Roosterfish Tournament In Baja Welcomes 52nd Year

roosterfish tournamentDuring my years of traveling in Baja, I often heard of an invitation-only roosterfish tournament in East Cape — a tournament born in a gentleman’s club by a group of friends who enjoyed the chase of the rooster. The fundamental rules for the Invitational Roosterfish Tournament (IRT) had been written on the back of a cocktail napkin by Fred Stockman and Bob Fredman in a gentleman’s club in Los Angeles.

The longest-running tournament of its kind in Baja, I was somewhat familiar with the event. I even have a dust-gathering copy of Constance A. Stockman’s “Hooked on Roosterfish,” a fascinating recounting of the first 25-year history of the International Roosterfish Tournament in my office.

Then several years ago, while celebrating the birthday of my friend, Greg Stotesbury, sales and promotions manager at AFTCO, along with his wife Vivian, friends Mark and Jennifer Rayor, owners of JenWren Sportfishing, over the noise of conversations, laughter, trays banging and the clanging of dishes at the East Cape eatery, “La Casita,” a woman called my name from the other side of the dirt-floored restaurant.

I was quite surprised to see my long-time friend, Joan Vernon, Florida resident and tournament director of the “Presidential Series” held in South America, who is also involved in many other events. She and Karen Comstock, recently named chair of the IRT, were just wrapping up the 50th annual Invitational Roosterfish Tournament at the Van Wormers Resorts’ Playa del Sol. I knew the tournament was one of many hidden Baja nuggets, and I was eager to learn more about its 50-year history.

For instance, the founders were buddies who had stitched together a genuine camaraderie laced with enthusiasm for the mystical fish they targeted. In the early years, the tournament was limited to a total of 20 anglers and raised to 30 anglers in 1980.

Featuring the honor system, with limited entries by invitation only, the tournament has survived the test of time. Although roosterfish are seldom the primary target for most Baja anglers in these billfish-laden waters, an invitation to fish in this tournament is valued and to be envied.

In 1967, on a bluff overlooking the sparkling Sea of Cortez, home to the most fertile roosterfish waters on the planet, eight tournament veterans arrived at the still under-construction Punta Colorada Hotel, owned by Bobby and Cha Cha Van Wormer, eager to pit their skills against their target of roosterfish. What a beginning! The first day of the first year of this tournament was devoted to catching striped marlin for a few of the eight participants who had never caught one.

During the night, a Chubasco struck with winds so strong by all accounts it was difficult to stand up. For the next three days of the fated first event, the storm shut down the fishing. Undaunted, the International Roosterfish Tournament was scheduled for the following year and all but one of the original contestants returned.

Apparently, Fredman drew the short straw and became chairman for the first three years, beginning in 1967.

The second year, unlike the first, was a resounding success, producing 43 roosterfish caught by the six participants!

After the third year, Fred Stockman turned over the sponsorship of the IRT to the Los Angeles Billfish Club. Organized initially to promote sportfishing and tournament fishing, the LABC went on to sponsor the Avalon Billfish Tournament in 1971. Some LABC members, eager to fish the IRT, included Bob Aurand, Vern Brown, Mike DeMarco, Frank Hedge, Harry Okuda and Gene Zander.

Hedge, co-chaired the IRT from 1970 to 1972. He fished the event nine times, won the second IRT in 1968, and was part of the LABC team that won the Hawaiian International Billfish Tournament in 1969 which is celebrating its 60th anniversary in August 2019.
“What makes the IRT tournament so great? To find out, I interviewed old and new anglers,” Constance A. Stockman, author, ‘Hooked on Roosters’ wrote. “The answers repeated again and again – ‘It’s the people, they are like family; going to the IRT is like going to a family reunion,’” she concluded.

roosterfish tournamentMarty Franich, an automobile dealer from Watsonville, Calif., had only fished freshwater for trout and other small fish most of his life. When a friend invited him to go fishing he assumed it would be for trout. You can imagine his surprise when it turned out to be for blue marlin in the HIBT in Kona. It was there he met Frank Hedge, who suggested that if he wanted to have some fun fishing he should go to Baja and fish the Invitational Roosterfish Tournament.

