“Mulgate!” exclaimed my normally laid-back pangero as if he just struck gold. Quickly substituting the vibrating mulgate or frigate mackerel for an unproductive sardina, we continued our slow troll for roosterfish on the west side of Cerralvo Island. Now we had two sardinas and the lively mulgate swimming far astern of the 20-foot panga, as the outboard coughed and sputtered at dead slow idle, its blue smoke hanging in the air of a windless morning.
After two hours of fishing with the sardinas that were caught several miles away on the mainland beach, the lone mulgate that was caught on-the-spot with a white bonito feather was hit hard within two minutes.
“Ahora, ahora,” whispered José Pepe as if the fish might intercept the signal to hit it now.
Swinging hard in one smooth rod motion, I felt solid weight on the other end. José Pepe speeded up a little and pointed the bow seaward, knowing that many game fish will head for the safety of deep water. Carefully keeping a full load on the rod by watching its bend and cranking hard, we were prepared for the direction change as the fish surfaced parallel to us.
“Rooster, big rooster,” I said rhetorically in a low tone, knowing full well that José Pepe could see the dorsal comb waving above the slick surface. The rooster suddenly dove, passing the band of dark green water and heading toward the blue color change beginning at 60 feet. The fight became vertical as the panga drifted overhead. Twenty minutes of short-stroking brought the tired fish boatside and, after a few photos, it was released. As we started looking for that little lure, we both knew that on this day the white feather was probably more important than a boatload of sardinas.
When your skipper gets more excited about bait than the fish you’re after, that should tell you something — the right bait is crucial to successful roosterfishing. In his classic book, The Sea of Cortez, the late Ray Cannon talks about his experience with live-baiting roosterfish. By summer, Cannon wrote, fishermen thought roosterfish were gone because all the favorite lures were completely ineffective. Then Cannon and his group showed up with two-dozen live mullet and started catching big roosters in formerly unproductive areas. Today virtually every charter boat in Baja now has some method of holding live bait.
Some Baja skippers, in fact, are devoted entirely to catching and selling bait. Many fishermen have never had to “make” bait in Baja, preferring instead to save time and effort by purchasing bait. This isn’t always the best choice. Here’s what several panga skippers say about live bait:
Daniel Lucero Yepiz, Rancho Leonero — “During winter and early spring the roosters are more aggressive because of cooler water and lots of sardinas on the beach. At this time they usually hit lures better. Cast Krocodiles, Haddock spoons and other jigs near the bait schools when the roosters come in, to have a chance, otherwise, live bait is best, especially during the summer.”
Nacho Montano, Hotel Punta Colorada — “Mackerel (Pacific) are sometimes used during March and April, but are generally not favored. Lisa (mullet) are netted when available and are usually best around here.”
Loreto Green Gonzalez, Las Arenas Panga Fleet — “We know now that it’s best to use the bait found where you’re fishing. If we catch cocinero (green jack) at Cerralvo Island it usually won’t work as well bringing it to the beach across the channel. Sabalo (lady-fish) school at Cerralvo and are great for big roosters at the island. Sometimes you can get them in the coves between Punta Perico and Las Arenas (mainland) and then they make a good bait there too.”
Jose Pepe Lucero Gonzalez, Las Arenas Fleet — “When roosters aren’t showing and my customer wants them, I play a little trick. I catch mulgate at Punta Perico and fish deep on the drop-off. At Cerralvo, I catch cocinero and fish deep at Roca Montana. Sometimes big roosters stay in deep water.”
Lino Cota Perez, Hotel Palmas de Cortez — “The best rooster fishermen are usually the best bait-catchers too. Sometimes the commercial pangas don’t have bait or they have bad bait. Most fishermen will go marlin fishing when they find out. But rooster guys will work hard to catch their own bait even though it might take hours.”
Obviously, bait is important, but what kind and how is it caught? East Cape baits fall into two categories: Netted and non-netted.
Vegetarian species such as striped mullet are best netted with a large seine strung among several pan gas which encircle and hold the bait near the beach. Sardinas are caught with cast nets by the pangeros, sometimes throughout the day as supply demands. Pelicans, either diving or sitting near shore are a good indicator that sardinas are present. One trick pangeros use when the sardinas are in loose schools is to pound their feet hard on the deck of the panga just before throwing the net. This “shock noise” panics the bait into a tight school for protection and more can be netted that way. Rayadillo, chivo (goatfish), California halfbeak (sometimes called ballyhoo), burrito (grunts) and pajarillo (salema) are also netted.
Some of the best roosterfish baits are difficult to net. Trolling, jigging or casting small lures, feathers or baiting small sardinas will catch cocinero, lady-fish, Pacific mackerel, mulgate, caballito (bigeye scad), barrilet (refers to both bonito and black skipjack), juvenile snappers and jacks.
Pack at least one light outfit, either spinning or conventional, that can cast small feathers and spoons. Ladyfish prefer shiny lures, but can be hard to keep on the hook because they jump wildly. Here’s one remedy: Slide an egg sinker on the line and then tie a treble hook on the end. Tape a mylar skirt around the sinker for flash, and the sinker becomes a lure. When a sabalo is hooked, the sinker slides up the line and the hook isn’t worked free as easily.
Cocinero are often found in big surface schools creating “nervous” water. Even so, it is usually more productive to jig small feathers at 30-to 60-foot depths near the schools. Loreto Green Gonzales has developed an effective technique borne of the ancient handline fishing style.
“When you’re using a rod and reel, let the line out to the right depth, then put the rod down,” he says. “Grab the line and give it one long pull from one hand to the other, then three quick jabs with the lead hand. Keep this up until bit, or release the line when the lure gets near the boat.”
