Baja Roadtrip – San Felipe

I was supposed to go to Gonzaga Bay last week. I’d been looking forward to this trip for weeks now.

My buddy, Chris Fierro, invited me to go with his group of kayak fishing buddies. Although I can (kinda sorta) kayak, I don’t have a ton of confidence in my skills. Last year, I got myself into a hairy situation when I tried to kayak fish the Cliff Lingcod spot up in Washington State. I tried to kayak fish while visiting Loreto a few years back. I overturned the kayak, couldn’t get back in, and had to backstroke it towing the kayak back to the beach. So given my current state of kayak fishing prowess (or lack thereof), I decided to book 2 days of panga fishing with Capt. Alonso Garcia Lucero (right) of Thresher Fishing Trips. Alonso said that if the conditions cooperated, he just might be able to get me my big grouper!

I’ve been outfitting a used (but new to me) 2006 Toyota Highlander Limited, to traverse Baja in search of great fishing destinations. On top of going to Gonzaga for the first time, this would also be my first big trip in the Highlander.

So much to be excited about for this trip. Then I got the call…

It was Capt. Alonso. “Not looking good amigo. Too much wind. I think it’s best if we reschedule.”

In Bahia, if it gets windy outside, you can go inshore and fish for leopard grouper. I asked if that would be an option. “No…just small bass.” Hmmm…”Ok, I guess we’ll just have to reschedule. I’ll find a time and get back to you.” Super-bummer. He’d get back later and say maybe we can try it, but I’ve learned too many times the hard way that those trips rarely work out. It’s only about a 4-hour drive from San Felipe to Bahia de Los Angeles. I could try to fish with those guys again. I got ahold of Capt. Joel Prieto Jr. with Joel Sportfishing. He was booked already…with Baja Fishing Convoys. Plan C…I reached out to Capt. Alonso again, “What about fishing San Felipe?” He said it was mainly corvina fishing right now, but that we had a better chance of being able to fish. OK, let’s do it.

San Felipe – Half Day

I arrived in San Felipe on Thursday afternoon. The town is located at the far northern end of the Sea of Cortez, near where the Colorado River meets saltwater. It was a short 2 hour drive from Mexicali where I had spent Wednesday night.

Alonso and I had arranged to go fishing on Friday (Oct. 8th). He picked me up from my hotel – Hacienda de la Langosta Roja (House of the Red Lobster – this is important. I’ll come back to it) at 7am Friday morning. There was a nice public launch facility nearby. After CONAPESCA checked my Mexican fishing license, we launched his panga. From the launch point, it was only about a 30 minute drive to a shallow reef where we would begin our fishing day. Other pangas were already there, anchored up in various spots around the reef.

The fishing started out really slow. I looked around at the other boats surrounding us though and I didn’t see anyone catching. Alonso said we were waiting for the top of the tide which would hit around 10am. When the tide hit the top, the current slacked off and it started to bite. Game on! For the next 30 minutes or so it was wide. I put 4 good ones on the deck before it stopped. In the midst of it all, there was a big bite that didn’t stick. Alonso said there’s a bigger type of corvina here, yellowtail corvina, that might have been the one I missed.

When it was done, we moved across the bay to a rocky shore spot to try for leopard grouper. I used the exact same (Fishing Syndicate FSG 900L/Shimano Tranx 400) combo throwing the Daiwa SP Minnow that I did so well on down in Bahia. No takers though.

On this side of the bay, there was some sort of marine pen facility. I asked Alonso about it. He told me it was a totoaba grow out pen. I’d heard about this fish before. Also known as giant white seabass, San Felipe is the home of this legendary fish. Alonso said criminals deploy miles of gillnets to catch this protected species. He said the criminals are heavily armed to protect their activity. He’s had AK-47’s drawn on him before!

That was basically it. The wind kicked up and we headed home.

Tragic Tale of the Totoaba

On Thursday night, the Seahawks were playing the Rams on Thursday Night Football. I went downstairs and watched the game in the hotel bar. While there, I struck up a conversation with an older gentleman, Pat Butler. As it turned out, Pat was the owner of the hotel/bar. I told Pat that I was going fishing the next morning. One thing led to another and before too long we started talking about the totoaba. Pat has been an activist against the illegal totoaba bladder trade. He told me to meet him after getting off the water so he could introduce me to another local businessman who is fighting against the criminal element.

After fishing the next day, I met Pat in the bar and we walked over to the Taco Factory restaurant. Pat introduced me to the proprietor, Octavio Ascolani. Together, Pat and Octavio have hatched a plan to re-introduce sportfishing of the totoaba which they hope will protect the fishery from the illegal element and in turn reinvigorate their town for tourism.

The illegal profit element is so strong though. They told me that local fishermen can get $5000 for a kilo of totoaba bladders. In China, where the bladders are thought to have some kind of medicinal value, the street value of the dried bladders escalates to 3x or more of that number. The criminal element feeds corruption of the local officials that are supposed to be enforcing the various bans…inshore gillnetting and night fishing…designed to curb the illegal trade. The gillnetting not only destroys the totoaba fishery, but the indiscriminate nature of this technique leads to a lot of bycatch too. In addition to totoaba, sea turtles and the vaquita dolphin have been decimated by this practice also. Pat and Octavio said that next month, the totoaba will come inshore to spawn and their carcasses will litter the beach. So sad.

I hope for their success. What they are trying to do is very brave. They’re just a couple of older guys trying to save their town and pass on a legacy to their friends and family. I wish them the best. I’m going to stay in touch and keep up on their story. Hopefully, they can be successful in this endeavor and provide us a nearby destination fishery and bucket list fish for recreational anglers. Stay tuned.

All for now. Good luck if you get out there.

Joe Sarmiento is the founder and primary writer of the So Cal Salty blog. The blog covers saltwater fishing, primarily aboard the many sportfishing boats of Southern California. In addition to writing his blog, Joe's writing has appeared in Western Outdoor News, The Log and Griffin Media. Joe is ...