500 Grains of Baja Adventure

500 Grains of Baja Adventure

Fast-sinking lines, big flies, ocean-going kayaks and an endless array of species- it must be Baja, Mexico.

  • By: Scott Sadil
  • Photography by: Gary Bulla
Somewhere deep in the skipjack's first sounding, I experienced the sensation of fractals shifting, gravity coming unhinged. Inside me, days of clams and ceviche, sashimi and wasabi, conch and fish-head soup suddenly stirred, welling up toward the surface as the tuna hit warp speed, plunging for some depth at which no fish affixed to a fly rod belongs. Okay, so maybe there was some tequila in the mix, too. But I swear"I swear"intemperance aside, I've struggled faithfully throughout my life to fly fish with grace, to become what I call a Real Guy-not some fool on a kayak, his gorge rising, attempting to stop inverting dimensions with a12-weight-rod bent in the configuration of a fully drawn longbow.

Then, by way of things going from bad to worse, I noticed my vaunted Swedish reel-its handle a blur, relieved of most of its backing, the machined alloy arbor spinning all but naked. I recalled, at this moment, the words of another recent skipjack victim, the stuff of angling legends: "This one's going to leave a scar." To which I reply with my own brand of despair: "All my line?" I groan, palming the reel to the breaking point. Too late. I'm spooled.

When faced with this sort of failure in fishing, as well as in the rest of my life, my immediate reaction is often to ask, "Who can I blame?" In this case, I'm free of doubt.

For years, Gary Bulla urged me to join him and an expanding cadre of angling rancheros for one of the week-long kayak trips he hosts to islands off La Paz in the Sea of Cortez, on Mexico's Baja Peninsula. The appeal of these trips is simple-the opportunity to encounter an untold variety of inshore and bluewater game fish while skirting wilderness shorelines from the tranquility of the seat of one's pants.

Bulla has done as much as anyone to develop and simplify this spirited kayaking pursuit. Trips consist of inclusive arrangements that rival any sort of package the do-it-yourselfer might try to create. Boat transports, kayaks, camping equipment and experienced cooks and captains eliminate logistics down to the essentials of the game: Show up with your gear and fish. After 15 years probing the southern reaches of the Sea of Cortez, Bulla has pin-pointed kayak fly-fishing locations that cover the vagaries of weather, seasons and the experience and aims of his guests, from the inshore reefs surrounding Isla Esp%C3%83%C2%ADritu Santo to the bluewater depths around Isla Cerralvo and the impressive mangrove lagoon at the south end of Isla San Francisco.

Primitive tent camps are pitched just above the tide line on narrow beaches lapped by gentle, transparent seas. Offshore, the bare bones of desert islands rise abruptly from the plain of blue water. Anglers take meals and siestas in the shade of a simple tarp, beside which stands the screened kitchen and its steady supply of hearty camp fare, refreshments and bold cocktails come nightfall.

I might as well also mention, right here, that these trips carry with them the heady glow of the host himself, an unrestrained bon vivant of the first order. Next time I fish with him, I intend to deliver a t-shirt that reads Gary Bulla: Fun Magnet.


Still, someone could have warned me. This is anything but playful sport or the feckless jollies of the light-tackle enthusiast. That fricking fish took all my line! It was at this point in my battle with the skipjack, however, that I discovered one of kayak fishing's odd little secrets: faced with the prospects of attempting to subdue a projectile-mimicking pelagic fish, you can-like whalers of yore and Hollywood shark hunters and old men at sea-tether your line and hold on tight, using the floating device now affixed to the fish (in this case, you) as an instrument of drag to wear down your prey. It's not a particularly sophisticated system. By holding tight, and riding this thing out, you may eventually see, seize and claim for posterity the fish in question.
Read More »I try to do the math to calculate how many inches of line I regain with each turn of the reel, and how many turns of the reel it might take to retrieve, say, 150 yards of backing. But I'm repeatedly distracted by an assortment of sharp pains in my lower back. At least a fish like this, I tell myself, regaining line, makes you forget all about the sun on your blemished flesh, the sweat that turns your tropical trousers the texture of a used dish rag-even if your stomach still feels like you're about to lose your lunch overboard.

