On the Beaches of Baja
- By: John Gierach
My friend Ed Engle and I have just checked into the Hotel Punta Colorada near the southern tip of Baja Sur in Mexico. (Nearly everything on the coast is named for either a punta or a cabo-a point or a cape.) After an hour-and-a-half ride from the airport in an old but air-conditioned van, the heat hit us like an anvil, so we're sitting in the small stone courtyard, barefoot in the shade, trying to acclimate.
There's a slight breeze blowing inland from the Sea of Cortez. It's hot and humid, but it is a breeze. We're supposed to meet Mike Rieser, our friend, guide and half-owner of the Baja Flyfishing Company, but it's early enough that he's still out on the water with clients. Across the small courtyard is a garish banner announcing the 41st Annual Roosterfish Tournament that we won't be taking part in. A young, broad-shouldered guy is standing there looking at it. The back of his T-shirt says, "Second Place is Just the First Loser." Read More »
Click here to read about John Gierach's latest book, Fool's Paradise.When it comes to fishing trips to strange new places, Ed has what he calls the "three day rule." You naturally fish from your first tentative cast as if it mattered (because it does) and you might even catch some fish, but the first day is nonetheless spent trying to gain some sense of where you are. This process actually continues through the trip and lingers a while even after you're home, but the strangeness is most vivid at the beginning when even the bird calls are just pretty gibberish. (You'll hear about travelers who are so experienced that they "feel at home anywhere," but I always thought the idea was to go far enough to feel a little lost, even though you have a pretty good idea how to get back.)
By the end of the second day you've begun to absorb the daily routine of fishing-which is different everywhere-and the most common elements of your surroundings are no longer a constant surprise. In this case, that would be the sound, smell and colors of the sea, the brown pelicans and frigatebirds and the burden of my personal language barrier. I'd never been to Mexico before except for a quick trip to a border town in the 1960s, the memory of which is now mercifully vague, so my pigeon Spanish only extends to phrases like, "Donde esta el bano, por favor?" (Where is the toilet, please?) and, "Hola, senor, do you speak Ingles?"
It's possible to feel like an idiot trying to communicate by pointing and grunting and an actual conversation is unthinkable, but then I often get tired of listening to people gab, and when you can't understand what they're saying, the effect can be akin to silence.
By the third day-either on your own or with coaching-you've picked up a smattering of fishing techniques, like the scissor strip where you sweep the rod with one hand while stripping line with the other to give your streamer a realistic final burst of speed. You're retrieving like mad anyway when a roosterfish comes for the fly, but without that panicked acceleration from his prey, he's likely to lose interest at the last crucial second.
This third day is often when a kind of working familiarity kicks in and things begin to fall into place: not everything by a long shot, but sometimes enough to make a difference. It seems like luck-and in a way it is-but it's the kind you can court by paying attention.
Roosterfish seem oddly ornamental. Picture an elongated bluegill-shaped fish with a deeply forked tail and a front dorsal fin consisting of seven long, thin rays that stick up like the tines of a pitchfork to almost twice the height of the body. The overall color is iridescent silvery white with a dark back and two black racing stripes that start under the dorsal fin and sweep sinuously back to the tail. Like all fish, even a good photo doesn't quite do them justice.
Mike thinks they use their dorsal rays to either herd or disorient baitfish because in the last split second before they strike at a trolled bait or a retrieved streamer they'll flash up beside it, wave that fin and then strike to the side with something like a sucker punch. This happens so fast that it only leaves a fleeting impression, but if you've fished in the region for 30 years like Mike has, you'll have gotten used to the way things happen with such blinding suddenness.
Fishing here is anything but a contemplative sport, especially when you're chasing roosterfish on the beach. In order to cover the number of miles it can take to locate fish, you drive an all-terrain vehicle, sometimes slowly, other times at speeds you later think might not have been prudent. You have hot desert on one side, cool surf on the other and nothing much in front except sand and driftwood. You're carrying two rods: a 10-weight rigged with a size 4 Clouser Minnow for smaller fish and a 12-weight with a big fly for the grandes.
If you're fishing with Mike, your large fly will probably be a Gym Sock, an aptly named mullet pattern that catches fish but casts like a piece of dirty laundry. The borrowed 12-weight rod itself is designed as a compromise between casting a fly line and playing a big fish. It's an imperfect bargain between too much rod and not enough. You'd get used to it eventually, but it would take more time than you have.
The idea is to spot fish busting up a bait ball near shore or herding small fish into the wave trough right at the surf line where they're effectively cornered. (You'll know the guy on the ATV in front of you has spotted a big cruiser when he pours on the speed to get ahead of it.)
You're barefoot because any kind of footwear will immediately fill with fine sand and abrade your feet like emery cloth. The water and wet sand feel good, but you're careful not to step on a jaggedly broken shell or the spiny body of a dead puffer fish. The surf can seem like it wants to knock you down and drag you out to sea and the water can be filled with chunks of dead jellyfish that have been churned into pieces by the waves. They sting your feet and bare legs painfully, but they're harmless unless you get a big piece.
Once a fish is spotted and you're on foot, you can end up covering hundreds of yards of beach at a dead run-high-stepping in the surf and false casting as you go-before you hook the fish, he goes away or you just give up. Then you trudge back to your ATV, which by then is a dot on the horizon. The weariness and dehydration don't hit you until you're back outside your room sitting in the only available shade for miles around, swearing that if you do this again you'll train for it first. A few weeks of jogging in Death Valley would help.
