“This Remote Baja Hotspot Challenges Light Tackle Panga Anglers with a Variety of Gamefish”
Just catching bait at Cerralvo, the southernmost island in the sea of Cortez, can be an adventure. Captain Mauricio Lucero Gonzalez of the Las Arenas Resort fleet pointed the bow of the panga (outboard skiff) to a balled-up school of ladyfish appearing like yellow sparkles in the clear water at the foot of the western cliffs of the rugged, desert island. Our quarry was big roosterfish but the key to success is catching the right kind of bait first. Ladyfish (locally called sabalo) are a premier rooster-enticer in this area of Baja. The small bow platform provided firm footing as I made a lob cast to the “ladies” with a simple torpedo sinker and hook combination. A fast, jerky retrieve resulted in our first hookup of the morning. As the ladyfish was pulled away from the school a big, lit-up roosterfish with dorsal comb slicing the surface charged in seemingly out of nowhere undoubtedly attracted by the commotion. A frustrated Lucero looked at the 50-pounder swimming free knowing we had no bait. Except mine. I free-spooled the ladyfish and every time the rooster made a pass the lady did aerial cartwheels to dodge the menace. Our pleads of, “Take it! Take it!” were useless utterings. Adding thumb pressure on the spool to slow the bait, the rooster rushed in as the lady jumped and used the additional leverage to throw the hook. In a blur both the bait and rooster were gone.
We all knew we would get more chances later since fishing these Cerralvo Island waters in early July is almost a sure bet for large roosterfish as well as blue marlin, wahoo, yellowfin tuna, sailfish and nearshore bruisers such as cubera (dog) snapper. The area is about a 25-mile drive by airport shuttle van from bustling La Paz but seems much farther due to its solitude and pristine environment. The spectacular dry desert landscape collides with the cobalt Sea of Cortez in an abrupt confrontation of habitats that has appealed to anglers for generations.
CERRALVO ISLAND BOUNTY
Within an hour we had put nine ladyfish in the panga’s live well, which is created simply by filling the hull space between the bow platform and first bench seat with several buckets of water. We were soon slow trolling along the blue-green edge of the sea just outside the concentrations of baitfish. Cerralvo is an epicenter for big roosterfish with its white sand beaches, rocky headlands and submerged reefs. It’s deep blue-water canyons serve as travel corridors for pelagic gamefish as well.
Nose-hooking two ladyfish we slow-trolled them from Shimano TLD-15 lever drag outfits spooled with 50-pound Power Pro Spectra with 30-feet of 40-pound Seaguar fluorocarbon topshot. Trolling a meandering pattern near the beach, one of the ladyfish baits started acting nervous. A telltale dorsal comb, trademark of the roosterfish, showed behind the hapless bait and rather than toying with it like so many roosters do, this one charged ahead and hit it sideways with a vicious lunge. It’s head looked like chiseled granite in profile. “Big fish,” understated Lucero. These long bodied ladyfish baits require time for even big roosters to swallow. Forget a count to ten. Sometimes it takes two or three minutes before setting the hook. It’s critical to not give too much time as well to avoid gut-hooking and injuring the fish before a release. Roosterfish frequently swallow ladyfish tail first as shown by crush marks along the body to the back of the head on baits that have been pulled prematurely. Roosterfish have no teeth to tear forage with. They rely on powerful jaws with a gritty mouth to hold and swallow prey.
Captain Lucero slowly followed the roosterfish to avoid having too much line out. Even so, as the rooster picked up speed over 100 yards of line was off the spool. Rapid acceleration is a sign the bait has been swallowed and Lucero nodded his head, a subtle sign to set the hook. Rick Casparian pushed the lever drag to “strike” and cranked the handle hard. Lucero speeded up the boat in the opposite direction to help set the hook in the rooster’s hard jaws as well as to keep a tight line if the fish charged the boat. The rod loaded up in a smooth arc and line peeled off the spool from a heavy drag. The panga was slowed down to neutral as the rooster was well-hooked, aided by the low-stretch factor of the superbraid. After a 35-minute give and take battle the rooster came to the surface, gleaming on its side and thoroughly tired. Lucero struggled to release the jaw-hooked fish after spending a few moments to revive it fully, we estimated its weight at a conservative 70 pounds. It was a nice trophy yet would not raise too many eyebrows in these Baja waters. The all-tackle I.G.F.A. world record of 114 pounds was taken in this La Paz region in 1960. Roosters exceeding 80 pounds are still regularly encountered due, in large part, to a catch and release ethic that is widely supported. It is also advisable to use 30-pound tackle or heavier to avoid long fights which can overstress and kill a big roosterfish.
