Baja Viscaino Peninsula
Located in the heart of Baja’s midsection, Baja Viscaino Peninsula hasn’t received the recognition due it over the years. Commercial airlines fly over at 30,000 feet hauling planeloads of passengers to the tip of the peninsula. Sportfishers and private yachts straight-line right past far offshore, going down the coast … and only seeking coastal shelter when the weather turns grumpy. Passenger cars and RVs thunder down the road past the now-paved turnoffs, hell bent on reaching the “promised land” farther south.
Guilty as charged. My trusty Roadtrek and I barreled on to our more southern destinations until sometime in the mid-2000s I flipped the turn signal and headed west at Viscaino. Sand-covered or dirt pavements greeted me only a few miles out of town.
Then, villages popped up with names as gritty as the billowing dust cloud behind the van – Bahia Tortugas, San Roque, Bahía Asunción, San Hipólito, La Bocana and Punta Abreojos (mostly familiar to sailors cruising down the coast).
They seemed as irresistible as a friendly Mexican mutt wagging its tail in the dirt.
For the next several days, I visited San Roque and stayed in Bahía Asunción with Juan Arce Marron and Shari Bondy. Then, upon leaving early one morning, I bumped down a tolerable dirt road, hugging the coast, passing through Hipolito and La Bocana before arriving at Abreojos; the Roadtrek handled the washboard road without a snag.
By 3 p.m., and many photo stops later, I drove past Abreojos, with plans to spend the night in Mulege. Changing my plans, I decided to turn around and stay at the Estero Coyote in Campo René. Following a section of hard-packed road leading into Campo René which doubles as a landing strip, I had easy access to the RV Park and its small cabins alongside the estero.
I must admit that I was feeling pretty smug as I parked my Roadtrek at Campo René’s. I was extremely pleased with my self-contained, one-ton van with all its electronic gadgetry, including GPS, Satellite Radio, (imagine up-to-date sports and news on remote locations in Baja), and its creature comforts, a flat panel TV, air conditioning, hot and cold running water, and even a refrigerator, microwave, stove and shower.
Having had my share of toys over the years, I have learned, however, that there are always others with bigger, better and newer toys. And this was the case that evening!
By the time the sun finished its plunge into the Pacific, the Roadtrek was hooked up and I was settling in for the night. Suddenly, I heard a loud roar as a huge twin-engine plane flew low over the park just above the rooftops of the cabins. It circled and came in for a landing.
Private airplanes have become less and less common in Baja, except at major airports. Gone are the days of tail draggers landing on an obscure beach with their passengers hauling out their tents and inflatables and setting up camp for a few days. You can imagine my surprise when this private aircraft with a 40,000-pound payload landed in this remote camp halfway down the Baja Peninsula.
The plane slowed at the far end of the dirt strip; the two-stories-tall tail section could barely be seen as dark had settled in. Slowly turning, the plane taxied toward the park. I could hardly believe my eyes as it turned into the park, spun around, and stopped.
Suddenly, silence returned. The plane’s floodlights illuminated the parking area and the cargo door flew open. Seven eerie shadows tumbled out onto the dirt lot into the light.
Curious, I walked toward the plane. As I got closer, I could clearly see in large letters “BILLABONG” emblazoned on the fuselage of the aircraft. Closer still, I could make out nine people, several of whom were in an animated discussion with the pilot on how best to hang their wet suits from the wing to dry.
“Billabong Clipper” is a vintage G-111 Grumman Albatross. It combines a 50-year-old military seaplane with the latest in high-tech gear and the world’s best surfers in a unique expeditionary approach to seeking out the most remote wave-riding destinations on the planet. The Grumman G-111 “Albatross” amphibian is 62-feet long with a 96-foot wingspan and a range of over 2,500 miles.
In its current configuration, it seats up to 13, and is equipped with a 15-foot Zodiac with Honda outboard, two jet skis and a rack for dozens of surfboards and surf equipment.
Approaching the closest passenger, I struck up a conversation with one of the two photographers unloading camera gear. He explained they had left Palomar Airport near Oceanside that morning and flown down in search of the big surf. After landing on the water at Scorpion Bay only to find poor visibility and a crowd of surfers, they left and hit a few of their “secret spots” before coming to Campo Rene.
