Photos by Nick Price
Somewhere along a remote Pacific Baja beach, a man in knee-high boots walks to the water’s edge early in the morning. The tide is full, and the surf is head-high and breaking on both an outside bar and an inner one.
He studies the waves and white water for a few minutes, looking for places where snook are likely to be prowling and ambushing bait. He turns and picks up a silver jig with a single treble hook tied to a length of heavy monofilament coiled on the sand. The lure is about 6 inches long and weighs 6 or 7 ounces. And with the ease of a basketball prodigy shooting his 10,000th free throw, Carlos twirls the lure around his head three or four times and releases it.
The metal jig sails through the morning air and lands roughly 50 yards out, beyond the inside break. Trim and in his late 50s or early 60s, the fisherman begins a slow retrieve, with the jig rising and falling in the white water and backwash, and occasionally ticking the sand. He strips with his left hand, the line running over his right index finger and his thumb. Choreographed and practiced like a kata in martial arts, the movement is so natural and pure that it has become part of him, as second nature as riding a bike or scrolling through your phone.
The photos here were taken by Nick Price, a 48-year-old fly-fishing guide from Idaho who camped on this unnamed beach in December targeting roosterfish on the fly. “I photographed it as something I thought was beautiful, yet likely would never be published,” Price says.
He told me about the Baja trip and mentioned the Mexican ranch hand who would appear with his brother and sister-in-law some mornings and catch snook for his family. What he described sounded like “heaving and hauling,” a technique anglers used in the 19th and early 20th centuries along New England and Mid-Atlantic beaches to catch striped bass and bluefish. I was intrigued and asked to see the photos.
“Sounds like a ballet,” I ventured.
“No, not ballet,” Price said. “He was like a lightweight boxer. It was all coordinated. Super coordinated. It was his own ballet.”
The ranch worker was named Carlos. Price didn’t know his last name. And although the fisherman couldn’t speak English, Price knew enough Spanish to communicate. Carlos would appear during early mornings on a snook tide — low light and high water. He clearly benefited from a lifetime of local knowledge. “He knew exactly where to fish from on the beach,” Price says. “If the tide was right, he’d be there. He knew the tides. We couldn’t even figure out the tide.”
The fish were feeding on mullet, which Price says could be seen in the wave faces, which ran as high as 10 to 12 feet some days. “No rod, no reel. Simplicity,” he says. “Simple as it gets and effective. And in some ways, elegant. There was no wasted energy. They could look at the water and sense where the fish would be.”
Did they outfish the fly lords? When it came to snook on certain days, yes. “Heck yeah,” Price answered. “They outfished us. All of us combined. … After each fish he caught, he said, ‘This is a very special fish, and it will feed my family for Christmas.’ ” Price still wonders whether the expression was meant to be humorous or metaphorical.
Price fished with a group of anglers who spent two weeks camped on the beach and took snook, shortfin corvina, jacks and roosterfish on the fly. Price spent a week with the crew, who invited him to the spot, which he promised to keep secret.
Despite the language hurdle, Price and Carlos got along well. “We were respectful,” Price says. “He was a wonderful man. The story to me is this person and what he’s doing. He’s fishing. He’s happy. That’s the common thread between us. I’m guessing that the rest of his life is not easy.” In addition to providing food, Price says, “I think [fishing] was also his pleasure.”
I grew up surf fishing in New England and am old enough to have known some of the old timers who practiced heaving and hauling in the 1930s and ’40s. It was part of the rich tradition of catching striped bass and bluefish from shore.
The book American Game Fishes, published in 1892, describes the method:
“Another mode which is growing in favor is that of heaving and hauling in the surf. No rod is used, but the angler, standing on the beach or in the breakers, whirls his heavy jig about his head and casts it far into the sea, and having hooked his fish put his shoulder to the line, and walks up the beach dragging his prize after him to the shore. This is practiced everywhere on the exposed sandy beaches, such as are found at Montauk, Monomoy, Newport and Barnegat.”
We can now add that it is also practiced off an empty beach on Baja, where a man who has worked on a ranch his entire life has perfected the lost art of heaving and hauling for snook. And fried snook is just flat-out delicious in any language.