“The Nearshore Waters of Cabo San Lucas offer Light Tackle Action with Roosterfish, Pargo, Wahoo and More”
As we rounded the famous “Friars” rock archway that juts seaward of Cabo San Lucas marking Bajas “lands end” a cold blustery wind and white-capped sea greeted us on our quest for striped marlin. The cruisers bow pounded into the cresting waves shooting salty spray over the flybridge. Looking up at a drenched captain, I asked where we were heading considering the weather conditions.
“Golden Gate” was his response, referring to this oceanic bank lying another 22 miles northwest on the Pacific Coast side of Cabo and smack-dab into the foul sea. With a reduced speed combined with the captain throttling in and out of wave pockets, I figured we would spend most of our time traveling rather than fishing. Maybe I’m becoming a so-called “fair weather fisherman” but I could tell this was not going to be a fun day regardless of how many marlin we raised.
“I don’t think so” I said, requesting a change of plans as a fresh wind gust blew my visor off. “We have good bait, lets’ use it nearshore and have some fun. The marlin can wait”. Within moments the boat was heading towards shore quartering the wind and swell in relative comfort. The captain and mate seemed pleased with their new destination as we started talking about the light tackle possibilities. Since we had “candy bait” in the tank or “caballito” (bigeye scad), one of the best live baits in the region, I was optimistic about catching a variety of gamefish species that roam the beaches and nearshore reefs of Cabo year-round.
Within 20 minutes we had arrived near Punta San Cristobal, north of Cabo San Lucas, and found clean, calm water interrupted by ground swells breaking on the beach. As the marlin fleet slugged it out with the elements offshore we were the only boat to be found along the desolate coastline. Slow trolling 2 live caballitos from Shimano TLD-15 lever drag reels with 20-pound line, we worked our way down the steep sand beach where deep water came close to shore. In the distance, diving pelicans got us pumped with more optimism as these birds often indicate feeding gamefish. As we approached the scene, silvery masses of sardinas were being panicked by unseen predators and in a desperate move, some fragmented bunches took shelter underneath our boat. The trolled caballitos didn’t last long in such an environment. Both baits were hit hard and we set the hooks quickly into solid resistance. The fish bent our rods nicely as they pulled line from smooth drags parallel with the shore and then seaward into deeper water.
“Roosters” I said confidently but with more hope than proof. After a deep fight my fish came up flashing a white, shiny profile about 30-feet below the boat. Peering over the transom, our mate confirmed its identity as a “pez gallo” or roosterfish. The 30-pound fish was quickly released along with its twin a few minutes later.
Returning to the commotion on the beach, we had a ball just watching the feeding frenzy. This was a good situation for lures since the fish were hungry and fearless. Casting surface poppers and metal jigs proved rewarding as we caught 3 more roosterfish, a 22-pound cubera (dog) snapper, 5 jack crevalle, a big 5-foot long needlefish and a stray 18-pound dorado. To top off this “fun” day of fishing, we trolled Moldcraft softheads and lipped swimming plugs along the scenic coastline back to Cabo and picked up 3 more dorado and a highly-prized wahoo over the reef at Cabo Falso. The rest of the fleet was largely unsuccessful on the marlin grounds as we found upon our return to Cabos’ snug harbor.
“Cabo” means “marlin”, striped marlin in particular, to most anglers who visit here and the various sportfishing fleets are so focused on this quarry that its’ exciting light tackle; nearshore fishery is largely overlooked. U.S. trailerboaters and local panga skippers usually have a better understanding and appreciation for the inshore waters than the cruiser crowd. Although the now-modernized town of Cabo San Lucas is a good jumping-off point for this type of fishing, the references to “Cabo” on “Los Cabos” have grown into regional terms encompassing the waterfront town of San José del Cabo about 20 miles to the east and up the Pacific side to the village of Todos Santos. Numerous banks, reefs, rocky headlands and sand beaches provide a variety of aquatic habitat that attracts a long list of resident and migratory gamefish within easy range of the small boater or light tackle enthusiasts.
Roosterfish are probably the most sought-after inshore glamour fish but there are plenty of other rod-benders in these waters as well. Amberjack, African pompano (a.k.a. Threadfin pompano when young), California yellowtail, cubera (dog) snapper, mullet snapper, barred pargo, yellow snapper, colorado snapper, gafftopsail pompano, yellow jack, jack crevalle, black snook, spotted cabrilla, flag cabrilla, gulf grouper, broomtail grouper, leopard grouper, needlefish, Mexican barracuda, sierra mackerel, bigeye trevally, bluefin trevally (a.k.a. bluestar jack), triggerfish, leather bass, houndfish, greenbar snapper and Pacific red snapper are among the resident species. Pelagic or oceanic gamefish that may appear in nearshore waters include wahoo, dorado, yellowfin tuna, black skipjack, sailfish, rainbow runner and even billfish often surprise anglers.