The following morning, I checked out the Boca and talked to an American angler who often fished the estero and boca in the summer in order to avoid the heat at his home in Santa Rosalia. Although he had caught a few fish, he complained that the commercial fishermen with their nets had pretty much cleaned out most of the fish in the estero … a common complaint up and down Baja’s coastline.
Pillaging fishery after fishery, always with reckless abandon, the Mexican gillnetters have been the scourge of Baja for as long as I can remember. Dismissing criticism with a sullen shrug, followed by their excuse, “We have to eat and support our families,” they reduce their critics to sympathetic co-conspirators who look the other way.
In meeting after meeting over the years, when the local factions become disgusted with the obvious shrinking of marine resources caused by the nets, their voices of reason are drowned out by the Chinchoros’ (gillnetters) loud protests and platitudes.
Consider, for example, Magdalena Bay. This huge marine ecosystem, which stretches 132 miles along the West Coast of Baja, is the poster child of marine resource irresponsibility. In addition to huge increases to sardine quotas periodically, as described in “Mag Bay Under Siege,” the gill nets are rampant and so are the free-divers who are spearing the snook which are difficult to catch in gill nets because of the sharp gill rakes provided by nature. Nets are no match for those gill rakes.
In 2011, in “Home grown abalone,” I wrote: “Beginning his second term as Administrator at the start of the year, Enrique Espinoza, Cooperativa Progresso Administrator’s excitement is infectious as he explains the successes of his group. His eyes sparkle as he proudly gives the details of how the nearly 200 members voted to forbid gillnets in the nine-mile-long La Bocana estero effective at the beginning of 2011, and to provide protection of the Merro (black seabass) and grouper making it illegal to catch them commercially as well as limiting them recreationally.”
To replace the loss of income for the local fishermen, Espinoza is now encouraging members to look to sportfishing for a more reliable income stream. He is promoting the nine-mile estuary for sportfishing, building small cabins, and training members to conduct sport fishing trips as well.
Since then, the two progressive Co-Ops (Cooperativa Progresso and Punta Abreojos Cooperativa) with enlightened leadership have made steady strides with the support of their respective members.
Three years later, there is actually a small but significant light at the end of the tunnel. Enrique kept his promise and the results are encouraging. For several years, gillnets have been banned inside the Laguna la Bocana and the entire nine-mile lagoon is dedicated to sportfishing. By all reports, the results have been fantastic.
The bay bass, shortfin corvina, snook, broomtail grouper, halibut, triggerfish and barred sand bass are thriving absent the relentless commercial pressure.
The recent addition of Bocana Adventure by the local Cooperativa Progresso, featuring cabins and restaurant combined with improved fishing in the lagoon should be enough to entice recreational anglers to the area just as the Cooperativa intended.
However, there is more. A few miles below Punta Abreojos is Campo René located on Estero de Coyote, owned by the local Punta Abreojos Cooperativa. Wider and somewhat shorter than Laguna la Bocana, the Co-Op has also restricted the entire area to sportfishing-only with similar results.
This was confirmed recently by a glowing report from David and Candida Lee from Sacramento who spent a month driving down the Baja Peninsula, stopping at Campo René before continuing to East Cape to fish the beaches there. On their return, they visited Campo René for a second time.
They wrote in an email: “We are in Campo René, and have had an amazing second visit here, catching some unbelievable fish! David hooked and landed a 50-pound white sea bass on a 6-weight trout rod. Lots of grouper, corvina and snook. According to the managers, gillnets are not allowed in the Estero!”
Between the two esteros, there is a total of maybe 35-square miles of water and habitat, both without gillnets and both producing fantastic sportfishing. I suppose that it would be too much to imagine that Magdalena Bay with its hundreds of square miles of esteros would ever consider a similar ban?
Encountering the “Billabong Clipper” in the middle of a RV park as unlikely as it sounds, did happen. Finding two commercial Co-Ops that have chosen to embrace sportfishing as a viable path to economic survival is equally unlikely, but that has also happened. Baja anglers must embrace the Co-Ops’ collective decision with full support and encouragement.