“Here’s a Guide to Catching and Using Natural Bait”
When the late Ray Cannon, author of the landmark book “Sea of Cortez”, first came to Baja he was greeted by immense schools of untapped gamefish fighting over an assortment of crude artificials. In today’s world, very few places offer such an environment. Baja is still an exciting fishery but it is much more competitive due, at least in part, to increased commercial and sportfishing pressure on the resource. Although artificials, from fly to metal, will take a share of gamefish, natural baits will usually outperform fake food on a daily basis with most gamefish species.
Many Baja regulars will determine where and what they will fish for based upon the species of live bait available for purchase. Others will catch their own bait, sacrificing precious fishing time, in order to get the “right kind” in the baitwell to entice a conveted gamefish such as roosterfish. Even Cannon himself realized the benefits of live bait for roosterfish. “Knowing this to be roosterfish country we tried to locate the schools by trolling some sure-fire lures, but nary a tail fin showed. We then selected a mixed rock and sand area near the mouth of an arroyo, stopped the boat, and let out our lines with a couple of 8-inch mullet. They had pulled off no more than 50 feet of line when a dorsal fin sliced the surface. A second one appeared, and we had two hookups. We hooked roosterfish as fast as we could pay out live bait, until it was all used,” he wrote.
Having the right kind of bait on board is a tremendous advantage for both lure and baitfishermen. Natural baits are versatile and many can be used for live chum, teaser baits, chunk bait and drop-back or slow-trolled live baits for just about everything that swims in Baja. Scattering handfuls of lively sardinas over a rocky point can bring placid waters to a boil and put gamefish in a better striking mood for artificials or hooked bait. Teasing a roosterfish with a slow-trolled mullet can make this wary species lose its cool to the extent it will grab nothing more than a hunk of hair called a fly. Deep jigging over reefs and seamounts is fun and productive but anchor and start chunking fresh pieces of skipjack and the fun may turn to pandemonium. When striped marlin turn away from lures a live Pacific mackerel cast on a feeder is an almost guaranteed hookup.
The following is a glossary of common baits found in Baja waters including how they are caught, utilized and the primary gamefish they attract. Both private boaters and anglers that charter boats from pangas to yachts should be knowledgeable about natural baits. Some common baits such as sardinas and mullet are readily available for purchase near fishing resorts in Baja Sur which is a great convenience for anglers. These fish are netted by commercial pangeros. Other baits such as Pacific mackerel, ladyfish and green jacks can be caught with small lures by both private and charter anglers but it saves valuable fishing time if you have the opportunity to purchase them. When black skipjack, bonito or other oily fish are caught keep a few onboard because they make great chunk bait for dorado, yellowfin tuna and reef dwellers as well as belly strips trolled for sailfish. Most of these baits are also encountered on the mainland of Mexico and Central America although the names may be different. The glossary includes the English name and Spanish reference common in Baja California.
The big three: Bigeye scad (caballito); sardina and Pacific mackerel (macarela)
Pacific Mackerel (macarela). Common throughout most of Baja. Torpedo-shape with about 30 wavy, vertical bars over a dark green or metallic blue dorsal area. Silvery bottom. About 10-inch average length. Netted and caught with small lures such as four-fly rigs and sinker. Found in schools close to shore as well as blue water. On surface or hundreds of feet in depth. Usually hit lures best in low-light conditions. Caught year-round. Gamefish: Striped marlin, sailfish, tuna, dorado, yellowtail, white seabass and more.
Bigeye Scad (Caballito). Scads in the baitwell are good as gold. A very effective bait but difficult to obtain (at least consistently) in Baja. Scads resemble green jacks (cocinero) but have a deeper body and larger eyes. Average about 7 to 10 inches. Caught mostly at night with nets, small bait pieces and feathers. Attracted to lights. A strong baitfish (caballito means little horse”). Found in schools at mid-depths (40 to 80 feet) around reefs and rocks of lower Baja. Gamefish: Roosterfish, marlin (striped, blue, black), sailfish, amberjack, jack crevalle, pargo (Pacific cubera snapper), yellowfin tuna, wahoo, yellowtail.
Squid (Calamari). Small market squid to giant squid exceeding 40 pounds are available in some years. Excellent as live, dead or cut bait for a variety of gamefish such as yellowtail. Try dropping down a whole giant squid for grouper, big pargo and giant (black) sea bass.
Yellowfin Tuna (Atún amarilla). A common gamefish worldwide in tropical seas. It is found all year in lower Baja and, during warm-water years, in northern Baja during summer and fall. Yellowfin make excellent live bait for blue and black marlin when caught in “schoolie” sizes between 5 and 10 pounds. Gamefish: Large marlin.
