The big black marlin bashes the ocean’s surface, yanking the reel, before it plunges and pulls away. Skipper Vidal Dàvados pilots the bobbing blue-and-white fishing boat to keep the line tense. The crew holds on, hands raw with blisters from fighting the fish. The clock ticks towards the tournament’s end, and as the boat’s twin diesels churn the water white, the marlin explodes across the wake.
Vidal, 53, rises on the captain’s deck, a bantam Poseidon clad in green cargo shorts and a white polo collar shirt emblazoned with a blue sailfish. Below the emblem is one word. It’s the name of his 11.5-metre boat, as well as the descriptor of his fishing team, and it’s how people in Manzanillo know him.
It’s 3:45 p.m. and soon, at 5 p.m., the tournament (the 57th Torneo Internacional de Pesca Deportiva Manzanillo) and the fate of Vidal’s crew will be decided.
One of the crew is strapped into the aptly named fighting chair near the boat’s stern. It looks like a pretty perch for sightseeing, but, with rod and reel, it’s rigged to ensure the sinews and on-fire synapses in the fisherman’s body are trained on a singular intent—to tame the furious target.
The black marlin rises and skids across the water, then disappears below the surface. Vidal moves swiftly with the waves underfoot. His right hand works the wheel, and his left hand, while he’s keeping an eye on his watch, worries the throttle. His gold pendant, of an anchor and a rudder and a cross, thumps against his chest. He’s Catholic, and he kisses it to summon a little extra bit of luck.
While Vidal craves winning, even more, he loves to have fun. So he raises his voice above the others—after almost 50 years of fishing, he still gets excited when there’s a big one—and commands them to get this marlin, no matter what. Even if it means ignoring the 5 p.m. deadline and, by doing so, losing the tournament.
“Okay, let’s do it,” cries Vidal’s son, Bruno, who is his first mate. The members of the crew—Dr. Cesar Ruiz and René González Chávez—lean into the fight.
Far off the plunging bow, the steep hills of Manzanillo slope to a refurbished waterfront and sandy beaches. The city lies between Puerto Vallarta and Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo on Mexico’s Pacific coast. Its ocean currents keep marlin, tuna, dorado, sailfish and other sport fish close to its golden shores that bask in an annual sunny high of 28°C.
Sailfish are plentiful here, treasured for their iridescent colours and elaborate dorsal fins. They’re a fun catch for families who want to go sport fishing. Anyone from ages eight to 80 can snag a sailfish.
But the black marlin is forbidding; the king of fighters. Landing one can be a gruelling workout lasting all day and into the night. It’s an experienced fisherman’s dream, even if, today, it threatens to be a nightmare.
“Woo-hoo!” shouts Vidal, turning to watch as Bruno leans over the stern and grabs the shivering line with his gloved hand. He pulls with both arms, his orange sleeves pumping, but it’s too heavy. The black marlin’s pointed bill rises like a sword and slices a wave, pulls to starboard, and again descends.
Falling into the fish’s rhythm, René González Chávez bends forward in the fighting chair, then eases backward and reels, slowly gaining line. Bit by bit, Vidal’s crew inches the black marlin closer, will against will.
The crew struggles to get the marlin aboard the boat. It’s monstrous. The tail is as wide as a scythe and they try, but can’t haul it in. So its end hangs over the stern as they speed toward the tournament docks.
Just one minute before the tournament closes, the Luckiest crew zigzags to the scales with their heavy catch. The black marlin is four metres long, from tip of tail to tip of bill, and weighs 195 kilos.
It’s the heaviest fish ever caught in a Manzanillo tournament. As Vidal’s crew is proclaimed the winners, snatching victory in the dying seconds, the skipper beams.
Three years after hooking the black marlin, Vidal is showing a visitor Manzanillo’s fishermen’s wharf, one of several renovation projects, along with a waterfront malecón (boardwalk) that has made the city of some 161,000 residents more tourist-friendly. He was born in Manzanillo when it was just a tiny fishing town, and as the city has grown, so has he.
There’s a sharp tang of fish being flayed, and as pelicans land on weathered fishing boats in the harbour, Vidal’s 88-year-old father, Valente, rows a battered blue-trimmed dinghy to his own boat. It’s the Evita, where Vidal learned to work for sport fishermen. Now that Bruno crews for his father, three generations of the Dàvados family have been experienced fishing guides.
Vidal made his first trip as a crew member on his father’s boat more than 40 years ago, game for action, but grimly seasick. As the men battled a colourful sailfish, it leapt over the wake like a rainbow. When they reeled it near the boat, Vidal was hooked.
