Long before I first visited Baja, I was dazzled by Ray Cannon. His stories of a sparkling blue sea teeming with fish convinced me that I had to go there someday. And when I finally made it, I discovered a desert surrounded by salt water and the most remarkable beaches.
By the early 1980s, my fascination with fishing Baja beaches had become an obsession. Settling in East Cape, the heart of the best beaches Baja has to offer, I brought one of the first ATVs to the area, equipping it with rod holders, and storage cartons so I could go farther and faster, exploring the 30-plus miles of beach.
Fishing for roosterfish from the beach was and is my personal favorite, without a boat, captain or guide to rely on — just angler and rooster — toe-to-comb. Roosterfish are often so intent on feeding that they literally chase their quarry onto the damp sand and then, after catching the fleeing baitfish, flop back into the safety of the water.
The East Cape beach alternates from sand to rock under a searing sun. It has more mood swings than any mother-to-be and demands to be taken seriously, alternating from flat calm to windy conditions, coarse to powdery sand, steep berm to no berm to slippery rocks. Physical fitness is a must and so is protection from the intense sun.
During the next decade, our fleet of ATVs grew. Many, many fish later, we decided to offer guided beach trips through our company, Baja on the Fly (bajaonthefly.com). The trips became an instant hit.
In 2007, East Cape beaches experienced a “River Runs Through It” moment when Frank Smethurst released his award-winning film “Running Down the Man.” The film featured determined anglers clothed in technical duds with faces hidden by buffs and sunglasses as they sped down a dusty desert road in a dune buggy with fly rods strapped firmly in place. Droves of fly-rodders swarmed East Cape beaches in search of the enormous roosterfish featured in the film. Once deserted beaches became more crowded than the rivers, streams and lakes the freshwater anglers left behind.
Last July, longtime guide Lance Peterson and I hosted a group of four experienced anglers at Buena Vista Beach Resort. After viewing Smethurst’s film, the anglers had set their sights on roosterfish from an East Cape beach to add to their bucket list.
The first night, the group gathered on the resort’s terrace overlooking the shimmering Sea of Cortez. We opened bags and checked and rigged tackle as we discussed the plans and strategy for the upcoming days.
We used 9-foot, 10-weight fly rods with direct-drive reels loaded with 30-pound braid for backing. A Scientific Angler’s intermediate tarpon taper was the fly line of choice, except on the windiest days when we needed a shooting head to cut through the blow.
While roosters don’t have teeth, their abrasive mouths can wear through a leader quickly. A minimum of a 6-foot, 20-pound test leader is a must and a bite tippet for larger fish is a good idea. I prefer a 9-foot tapered 20-pound tippet reversed with the loop at the tippet end instead of the butt section to create a knotless leader. Monofilament leaders are okay but fluorocarbon, which is less visible and more abrasion resistant will improve the odds.
It’s not uncommon to fish with a steep berm and coarse sand behind the caster, making it difficult to avoid on the back cast, and this constant contact weakens the leader. Takes don’t come easy, and breaking off a fish because of leader failure is devastating. Loop knots fail frequently on the beach so we use a palomar or San Diego knot.
Since none of the group had ever caught a roosterfish, the primary goal was for every person in the group to land their first rooster on the fly — regardless of size.
Over a dinner of fresh-caught fish that evening, the guys could barely contain their excitement as we discussed techniques. Each morning for the next three days the panga would depart before sunup with two anglers, load up with sardina for chum and fish for a few hours before catching up with the rest of the group on the beach.
Fishing for roosters with a fly from shore requires an understanding of how to adapt your presentations to the fish’s behavior. Roosterfish can be difficult to turn with a fly, let alone be coerced into a take. Remember, 25 years ago many thought the only way you could catch a roosterfish was to slow-troll bait. Guys considered any fish caught on an artificial lure a fluke.
