“Here’s Why Anglers Think This Baja Gamefish Junction is a Light Tackle Paradise”
Dawn in La Paz Bay is something special. The city lights are still glowing. Birds are already diving on vast schools of baitfish. Charter boats carrying anxious anglers speed offshore in every direction. More patient crews, like ours, stay behind to jig up some quality baitfish tight to El Magoté, the long, curving arm of sand that separates the bay from the Sea of Cortez.
Captain Juan Antonio Romero Arce, one of the most experienced skippers in David Jones’ Fishermens Fleet, put us right on the bait. On our first drop with four-fly rigs we got covered with caballito (bigeye scad), a top choice for many gamefish. After 30 minutes we had the tanks loaded to the brim with caballito, Pacific mackerel and silvery sardinas that the opportunistic Juan threw a net on and hauled in hundreds in short order. A nearby commercial boat crew were also catching bait and later we learned that another denizen of La Paz took off with one of their hooked baits. It turned out to be a 40-pound snook. I’ve seen cruising snook in this bay over 60 pounds. They are truly a well-kept secret that very few visiting anglers seriously pursue. If we had heard about this prized catch earlier we probably wouldn’t have left the bay.
OFFSHORE GRAB BAG
Heading offshore loaded with choice bait sure helps the confidence factor. Talking over a game plan we decided to fish the Embudo Bank, a seamount east of Isla Espiritu Santo, for a variety of gamefish usually encountered there. This May 2001 trip was too early to expect much billfish activity, especially since the fishing was lagging behind last years hot pace. On the way over we spotted frigate birds diving on “brown spots”. These turned out to be foot-long squid being chased to the surface by unseen predators. In a few moments Juan broke out his cast net and got a load of these squirters that we absolutely had no room for. Squid were in the transom splashwell, on deck, in the bait tanks and the rest put on ice. It’s a good thing fresh-dead squid also make good dinners as well as excellent bait.
We scratched out a few tuna, dorado and amberjack using sardines, squid and Moldcraft Softheads before running back to Espiritu Santo by late morning. We wanted to try for pargo and yellowtail. Juan steered us into a quiet cove locally known as Pilot Boat, for unknown reasons, which is a top spot for these gamefish. Working hard for a cubera snapper (pargo), numerous black skipjack and some hefty cabrilla I started talking about roosterfish. After all, the all-tackle record for this species of 114 pounds was taken in La Paz waters in 1960.
On the way out to the bank I had noticed some long stretches of beach on the south end of Espiritu Santo. They looked like good roosterfish spots to me. “Sure we get roosters there,” said Juan. “But it’s a little early for them right now. The big ones get here about June and we catch them all summer,” he concluded. The sun was high, the water clearing and getting warmer by the hour. “Let’s go look for roosters anyway,” I suggested but with a sense of adventure in my voice. The obliging skipper was soon rounding the last rocky point on the island and a vast expanse of shallows and sunlit beach opened up to view. The water was 77 degrees and clear enough that we would be able to see any roosters since the depth was only five to ten feet for hundreds of yards out from the beach. This was going to be fun, like sightfishing for bonefish on some remote flat. In contrast, most East Cape and Cerralvo Island shorelines drop off to deep water fast and present fewer opportunites to visually hunt for roosters.
Slow-trolling caballito and mackerel East Cape-style we started working the beaches between Bonanza Point and Dispensa Point as we studied the shallow water for signs of fish. “What are those dark things?” Sabrina Williams, a newcomer to Baja fishing, casually said from the bow. As we got close the “dark things” swam to the side revealing shiny sides with bold colorations. “Roosterfish! Lots of ‘em,” yelled Juan. We stopped the boat and started chumming with sardinas. Dozens of roosters in the eight-to 12-pound class went wild chasing the free food as frigate birds and gulls attacked from above. Hookups were easy using sardines and we released a few of the little guys in short order.
