“This Los Cabos Hotspot Attracts A Variety of Gamefish”
Just before dawn a well-practiced metamorphosis takes place at La Playita beach a few miles east of San José del Cabo. Sentinels of pangas are lined up high on the beach as if part of the permanent scenery. The rhythmic, booming shorebreak is the only disturbance to this solace that describes Baja. Boat crews arrive seemingly out of nowhere, followed by eager anglers anxious to get on the fishing grounds. A sense of urgency and hectic activity transforms the beach into the liveliest spot in town within mere moments. Eric Brictson, owner of Gordo Banks Pangas, greets all anglers and freely dispenses his advice for the day including what to fish for and where to go. Brictson has been on the scene since 1985 and knows how to respond to changing sea conditions, bait supply and other variables in order to give his clients the best fishing opportunity.
One by one, the pangas are pushed, pulled and shoved into the sea, carefully timed between breaking swells, by a host of pangeros and anglers-alike. Not to be outdone, Brictson always seems to be standing in the deepest water giving the last push as he whishes his anglers’ good fortune.
On this morning in May, we headed east toward prominent Punta Gorda after taking on a supply of live mullet and sardinas from a commercial bait panga waiting just offshore. The type of bait that is available can influence what an angler pursues. For example, mackerel is considered a good offshore bait while mullet is preferred inshore. Except for mullet and small sardinas, which are netted, anglers can opt to jig up their own bait but this effort will use up valuable fishing time. Since we wanted to try our luck with roosterfish using the mullet, Brictson suggested we move further into the Sea of Cortez where his fleet had scored on a variety of gamefish, including dorado, the previous day.
ROOSTERS AT THE RANCH
As the sun peaked over Punta Gorda the choppy water worked up by a persistent nighttime land breeze soon flattened into a smooth surface. Perfect for a panga. As we sped along the coast all seemed quiet until we reached the Rancho San Luis area. Diving pelicans signaled that baitfish, most likely sardinas, were schooled up and possibly attracting some gamefish along with the birds. Slow trolling live mullet while tossing out handfuls of sardinas near a mix of rocky outcroppings and sand, a surface disturbance caught our attention. Dozens of slashing dorsal “combs” created a frothy foam as roosterfish charged the panicking baitfish. With a double hook-up on smallish roosters going on the stern I moved to the bow hoping that bigger fish would show themselves. Almost on cue a large silversided adult separated from the pack and I cast a mullet in its path. Unfortunately, a more aggressive rooster of about 20 pounds grabbed the morsel which kept me occupied for several moments of powerful surface runs followed by deep fighting tactics, typical of these Baja roosterfish. By the time Sabrina Williams and I released our fish all was quiet again. Roosterfish are not known as the “ghosts of Baja” for nothing due to their mysterious appearances and fast departures.
DORADO IN THE SHALLOWS
The radio carried animated talk of dorado action offshore and we were mildly tempted to join the fleet. I don’t like to leave fish to find fish. Since there were good “signs of life” around us we opted to work our area longer. As we continued to troll, a shimmering flash of white punctuated the blue-green horizon a few hundred yards offshore. I focused on the spot to confirm what I thought I saw and, yes, there was a repeat display. We sped to the area and found two large schools of lisón (a species of large mullet) above pods of green jack in about 40-feet of water.
Our first bait was taken by a deep diver and turned out to be a husky barred pargo or greenbar snapper. Chumming with sardinas brought a surprise showing of dorado and we hooked two immediately. Fighting these 20-pound slivers of gold within sight of the white sand beach and in such shallow water emphasized the long-held impression that almost anything can happen in Baja. Working these bait schools produced two more dorado, a roosterfish and black skipjack to round out an unusual mix of “inshore” gamefish.
Unless you’re chasing roosterfish or elusive pelagics, most anglers stay close to the Gorda Banks themselves for wahoo, pargo, amberjack, yellowtail, grouper, as well as dorado, yellowfin tuna, marlin and sailfish. May to October is usually a peak fishing period but the availability of certain gamefish can vary greatly depending on currents, forage and so on. “Wahoo always seem to surprise us,” says Brictson. “We had an early run in April and we’re still getting big fish of over 60 pounds and it’s not even June yet. I’m sure the deep blue, warm water and plenty of mackerel has a lot to do with it,” added Brictson.
