“Is it just my imagination or are roosterfish getting harder to catch?”
That was my rhetorical question to Rick Casparian as we kept getting short strikes and rejected baits from these wary gamesters on the west side of Cerralvo Island, Baja Sur last July. “Time to go high tech,” I said as we replaced our 40-pound monofilament trolling gear, which has worked well on many trips, to thinner-diameter 50-pound spectra braided line tied direct to 30-pound fluorocarbon leader and 7/0 bronze hooks sized to the ten-inch live mullet we were slow trolling. Soon after the switch I proceeded to set the hook firmly on a 60-pound class roosterfish, releasing it after a spirited battle. We praised the tackle but wanted more proof that we had a technical advantage.
The next day, we loaded ten mullet in the pangas live well and decided to make the run south across Muertos Bay to El Cardonal. It’s a good roosterfish beach with sand, pebble and hard shelf areas that tends to produce lots of small to medium size fish from five to 40 pounds. We scaled our tackle down further using Shimano Calcutta 400 reels loaded with 30-pound Power Pro spectra and 20-pound Seaguar fluorocarbon leaders. Standing on the bow, it was fun looking for roosters because the clear, shallow water presented us with a constant show of rays, puffer fish, colorful corals and aquarium type fish such as Moorish idols and sergeant majors that beckon you to break out your mask and snorkel. Finally a dark shadow was spotted off the bow in ten-feet of water. It moved warily to get out of our path, beating its tail quickly and then slowing when it reached a comfort zone about 75-feet off our starboard side. It’s body profile revealed it as a roosterfish even though its telltale dorsal comb was compressed in its sheath and not visible.
Rather than taking the boat with its trailing baits to the fish, we kept on course and let the fish decide whether to come to the boat or not. Roosterfish can be intimidated easily, especially in areas that are fished hard, so its important to keep from “chasing” fish in the shallows because they may run for deep water. This fish did exactly what we wanted. It swam leisurely from the side of the boat and gradually picked up speed as it came into the baits.. The mullet were frantic as the now-excited rooster raised its banded comb high above the water as it slashed at its prey. Live-baiting roosterfish reminds me of some techniques used for sailfish. Once the bait is hit a few times and stunned, release line in freespool to see if the predator will engulf it quickly and speed off with the meal. Continuing to troll with the bait too long may have bad consequences such as the bait getting off the hook, or the predator simply giving up after awhile leaving the mangled morsel to scavenging triggerfish.
Dropping back the bait the roosterfish hit it hard and raced off at an angle. The mullet was fairly small and, unlike some of the large ladyfish (sabalo) we often use in these waters for trophy-class roosters, you don’t have to wait several minutes to set the hook. After a count of about five I turned the handle, automatically tripping the drag, and started cranking until the rod was nicely bent and line was being pulled from a smooth drag. The lack of stretch in the spectra line allowed the hook to catch and dig in quickly. Holding the rod high it rhythmically beat with each tail-swipe of the rooster as it skirted the beach and then headed for deeper water.
Roosters are strong fish but they usually don’t dive into rocks like a yellowtail, pargo or amberjack to cut you off. Steady pressure will win out and unless you have too much line out cut-offs from rocks or coral are not a major concern. It’s a good strategy to keep the line at a 60° angle or more when the fish has settled into a deep fight just to minimize the amount of line out that may come in contact with bottom structure. Keep talking with your pangero or skipper to adjust the boat position with each move of the fish to maintain an optimum line angle. One note of caution, especially when fighting large roosterfish, don’t put the boat at 90° or directly over a fresh fish that’s fighting deep. That maneuver swings the odds in the fishes favor because it will force the angler to employ some fancy footwork just to keep the rod tip and line from contacting the gunwale, side of the boat or outboard props each time the big fish changes position or makes a fast break to the opposite side of the boat. Keep some line angle to allow for more reaction time for you or the boat to be moved into a better position.