And in 1972, Franich and his buddy, Ed Lester, signed up to fish. They arrived accompanied by their wives. For five years, the event had been a stag affair. The first night, Mary Margaret Franich and Willa Lester kept to themselves at dinner until one of the male contestants noticed them and invited them to join their table.

roosterfish tournamentAs the popularity of Punta Colorada grew in the 1970s, improvements were made to the facilities. For IRT, it was also a decade of growth as the attendance jumped to double-digits and soon bumped up against the participant cap of 20 anglers fishing on 10 hotel boats, a number that had been achieved by the tournament committee, partly because of the LABC members’ participation.

Fish tales were told and retold at happy hour gatherings, which were an essential part of each fishing day. Some created heroes, others created zeros, and in some cases, both were created.

One such tale that has been told and retold: Roosters were chasing schools of mullet on the surface, tight to the beach, near the Punta Arena Lighthouse, attracting the entire fleet. Boats turned this way and that, slow-trolling lisa (mullet) in front of the marauding fish. Nearly every boat was hooked up and backing down or chasing their fish, when in the midst of the fray, in the middle of the confusion, a sailfish popped up and snatched Ed Lester’s bait. Greyhounding through the fleet with Ed’s boat in hot pursuit, his captain zigged and zagged through the mess. Tempers flared as anglers fighting their own fish yelled and cursed him. Ed and his captain roared back and forth for almost 20 minutes before tipping the swivel to the rod tip. (See the rules below.) That night, angry anglers insisted Ed sit alone at dinner as punishment for his outrageous behavior!

Coincidentally, several years ago, lightning struck twice, and Stephany Banda hooked into a striped marlin just a couple of hundred feet off Lighthouse Point! However, she cut it off on purpose and didn’t land the fish intentionally.

roosterfish tournamentOne of the contributing factors to the success of the IRT has been the availability of live lisa, a favorite bait fish for roosters. Since they could not be kept in bait receivers overnight, Bobby Van Wormer purchased a large net and taught his boat crew how to catch them early each morning. Not only did having the fresh bait make all the difference, but also many participants found the early morning adventure to be an exciting addition to the fun.

In 1979, the number of anglers in each boat team was increased to three and the total number of members reached a record high of 21.

Chairman Charles Kalen announced in the invitation letter in the 1980s that for the first-time women would be invited to participate. Jinny Bock, Becky Campos, Judy Franich, Kathleen Kalen, Pat Snyder and Constance Stockman were the lucky first designees. While somewhat of a victory, they were only allowed to fish on an all-girl team for the first two years; then the IRT committee relented and let them participate in the up-until-then all-male draw.

Kalen also introduced barbless hooks that year, although there were none being manufactured for sportfishing so anglers had to make their own.

roosterfish tournamentPat Snyder, won her first IGFA World Record in 1977, a 43-pound, 8-ounce roosterfish on 6-pound line. Her second was a 63-pound whopper on 16-pound test, both caught at East Cape. She added a 22-pound, 11-ounce skipjack in 1991, also on 16-pound test.

During the mid-1980s, Pat Snyder and husband Tom fished the tournament, and were joined a couple of times by Chris Wallis, their daughter and her husband, Norm, who fished as alternates. Their daughters, Sharon and Trish, fished many times at Punta Colorada, but never in the tournament. Pat commented, “All five of our granddaughters are excellent anglers.”

Michael DeMarco fished 15 tournaments from 1972 until 1986. He set the men’s 16-pound IGFA roosterfish record in 1984 with a 57-pounder, now retired.

An interesting back story: DeMarco developed specialized techniques to manufacture jet turbine engine components at a time when precision aerospace manufacturing was just beginning in Southern California, thus launching Accurate Grinding and Manufacturing Corporation in Los Angeles in 1950. DeMarco’s son, Joe and his son-in-law, Jack Nilsen, assumed ownership of Accurate Grinding in 1970; Accurate Fishing Products was launched in 1990 by his identical twin grandsons, David and Douglas.

