By Gene Kira, Feb. 15, 2002, as published in Western Outdoors Magazine:
My most-prized Baja fishing souvenir is an old, traditional panguero's winding board, just like the ones used by the Mexican fishermen, Chino Zúniga and Abundio Rodriguez, in King Of The Moon.
It's a plain piece of wood, exactly twelve inches long, three-and-a-half inches wide, and three-quarters of an inch thick; in other words, it's nothing more a one-foot-long piece of standard one-by-four, probably cut from pine or douglas fir.
Both ends are indented with V-shaped notches about an inch deep, and these notches are wide-bottomed, having straight bases about an inch-and-a-half across, so the board looks like it's growing a pair of widely-spaced, triangular "ears" at each end.
About a hundred yards of heavy monofilament line is wound on, from notch to notch, and this line is of a special type called "línea para pescar" that I've never seen sold in the United States. It's made of special, soft, low-memory nylon, about 250-pound test, and it's colored along its length in one-foot sections of alternating pink, yellow, and green. The colors remind you of watermelons.
At the end of this line is a one-pound torpedo sinker, and about three feet up from it, a pair of five-inch-long dropper loops tied fifteen inches apart, each armed with a big, barbed, offset, long-shank, straight-eye, plain-wire bait hook about two-and-a-half inches long.
It is important to note that these hooks are not tied on. The ends of the dropper loops are simply passed through their eyes and then over the body of the hook to lock it in place. This "knotless knot," combined with the stiff line and the geometry of the dropper loop itself, holds the hook out at a right-angle from the main line.
Okay, that's five rather tedious paragraphs to describe a very simple piece of fishing tackle that would cost you less than a dollar to make. So why go to such length and detail?
Well, if you've ever fished with a Mexican panguero, you know the bitter, bitter truth: using his dumb old winding board and his big, ugly bait hooks, he will outfish your fancy store-bought tackle almost every time. Even though it may appear to be just a simple piece of junk, the traditional winding board's shape and dimensions, the knots, the line, the hooks--everything about it--makes it a highly-evolved piece of fishing machinery, finely tuned to its task, with a man's livelihood depending on it, and it is supremely efficient and deadly effective.
The shape and size of the board allow it to flop around freely on deck, without binding or tangling, as the line is played out. Yet, it is big enough to retrieve line quickly and not cause too many kinks. The line is very strong, useful in itself, but with the added advantage that its tensile strength transmits the slightest vibrations to the most sensitive receptor of all: a pair of experienced hands. The multi-color camouflaging of the line may or may not do any good--plenty of pangueros fish with plain line too--but what the heck, why argue with results? The sinker is just right for most situations, heavy enough to pull the bait down to the bottom, yet light enough to be cast if necessary. The dropper loops hold the hooks stiffly outwards, where they are correctly positioned to be set in the jaw of a fish with a yank of only a few inches. And the big, bad bait hooks, with points usually exposed, hold large chunks of tough bait, effectively filtering out unwanted small fish, yet hooking anything big that so much as takes a sniff.
After fishing with pangueros all over Baja, I have come to admire and respect the simple, traditional winding board, and I have not been able to improve upon its basic design. With slight modifications to this rig--replacing the sinker with a jig or trolling feather, for instance--pangueros seem to have the edge almost all the time. I've come to suspect that there are only a few situations where "fancy tackle" has an undisputed advantage. Among them: 1. From shore, where your long rod gives you more distance than the panguero's lasso-style casting technique. 2. On larger offshore fish, over 100 pounds, say, where a panguero's bare hands are at a disadvantage against a two-speed lever drag reel and roller guide rod. 3. On really small fish at the opposite end of the scale, where you need tiny hooks tied on light leader.
On just about everything else caught in Baja, from lingcod to dorado, it's really tough to outfish a panguero using a simple winding board. There have been many times when I've put my rod down, and fished their way, with improved results. In fact, that's how I got my souvenir board. Traded a handful of old Krocodiles for it.
It would be a fitting and heartwarming story to say that I was introduced to the joys of handlining by a kindly old panguero, someone like Santiago in Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea for instance, but that wasn't the case.
I discovered handlining all by my stupid self one breezy day off San Felipe's Roca Consag, the white-colored pinnacle that sticks up like a sailboat, eighteen miles off the coast at the extreme north end of the Sea of Cortez. After running out to the island in my old Boston Whaler, I discovered that--TOTAL IDIOT!!--I had left my rods on the beach beside the launch ramp in San Felipe. Because of the huge tidal swings in the northern Sea of Cortez, there was certainly no time to run back for the rods, and then return to fish the rocks; by mid-afternoon, the ramp would be high and dry, a quarter-mile from the water.
Then, I noticed that even though there were no rods on the boat, I had--TOTAL GENIUS!!--managed to remember my tackle boxes, which contained all kinds of lures, and sinkers, and...an old spool of 80-pound mono.
One thing led to another, I jigged up a triggerfish for bait, and in a raging northern Sea of Cortez current that would have been almost unfishable with my medium-weight rods, I handlined nine species of fish in a couple of hours. Because I could feel the strikes with my bare hands--even despite the current that was running like a whitewater river--I'm sure I caught more fish that day than I would have with my regular tackle.
Ever since that serendipitous discovery of panguero-style fishing, I've been a student of winding boards, and handlines, and the Zen-like experience of contacting the underwater world through the relaxed, passive sense of feel, without a lot of levers and buttons and high-tech gadgetry to get in the way.
I'm not saying that handline fishing is "better" or even "right," for me or anybody else. But on some winter days when I'm at home, I look at my old Baja winding board, and sometimes I pick it up and smell the sea steeped in its weathered wood, and I know that panguero-style fishing is effective and fun, and it offers a whole new way of experiencing the experience.
(Related Baja California, Mexico, articles and reports may be found at Mexfish.com's main Baja California information page. See weekly fishing news, photos, and reports from the major sportfishing vacation areas of Mexico including the Baja California area in "Mexico Fishing News.")