The 9 Lies of Hector VillasenOr

The author details an excursion with two friends to Baja California for kayak fishing in the rich fishing waters of the region. The trio of men encounter a guide, who is a misleading character.


A Cautionary Tale

Aaah, Baja! Come spring, that skinny adjunct to the Mexican mainland; that 1000-mile-long peninsula once thought to be an island; that dusty strip with a growing reputation for attracting ticky-tacky retirement villas and their denizens happens to be the perfect escape from mud season in the Big Norte.

We three kayaking fishermen–myself, photographer Barry Tessman and fishing nut Herb Laeger–have arrived not-so-fast on the heels of the Cochimi Indians, the conquistadores who supplanted them, and the randy mix that followed: Jesuits, ranchers, fishermen, revolutionaries, mercenaries, criminals and snowbirds. All were seeking exactly the same commodities–Escape, Diversion, A Change of Course.

Most important for us, having driven the length of the desert peninsula, from the High Sierras to Baja’s southernmost tip, is some long-promised, expected-to-be-excellent fishing. This time of year, the Sea of Cortez should be rich with bonito, corvina, grouper, needlefish, pargo, rock bass, sierra, skipjack, marlin, dorado, roosterfish, sailfish, snook, tuna and yellowtail, according to Herb, who was invited along specifically for the long months he’s spent in recent years plying the Gulf and its beaches.

Which is how we get to Hector Villasenor, prevaricator extraordinario.

1 “I, Hector Villasenor, am the best fishing guide in La Paz.”

Sauntering down the Malecon of La Paz, we are road-lagged and thirsty, but happy to have the smell of sea salt in our nostrils. Just past dusk on a warm March night, the parade of cruising low-riders and sidewalk tables laden with bulbous turistas from north of the border says Nuevo Mexico.

We’ve brought gear, but we need a local who’s handy with one of the sturdy little fishing boats called pangas. Herb is particularly intent on fishing around Isla Cerralvo, a small island five miles off the mainland, known to be surrounded by vast late-spring schools of dorado, marlin and tuna.

Before we can brake for our first cold cerveza, our search seems to have concluded. A middle-aged man boldly imposes himself on us in front of a travel agency, his literal first words being, “I am the best fishing guide in town.” He–Hector Villasenor–corrals Herb by the shirtsleeve. Thin-waisted, broad-shouldered, wearing a long-sleeved dress shirt, khaki shorts and a U.S. Navy ball cap, Hector gets close as he pitches, smelling of cigarettes, beer and, well, fraud. But we are tired, and willing.

Herb takes the lead, bumming a cigarette and quizzing him about what’s biting. A hundred feet from the becalmed Gulf, beneath a dark night sky, Hector points to a collection of snapshots on a sandwich board: blurry photos of himself posing with a wide variety of clients–fat brokers from Chicago, bikinied wives from Boston, doctors from L.A. and New Jersey. Each picture also boasts a sizable fish. Promises spill out of Hector’s mouth: If we choose to accompany him for a day, we are sure, like hundreds before, to see schools of marlins, thousands of snappers and tons of dorado.

We go into the travel agency, and Herb takes a seat across a scarred desk from Hector. Dull fluorescent lights shine on three of his cronies, whose feet are planted firmly atop similarly scarred desks. The boss is bald, dark, mustachioed; he smiles in lieu of speaking English and holds out a pack of cigarettes.

To clinch the deal, Hector reaches into a desk drawer and comes out with a worn spiral notebook half-filled with handwritten testimonials. Proudly pointing to a five-year-old anecdote scrawled in blue ink, he invites us to read these glowing words of praise from Bill and Elsa, Halifax: “Despite a day of nothing but four- and five-foot waves, as uncomfortable a ride as we could have asked for, we did catch two big dorado.”

The ambiguity of that endorsement should have been a strong clue.

Before we get back onto the street we’ve pooled a deposit. As we head off in search of dinner, Hector strolls in the opposite direction, whistling a happy tune, our hundred bucks in his pocket.

That should have been our second clue….

2 “I’ll pick you up at 5:30. Sharp!”

