At first, Martin Downs thought he had snagged a rock at the bottom of the Sea of Cortez.
It wasn’t long before he realized he had something huge on the end of his fishing line but he never expected what he saw more than an hour later when he finally wrestled his catch to the top of the ocean.
“It looked like an elephant,” Downs of Bakersfield said. “I wasn’t sure what it was. I didn’t think it was real. It was the biggest thing I had seen in my life.
“It was this creature. The closer we got, the bigger he got.”
The creature turned out to be a very large sea bass. Once it was back aboard the mother ship, it pegged the 400-pound scale.
The record for a sea bass is 563 pounds and Downs said Tony Reyes Jr., the captain of the boat, estimated his catch to be around 450 pounds. Certainly a far bigger catch than Downs ever dreamed of.
“I’m not a trophy hunter or trophy fisherman,”said Downs, whose previous largest catch was a 250-pound bluefin tuna.
In fact, Downs was quite content with a catch right before he hooked the monster.
Downs and friends Gus Salcedo, Phil Lopes and Eric Brock were among 27 anglers aboard the Tony Reyes. The ship sails with nine smaller pongas (three anglers to a ponga) which are used to fish from.
“The sea of Cortez is really rocky on the bottom and a lot of people were hooking fish but getting broke off because the fish head to the rocks,” said Downs, who was fishing with Salcido and Lopes.
Using a custom-made Calstar 700 rod by Bakersfield’s Stan Nueman, Downs baited his line and the action came quick.
“Bam! Two minutes later I got one (a 100 pounder) that wouldn’t even fit in the fish well,” he said. “I was really happy.”
Downs rigged up again and within minutes was hooked up again.
“At first I thought I was hooked on a rock, then realized it was a fish,” he said. “I started losing line, it was peeling off my reel so I let him run. The minute he stopped I’d crank on him, make some headway then boom, he’d take off again.”
That continued for some time and by then his fishing partners had stowed away their gear to watch the fight and keep from possibly tangling lines.
“Gus told me it was 30 minutes of back and forth before I finally felt I was getting some leverage,” Downs said. “That rod Stan built me let me get a lot of pull on him, a lot of lift on him. I was praying the whole time my knots were going to hold.
“After about an hour at some point his air bladder expanded and I was making all kinds of headway. Then all of a sudden I felt nothing and the fish surfaced about 30 feet from the boat.”
The giant was way too large to get into the ponga so the ponga driver Gilberta (no last name known) put a rope through his gill plates and slowly headed back to the Tony Reyes with the fish in tow.
There, the boom crane used for putting the pongas in and out of the water, was utilized to haul the giant to the deck.
Shortly after that Downs wondered what he would do with the fish.
Turns out the skin is prized and the ships’ captain suggested donating that to a rehabilitation place in San Felipe.
Deckhands then went about fileting the fish and carving up steaks.
“They were like roasts,” Downs said. “Dozens and dozens of roasts. We had caught lots of fish on the trip and my ice chests were already full.
“I gave everybody on the boat roasts and when got back to dock word had spread about a big fish being caught and there was a big crowd. I shared with everybody. Nothing went to waste.”
Downs, 59, fished fresh water as a youth but shied away from deep sea fishing due to motion sickness. He got back into fishing about the time he retired from the Kern County Sheriff’s Department in 2016, including deep sea, thanks to a motion-sickness patch.
“That was a saviour for me,” Downs said of the patch. “The patch works, I’m not kidding. I suffer motion sickness real bad.”
This was Downs’ fourth trip into the Sea of Cortez and he’s enjoyed every trip.
His big catch won the jackpot money which he gave to Gilberta, the ponga driver.
“I think Gilberta is the best ponga driver down there and always try to use him,” he said. “He got us on the fish. He deserved the jackpot.”