Seeking a level playing field is always a challenge in any sport and the IRT was no different. In the beginning, scoring favored quantity over quality. The number caught, and speed of the catch determined the winner. Anglers hooking large fish found themselves on the wrong end of the equation.

Bob Manos is credited with an answer which would avoid penalizing the bigger fish — “the stick.” But additional questions, setting off a controversy more significant than the barbless hook debate that preceded it, and that needed answers were:
How long and what kind of stick?
Should fish be measured from tail tip to nose or fork of the tail?
Who would be responsible for the sticks? The measuring?

roosterfish tournament

Roger Comstock while seldom removing a rooster from the water. Couldn’t resist a quick photo op with this beauty!

After much debate, the IRT Committee determined to use wood dowels cut to 30-inches long that would be given to the designated scorekeeper on each team (boat). The crew would lay the fish on the transom and measure it from the fork of the tail to tip of the nose. A fish exceeding the stick length would be scored as a “grande” and the angler would receive bonus points for the catch.roosterfish tournament

Over the years, the stick grew longer by 6-inches to yardstick length. Innovation is always considered and eventually accepted if deemed worthwhile. Currently, the stick and bonus points remain, but IRT anglers no longer remove the fish from the water

Most of the old timers are gone, replaced by many “newbies” and their offspring who are essentially “old timers-in-training.” Many things have changed. Much of the formality of the past has faded with time. Judging by the old photos where participants are clothed in long pants and dresses compared to the new images with tournament participants dressed in shorts and casual blouses or shirts and the lighter tackle, better equipped boats, new participants, and of course, women and children … all of which seem to be welcome additions.

For the past few decades the evolution of the Roosterfish Tournament has continued. Many of the children of “old timers” – Franich, Lester, Egerer, the Hoffman clan (father-Mike Hoffman, son, Danny, and son-in-law, Dan Dinger), as well as others – have either joined or continued in the tradition of their parents and in some cases, grandparents.

In 2002, the IRT Committee with Bill Gillissie, chairman, affiliated IRT with IGFA and began participation in the ROLEX, that is now the Offshore World Championships (OWC).

A notable change in 2011 was the closure of Punta Colorada Hotel; the tournament moved to Playa del Sol in Los Barriles that year.

roosterfish tournament

Also, at present, six to eight women compete each year – another change.

In 2012, Karen Comstock became the Event Planning Chair overseeing the day-to-day management of the event.

roosterfish tournamentA few years ago an Annual Auction was established featuring a handcrafted quilt designed by Tina Stanley along with other items donated by sponsors to either be sold or raffled with proceeds donated to the local East Cape community each year.

Rocky Franich has fished the event for thirty-five years winning championships on three occasions. He was high angler on the last day of the 50th Anniversary Roosterfish Tournament that had 28 anglers.

As with sportfishing in general, this event has continued its path toward conservation in many ways. As of 2017, the use of circle hooks earned bonus points.
The line class is only 12-pound tournament test, but most importantly, the fish are never removed from the water.

One tradition that has remained from the beginning: Each year after the last day of fishing, a hosted cocktail party is staged for the boat captains and crews. It is relatively informal; since tipping by individual anglers is not allowed, a bonus arrangement for the crews has been established. Many are second-generation with the tournament and the cocktail party gives the anglers an opportunity to acknowledge their efforts and let them know how much they are appreciated.

Cha Cha Van Wormer and Karen Comstock on the 50th anniversary of the IRT.

Now held at the Playa del Sol, growing in size and sophistication, the Roosterfish Tournament has remained a popular event, with a waiting list of anglers eager to join the tight-knit group. When I researched not only why this tournament has survived for so many years, but has also grown, I came up with one descriptive word: enthusiasm. Every person I spoke with, at every age, eagerly awaited the next event.

The Roosterfish Tournament was a qualifier for the Offshore World Championship Tournament of 2017 and 2018.

Get more Baja fishing history from Gary Graham on BD.