El Novato and His Muse

For every cactus we passed, John had a fish story to tell, each with a little hidden gem of information on how to handle the fighting Yellowtail…

It was 4am on a chilly Californian morning, John behind the wheel of his somewhat trusty SUV, I in the passenger seat, the back filled floor to ceiling with coolers, luggage and spearfishing paraphernalia.

I was about to embark on my maiden voyage through the dusty burrows of Baja, Mexico. John, my captain and muse, would guide me on a ten-day trip in search of the majestic yet bullish Yellowtail Kingfish.

A mixture of excitement and apprehension bubbled beneath the surface. A bachelor of eight years, several trips traveling solo around the world, and I couldn’t remember the last time I’d spent 24 hours with another human being let alone ten days. What an odd pair we made. John, an American in his forties, was an affable yet hardy man – a hardcore surfer in his past, a born-again Christian in his present. Every crease that adorned his face had a story to tell. Happily married, generous to a fault and a damn good spearfisherman.

And there was I: very much the novice, agnostic, a young Australian city-boy whose hands had never seen a hard day’s work. What, I thought, would the next ten days entail?

I had met John several months prior through the local spearfishing community and, being fresh to diving Southern California, I was keen for some local intel. He was only too happy to oblige, and although we had never spent more than a few hours together at a time, a friendship soon developed. When he suggested a road trip to Mexico, my response was automatic,“Yes”.

“Let’s just get a couple things out of the way, dude,” John said, a little too abruptly for my half-asleep mind. “I don’t do air conditioning, I drive with the windows down, and I like my music loud.” Oh boy, I quivered. I was dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, it was 15oC at best, while parts of Mexico would hit 46oC and we were about to embark on a sixteen-hour straight drive. I would freeze for the first quarter of the trip and fry for the last three.

Before the enormity of what lay ahead permeated my frigid brain, John spoke again, although this time to himself:

“Dear Lord…”

I looked over in disbelief. He’s praying? Out loud? Unsure of what to do I bowed my head, trying not to listen to what I assumed was a private affair. But I couldn’t help it. John thanked the Lord, asked for a safe journey, prayed for his family, for plentiful fish, for our health, the dog, his friends and everything and anything he could think of. It felt strangely odd to be privy to a man’s private thoughts; even more so for a non-believer. And then, without a moments notice, the engine roared to life and we were away.

For every cactus we passed John had a fish story to tell, each with a little hidden gem of information on how to handle the fighting Yellowtail. My previous best was 5kg, and we’d be searching for fish three to four times that size. “DUDE YOU’RE KILLING ME!” John screamed as my failed attempt at passing a tractor saw the SUV veer off onto the shoulder. “DON’T SLOW DOWN” he continued, “Keep driving, or we’ll get stuck. Hit that bank, and DON’T SLOW DOWN”.

Well, I slowed down and we got stuck, the SUV bogging itself into the sand. “Dude, you’re freakin’ killin’ me,” John repeated this time in disbelief. John pulled out a shovel one wouldn’t be surprised to see advertised on a late night shopping network alongside a set of steak knives, handed it over, and I got to work. Not the start I was hoping for.

And after sixteen hours of driving, thirteen renditions of Sublime’s “Love is what I got,” a dozen military check points, four road tolls and one near death experience, we arrived at our destination: an idyllic sleepy town, a small dusty fishing village buried deep in Baja. While we’re to be seen in a travel brochure, it epitomised the charm and warmth we would encounter throughout Mexico. It was late and we were tired, so we unpacked, ate and went straight to bed. Tomorrow we would dive.

At sunrise we loaded our gear onto the Panga (a small boat) and headed toward our first dive spot. The ocean bore little swell – a welcoming sign – but as we dipped beneath the surface we soon discovered the sort of dirty green water I’d become accustomed to in Southern California. The visibility was 3 to 4m and the water a balmy 17oC. After traveling 800 miles, risking Mexican drug cartels, highway carjackings and extortion attempts, I was less than pleased to find more of the same.

A hard day’s work lay ahead. The first five hours of diving were fruitless, and John’s prayers for plentiful fish were not being answered. When you can only see 3m in front of you you’re forced to enter a routine of constant up and down diving. It’s tiring, boring and ultimately frustrating.

But then, as luck would have it, John put a solid Yellowtail on the boat. At three times the size of the biggest one I’d ever seen before, I couldn’t help but feel intimidated. John sensed my awe and threw me his first of many mischievous grins that could only be interpreted as, “That’s how it’s done, son.” And then, like Tecate beer flowing over a Mexican bar, John put another Yellow on the boat, and then another and another.

“Where the hell are they???” I yelled in utter frustration. “Over there, dude,” he pointed. “Dive along the edge of the reef.” “WHAT REEF?” I shouted back, “I can’t see shit!”

