“Natures Billfish Bottleneck”
Imagine an arm and open palm of a hand nearly 800 miles long trapping a rich oceanic current between the body with nowhere to go. Wouldn’t the result be a gamefish pileup of epic proportions? That is the image that many anglers have of the Sea of Cortez and its westerly “arm” known as the Baja Peninsula . As good as it is today, most of us weren’t fishing this sea when it was a true, untouched resource. Some were. During the summer of 1957, living legend Bob Van Wormer came down for a two week vacation at Rancho Buena Vista and wound up staying for over three months working odd jobs for owner Herb Tansey.
“I got goose bumps looking at the steep desert mountains and deep blue sea,” says Van Wormer recently. “I caught my first marlin and ate “wild “ food every night – fish, lobster, quail, whitewing doves, everything was so abundant. Every shallow reef was like marineland packed with tropical fish, pargo (snapper), huge grouper, and roosterfish. I remember Ray Cannon (late author of “The Sea of Cortez”), came down on an assignment to do a documentary on dorado (dolphinfish) and photograph their color changes. I fished with Cannon and his pangeuro Laborio everyday for two weeks. We couldn’t catch many dorado because the sailfish were so thick we had a hard time keeping them away from the lures. That’s how it used to be,” adds Van Wormer.
Today, the still-energetic Van Wormer owns three East Cape resorts with his wife Cha Cha as well as the largest charter boat fleet in Mexico . His pride and joy is Hotel Punta Colorada. “I bought three kilometers of beachfront 200 meters wide back in ’62 that was just grazing land. The first six bungalows and dining room opened in the fall of ’66 and we’ve been adding to it ever since,” says Van Wormer. When asked what he is most prideful of, Van Wormer has a quick response: “We’ve withstood two category five hurricanes over the years,” he emphasizes. Additionally, Van Wormer has been instrumental in removing large scale commercial fishing interests, most notably Japanese longliners, that have entered this giant fishtrap.
Billfishing remains a world-class fishery with over 10,000 released annually along the “ Billfish Coast ” between La Paz and the East Cape . Striped marlin are by far the most prolific species and are reliable between late April and October. Averaging 80 to 160 pounds, they offer a supreme light tackle opportunity since they have a penchant for allowing their whereabouts to be known by free-jumping, feeding, tailing or just “sleeping” on the surface. Once spotted, the boat is maneuvered into position and the angler lobs a live mackerel, caballito (bigeye scad), mullet, or other bait in front of the fish resulting in, hopefully, a quick hookup. Dropping back a live bait when a marlin comes up to inspect the trolled lures is highly effective as well. At times, marlin become satiated with deep-water forage such as squid and will refuse even the best live bait on the surface. Striped marlin usually peak in May or June on the East Cape and during July and August further north in La Paz waters. They can be caught throughout the summer and fall but when the sea temperature climbs into the mid-80-degree range they can become sluggish feeders and anglers will start seeing more than hooking. Overall, trolled lures still account for about 50 percent of the catch. During a trip to the East Cape in late May 2002, we caught striped marlin with both live bait and artificials on an equal basis.
Blue marlin, averaging 200 to 450 pounds, appear in good numbers by July and feed in these prolific waters through October. There are seasonal variations, however, as blue marlin started appearing in May of this year harbinging an early start for this species. As in most of its tropical range, blues usually roam the 1000-fathom curve where fast-trolling lures is a proven method of finding them. In these waters, however, it is not unusual to also encounter blue marlin at coastal locations such the Cerralvo Island Channel, 88-Fathon Bank, Embudo Bank, La Reina (a pinnacle on the north end of Cerralvo) and Los Frailes Canyon .
Black marlin are a big draw in La Paz where these fish feed over a number of low profile banks and seamounts during late summer and fall. This is a live bait fishery. Bonito, black skipjack and yellowfin tuna are the baits of choice. Local anglers have refined downrigger techniques utilizing Z-Wings and good sonar equipment to locate the deep schools of bait that hold marlin. Several tournaments are held during the summer, including the Felix International Billfish Tournament where black marlin in the 500-to 700-pound range usually take the top awards. The East Cape has also produced some big fish exceeding 900 pounds. The Los Frailes Canyon is a top location and the black marlin are taken with trolled lures as well as live bait.
Sailfish peak from August to October. They can be found in large concentrations at times as they feed on sardinas near the surface. Frigate birds, or “tijeretas” sweeping down to feed will often give away their location. Sailfish will enter relatively shallow water and have surprised many inshore anglers. In fact, there have been documented sailfish catches by local shore anglers using handlines from rocky promontories. Other blue water pelagics include yellowfin tuna, dorado and wahoo. Collectively, these middleweights attract a high percentage of anglers yet billfishing, especially for striped marlin, put this region on the map and remains the top draw.