We kept looking for bigger ones that might come in from deeper water. Sure enough, a better fish of about 30 pounds was spotted and Williams got an instant hookup by casting a caballito with a Shimano 700 reel close to the fish so as to avoid getting it picked off by a frigate. Unlike roosters in other areas, this one made a series of fast surface runs around the boat because there was no deep water to dive into. After a few photos we released the rooster in good condition.
This brief, two-hour episode added a new dimension to the La Paz experience. I asked Juan if the big roosters over 50 pounds come into these shallows like the ones we just encountered. After his positive response I couldn’t help but imagine stalking such big fish in such shallow water. What a thrill that would be.
THE NEW LA PAZ
La Paz is the largest port city and capital of Baja California Sur with over 180,000 residents. Its rich history includes tales of conquering Spaniards, pirates and pearl trading. More recently La Paz has developed as a tourist and sportfishing center thanks largely to Ernesto Coppola who helped develop airline service, hotels and charter fleets. His family is still prominent and his son Mario Coppola owns the famous Las Arcos Hotel on the La Paz waterfront as well as other interests.
Today anglers will find upgraded fishing fleets with deluxe super pangas featuring bigger outboards, fighting chairs, bimini tops, live baitwells and full electronics that compare well with the standard cruisers when it comes to comfort and efficiency. Bargain accommodations, seafood restaurants and trendy nightlife now compliment the old Mexico charm that La Paz is known for.
The variety of habitats found close by, including the expansive bay, white sand beaches, offshore islands, seamounts, wrecks and deepwater canyons have made La Paz an appealing light tackle destination. Sailfish, striped marlin, yellowfin tuna, wahoo, dorado, roosterfish and snook are usually plentiful during the warm months. Several varieties of pargo including cubera (dog) snapper, mullet snapper, red snapper (huachinango), pargo colorado, yellow snapper and green bar snapper can be caught all year with large aggregations sometimes occruing during the spring. California yellowtail, amberjack, sierra mackerel, jack crevalle, cabrilla and grouper are usually at a peak from winter to late spring.
Most of these gamefish can be handled on light tackle up to the 30-pound class, however, in rugged environments such as wrecks and reefs a wiser choice is to gear up with 50-pound tackle to help avoid cut-offs. Even so, this range of tackle is still considered farily light due to the challenging areas where yellowtail, amberjack, pargo and other bottom-huggers dwell.
BIG MARLIN ALTERNATIVES
A growing number of anglers are foregoing the light tackle action to concentrate on big blue and black marlin. La Paz is fast gaining a reputation of having the most reliable black marlin fishery in Mexico. The blue marlin action runs a close second.
La Paz is surrounded by deep blue water and nutrient-rich currents) that produce an explosion of black skipjack, mackerel, squid, bonito and yellowfin tuna that are fed on by marlin. This reliable forage holds billfish from about June to December with a solid run from late July to October when the sea surface temperature exceeds 80 degrees. Although open-water blind trolling can be productive, experienced billfishermen prefer to work specific habitats for each billfish species. For black marlin the Embudo Bank, about 35 miles north of La Paz and 6 miles off the north end of Isla Espiritu Santo, is a good producer. Another good spot for blacks, which like to feed in relatively shallow water and are tolerant of the turbid conditions often found nearshore, is the north end of La Reina, a pinnacle on the north end of Cerralvo Island.
Blue marlin associate with deeper, cleaner water more than black marlin and consequently tend to spread out over a wider range of habitat. Due to this dispersal, fast-trolling lures is productive and happens to be a standard method for most anglers, resulting in a blue marlin catch rate far outnumbering black marlin which prefer slow-trolled live bait. Hotspots for blue marlin include the remote 88 Fathom Bank east of Cerralvo Island, Cerralvo channel, “Yellow Bluff” on the northeastern side of Cerralvo Island, and with a clear current, the waters near the Embudo Bank and La Reina. Commercial shark fishermen set out hundreds of baited shark buoys anchored in deep water such as the Cerralvo Channel (separating Cerralvo Island from the Baja coast). These buoys attract large numbers of dorado which create feeding stations for blue marlin. “They not only attract billfish but hold them later in the season and delays their migration out of the area,” says Richard Castaneda of Cass Tours.