BLUE MARLIN HIGHWAY
Continuing our northerly troll we spotted fragmented herds of wild goats foraging on Cerralvo’s rugged, cactus-studded slopes. By late morning, towering formations of frigate birds started to gather in the Cerralvo Channel, which separates the island from the Baja mainland. It averages only six miles in width but has a good mid-channel depth of 186 to 283 fathoms. The close-in channel is a magnet for blue marlin yet is frequently overlooked by big-boat anglers as they prefer to make longer runs offshore to deeper water.
Blue marlin usually show up by late June or July to feed on immense schools of dorado (dolphin) that are attracted to baited commercial shark floats anchored in deep water and rafts of sargasso weed concentrated by the currents. Plentiful black skipjack, yellowfin tuna, bonito and squid fill out the marlins menu. Nutrient-rich upwellings and 80- to 86-degree sea temperatures produce a steady supply of forage for a number of gamefish species.
Replacing our rooster rigs with billfish lures we ran to the first bird activity only a few minutes from the Cerralvo shoreline. Nothing showed and we trolled to visible targets such as the shark buoys, sargasso patches and frigate bird activity. The sea was full of life as a behemoth blue whale spouted on the surface and porpoise leisurely fed in loose schools. A flying fish skimmed the surface as a bull dorado was in hot pursuit and closing fast as a frigate swooped in seemingly out of nowhere and snagged the flyer with its great hooked beak within a few feet of the dorado’s gaping mouth.
We caught a few dorado by casting surface poppers near the buoys as we trolled by. Small yellowfin tuna were also hitting the poppers and small trolling feathers. The table was definitely set for the big pelagics to show. Relaxing as we covered a gap of open “dead” water between the buoy line and distant bird activity our starboard rod buckled low as line shot from the reel under severe pressure. No one said anything. We knew what it was. The blue marlin burst from the surface and grey-hounded on its side like a huge flat stone skipping over the water. Suddenly it turned towards our stern as if recognizing its adversary and charged the boat. Lucero gunned the outboard and turned the panga at the same time as the marlin narrowly missed coming aboard. The blue powered into the depths and refused to budge. Switching to low gear on the Shimano TLD 20 two-speed and using a custom fitted stand-up harness and belt made it possible to exert maximum pressure without the fatigue and awkwardness created by unbalanced tackle, a necessity when fishing from a diminutive panga.
Within an hour the blue was tired enough to bring alongside for release. With the panga’s low freeboard and open construction you don’t want a thrashing, “green” marlin near the boat for safety reasons. Unhooking the Moldcraft Softhead, Lucero pushed the rough bill away from the gunwale and the marlin, estimated at 300 pounds, kicked its tail and disappeared into the dark depths.
Before returning to Las Arenas Resort in the afternoon, we raised another blue marlin that threw the hook and released a big sailfish and several dorado between 25 and 40 pounds on light plugging tackle. Other panga anglers, fanning out in all directions from the morning departure, had good action with yellowfin tuna to 120 pounds, sailfish and blue marlin offshore with a 700-pound blue taking big fish honors for the day. Nearshore fishermen turned up cubera (dog) snapper to 45-pounds, amberjack, wahoo, jack crevalle and cabrilla. In addition, roosterfish to 80 pounds were released at Las Arenas as well as Cerralvo.
LIGHT TACKLE PANGA STRATEGY
Most of the sportfishing in this region is accomplished from single outboard pangas not equipped with fighting chairs. The stand-up fishing style is standard with a maximum of 50-pound class tackle preferred not only for the challenge but for safety reasons. Standing up with a heavy 80-wide outfit locked in a harness from a pitching, narrow-beamed boat with low gunwales is not recommended for anyone, especially when hooked to a big marlin or yellowfin tuna. Many anglers are adding both line capacity and line strength to smaller reels by using superbraids with monofilament or fluorocarbon topshots to help compensate for the lack of heavy tackle. Such “mis-matches” will test the limit of your reels drag system, side plate construction, handle integrity and overall ruggedness if you choose to use a drag pressure commensurate with the line strength. Compromising by using a setting higher than the reels design setting yet less than 30 percent of the line strength will save on tackle breakdowns if you’re not sure of your reels performance under extreme stress.
