We had been fishing at a remote camp in the Sinaloa province of Mexico. Now, in a caravan of vehicles, we departed.
As we inched our way along the rutted dirt track that would carry us back to civilization, my friends and I reminisced about the fine bass fishing we had enjoyed. Then, suddenly, the vehicles stopped, and all hell broke loose.
Armed guards rushed past us. I grabbed my camera and rolled down the window. "Get down!" our driver shouted. "Hide! Queekly!" He slid under the steering wheel and crouched in the floorboard.
We heard shouting, then gunfire. In the darkness, I could see bursts of light from the muzzle blasts of shotguns, machine guns and pistols.
More guards ran past. More shots rang out. There was shouting in Spanish. I decided now it was best to hide, and joined my companions hunkered in the floor.
"What the hell is going on, Benny?" I shouted at the driver.
"Banditos!" he replied. "The road ahead eet was blocked weeth beeg rocks. They were waiting to rob us."
Suddenly, a man with a shotgun appeared at the window
Suddenly, a man with a shotgun appeared at the window. Benny screamed. I tried to wedge myself under the truck seat. There was pandemonium as my other three friends scrambled to hide. All of us thought we were dead.
I managed to crack one eye and look up at the window. A dark swarthy Mexican stared back at me, an evil grin on his face. It was Ramone, my armed-guard catfishing buddy.
"Senor Catfish," he said. "Theese eez more fun than feeshing, eez eet not?"
When I first arrived our fishing camp, I found it odd that armed guards were posted. "Why are there men with guns standing outside my room?" I asked the manager. "Is there some danger you've neglected to tell us about?"
"Just a precaution," he answered. "Nothing to worry about."
On that final night, I learned why guards were needed. The bandits that tried to rob us had been driven away, and no one had been robbed or killed (so we were told). Other "gringos" traveling backcountry roads without guards had not been so fortunate.
During my week in camp, I befriended two of the guards, Ramone and Ramone. While the other gringos were out bass fishing, I sometimes stayed behind and snuck off with the pair to fish for channel catfish. The Mexicans soon dubbed me "Senor Catfish."
The lake we were on was bristling with 1- to 2-pound cats, and I'd heard rumors of 50-plus- pound catfish taken by locals. Ramone and Ramone were a ready source of information, plying me with tales of the big ones they had hooked and lost on handlines.
The armed guards spoke of grande bagrés huge catfish
They spoke little English. I spoke little Spanish. But hand gestures and repetition bridged the gap, and I listened, enthralled, as they told me of the grande bagrés huge catfish that lived in the lake.
The day finally came when the storytelling was not enough.
Ramone and Ramone decided they must show me firsthand how to catch one of lake's monster cats. And so they left their posts, leaving the camp unguarded, and met me by the lake.
Like a trio of lads skipping school to go fishing, we took precautions not to be seen so the pair wouldn't get in trouble. But, to tell the truth, I felt pretty conspicuous, even in the remote cove where we fished.
There we were, a fat, fair-skinned, red-bearded white boy and two heavily armed Mexican guards in uniform throwing handlines for catfish. We must have stood out like a debutante in a deer camp, but it was one of the most fun afternoons of fishing I've ever experienced.
Ramone and Ramone refused to fish with rods and reels, and insisted I do likewise. Instead of reels, we used small plastic water bottles around which the fishing line was wound. A small hook baited with pieces of beef or fish was tied at line's end, and a sinker above that.
'Casting' was a foreign concept
"Casting," if you can call it that, was accomplished by twirling the hook and sinker above one's head, much as a shepherd boy might wind up a rock in a sling.
When sufficient momentum was attained, the rig was released, and line peeled off the bottle. In this manner, Ramone and Ramone made amazingly long casts, sometimes 50 to 75 yards. And with each throw of the hook, they caught a cat.
We did not catch a grande bagré, but we did catch enough small cats to feed the 24 gringos in camp that night. And when the guards for the late shift came on, Ramone and Ramone met me back at the lake and we fished some more.
I didn't understand all their talk that night, but something one of the men said sticks in my mind. It was a beautiful clear night. Looking up at the Milky Way, he gestured with a broad sweep of his hand. "Bonito estrellas," he said, smiling. Beautiful stars.
"Si," I said. "Bonita estrellas."
We didn't catch any more cats that night, but none of us cared.
To contact Keith Sutton, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org