The Dolphin and the Squid

The Dolphin and the Squid

Catching dorado and a few surprises in southern Baja

  • By: Buzz Bryson
It was the morning of the fourth day of a week-long trip, and ordinarily the edge would have worn off by now. But as our guide, Reynaldo Quintana, eased the panga to a stop some two miles off shore and maybe a dozen miles up the coast from Loreto, on the Sea of Cortez in the southern half of Mexico's Baja Peninsula, Rick Pope and I were madly stripping line off our reels and getting ready to cast. A couple of the nearby boats were already into dorado--Coryphaena hippurus, also know as mahi-mahi or dolphinfish--and after Reynaldo had flipped a couple of sardinas overboard, it became apparent that we were surrounded by fish.To be honest, I can't remember who hooked up first, and it really doesn't matter, because within seconds we were doubled up. We both struggled to clear the loose fly line, but it was tough, with two dorado repeatedly splitting the indigo-colored seas with golden leaps. At times, those leaps appeared to reach half way up arid, desolate-looking Sierra de la Giganta mountains in the background. Suddenly our earnest concentration was interrupted as the boat's VHF radio began blaring Roy Orbison's "Pretty Woman." Rick looked at me, I looked at him, we both looked at Reynaldo, and we all broke out laughing. The anonymous wag in one of the other boats who had queued up the music clearly was enjoying the trip as much as we were. And as we looked around us, it was easy to see why. We could see at least two other boats that were doubled up, and several others that had singles hooked. And we had, remember, only begun the day--with a golden double. A major plus of fishing out of Loreto is that the angler doesn't have to bring a lot of experience to the table or, in this case, to the boat. When they're hungry, which is most of the time, the dorado will bust the sardinas right beside the boat, and hooking up can be easy. But fighting a dorado, particularly a nice 15-pounder or larger, can be an education in line management and angling prowess. You'll earn your stripes quickly. Interestingly, even though they are bluewater fish, dorado generally prefer to fight near the surface. Some will sound, but most will put on a display of aerial acrobatics and frenetic underwater directional changes that make a bat's flight seem lethargic by comparison. An angler will typically carry on a running monologue that goes something like this: "Damn, it came off--oh no it didn't--there it is over there," while at the same time reeling like mad as the sweat pours off his forehead and burns his eyes. And these fish don't give ground easily. If you're not pressuring them, you'll likely hear your buddy sarcastically advising the guide to "throw some ice in the water before that fish spoils." Make no mistake, though, dorado won't always take just any old fly. They can suddenly become picky eaters, ignoring flies in favor of live baitfish, before disappearing altogether. The drill requires the angler to be able to cast quickly and reasonably accurately. Our best day of that week in late July was simply fantastic, with double-digit numbers of dorado boated and released. We did keep a 40-plus-pound dorado that Rick boated; it simply screamed "dinner" to us. Another day was completely blown out, as tropical storm Emilie ran up the western side of Baja. All the days in between were filled with more dorado, as well as quite a few of the other species Loreto has to offer, a sampler we intentionally and eagerly included. Although our trip was planned around dorado, the same June-September period is also prime time for sailfish and marlin. Loreto has a lengthy season, with other favorite species and peak seasons including yellowfin tuna in August-October, yellowtail in January-April and roosterfish in December-February. While these are generally considered the peak times, realize that a particular species might be found well outside these periods, particularly if the weather is unseasonable. For instance, during our late July trip, several smallish roosterfish were caught. There are also plenty of less-publicized fish that hang around the rocky outcrops off the nearby islands of Carmen and Coronado that are equally fun to catch. Pargo (snapper), cabrilla (seabass), coronetfish and a host of others will readily grab a fly. Most are smallish, but there are huge specimens of some species. If the dorado are absent, or if the wind is blowing, these islands' lee shores can often fill what would otherwise be a blown-out day with some entertaining fishing. And don't think this is second-rate fishing, either. Not when you're getting the rod practically ripped out of your hand by what turns out to be a "little" two-pound snapper. Or slammed into the rocks and cut off by a 10-pounder. Open water offers diversity too, of course. You might encounter skipjack tuna, green jacks