Fishing from a panga was slightly less frantic, and since the thing was only 23 feet from bow to stern, there was no running. Mostly it was just the amiable boredom of grown men out in a boat, punctuated by the usual moments of sheer panic.
They said it was cool for June, but it was still hot by any reasonable standard, although the humidity depended on whether the prevailing wind was blowing east across the Sea of Cortez or from the west across the desert. Some days were anywhere from bearable to outright comfortable. Other days you'd fry like bacon.
Sometimes we'd come on some ladyfish busting up a bait ball: a school of thousands of sardines huddled together in a single amorphous mass in the vain hope of safety in numbers. The charcoal-gray bait ball would be moving and billowing slowly and as the ladyfish sliced through it, their mirrored sides would flash in the sun. Mike said the sight always reminded him of lightning in a storm cloud.
What the ladyfish are doing is blasting through the school a few times, killing, maiming and dismembering a dozen sardines at every pass. Then they'll drop down below the school and pick off the dead and dying as they sink toward the bottom.
As tempting as it was to cast and strip fast, Mike said, no, just let the streamer sink and hope a fish mistakes it for a casualty. My overall impression of the little bit of saltwater fishing I've done is of just this kind of speed and violence. As I'd let my weighted streamer sink through a count of 20, I'd have time to think, This is a hell of a long way from trout sipping mayflies.
Another common fishing method is called bait and switch, where a live baitfish is trolled behind the boat to attract game fish that the fishermen then cast to. Naturally, there's a science to this. You usually use sardines, but if you're hoping for something bigger, you use a larger mullet. The bait has to be trolled within casting range of the clients (this would be closer for some than for others) and of course when the fish come, the bait has to be kept away from them so that, with any luck, they'll go for the flies.
It happens suddenly and unexpectedly, usual in the middle of a lazy conversation about the old days, and the fish are sometimes there and gone so quickly you'll only have one quick shot. It's impossible to stay tightly wound for hours on end, so you try for a kind of subconscious hair trigger while trying not to be standing on your line.
Mike's partner John Matson told me he sometimes gets clients who have never seen or heard of this and who are reticent about fly-fishing over chum. He said the cure is to take them out on featureless blue water without a fish in sight and ask, "OK, where do you want to cast?"
So the first order of business after you've met your captain at the dock in the morning is to motor south along the coast looking for men drifting in small boats selling bait. They're called sardinieros after the sardines they catch in throw nets, although some will have mullet instead or, amazingly, 8- to 10-inch bonefish. Their bait wells are the boats themselves, half filled with seawater.
You might see these same guys later, fishing with hand lines from pangas or from shore for fish that they'll either eat or sell to a buyer up the coast in la Ribera. In fact, you haven't done this properly until you've motored past a couple of these men catching dorado literally hand over fist with hand lines while you stand there fishless holding a thousand dollars worth of fly rod and reel. They nod politely, though not without a touch of amusement, and there's the temptation to envy such a simple, uncluttered existence, although in your heart you know that hard day-to-day subsistence with no safety net would suck.
Once the bait was in the well, Mike would examine it and discuss it with the captain in his fluent Spanish. The size and condition of the fish, and where they were caught, could provide valuable information on currents and water temperatures. Mike's favorite captain was a man named Tico, a dignified gray-haired gentleman of indeterminate age. He was quiet and could seem stern, but then when someone hooked a roosterfish he might smile to himself and make quiet chicken noises.
True to Ed's rule, it was on the afternoon of the third day that I hooked something big. We were trolling large streamers on 12-weights and didn't know what it was at first. As it turned out, it would be a while before we saw it, but Mike quickly deduced from the way it was fighting that it was a jack crevalle and then, sometime later, that it was a pretty big one.
I'll try to keep this short. When we finally got it in the boat it ended up weighing just short of 40 pounds, which Mike said is about as big as this species gets in those waters. It was the first one of these things I'd ever caught and an egregious example of unearned beginner's luck.
An experienced saltwater guy could probably have landed it more quickly, but it took me the better part of an hour and 45 minutes, during which I poured sweat, my arms and shoulders burned and twitched involuntarily and it occurred to me that a sane man might wonder why this is considered fun.
After a little too much time spent staring into the waves while standing on a pitching boat, the possibility of blowing lunch arose, but I found that all I had to do was look west, locate the blessedly stationary peaks of the Sierra de la Gigantas in the distance and everything would be temporarily OK. At one point, Mike leaned over and looked into my eyes.
"What!" I said.
"Just wanted to see if you were about to pass out," he answered. I guess that happens from time to time. They call it heat stroke, which sounds more manly than fainting.
I didn't see the fish until an hour into the fight, when I spotted him side-on in a 10-foot roller a little higher than my head. This was just before he sounded and had to be laboriously pumped back up. Out in the air he'd be an almost disappointing dull aluminum color, but in the water he was all shades of electric blue/green and didn't seem entirely real. He looked impossibly huge, but also nowhere near big enough to put up that kind of fight on that kind of tackle, but then there's a reason why the locals call these things toros.
Ed was shooting photo after photo, "trying to get the grimace right" he said later, and also because, for the better part of two hours, there was nothing else to do.
Click here to read an about John Gierach's latest book, Fool's Paradise.