"This Seacoast Town is Adding Grander Marlin to its List of Charms"
Zihuatanejo (pronounced see-wa-ton-a-ho) captures the spirit quickly. Rambling cottages cling to green hillsides surrounding its ideallic bay as if competing for the best view. Artisan fishermen slide their panga onto the sand at Playa La Ropa and offload a pargo and basket of octopus ("pulpo") direct to a waiting chef. An announcement in monotone Spanish of "pulpo frito" on the menu doesn't even begin to activate a nearby scattering of sunbathers. Locals and visitors enjoy the gentle surf together. There are no organized activities nor social directors. Only the sun forces a cooling drink on you and nightfall might get you to a fiesta in town. An independent, laid-back, purposely disorganized lifestyle has been nurtured and protected here for generations. It's the "Zihuatanejo attitude" that makes it a favorite among travelers seeking to experience the old world hospitality of a Mexican village but in a scenic coastal venue. Your self-image is not one of a tourist here. You are simply part of a congenial and diverse culture containing some mew arrivals.
For many years stateside anglers enjoyed the quaintness of this special place while at the same time wishing the local charter captains would attempt to modernize their boats, equipment and shoreside facilities. Serious billfishermen, hearing rumors of big blue and black marlin in these waters, had to constantly pay over-weight baggage penalties to minimally equip the slow, vintage cruisers found here. Local billfish experience was nonexistent. Sportfishing success depended largely on the level of an anglers generic knowledge and how quickly it could be adapted to local conditions.
Zihuatanejo became popular as an inshore fishery first. A diverse natural habitat, calm sea conditions and numerous gamefish such as roosterfish and pargo (cubera snapper) combined with a good number of local pangeros (commercial outboard fishermen) who knew where to find these nearshore species started putting Zihuatanejo in the I.G.F.A. record book by the early - 1980's. Anglers who ventured a few miles offshore connected with sailfish, yellowfin tuna, dorado and black skipjack. The pangeros were uncomfortable offshore and ill-equipped to even think about marlin.
By 1990 things changed rapidly. New offshore boats with imaginative investor/owners were introduced, new electronics installed and local crews were selected and trained for offshore work. Blue and black marlin were caught in far greater numbers, prompting MARLIN to predict (August/September 1993) that a grander may be caught "… in the near future". Beating the press, Michael Wilson of New Jersey landed a huge black marlin in early June of 1993. At 14 feet 10 inches in length with a girth of 9 feet, it was estimated at 1100 pounds. "That fish had the biggest belly I've ever seen on a marlin" said Stan Luschinsky who was part of the cockpit crew that day. Captain Miguel Alvarez slow-trolled a live yellowfin tuna from a Z-Wing and 50 International to entice the marlin. It took 9 hours to land the fish.
THE BILLFISHERY TODAY
Zihuatanejo isn't going to steal the headlines from the worlds billfish hotspots, at least not yet. Its' charter fleet, although improved, is far below the standards set by Cabo San Lucas, Kona, La Guaira, St. Thomas and other established marlin grounds. Its fishermen, generally day tourists from nearby Ixtapa, are easily entertained by a resident population of sailfish averaging 60 to 110 pounds and schoolie yellowfin tuna. Zihuatanejo needs more marlin anglers to develop a better understanding of the potential for a consistent fishery. Currently, the effort per catch averages 2 fishing days per blue or black according to Larry Edwards of Cortez Yacht Charters, one of the largest stateside charter representatives for Zihuatanejo.
"Of course, there are days of multiple marlin catches per angler, but we can't sell those numbers to people as a reliable expectation" says Edwards. Part of the problem is that marlin may go unfished for a week or more and a crew has to start from scratch every time they go out. John Mestrin of Blue Water Tours also thinks that more marlin boats would increase the catch average for everyone.
"Zihuatanejo is an open water fishery since there are no significant seamounts or offshore islands to target. The entire west coast of Mexico is like that. The blue water current is the number one factor in fishing success. Sometimes it swings in just a few miles from land, carrying pelagic red crabs, squid and baitfish which gets the bite going. Blind trolling open water really needs a lot of boats to find a pattern and location for marlin" says Mestrin.