From San José del Cabo to Todos Santos, good fishing spots include the Inner and Outer Gorda Banks, the estuary beach at San José del Cabo, Punta Palmilla, Santa Maria Trench, Cabeza Ballena, Cabo Falso, San Cristobal, Punta La Tinaja and Punta San Pedro. Generally, the banks, high spots and rocky points (“puntas”) hold the greatest variety of resident gamefish and these habitats will also attract pelagics as well. Sand beach areas often appear devoid of gamefish and its best to troll along the deeper water edges to find them or to locate bird activity and forage where active feeding may be taking place. When you find bait schools it pays to stay nearby when gamefish aren’t showing because they may be lurking out of sight in the depths as they prepare to feed.
“The key to fishing inshore is to have enough good, live bait: says Larry Edwards, Owner of Cortez Yacht Charter and longtime Cabo angler. “The marlin boats can get away with a dozen but I tell my clients that want to fish inshore to take at least 20 live baits because many will get damaged by triggerfish, needlefish and other toothy-types inshore. Caballitos are best and they are very strong. Roosters love ‘em. Lisa (mullet) are also good when you can get them. Smaller baits such as sardinas are great for chumming and you should have a scoop or 2 onboard says Edwards.
It pays to think big when using live bait. One hot technique is to slow troll a bridle-hooked live skipjack, bonito or similar bait, preferably with a Z-wing or traditional downrigger, deep over the rocky headlands or banks. Amberjack, pargo, grouper and big roosterfish respond well to these deep baits and, as a bonus, marlin and swordfish may surprise you as well.
Slow-trolling or drifting live baits/is a great technique for Cabo but don’t forget the lures. These gamefish haven’t been pounded with artificials and will attack them with a vengeance, especially when they are competing for forage.
“I’ve had some great action casting around the rocks at Cristobal, Falso and Ballena for pargo, grouper and even roosterfish” claims Edwards. “Light metal jigs, such as the Salas 7X, work well as long as they are painted dark green. For some reason an ugly dark green color turns the fish on and now I always keep a can of green paint in my tackle box” emphasizes Edwards.
Gamefish can be hugging bottom in deep water, cruising the surface or anywhere in-between so its’ a good idea to pack lures that can cover all situations. Heavy jigs like the Salas 6X and 6X Junior, Ironman 5, Point Wilson Darts and Haddock Jig-N-Spoon can cover the water column and find the strike zone. Add a strip of skipjack or other bait to the jig hook to improve results with pargo, grouper and other rock dwellers. Trolling swimming plugs such as a Rapala CD-14 or CD-18 combines covering a large area with a fairly deep presentation. Surface lures are great when the fish are up and feeding but can also entice fish to come up just to eat a well-presented lure. In addition to light metal jigs, surface poppers work well by agitating the surface and getting the attention of gamefish from a greater distance than a more streamlined lure.
Cabo has become very popular with flyrodders. Sierra mackerel, bonito, black skipjack, yellowfin tuna, ladyfish, jack crevalle and rainbow runner attack flies well when “blind casting” (without a visible target or chumming). Roosterfish, as well as billfish, usually need to be teased into hitting so make sure you select a crew that is experienced using this technique. A good teasing method is to troll a hookless live bait on the surface such as a small caballito to approximate the length of a streamer or other popular fly, until a gamefish starts to pursue it. It’s important to constantly watch the teaser bait so that it can be pulled away from the attacker before it is taken. Repeatedly dropping the bait back and yanking it forward just out of reach of gaping jaws will excite and irritate any gamefish. The angler needs to be in control of the cockpit and will signal the mate to pull the bait as the captain puts the boat in neutral (flyfishing in forward gear is trolling). The fly is then presented to the fish which has hopefully been fooled into eating a hunk of hair and mylar dressing instead of a succulent natural bait.
Light tackle anglers can find something biting in Cabo waters all year but some species have peaks of availability. Yellowtail, sierra mackerel, barracuda and striped marlin prefer the cooler waters of winter. Roosterfish may be found all year but fish exceeding 80 pounds peak in July. African pompano, jack crevalle, needlefish, dorado, black skipjack and yellowfin tuna prefer late spring to summer. Black snook may be encountered around river months, such as the estuary at San José del Cabo, during the heavy rains of late summer to fall. The various snappers and grouper are resident species but will make short migrations from deep to shallow areas as water conditions and food dictate.
