¿Cómo Se Dice Cast & Blast?

Last winter, the author traveled to Mexico for a fishing and wingshooting marathon. Expectations were high going into the trip, but neither he nor his buddies ever could've imagined how red-hot the action would be

The strike came out of the blue. We had been trolling for less than an hour, but already the texture of the offshore water had become disorienting, hypnotizing, and a little sickening. Small whitecaps swelled; inboards churned foam; four big-game plugs streaked and bubbled the surface behind the Aries III. And yet, through all of this surface commotion, one small, random splash caught my eye.

I stood and turned to watch the rod connected to the starboard outrigger. The stout stick pulsed forward, and the reel began making torturous screams, as if struggling to awaken from a nightmare. Martin, our captain, grabbed the rod, drove the hook home, and put the reel in free spool. Then he rushed down to the transom and transitioned the rod to the fighting chair.

That’s when the fish—a blue marlin—jumped. We reacted with a mixture of shouts, profanity, and silent disbelief.

mexico bass fishing
Steve McGrath (left) and the author hold two of the 177 bass they caught on Lake Picachos.From left: Colin Kearns; Steve McGrath

This was day three of an ambitious four-day cast and blast in Mazatlán, Mexico, a resort town on the central-west coast, and after only two days, the trip had been more successful than we’d ever believed it could be. Already we’d each had personal-best days on a bass lake, killed trophy ducks, and caught some smaller saltwater fish. Already, as far as I was concerned, the trip was a roaring success. I half expected today’s deep-sea outing to be little more than a long boat ride. Which is what made this catch so unbelievable: Just when I thought things couldn’t get any better, a marlin had struck and surged out of the blue water.

The fish jumped a second time. More shouts. And again. More profanity.

Then it sounded. Like that, the fun was over and the battle had begun.

Día 1: Lobinas

When your fishing guide wears a clicker-counter (the kind baseball managers use to track pitch counts) around his neck, that's probably a good sign that you're going to catch a ton of bass. The first click happened just 20 minutes into our day on Lake Picachos, when my fishing partner and friend Steve ­McGrath set the hook into our first largemouth lobina. Really, though, it shouldn't have taken even that long. Our guide, Nico, spoke little English, and McGrath and I spoke less Spanish, so as we first rigged up, there was none of the usual back-and-forth about recommended lures. McGrath tied on a crankbait, and I chose a soft swimbait. After lots of nothing, Nico broke the silence with one word we recognized: "Senko." McGrath and I nodded, changed baits, and came tight to fish almost instantly. Nico remained silent, but his smile was easy to translate: Told you.

The action never stopped. We motored into cove after cove, pitching to any cover we saw. Picachos is a man-made mountain reservoir, created after the Presidio River was dammed in 2009, and drowned beneath its surface are small ghost towns and countless hardwoods. When the water’s low, you can see the roofs of chapels and homes. Today, however, the only structure visible were dead, leafless limbs poking up from the water like giant skeletal fingers. Picachos has ­double-​­digit bass, but it’s better known for quantity. The fish McGrath and I were catching were all hard fighters in the 1- to 3-pound range, and by 10:30 a.m., Nico’s clicker already read 74. “We can get to 100 by lunch,” McGrath said.

Naturally, as soon as we set that goal, the merciless midday sun intensified and the bite slowed. For the next hour and a half, strikes were harder to come by, but finally Nico released a nice fish of McGrath’s and said, “One hundred.” We returned to the dock for lunch, followed by a siesta in the shade.

cast and blast
Aventura!Tim McDonagh

I started the afternoon session with a fly rod. After just a few casts with a big, bright streamer, I stuck my biggest bass of the day—a 4-pounder that ground my fly to a halt. The one downside to catching so many largemouths in one morning is you get greedy. I learned pretty quickly that the streamer was no match for the Senko in terms of numbers, so I stowed the fly stick, picked up the baitcaster, and got back to work.

