“This ‘Old Mexico’ Fishing Village Is Noted for its Variety of Gamefish – From Roosterfish to Grander Marlin”
Captain Adolfo Espinosa turned his panga “Dos Hermanos” south as we departed tranquil Bahía de Zihuatanejo, located just a few miles south of the modern resort strip of Ixtapa. “I’m going to take you to a beach at Rio Petatlan,” he said as we cruised over glassy calm seas (a normal sea condition in this region). With a live bait well stocked with “ojotones” or bigeye scad (“caballito” in Baja) and one of the best local skippers as a guide we felt good about the prospects of finding one of the most elusive of inshore gamefish – the roosterfish. “We have good bait today but we really won’t need it where we’re going”, explained Espinosa. “There are so many fish down there we just cast poppers into the surf. We’ve done a lot of experimenting and discovered that the Cotton Cordell Pencil Popper in red and white is the top lure. Maybe it’s the rattles inside. It just outfishes everything,” said Espinosa. Fortunately, Stan Lushinsky at Ixtapa Sportfishing had provided us with a good supply of this apparent secret weapon.
An hour later Espinosa throttled down and steered us parallel to a long stretch of beach lined with coconut palms. Even though the seas are usually calm, large Pacific swells can create a pounding surf condition which requires caution. As soon as I started casting from the bow my fishing partner Sabrina Williams was already hooked up using live bait. I wasn’t prepared for what I saw ahead of us. For a mile or more birds were diving, schools of baitfish were being driven to the surface and rooster combs and tails were popping up everywhere. “Man, this place looks fishy,” I said just before a rooster peeled off from a bait ball and slammed the popper. We had a double hook-up going within minutes of our arrival. For the next two hours we relied on casting surface lures and had constant action on five to twenty-pound roosters and jack crevalle. In fact, the aggressive jacks kept us from scoring better on the roosters. By late morning the bite slowed down which is typical for this area according to Espinosa. Still, releasing 12 roosterfish and 18 jack crevalle (called “yellowtail jacks” here) was a great light tackle experience.
When asked about the relatively small size of the roosterfish, Espinosa was quick to point out that big ones are around as well. “We caught a 44-pounder a few days ago. You just have to cast right on them because there are so many other fish, like jacks, that will take the poppers,” he said. For anglers who want a trophy-size rooster the best locations are around the islands such as Los Morros de Potosí. Big roosters migrate to these deep water habitats to feed on schools of black skipjack and bonito. Slow-trolling deep with a big live bait is an effective technique for huge roosters, some exceeding 80 pounds. Casting surface lures into the rocks can raise some fish as well.
Inshore fishing isn’t limited to roosters and jacks. The rocky points and islands harbor a variety of gamefish. Wahoo, cubera snapper, Mexican barracuda, groupers, schoolie yellowfin tuna, needlefish, sierra mackerel, greenbar snapper and bigeye trevally can show at any time. A bonus surprise in these waters is the black snook. According to Stan Lushinsky, snook exceeding 40 pounds are most reliable during the wet season from July to October when the lagoons overflow, spilling forage into the sea. Snook can also appear inside Bahía de Zihuatanejo near the municipal pier and the rocky coves at Puerto Mio. Using live bait such as sardines is a good approach. Casting swimming plugs such as Yo-Zuri Crystal Mimmows can outfish live bait at times. We looked for signs of snook during this early July trip but they hadn’t schooled up in large numbers yet. Snook can show up at odd times and places. For example, on February 27, 1984, I caught a 14-pound 10-ounce black snook trolling a fluorescent red Rapala in front of the Club Med near Ixtapa Island .
Zihuatanejo has been a popular light tackle destination for years due to its inshore variety, calm seas and panga-style of fishing. Numerous IGFA world records have been set in these inshore waters. But what about offshore? Anglers who ventured out a few miles to blue water sampled a fishery loaded with sailfish, yellowfin tuna, dorado and had memorable encounters with big blue and black marlin (striped marlin are not numerous in these tropical waters). However, most of the fleet and equipment was not geared-up for landing big marlin and tuna. Things changed after 1990 when new offshore boats and up-graded pangas were introduced. Local skippers were trained for the offshore challenge and utilizing modern fish-finding electronics and techniques such as Z-Wing deep trolling started producing some eye-catching results.
By early June 1993, the first grander was recorded. Captain Miguel Alvarez slow-trolled a live yellowfin tuna from a Z-Wing and 50 International for the hookup. Angler Michael Wilson battled the fish for nine hours. The black marlin measured 14 feet, 10 inches long with a girth of 9 feet and was estimated to weigh 1,100 pounds. “That fish had the biggest belly I’ve ever seen on a marlin,” said Lushinsky, who was part of the cockpit crew that day. Numerous other big fish keep Zihuatanejo in the headlines, such as the 867-pound black marlin landed June 4, 2002, by Paul Gutchess aboard the El Soltar after a five hour battle on Ande 100-pound tournament line spooled on an International 80-Wide.