The largest port city and capital of Baja Sur, La Paz is a long time favorite among anglers who want to combine urban amenities and “old Mexico ” charm with good fishing. Even the most hardened anglers can be found enjoying the wandering mariachi musicians on the malecones (shoreline streets), dining in open-air palapa seafood restaurants while viewing orange-globe sunsets over La Paz Bay and generally having a good time with the favorite traditions.
A full range of accommodations from trailer parks to luxury hotels is available. Both super pangas and cruisers make up the charter fleets. Private boaters can lunch at several concrete ramps directly into La Paz Bay . The top billfish grounds are within a 35-mile run from the bay such as the Embudo Bank and the Cerralvo Channel.
There are nine fishing resorts with charter fleets spread along this scenic 45-mile coastline from Los Frailes in the south to Las Arenas near Cerralvo Island . All of the resorts are constructed on either rocky promontories with majestic views, or beach-level sites. They are self-contained and equipped with fast super pangas and a mix of cruisers run by savvy local crews. Competition between these independent resorts has led to improvements in amenities such as more deluxe rooms, great food and a broader range of activities while maintaining the East Capes reputation as a bargain destination.
Times have certainly changed from the time Van Wormer relished in a simple lifestyle living off the bounty of sea and land. Now it is common to find ATV’s, kayaks, windsurfing, canoeing, skiing, horseback riding, satellite TV, sports bars and private luxury homes sharing the shoreline with traditional resorts. Everyone, it seems, wants to stay longer, or return quickly after visiting the East Cape . As Bob Van Wormer said: “There’s something about this place. It gets into your skin and lasts forever.”
It’s relatively easy to get to Baja Sur. There are international airports at La Paz and San José del Cabo that are served by Alaska , American, Continental, Aero California, Aero Mexico, Mexicana and United from San Diego , Los Angeles , Phoenix and other U.S. cities. Fishing packages can be made through several U.S. – based Baja travel outfitters such as Cass Tours (800-593-6510), or directly with independent charter fleets and resorts. Professional outfitters are highly recommended especially for first time Baja travelers since they can provide you with an overview of what’s available to best suit your individual, or group needs. La Paz services are provided by multiple operators whereas East Cape resorts provide their own boats, crews, accommodations, food and a variety of optional things to do in a “package” format. Both locations offer true billfish bargains: offshore cruisers can be chartered for $300; super pangas for $220 and comfortable accommodations available $50 per person double occupancy including all meals (at typical East Cape resorts).
For specific resort and fishing information and reservations, contact the following:
Hotels Punta Colorada,
Palmas de Cortez and Playa del Sol at (800) 368-4334, or www.bajaresorts.com
Hotel Bahia (800) 934-0295, or email: email@example.com
Rancho Leonero Resort (800) 334-2252, www.rancholeonero.com
Hotel Buena Vista Beach Resort (800) 752-3555, www.hotelbuenavista.com
Rancho Buena Vista (800) 258-8200, www.ranchobuenavista.com
Hotel Punta Pescadero (800) 426-2252, www.puntapescadero.com
Las Arenas Resort (800) 644-7376, www.lasarenas.com
Hotel Los Arcos (800) 593-6510, www.losarcos.com
La Concha Beach Resort (800) 999-2252, www.laconcha.com
Hotel Marina (800) 250-3186, www.trybaja.com
FISHING CHARTERS IN LA PAZ:
Fishermen’s Fleet (800) 593-6510, www.fishermensfleet.com
Mosquito Fleet (530) 271-5966, www.bajamosquitofleet.com
Pirates Fleet 011-52-612-1221826, or (888) 879-2252
Roldans’ Tailhunter (877) 310-7734
Velez Fleet (800) 593-6510, or 011-52-612-1222744
Cortez Club 011-52-612-1216120, www.cortezclub.com
Entering Mexico requires proof-of- citizen documents. Either a valid passport, birth certificate, or a notarized affidavit of citizenship (along with a photo drivers license) will satisfy requirements for U.S. citizens. If you are a citizen of another country, check with the Mexican Consulate for details of entry. A Mexican Tourist Card (not a visa) is also needed for U.S. citizens and can be supplied by your travel outfitter or airline. Upon your arrival in either La Paz or San José del Cabo airports, an airport taxi or shuttle van will transfer you, or your group to your destination. Most visitors find that San José del Cabo is more convenient for the East Cape except for Las Arenas Resort which is only 45 minutes from La Paz.
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The Roving Angler