Walter Mencken 10:15 a.m., Dec. 13
It is sometimes a bit of a surprise to English speaking visitors to Vonny’s Fleet panga camp in Punta Banda when they first encounter its owner, Ivan Villarino; although he is 100% ‘Mexicano puro’, he communicates with the fluidity and enunciation of a native southern Californian.
As a matter of fact, that’s where he lived for a number of years during his early youth. At least until he became old enough to realize that he couldn’t stand all of the crowded congestion and wanted to return to a place where the pace of life was slower and cultural values were different.
He was also drawn back to his home in this small poblado on northern Baja’s Pacific coast at the southern end of Ensenada’s Bahia de Todos Santos because of his unabashed love of the sea. Villarino has been a skillful, instinctive and highly focused angler for most of his life, and this was indeed a place where he could live out his passion in full measure.
The rich ocean waters nearby support an immense number of marine organisms, not the least of which are the wide varieties of popular gamefish species that are both migratory and territorial, and provide year-round angling opportunities.
Several decades ago there were no reliable charter panga services anywhere in this fish-rich region. Anglers were left at the mercy of generally uncaring commercial pangeros, who didn’t really give much of a hoot whether their customers caught fish or not. In fact, it was not an uncommon occurrence for an unlucky group of fishermen to get stuck with a hung-over skipper who was provided with only the bare minimum of gasoline that was perceived necessary to make the trip, which sometimes was not quite enough.
When Villarino first opened Vonny’s Fleet many years ago, he named it after his daughter, Yvonne, and nurtured the fledgling business as if it were his youngest child. Finally, after decades of frustration, visiting anglers had a place where they could get dependable panga charter service from an established, well-equipped and highly knowledgeable outlet.
He began with one 20-foot panga, which he skippered himself and launched right off the sandy beach near the end of the bay. Villarino, who is also a master mechanic and an innovative designer, even built his own ‘tilt back’ trailer to make it easier to retrieve his boats from the surf after he expanded his fleet. Ivan Villarino now owns four pangas and employs three full-time skippers to address the demand of the fishing public that now fill his pangas in increasing numbers each season.
While Ivan rarely guides a trip himself these days, he’s always ready to offer up one of his many tales relating to the exciting fishing experiences that he has enjoyed over the years off the coast of Ensenada.
Villarino recalls, “A few months after I originally opened Vonny’s Fleet years ago, there was this customer of mine that kept saying he wanted me to take him out for a full day to fish for halibut exclusively. This was in early November, which is a bit late in the season, and I warned him that we might fish the whole darn trip and only catch a few halibut.
That didn’t bother him at all, so we set a date and launched off the beach on a nice day with calm seas. Well, it may have been pretty out on the water, but after a little over six hours of drifting with frozen anchovies we had only landed a few halibut, and none of them were over about 2 or 3 pounds; that was definitely not what we were out there for.
Worse yet, we were running out of bait and only had a little over an hour left before we had to start heading back toward the beach. Talk about depressed, this poor guy was just staring off the starboard side into the water with a blank look on his face. It was killing me too, because I’ve always had a reputation for catching more than my share of halibut, and that is why he selected me to take him out that day.
After the last bait was pinned on, I suggested that we give it one last try a little deeper and I moved us out into about 60 feet of water; a good depth for winter halibut.
In addition to dropping the last anchovy down, I reached over near the outboard motor and picked up a small, dead mackerel that we had hooked inadvertently that morning. It was all dried out from the sun, but was still relatively fresh. After cutting a fillet-like flap from its tail to its belly, I ‘mouse trap’ rigged it with a live bait hook in the nose and a large treble hook in the tail and sent the 18-inch leader to the bottom along with a 4-ounce torpedo sinker.
“Oh, well. What did I expect comin’ out here in November and tryin’ to catch halibut; I’d say I was just a few months too late.” My client offered with a sigh, “Guess I should have had you take us out back in May after you first opened up!”
I was just about to apologize for not being able to put us on the fish this time, when the clicker on my reel started slowly ticking away and then got faster and faster. ‘Looks like we got a taker on that stinky old mackerel!’ I yelled over at him with a grin.
Although I had already set the hook, I was trying my best to nurse the fish to the boat because I wasn’t sure how big he was, and we were only using 17-pound test line. ‘Do you want to take the pole?’ I asked while trying to hand it off to him.
“No, no.” He quickly shot back “I want to take a picture if this turns out to be a big guy.”
‘O.K., that’s your call’ I replied. ‘But I really don’t know if this is much bigger than 12-pounds or so.’
“That’s alright.” He responded. “ It’s a Hell of a lot bigger than anything that we’ve caught so far today.”
So I kept one eye on my line and one eye on the current to make sure that we kept the fish on the correct side of the boat. I kept cranking and lifting slowly, inching the fish in bit by bit.
“Wow,” Remarked my client, “This one looks like he might be even bigger than you thought.”
I tried not to pay attention because one false move might loose what we had been working all day for.
“Good lord!” He shouted, “This guy is HUGE! Take a look down there!”
For the first time, I took my attention off the job at hand and looked over the rail of my panga. My blood ran cold; the big California halibut beneath the boat looked to be almost 4 feet long with a giant fantail. But at this point in time he was just floating about a foot beneath the water’s surface.
‘Jeeez, we’ve got our hands full now!’ I yelled while grabbing the large salmon landing net that I always have aboard. ‘Here, take the pole’ I instructed, ‘Don’t lift his head out of the water, and I’ll net him.’
I slowly glided the big net up his body from behind and then quickly began to lift the big fish over the rail …but as soon as it felt itself coming out of the water, it bucked. And when it did, the handle of the net bent in half.
My client alertly grabbed one side of the net’s hoop and I grabbed the other as we lugged the giant halibut into the panga. I immediately picked up a belaying pin and smacked it over the noggin until it was fully subdued. A fish that size can do some serious damage once it’s on your boat.
It took us about 20 minutes to get back to shore, and my ecstatic client was smiling ear to ear every one of them. When we got back to my shop we put it on the scale. It weighed 45 pounds, 10 ounces.”
“It’s called ‘fishing just for the halibut!” Villarino added with a grin.