Click, click, click…

When I ran out of Senkos, I switched to a soft-plastic lizard. “Iguana lure,” Nico joked. The lizards were even hotter than the Senkos, and when I’d lost my last one, Nico’s counter read 176. McGrath had switched boats to fish with our buddy Mike Schoby. Had he and I still been fishing together, we probably would’ve pushed for 200 fish before dusk. Honestly, the thought of reaching that benchmark on my own crossed my mind, but there comes a point when focusing on numbers, size, or weight distracts you from how good you have it right now, right where you are. And here’s where I was: on one of the best largemouth lakes in the world, the sun dipping behind the Sierra Madre, with so many bass landed that I was now down to two lures in my tackle box: crankbait or plug.

I cast the topwater to the banks and chugged it back. A bass rose between casts, and I fired the lure at the ring. The crash of that one strike—numero 177—was the most satisfying of the day.

Día 2: Patos y Huachinangos

Of all the pursuits on our cast-and-blast docket, I was most fired up for the duck hunt. Aside from the fact that this would be the most atmospherically pleasant waterfowl hunt ever (clear blue sky, 90 degrees, shorts and Converse All Stars in lieu of neoprene waders) I knew we’d have chances at some rare birds. This late in the season, and this far down the flyway, the ducks would be in peak plumage, making the teal—both bluewings and the coveted cinnamon—even more prized.

Our guides Pepe, Jorge, and Bartolo walked us into our spots, and we didn’t have to wait long for the ducks to arrive. A group of teal passed over McGrath and me, and we each dropped a bird. We killed two more in the next flock, and farther down the bank, we heard repeated blasts from Schoby.

Aside from their machetes, which they used to hack brush and build blinds, our guides carried no gear. When ducks appeared, instead of reaching for calls attached to a lanyard, Jorge and Bartolo would ­whisper-​­whistle the kind of soft, gentle noise you'd make to coax a grin from an infant. And there was no decoy spread—not until, that is, McGrath and I had shot enough birds to assemble one. The guides would retrieve our dead birds and walk out into the shallow lake. Then they'd prop a long stick into the soft bottom and place the duck's bill onto the end that stuck out of the water. Dead duck by pato muerto, our decoy spread took shape. And it worked. Birds kept coming.

Another sought-after species here is the pichiguila—a big, beautiful Mexican tree duck that makes a whistling call so distinct and otherworldly that it only seems fitting to target them in a foreign land. When a trio flew into range, McGrath and I killed two, one of which fell right at my feet. Toward the end of the hunt, another dead bird splashed into the water, and a call from McGrath followed: "Cinnamon down!"

mexico cinnamon teal
The author; a cinnamon wing; two pichiguilas; Bartolo with some ducks.McGrath (Kearns); Colin Kearns (3)

When the ducks quit flying, Pepe, Jorge, and Bartolo gathered our birds and led us back to the trucks. We arranged the birds on the gravel road to take stock: a few pichi­gui­las, two drake pintails with long sprigs, shovelers, several bluewings, and two drake cinnamon teal—neither of which was mine. I would have loved to bring one home for the wall, but it was still a pleasure just to hold these birds. The feathers on their heads and necks were a rich, rare bronze, and their wings, when you stretched them wide, resembled an oil painter's palette—a thoughtful smattering of wild colors fit for a masterpiece. I had no claim to either bird, but that didn't stop me from plucking just one of the small teal wing feathers. I tucked it inside my notebook, and later taped it to a page. I hope its color never fades.

After the hunt, we drove to a nearby marina town for lunch. Our table was near the beach, and halfway through the meal, we watched a man motor his panga toward us, run it onto the sand, then walk to our table. Meet Victor Manuel Mendez Denis—our fishing guide for the afternoon. He said the snapper bite was good, and encouraged us to hurry and finish our meal. "But save room in your appetites," he added, because he had something planned for later.

Once we were on the water, Victor positioned each of us in a corner of his boat. We dropped a weighted shrimp rig to the bottom, reeled up four cranks, then waited for a strike. If bites didn’t come right away, he wasted no time on that spot. “Arriba,” he’d say. “Up.” I’d be lying if I said this was exciting fishing. Lulls between bites were frequent, and it was easy to get bored. But many of the fish that did strike were strong and jolted us right back to where we were.

