Short Stories: Dogfishing

I guess I’ve been dogfishing since I learned to walk. I’ve caught Shepherds in San Ber’do, and battled Dobies in Des Moines. I’ve even had a maddened Great Dane snap the antenna and mirrors off our ’fishing Jeep in Carson City. But for sheer power and gameness, I’ve never seen anything to equal, pound for pound, a Mexican Mutt.

I know, I know. Across the border in Texas, hooking a Mutt holds the same thrill as reeling in a trash bag full of wet lawn clippings. I feared that most of my ’fishing buddies would forsake me when they heard I was going South for Mutts. Most of them had ’fished Mexico at one time or another, and each had been disappointed.

But there was something about my guide Guiar that told me I was doing the right thing. I don’t know whether it was his fully-outfitted Chevy Step-Van or his garrulous demeanor, but the day after I met him, I found myself packing my gear for the big trip. I never did learn Guiar’s last name, but he taught me all there is to know about Mexican Mutts.

When I arrived at Guiar’s place, a rush of doubt assailed me as I sized up the stripped cars lining both sides of the narrow street in front of his house. Guiar, however, assured me my car would be perfectly safe, pointing to his pristine trio of late-model Porsche 911s as proof. But there was something else bothering me: I didn’t want to fall victim to one of the vicious bogus dogfishing expedition rings that were rumored to be working the area. I’d heard stories about unsuspecting ’fishermen disappearing, only to turn up days later, penniless in some Baja California bar.

Guiar, I ventured, embarrassed, Are you sure this is a good time of year for Mutts?

Nh, he replied volubly.

I don’t want to go all the way there and find they’re out of season.

Guiar eyed me loquaciously. I pressed on.

Are you sure they’ll put up a good fight?

Guiar returned to the preparations I had interrupted. Big Mutt, was all he said.

Come on, Guiar, I snapped. I’ve been Muttfishing from El Paso to Port Isabel, and …

Guiar turned and gave me a look that stopped me in mid-sentence. He made a gesture with his hands that suggested he would rather sit at home and watch the sun bleach the carpet than go to El Paso for Mutts. Big Mutt, was all he said, and nodded southward.

Guiar’s Step-Van didn’t make very good time, even with a Gale Banks twin-turbo 454 shoe-horned into the engine compartment. With more than one Coconut-Papaya Surprise under my belt, the effect of riding backwards perched on a tiny jump seat for 150 miles was beginning to manifest itself.

When we got to the border, the guards took one look at the marlin seats on the roof and waved us through. How much further, I asked, rousing myself from my stupor.

Guiar know, he said, and rewarded my rise to consciousness with a cloth sack, indicating I put it over my head so I wouldn’t be able to find his special spot later on my own. I reckless­ly spurned the sack and turned my attention again to my Dogfisher’s Blue Book. Guiar pointed the big van to the side of the road and switched off the ignition.

We stared at each other for a long moment, then I took the bag and put it on. It was dark outside, and it really didn’t matter: Guiar could play this little game, as long as I got my Mutt.

When we finally pulled to a stop at our campsight, I grabbed a flashlight to take a look around. Guiar would have none of it, however, and as long as the door was closed, the child-proof locks made him the boss. Guiar patiently folded up the sack I had been wearing and got out a sleeping bag. Sleep now, he said, laying the bag out on the skinning table. Big Mutt tomorrow.

My head hardly touched the No. 10 can I had been given to use as a pillow, so it seemed, before I awoke to the sound of Guiar banging pots and pans around fixing our breakfast of bran shards and dry milk powder. I lost no time getting out of bed.

When I did, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Disappointment was a weak word for the emotion I felt, looking around at our ’fishing grounds. The desolate streets, the low buildings, the abandoned used car lots; it looked like the last place in the world to ’fish for Mutt. Guiar saw the expression on my face. He grunted and jerked his thumb towards the corner panderilla as if reading my thoughts. Mutt here, he said. Big one.

After glumly downing my breakfast without even tasting it, I prepared my tackle and lures and climbed reluctantly to the marlin seat on the roof of the van. I wondered what I was going to tell my friends when I got back. How could Guiar have been so wrong?

I gotta tell you though, he was right … in spades. My first lure, the rubber Gainesburger, had scarcely hit the street when a puff of dust erupted near it. Before I knew it, the tip of my rod bent nearly to my feet, and line screamed out of my reel like a discarded beer can out of a police helicopter. It was all I could do to maintain my seat against the pull of the Mutt.

For the next four hours, it seemed as if the whole world was nothing but the flying bodies of Mutt after Mutt, each one sure to tip the scales at no less than sixty pounds. I was so busy, I temporarily lost track of Guiar, but when I looked up again, there he was. I grinned at him to indicate it certainly was foolish of me to have doubted his word about the ’fishing here. In return I got the same look he had given me earlier when I had raised my objections. He appeared as disgusted and as bored at the same time as any man I’d ever seen.

What’s wrong?

Guiar grunted contemptuously.

I’ve been doing pretty well here, don’t you think?

Guiar looked away for a moment as if what I had been doing all day was about as interest­ing as a class in remedial reading. He pointed to the street.