Blue and black marlin, averaging 200 to 500 pounds, are encountered all year but the general season is from November to May with a peak from December to April. El Niños and other variable sea conditions create variations from year to year so it is best to monitor website catch reports when planning a trip to coincide with the peak action.
Sailfish are the most numerous billfish species and are often taken just a few miles from shore which makes them a reliable target of the panga fleet. Averaging 70 to 120 pounds, sails can be so thick in these waters that marlin anglers can have a hard time avoiding them. When the conditions are right (clean, blue water current with lots of baitfish), 15 sailfish releases or more per boat is not unusual. On average anglers can expect to catch two to four sails a day on a year-round basis. Dorado and yellowfin tuna are also found all year but the biggest tuna peak from February to April. A standard local technique for sails, dorado and school tuna is to troll a bigeye scad rigged behind a hex-head skirt or feather jig.
A key development in Zihuatanejos’ offshore fishery has been the development of deep trolling utilizing the Z-Wing. Captains such as Miguel Alvarez and Luis Macial Castro were two of the first practitioners of this downrigging technique whereby the traditional lead ball is replaced by the Z-Wing adjustable planer or “hydrodynamic depressor” as the manufacturer calls it. Captain Castro caught a 330-pound yellowfin trolling a live black skipjack from this device. “Getting the baits down a little helps with the tuna because they are so spooked by the seines that work this coast. They stay away from the surface and boats. Live bait down deep is the way to go,” emphasizes Castro.
The most popular baits are ojotones (bigeye scad), green jack, bonito and black skipjack. The scads and small jacks are used for sailfish and school tuna while the bigger bonito and skipjack are preferred for marlin and large tuna.
Whatever style of fishing you prefer, gamefish you’re seeking or time of year for your next fishing trip, the chances are good that Zihuatanejo will have some exciting fishing experiences waiting for you.
GOING TO IXTAPA/ZIHUATANEJO
Zihuatanejo (pronounced see-wa-ton-a-ho) is located 120 miles north of Acapulco on the west coast of Mexico . Its low-rise, scattered development is clustered on steep, green hillsides surrounding the verdant waters of Bahía de Zihuatanejo. Off the beaten track, Zihuatanejo has been a favorite travel destination for those craving a taste of old Mexico charm, simple lifestyle, beautiful safe beaches and economical places to stay. “It’s the best of Mexican Riviera,” claims Larry Edwards at Cortez Yacht Charters. For those seeking a faster pace, just four miles to the north lies Ixtapa, a master planned resort community with over 4,000 luxury hotel rooms, golf courses, upscale restaurants and a 622-slip marina. Both destinations are great choices for the serious angler, honeymooners or family vacation.
If you stay in Zihuatanejo there are numerous accommodations to choose from with most having views of the bay and beaches. We stayed at the Villas San Sebastian which is a quiet, nine-unit complex with large private patios and well designed swimming pool. It is located above Playa La Ropa which is the beast beach in Zihuatanejo. For the bargain hunter, room rates in Zihuatanejo drop considerably during the “off-season” from April to October. Off-season is not in reference to the fishing but relates to the months when tourism is at a low point. The sunny, dry winter months attract a multitude of “snowbird” visitors.
Stan Lushinsky and Susan Richards at Ixtapa Sportfishing (470-688-9466; email: email@example.com) can make all travel arrangements, including accommodations and boat reservations. One of the benefits of fishing here is the relatively low cost for boat charters. The 35-foot Cabo “El Soltar” is priced at $650 per day (food and drink not included). A 25-foot super panga equipped with outriggers, live bait tank, rod holders, hardtop sunshade, padded bench, and pedestal-type seats is $190 per day. While most fishing is done from pangas, there is a good selection of vintage to modern cruisers from 28- to 42-feet available from about $275 to $450.
Air service is provided by several major airlines including America West, Aero Mexico and Mexicana. Most flights will connect in busy Mexico City . America West offers direct, non-stop flights to Zihuatanejo from Phoenix, Arizona . U.S. citizens need a valid passport, birth certificate or notarized affidavit of citizenship (along with a drivers’ license) to enter Mexico . For a single parent or guardian traveling with a minor a parental consent form may be required which can be obtained through the Mexican Consulate office. A Mexican tourist card (not a formal visa) is also needed and is usually issued by your airline.
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The Roving Angler