Big fish and epic battles are hardly the only invitation for the likes of Gary Bulla's rancheros and other kayaking fly-anglers exploring the Baja Peninsula. What seems most provocative, instead, is the style of fishing, an unobtrusive, low-tech sporting adventure that offers an intimate look at elegant waters and the all but endless variety of game fish that inhabits them.
Which isn't to suggest that the fishing is somehow easier or less demanding than the typical boat-and-open-water caper. For pure numbers or tonnage of fish, in fact, Baja fly fishers are often better off working the panga scene-as long as they can find captains with fly-fishing experience, fairly rare in a region with a long history serving the needs of anglers employing baits and conventional gear.
Rather, Baja kayakers embrace that singular aspect of fly fishing that grows more and more difficult to obtain the farther one travels from home waters: you are-almost by definition-on your own. Seated atop plastic vessels, armed with paddle and rod and satchel of essential supplies, fly-casting kayakers resemble solitary trout or steelhead anglers along a river or stream. They rely on experience, cunning and resolve, plus the hunter's keen sense of clues for the whereabouts of prey.
Discovering what is eating the fly remains one of the fundamental pleasures of Baja kayak fishing. You just never know. During the week I spent with Gary Bulla, I landed-besides tackle-testing tuna-roosterfish and jacks, cabrilla and ladyfish, the elegant gaftopsail pompano, triggerfish and needlefish and at least three different kinds of snapper. And for further review, who knows what species of fish broke me off, on several occasions, around rock and reef?
The fact that most fish of these species range in size from a pound or two upwards of a dozen pounds-and some much more than that-means rod weights should be considered carefully. Granted, as in more fishing than most of us care to admit, the 10-pound fish is relatively rare. But remember: ocean fish will inevitably transform a fly-rodder's notions about the strength of fish, if past experience has included only freshwater species, even salmon or steelhead.
A week before my flight to La Paz, I stood outside Jeff Cottrell's fly shop in The Dalles and made jokes about the powerful 12-weight Jay Johnson from Echo Fly Rods had dropped off-along with two other rods-for me to use. One small skipjack into the trip, however-my first tuna on a fly rod besides bonito-and I never again used my 9- and 10-weight for anything but casting off the beach and working the edges of a mangrove lagoon. A 12-weight is a lot of stick-and a lot of stick seemed just about perfect every time another skippie grabbed the fly and line began to melt from the reel.
No one in his right mind can enjoy casting a 12-weight rod-at least not blind-casting repeatedly, which from a kayak in the midst of the ocean blue is precisely the kind of casting you do. Sitting-down casting, I should add. It's not elegant. It's not fun.
And maybe it's not even necessary.
Here's another little secret about kayak fly-fishing-almost all of your fishing is done with heavy shooting/sinking heads-300, 400, 500 grains of what I call pure love and adventure. A 500-grain head is more than a tactic or strategic option-500 grains is a commitment, a philosophy, an ideology.
The 30-foot, 500-grain head, with a 120 feet of intermediate running line behind it, proclaims allegiance to a new order of fly-fishing doctrine that states depth is both the way and the answer-and if you can't double-haul with a double-digit weight rod, that 500 grains of love is going to ask you who's your daddy and probably own you.
But the real secret about kayak fly fishing is that you can catch fish, and catch plenty of them, without ever delivering a cast.
I probably shouldn't say that. Don't we all want to view ourselves as prodigious casters with nothing short of the horizon in our sights? I recall an old essay by Thomas McGuane in which he describes, early in life, paddling around a lake trailing his fly line and a Mickey Finn streamer. "This is about the minimum, fly-wise," he noted. The sober truth: Pitch fly and 30-foot head in an easy, open loop, strip several dozen yards of line off your reel and shake it out the tip of your rod, and then tuck the reel and rod butt under one thigh and pick up the paddle and begin heading for the horizon-and the whole way there you're fishing.
This is also called trolling. Don't ask me to take a stand on the ethical probity of such tactics. I certainly won't allow that I've ever engaged in anything but my honest share of this kind of primitive sport-enough, however, that I need remind you to make sure your reel handle points away from the deck of your kayak should a skipjack or other line-swilling beast grab the fly, and the reel start spinning like a Skilsaw.

