If you believe everything you read, you probably think that Baja’s fishery is made up entirely of big, exotic fish. But if you actually fish in Baja, you know that the “exotics” will go sideways at some point for one reason or another and the bite will shut off.
When that happens, anglers and crew go will do whatever they can to induce a bite. Occasionally the endless hours of trolling, hoping to conjure up some action, can pay off. But more often than not, that process ends up in frustration for a boatload of people who are ready to play the blame game.
In a recent column, Five Best Fishing Spots in the Entire World, BD’s editor, Charlie Levine, wrote, “Some of the best times I’ve had fishing were spent catching small fish like snapper blues, pompano and flounder.” He went on to say, “Real anglers have fun regardless of what fish they’re catching.”
I couldn’t agree more, so let me introduce you to my Baja Dirty Dozen.
In no particular order the list includes jacks, skipjack tuna, pompano, snapper, giant needlefish, sierra mackerel, ladyfish, Cortez grunts, triggerfish, halibut, grouper / sea bass and lookdowns.
While none of the Dirty Dozen will likely land you in an angling hall of fame, they will put you back on track and doing more catching than wishing. You’ll also sharpen your angling skills and improve your chances when that trophy-sized fish does come along.
Giant needlefish are condescendingly referred to as houndfish on the East Coast but they gained a certain amount of notoriety when author Ray Cannon declared them one of his favorite targets. I met Ray and I assure you that he was all about catching — not about riding around all day looking for that one trophy fish. He was so taken with watching the huge needlefish leap in pursuit of the slab baits trolled behind the boat that he devoted an entire chapter of his book, Sea of Cortez, to catching the scaly snakes.
“Scaly snakes” is how my friend Jonathan Roldan of Tailhunter International, referred to them in one of his reports some time ago. During a week when most of the fishing reports were marginal, his was about newbie clients who lacked any preconceived notions or expectations of the local fishing. Basically, they just wanted to have fun and catch fish.
To them, every fish was a trophy. They marveled over the strength, speed and acrobatics of their catches. In addition to dorado and roosterfish, the list was sprinkled with many of Baja’s Dirty Dozen, including jacks, bonito, pargo, cabrilla and triggerfish. One angler even dusted off his fly-rod and was thrilled with six needlefish on the fly! Their total even included the lowly trumpetfish, which didn’t make the cut for our list.
Several years ago, I bumped into Mike Ritz (The Griz) who hosts a cable channel Baja sportfishing show. It was our first meeting and I gave him a copy of my No Nonsense Guide to Fly Fishing Southern Baja. As we talked, he noticed that I had listed trumpetfish as one of the Baja species in the back of the book. He raised his bushy eyebrows and rolled his eyes disapprovingly, implying that it didn’t belong in the book.
Oddly enough, I have taken as many photos of clients with trumpets as with trophies… Go figure.
I’m not sure if it’s the little puckered mouth, the strange iridescent blue lines that appear when they are excited or the cute way they swim backwards when released that does it, but most of our anglers insist on a trumpetfish photo to take home to show their friends.
Every member of the Dirty Dozen posses a toughness that comes from living in a neighborhood that is eat or be eaten. Ladyfish, often called sabalo by the locals, lives up its namesake tarpon in English. While obviously not as large, they are airborne at the first jab of a sharp hook and continue leaping until the hook is thrown or they get caught.
They’re also the preferred food for giant roosterfish.
Lookdowns are a schooling fish and when you catch one, chances are you can catch more just by staying with the school. In the past several years, anglers have figured out that both of these species make great baits farther offshore.
The jack family breaks down into 34 different subspecies including some that fall into the exalted exotic category. One of the more well known is the jack crevalle which has earned the nickname “toro” by the locals because of its bull-like strength and tenacity. Jacks are aggressive feeders that seldom pass up an eating opportunity.
Pompano, technically in the jack family, have earned the respect of many anglers who target them no matter what is going on offshore. They’re usually found in very tight schools swimming in relatively shallow water. The schools are easily spotted in the bright sunlight with the school resembling a dark cloud moving slowly over the sandy bottom.
Known on the Baja as “pargo,” there are nine varities of snappers to target — blue and gold, Colorado, dog, golden, Jordan’s, mullet, red, spotted rose and the yellow snapper. While technically not a snapper, the Mexican barred pargo is another bruiser that will save the day. Every one of these fish will rock you in a heartbeat until you refine your technique enough to react to their lightening-fast take and instant retreat into the rocks they call home. The smaller ones pull hard and as they grow larger they are nearly unstoppable, combining stealth, strength and speed.
Several years ago I guided two clients from the East Coast who had snapper on their bucket list. They pleaded with me to take them to my snapper hole. As they stood rigged and ready, I tossed out a couple of sardina and the calm water exploded as several 20-pound fish rose to the bait. There was white water everywhere as I handfed the hungry snapper. Over the din, I hollered “cast!” My clients laid their flyrods down and just watched, intimidated by the feeding frenzy and the size of the fish. As far as I know, snapper are still on their list.
Grouper / sea bass are another large group with 38 subspecies that reside in the Sea of Cortez. They range in size from small to huge (approaching nine feet in length and 900 pounds). These fish are as bad ass as they come and grow much larger than their neighbors, the snappers.
While yellowfin tuna dominate the elite list, there are many other tunas that are just as fun to pull on. Included in that group are skipjack, bonito and bullet tuna. Most are considered inedible with dark-red, oily flesh. The white skipjack is the only one of the group with edible flesh that is a local favorite for sashimi. Often found in huge schools a few miles offshore, these aggressive fish can provide hours of exciting action on light tackle or fly. I have even seen them caught from the beaches at East Cape on both conventional and fly tackle.
Sierra mackerel, generally considered a winter species, are actually around most of the year. With a mouthful of sharp teeth, use wire to avoid being cut off. However, the problem with the wire is that it spooks them. A longer shank hook without wire when fishing bait will prevent most of the cutoffs and the number of bites will increase dramatically. If fishing artificials, a short length of thin wire will prevent gear loss.
Triggerfish, a voracious eater, is probably the most overlooked fish on our list. Think of them as a perch on steroids usually found in schools near shallow reefs all the way out to a couple of hundred feet. Small lures, flies, live or dead bait all work with these accommodating critters that seem to bite almost anything on any tackle. They are real kid pleasers.
Cortez grunts — their name doesn’t do them justice — are usually caught from shore along with most of the others on our list. We have caught so many from shore that once I tried to talk Gene Kira into dreaming up a more suitable name than “grunt.” Not one of our most creative efforts worked. The best we could come up with was adding Cortez.
Halibut in Baja are not well-known, but are frequently an incidental catch. Nowhere near the size of their northern counterparts in Alaska, they seldom reach 20 pounds. I am surprised at how many thriving populations of halibut have been discovered along beaches and esteros both in the Sea of Cortez and the Pacific on Baja’s west coast.
They’re all fun to catch. Expand your repertoire to include fishing for species that are often overlooked. It will help satisfy the inherent need to catch fish that is in kids and grownups alike.
Dirty Dozen Mexico Fish Species