Roosterfish Of The Baja
BY TERRY W. SHEELY
Day four, a Friday, dawns with a scalding orange sunrise, plates of abandoned huevos, and big bolts of adrenalin.
Gangs of powerful jack crevalle and lightning-fast rooster fish are swarming the beach below the hotel, trapping squads of bait fish against the sand, attacking in packs. Terrorized sardines, ballyhoos and mullets blow through the surface in tail-slapping cart wheeling frenzy trying to spin away from the snapping jaws in the surf. In blind panic bait fish charge the beach some throwing themselves out of the water to strand and die in the sand.
At the edge of the Sea of Cortez, directly below the breakfasting anglers on the veranda of the Hotel Punta Colorada, chaos arrived in an instantaneous explosion of life-and-death, eat-or-be-eaten, unannounced and without advance invitation.
One minute I’m settling down to a table of eggs and ham and red-fleshed melon, enjoying the warm salt air, listening to the Bullard orioles whistle and the next instant it’s bedlam.
Guys are leaping from their chairs, spilling coffee, scattering salsa and bolting for the low brick wall that looks down on the rocks and sand of the beach below. For a half mile in both directions the surf is erupting with panicked bait fish, packed into herds by slashing predators and pinned against the beach. Blunt-faced jack crevalle
and war-painted rooster fish are encircling and herding the bait fish to the beach, pinning them against the sand then attacking in slashing squads. Every few yards another panic of bait is being driven into the sand, trapped and attacked. The survivors tumble into schools of other survivors; the attackers regroup and hit them again.
It’s both terrifying and fascinating.
Up north, fly fishermen have a name for water that’s being disturbed by feeding trout—nervous water they call it. This is way past nervous. This is psychotic water. Crazy and deadly. Froth boils, fish fly out of the water, crash on the sand, land on rocks and skitter off. Big fins slash through the beach surge. Water swirls and churns. Hundreds of feet away and we’re actually hearing the attacks, the incongruous musical tinkle of a small waterfall or gentle riffle.
The crevalle and roosters are slashing and gorging, sardines are beaching, ballyhoo are dying, the sunrise is going tangerine and the sea is playing music.
For a long minute every fisherman lining the wall is transfixed, mesmerized, frozen—and then somebody breaks for the rack of rods.
I watch one guy, otherwise seemingly sane and employable, strip a tangle of fly line off the reel as he runs down uneven steps to the path of rocks that falls to the beach—the same path that two nights ago TRN columnist Jim Tuggle saw being crossed by six feet of rattlesnake. Tug said he had plenty of time to count the nine rattles.
The fly stripper, though, is oblivious; running full out onto the beach now, false-casting as he goes, fully focused on dumping a streamer into psychotic water.
Barefooted, he splashes into the surf, loads the 12-weight rod with an awkward open back cast, flops out 30 feet of line—just three rod lengths--and is instantly connected to more fish than he bargained for. Flash, and the jack crevalle, 15 maybe 25 pounds, is through the fly line, into the backing and halfway to the horizon. The reel handle spins like a propeller, and the fisherman just hangs on. Mercifully, the fly pops and the guy saves his spendy line and a whole bunch of green running line.
Up and down the beach, fly and conventional rods are bending, anglers are scrambling for leverage, lines are slicing the surf, fish are boiling, sardines are flopping in puddles on the sand—and the fishing day is just getting started.
Mike Rieser, part owner of Baja Fly fishing Company(www.bajaflyfish.com) and resident fly guru at Van Wormer Resorts(www.vanwormerresorts.com) on the East Cape of Mexico’s Baja Peninsula, collects his covey of fly fishermen and herds them toward the fleet of pangas anchored down the beach. “Great way to start the day,” he says with a wink as he walks past, and then he turns and adds, “see what I mean—you don’t have to be a great fly caster to fly fish down here. If you can pick up a rod, you can fly fish down here.”
Gotta love that.
Mike has been convincing me of that for two years.
And he’s got a long list of success stories to back up his claim: raw beginners who now brag up their rooster fish encounters, novices who have driven the hook into striped marlin and tail-walking sailfish, and experts who never went back to freshwater.
If ever there was a place to try saltwater fly fishing, this—I think-- is that place.