Wahoo anglers have a big edge when fishing with the Gordo Bank Pangas. The sunrise departures allow anglers to be on the fishing grounds for the early-morning bite which wahoo are noted for. By 10 a.m. it’s usually all over with and late-arriving boats may never see a wahoo. Although live bait is very effective, many anglers are switching to lures due to the wahoos’ ability to cut baits in half without getting hooked. A proven technique is to fast troll a red and black Ironman Prolight far back in the spread around the high spots with a single strand wire leader. A light, metal jig such as the Prolight swims better and stays in the water while a heavy yo-yo type will break the surface and present a poor target. By late morning try switching to a heavy monofilament or fluorocarbon leader as visibility becomes a problem. You’ll be risking more cutoffs but getting more strikes. Generally, bright jig colors and single hook systems are preferred. Skirted lures should have cable hook attachments to the leader. In addition to the Ironman, top lures include the Braid Marauder, Yo-Zuri Bonita, Mold Craft Little Chugger(black/red), Rapala Magnums and jetheads. Troll the swimming-type lures close to the propwash for best results.
The Gorda Banks are almost synonymous with the yo-yo or deep jigging style of fishing. Outer Gorda, in particular, is very productive due to its extensive network of caves and rocky bottom habitat. Dog (cubera) snapper, cabrilla, leopard grouper, broomtail grouper and some huge amberjack exceeding 100-pounds live here. That’s the good news. Unfortunately it is very challenging to avoid cutoffs and many big fish are lost to the sharp bottom structure. Top yo-yo jigs include the Ironman 5, Tady A-1 or 9, Salas 6X and 6X Junior, Braid Slammers, Kicker, Action Lures, Sumo and the Yo-Zuri Hydro Metals. Color doesn’t seem to be critical to success but blue/chrome, green/yellow, blue/white, all-white and all-chrome are popular.
Try dropping a lure straight to the bottom and reeling fast back to the boat or stopping it every fifteen or twenty cranks, dropping the rod tip to make the jig flutter down momentarily before resuming the retrieve. If you cast any distance from the bottom the increased line angle will expose you to more cutoffs and snags. When a fish hits keep reeling until the fish starts pulling drag to insure a good, solid hookup.
Deep jigging is hard work, especially under the hot Baja sun. Chumming or chunking fresh bait is a good technique to bring all types of gamefish, including bottom feeders closer to the boat where anglers can use a shorter drop to get action or fly-line live bait. Live bait is commonly used and at times, is the key to success. Amberjack are one species that tend to lock-in on one prey, chihuil, and without this bait you may be wasting your time. Chihuil (pronounced “chew-willy”) are called “baracuta” on the East Cape and are caught at night. They resemble a rainbow runner crossed with a “Spanish” jack mackerel and are a top bait for many gamefish.
CHUNKING YELLOWFIN TUNA
Yellowfin tuna are a big draw almost on a year-round basis. Although most fall in the ten-to 80-pound range, some cows of over 200 pounds and more have been taken on these banks. A fairly recent development has been the use of the chunking technique on both the Inner and Outer Gordas. This is a fairly simple method. Pieces of cut bait or “chunks” are dropped overboard, preferably with a steady trail of ground-up chum, where they sink as they are carried by the current. Predatory gamefish, such as tuna, are attracted to this easy meal and will often follow the food line up to the surface. Watching large tuna, almost eating out of your hand is quite a show. Although most chunking experts usually anchor upcurrent of a bank to allow the chunk trail to drift over the structure, the Gorda pangeros simply drift repeatedly over the high spots or in productive open water. Drifting allows anglers to be more selective with pelagics like tuna whereas anchored boats may be interfered with more by structure-oriented fish such as pargo and amberjack.
One event that helped put the Gorda Banks “on the map” of stateside anglers was the 1999 Los Cabos Tuna Jackpot Tournament held by “Western Outdoor News”. All of the big, tournament-winning tuna came from the Gordas, including cows of 202 and 219 pounds. Hundred-pound tuna didn’t raise an eyebrow after the first day due to the influx of big fish. The secret bait? Chihuil. Angler Jack Sowell on the “Tiger Spirit” commented on his 202-pounder: “We caught it at the Gorda Bank on a weird little fish. We spent two hours trying to catch bait for three of them because our skipper said that’s what the big tuna are eating on the bank”.
