an outsized yellowtail off the bottom with a fly rod was a fairy tale told by a few, but Lessing steered clear of that fantasy. He’d come after firecrackers, five- to ten-pound surface-feeding dynamos that schooled at the northern and southern tips of Islas Carmen and Coronado, and sometimes in the channel between.