“The Red Devil”
By Tom Dietz
I’ve been fishing for as far back as I can remember. In the past, mostly creeks, rivers and lakes, with some surf fishing thrown in on occasion. Moving from the East to the West Coast over 20 years ago, created ready access to saltwater and along the way, I met a great group of guys that liked to fish down in Baja, Mexico. We started an annual trek to the East Cape of Baja that, after a few years, has moved up the coast and settled in the area East of La Paz, near Bahia de La Ventana.
Now, fisherman have always had fishing stories, and they are almost always of the same variety. This doesn’t qualify as a whole lot different, except it didn’t involve a fish.
Sport fishing in the La Ventana area is spectacular even when the catching gets tough. The stark beauty of the desert meeting the amazing azure waters of the Gulf of California is breathtaking. I’ve never tired of seeing this unspoiled place. Also in this area is Isla Cerralvo or what is now called Isla Jacques Cousteau. The great American novelist, John Steinbeck traveled these very waters in 1940. He along with his wife and Marine Biologist Ed Ricketts chartered an expedition aboard The Western Flyer, all of which is brilliantly chronicled in Steinbeck’s “The Log of the Sea of Cortez”. In another adventure described by the GAC we headed down to the Steinbeck Museum.
In Baja, my fishing targets include Rooster fish, Dorado, Snapper, Cabrilla, Wahoo, Jack Crevalle and Yellowtail, all staples of the Gulf. I’ve fished for Sail Fish, as well as Blue, Black and Striped Marlin, but the longer boat rides off-shore and high risk of coming back empty handed, have turned my focus more toward in-shore areas the last few years, although you can occasionally get lucky and hit a Sail or Marlin in-shore. In the end, my favorite fish in Baja for the hunt, their fight, and pure beauty is the Rooster Fish. It’s a great overall experience, and I’m a catch and release fan, so these beautiful animals can continue to flourish.
The particular trip was in October with the weather clear and warm. Once in our panga and launched from Bahia de Los Muertos, we headed out for bait. The bait boats are usually near Isla Cerralvo. As we approached an unusually large number of bait boats, you could tell that there was much more going on than the traditional exchange of cash for bait. The bait guys were extremely busy pulling up lines and slinging knives, and fish parts were going overboard quickly. They were on a school or shoal of Humboldt Squid (Dosidicus gigas), otherwise known as Diablos Rojos, or “The Red Devil”. Shoals of Humboldt Squid can be as large as over 1,000 individuals but there was no way of really knowing how big this one was.
My panga captain immediately grabbed a squid jig. These jigs have the appearance of medieval weapons. They take several forms, ours consisted of a long shaft with multiple prongs running the length of the shaft. The squid attack the jig as if prey and their tentacles are ensnared along the metal prongs.
With the excitement coming from dozens of crowded pangas, I couldn’t wait to get the jig in the water and join the hunt. I let out about 50 feet of line, expecting to have to drop 3-4 times that amount, when bam the line went from taught to singing off of the reel. After some quick adjustments to the drag, I felt like I had a handle on the situation. The pull was a lot stronger than I had anticipated, but a steady effort brought the animal to the boat. Larger squid can use their jet propulsion to reach speeds of 15+mph. These animals live only 1-2 years but can grow quickly up to 6+ feet and around 100 pounds.
The first one I pulled up was about 25 pounds. Along side the boat, the Captain quickly gaffed the squid and brought it on board for tentacle removal and beheading. We would later use the tentacles as bait and the cleaned bodies went home with the Captain for dinner. None of the squid we caught ejected their ink (used as a defense mechanism) on board but we saw other boats dealing with the black mess. I only got a picture of the last one pulled up, as I hadn’t even thought to reach for the camera during the short-lived event. When the squid is gaffed and pulled up it quickly and angrily changed color from white to red, back and forth over the length of its body until finally settling on a deep red. Over time the red ebbed. The color change is accomplished by millions of specialized skin cells called chromatophores.
Humboldt squid derive their name from the Humboldt Current that runs off the west coast of South America. With warming ocean waters these cephalopods have dramatically increased their range northward, being seen as far north as Alaska. They are fierce hunters using their sharp teeth-like tentacle suckers to grab prey and bring it toward their parrot-like chitinous beak. Diablos rojo is known to even attack divers and there have been reports of even deaths.
While motoring out to hunt for Dorado, I couldn’t help but focus on the bucket with the devil heads. The beak was fully articulating, sharp and in a muscular encasement. Using a fillet knife, I cut out the entire mouth section including the beaks from two heads, put them in a baggy and stuffed them in my pack.
When I arrived back at the house I examined the beaks, incredibly impressed with the complexity of their operation and deadliness. I set to boiling the mouths with hope of removing the beaks for display. Needless to say it didn’t take long for the house to smell like fish stew and my fishing buddies got a good laugh at my intended goal. With a little bit of effort though, I was successful at isolating the beaks. Though they came out in two pieces they fit nicely back together.
As with many of our adventures, this was one I knew I would look back on fondly. So once back home I decided to mount these trophies on a raised display, intending to add them to some of my other mementos of past adventures. With one beak still whole and the other separated in its two parts this would be a fitting tribute to “The Red Devil”. And for this adventure, no big fish, or story about the one that got away, but something memorable from a great adventure.