The next morning, 15 minutes before the appointed hour, we’re up. Groggy, but up. Camera and fishing gear packed in big plastic crates, the morning dark, muggy. Herb, somehow intuiting that Hector will be late, paces. From the courtyard below he keeps a countdown: “He’s got 10 minutes … 5 minutes…. Now he’s 15 minutes late…. Now the son of a bitch is half an hour late…. I knew it, he’s not showing….”

Hector had made a big deal out of presenting each of us with his card. On it were all of his phone numbers–office, home, even cellular, an apparatus he’d dramatically pulled from his desk drawer to show off. “I’m sure it was Styrofoam,” Barry quips. Now all three of us are pacing. From the motel office I try the three numbers. Each goes unanswered.

At seven o’clock, we give up. Cursing Hector, itemizing what we’ll do when–if–we see him again, we walk into town for breakfast. There, on the restaurant’s patio, I recognize Hector’s chrome-domed boss, sitting with a handful of pals, sipping coffee. He looks sincerely surprised to see us and shouts out, “Where’s Hector?”

“Good f–g question,” mutters Herb, who is the most distressed of us all, since it was he who had taken the lead in “negotiating” the deal.

Informed that Hector is a no-show, the boss-man jumps into his curbside silver Chevy, dialing his cell phone even as he U-turns across the Malecon. He reappears 10 minutes later, squealing to a stop in front of the patio. Eyes just-opened, a half-dressed Hector stumbles out of the passenger door, pulling on his shoes, zipping up.

Both are apologetic. “It’s my fault,” offers Hector weakly, motioning for a coffee. Turns out he’d spent the night–and our deposit?–in the back of a camper belonging to a middle-aged Canadian woman he’d met the previous afternoon. His eyes are red, his clothes the same as last night. “Guess the old internal alarm clock isn’t what it used to be,” he flails.

3 “I’ll drive. Don’t worry, We’ll take my car.

The boss gives us all a ride back to our motel, where his teenage son waits beside a rusting, shock-absorberless Mercury Marquis. Turns out Hector doesn’t own a car. That or he’d lost it in a bet. Wedging gear boxes into the dusty trunk, we find there is not enough room for our rods; they ride cross-angled across the seats up front, tips sticking out the roiled-down window.

It is a one-hour drive due east by dirt road to Punta Arena de la Ventana, where Hector plans to meet panga and skipper. The day is already hot and the land bleak–dusty, dry, rocky, devoid of even the hardiest cactus. If it weren’t for the incredibly majestic sea that surrounds this narrow spine, no one would ever stop here for more than a roadside piss.

Chewing on tabs of Pepto Bismol he plucks from the dusty shag of the carpeted dashboard, Hector quizzes us on what kind of food we most like and, in an effort to cover his skinny ass, tries to regale us with tales of fraternity boys and executives he’s escorted on all-nighters of tequila shooting and whoremongering before heading out to sea. “After, they always tell me the same thing,” muses Hector, scratching his knee. “They say, `Hector, that was the best day of my life.'”

4 “I’ll bring lunch.” (Translation: “I’ll bring beer.”)

Just before Punta Arena we stop at a dusty roadside mercado, we assume to acquire lunch. It is a Sunday morning, and we’ve seen no one for miles. Hector pulls a 12-pack of Tecate out of the cooler. “You guys want anything else?” he asks. We study the barren shelves and, finding little more than stale bread and crackers, pass, convinced another stop for supplies is around the bend.

Next stop is in town. We pull into a dusty yard littered with rusted chairs, busted motors, empty bottles and a couple of scraggly chickens, where a woman sits in the shade beneath an acacia tree, sewing. Hector honks two, three times while we study the nearby detritus. Minutes later our skipper; Marcos, stumbles from the house, pulling a tom flannel shirt around his shoulders. He throws a couple of paddles and a nearly empty gas can into his pickup, guns the engine and lurches out of the yard, with Hector in close pursuit.

We make another stop before the beach. Another tienda, this one equally barren of food, where Marcos acquires a 30-ounce brown bottle of Tecate. Properly equipped, finally we are off for the high seas!

5 “I’ll bring all the gear. I’ve got everything we’ll need.” (Translation: “I’ll bring beer.”)

The tide long gone, we push and pull the heavy and beat wooden panga 100 yards down into the sea. It goes without saying that if we’d arrived on time three hours earlier, the boat would have then rested on the very lip of the sea…. Funny, neither Hector nor Marcos seems bothered by the lateness; this is just a perfectly normal start to a fine day of fishing.