Quality tackle, patient and efficient guides/instructors, miles of public beach, cruisers, pangas and kayaks to rent or charter, quads to get you there and back, and enough big, nasty, aggressive fish to turn every student into a smiling graduate.
Located an hour and a bit north of the airport, customs, neon and congestion at Cabo San Lucas, Hotel Punta Colorada is a solid fish camp tucked into a green oasis on a bluff between the withered cactus and elephant trees on the edge between the Gulf Coast Desert and the Sea of Cortez. This is the renowned East Cape of Mexico, where sea and ocean currents collide and the hottest game fish in the ocean collect from April through November.
The East Cape is one of the rare spots in the world where the plunging sea bottom contour and mix of ocean and sea currents allow you to work miles of tapered sand beach for rooster fish (best in the world, they claim), jack crevalle, sierra and skipjacks and a short boat ride later—over more than a thousand feet of water and still within sight of land—cast to three species of marlin, sailfish, amberjack, dorado, yellowfin tuna, and yellowtail. The lucky ones find swordfish and wahoo. It’s also possible, on the same day, to jig for coveted bottom fish—cabrilla, groupers and snappers. More than 80 varieties of sport fish hide in these waters.
I’m here in mid-May, the week after Mother’s Day taking a little time off from the cold and wet of the Pacific Northwest, to blow the mothballs off my shorts and sandals in 90-degree days with the wash of tropical ocean air. Along with a couple of dozen other “enlightened” escapees from above the 45th Parallel, I’ve landed on the Tropic of Cancer with Jim Goerg on The Reel News’ annual escape to Hotel Punta Colorada.
Rieser’s Baja Fly fishing Company, based at the hotel, offers fly-casting from the beach, unguided and unguided fly fishing, and customized trips. Mike and his guides specialize in targeting blue, black and striped marlin, sailfish, dorado, wahoo, yellowfin tuna, rooster fish, jack crevalle, pargo, sierra, mackerel, amberjacks.
He can provide a solid inventory of stout saltwater fly tackle and hand-tied flies, and offers day and multi-day options including fully guided packages in either a cruiser or super panga, shore-fishing from four-wheelers or kayaks, fly-casting from the beach, unguided fly fishing, or customized trips. They specialize in targeting blue, black and striped marlin, sailfish, dorado, wahoo, yellowfin tuna, rooster fish, jack crevalle, pargo, sierra, mackerel, and amberjacks. Any one of those powerhouse fish, connected to a fly rod, is an unforgettable life event.
The Sea of Cortez is 2,000 square miles of inland saltwater separating Baja California Peninsula from the Mexican mainland. Where we’re fishing, the East Cape is a remote and undeveloped desert region on the extreme southeast side of Baja at a junction where tidal currents, bait fish and game fish migration routes collide into a maelstrom of concentrated billfish, dorado, tuna, yellowtail, jack crevalle, cabrilla, wahoo, swarms of bait fish and most every other migratory species of warm water game fish known in the Baja. Incredible tuna schools have been verified here that are more than 100 miles long.
Hotel Punta Colorada is the kind of place you hope to find when all you just need to thaw out, get abused by smoking hot fish, forget winter, lick the salt off five-star margaritas and enjoy drip-down-your-elbow seviche’.
The resort caters to conventional tackle diehards and fly rod masochists providing serviceable tackle, a fleet of cruisers and pangas, kayaks and beach quads, guided and unguided fishing.
Like a lot of anglers I was first attracted to this area by the variety of fish and fishing techniques offered, and wanted to try it all—alternating from trolling offshore for billfish to jigging reefs, spot-and-stalk fly action, and beach casting with fly and spinning rods.
Pick your weapon, Eduardo had said, fly, spinning, bait casting, jigging, standup, sit-down, beach-casting, cruisers, pangas—anyway I wanted it. “We got it all.” And I wanted to try it all. To my thinking, specialist—the guys who only use fly gear or only use spinning rods or only use-----deny themselves a lot of fun. Me—I want it
Eduardo “Eddie” Dalmau is general manager of Van Wormer Resorts, Sea of Cortez specialists and operators of Hotel Punta Colorada.
Two years ago, on the first day of my first trip here with Jim Goerg and Jim Tuggle I chose stand-up conventional tackle, a 28-foot cruiser, and billfish. In that first amazing morning we had doubles on billfish, at one point five black rapiers were swatting at our teasers and baits in the wake froth, Tug and Jim landed a doubleheader on sailfish and I caught and released my first striped marlin. Later I nailed three ingente rooster fish, two 50s and a 60—in one explosive afternoon.
