Fishing Mexico with a Handline

When I fished as I child I was generally handed a cane pole pre-baited and set up and sometimes already cast. The crappie, usually, would bite and I would pull it in and someone would take it off the hook and put it on the stringer and put another cricket on the line for me until I was big enough to learn the whole process myself.
Of course, as a Southern teenage girl more interested in listening to Muddy Waters than spending all my time around actual muddy waters, I lost touch with fishing. To be honest, there wasn’t a lot of appeal to the culture I perceived to surround fishing down South. I associated it with a lot of things I spent the following years trying to separate from entirely which is too bad, because I kind f threw the baby out with the (muddy!) bath water for a while there.
When I moved to Alaska, fishing took on this new mystique for me. Suddenly it involved people who were interested in culture and conservation AND beer and camp fires! This was the REI version of fishing I never knew existed, and it turns out fishing cleans up really well. I wanted in, but I didn’t even know where to start. This was uncharted territory and my cane pole and crappie experience was laughably useless.
Consequently, fishing became one of those things I waited a long time to take up on my own because people always said they would take me, teach me, and they never did. I didn’t grow a set and buy my own stuff and start figuring it out on my own until, oh, maybe two years ago.
Today, I own a small collection of gear stuck in storage up North, mostly selected for various Alaskan salmon runs, costing perhaps $800 or so in total. This is an extremely modest collection as I mentally survey my friends and their respective kits. Fishing, like pretty much everything, can quickly become a total gear head hobby, and as a fisherman here in Mexico currently without the gear she’s become accustomed to, I have been frustrated.
Enter the handline.

Hand line spindle with old line and a rebar weight for practice casts.

I noticed a lot of people here along the Banderas coastline carrying around fresh catches and standing on the rocks or on the beach casting…but there was never a rod or reel of any configuration in sight. Finally up at Boca de Tomates I got close enough to watch a handline in action. It was a weird eureka moment—people have been successfully catching fish for millennia with extremely rudimentary tools and it’s a craft that is alive and well here on the Pacific coast of Mexico.
The locals here seem to prefer a small black spindle, about 8″ in diameter with a groove down the outside center formed by an up-turned lip on either side—one straight up and one angled out—to hold the line. The rigs I have inspected so far really only have three things in common—a length of heavy line, a weight, and one or more hooks. The tackle has been arranged in all the same arrays of configuration that you might see in other salt water fishing rigs, as have all other techniques.
To cast, a length is pulled from the spool and swung lasso-style above the head before releasing towards the water. (Apparently. With practice. At least Paul can show you how it’s done in the video below.) I had a lot of trouble coordinating this motion while holding the wheel just so to allow the line to spool off over the edge without gripping the whole thing in a death grip and stopping the line short. It is certainly something that takes a lot of practice and skill to achieve accuracy and distance and I particularly enjoy the extreme hands-on approach. My beginner casting was so poor that I spent most of my time on the beach spinning just the weight above my head in practice casts so I never got to experience a fish on, but the thought of bringing one in on such a simple rig is quite a thrilling prospect and now that I finally have my own handline all set up, you’ll probably be able to find me on the rocks most mornings.

Aside from the extremely intimate and organic feel this kind of fishing produces, there is another benefit—literally all you need to replicate it where ever you may find yourself is a length of heavy line and a hook. These rigs are often recreated using household objects and actual garbage (glass and plastic bottles, especially those that narrow a bit and have a good neck, are perfect,) and I have seen weights consisting of rocks, short bits of rebar, spark plugs, and yes, even traditional fishing weights all used. You can get fancy with your tackle if you want, but I’ve seen a lot of fish pulled in without it.
My current salvaged set up.

The funny thing is that suddenly…I’m not feeling that much urgency to get my gear down here. This has stirred up all kinds of funny Swiss Family Robinson, can-do make-do sorts of feelings. Somehow I feel inspired to master this most simple version of fishing—partially out of necessity and partially because the challenge is irresistible. Looking back, I find it funny that I eschewed those early days with bamboo poles and crickets in favor of expensive rigs, frequent frustration, and gear woes.
It is liberating to lose the excess in these things, too, it turns out.

A few of my favorite handline resources

How to "live the dream" between the mountain and the sea.

The sea is exceptionally calm this morning when I walk onto the balcony to stretch. It’s just after eight but it’s so quiet and still and the sun is only just peaking up from the Sierra Madre at my back so, somehow, it feels much earlier.