The thumping tail beats of this rooster were now getting slower. Its silver sides flashed under the bright Baja sun as it tired and turned broadside to the surface. Within a few minutes we gently grabbed its tail, removed the hook that had wedged in the corner of its bone-like mouth and released the 35-pound fish in good condition. Although I have seen 70-pound class roosterfish swimming along this stretch of coast, this rooster was a good size for the area and got our morning off to a fast start. “These fish are hungry. We should do well,” I said just to keep the optimism high.
Returning to the shallows we set out two more live mullet and soon had a double hookup with smaller, matched roosters in the 12-pound size. If you hook half of the roosters you raise that is considered a good success rate. We were bringing every fish to the boat for release and getting more enthusiastic with the hook-setting ability of the spectra and the low visibility of the fluorocarbon leaders that seemed to encourage more aggressive strikes. Out of the ten baits we started out with we released a total of nine roosterfish between 12 and 35 pounds. A tenth fish in the 30-pound class got cut off from a double hookup when Casparian and I got tangled on the bow. By late morning we were out of bait so we headed offshore to look for billfish and dorado. Later we spoke with several roosterfish anglers back at Las Arenas Resort who related their difficulties hooking fish and general poor fishing results. However unscientific our findings were, we couldn’t help but conclude that our lighter tackle, non-stretch spectra, fluorocarbon leader and small profile hooks gave us a significant advantage. We were able to present a bait and “feel” the fish better when they were in the trolling spread and mouthing the mullet. Setting the hook was easier with the abrupt, true contact made possible with the no-stretch quality of spectra and we could feel each move and head-shake of the fish as it was transmitted up the line. It was not only effective but the tackle was fun to use as well.
Technical refinements in tackle can help give anglers an advantage with roosterfish but it’s also important to understand when, where and how to pursue this dynamic gamefish to improve your chances of being consistently successful.
Roosterfish are an Eastern Pacific, inshore species found historically from Southern California to Peru. One publication extends their range to British Columbia but that must be based on fossil evidence or simply exaggerated thinking. In Baja California, roosterfish are fairly wide ranging to the upper reaches of both the Sea of Cortez and Pacific coasts. However, the most reliable roosterfishing takes place in the La Paz to Los Cabos regions where favorable habitat, forage and sea temperatures allow for a year round population to exist. John Ireland, owner of Rancho Leonero Resort and an avid scuba diver, has observed that roosterfish are found throughout the winter on the East Cape but are generally found in deeper water. Smaller fish will hammer the large schools of sardinas found close to beaches at this time but the big fish are in the doldrums and rarely caught using traditional tactics.
On December 26, 1998 I was scoring well on small roosters north of Cabo San Lucas near San Cristobal with pangero Alberto Cota Tamayo when the subject of trophy-sized fish came up. Tamayo added some confirmation that large roosterfish over the 50-pound mark tend to show up in July on the Pacific side of Cabo. Having fished the Las Arenas Resort area adjacent to Cerralvo Island during July for the last three years I have had generally good results but most of the pangeros have favored May as the top month for roosters. This has been due to the early arrival and early departure of baitfish, primarily sardinas, that are key to a stable food chain that attracts a wide variety of predatory gamefish. By July live bait has been scarce and the commercial bait sellers have had to work hard for sometimes meager results. When sardinas are not holding inshore it tends to scatter ladyfish, cocinero and other carnivorous baitfish from traditional bait-catching areas. Vegetarian-types such as mullet sometimes are available to fill the void as we were fortunate to find last year. Without the right kind of live bait you may as well troll lures for marlin.
The May to August period is generally accepted as big roosterfish time. The key factor is timing your foray to coincide with a good showing of baitfish, warm sea temperature and mild weather which varies from year to year. With these elements in place the roosters won’t be far behind. Since live bait is so important, make sure you book a resort or panga fleet that has a reputation of having a stable commercial supply or has pangeros that are skilled in “making bait” on the fishing grounds. Favorite baits at Cerralvo Island and Las Arenas are ladyfish, cocinero (green jack) and sardinas. A good method to locate sardina schools is to watch for pelicans either actively diving on fish or just sitting on shore. No matter, the sardinas won’t be far off. Excellent baits that are only occasionally available include caballito (bigeye scad), lisa (mullet) and mulcaté (frigate mackerel). On the East Cape, mullet, goatfish, graybar grunt and striped grunt (rayadillo) are common with mullet the top choice. At Los Cabos, Pacific mackerel, caballito and sardinas are usually available.