BIG MARLIN IN LITTLE PLACES
Outfitting the charter boats with new electronics and adapting downrigger techniques have made tremendous improvements to this fishery. The "open coast" reference doesn't mean the bottom lacks good topography. There are 3 distinct drops on the continental shelf before reaching the 1000-fathom curve about 30 miles out. These edges have many elbows that create current eddies and the top skippers have used their GPS and fathometers to find these places because they produce better upwellings, nutrients and bait which helps concentrate the marlin. There are a few high spots such as the 78-fathom ridge 25 miles to the southeast and the 15 and 32-fathom spots off Bahia de Tequepa that crews can now work properly.
It makes sense that even small contours and low profile ridges could be significant due to the relatively featureless bottom associated with the continental shelf. Top captains spend a lot of time over these spots and have introduced something new to Zihuatanejo: Z-Winging. Captains such as Miguel Alvarez and Luis Macial Castro were two of the first practitioners of this downrigging technique whereby the lead ball is replaced by the Z-Wing adjustable planer. Or "hydrodynamic depressor" as the manufacturer calls it. Slow trolling both live and dead baits at depths from 15 to 50 feet is popular for both sailfish, blue and black marlin as well as big yellowfin tuna. Captain Castro took a 330 pound yellowfin in February, 1995 on a live black skipjack trolled from the Z-Wing.
"Getting the baits down a little helps with the tuna because they are so spooked by the seiners that work this coast. They stay away from the surface and boats. Live bait down deep is the way to go" says Castro.
One reason the Z-Wing is popular is because it is so simple. Most Zihuatanejo crews simply attach it to heavy cord rather than using an elaborate downrigger system.
The most common baits are "caballito" (bigeye scad), "cocinero" (green jack), bonito and black skipjack. The scads and small jacks are used for sailfish and tuna while marlin prefer the gibber bonito and skipjack. Panama-rigged belly baits from skipjack and small tuna are excellent for attracting sailfish especially when combined with brightly colored plastic skirts.
Pacific sailfish are numerous and are usually encountered within 4 to 10 miles of the coast all year. During peak conditions when forage is plentiful it is not unusual to release 15 sails per day. 4 to 6 sails released is a good day on average. Dorado and yellowfin tuna are also year-round residents although the giant yellowfin peak from February to April. School yellowfin from 10 to 50 pounds are easily found in association with porpoise and will readily attack surface poppers, metal jigs and flies in addition to trolled lures and baits.
Blue and black marlin are caught most reliably between January and May. Striped marlin are rare in these tropical waters where the sea surface temperature maintains a stable 80 to 84 degree reading. Wahoo are unpredictable and can bite well during any month. They average 20 to 60 pounds and are most often found on the seaward sides of Islas Los Morros de Potosi, Isla Negra (at the entrance to Bahia de Zihuatanejo) and Isla Ixtapa which are steep, rocky nearshore islands. Black marlin also like to feed close to these island s and have surprised many local snapper fishermen in shallow water.
Zihuatanejo may not be a major player in the billfishing world quite yet, however, its friendly lifestyle, cultural charm, beautiful beaches and diverse activities has held more than one angler captivated until that day comes along.
IXTAPA/ZIHUATANEJO A TALE OF TWO TOWNS
Since the legendary Zane Grey sailed his schooner The fisherman to these waters in 1925 and found excitement with sailfish and black marlin, relatively few anglers had fished Zihuatanejo before 1975 when Mexico's' FONATUR started developing the planned resort community of Ixtapa 4 miles to the north in conjunction with a new international airport. With over 4000 luxury hotel rooms, Ixtapa is a modern, self-contained vacation destination with 2 designer golf courses, a 622-slip marina, shopping and all manner of organized recreational activities. Five-star hotels include the Dorado Pacifico Sheraton, Westin Brisas, Posada Real, Continental Plaza, Holiday Inn Sunspree, Krystal, Doubletree and the Presidente Forum. Most of Zihuatanejo's charter anglers arrive via Ixtapa and are instantly immersed into a different time and culture.