or billfish. Our only billfish was one that we chanced upon as we were slowly motoring about, looking for action. We celebrated when Rick boated the nice striped marlin, guesstimated at 80-100 pounds. Our ultimate fishing diversion didn't even involve fish; it involved a squid--Dosidicus gigas, commonly known as the Humboldt, or jumbo, squid. While little is known of their life cycle, the Humboldt squid is a fearsome predator, with powerful tentacles and a razor-sharp beak that can rip through flesh. They aren't nicknamed diablos rojos (red devils) without reason. It is believed to be an opportunistic feeder, taking advantage of abundant species such as the sardina and lanternfish, but not hesitating to tackle larger prey. In turn, the squid is also a favorite food of sperm whales, marlin, seals and sharks. And people: we're talking fresh, prime calamari here. The squid are found in deep water, and normally aren't considered flyrod quarry. But being more willing than many anglers to stretch the boundaries of our sport, we simply put a squid jig on a 10- to 13-weight fly rod loaded with a sinking line, then lowered it some 300 feet to the bottom (we were floating above a shallow spot). Rick insisted I have first shot, explaining that once the lure reached the bottom, I needed only to tighten the line and jig it upwards a few feet. Grinning, he said I'd know when a squid grabbed hold. This was an understatement, as I found out almost immediately. I simply couldn't believe the "bite" I felt when I lifted the jig. The rod bent almost double, and my first thought was, what else is down there big enough to pull that hard? My second thought was to caution myself, Let's not fall in the water. And my third was, My gosh, whatever this thing is, it's 300 feet straight down, and I'll be pumping it up forever. But after several minutes of give and take I managed to pump the squid to the surface. You won't believe it until you experience it, but these things can pull line against a substantial drag. They are jet propelled, after all: A squid can take water into its mantle, seal it off except for a siphon, and then contract its muscles to blow the water out through that siphon at great velocity, thereby blasting itself along in bursts as fast as 25 miles an hour. The squid I caught was only 15-20 pounds, and I later learned they can reach 100 pounds Then it was Rick's turn, and I found out why, beyond being the gentleman he is, that he had insisted I go first. Other squid had followed the first one to the surface, and Rick hooked one after dropping the jig only a few feet. I was then witness to an unbelievable light show, as the excited squid's chromatophores flashed colors worthy of the special effects at a rock concert. And, counter to conventional wisdom, other anglers later told us they had indeed hooked squid on flies rather than jigs, simply by tossing their flies to those squid that had trailed their first-hooked school-mate to the surf. Crazy stuff. Getting to and staying If you're thinking about a trip to Loreto, you'll need to book it well in advance. The percentage of repeat anglers is very high, but there are always a few openings and some last-minute cancellations. Book your space early, and go with a friend. You'll be "married" to each other for a week, staying with them, eating with them, fishing with them. You don't want to leave your fishing partner up to chance. There are several well-established travel agencies offering trips to Loreto; we chose Fishabout and were extremely pleased. The package provided by Howard and Janee McKinney was thorough, and their answers to the few remaining questions consistently turned out to be spot-on. We, along with many of the other anglers who traveled on our plane from Los Angeles, stayed at the same Loreto hotel, the Hotel Oasis. The Oasis has been run by the Benziger family since the early 1960's, and it is very angler-friendly. Rooms are neat and clean, and there is a bar, a pool and a restaurant (with a 5 am anglers' breakfast). The guides pick you up on the beach about three good double-hauls from your room. In the afternoon, school-age kids are waiting to carry your gear back to the rooms. The ground-floor hotel rooms have patios, which are perfect areas for day's-end socializing. --B.B. Preparing for Loreto Do not come undergunned. Don't plan on using a too-light rod for dorado. Leave anything under an 8-weight at home, and plan on using your 10- to 12-weight 95 percent of the time. The dorado reach 40-plus pounds, and those just aren't 8-weight fish. Heck, they're not even 10-weight fish. Even a 10-pounder can put quite a bend in a 12-weight. "Instead of concentrating on how small a rod can be used to land these fish, the angler should concentrate on how fast he can put it in the boat. If you want a challenge, make it to save the fish's life," Atwin King says. In other words, an angler needs to bully the fish, break