October 11, 2012

Baja Bounty

Blue-water treasures in the Sea of Cortez
By Nick Honachefsky

A release flag with a roosterfish silhouette hangs on my wall. It has hung upright for five years to remind me that I’ve fished the world’s prime roosterfish spots — Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Guatemala and Mexico — and have yet to land one. El gallo haunts me. I met Mark Davis of BigWater Adventures, Jeff Pierce of Mustad hooks and photographer Gary Tramontina at the Buena Vista Beach Resort, on the East Cape of Mexico’s Baja Peninsula, and during a delectable fish-taco dinner, we developed a game plan for the next day’s fishing.

Bottom Dwellers
Ready for action, we awoke as the Mexican daybreak shone with a warming glow highlighted by a rooster’s crow. “Yesterday roosterfish were jumping all over the sardines and goggle-eyes — they were fighting each other over the baits,” said Pierce as I stepped onto the stern of the 35-foot Care-less. I salivated at the prospect, but the first order of business was bottomfishing for snapper and grouper. After a mere 10-minute ride from the Buena Vista dock, we cut the engines to drift over rock piles in 150 to 200 feet of water. Bonito schools rifled the sardines around us, and we dropped flutter jigs to the bottom and snapjigged them back. I watched another boat nearby release a 30-pound amberjack, then my rod doubled over as a 15-pound cherry-red huachinango struck my jig. Drop the jig, snap it off the bottom, and reel in the fish: That method produced a steady stream of cabrilla, huachinango, bonito, triggerfish and golden tilefish. When Pierce was done casting small jig heads and plastics to bonito and small dolphin on the surface, we moved to the barren Los Cerritos beachfront to slow-troll sardines and goggle-eyes for roosterfish in the eight- to 20-foot depths.

Wake-Up Call
The clock had yet to crack 9 A.M., and we were already trolling at a sluggish 2-knot pace over sand holes just 20 yards off the rocky outcroppings on the shoreline. Two lines were rigged with live 11-inch goggleeyes, and another was set with a 5-inch live sardine trailed 20 to 80 yards off the stern. It didn’t take long to get the party started. “Gallo! Gallo!” shouted the mate, pointing to a flowing fin breaking the surface. Both Pierce and Tramontina were stuck fast, drags screaming on their light rods. The battles commenced, and soon a pair of roosters, 8 and 15 pounds, were subdued and released. That game went on for another two hours, as we kept teasing up the roosters, fighting off the four-foot houndfish and odd-looking trumpetfish, and eventually sticking the circle hooks into the jaws of another dozen fish. My roosterfish curse had finally been broken.

Marlin Madness
It was now 11 A.M. “You guys feel like trying for a marlin?” asked Axel Valdez, owner of Buena Vista Beach Resort. Though it was hard for me to leave the roosters, we agreed and ran another three miles offshore to drop a trolling pattern of chuggers, Ilanders and a shotgun mackerel bait. Within a halfhour, the shotgun rod went off, sending the Penn 12 VS screaming, and I jumped to grab the rod from the bridge. Fifteen minutes later, an electric, flashing striped marlin of 125 pounds glided along portside for a clean release. “So this is how it is, Axel? Snapper, then roosters, then marlin, in only a five-mile range?” I asked. “Yes, but we haven’t seen the big marlin yet. Let’s go find them,” he replied. Word had spread that a full commercial tuna pen was being transported slowly via tow boat up the coast. It was a promising setup for jigging. Once we found the pen, we dropped flutter jigs around the edges and found a steady stream of little tunny, skipjack and miniature wahoo — with enough tunny for us to lay in some great baits to tempt large blue marlin.  A short run later, we were 15 miles off the Baja coast, with a simple W-pattern trolling spread of bridled tunny and various chuggers running behind, when a bill broke the spread, slapping the surface a hundred yards back and snapping the shotgun line. Tramontina jumped in the seat, bent over and wound furiously. The sweat poured off his forehead for an hour before an estimated 350-pound blue marlin came alongside for the release. Two marlin releases before noon wasn’t a bad tally at all, but adding a sailfish and even more hits from striped marlin to the bottom line made for an awesome afternoon.

Last Licks
A world of inshore and offshore fishing abounds in the Sea of Cortez, and you won’t run out of options: sight-casting to roosterfish, bottom-bouncing for snapper and grouper, and chasing down omnipresent striped and blue marlin. On our final day at Buena Vista Beach Resort, I tried to beat the 9 a.m. shuttle departure and set out on a local panga in the predawn hours to slow-troll baits in front of the lodge for an hour. As the sun rose, cockscomb fins knifed out of the water, spraying sardine schools. Hooked sardines sent back drew a swirl and a crash, and the line peeled off in an adrenaline-fueled hook-set. Nearly a dozen roosters to 20 pounds were brought boat-side in an hour’s time. I jumped off the boat and ran to catch the waiting shuttle with a smile plastered on my face, fully aware there would be now be an upside-down roosterfish flag tacked to my wall.