For a shot at a rooster from shore, you’ll need to locate a promising stretch of beach where the bait has congregated and wait. Eventually the fish will come and when they do, the angler has ample time to set up for a good presentation. While the run-and-gun style of racing up and down the beach to crashing fish can be productive and great fun, it’s exhausting and frustrating. It’s more important to be in position when the opportunity occurs. Sure, there will be a few opportunities where sloppy presentations are acceptable, but the patient angler who waits to make the presentation is usually rewarded with the highest percentage of takes.
Blind casting is a low-percentage play — hit or miss at best. Big roosters don’t stack up along the beach like salmon in a stream. They move all the time.
Catching big roosters — Bubba-class fish over 25 pounds — is all about reacting to each fish as an individual experience. Some fish come in hot and fast, others slow and deliberate, and still others change their energy level mid-retrieve. Begin with a basic retrieve, quick and aggressive but be ready to react to each event, changing or slowing the retrieve to keep a fish hot and glued to the fly.
Anglers must understand that stripping mechanics make the fly work its magic. This is where many anglers come up short. The best anglers at this game strip and retrieve with intensity. Their eyes glued to the fly, they make constant adjustments based on the fish’s behavior. An angler with a strong background in tarpon or permit, for example, often steps into the rooster fishery with a big advantage.
Similar to flats fishing, sight casting along East Cape beaches for Bubba-sized roosters is one of the most challenging and rewarding techniques. From mid-morning until mid-afternoon, the bright Baja sun lights up the shallows making it easy to spot fish within casting range.
Sometimes the fish appear beyond casting range. Instead of taking a shot, follow the fish as it moves down the beach. Many times it will come in closer. This is where things can get physical. You might be walking or running as you follow the fish before it comes into casting range. Having a partner with a teasing rod can sometimes entice the fish in closer. It’s a team endeavor and it takes coordination between teaser and fly-caster. But when it comes together, it’s a blast!
Fly of Choice
One of the most productive roosterfish flies is the Mona Lisa (lisa means mullet in Spanish), a pattern that Lance Peterson evolved over a number of years. Lance had early successes with larger roosterfish from shore using big silicone-head flies, between 5 and 10 inches long, originally conceived by Bob Popovics for offshore fishing. These offerings in subdued colors like beige and olive, matching the size and natural colors of the mullet prompted consistent, positive responses from bigger roosterfish.
Lance and Josh Dickinson, a fellow Baja on the Fly guide, tied a variety of big brown flies that not only triggered aggressive responses but occasionally hooked a large rooster. It didn’t take them long to realize that fishing big, fully dressed flies also came with draw backs. Casting a “wet mop” just doesn’t lend itself to quick, accurate casts that the East Cape beach fishery demands.
The fly that evolved is simple — a full-headed fly that pushed some water, coupled with a tail made from just enough material to create the illusion of size. A spun deer hair head combined with an appropriate tail resulted in a fly large enough to draw attention but it’s easy to cast and tracks straight when retrieved at any speed. The “Mona Lisa” was born.
Back to East Cape
Early the following morning, we spotted the hotel panga less than a football field away from the dock — both anglers with bent rods silhouetted in the mango-colored sunrise.
During the following three days the routine remained the same. Panga in the morning, hit the beach about 10 a.m. and fish until the light diminished in the afternoon.
The action was great for the smaller roosters, but the larger fish were fewer and more difficult. Though we hooked several big roosterfish on the beach, they all got off, which is to be expected because of the steep learning curve involved in catching big ones. Every angler, however, landed a roosterfish on fly and got to check it off their bucket list.
One final note, please practice CPR — Catch, Photograph and Release. Don’t let the captain or crew con you into keeping the fish! These fish are NOT good eating and even if it takes awhile to revive a roosterfish, it will have a better chance in the water than lying on the deck of a boat.
For hotel and fishing options on the East Cape, contact Hotel Buena Vista Beach Resort at 800-752-3555 or visit www.hotelbuenavista.com.