its spirit, land it quickly and release it in good shape. If you're not up to that, you will be by week's end! For our trip, a pair of 10- and 13-weight rods, one loaded with a floater or intermediate, and the other loaded with a quick-sinking head, proved perfectly matched. Leaders were simple: a few feet of butt section, a couple feet or more of 20-pound-class tippet, and a foot or so of 40- to 60-pound-test bite tippet--a necessity, as dorado will wear through 20-pound leaders. You'll want to adjust the overall leader length to fit the purpose: longer for a surface fly on the floating or intermediate line, and shorter for the sinking line. Either way, simple is better. While you'll probably get more strikes without the bite tippet, you'll also lose more fish as they will often work through the straight class material in short order. Make sure you use a leader butt section to match your line. Backup fly lines are a necessity. Bring plenty. You'll wrap them in props, cut them off on the boat, and scrape them on the rocks. Take at least a couple of different density lines or heads, including a really fast-sinking one. I can't overemphasize the need to carry extra tackle, particularly rods and lines. When you're on the trip of a lifetime and 1,000 or more miles from home, assume the worst. Rods will get stepped on. An unexpected wave can send an angler to the deck, possibly breaking several rods. Inexperienced anglers will sometimes "high stick" a big fish, which is a sure way to snap off a rod tip. An almost-whipped fish will fool you with a last-second surge next to the boat, and can snap a rod on the gunwale, what King calls "reverse high sticking." Even the finest rods succumb, and Atwin has seen days when more than a dozen rods were broken. A couple of extra rods will let you fish harder and rest easier. You'll want to bring plenty of flies, but the variety doesn't need to be too broad. The primary bait fish in the area is the sardina or flatiron herring (Harengula thrissina). It's a typical small herring, mostly silver, with a dark back and deep body, and easily imitated by typical streamer patterns such as Deceivers, Clouser Minnows and the like. Dorado attack the sardina on the surface, and there is nothing more exciting than watching these green and gold torpedoes blasting surface flies. I think Ron Dong's Crease Fly variation is among the best. Take reliable reels. A dorado isn't necessarily going to burn out a drag. More likely, because you'll be putting a lot of pressure on fish, pumping, lifting and reeling with a stout tippet, you'll bend something, spread a spool, or snap off a handle. Consider that your next fish might be a 50-pound dorado, or perhaps a 150-pound billfish. Take your favorite stripping basket or bucket. The pangas are fine to fish from, but are a bit cluttered. I prefer the "trash can" type, and there's no finer than the one made by Stan Pleskunas, commonly known as the VLMD, for vertical line management device. Loreto is hot in mid-summer; make no mistake about that. Anticipate it, prepare for it, and it won't be much of a problem. The temperatures for the week we were there were a constant 86 F.--and that was the low. The high was constant too: a triple-digit 100 F. Tropical wear, sunscreen, a wide-brimmed hat and plenty of water will serve one well. Finally, the fishing day starts early, and breakfast is earlier. All rigging, personal-gear packing and flybox organizing should be completed the night before you go out. Side Trips Hardcore anglers will be content to fish, swap stories, have a meal and siesta, and prepare for the next day's fishing. Others will want to take in some of the local community. Loreto is still largely a fishing village, nestled between the Sierra de la Giganta mountains and the Sea of Cortez. Loreto was the first capital of the Californias, and the site of the first mission in the Californias, established by Italian Jesuits in 1697. Loreto served as the state capital until 1829, when a hurricane destroyed most of the town. The Mexican government, envisioning another resort destination, constructed the international airport and a large marina in the early 1980's, but the development didn't bloom as planned. Now, major development is underway south of town, and Loreto is perhaps poised to become another destination location. Even with development, much of the area is protected, with a large portion of the region encompassed by a marine sanctuary. Water sports are paramount, and the area is ideal for kayaking, sailing, diving, whale watching and, of course, fishing. Ashore, there is golf, hiking, horseback riding, bird watching, tennis, tours and shopping. Loreto is a place to relax and kick back. If you're looking for authenticity and quaintness, the town itself fits the bill. If you prefer plush and pampered, the nearby Camino Real in Nopolo is waiting, and soon the other resort now under construction. --B.B.