Big Mutt still there.

Gradually, I began to realize that hidden in the verbal Niagara of Guiar’s patter were hints of the existence of a Mutt of a size never recorded in the annals of dogfishing.

It was late, but I had to make one more try. Putting away the rod I had been using all day, I got out a converted flag pole I use for really big mammals. I certainly hadn’t expected to use it when I packed it! For leader, I borrowed the chain that had held the Honda Trail 90 to the front of the Step-Van. Abandoning the ersatz ’burger on a hunch, I tied on an old garbage can filled with lard-soaked newspapers.

On the first couple of casts, nothing happened. I wondered if maybe I hadn’t punched enough holes in the garbage can to let out the aroma of the lard, but Guiar stayed my hand from reeling it in. Still nothing happened. My mind wandered back to the times Ronald Reagan and I used to go to Mexico, in that old death-trap of a plane they gave him to use as governor of California, to smuggle fireworks out of Ensenada: Some for personal use, some for those too embarrassed to be seen at a Safe-n-Sane stand, and who were willing to learn the esoteric barter system Ronnie and I had invented. I remembered the food and the girls and the music and the money that flowed like …

Suddenly, my reverie was disturbed by what appeared to be a restaging of the tornado scene from the Wizard of Oz, all happening a few yards beyond where the garbage can lay cockeyed in the gutter. The buildings sucked in towards the street, and the cobblestones themselves seemed to buckle and surge upwards, moved by some unseen force. I watched, spellbound, as out of the center of the vast upheaval and whirlwind showed a giant tail as the lazy monster attached to it rolled over in the dust, scratching his back, and then disappeared around a corner in an instant. I turned to Guiar, transfixed.

Don’t tell me that was a Mutt. Mutts don’t get that big!

Guiar regarded me for a moment with a look that is usually reserved for slow children. Big Mutt, he replied with a sly smile.

In a flash, I realized that the tackle I was using was far too light for a Mutt of this size, or for that matter, for anything of this size. Guiar had known what he was prattling about, after all, but it was too late now to pause and reflect on what should have been. I felt a strike on the line that shook the van down to its overloaded air shocks. The end of the flag pole went down. Out screamed the line. Even with 125 pounds of drag, the Mutt’s lunges were still ripping out my aircraft control cable like the government was going to be rationing it tomorrow. The monster hurled himself around the tiny confines of the street, ricochetting against the adobe walls like a whale in a bathtub. I knew he had taken the garbage can in one bite, not even stopping to look it over. Right now, it was probably being digested in its mammoth gut.

Between pulls, I tried in vain to reel in some of my precious line. The pole was bent almost double. Cable was still racing out. Against all my better judgment, I tried to increase the drag by braking the drum of the reel with my thumb; a foolish decision. In the time it takes a computer to foul up a phone bill I had a nasty burn on my thumb to show for my wisdom. Guiar laughed hideously and poured the tepid remains of a beer over the damaged digit.

More leaps and plunges. More pulls and rushes. My arms felt as if they had been dead for hours. A day’s worth of dogfishing had taken its toll, but I wasn’t about to give up this one without all the fight I could muster. Not when a few more thrusts and parries might put my name in amongst those of dogfishing’s greats.

The Mutt must have sensed my resolve, for he started working to snag the line on an old International that was parked down the street. For a moment, he hooked a tire, but the very next jerk snapped the lugnuts, freeing the line and sending the tire and wheel careening down an alleyway.

Failing that, the Mutt began to work his way around a corner. Guiar examined the moorings of the chair wordlessly and gave me a look that implied the bolts might not hold for much more punishment. The thought of stopping was out of the question, though. The beast was beginning to weaken, and I had even retrieved some of my lost line.

An hour later, however, the Mutt was still applying an incredible pull to the other end of the cable, and seemed to be getting a second wind. With a single burst, it ripped out most of the cable I had recovered. I could see it was hoping to snag the line on a Studebaker sitting on blocks just beyond his reach.

I watched helplessly as the Mutt gathered itself for possibly its final lunge. The powerful rear legs uncoiled like a MacPherson strut escaping the grip of a spring compressor. But the gravel in the street spoiled his launch, and instead of reaching the car he went down far short of the curb, rolling against the tension of the line. For a moment, I thought I had him. My elation at prevaling was mixed with a bittersweet respect for my opponent.

I shouldn’t have wasted the effort. He regained his footing in a twinkling, and the sudden jerk on the unexpectedly slack line was all it took. He disappeared behind the Studebaker. That’s when I felt the line go ominously limp. I began reeling in frantically.

Mutt gone, Guiar said.

True enough, the Mutt was gone. As mute testimony to the struggle, the case-hardened chain was bitten clean through.

Stunned, I sat for a minute, then got up to pack for the trip home. Suddenly, the air of the street swirled, and the beast ran past in the distance, giving his tail a final, derisive shake. He knew he was still the Big Mutt of Mexico.

When we got back to Los Angeles, Guiar offered to call a tow truck for the remains of my car, which his family had forgotten to put in the garage overnight, but I refused. I had learned a lot over the weekend. Cars you can buy anytime. But an experience like the one I had in Mexico comes once in a lifetime.