SEASON, SEAS AND SPECIES
The peak fishing season runs from April to October which coincides with warm to hot weather and calm to moderate seas. The early spring fishery concentrates on striped marlin, wahoo, dorado, yellowtail, cubera snapper, mullet snapper, sierra mackerel, grouper, amberjack and cabrilla. By summer, these gamefish are joined by blue and black marlin, yellowfin tuna, sailfish, roosterfish, pompano, jack crevalle and bigeye trevally. Every season varies as to the arrival of the migratory pelagic species and the abundance of forage available to attract them. For the last two years, the month of May has been exceptional for striped marlin, sailfish, yellowfin tuna, wahoo and nearshore resident species gorging on large schools of sardines, squid and mackerel. However, during May of this year the fishing was relatively slow due to an influx of cool, green water and an explosion of a squid biomass that kept the gamefish satiated.
From July to October the seas are usually glassy-calm and blue water is found close to shore at Cerralvo Island and the nearby Baja beaches. At times, the calm weather will be interrupted by brief thunderstorm activity from the south resulting in short, steep windblown waves commonly referred to as the “Cortez chop” by Baja regulars. From November to April the wind usually comes from the north and chilly cold fronts can blow for weeks which have made the long, north-facing beach at Bahía de la Ventana a renowned haven for windsurfers.
The great variety of gamefish at Cerralvo can create a tackle selection challenge for those anglers who want to be prepared for “everything.” Light spinning or bait-casting outfits in the 12-pound range, medium level-wind and conventional combinations from 15- to 30-pound classes and trolling tackle in the 50-pound range will usually suffice for bait and small game catching, popping and jigging or live bait fishing as well as blue water trolling, respectively. For the tough nearshore bruisers such as cubera snapper, amberjack and grouper, most anglers choose the heaviest tackle in their arsenal to have a chance with these powerful rock dwellers. Although live bait fishing is very popular, a variety of lures can also be effective from lipped swimming plugs, surface poppers, metal jigs and spoons to offshore-skirted lures for pelagics. First time visiting anglers should consult with a Baja travel outfitter for more specific tackle suggestions.
Regardless of what gamefish are targeted most anglers will encounter hook-ups with outsized brutes that will challenge you, your tackle and the small boat your fishing on in these prolific Sea of Cortez waters.
The island was first discovered by Spanish explorer Fortun Jimenez during a voyage into the Sea of Cortez (Gulf of California) in 1533 and was named Isla de Santiago. The island was inhabited by the Pericu Indians who subsisted on the abundant seafood gathered along the shore and from the fruit of the pitahaya cactus that grows on the nearly barren island. Pearl beds along the west shoreline were particularly rich and pearling was exploited by the Spanish soon after the island’s discovery. In 1632, a Spanish pearler, Francisco de Ortega, took over the pearling operation and gave Isla (Island) Cerralvo its current name in honor of the Viceroy of New Spain.
In more recent times, the southern end of the island was visited occasionally by the vagabundos del mar which they used as a burial ground. Remnants of their graves still remain. The vagabundos were originally comprised of Yaqui Indians from the upper Cortez who abandoned the land over a century ago for a life of wandering at sea aboard flimsy sailing canoes. The hospitable vagabundos were joined over the years by other men seeking solitude and freedom and their number “swelled” to about 300. They became renowned for their benevolent acts, including saving mariners from shipwrecks, while refusing rewards and gifts. Only rumors hint of their continued existence. Cerralvo is currently uninhabited except by local commercial fishermen that may camp on its shores for a night or two.
Productive fish habitat for anglers can be a navigational hazard for mariners. Inner Montana Rock, which has a rocky highpoint of only 4-feet below the surface, was struck by the S.S. Montana in 1874, thus giving its name to this fishy graveyard. A lighthouse at nearby Punta Viejos now warns mariners of the hazardous reefs off southern Cerralvo.
HABITATS AND HOTSPOTS
Cerralvo Island is about 16 miles long and 4 miles wide with a mountainous profile with peaks reaching 2,518-feet. Its scrub and cactus vegetation supports a population of goats and wildcats. Most of its eastern shoreline is rocky with a few prominent headlands. The western face is broken with intermittent rocky points and arroyos (streambeds) with small sand beaches. A long beach and sandy point forms the southwest extremity.
Offshore structure includes La Reina (Seal Rock) about 4 miles north of Cerralvo and Inner Montana Rock about 3/4 mile southward of Punta Sudeste at the island’s south end. Its underwater rocky terrain continues southward in depths of 30 to 100-feet before rising abruptly again about 1 1/2 miles offshore. This second ridgeis called Montana Rock and is generally favored over the Inner Rock because it is near deeper water. Within ¼ mile it drops off to 100 fathoms and eventually connects with the 1000-fathom shelf that brings big pelagics such as blue marlin to its doorstep. Productive fishing areas for pelagics include the 88-Fathom Bank 12 miles east of Cerralvo, “Yellow Bluff’ on the northeastern side of Cerralvo and Cerralvo Channel.