The Los Cabos region combines excellent shoreside facilities with quality inshore sportfishing that quietly coexists with its world-renown billfishery. The next time you visit Cabo try a day or two fishing nearshore and don’t wait for bad weather to force you from the marlin grounds. You may find some light tackle excitement that will keep you coming back for more.
ADVICE FOR PRIVATE BOATERS
Trailerboaters should plan on a minimum of 3 days driving Bajas’ driving Mexico Highway 1 to reach Cabo San Lucas from the U.S. border. At La Paz, 2 paved roads (Highways 1 and 19) lead to Cabo. Highway 19 skirts the Pacific coastline and is a preferred route since it has fewer curves and less hilly terrain. The inner harbor at Cabo San Lucas has 2 excellent concrete launch ramps. According to Mike Bales, author of “Launch Ramps of Baja California” the free public ramp is good for launching in the morning but can get congested in the late afternoon. The Cabo Isle Marina Ramp at 40-feet in width is the largest ramp in Baja and all facilities including boat slips, store and gas station are nearby. There is a launch fee of $5 in and $5 out which is waived if you rent a slip. A 25-foot slip costs $20 a day plus tax (subject to change). There are no other concrete launch ramps along the Pacific or Sea of Cortez coastlines until you reach La Paz. Beach launching of small boats and free camping is nearby impossible between Cabo San Lucas and San José del Cabo due to the proliferation of resort developments along this section of coast.
Accommodations range from luxury hotels to RV parks and during the peak tourist season from December to February reservations are a must for airline, accommodations and boat charters. A sign of the changing times in Cabo is that golfers and time share owners now frequently outnumber visiting anglers. There are 3 world class golf resorts and 6 golf courses in Cabo and a 7th is under construction.
Private boaters should be aware that the Cabo San Lucas Marine Preserve is a no fishing zone. Its general boundary extends ½ mile offshore from the Finisterra Hotel along the coast eastward to Gray Rock (Cabeza Ballena). Individual fishing permits, boat permit, tourist cards and Mexican insurance are required and can be obtained in the U.S. at several border locations. Mexican travel clubs such as Vagabundos Del Mar (707) 374-5511 and Discover Baja (619) 275-4225 can provide both travel assistance and reduced insurance rates. Bea’s Travel Service in Chula Vista (619) 476-9113 offers bilingual assistance and travel reservations.
After launching, live bait can usually be purchased from commercial pangas in the harbor or at a large bait receiver outside the harbor entrance. Large baits such as caballito or mackerel are $2 each while sardinas are about $20 a scoop. Live bait is an important secondary business in Cabo and, at times will be brought in from as far away as the Magdalena Bay area. Newcomers to Cabo may wish to hire a fishing guide during your “break in” period not only for fishing information but to help identify hazardous areas. One potential danger is working too close to a seemingly calm shoreline where dangerous waves can trap an unwary skipper. Always maintain a “wave watch”/ and stay clear of rocks. Learn how to make long casts rather than moving in too close to shore with your boat.
A knowledgeable source for light tackle inshore fishing is Jeff Klassen at the Los Cabos Fishing Center (011-52-114-33736). Klassen is an expert at surfcasting and provides guide service as well as tackle out of his Cabo San Lucas location. Panga fleets include Victors’ (114-21092) and Gordo Banks (114-21147) at San José del Cabo and the Gaviota Fleet (114-30430) at Cabo San Lucas. Cruiser fleets at Cabo San Lucas include the Gaviota, Pisces (114-30588), Dorado (114-31630) and Minervas (114-31282). Some resorts, such as the Solmar, Finisterra, Hacienda, Hotel Cabo San Lucas and Palmilla maintain their own fleets but offer charter service to non-guests as well.
Anglers should be aware that inshore fishing at Cabo is somewhat of a specialty and some local cruiser crews may not have the expertise or desire to fish this way. Agents familiar with boats and crews such as Cortez Yacht Charters (619) 469-4255, Cass Tours (800) 593-6510 or Jig Stop Tours (800) 521-2281 can help reserve the best boats available.
“Some of the crews on the marlin boats don’t have a good inshore background” says Larry Edwards at Cortez Yacht Charters. “In contrast, virtually all of the panga skippers know how to fish inshore but some don’t like to venture offshore. However, one of the very best inshore skippers is Captain Roberto Guerena on the “Yayo”, a 28-foot cruiser. He speaks fluent English and knows the light tackle techniques” adds Edwards.
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The Roving Angler