“I felt a strong emotion when it broke out of the water, and it has stayed with me,” says Vidal, lifting his sunglasses from his face. He gestures to the ocean. “Now all this, it’s my office.”
Vidal’s luck turns over and over through his life, like the braids of an aging fishing rope—most of it good, some of it bad. When he was six months old in October 1959, a freak Category 5 Pacific hurricane (it was never given a name) tore the family’s one-room brick and tile house apart. It destroyed many of Manzanillo’s other homes and sunk boats in the harbour.
It was the last major hurricane to hit Manzanillo, which is well protected, geographically. But the little fishing town has risen from the rubble to become a vital commercial port and municipality, with a thriving economy that welcomes tourists with its “Old Mexico” ambience.
“Vidal is well known as being lucky,” says Héctor Sandoval, a prominent local businessman. He heads the local chapter of the business association COPARMEX Manzanillo and is the owner of Hectours, WestJet’s on-ground partner. “Ours is a fishing culture. Almost everyone who has grown up here knows how to fish, and Vidal is one of the best.”
When Vidal was 11, his mother died in childbirth. He dropped in and out of school, looking to make money, always returning to guiding and fishing before emerging as the most winning fishing captain in the region. An American client even bought him his first fishing boat, Luckiest I. To date, he’s racked up 16 first-prize fishing tournaments and has often placed within the top three.
Bruno, 23, has been crewing for 10 years, and is in line to inherit Luckiest II. Fishing, he says, isn’t as popular with young people as it used to be. Why? He shrugs. “I don’t know, man.” Then he smiles: “But I’m good at it.”
Being a member of the Deportivo de Pesca Manzanillo fishing club is a sign of status in the city and, of course, Vidal is a member. The club holds major tournaments annually, the International in November and the National in February.
Marko Alcarez Ley, a club executive who’s one of Mexico’s top sport fishermen, helped implement a tournament rule a few years ago that requires competitors to videotape their catch. “Now the truth is there for everyone to see,” he says.
The tournaments require fishermen to compete against each other. But as they toss on the ocean, their rods divining what’s below, something grander is at play. They ride a rolling mystery. The fishing line connects them to it. And somewhere, lurking in deep and dark waters for Vidal, another big fish story waits to be told.
Eat Upscale: Ocean view and fresh seafood at Mariscos La Huerta (Blvd. Miguel de la Madrid No. 873). Try the Langosta (lobster). Downscale: Snack on shrimp cocktail with local fishermen at El Delfin Mariscos, at the Mercado de Pescadores (fishermen’s market), while boats bob in the harbour.
Drink Order a Corona at Club Social (Juarez #101, by the downtown municipal plaza), one of Manzanillo’s oldest authentic cantinas. It’s popular with locals and snowbirds. A sailfish mounted on the wall overlooks wooden stools circling the wraparound bar.
Explore Ride along rugged trails, get mountain views and relax at the beach on an ATV tour, starting at Pena Blanca Ranch (hectours.com). Dive and snorkel with Scuba Shack (snorkelmanzanillo.com). Splash and recline at beaches that include the long, fine-sand Miramar and the more golden-toned Salagua.
Attractions Historic downtown Manzanillo’s facelift includes a scenic oceanfront malecón (boardwalk). Stroll and buy mango on a stick or hot fish tacos to go. Poke in and out of touristy shops at the plaza, where you’ll see the giant steel sailfish sculpture by Mexican artist Sebastian. Visit the Las Hadas Golf Resort & Marina, where the movie 10 was partly filmed.
Sport Fish In the self-proclaimed Sailfish Capital of the World, there are many boats and fishing guides for charter. The hotel concierge is the best place to start. Vidal Dàvados with his boat, Luckiest, is a popular choice (gomanzanillo.com/luckiest).
Fish of Manzanillo
Manzanillo is known as the Sailfish Capital of the World; the 35-45 kg fish can be caught year round.
Known for its brilliant colours, the Dorado is often hauled in at about 13 kg, though it can grow up to 26 kg and 1.8 m.
Known for chasing live bait on the surface, the Roosterfish can be an exciting catch. It weighs in at up to six kg, and grows up to 1.2 m.
Where to Eat in Manzanillo, Mexico
Located on Mexico’s Gold Coast, and nestled between Puerto Vallarta and Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo, Manzanillo has a wide variety of authentic and affordable food, from freshly caught seafood to traditional regional dishes. Here are a few of the best restaurants and eateries to try.