Cerralvo is like magic when it comes to attracting gamefish and Montana Rock has the biggest variety of fish in the region. Sails come in so thick at times that scuba divers often see constant groups going by plus marlin and swordfish. The wahoo swim along the Montana drop-off and there are still lots of 100-pound fish around. They average 40-50 pounds. During the spring hundreds of big pargo or dog snapper (cubera) from 20 to 80 pounds gather at Montana, however, getting a big one to the boat is another matter. Pargo put on an incredible burst of power which is usually enough to cut even 100-pound line off in the rocks.
The underwater structure from the island to Montana is full of rock outcroppings, caves, valleys and sand which is awesome habitat. Divers say it’s not unusual to be surrounded by 100-pound amberjack here and anglers get there share of fish exceeding 70 pounds. Grouper over 400 pounds come into the shallows during May. There seems to be bigger cabrilla around now but the pargo lisa (mullet snapper) and cubera snapper may have diminished some. Roosterfish are still around in good numbers from schools of little fish to some over 70 pounds. The big roosters seem to travel in pairs a lot so it’s a good idea to troll two baits. They are found around both sand and rock areas especially if schools of ladyfish or sardinas are at the island. The white sand beaches at Las Arenas is another good choice for trophy-class roosters.
La Reina has less structure and fewer fish except it’s better for yellowtail from December to May. There are lots of amberjack there as well.
GETTING TO CERRALVO
Punta Arena del la Ventana, commonly known as Las Arenas, occupies a spectacular promontory overlooking the Sea of Cortez and its southernmost island, 16-mile long Isla Cerralvo. It lies in a remote stretch of Baja desert coast between the port city of La Paz and the more numerous resorts of the famed East Cape. There are several alternatives available in getting to and fishing the region.
The nearest international airport is at La Paz where a Las Arenas Resort shuttle van will transport anglers and gear to Las Arenas in about one hour via paved highway and scenic desert landscape. Airport taxis are readily available for anglers that choose to stay in one of numerous hotels in La Paz. The international airport at San José del Cabo, which primarily serves Los Cabos, can also be used but is nearly a three hour drive from the region.
Most anglers fish Las Arenas/Cerralvo in either of two ways. The most convenient access is at Las Arenas Resort (888-644-7376 or 619-460-4319) where guests are only a few minutes away from boarding a panga. The 40-room hotel, with tackle shop, swimming pool, full service dining room and bar is the only onsite accommodation in the region. Its solitude, friendly staff and panoramic views have been attracting a repeat clientele for decades.
Anglers staying in La Paz are transported on a daily schedule to the waiting panga fleets at Las Arenas or nearby Bahía de los Muertos. (Some boats operating from La Paz may fish the north end of Cerralvo and La Reina but not on a regular schedule due to the longer boat ride). David Jones’ Fishermens Fleet pangas (011-52-112-21313) are headquartered at Muertos Bay and has some of the most experienced skippers available in the region. Jones offers a complete package including low cost accommodations in La Paz if desired. Reservations can be made with the following travel outfitters for both Las Arenas Resort and La Paz alternatives: Cass Tours, 800-593-6510/714-692-6970; Rod and Reel Adventures, 800-356-6982; Lynn Rose Tours, 800-525-9527; Baja fishing Adventures, 800-458-3688; Blue Water Tours, 800-799-8475 (California) or 800-698-5300 (U.S.); and Try Baja!, 800-250-3186.
Panga fishing is a bargain with full-day rates starting at about $75 per person for a two-angler charter. Super pangas that typically include a center console, live bait well with pump system, bimini top and 70-horsepower outboard are about $90 per person. Ice, bottled water, preferred beverages, lunch, fish cleaning and storage are standard at Las Arenas Resort. La Paz package trips add the cost of ground transportation and any rental fishing equipment. Tips of 10 to 20 percent of the charter cost are customary for the pangero (skipper).
U.S. citizens don’t need a passport to enter Mexico. Proof of citizenship such as a birth certificate is required. Special requirements apply to an individual parent with child, children traveling alone, a child traveling with a divorced or foster parent and other circumstances. All visitors require a tourist card which currently costs approximately $21 and is valid for a six-month period. All anglers require a Mexican fishing license, usually issued through the fleet or resort manager. Private boaters must have a Mexican boat permit and Mexican car insurance. Anglers should also obtain a copy of the Mexican Fishing Regulations. Consult your professional travel outfitter for necessary permits and information about travel in Baja.
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The Roving Angler