Deciding to come back for a second helping was a no-brainer.
Last spring, Jim and I started the trip with Alaska Air flight 207, non-stop from Seattle to Cabo and this time we hit the boats with fly rods in our hands. We were fishing with Mike and top guide Merry Waugh on board the cruiser, Bally Hoo.
First stop is the bait boats clustered just off the beach. The small open boats, flood their floors with sea water and fresh sardines, ballyhoo and mullet trapped in cast nets along the beach in front of our room at the hotel. Twenty-five to 30 bucks buys bait for the boat for a day’s fishing with conventional gear or chumming to bring game fish to the fly rods.
We ran 21 miles straight out hoping to find a bill that will eat a fly. Billfish are often taken within five miles of the hotel. The water temperature was unseasonably cool, 76 to 78 degrees and Mike was worried.
The morning’s technique was prospecting--put out three fly rods, each rigged with a 6-inch fly, troll three large teaser squid on the surface and go looking for fins and bills. When we left the float there were rumors of dorado packed around a drifting chunk of Styrofoam. Dorado had eluded me on the first trip and I wanted a dorado. We found them—just not this morning.
Skipper Cao swung the boat hard to starboard, chasing a distant shadow that he assured was a marlin. It disappeared. A small mako shark appeared and vanished.
Fifteen miles out we run into bait fish crashing on the surface. Big school of skipjacks, powerful little tuna-shaped powerhouses that teach a salmon how to fight.
The skipjacks and white bonito were in a feeding frenzy, bait was boiling on the surface and they ate our flies like candy bars. One on! Two on! Three on! When Mike took a rod ,went to the bow and threw a line we had four on---a quadruple header of 2 to 9 pound fighters all running in high speed circles.
On fly rods that are built to wear-down marlin, these small battlers gave surprisingly little quarter. I’m convinced a 5-pound skipjack could pull a 15-pound coho backwards. They fight the big fight---no mas is not in their vocabulary.
Ramón, the deckhand/mate throws handsful of live sardines into the frenzy. The sardines find each other, and close ranks into small schools that attract and get hammered by the feeders. And we hammer the feeders as long as we speed-retrieve. Cast, sink, and strip like a dervish—use two hands if you have to. The beauty is—Mike is right, no one has to throw a cast longer than 50 feet to hook up and often less. We stayed on the school until our arms ached and the wind started to chop. We thought the bite would die, but it doesn’t so we do. Muscles pinging, lines stretched, we head to the beach to look for rooster fish.
Terry lip hooks a foot-long mullet with red lips and tows it behind the boat in 20 or 30 feet of water. We can see the bottom. The drill is—roosters will see the mullet, home in on the easy pickings and when they light up, Mike will holler, Merry will jerk away the mullet and we’ll drop a fly in a rooster’s face. That’s the drill.
Two small roosters light up and charge the mullet teaser. They veer off. Merry raises the fish again, fires them up and brings them stalking into range. Tension and anticipation go through the roof. I’m crouched, poised, sweating into my sunglasses, on the edge.
Mike hollers, Merry jerks and I cast.
A rooster breaks off the mullet and charges my fly, comb flying, black stripes glowing. Then it simply stops, suddenly, inexplicably and goes back to gnawing on the mullet. “Cast again, cast again,” Mike instructs.
Too late…I’ve grown 10 thumbs, zinged into hyper gear and forgot about cross-winds. The first cast was perfectly executed, only 30 feet, but perfect. The second cast shouldn’t be remembered. The cross wind and anxiety wrap the line around the guides, the fly tangles in the sink tip, the leader collapses on the Bimini knot, the fly dives into the rest of the mess and the roosters split. It’s minutes before I remember to breathe and only then in order to cuss.
Later, further down the beach and in tighter to the sand, two nice roosters---maybe 20 pounds---ghost over the white sand bottom and cruise through the aquamarine water toward the teaser mullet.
You can see bottom, see the shadows of the fish, see them cruise in, give our mullet a look then just disappear. Vaporize. Never to return. I drop the rod tip and exhale.
