Robert Armstrong is shipwrecked in Colombia

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For the uninitiated, on a calm day, open water looks like a featureless expanse. The engines roar, the boat cuts through the ocean and the horizon separates two equal shades of blue.

It is a lack of perception. I learned this a few miles southwest of Bahía Solano, Colombia. An hour or two at sea – we were looking for yellowfin tuna – the mate, Jairo Zuñiga, slowed the boat down for no reason I could understand. There were only one or two birds circling, not the telltale diving swarm that will follow a school of baitfish. No fish came out of the water. Felipe Morales, our captain and host, jumped up to the raised bow. “I don’t know, man,” he said. “I think there is something here.” Then, just to starboard, a 10m whale breached, gave a light thump and returned to the water. “Holy shit,” Felipe said, speaking for all of us.

The mountains east of Black Sands Lodge near Bahía Solano, Colombia © Courtesy of Black Sand Fishing

Some fishing trips are better than others. A trip to Black Sands Lodge is as good as it gets.

There is no road to Bahía Solano, the nearest town to Black Sands. The options are boat or plane. I flew in a six-seater from Medellín; 45 foggy minutes that I spent silently telling myself that the pilot did this every day and loved his life as much as I loved mine. The town, at the head of a bay about 75 miles south of the border with Panama, is a pleasant, basic place of semi-paved roads and semi-finished buildings, with tuk tuks, bars and fishing stores. The tallest building is a garish marigold-yellow hotel, the Balboa, built by Pablo Escobar when he allegedly used the city as a cocaine shipping depot.

From Bahía Solano, it’s a 20-minute boat ride to the lodge, at the end of the jungle-swaddled peninsula that forms the western side of the bay. Whenever the regular breeze slackens occasionally, salt and humidity are touch. “The sea eats everything,” sighs Felipe. “Everything you don’t use gets rusty or moldy in, like, two days.” Clouds hang more or less permanently over the mountains in the distance.

The author with tuna caught by surface casting
The author with a tuna, surface caught © Courtesy of Black Sand Fishing

The almost total absence of development in the coastal department of Chocó is remarkable given its breathtaking beauty. The explanation is that the area was, until recently, controlled by Farc guerrillas. The group signed a peace deal with the government in 2016. Tourism was not their thing.

The lodge is a simple two-story wooden structure with just five guest rooms, wedged between the jungle and a three-quarter-mile stretch of beach. It looks east across the bay, with the ocean opening to the left (a 15-minute walk up the hill leads to a high lookout point, facing west over the Pacific). A stream flows from the jungle next to the lodge, attracting birds, crabs, butterflies and moths. You can hear the toucans croaking. A colony of oropendola birds, with long, bag-like nests, lives in the palm trees that line the front of the lodge.

Heading out of the bay for deep water jigging
Heading out of the bay for deep water jigging © Courtesy of Black Sand Fishing

Simple. But it’s not rustic. Catalina Vásquez, the chef, is top notch. The fish we caught were transformed into ceviche, steamed dumplings, sashimi, delicate curries, all accompanied by excellent wines. The desserts are composed of cannoli filled with dulce de leche and homemade gelato. The hostess, Mar Palanca, is a Spanish marine biologist who studies humpback whales that migrate through the area in the summer when the lodge is closed (the one we saw was probably a Bryde’s whale). She is worldly, knowledgeable and multilingual. This is all true of Felipe, co-founder of Black Sands, an Argentinian fishing machine powered by Coke Zero and Marlboros that has guided from the Seychelles to the streams of the Rocky Mountains. Catalina’s amiable and huge coffee-colored sleuth, Alfredo, completes the team in the room.

I am not a fisherman, but I frequent several of them. The 50th birthday of one of them is what brought me to Black Sands. Because the group was a mix of diehard fishermen and pale civilians like me, we kept a healthy schedule. The boat would leave around 8am or so every morning – a shockingly late hour for some members of the group but a little early for me, especially as we spent the evenings emptying bottles of tequila in tribute to the lost days of the youth.

Still, late and hungover, we caught plenty of fish. What’s so special about fishing off Bahía Solano is that there’s hardly anyone else around. “What’s amazing about this place,” says my friend Scott, “is the ability to target so many different species with hardly any other anglers, without ‘fishing pressure’ as we call it. You can hunt tuna, sailfish, marlin or mahi mahi in open water and a bunch of other strong and fast species along the coast – cubera, rooster, African pompano and snook.

