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Catch As Catch Can

Circa May 30, 1968

 

He cut off a generous piece of the crab's body and worked it onto the hook, innards dangling from the broken shell. He didn't bother to cut out the gills, which were considered by human standards to be somewhere on the scale of edibility between Brittle Star and boot leather, because the Rock Bass he was after didn't differentiate between delicacies. He turned the hook over, inspecting it from all sides, and carefully tucked several dangling ends of the flesh over the point and past the reverse burr. Finally satisfied with his work, he turned the reel to take up the slack, opened the lock and drew out sufficient line to intiate the cast without letting the pay load touch the ground. He pressed his thumb against the loop of line to hold it in place against the spool until just the right moment, then squeezed the ratchet-release with his index finger. Raising the rod over his right shoulder until it came to within inches of the dune behind him, he deftly cast. Bait and hook went flying, took up the loop of loose line which he expertly released by relaxing the pressure of his thumb, and drew hard on the reel, spinning against the ratchet-release with a high pitched whine. Pelican Watching the Surf - Puerto Lobos, 2002

He had been a fisherman as far back in his thirty-odd years as he could remember, and in the few years he had been coming to Cholla Bay, he had pretty well mastered surf fishing. But this particular cast was on its way to providing one of those unforgettable surprises he and the others would remember the rest of their lives.

The fishing party was perched on a narrow band of fine sand and rock just under a shallow bank that formed the southwestern shore of Cholla Bay, more or less in the middle of the fishing settlement that served both local Mexican and US sports fisherman. The bay was a couple of feet past high tide and in as many hours would be emptying to expose a vast mud flat rich in clams and other mollusks. Although the water was already too shallow to launch boats from the nearby boat ramp, they were coming and going with the asssistance of giraffes1, which busily towed boats and trailers between the vehicles backed precariously down the launching ramp and water of sufficient depth for boat launching.

But the cast never reached the water. A large pelican, seizing the moment, swooped in for a tactical coup, catching the bait in mid-air. When the bird hit the end of the line normal navigation was replaced by a series of failed recovery maneuvers resulting in all manner of twisting and flapping. Gene, our fisherman, wound his reel furiously. The pelican hit the ground hard, stood up, thrust his beak in the air and swallowed as only a pelican can do. Bait and hook were no doubt in his stomach only a matter of seconds after the initial intercept. The four-foot bird, now fully recovered, stood in typically pelican stance with neck erect, head tilted forward until his beak pointed straight toward the ground, so close to his neck that the two seemed inseparable -- as if nothing unusual had happened at all.

Alarmed, Gene's wife, Billie, slipped five-year-old Darla off her lap and jumped up from the beach chair in which she had been reclining. She was speechless. The pelican didn't say anything, either; he just stood there with his beak sticking straight downward out of his face.

Gene wound a few more tentative winds on his reel. The indignant bird fought furiously. At about three feet between them Gene stopped. The bird, regaining his composure for a moment, resumed as dignified a stance as was pelicanly possible under the circumstances -- which is a lot of dignity all in one muster.

Gene wasn't sure what to do next. He didn't want to loose any more hooks, especially to a fowl pelican.

But Billie had an idea. "I'll bet I could just step over there and grab him around beak and neck at the same time", she said, forming a circle with the thumb and index fingers of both hands. She didn't elaborate on what she might do after that. She took a step forward, then another, placing herself just out of arm's reach of the bird. The pelican disdainfully ignored her advance.

Billie stood there a long minute, then lunged with both hands.

Retaliation was swift and decisive. The bird, standing about half facing her, remained motionless except for the two foot beak, which in the space of about a quarter second swung open to the extreme, closed with a snap, opened again to the extreme, closed with another snap, opened and snapped a third time.

Crack! Crack! Crack! The sound was somewhere between that of a rifle and an M-80 firecracker.

In one instaneous reflex Billie regained balance, distance and sensibility; even so, not before her hands came within a couple of nanoseconds of independence. The powerful beak had taken a large bite out of her ego. The bird adjusted his plumage a trifle, realigned beak with neck in a series of head wobbles befitting a belly dancer, and stood silent.

Billie picked up Darla from the chair and sat down.

With a new appreciation of the situation, it didn't take Gene long to make a correctional adjustment concerning the value of his hook. In slow motion he extended the rod, tightening the line one more time, inching the bird as close as his newfound respect would allow. Then, without uttering a word, he produced his tackle knife, reached out to the end of the rod and unceremoniously clipped the line.

The pelican stood there, unaware of his release. Gene took a sudden step forward, clapping his hands. The pelican jumped backward; then sensing his freedom, stooped, ackwardly rose off the ground amid much flapping and twisting, and disappeared, line trailing in the breeze.

 
Circa May 30, 1968
 

 
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1A giraff is a two-story vehicle hand made from two car frames of unknown origin, with engine and driver's seat mounted on the upper frame, and drive and stearing shafts crossing from the upper frame to the wheels on the lower frame. Such a vehicle can be driven into the water with a boat trailer in tow to a sufficient depth to launch the boat without submersing the engine and driver.
 

 
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