Gawd, those skipjack were great. At 3:30 we call it a day and head for the beach.
Dozens, maybe hundreds of gray pelicans are waiting on the rocks and waves for the leftovers from our $30 bait buy.
Day Two starts with conventional gear, an incredible morning of wild offshore action with electrifying dorado (Jim and I land 16 dorado in 12 minutes). If you’ve never seen a dorado light up like a chartreuse, blue and yellow electrical current, while doing back flips, you owe it to yourself to go see.
Later I sweat and strain through an hour and more of a bare-knuckle bash, on stand-up gear, with a 200-pound striped marlin in 1800 feet of water, a fight that I’ll never forget, a fight that circled the boat, circled it again and again, tore off football fields of line, leaped and crashed, turned my back and arm to jelly, while whales rolled past.
In the middle of the fight a squad of porpoises show up to race the marlin, then roll and drift under the boat looking like brown paper bags.
I get the marlin alongside and it dives. Forever. Line melts off the spool again. Solid, Unrelenting. I watch it go. Get a fresh grip on the rod, straighten my aching back and wait. Then pump it back up.
The fish lights up and churns sideways just off for the starboard side. Twice I think I can feel it tire, and twice it clutches down finds another gear and takes off.
“Take your time señor, Ramón says, it’s big fish, long fight.” It was.
The day ends late in the afternoon, transitioning from 2000 feet of water and fish that are measured by the hundred weight, to eight feet of water with rooster fish and jack crevalle in the 15 to 40 pound range.
Day Four, after the breakfast frenzy, get in the boats and find that the rooster fish and crevalle are going crazy along the beach.
Today, Jim and I are fishing conventional gear with Tug and his wife Susan and fishing fanatic Robin Elliott on the Pez Vela with Nacho the skipper and Nicholas the mate.
We drop two sardines and a mullet to troll off the transom. Nicholas throws handsful of sardines for chum. They hit the water, scatter than group into a tight school that moves toward where our lines are coming through.
We fish in rotation. Robin and Susan are quickly into fish….the first of multiple doubles.
One group, on the radio, reports 41 roosters. Another 36.
The bite is a mix of jacks and roosters. You never know what’s going to hit next, and we’ll never know for sure but we think it was jack crevalle that snapped Jim’s saltwater spinning rod just above the grip, on the strike!
The day is filled with a long line of double hookups with a couple of triples just for the chaos.
These are super hard-nosed fish. The jacks hit aggressively and fearlessly and then fight powerful and deep with long runs. The roosters are picky but when they hit they fight like an NFL running back. Darting, diving, twisting.
The roosters flare their towering combs and crash in on the live bait which is just inches below the surface, 50 feet behind the boat. Sight fishing at its finest.
We’re not up to the group with 41 roosters but we’re gaining fast.
Susan catches another 20 pound jack and her arms throb. She sits down---until someone shouts rooster, rooster, and she’s up and back into it.
The bite was nonstop for four hours, according to Jim’s watch.
Day 5, last day and I’m awake at 5:30.
Fog. Wet, humid sticky fog. Puget Sound stuff. Gray. Just like home.
I opt for breakfast and just get settled in—again—when Mike bolts into the dining area, snags his fly fishing clients and they rabbit out the door, grabbing fly rods and fly boxes from the rooms on the way past. In the gloom, invisible in the fog, I can distinctly hear the sound of a creek riffle, the sound of frenzied fish on the beach.
Down on the beach Merry is steering a novice caster toward what looks like hot tea water spitting out of the pot. It’s a frenzy. He casts a six-inch white streamer. The incoming waves are shiny with sardine carcasses. Merry’s charge hooks up and shouts. Up the beach a fine caster steps into a clean double-haul and shoots a fly into the fog. Four strips and he is into a jack.
A man in a red shirt with an enviable double haul, hits two fish, both jack crevalle.
Bob Winters, one of The Reel News group gets a strong pull on a sardine fly that he tied just the night before. He added four eyes from a magic marker to the pattern to hedge its bets and now and he’s into a good fish. A real good fish. Finally, to save his fly line he clamps down and breaks off. The morning before during the chaotic beach crash he hit an 8 pound jack that went 200 feet into his backing. This fish was on its way to spooling him when he cracked it off.
This takes fly fishing to whole new level.