I switched to this jigging method when Loreto would catch cocineros 5-to-1 over me. Fishing rods can’t equal the quick movement that hand-jigging can produce. This method will also produce Pacific mackerel, mulgate, barrilete and juvenile game fish.
Packaged “four-fly” bait rigs can be used but they are better for mackerel than cocineros. To catch additional bait, don’t forget to keep a small feather in the water while trolling for roosters.
KEEPING BAIT ALIVE
Baits most commonly purchased are sardinas, Pacific mackerel, mullet (southern areas), goatfish, grunts and rayadillo. Occasionally caballito, a highly valued bait, as well as cocinero may turn up in a commercial panga. The hardiest baits — grunts, mullet and rayadillos — don’t need to swim constantly in the baitwell to oxygenate their gills. Except for mullet, however, their body shapes are not streamlined and are more suited for drift-fishing than slow-trolling, although they can be trolled when necessary. Ricardo Meza Lucero of Hotel Punta Pescadero is careful to bring in such baits when they start to spin or look tired. Jose Pepe often puts them back into the baitwell until they recuperate. On slow days they may be rotated three or four times.
Most difficult to keep alive in a confined space are the high energy baits like frigate mackerel, barrileté, halfbeak and large ladyfish. Try to fish these on-the-spot, because they probably won’t live long. When trolling, hook the bait through its jaws or in the front portion of its head. This isn’t easy with mullet, because of their hard, bony heads. Nacho Montano offers this advice: “For hooking mullet, pull the upper lip down. There you will find a softer spot (membrane) between the tough lip and forehead to put the hook through and it holds very well.”
Locations are important in finding roosterfish, but not as much as you may think.
Notorious for their mysterious travels, roosters may show up anywhere. This was vividly illustrated when fishing from my own boat at Hotel Punta Colorada.
Roosters had been stretched along the beach from the Punta Arenas Lighthouse to El Rincón, so with two dozen live mullet we worked the area hard all day — without success. The hotel fleet couldn’t find the fish, either Returning to the anchorage just off the hotel, I dumped the mullet overboard and started cleaning the boat — only to see combs slashing the surface as a school of big roosterfish ate my bait literally beneath the hull. Hotel owner Bob Van Wormer just grinned and shook his head when I told him. Nothing surprises Bob when it comes to pez gallo, or roosterfish.
The skippers will do their best to put you on the fish, or show you the spots, if on your own boat. Some of the traditional East Cape rooster hangouts include, from north to south: Cerralvo Island (coves and sandy beaches on east and west sides); El barco in Bahia Ventana (a beached freighter, usually smaller fish here); Las Arenas; Muertos Bay; El Cardinal (a beach/reef area in front of church 5 miles north of Punta Pescadero); Punta Pescadero beaches; Tuna Canyon (tight to cliff and nearby beach); La Ribera; Punta Arenas; El Rincon; and Los Frailes beaches.
Look for frigate birds swooping low near the shoreline; they can indicate bait possibly being pushed by roosters. Pelicans hang out around sardinas and roosters might be there too.
Time of day, moon phase, tides and water clarity don’t seem to influence roosterfish much, although many pangeros may blame any of these factors after a poor day. Big swells that keep you from shore for safety may take you out of rooster zones. José Pepe, however, has a different opinion.
“Most fishermen work too close to the beach,” says Pepe. “In clear water you can see if they’re feeding in close or not. I like to troll baits where the green water starts getting dark (often about 40 feet deep) because that’s where they stay most of the time. I keep watching the shallows, too, for feeding signs like frigate birds.”
Now the easy part — catching a trophy roosterfish. With the right bait at the right spot you still may not raise a comb, but you have to be persistent. When your bait starts tugging nervously and then disappears in a rush, it’s important to quickly decide how the rooster is feeding before setting the hook. This is when most anglers fail.
When really hungry or competing with other roosters, a roosterfish on the run can swallow even big baits in seconds. Other times, a roosterfish can take several minutes (a fishing eternity) by running, stopping, turning the bait and generally fooling around before it swallows the bait. And it may drop the bait and move on. With big baits like ladyfish, set the hook after a slow count of one to 10 if you sense continuous heavy, solid pressure; otherwise give more time until the bait is taken with authority. With small baits such as sardinas, a quicker hook-set can be used.
Once hooked up, keep a tight line because the hook may not have penetrated past the barb (roosters have tough mouths and boney jaws) and may come loose with slack line. If you’re successful, the result may be a 50-pound roosterfish or larger, gleaming at boatside in its white, green and bluish tones. I strongly urge releasing all roosterfish for at least two reasons: the species is vulnerable to overfishing and there are many other types of fish that are far better eating.
EAST CAPE RESORTS OFFERING ROOSTERFISH
The following hotels and charter fleets have pangas and experienced “pangeros” that can get you to the roosterfish:
Hotel Bahia Los Frailes, (800) 762-2252 or (805) 237-1122
Hotels Punta Colorada, Palmas de Cortez and Playa del Sol, (800) 368-4334 or (818) 591-9463
Rancho Leonero, (800) 334-BAJA or (714) 375-3720
Hotel Buena Vista Beach Resort, (800) 752-3555 or (619) 425-1550
Rancho Buena Vista, (800) 258-8200 (outside California) or (818) 303-1517
Hotel Punta Pescadero, (800) 426-BAJA
Rancho Rosario, (800) 624-8429
Bob Butler’s Muertos Bay Panga Fleet, (800) 347-BAJA
Luciano’s Los Arenas Pangas at 5-37-30, head-quartered in the town of Los Planes, B.C.S.
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The Roving Angler