Always sought, but seldom mentioned, the “Bait Men of Baja” sell success by the bucket.
As I cruised a Baja beach looking for something to catch in the mid-1990s, I met George “Jorge” Bergin on one of his daily, early-morning walks.
Since those days, we’ve always enjoyed swapping stories. Recently, Jorge offered this tale of his unique relationship with Leonardo, one of the many Bait Men of Baja.
Leonardo lives in the center of Palmas Bay and has never been more than 100 miles from the Tropic of Cancer here in Baja California Sur. Born into a fishing family, he has worked his entire adult life catching and selling sardina to the commercial charter fleet operating from eight fishing resorts along the shore.
Until the last few years, the sport fishing and bait business flourished, but times are tough these days — the fleet has dwindled to a few dozen sport-fishers that once competed with 300 others.
When the sport flourished, the crafty local bait men found the best way to meet the daily requirements of charter clients was to get very close to the shore in shallow-draft boats and throw a 12-foot net to capture the bait alive. They’d keep the catch alive in the center or the bow of the fiberglass skiffs until the charter boats came over to buy up the bait.
Over time, a guild of bait men was formed and one or more boats were assigned to the resorts that had the most charter operators. The boats manufactured in Baja California Sur were perfect for plying the waters of the Sea of Cortez. The pangas, usually 22-feet long, were put to good use with 60- to 90-hp outboards which use little gas and can run for years with just basic maintenance.
Because the little beach has no ramp, the bait men launched their boats by pushing them into the water long before dawn, using old workhorse pickups. They needed an early start to net the fish at first light and be ready for the charter fleet between 7 and 8 a.m.
Sardina are sold by the scoop — 200 pesos will get you enough for chum and bait for a day chasing tuna, dorado, marlin, sailfish and countless species of bottom fish.
Leonardo and his contemporaries can make 2,000 to 4,000 pesos or more on a good day and be done with their morning work by 9 a.m.
It’s wet, hard, demanding work. The bait dives and moves and disappears for hours, days, or weeks — a catch-as-you-can existence. Very few charter boats leave the dock when the wind reaches gale force, meaning they won’t be buying any bait. And trying to keep live bait kicking in 90-degree water in the bait boats or even in aerated bait tanks on cruisers is a difficult task at best.
When times were good, Leonardo worked and raised a family of four boys and a girl. Now, his world has been turned upside down. First, Hotel Punta Colorado, Leonardo’s appointed bait contract, closed. Then, a few months ago, in the middle of the night, someone stole Leonardo’s workboat from the beach. Since Jorge wasn’t using his boat, motor and trailer much, and it was the same as Leonardo’s, he gave it to the bait fisherman. By way of thanks, Leonardo offered to take Jorge fishing from time to time.
Leonardo’s good fortune with this generous gringo actually began long ago. They don’t talk about it now because it’s old news, but a great hurricane washed out the road that Leonardo’s house sits on. He didn’t have vehicle/boat access to and from his property for many months. The damage to the village was so complete, Jorge videoed it and made a copy for Leonardo, who took the cassette to the county commissioners and was able to convince them to finally fix the road and replace it with a concrete roadway that has lasted and served him and others through many rainy ordeals. Jorge can’t remember how many years ago that was, but he remembers the video camera weighed as much as a cocker spaniel and the cassettes were bigger than a motel bible.
The first thing Leonardo did to Jorge’s boat was to fit the bow to carry water to hold bait. Then he refitted the trailer to meet his style of launch and haul. Since he hasn’t been able to return to work at the bait business, he takes Jorge and sometimes a guest to inshore spots for short morning fishing trips.
Jorge supplies the food and beverages, the ice to keep the fish and money for gas. Leonardo supplies the knowledge of the sea, the fish, the bait, and does all of the heavy lifting. They usually share the catch. So far, they seem content with their casual agreement.
Over several wonderful outings they are learning to communicate. A whole lot of it is nonverbal. Jorge takes Leonardo’s whistling and singing as signs he is happy to be back on the water. Jorge’s enjoyment shows when he launches into some wild fishing trip remembrance using his fractured Spanish. Like most gringos, Jorge brings way too much equipment and Leonardo enjoys picking from his assortment of lures, experimenting and testing.
Leonardo has learned little from Jorge except perhaps how inept and silly old gringos can be. Jorge, on the other hand, has learned many things about the fish, the local waters, drifting and mooching.
Leonardo sits with his hand on the tiller and Jorge sits on the seat facing him. Leonardo’s huge feet and hands are weathered to coarse leather — symbols of the power of his frame and his character.
Jorge has watched Leonardo wrestle billfish into position for release as though they were foam replicas of the powerful brutes of the sea. His great-ape fingers have the uncanny dexterity needed to filet fish, tie proper knots, and remove hooks from a thousand different jaws. He shows a special reverence to Jorge’s years and watches that he doesn’t put the older angler in a place where he could fall or founder, catch a hook or slice a finger.
When the water was still warm this past fall, Jorge would take a nice little swim while watching Leonardo load the boat onto the trailer with a rope and his pickup. That done, they loaded all the gear in an old Isuzu Trooper, split the bags of fresh filets and went their separate ways.
Back on his patio, Jorge had only to rinse off the lures and equipment, empty and clean the cooler before relaxing with a Bloody Mary celebration before lunch. At his age, five or six hours on the water is enough — Leonardo just kills time until he has a chance to go back to some kind of bait work.
Leonardo is waiting for permits, reassignment, anything that will get him back to throwing the net and making a living once again, while Jorge, basking in his fisherman’s dream, hopes this partnership never ends. But then again, maybe Leonardo is also enjoying his days with Jorge and isn’t trying all that hard to win a chance at another resort assignment.
George “Jorge” Bergin sums it up best: “Wonderful things happen here in Baja when you are receptive to new experiences and new friends.”