As Herb uncorks and unwraps his preciously cared-for rods and reels, Hector watches intently as the gear he’s brought for his paying clients rolls around on the bottom of the boat. The pair of rods are in a similar condition to the Marquis–rusted, missing parts, badly out of alignment.

Marcos, young and handsome–and painfully and obviously hung over–steers the small Merc and we head out into the sea spray. A cigarette in one hand, liter of warm beer between his legs, he peers over the bow through polarized lenses for signs of fish. Hector, meanwhile, makes himself comfortable, trying out one of Herb’s rods, popping open a Tecate, spinning his life story. Born in Tequila (“I swear I have tequila in my blood,” he brags), he admits he’s never strayed too far from the southern tip of Baja, accumulating a wife, three girlfriends (at the moment) and seven children along the way. “That’s why I must work so hard,” he winks, “lots of people depending on me….”

6 “Mamacita, Mamacita, tu eres la mujer mas linda en el mundo.”

Fish talk is not at the top of Hector’s list. Women talk is. And he’s full of advice. As we bake under the sun, he details his finely honed approach.

“If you want to meet a Mexican woman, if you know what I mean, if you want to really meet her, it’s very simple. All you have to do is go up to one–anywhere, on the street, in a bar, in a market–and say, `Mamacita, mamacita, you are the most beautiful woman I have ever seen.’ That’s all they need to hear, and boom, they’re taking you home. It’s worked for me all my life…. I am always surprised at how easy it is. It’s as natural for me as catching fish.”

7 “I’ll bring the bait.” (See lies 4 & 5.)

After trolling for an hour a half-mile offshore, in rough seas, Hector and Marcos consult. It looks like we’ll need bait. Of course, these Einsteins have neglected to bring any. Which means that for the next half-hour we roar from fishing boat to fishing boat trying to mooch squid parts.

8 “Oh, yes, we’ll fish all the day around Isla Cerralvo.”

Because the winds are way up it means that running out to Isla Cerralvo, which we can see just a few miles across the whitecap-swept channel–our goal since leaving the Sierras–is out of the question. We see similar-sized pangas being tossed about violently. We don’t hesitate to point out to Hector that if we’d gotten the start we’d planned we’d have gotten out to Cerralvo before the winds picked up.

As a result, we spend the day puttering around in figure 8s never more than a half-mile off the beach. “This is not fishing,” Herb mutters over and over, barely under his breath, “this is bullshit.”

9 “I guarantee we will catch dorado, tuna, marlin–so many they’ll be jumping out of the water!”

For several hours we try every trick: We troll, drop weighted lines, toss out big chunks of squid, drop weighted lines baited with squid…. Nothing, no luck. It is hot, but windy; the seas are blue, blue, blue, but rough. Marcos points out a few jumpers in the near distance.

After five hours we catch a solitary fluorescent green, 15-pound dorado. On its face, that wouldn’t be tragic–anything’s better than nothing–if it hadn’t been for all those “jumping into your boat” assurances.

“It’s okay,” he reassures. “We can stay out all day if you want. I don’t have anywhere to go…. Our luck is sure to change.”

On the drive back to La Paz, I sit up front and absorb Hector’s continuous stream of B.S. The last Tecate nestled in his crotch, he is long past making excuses for our fish-deprived day. The only thing he’s concerned about now is that he just might not get paid, given his late arrival, etc. The boss-man is not going to be happy. On top of that, he knows that the Canadian lady is waiting for him in her camper, expecting him to return armed with cold beer and fat steaks. He tries to butter me up.

“I get the idea you’ve been around the world,” he says. “Probably fished everywhere, too, eh? Guess you know it better than anyone, fishing is all a matter of luck … and timing. That was our problem today–not enough luck, not enough time….”

Perhaps suffering from heat exhaustion, we pay him the balance of the fee.

Later that night we try to visit Hector’s office, intent on adding our own testimonial to his spiralbound book. We pass his place several times, but the doors are never open, the lights dim. Luck … and timing. Finally, they were on Hector’s side.

Contributing editor Jon Bowermaster writes often about adventure, remote places and the environment. He is currently finishing his sixth book, based on 10 years of travel in Chile.

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