Roosterfish are notoriously hard to find even when they are abundant. Its frustrating for anglers to hear that after they left one area after trolling for hours the roosters stormed the same beach and the next boat had phenomenal action. It’s a hit or miss type of fishery. In June of 1975 I slow-trolled and drift-fished live mullet all day along a five mile stretch of prime roosterfish beach from Punta Arenas to El Rincon and didn’t see or raise a fish. After cleaning my boat back at the Hotel Punta Colorada anchorage I dumped about a dozen remaining live mullet overboard only to witness a feeding frenzy of huge roosterfish gobbling down my free offerings with no strings attached. Another time I was trudging up the hill to the hotel after a slow day of roosterfishing and I heard Bob Van Wormer, owner of the hotel, yelling at me to turn around. I did just in time to see a 70-pound class rooster showering mullet onto dry sand and literally sliding up on the beach to eat them. If I didn’t succeed in catching a few roosterfish every now and then I would just give up entirely.
Even with a roosters propensity to pop up where least expected, there are some areas worth giving a serious try. These include the east side of Espiritu Santo Island near Punta Morito north of La Paz, La Roca near Bahia Rosario east of La Paz, both sides of Cerralvo Island especially near El Mostrador about halfway up the west side, El Barco (a beached, rusty freighter) at Bahia Ventana, Las Arenas lighthouse, El Cardonal, the beaches at Tuna Canyon (south of Punta Pescadero), Boca de la Trinidad near La Ribera, Punta Arena (south of Punta Colorada), Bahia Los Frailes, Punta Gorda, San José del Cabo to Punta Palmilla, and the long stretches of beach north of Cabo Falso near Cabo San Lucas.
When you do hook-up with one of these great fish enjoy the moment with a quick photo and careful release. There are much better fish in Baja for the table than roosterfish. Because they are territorial residents, fairly slow growing, are sensitive to changing environmental conditions and have a limited population, roosterfish are very susceptible to overfishing. If everyone cooperates we will have a sustainable fishery into the future.
RIGGING FOR ROOSTERFISH
When trolling live bait for roosterfish there are advantages in using lever drag reels such as the Shimano TLD-15 and TLD-20 series. These can be used with 25-to 40-pound line, respectively, when using small baits such as sardinas to the magnum baits like ladyfish. The improvement in line technology is the big news today. The application of “superlines” such as spectra, fluorocarbon and copolymers to roosterfishing has been very beneficial. Since spectra, in particular, has a small diameter-to-strength ratio the reels can be downsized accordingly.
Typical set ups that I use are a Shimano Calcutta 400 and 700 spooled with 500 yards of 30- and 50-pound Power Pro spectra with a 20-foot section of topshot leader of either 30-pound Seaguar fluorocarbon or 50-pound P-Line copolymer. Fluorocarbon is very abrasive-resistant but somewhat harder than monofilament so I opt for a lighter strength line to compensate. The copolymer is smaller in diameter than corresponding mono but softer so I add relative line strength here. Roosterfish have very abrasive mouths and its a good idea to use at least a 30-pound class durable leader material when after large fish that can put up a prolonged fight. I make all line to line connections using the 100% strong “Tony Peña Spectra Knot” that will run smoothly through rod guides and level wind reel mechanisms. Bronze live bait style hooks or circle hooks in the 1/0 to 9/0 sizes will match most Baja baits. The circle hooks have proven to be effective and they are very kind to the fish since they typically lodge in the corner of the mouth for an easy release. Just remember to keep winding on the reel until the line not only comes tight but starts coming off the spool under drag pressure. Don’t try to set the hook with upward sweeps of the rod with circle hooks or you’ll simply bounce the hook out of the mouth.
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