Mazatlán has a decades-long tradition of fishing for and enjoying pajaritos; it is a highly anticipated and valued part of our local culture. We are not lucky enough to get them every year, but this May they are running! And big time!! Deliciousness AND a bonus income for the fishermen and resellers—who cannot love this? They’ve arrived with absolutely great timing, as well—just as UNESCO staff are in town to discuss Mazatlán becoming a Creative Gastronomic City.
During the very short season Playa Norte and the embarcadero for Stone Island turn into a madhouse of activity after dark, with hundreds of people showing up to comparison-shop this warm-water delicacy that’s also popular in Japan and Hawaii. People arrive with every kind of container imaginable: wash basins, buckets, bags, Tupperware… and the fishermen are more than happy to fill them up! People purchase bucket-loads of the savory little creatures to prepare for family and friends or to clean and resell. They are usually served pan fried with beans. You can buy some and take them to any palapa, or some restaurants, and they’ll fry them up for you and provide the fixings. Click on any photo to enlarge it or view a slideshow.
Image courtesy Susan Paas
Like most anything in Mazatlán, this is a family affair: grandparents, kids… Smiles and joking abound; everyone is happy. Entire extended families camp out on the malecón and the beach, watching the activity and enjoying the scene. It reminds me of festival season in Japan, and I love it! It’s a wee bit dangerous getting a nice camera and flash setup in amongst the boats, what with the tide coming in fast at our feet, causing the pangas to move every which way, the huge crowds of people pushing for the best catch and the fishermen grabbing at the bills flying their way.
Pajaritos are ballyhoos, also called flying halfbeaks or spipefish (heporhamphus in the hemiramphidae family), closely related to the needlefish. In Mazatlecan dialect they are called pajaritos because they “fly” at up to 37 mph/60 kph, gliding over the surface of the water for quite a distance! As nearby as Teacapán they are called differently: guaris. They skim the surface of the water, jumping up and out frequently in shallower surf. They have large scales that end up completely covering the fishermen: hair, face, appendages, clothing. Their eyes and nostrils are at the top of the head and their upper jaw is mobile—well adapted to surface dwelling. Sadly, loads of their eggs seem to be scooped up as they are caught, as you can see in the photos.
Pajaritos lay their eggs all over the waters around Cerro de Chivos and other islands in our bay: that pungent smell really carries! They have an elongated, narrow jaw filled with sharp teeth. When young the pajaritos feed on plankton and algae, and as they grow eat smaller fish. They are a migratory fish that run along the Pacific coast from Santa Ana, California to Costa Rica.
The season usually lasts a few days or, if we’re lucky, weeks, so be sure not to miss out. Between 2012 and 2016 there were no pajaritos, attributed to over-fishing and contamination. This year, fortunately, there seems to be a bumper harvest, with between 500 kg and two tons sold each evening here in town! They are caught near the islands in our bay as well as near the coastline—in calm waters, primarily at night. Pajaritos are attracted by light, so it’s easy for us landlubbers to spot the pajarito fishermen out in our bay with their bright lights and hand nets. Some nights I’ve seen as many as 50 pangas surrounding the islands! During the day I’ve seen the fish out in the bay; their jumping makes it look like the ocean is boiling. It’s great work for our local fishermen, as they can fill their boats in just a couple of hours, and last night, as most nights, their haul sells out in a matter of minutes.
Monday night the fish were selling for 40 pesos per kilogram (60-80 fish), though that varies according to the number of boats at the dock with fish and the number of buyers (basic supply and demand). The fishermen charged 200-250 pesos per cubeta
, depending on the size of the bucket. Cleaned pajaritos were being sold on the malecón, ready to fry up, for 100 pesos/kg (weight is prior to cleaning), though that also varies depending on the night and the vendor.
This valued local tradition will hopefully continue for many more decades. It will require, however, fishing limits to preserve the species, as well as adequate water treatment. Let’s all work towards that and, in the meantime, be sure to enjoy the spectacle and a great meal!