Striped marlin and sailfish like all of the blue and black marlin habitat but will also concentrate in open water around schools of sardinas and mackerel. This is more of a sight-fishery as anglers look for diving frigate birds and pelicans as they work agitated bait schools as well as tailing and free-jumping stripers and sails. Blue and black marlin are notorious for their more covert behavior and rarely show themselves until they are tracking a bait or lure.
GOING TO LA PAZ
La Paz is known as a bargain destination due to its moderately priced hotels hugging the shoreline (about $35.00 per person per night), bargain shopping (La Paz is a free port), inexpensive but excellent seafood dining and good public transportation with plentiful taxis and buses. Cactus-covered foothills, cattle ranches and dry desert heat contrast sharply with the blue Sea of Cortez with its remote white sand beaches, big game fishing and diving. Fishing aboard a regular panga is about $90 per person for a full day. There are several charter fleets and destinations to choose from. Most fleets have regular and deluxe pangas that depart from the bay and your panga skipper may even pick you up directly from the calm shoreline in front of your hotel. There are also pangas located on the beach at Las Arenas. The Fishermen’s Fleet specializes in fishing the remote Cerralvo Island region and transports anglers by van to its fleet of pangas at Muertos Bay and Las Arenas, about a 1 hour drive. Owner David Jones also has a smaller fleet of deluxe pangas headquartered in La Paz as well. Their direct phone number is 001-52-112-21313 or contact a U.S. outfitter. The Mosquito Fleet’s, (818-541-1465) yellow pangas also depart from the bay. The Pirates Fleet, (888-879-2252) has 24-to 26 foot walkaround outboards with top amenities that depart from Pichilinque Bay reducing the run to the fishing grounds. The Cortez Club is headquartered at the La Concha Beach Resort, (800-999-BAJA or 619260-0991) near the mouth of the bay and offers cruisers and pangas. Jonathon Roldans’ Trail Hunter Charters, (626-333-3355) also offers a full range of charter choices.
All La Paz reservations can be made by calling the following outfitters: Cass Tours (800) 593-6510 or (714) 524-6510; Blue Water Tours (800) 799-8475 (California) or (800) 698-5300 (U.S.) and (310) 799-8476; Costamar Fishing (800) 347-2760 or (818) 224-3625; and Baja Fishing Adventures (800) 458-3688 or (562) 594-9441.
La Paz visitors come by air, land and sea. Daily flights are available from Los Angeles, Tijuana (Mexico) and from Tucson, Arizona. Several rental car agencies are available locally, but the cars are more expensive than in the U.S. Taxis are a better choice for getting around. Automobile-passenger ferries operated by Grupo Sematur link La Paz with Mazatlan and Topolobampo (near Los Mochis) on the mainland. The La Paz ferry terminal is located at Pichilinque Bay. Driving “The Baja” from the border city of Tijuana to La Paz can be a fun adventure but caution and preparation is required. The 922-mile drive on Mexico I is largely over a narrow, two lane paved roadway that can feature potholes and washouts at times. Driving at night is not recommended due to wandering livestock and truck-bus traffic. Vehicles must be in top condition because of the remoteness and lack of service facilities. Drive slowly and plan for 3 days of daylight driving to reach La Paz. Mexican car insurance is required. Visitors trailering boats will find several concrete launching ramps that provide direct access to the Bay of La Paz. Private boaters require a Mexican boat permit and individual fishing permits.
Upon arrival a full range of accommodations from trailer parks to luxury hotels are available. Recommended shoreline hotels include the Hotel Los Arcos, Hotel Marina and La Concha Beach Resort. The Hotel Marina has a modern marina for both short and long-term boaters.
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The Roving Angler