This last day frenzy, a parting gift, dies early, much earlier than Day 4, and the bait boats ghost in through the fog, with their cast nets, throwing to the beach, dumping the haul into the bottom of the boat.
A hundred feet off shore a few jack crevalle erupt on a bait ball.
Later in the morning, after the fog burns off and the sun burns down, Jim and I sit on the patio with our feet on the stone railing, soaking up coffee and sunshine and feeling like kings. In the near-distance we see one of Mike’s pangas fly casting to the beach. Below us two cruisers and two pangas slow troll through wads of breaking bait fish.
Twice we hear Wahoooooooos.
And we smile.
Mike’s Secret To Classical Casting:
If you think fly-fishing for billfish needs to be intimidating or practiced only by disciples of Lefty Kreh, you haven’t met Mike Rieser and his lessons on Beethoven and the Fly Swatter. In 45 minutes, Mike says, he can teach a novice to cast a fly well enough to catch a billfish, fool a rooster, tangle a jack, and sting a dorado.His secret is Beethoven and the Fly Swatter. Beethoven was a fly fisherman, don’t you know. “We can teach anybody to cast well enough to reach these fish,” he assures.
“Hold the fly swatter like you're conducting an orchestra presenting a Beethoven symphony. Point the swatter at the horn section then without turning your body, swat a fly on the ceiling behind you, pause, then point again at the horn section.”
Swat and point a few times, exchange the swatter for a rod, catch a fish.
Rods run from 12 to 14 wts, full-sinking or anchor-weight sink-tips. Fly patterns favor mullet and sardine imitations. A rooster fish favorite is Mike’s deer hair mullet tied on 5/0-6/0 Gamakatsu circle hooks. The big hook acts as a keel and helps stabilized the fly on fast retrieves. Lots of green, blue, white and mylar shine in the sardine streamers.
Tips and Stuff
Confirm, double confirm and confirm again all shuttle transportation from—and most importantly to—the airport at Cabo. For whatever reason, this step can get complicated, some shuttle vans are overbooked and drivers have been known to dispute agreed upon rates. Keep your paperwork handy, be resolute, tip and you’ll get back and forth just fine, in my experience. Carry a pocketful of 20s and 5s and 1s for tips, bait and bar service.
Live bait for cruisers or pangas is between $25 and $30 a day. The skipper of your boat will negotiate the buy—your job is to hand over the cash and get out of the way when the net full of splashing bait fish come aboard.
Tips for the deckhand and skipper are handed to the skipper. We’ve found that $100 a day ($25 per angler) covers a cruiser and four fishermen. Most of the skippers or deckhands communicate in English, but not all. If you speak “fish” everybody will understand.
Last year Mexican authorities began requiring a $25 fishing license.
A couple of $1 are appreciated at the bar, even when running a tab.
The hotel takes plastic, the skippers don’t.
Put your sun block in a plastic bag, in your checked luggage, along with liquor from the duty-free store at Portland or Seattle-Tacoma International. Tequila and Pacifico are good buys in Mexico, whisky isn’t. The bar at Punta Colorada should be famous for its margaritas and seviche’ (you bring the fish).
If you plan to use your gear—bring it. Available tackle is essentially non-existent.
The cruisers and pangas and fly expeditions provide rods, reels, and basic terminal tackle, and most of it is pretty good to excellent. They won’t have the more sophisticated items like jigs, plugs and plastics. Jim has packed a couple of spinning rods down every year with an array of plastics and spoons, I carry jigs and spoons and specialty flies and lures, along with extra fishing line, swivels and weights. Check first, but last year Alaska Air still allowed anglers to bundle fishing rod cases with checked baggage.
If you want to bring fish home, bring a cooler and insulated packing. Check the customs restrictions in both countries.
Most billfish are released unless mortality wounded, along with the assorted jacks. Prime food fish like dorado (mahi mahi), snapper, grouper, cabrilla and tuna can be killed and kept (let the skipper know first). It’s a good move to share the day’s catch with the boat, and much appreciated to donate a prize fish to the hotel kitchen for the benefit of the guests. And be sure to tell the cook you want a slab or two to go to the bar for seviche.
EAST CAPE FLY-FISHING INFO:
Baja Fly Fishing Company
Mike Rieser, Guide, Outfitter
FOR RESERVATIONS CALL
Van Wormer Resorts
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