My annual migrations from Montana to Baja started in the winter of 2009, when the mainstream media first began covering news about the dangers associated with Mexico travel. Friends and family thought I was nuts, but as long as you weren’t searching for blow in Tijuana at 2 a.m., Baja was still safer than many American cities. And Baja rats like me enjoyed the empty beaches.
Things have changed, however, even though the media mostly stopped talking about it. Crime in Mexico has soared: the 29,158 homicides in 2017 was the highest ever recorded in the country. And crime, unfortunately, has spread to Baja. In December 2017, six bodies were found hanging from bridges in Baja—four of them in Cabos San Lucas, one of the country’s busiest tourist hubs.
My theory has always been that the more remote you go the more insulated you’ll be from crime, and the closer you’ll be to great fishing. Out-of-the-way parts of Magdalena Bay, about 250 miles north of Cabo, on the Pacific side, seemed perfect. However, I started hearing of more incidents even here. Fishermen from Mazatlan moved into the area. Some to find better fishing, some to escape the crime of the mainland, and some because they were criminals themselves. The local fishermen refer to them as banditos.
I chose to explore the area in spite of these rumors, but I kept my guard up. Several hours of narrow 4 X 4 hell-roads delivered me to the drop-off zone of my ATV. After hiding my truck and loading up the quad with all necessary camping gear, my beach-surveillance commenced. I would search for secluded places to camp, and then use my inflatable packraft to explore the surrounding water.
The fishing wasn’t as red hot as I’d expected. Many channels and mangrove areas seemed devoid of the snook, grouper, corbina, and corvina I was targeting. The reason for it came to me in the form of a 22-foot panga. One morning its three occupants strung a nearby outflow with a gillnet, then waited for a minustide to haul in their load. Locals call this “doing a tapon.” Which loosely translates to placing a cap on a bottle to ensnare its contents. It’s illegal, and I was the only one to witness.
Poachers always approached me, but I only had friendly conversations. These men are often poor people who don’t understand the long-term investment of protecting their fishing grounds. They didn’t look like banditos or criminals to me, and they all complained about how the fishing is not what it used to be.
While investigating a different part of Mag Bay, I ran into another kind of local. I was looking for a place to hide my camper one afternoon, when Chewy came out of nowhere, arms waving. He was wearing rubber boots and white overalls, “This way, this way!” He was pointing toward his camp that overlooked a small, remote launch site. Chewy was the boat-watcher.
There was something so warm and genuine about Chewy that I let my guard down and parked in his spot. Before I knew it, he’d dug out a makeshift staircase so I could walk down the sandy cliff into the water. That first evening he offered me one of the two fish he’d caught. My generous new friend lived in a tent, covered by a tarp. No electricity. No gas. He cooked over driftwood fires and mostly ate what he caught; simple, delicious meals that he happily shared with this “rich gringo.”
Chewy had a kayak, presumably given to him by some other rich gringo, and one night he offered to be my guide. I readily accepted. The next morning I inflated my packraft and we headed out, Chewy leading the way with a powerful stroke. I’d never seen him without a long-sleeve shirt. Tattoos covered his lean, muscular arms—rudimentary needle-and-ink drawings. Mexican fishermen don’t get tattoos to be trendy. Usually, they indicate prison time, gang affiliations, or both.
As we paddled farther and farther away from camp, I asked Chewy where he was from. “Mazatlan,” he replied. After more than an hour of paddling past endless corners, we finally pulled up to a beach. Chewy encouraged me to cast from shore, while he looked for bait. He disappeared for quite a while, and I started feeling sick to my stomach, thinking what an idiot I’d been. I pictured Chewy and his buddies back at camp, looting everything I had: a loaded camper full of cameras, cash, computer hard-drives, and more. In a panic, I grabbed the packraft and sprinted back, alone.
I took a short break to look behind me, and I saw Chewy coming in hot. “Where are you going?” he asked. All I could say was, “I’m just worried about my stuff at camp.” He assessed the anxious look on my face, paused, and offered to go back to check on my belongings. “Stay and fish,” he said. I sat with that idea in my head for several seconds and said, “Okay.” I went back to fishing. In those seconds I decided that if my initial gut feelings for Chewy were wrong and he was indeed a crook, it was already too late. All my stuff would have been gone.
I fished for a couple of hours, and after catching a small snook and a pargo, I started my paddle back as the sun began to set. Approaching camp, I could see Chewy crouched down on a hill, looking my way. My camper silhouetted by the sunset. “At least they left my truck there,” I thought to myself. As I landed the packraft on shore, Chewy came running down to me.
“I was worried. I was about to come and look for you,”
All my stuff was there. Chewy was not a crook. The following morning he took me to harvest oysters and scallops for fresh ceviche. Back at camp, he was making tortillas and got so hot that he took his shirt off, displaying a deep scar running down his chest. I asked him what had happened.
When Chewy lived in Mazatlan, he was a member of a gang that fought turf-wars with other crews from other parts of town. One day, while walking alone, he was suddenly surrounded. One of them pulled a knife and sunk it in his chest trying to kill him. He knew the guy. One of his lungs had collapsed, but somehow he managed to escape and make it to a hospital. I asked him if he turned the guy in. “That’s not how it’s done,” he replied. “So, what happened to the guy?” I asked. Chewy told me that someone later shot the attacker three times, killing him. I didn’t bother asking who’d done it.
Chewy believed that his survival was a miracle. In his tent at night, I’d watch him study the Bible through a pair of shattered reading glasses. Every night, before going back to my rig, he would say, “If God allows it, I’ll see you tomorrow.” Over the ensuing days, he showed me his world, and he asked nothing in return. I gave him a few small items he could use, including a pair of reading glasses that a friend had left in my camper. But he never accepted any money.
The day I left, looking down the cliff toward the open lagoon, Chewy told me, “This place saved my life.” We hugged goodbye and I drove away. I glanced into the review mirror and, as the dust settled, the boat-watcher faded away to his simple, solitary existence.