It’s one thing not to be catching fish, it’s another not to be seeing them. But when your dive buddy is seeing them and catching them, then the magnitude of your despair multiplies. By day’s end John had put five solid Yellowtails on the boat and I had none. As we headed back to shore I was exhausted, hungry and ready for dry land. “Tomorrow will be better,” John solemnly assured. I nodded, more out of appeasement than belief.

As we unloaded the boat, Jesús (the appropriately named Pangero or boat captain), uttered to John “No, pescado?” referring to my lack of fish. “No,” John replied dropping his surfer accent for a Mexican one with ease. “Es. Cómo se dice, nuevo?” “Novato?” Jesús asked. “Si Jesús, mucho novato!” John responded as they broke into laughter.

“What’s Novato mean?” I later inquired. “Rookie,” John replied. “It’s your nickname.” Awesome… After two days of back-to-back diving with little reward, I was beginning to wonder if skipping Sunday school while growing up was having its repercussions. My body and mental state were getting a pounding while John, Mr. Energizer Bunny, could dive all day everyday on a bowl of Fruit Loops and a muesli bar. Call it ego, call it stubbornness, call it what you will… but like a boxer on the canvas, I may have been down, but I certainly wasn’t out. Not while the Energizer Bunny was around, that’s for sure.

Tomorrow was a new day, a day in which we would be joined by Mikey, a dear friend and fellow marksman from Long Beach, California. If Novato, the rookie, had a coach in his corner yesterday, today the trainer would be there as well.

Mikey’s infectious enthusiasm had an instant effect, and I had a good feeling the day would be different. The morning sun was glistening off the flat water, the dirty green replaced by a cobalt blue. Indeed today would be a new day. The visibility had gone from 3m to 12m, the current had picked up substantially (apparently a good omen) and there was bait aplenty.

To combat the current Jesús would drop us off at the top end, we’d drift 500 hundred yards before being picked up, and we’d then repeat the cycle.

We were in the water for sixty seconds when two monster Yellowtails appeared out of the kelp beneath

  1. My eyeballs bounced off my mask in exhilaration. Damn those things were massive. Alas, they were too quick and caught us off guard. But next time we would be ready. It’s weird how circumstances can change in just twenty four hours. The day before I was ready to throw in the towel and now I was chomping at the bit.

 As chance would have it, we ended up drifting in a triangulated formation: me up front, John and Mikey in the rear. And this is where the fun began, the sort of fun where watching your buddy catch a fish supersedes your own. As one fish after the other drifted out of range of my Euro 110 it allowed me enough time to warn the guys behind, “Johnny! Two on your right! Mikey, toad right in front!” It was like a game of Guitar Hero except the bright neon keys were fat Yellowtail coming straight toward us.

The boys were dispatching fish at will, each proving to be more challenging than the last. More accustomed to a slip tip, John swore in frustration as a fish tore off. He wouldn’t take that chance again, calling us over to put in a safety shot on the next one. There’s much fun to be had operating in a team-like fashion, one that I had not experienced diving solo. As the trip would progress we became more accustomed to looking out for each other whether it be spotting a diver, scouting an area or putting in a second shot.

And then, there she was:

3m to my right, 5m down I spotted a giant. It was easily the biggest fish I’d ever seen in my life. The sharp contrast of the yellow-green upper half of its body compared to the silvery bottom was striking. Its head was massive. I was looking at an old grumpy freight train personified in a fish.

I dove as stealthy as possible and lined up my 110 which felt awfully underpowered considering the circumstances. The fish turned broadside and just as it was about to pull away I fired watching the shaft enter firmly behind the gill plate. My heart raced, my reel screamed: Game. On. Baby! I couldn’t believe it. I had just nailed a monster. Rock n’ roll, kids. I’d like to see them call me rookie now.

And then before it started, the action stopped. Silence. My excitement was replaced with fear. I hastily pulled on my reel line too soon, to discover the fish, the monster of a fish, the biggest fish I’d ever seen in my life had gotten away. Enraged, I screamed into my snorkel. I swore my shot was true.

I pulled in the reel line to not only discover no fish, but no shaft either. The new steel cable – freshly rigged the night before with a brand new shaft – had snapped right at the holding loop. No bad shot, no false rigging, a snapped cable. I was numb. Spearfishing can be a cruel, cruel sport. One minute you’re up and the next you come crashing down. That fish would reappear in my consciousness for days to come.

I did manage to land a 10kg Yellowtail that day, a baby in comparison and certainly no consolation. It was nice to land a fish, but after swallowing gallons of pride I was left wanting. No one would ever believe how big that monster was. And I certainly wasn’t about to try and convince them.