The 219-pounder was caught by skipper Toño on the panga “Estella del Mar”. He also had a “small” fish of 122 pounds among others, but these were not unusual for him. “My family has been fishing the Gorda Banks for 58 years,” said Toño. “My father fished the Gordas and his father fished it. I have been catching big tuna on the Gorda Banks for many years. Last month I caught a 315-pound tuna”. The secretive Toño first claimed that his tuna were taken with bulito (frigate mackerel) but after the tournament confessed they were all caught on chihuil.
There’s something about landing billfish from a panga that is intriguing to many anglers. Maybe it’s the lore that goes with big fish and small boats. Regardless of the attraction, the Gorda Banks region is a good place to hookup with a blue, black or striped marlin as well as sailfish. Brictson’s personal skipper, Marcello Gonzalez, pushed this panga-style of fishing to the limit when he bridled an eight-pound yellowfin tuna on the Outer Gorda Bank at high noon during a full moon phase. The big bait was taken by a black marlin that weighted 993 pounds. Similar encounters are recorded on an annual basis around here but most result in lost fish and busted tackle.
Black marlin frequent shallow water and feed on the productive banks almost year-round. Spring to fall is prime time. Blue marlin reach a peak in August and are found in better numbers offshore in deep blue water. The smaller striped marlin, averaging 80 to 120 pounds, migrate through the area from April to December but can be caught all year if the conditions are favorable. Sailfish are unpredictable but usually start schooling up July through October. Brictson favors a full moon for blue and black marlin but striped marlin action usually slows down during this period. “For most of the gamefish around here the bite improves leading up to the full moon then usually falls off for about a week after. Experienced clients usually book accordingly “, says Brictson.
Roosterfish can show at any time of the year but their size, numbers and reliability increase from May to August. If you want to test your skills on this dynamic gamefish the sandy shallows west of Punta Gorda, red Hill in front of the Westin Hotel, and Rancho San Luis are good places to start your search. The larger roosterfish usually prefer a slow trolled live bait such as mullet, chihuil or caballito (bigeye scad). “When the mullet schools start arriving on the beaches it’s a sure bet the roosterfish will be close by. This usually happens about April or May and the inshore bite starts taking off“, says Brictson.
One exception to the summer action is the toothy sierra mackerel, which prefers the cooler water of winter. Sierra exceeding 15 pounds are like miniature wahoo and can cut even heavy mono leaders easily with their dense rows of razor sharp teeth. They are an aggressive gamefish and will hit shiny spoons, swimming plugs, hoochie skirts and live or strip baits. Wire leaders are recommended. Sierra are renown as tablefare and for making the classic “ceviché” dish.
During May and June pargo (cubera snapper and mullet snapper) move in vast schools to the inshore reefs where the water will appear red at times as they crowd near the surface. The Iman Bank, Rancho San Luis, Shipwreck Point, the 25-Fathom Spot and Distilidera are likely gathering spots. Closer to the beach the African pompano also forms large schools and can produce reliable action for weeks. This tough member of the jack family can exceed 30 pounds and its handsome, broad profile adds to its status as a trophy gamefish species.
Snook are probably the most elusive inshore gamefish found in this region. Weighing from ten to over 50 pounds snook are a prized catch because they are difficult to figure out. They don’t stay in stable schools or specific locations for very long. Whether it’s the Pacific black snook or white snook they are known to associate with fresh water seepages nearshore, brackish lagoons and groundwater outlets in deep water. That’s about the best clue you can get to help locate them. One such place is the Costa Azul area west of San José del Cabo where a watershed from the nearby foothills empties near the beach. Snook of 30 to 50 pounds are sometimes taken here with live bait and trolling swimming plugs. The estuary at San José del Cabo, fed by the Rio San José, has been a snook nursery under good conditions while mature snook may be encountered along the adjacent beach during heavy rain periods. Last July a local surf angler landed a 36-pound snook at La Playita using a mullet belly strip for bait.