A skin diver is scouring the rocks with a panga waiting nearby to receive his catch. All of this is unusual, since the divers are usually unaccompanied. Then again, I’ve never seen the water so calm on the rocks below my little apartment. He must be collecting quite a bounty this morning. I hear there are bands of red tide elsewhere in Banderas Bay the last few days, but it is clear as a bell here on the south side and I can see each mossy rock nestled into the sea bed like an emerald waiting to be mined.
I go inside to water the plants (those coleus are thirsty little things,) and get the coffee going, measuring a couple of tablespoons of some new “gourmet” Mexican coffee from Chiapas into the cup of my stovetop espresso maker. I haven’t tried this before, and I’m looking forward to it but trying to keep my expectations low. Even though Mexico has some world famous coffee growing regions, it is not especially known for having much of a high brow “coffee culture” and I assume all of those delicious beans must be shipped elsewhere because I have been hard pressed to find anything decent on the shelf amid the rows and rows of instant coffee crystals. Granted, I haven’t looked hard, but it is certainly not as easy to find good grinds in the grocery store as it is in the States.
Wandering back outside, the diver has moved on around the point with his companion boat but another panga has replaced them. This one hovers just offshore with a single driver manning it. He must be cleaning his own catch this morning, because the pelicans are swarming him.

A juvenile Pelecanus occidentalis in flight. They nest here year-round. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

As sea birds go, I love the pelicans. None of the clatter and racket of gulls, which I am lucky not to have here, and no interest in your unattended lunch. They fly so near to the balcony on their daily migrations up and down the coastline that sometimes I think I could almost reach out and grab one. Somehow, they are exceptionally graceful in flight—and unexpected thing if you’ve ever watched one waddle around on land.
Ortalis wagleri, a near cousin of my own West Mexican Chachalacas. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

There are other birds out this morning. I still don’t know all of them, but I’ve learned a few. The chachalacas are just now beginning to stir in the trees, preening and hopping from branch to branch as if they, too, are considering the day’s to-do list. Later they will decide, and announce the news to the whole neighborhood in the most horrendous cackle you’ve ever heard.
The hummingbirds are out, too. They’re flitting around some wispy yellow flowers on a tree I don’t know the name of. Maybe it’s some relative of the mimosa, with it’s soft fluttering pompoms. Whatever it is, both the hummingbirds and the chachalacas love them and while the hummingbird leaves no trace of its visit, the chachalacas will plow through rough shod, as boisterously as their conversation, and devour the buffet.
I’ve thought about moving into the city. I could find even cheaper rent, I’m told, and it would certainly be less isolating. I’m sure Porkchop would enjoy walks through town, catching up with all the pee-mail around. But I quite like it here. The biodiversity is amazing for a place so close to the city.
This narrow strip of cliffside jungle between the mountains and the sea has geckos and garrobos, more birds than I could ever hope to identify, coatimundi (or so I’m told,) at least a million species of butterflies and moth (only a slight exaggeration) and countless other insects both fascinating and not, periodic plagues of frogs, several kind of crabs inhabiting both land and sea, parrots nesting in hollowed-out termite hives, and boas and tarantulas (neither of which I’ve seen, but I’m oddly looking forward to it).
I love living in this crazy zoo and getting to know these odd neighbors, even when they invade as they did the other day—a swarm of minuscule ants swept through my house taking every last lingering crumb with them…and then were gone before I set in to figure out what to do about them.
A man told me yesterday that my life here didn’t constitute “living the dream” according to the status quo.
Well, sir. I beg to differ.
I’m not sure how much you’d actually have to pay me to put me in a sterile penthouse apartment separated from all of this but outfitted with the standard array of high-end human creature comforts, but it wouldn’t be cheap and I certainly wouldn’t actually pay anyone else for that life. I suppose it’s true, we all have different expectations of what we need and want out of life—what we require to make us “happy”—and I accept that not all would find the value in these simple pleasures.
Why do I find joy, for example, in flicking a gecko turd off the seat of my patio chair before settling in with my morning coffee?! Surely others would consider that a horrific inconvenience, but to me it’s a love note from a shiny little translucent thing that ate up all the mosquitos in the night.
Thank you, gecko.

On why sometimes you should go forth and ignore good advice.