At the dock, after we unloaded the gear, Victor rushed off to his place across the street with a few of our fish. He was gone for 20 minutes before returning with a spread of baked huachinango, dressed with tomatoes, onions, and peppers. “Gracias, Victor,” we said in succession. Then we dug in, folding the fish into warmed tortillas and topping it with salsa. Cramped around a small folding table on the dock, saltwater lapping against boat hulls as the Sinaloa sky darkened, we ate everything.

cast and blast
Acción!Tim McDonagh

Día 3: Marlin Azul

As we motored offshore in the morning, Schoby and I agreed that, if we should luck into a bite, McGrath should get first dibs. We had him to thank for inviting us here, after all. At the time it felt like a generous gesture. But now, watching him hunched over in the fighting chair, wincing in pain as a 250-pound fish unspooled into the sea, and dripping in sweat beneath the merciless sun, I just felt bad for the guy.

As the fight went on, what destroyed McGrath, of all things, was the damn reel. It was set up for right-handed retrieve, so McGrath, who, like most humans, is right-handed, wasted strength pumping the rod with his weak arm while cranking with his strong gun. What demoralized him, however, were the runs the fish made every time he managed to gain any line. “All that hard-earned line,” he said at one point, “going right back out.” His voice quaked with a mix of humor and agony.

After an hour or so, the fish did stop battling, but not in the way we’d hoped. McGrath reeled and reeled, and felt zero fight. The marlin eventually came to the side of the boat—wrapped in line, robbed of its electric color. Dead. It was a painful moment. None of us had wanted to kill this fish we’d never expected to catch; we’d had every intention of releasing it. The fact that we did nothing wrong and that our inability to release the fish was out of our control helped lessen the blow, somewhat.

marlin fishing mexico
Big-game lures; the marlin; raising the flag.Colin Kearns

Soon the trolling spread was back in the water, and we were fishing again. McGrath, Schoby, and I stayed in the transom, and for a long while, we just stared at it: this huge fish—this animal—dead in the boat. It commanded the same kind of unspoken attention and wonder as a whitetail hanging from a pole at camp. Gradually, though, we began to talk about the fish. In the moments immediately following the catch, McGrath was the quietest. I asked him what was going through his mind. He told me he said a quick prayer, one of “pure thanks.” The three of us rehashed the strike, marveling at the power and grace of a creature that could do what this marlin had done. “I hope I never forget that moment,” McGrath said.

We never had another bite. As we headed back to the marina, the first mate raised a small royal blue flag. In the middle was the emblem of a marlin. All the other boats we passed would see it and recognize—no bragging necessary—that we were proud to have caught a blue marlin.

Día 4: Palomas

On our last day, we reunited with our bird guides. Pepe, Jorge, and Bartolo led us into a field, positioning us about 100 yards apart and 20 yards in front of a fenceline. I stood in the shade of a tecomate tree and waited for the doves. As with the ducks, the wait wasn't very long. The first flights came in singles and pairs, but the gun blasts flushed more, and soon flock after flock flew past us. This was my first dove hunt, and I got off to a promising start, killing 12 birds with my first box of shells. As for my second box—all misses. On any other outing, I would've been pissed by my poor shooting, but given how remarkable this trip had already been, I couldn't have cared less. I shot a dozen doves; my buddies shot many more. We'd have plenty for our last-night, celebratory surf-and-turf meal.

mexico dove hunting
The author in the dove field; Jorge, Bartolo, and Pepe pluck birds; soon-to-be poppers.Steve McGrath (Kearns); Colin Kearns (3)

Schoby cooked the marlin steaks, while McGrath and I finished wrapping the dove breasts for poppers. The marlin, which I didn’t exactly have high hopes for, was some of the richest and most flavorful fish I’ve ever eaten. The doves, no surprise, were as delicious here as anywhere. As we ate, we traded stories. It felt a lot like hunting camp only instead of the woods outside, there was an ocean.

Near the end of any trip, I usually begin plotting a return. It’s a greedy instinct, but I can’t help myself: Before it’s over, I want more. On this getaway, though, that didn’t happen. Partly because invitations to a Mexican cast and blast are rare, but mostly because I knew that no return trip could ever match this one. Every day, everything worked perfectly: We caught tons of bass; we shot trophy ducks; we boated a marlin; we killed doves; we feasted wildly. If I never return, that’s fine. The colors and memories of this trip will never fade.

Lead illustration by Tim McDonagh