Green Jack (Cocinero). Common in lower Baja. This small jack rarely exceed 1-foot in length. Coloration varies but may show light green vertical bars below dorsal with whitish underbelly. A small black spot is found in front of its long pectoral fin. Forms large surface schools creating “nervous water” near islands and rocky shorelines. Caught by jigging small feathers, metal lures and with small sardinas. Hard to net in open water habitat. Try handlining and “jerking” feathers tied above a 3-ounce torpedo sinker deep below surface schools for best results. Cocinero are strong and easy to keep alive with minimal care. Gamefish: Roosterfish, marlin (striped, blue and black), sailfish, dorado, tuna, pargo, yellowtail.
Ladyfish (Sabalo, machete). This “little tarpon” is a frequent summer visitor to lower Baja. It is easily recognized with a long silver body and golden-yellow head and tailfin. It has a large mouth, a single dorsal fin and deeply forked tail. Commonly caught with shiny spoons using a high-speed, erratic retrieve. Jumps wildly and is sporting. Use a sliding egg sinker wrapped in mylar tape above a free-swinging treble hook tied to the end of the line to keep from being “shaken” free. Common sizes are 15 to 21-inches. Inhabits small protected coves of mixed rock and sand. A popular roosterfish bait at Cerralvo Island and nearby Baja beaches. Slow troll. A rather weak baitfish due to its length and needs constant water flow. Gamefish: Roosterfish, pargo, marlin (striped, blue, black).
Oceanic Skipjack (Barrilete). Dark stripes on belly. No spots on chest or stripes on back. Found in tropical seas with characteristics similar to black skipjack and attracts same gamefish.
Black Skipjack (Barrilete). Silvery with dark horizontal stripes on back and sometimes along sides. Three to 6 black spots below pectoral fin distinguishes the black skipjack from the rest of the Scombridae family found in Baja. From a few pounds to over 20 pounds. Caught with feathers, spoons and small baits such as sardinas. Tough fighter. Good for live, dead and cut bait. Attracks a wide variety of gamefish depending on bait size and how utilized. Prefers warm water. Common in lower Baja. Gamefish: Marlin (striped, blue, black), shark, large roosterfish, pargo, grouper, dorado (cut bait best), sailfish (use belly strip and slow troll), amberjack.
Wavyline Grunt (Rayadillo). A small grunt with orange-bronze stripes on gray and white body. Found from Bahía Magdalena to the East Cape. Netted near beaches. Slow-trolled or fished from a drifting boat. Gamefish: Roosterfish, pargo, jack crevalle.
Mullet (Lisa, liseta). The striped mullet is a common inshore species and is netted. It is a very durable, hardy baitfish and reaches a length of over 2% feet although 5 to 10 inch baits are most common. Popular around the Punta Colorada region for roosterfish. A larger relative, the “lison”, forms surface schools farther offshore and is not utilized for bait. Mullet have small mouths, elongated bodies, forked tailfins, hard heads and big scales. When rigging for bait insert the hook in the membrane above the upper lip by pulling the lip downward and exposing this area, otherwise mullet are hard to penetrate. Gamefish: Roosterfish, striped marlin, sailfish, dorado, tuna, pargo.
Baracuta or Chihuil. Called “baracuta” on the East Cape and “chihuil” at Los Cabos. No relationship to the barracudas, this tubular, long baitfish is similar to the sardineta but with larger mouth and smaller scales. Caught with small feathers or fly-rigs at Los Cabos. A strong bait that survives well in bait tank. Gamefish: Striped marlin, dorado, yellowfin tuna, amberjack, roosterfish.
Frigate Mackerel (mulgaté). Not common but is a choice bait. Flashy bluish-green with wavy streaks on rear half of back. Small mouth. No scales. 6 to 10 inches. Netted and takes small lures. Gamefish: “Candy” bait for roosterfish, pargo, jack crevalle, and yellowtail. Striped marlin, tuna, sailfish, dorado.
Mexican Bonito (Barrilete, bonito). Horizontal wavy stripes on back over a silver body. Looks like a California bonito except stripes are closer spaced and not as straight as California species. Prefers temperate water found on Pacific side of Baja. Caught with small lures and live bait. Gamefish: Giant (black) sea bass, broadbill swordfish, shark, large tuna, marlin (striped, blue, black).
Needlefish (Agujon). A long white fish with dark blue to greenish back. Elongated upper and lower jaws extend from head with rows of extremely sharp teeth. Bluish-green mouth. Can exceed 6-feet. Dorsal fin is located far to the rear near curved tailfin. Common to lower Baja and Sea of Cortez. Considered a gamefish, pest or bait depending on angler. Caught with shiny lures swimming plugs or sardinas. Gamefish: An excellent bait for Pacific cubera (dog) snapper and pargo colorado (remove needle jaws and air bladder), grouper, shark, giant (black) sea bass.