"A pleasant unhurried atmosphere exists in Zihuatanejo like no other place. Its' the best of the Mexican Riviera" says Larry Edwards. "You won't find any time-share hassles here" adds John Mestrin.
Ironically, Ixtapa has served to protect the small-scale atmosphere of Bahia de Zihuatanejo by focusing development on that northerly beachfront community. There haven't been any significant changes in Zihuatanejo other than a few low rise, custom-designed hotels that blend with the environment such as Puerto Mio, Avila, Casa que Canta and Villa del Sol. The white cliffside landmark Hotel Sotavento and Catalina are popular with the budget-minded and overlook romantic Playa la Ropa.
"The general rule around the bay is 'don't build anything higher than a palm tree'. Two stories seems to be the maximum" says Larry Edwards.
In contrast to Ixtapa's linear orderly beachfront-style development, visitors may find central Zihuatanejo's clustered, mixed uses (where old residences compete with new storefront space and worn cobblestone streets may lead newcomers in circles) to be a refreshing change from the packaged tour experience.
Airline service is excellent to the Ixtapa/Zihuatanejo region especially during the peak tourist season from December 15 to April 15. Direct, non-stop flights from Los Angeles are offered by United, Mexicana and Alaska airlines. One-stop routes are provided by continental from Chicago and Newark, Mexicana from Chicago and Miami and Aero Mexico from Miami. Mexico City is the primary travel hub for one-stop flights.
The "high season" is characterized by balmy, 80 degree air and ocean temperatures with calm sea conditions offshore. Long, South Pacific swells may heighten the surf at this time making the coves and bays better for swimming than unprotected beaches. Anglers who like catching fish in flat seas will enjoy Zihuatanejo's "tropical doldrum latitude" where winds rarely exceed 15 knots.
Air, hotel and charter boat reservations should be made well in advance of the winter season. There are over 50 private charter boats available and several U.S. representatives have grouped these for booking purposes. The offshore cruisers range from 28 feet to 38 feet and are usually of custom-design. They will not remind one of a Hatteras or Bertram but are well-maintained and are stocked with medium to heavy Penn and Shimano tackle. Pangas (outboard skiffs) are available for nearshore fishing but will also join the cruisers on the offshore grounds. New 25 foot Super Pangas are especially fast and functional in blue water. Perhaps the best news is the bargain charter rates. A 38 foot cruiser including captain and mate, fuel, Mexican fishing permits, tackle, ice and dead bait is $271 per 8-hour day. tips, tax, food and beverages (order from your hotel) and purchasing live bait is not included. A Super Panga can be chartered for $156 per day.
Accommodations vary greatly along with the seasonal room rates. A single room at the Sotavento is $37 while a luxury suite in Ixtapa may top $500 per night. Some hotels provide free airport shuttles, otherwise the taxi fare is about $10 per person for the 20 minute ride to Zihuatanejo. Rental cars are readily available but taxi service is so inexpensive that few visitors rent cars.
Dining and nightlife is exciting in both Ixtapa and Zihuatanejo. Many restaurants, from informal, outdoor, palm-thatched palapas to marble-floored monuments are designed to capture the famous coastal sunsets. Fresh seafood and authentic Mexican dishes are featured and served in a friendly atmosphere.
The following stateside representatives can assist you with air travel, accommodations and charter services while making recommendations to suit your needs:
Cortez Yacht Charters (619)469-4255 or FAX (619) 461-9303
Blue Water Tours (800) 799-8475 (California), (310) 799-8476 or (800) 698-5300 (U.S.)
Cass Tours (800) 593-6510 or (7140 524-6510
Rod and Reel Adventures (800) 356-6982, (209) 524-7775 or FAX (209) 524-1220
Ixtapa Charters (717) 688-9466
Aero Mexico Vacations (800) 245-8585
Calls may be made to the following hotels in Bahia de Zihuatanejo:
Villa del Sol 011-52-753-42239
Sotavento and Catalina 011-52-755-42032
Puerto Mio 011-52-755-42748 or (800) 400-3333
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The Roving Angler