Baja’s Unlikely Lion’s Den

About 45 minutes north of the Los Cabos airport, an old, dusty dirt road with its desert scrub, towering cactus and wandering livestock leads to the entryway of Rancho Leonero. Concealed from view on a secluded bluff, the only thing between Rancho Leonero and the legendary Sea of Cortez is a couple hundred yards of white sand. First-timers and seasoned veterans alike share that magical, almost mythical, tingling of excitement as they first survey the view.Baja Fishing Rancho Leonero

“Rancho” is a cherished, not-so-secret Baja setting where the line between inshore and offshore fishing is vague — both being well-within sight of land.

Rancho Leonero owes its existence and name to Gil Powell, said to be a relative of actor and producer Dick Powell, who established a small ranch with a home on the shores of the Sea of Cortez. A swashbuckling wildlife cinematographer, Powell had traveled and shot movies, especially of lions, all over Africa. After unsuccessfully hunting for mountain lions nearby, the East Cape locals sacrastically labeled him “El Leonero” (keeper of lions). He decided this would be a great name for his Rancho.

It was more than three decades ago, in 1979, when John Ireland was first introduced to what was then called Rancho El Leonero and three more years of Mexican paperwork before he took possession of the original five-room Rancho. Envisioning a hotel that would lure fishermen from around the world, he set about with his trademark “hands-on style of operation,” often joining guests for dinner. He built up this quaint resort into a gorgeous property with 34 palapa-roofed rooms that overlook the sea, adorned by acres of palm trees and tropical landscaping.

Baja Fishing Rancho Leonero

East Cape didn’t come by its “fish ‘til you drop” reputation accidently. Up and down the shoreline there is a variety of structure that attracts baitfish of all sizes including sardina (flat-iron herring), ballyhoo and several kinds of mackerel and mullet, creating a smorgasbord for the many game fish that inhabit the Sea of Cortez to snack on.

The virtually limitless fishing opportunities at Rancho have intrigued visitors for years. The nearby fishing grounds account for wahoo, amberjack, jack crevalle, sierra mackerel, yellowtail, grouper, cabrilla and snapper. Billfish and other offshore exotics, including dorado, roosterfish, sierra, bonito, skipjack and other middleweight species can often be hooked within minutes of departure from the pier. Blue-water action is often close enough that you can watch folks strolling the beach while you battle the fish of your dreams.

The beach itself is the final piece of the East Cape fishing trifecta, an element rarely found at any other destination. Early morning — in that half-hour or so before sunup as the dawn turns from gray to the brilliant gold of a ripe papaya — the action can be breathtaking in front of your hotel. Roosters, jacks, ladyfish, pompano and who knows what else trap schools of baitfish against the shore causing some to end up on the dry sand as they flee for their lives.

Savvy Rancho Leonero regulars bring their fishing rigs to breakfast and again for cocktails in the afternoon or before dinner on terrace. You’ll see guys walking around with a drink in one hand a fishing rod in the other. They’re always prepared when the fish begin to feed on fleeing schools of sardina, and create a commotion.

Baja Fishing Rancho Leonero

Hard-core anglers go sprinting down the steps from the terrace, racing for the beach with rod in hand. The excited bellowing and shrieking as they pursue the feeding fish up and down the beach can be heard all the way back at the terrace. Then, as the Baja sun begins its journey across a cloudless sky, they return, grab their lunches and jump on a panga or cruiser to begin their real day of fishing. Later, returning from a successful day, it’s into the pool, a cold one at the bar, a nap and back to the beach for the sundowner bite as the low light causes a false sense of security and the fish to feed with reckless abandon.

Each of the three elements offer challenges for anglers of all skill levels, which is why so many make frequent pilgrimages here. Trip after trip, year after year, savoring saltwater fishing at its best while constantly improving their techniques.

While the staff and management appreciate that sportfishing formed the foundation of the hotel, the reality is that it is much more. “Rancho” is a place where you’ll find a sense of camaraderie among old-time regulars, first timers and local residents. Everyone feels at home, giving Rancho a small village vibe in a big-city world.

That Baja Guy-Gary Graham
That Baja Guy-Gary Graham, the BD Outdoors Baja Editor, has more than five decades fishing experience off of Southern California and the Baja Peninsul...