Sardina generic (Flatiron herring, thread herring, Cortez sardina). The common silvery deep-bodied, large eyes and black spot behind the gill cover of this popular Baja Sur baitfish is identified as a flatiron herring and not a true sardine or sardina. An extremely important baitfish found for sale in most lower Baja bait stations.
Sierra Mackerel (sierra, cero). Distinguished by many golden spots on whitish sides and slender profile. Sharp teeth (sierra means “saw”). Forms large schools nearshore during winter and spring in lower Baja and into the Sea of Cortez. Rarely exceeds 10 pounds. Caught by trolling swimming plugs, feathers, spoons and smaller baitfish. Sporty and makes classic ceviche. Gamefish: Pargo, grouper, marlin (striped, blue, black), sailfish, amberjack, giant (black) sea bass, large tuna.
Rainbow Runner (Salmón). Sometimes misidentified as a yellowtail, the rainbow runner is more colorful with blue and gold stripes and slimmer in body shape. Small mouth and single finlets in front of a deeply forked tail. Grows to 3-feet but smaller individuals make adequate live, dead or chunk bait. Summer visitors to Los Cabos. Gamefish: Blue and black marlin, yellowfin tuna.
Bigeye Trevally (ojón). Similar to a green jack but has deeper body and larger eyes. A night feeder over reefs. More common on mainland Mexico. Gamefish: Marlin, roosterfish, pargo.
Yellowtail (jurel). A desirable gamefish, smaller yellowtail are candy for big bottom dwellers. Taken with a variety of artificials and live bait such as mackerel. Gamefish: Baja grouper, goliath grouper, cubera snapper, sharks.
Sardineta. A long, slender sardine caught with small feathers or fly-rigs in the Los Cabos region, especially at Gorda Banks. A week bait but is good when slow-trolled dead. Gamefish: Striped marlin, dorado, yellowfin tuna.
Pelagic Red Crab (pastilera, congrejo rojo). These 3-inch size bright red crabs (similar in appearance to a small lobster) follow the oceanic currents and may form immense concentrations nearshore and offshore in some years. Also called “tuna crabs”, they are associated with tuna largely because they share the same currents and are fed upon by the various tunas. Many other gamefish may use crab as a primary forage at times. Outside of a vigorous backward kick motion they are weak swimmers and can be scooped from the surface with a standard bait net. Gamefish: Tuna, yellowtail, calico bass, sheephead, halibut and more.
Anchovy (Anchoveta). Several species. Most important in Northern Pacific Baja where it is a commonly netted baitfish. Found in Sea of Cortez as well. A filter-feeder. Big schools. Blue to green back and silver below. Large scales easily lost. Large eyes and receding lower jaw. 3 to 6 inches. Gamefish: Yellowtail, tuna, halibut, bonito, barracuda, calico bass.
Smelt (pejerrey). Available mostly in northern Pacific Baja such as Bahia de San Quintín where they are commonly netted after chumming with pieces of bread or crackers. Gamefish: Halibut, calico bass, yellowtail (sometimes), school tuna and bottomfish.
Pacific Sardine (sardina). A true sardine and not a herring. Common in recent years to Northern Pacific Baja waters. Elongated body. Greenish to blue above with many dark spots shading to silver on sides and belly. Netted from large schools but will also take small lures. Gamefish: Striped marlin, tuna, yellowtail, dorado, white seabass, halibut, bonito, barracuda, calico bass.
Flying Fish (volador). Historically important for Baja billfish. Imported from California. Fell out of favor when high-speed lure trolling and live-baiting took over. Fish still eat them, only the angler has changed.
California Halfbeak (Ballyhoo). An excellent bait for dorado roosterfish and sails. Infrequently available and hard to catch (usually takes two pangas working together with seine or castnets). Looks like a baby needlefish but with only one protruding lower jaw and no teeth.
Goatfish (Chivo). This schooling inshore species is netted and frequently turn up in bait supplies on the East Cape. Will sometimes be effective for roosterfish, jack crevalle and other species including marlin and dorado. Best for live bait casting or drifting rather than trolling.
Jack Mackerel (macarela). Not a mackerel but a member of the jack family. Solid iridescent green with silvery belly. High, close-set dorsal fins. 7 to 12 inches. Netted and takes small lures. Abundant in some years, especially under kelp paddies in schools during summer. Gamefish: Same as Pacific Mackerel (above).
Bulito. A small bait caught year-round under East Cape commercial shark buoys about 20-to 25-feet deep on fly-rigs. Resembles a tiny skipjack. A hyperactive bait that doesn’t live long in baitwells. Not a good bait for tuna. Gamefish: Excellent for striped marlin, sailfish, dorado.
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