The Gorda Bank region is a true gamefish junction. Its diverse habitat attracts a myriad of gamefish while its affordable panga fleets and friendly local people keep stateside anglers coming back year after year.
There are two banks known as Gorda. Inner and Outer Gorda are four and eight miles, respectively, from the high, white-cliffed promontory to the east of San José del Cabo called Punta Gorda. The banks have reported high spots of 48 and 204 feet. A narrow, deep trench of 103 fathoms separates the two banks. Inner Gorda is larger than Outer Gorda and has extensive, broad shallows punctuated by high, rocky formations. Outer Gorda, however, is generally favored for fishing because it is more often covered by the blue water current and attracts a wider variety of gamefish including billfish.
GOING TO GORDA
The most convenient way to get to the Los Cabos region is by air. The international airport near San Jose del Cabo is about twenty minutes from the local hotels and restaurants. As of this printing, a union-controlled airport taxi system charged a flat rate of $55 US to the relatively close-by town. Shuttle buses will take you to the largest hotels for $11 US per person. Once arrivals get beyond the initial sticker shock of airport ground transportation this overall Baja experience still maintains itself as a bargain. All of my trip arrangements were made through Cass Tours (800) 593-6510. I recommend using the services of a professional travel outfitter to obtain good advice and eliminate the hassles of bookings at no extra cost to the traveler.
Entering Mexico requires either a valid passport, birth certificate or notarized affidavit of citizenship (along with a drivers license) for U.S. citizens. A Mexican tourist card (not a visa) is also needed and is usually supplied during the flight by your airline. For adults or single parents traveling with a minor(s), a parental consent form may be required which can be obtained through the Mexican Consulate office, www.sre.gob.mx/sandiego (try typing in your city, you may have a consulate office near you).
Eric Brictson’s Gordo Banks Pangas (800-408-1199; www.gordobanks.com; email: firstname.lastname@example.org) are located at La Playita (beach) a few miles east of San Jose del Cabo. Just offshore lies the famous Gorda Banks. One note: maritime charts and historical writings reference these banks as Gorda, however, Gordo is used interchangeably today. The congenial Brictson settled in Los Cabos in 1985 and is a wealth of knowledge. His seven-panga fleet includes 22-foot standard, stern-controlled pangas at $170 per day and 23-foot center console super pangas at $200 for the 6 a.m. to noon fishing day. “Every one of my skippers were born and raised here in San José del Cabo at Playita,” Brictson says. “They know these waters well”. The charter price includes everything except live bait (about a dozen large baits or a good scoop of sardinas will cost about $20 US), ice chest with lunch and beverages, as well as a tip for the skipper (customarily 10% to 20% of the charter cost depending on level of service provided). Other reputable and experienced fleets that operate in this area are: Victors (800-521-2281; email: email@example.com) which has a mix of pangas and cruisers located at Palmilla Beach a few miles west of San Jose del Cabo; and La Playa Sportfishing with Tomas Cantor (local phone/fax: 011-52-624-142-1195; 044-624-80469 cell).
For the ultimate in convenience when fishing from La Playita it’s hard to beat the La Playita Resort Hotel and Restaurant (local phone/fax: 011-52-624-142-4166; www.laplayitahotel.com; email: firstname.lastname@example.org), which is a short walk to the waiting fleet of pangas. Owner George “Doc” Armstrong, whose been flying in Baja since 1954, built the 27-room hotel in 1995. Amenities include swimming pool, queen size beds, two large suites, TV, air conditioning and verandas. Room rates vary from $55 to $75 US double occupancy depending on the season. Hotels in San José del Cabo include the Fiesta Inn, Presidente Inter-Continental, Dorada, Posada Real and Palmilla Resort (west of town).
San José del Cabo, in contrast to trendy Cabo San Lucas, is a sprawling yet slow-paced town still tied to its roots as the agricultural center of Baja Sur. That doesn’t imply it’s not entertaining. Upscale shops, restaurants, nightclubs, and championship caliber golf courses are attracting a growing tourist trade to go along with its beaches and sportfishing. Its downtown retains the charm of old Mexico with historic buildings and narrow, cobblestone streets meandering around the many ornate plazas and fountains where locals gather to pass the time.
All rights reserved
The Roving Angler