The view to the north from the lodge

The view looking north from the lodge © Courtesy of Black Sand Fishing

Driving out of the bay to hunt tuna, we were accompanied by flocks of pelicans in wedge-shaped formations, moving almost at the speed of the boat. It is saying something. the Siroco, the lodge boat, is really nice and really fast, my knowledgeable friends told me in a low voice (it’s a 32ft Contender with twin Yamaha 300s). Finding the tuna requires great knowledge of the area and involves extensive searches for dolphins, which hunt the same baitfish as the tuna. Often the dolphins – both bottlenose and spinner, the latter so called because they like to jump out of the water and spin along their long axis – swim right alongside the boat, playing in the wake. . At other times, they appear and disappear at breakneck speed, chasing their food. You have to cast right in front of them to maximize the chances of a bite (the dolphins themselves show no interest in lures).

Surface casting for tuna is fun. They are big, strong and fast fish that hit your lures hard and fight powerfully, as the birds circle overhead and the dolphins jump. You need to cast quickly when the animals congregate near the surface; they can disappear in seconds. When they get a good hold on a lure, the reel whistles as the fish snatches the line – “I’m gone!” “Yes my guy!”

Bringing them takes strength and patience – knowing when to pull and when to let them run. I was hopeless, of course, and my throw is atrocious – always too high or too flat to optimize distance and accuracy, never fast enough to seize the right moment. But my friends (for the most part) refrained from teasing me and, as I’ve learned, it’s the skill of captain and mate that matters most; I managed to bring in a nice one the first morning with the help of the rest of the crew.

Catch of the day prepared by chef Catalina Vásquez

Catch of the day prepared by chef Catalina Vásquez © Courtesy of Black Sand Fishing

The Chocó coast is located between the mountainous jungle and the Pacific

The Chocó Coast is located between the mountainous jungle and the Pacific © Courtesy of Black Sand Fishing

Deep-sea jigging – fishing for bottom dwellers with short rods – requires less skill but a lot of strength. We dropped special weighted lures about 400 feet deep, then jerked them up a few feet at a time, hoping to attract bites, ideally from groupers (a great delicacy). I caught a big amberjack instead, a fish known as the “reef donkey” for its muscular strength. He immediately bent my rod almost in half. I felt like I was pulling a refrigerator from the bottom of the ocean. My shoulder muscles were burning within seconds. Jairo jumped over and tied me to a belt with a splint for my cane. After bringing in the fish, a big 3.5ft, I thought my left arm was exhausted for the week. We only caught one small grouper, but that was enough for Cata to make dumplings and two platters of ceviche.

That first day taught me to respect the tropical sun. I thought my more experienced friends were a bit eccentric for wearing 70 degree long pants and wrapping their heads in spats. Then my knees, despite the lashes on the sunscreen, burned lobster red. The frames of my sunglasses left distinct faint streaks on the side of my burnished head. Eleven hours on a boat makes you feel like Ernest Hemingway but, if you’re not careful, look like a beet.

Fishing is a very special way to hang out with friends. Even on a 32-foot boat, there’s not a lot of room. That’s a lot of hours of being close to each other. There’s a certain knack for making it work – when to speak, when to shut up, when to lead and when to delay. When it works, however, it creates a sense of easy harmony. At the end of the day, our group swam the 100 meters from the anchorage to the lodge, carrying the day’s efforts. (My buddy Dave insisted on swimming in the middle of the group, for fear of sharks, of which Mar says there were none at all. I’ve known Dave for over 40 years, but I guess all friendships have their limits.)

Catch a marlin on the Siroco

Raising a marlin on the Siroco © Courtesy of Black Sand Fishing

Sunset at the lodge

Sunset at the lodge © Courtesy of Black Sand Fishing

I enjoyed inshore fishing, casting off the boat to rocky beaches, as much as tuna hunting. The Chocó coast is stunningly beautiful, with walls of lush forest rising vertically from the sea and jagged rocky outcrops jutting all along it. During all the hours of driving, we did not see a human soul, except a line of soldiers with heavy bags and rifles, trudging along a secluded beach. They marched silently through the forest without a wave (they were National Guardsmen, not Farc, according to Jairo).

We boarded the boat with an incredible variety of prehistoric-looking creatures: feathered roosterfish, Pacific bluetooth needlefish, bright red cubera snapper, and nearly rectangular silver pompano. My friend Conan had a huge dorado on her line that jumped out of the ocean, but on her third jump she dislodged the hook and ran away, the boat moaning as one.

“Have you caught the fishing bug, do you think?” one of the band members asked me on the trip back to New York. He has a boat on Long Island, and hunts bluefish and striped bass. Tired, sunburned and salty, I thought it was time I bought myself a rod.

Tailor-made packages, POA; blacksandslodge.com

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