I spent ten years in Alaska. I moved there alone and I lived alone for four or five of those years. I worked behind both bars and desks alone. And for half of the ten years I lived there, I spent lots of time at home alone because even though I’d rather be out camping or fishing or adventuring, I couldn’t find anyone to go with me and I’d been scared off going it alone.
All the advice was the same, every single time. “Don’t go alone,” they’d say.
People have been telling me that in almost every situation my entire adult life, and I successfully ignored them most of that time. I think maybe it’s because my mom never told me that. She understood the desire to be out in the world and observe it on your own, without the clutter of companionship; without the restraint of addressing someone else’s pace or preoccupations or schedules. She told me about growing up in the country and spending full days rambling around the rural South on her own and she never discouraged me from doing the same when I became the echo of her youth, another lonesome-loving wild child of the Mississippi Delta.
I’d spend all day out on my own before I even hit double digits, dodging near-misses from snakes and coming face to face with alligator snapping turtles as big as the hood of a car. There were always scrapes and bruises and bumps to report when I’d roll into the kitchen at dinner time after a full day on the lam. It’s a wonder I was never injured, honestly, but Mom told me that she couldn’t worry about us all the time. She couldn’t protect us at every moment of every day, so she shared what guidance she could and let us loose on the world. I think her faith helped her—but I have another kind of faith. The kind where I’m just simply OK with whatever is to come as long as it comes when I’m living life to its fullest.
I never let fear stop me in Hawaii, driving from one end of old Molokai to another on an old beat up Honda Mule. I never let it stop me in Memphis, traversing neighborhoods at hours that would make decent folk go white with concern. I didn’t let it stop me my first summer in Alaska, in Denali, and I didn’t let it stop me in New York City after that.
Something happened during my second stay in Alaska, though. The long one. I don’t know what it was. I guess all the dire warnings finally caught up with my more sensible self. I didn’t feel so bullet proof in the world anymore. I let it all get to me and I sat around wasting time, waiting for someone to join me on an adventure because for the first time in my life the world had succeeded in making me afraid.
Sometimes I think that’s the only reason I stayed there so long. My “Alaska Bucket List” wasn’t dwindling. I worked weekends when most others worked week days and could never quite seem to coordinate to do anything with anyone else. I guess eventually I just got tired of waiting. I started collecting the things I’d need to enjoy the outdoors on my own instead of relying on someone else’s tent or stove. I started small with going to places I was familiar with, places I’d gone with groups in the past and had missed for too long. People still said “don’t go alone” but something funny happened—nothing.
And the same thing happened again and again and again. Nothing. I always came home safe, and perhaps more unscathed than I had as a child. I was always careful, I always educated myself on an area and took precautions and told people where I was going and when I should be back. Alaska is a particularly dangerous place by many measures. If things go wrong you bear a much greater risk of not being found in a timely manner—or at all, if they go really wrong. It’s happened many times before, and perhaps it was this collection of dire warnings and regular news stories of misadventures that kept me at home so often.
And it’s starting to happen again here in Mexico. Even after ignoring the pushback from all the people that warned me that I shouldn’t come here, that it was too dangerous, “especially alone.” I find myself surrounded by others who did the same, but now many of them are the very ones who regale me with horrifying anecdotes of A Million Ways to Die in Mexico.
I didn’t come here to post up in my apartment and watch the sunsets with a margarita…at least not every day. I came to keep living the life I love until I’m not living anymore, and if the former leads to the latter, so be it. I will still go on hikes, I will still camp, I will still kayak…and I will do all of it alone sometimes.
And because of that, I will still get disapproving looks when excitedly relating plans for some new adventure from the majority of people I share it with. My exuberance will be often met with some horrifying anecdote, and I will brush off my annoyance to thank them and adjust my preparations, if needed, to address whatever unlikely threat they warn of. I suspect now I will also be told “it’s not like it is in the States,” just like I was told “It’s not like it is in the Lower 48” when I was in Alaska.
I will be called reckless for this, but I will persist. I will be called irresponsible, but I will smile and usually go anyway. I am used to those kinds of judgements at this point, and I can’t help but notice such commandments to “be careful” fly more frequently in the face of women while men generally need not suffer the suggestion that they are incompetent—even when they are.
I’ll leave you with this: Thank you for your concern. If you have specific useful information pertinent to my plans, feel free to share. Vague comments and any advice to the tune of “be careful” is redundant and unhelpful. I am a grown woman, not a neophyte in need of your protection. I have spent some time in the outdoors and around the world. I am not unaware of the things that can go wrong, but I take the risks because I believe them to be worth it.
You should try it some time. It’s liberating.