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FAIR GAME PETE THOMAS

Season of honkin' monsters

October 28, 2003|PETE THOMAS

La Paz, Mexico — It's one of the most remote locations in the Sea of Cortez, an area south of La Paz between Cerralvo Island and the small fishing villages that dot the cactus-laden coastline. The sun appears here brilliantly and unobstructed each day, as if from the sea itself, turning the sky and water a soft blue and bringing vivid detail to the desert landscape. Yet I found myself in a surprising sea of familiarity.

The local fishermen, as they have for generations, head out every sunrise and return with the afternoon wind -- with enough seafood to feed their families, they hope. The more fortunate have become sportfishing captains, whose catch is a van of clients driven in each day from La Paz.

I had come, aboard the 42-foot Garota, not to fish but to gather research for a long-term project. One of the first captains I talked to was Gildardo Lucero. I didn't remember him, at first, but he remembered me from a trip we took in 1991, when I was here reporting on the bounty beyond the shores of Bahia de la Ventana.

"You look the same, only older," Lucero wisecracked in Spanish. "Likewise," I responded with a smile.

Fellow passenger Albert Alfonso, a Rancho Cucamonga resident, clammed up when I identified myself as an L.A. Times reporter. He muttered something about The Times being a "socialist paper." But he warmed up after learning that my articles are what had led him to this place the first time.

I wished both of them luck and made my way from skiff to skiff, asking questions and watching the fishermen wage the heated battles that have become routine here in the early hours -- a struggle starring one of the more bizarre creatures of the deep, a veritable sea monster, with long, slithering tentacles and a torpedo-shaped body up to four feet in length. Its rubber-like flesh can turn from translucent white one moment to deep red the next.

The entire fleet, it seemed, was swimming in Humboldt squid. Theirs were familiar faces, too, though hideously so. I had come in 1990 to witness what was then an unusual invasion of a species more commonly found south of the equator.

A memorable moment had come that time when Times photographer Gary Friedman, who has a fear of things creepy and crawly, reeled a squid to the surface and promptly tossed his fishing pole to the deck.

Those dropping lines this bright morning were much more seasoned in squid interaction. The giant mollusks were hauled from the depths with impunity, to be used later in the day as cut bait for yellowtail, snapper or amberjack, or saved as table fare.

"It gives us something different to do in the morning," said Eric Liang, an angler from West Los Angeles.

"It beats the heck out of going to the gym," added John Galli of Northridge.

Though the people on our boat were divers, they couldn't resist the temptation, for novelty's sake. We took turns hoisting in a few of these monsters before continuing on our journey.

And later in the day, as the sun began to set over the slopes of the peninsula and a sea that now seemed deserted, the day's calamari tasted as fresh as the salty breeze.

To e-mail Pete Thomas or read his previous Fair Game columns, go to www.latimes. com/petethomas.

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