Now my skipjack is on board. This tuna, lying like a weapon across my lap, an elegant missile amidst tangle of line, rod, paddle and the constricted disorder of most of my kayak landings, offers no more resistance. Its visible eye, opaque as an olive, stares into oblivion with the cold truth of a river stone. I'm worried I've killed the fish, wore it out beyond revival. Is this the price of"sport?
I grab the skippie by the slender, serrated root of the tail and stab the fish headfirst into the water, then plunge it up and down, trying to fill the gills with oxygen. One final thrust and the tuna dives like a spear through the shimmering blue below. Will it make it? Won't be around long if it doesn't, I conclude-a thought with its own gentle tension that resonates while I gaze across a half mile of open water, sighting our boat, El Pato Loco, seeping into the horizon while surrounding it the rancheros in their kayaks look like plastic specks in primary colors stitched lightly atop the sea.
That evening in camp, I watch Bulla feed fist-sized wads of fish guts from a bucket to a moray-not a true eel, but ugly enough to be one, long as a man, a beast the color of motor oil wallowing in the shallows as if an abandoned beach towel. Maybe Bulla got into the Thermos of margaritas before the rest of us.
He wades in up to his knees, his pants legs billowing, and the fish, it seems, would readily take the viscera directly from his hand, writhing in slow motion as if a creature in a bad dream.
"Yiggh," says Bulla, dropping the goods and backing out of the water long before the moray reaches striking range. He holds the beast in the glare of his headlamp. "Imagine if it had your hand," he adds, watching another gory clump disappear.
"Think it would take a fly?" I ask, keeping a rod's length between me and the edge of the water.
"The Amigo," says Bulla. "It'll catch anything."
Alvaro, the camp cook, comes down to the water and tosses in the carcass of a filleted skipjack, which the moray, having already consumed an entire bucketful of fish guts, immediately grasps by the head and sucks down through its stretched jaws in a fast-motion imitation of a rattlesnake ingesting a rabbit.

The following morning, we break camp and motor to Isla San Francisco, where we again pitch our small tents in a colorful chain stretched to the far reaches of the beach in order to accommodate a pair of newlyweds in the bunch.
Bulla, drawing in the sand, begins to map out the margins and byways of the nearby mangrove lagoon-and in a swift resurgence of energy we congregate and again follow the now familiar if still somewhat chaotic routine that puts us back aboard El Pato Loco and then delivers us, later, digging with paddles through the strong current of an ebb tide pouring out the mouth of the lagoon.
The lagoon offers its own blend of mercurial sport: one moment you're skipping a popper-like Crease Fly into the shade of the mangrove, where the odd snapper explodes from a tangle of roots; the next, you're racing across open water, trying to close the gap between you and a flurry of pelicans and gulls diving into the lacerations of god-knows-what smashing bait. Most of this action confirms my Baja prejudices: find fish and get a fly in front of them, and when that doesn't work, string up a 500-grain head and fish deep.
Yet the next evening even that doesn't work. As the sun leaves the water, I ride the current back toward the mouth of the lagoon, beyond which rests our boat, anchored serenely in a gentle wind swell while Manuel, our captain, stands on the bow practicing casts with the 10-weight Bulla has given him.
I drag my kayak over rocks exposed by the falling tide, my legs stiff from disuse. Past the last thicket of mangrove stretches the long arc of a steep beach, pale and sedate in contrast to the lushness of the lagoon. A vigorous shore break snaps at the toe of the sandy berm, and after days spent casting from my butt, confined to the yellow skirt of my kayak, I'm drawn to the open beach and tumbling surf as if beckoned by an old lover, her blouse pressed to her by the breeze.
I don't get far. Just where the rocks end, I launch a cast out over the break, and on the second strip I come up tight on something. It's a small fish-but spirited in that way that every fish fought on the level through waves seems energized by its dynamic environment. A green jack, it turns out, it doesn't top even two pounds-yet a jack is a jack, I tell myself, the elegant scimitar of the caudal fin evoking a family of fish that seems perfectly designed for fly rods, if only because they strike the fly so readily, pull like bloodhounds and often come in bunches.
Not only jacks turn out to be piled up just beyond the surf line. More casts than not I get hit, the line stiffening as if snatched at the same moment a swell's energy compresses to the point that the shore break vaults towards the beach. Which is probably pretty much what's happening, I think. Cabrilla, cornetfish, needlefish, triggerfish and more jacks grab the fly as if competing with one another-which, I suspect, swapping out another tattered chartreuse-and-white Clouser, is also probably the case.
I keep at it long after such sport should hold anybody's interest. The light falls and between casts I see the other rancheros squirting out of the lagoon and gather around the boat. Kayaks get pulled aboard the boat, raised against the darkening eastern sky. I make a cast and strip and set the hook again, reminding myself to hold the moment, this evening on a beach casting flies again in the Baja surf.

Scott Sadil is author of Angling Baja and Cast from the Edge. He writes, teaches and fashions the semblance of a fishing life in Hood River, Oregon.