My misfortune would continue, or so I thought. The next day I leveled off at 9m before lining up on another one. I pulled the trigger, and nothing. Trigger Jammed! I quickly readjusted my aim, lined up and pulled a second time. Still nothing! Stubbornly determined, I clasped both index fingers around the trigger, lined up for a third time and as I was about to pull, a Yellowtail twice the size of my target swam directly in front of

  1. This time with both fingers clasped I closed my eyes and pulled with all my might. I opened them to the sound of a screaming reel. Success.

 Concerned my gun might jam again I decided to borrow John’s Euro 130* for the remainder of the trip. In truth it was a blessing in disguise as his gun was far more suited to the conditions at hand.

As the trip progressed I picked up the odd Yellowtail here and there, each a learning lesson unto itself. I fumbled through, from making a total mess of my reel line to tearing fish off or letting them get tangled up in the reef when I should have kept them out.

On one occasion, I brought a Yellowtail to the surface and thought I had her by the gills (I was later informed I was grabbing them by the throat). One swift kick out of nowhere, and the fish cold cocked me to the side of my head. Stunned by the blow, I let go of my grip, allowing the fish to swim away. Sitting on the boat, coach and trainer were desperate to laugh at my folly but gracious enough not to.

The sentiment however was clear:

El Novato strikes again. Turned out the Yellowtail weighed in at 23kg, not only the biggest fish of the trip but, word has it, equal to the biggest fish ever taken in that part of Mexico.

Despite my inadequacies, I was becoming more adept at landing fish and decided that I would be more conscious of my shot selection in the hope of landing a bigger Yellowtail. And lo and behold, after several hours of diving, my caution paid off. Again, I was revisited by a monster – not as big as the fish I lost to the snapped cable, but nevertheless a beast.

I fought my nerves and kicked into auto pilot: I took my time, long slow kicks through the water, extended my gun, locked my elbow – I would need every centimetre of John’s 130. I carefully took aim and fired on a slow but distant target. The shaft penetrated an inch high and wide of a stone shot.

Game on.

 The Yellowtail pulled and screamed as I desperately tried to get a hold of my reel line. I had let several fish tie up in the kelp and as per John’s instruction was determined to keep this one close. As I struggled to get a grip, I did a single wrap of line around my hand (perhaps not the smartest move) and horsed the fish with all my strength.

The fish pulled me under. I took a quick breath and let it drag me before resurfacing seconds later. I was a 73kg float and this thing was pulling me at will. This would happen several times over the ensuing minutes and I began to wonder if this f***er would ever give up. I fought to bring the fish to the surface, kicking back with my fins as I tried to pull the line up. Every time I got close she’d burst again. Yellowtail, I had determined, fight like Mexican bulls to a red flag.

But I sensed she was tiring, and I could now see the Panga in the distance. “Jesús!” I yelled in exhaustion, “Listo, listo!” I found a second lease of life knowing backup was on the way. I pulled with conviction until the fish was within arm’s length and forcefully buried my hand into her gills. This time there would be no mistakes. I unclasped my knife and hammered it through the brain as Mike and John had shown me days earlier.

A strange primitive sensation came over me, as I looked the defeated Yellowtail in the eye. Thousands of miles away from the nearest soy latte-sipping crowd I felt totally and utterly at one with that fish. Out there in the middle of the Pacific, I had found God. A different God to some, but my God, nevertheless.

I snapped back to my surroundings when Jesús hung out his gaff. “Muy bien, Novato!” Jesús exclaimed as he looked on with excitement. “Cuánto? Veinte kilo?” I asked, wondering if the fish hit 20kg. With both hands Jesús raised the Yellowtail before a smile crept over his face “Si Novato, vientiuno, vientidos. Es muy grande!”

Turned out the Yellowtail came in at 23kg, not only the biggest fish of the trip but, word has it, equal to the biggest ever taken in that part of Mexico.

That night as I put my head to rest on a mattress nestled in the sand, I looked up at the glittering array of stars and thought: “Good job, Son.” I soon drifted off and slept like only a content and happy man could.

My trip was done, my lessons learned and as we began the long journey home I felt it only appropriate to ask: “Hey, Johnny, what about a prayer to kick us off?” And then there was a quiet moment between the Novato and his Muse where nothing was said, but everything was understood.

“Dear Lord…”

Since returning to Los Angeles I’ve found myself turning the air conditioning off, winding down the windows and listening to the music very, very loud.

* With regards to the jamming trigger mechanism I contacted The Freedive Shop ( in Sacramento California, relayed the issue and they immediately shipped a brand new gun to me. I can’t impress on divers how important it is to have this sort of support from a store. You can shop around to try and save a dollar but at the end of the day you can’t put a price on service. If you’re in the US be sure to deal with these guys, and you’ll never be disappointed.

Tanc Sade is an actor residing in Los Angeles. He writes for and can be found at:


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