Of all the fish that caught in Mexico’s Baja region, snook (or “robalo” in Spanish) are the least understood. With random sightings and more incidental than intended catches, Baja snook are an enigma wrapped in secrecy. It’s nearly impossible to predict when or where this incredible fish will appear, making the snook nearly impossible to target.
I have read many accounts of snook runs in Florida, stating that they are reasonably predictable and can actually be targeted. That’s not the case in Baja.
My fascination with snook began when I read Ray Cannon’s “Sea of Cortez,” first published in 1966. In the chapter, The Snook Shook the Town, he describes catching a 48-pound monster snook in Mulege’s Santa Rosalia River. In 1958, a Chubasco (violent storm) wiped them out, and Ray’s fascinating tale fueled rumors, controversy and skepticism until 2001 when Gene Kira, another Baja legend, interviewed Lou Federico, Cannon’s fishing partner. In Kira’s book “The Unforgettable Sea of Cortez,” Lou confirmed the yarn and even produced photographs of the event. He affirmed that 40-pound snook were common and at least one catch was nearly twice that size. Unable to land them on rod and reel, locals resorted to harpooning the large ones at night using canoes and carbide miner’s lamps.
In the late 2000’s, Mike and Roz Reichner, along with other retirees who lived along the banks of the river, discovered snook again, proving that not only did snook exist but some record-shattering fish were found from La Bocana on the West Coast all the way down to Cabo and back north all the way to Santa Rosalia in the Sea of Cortez.
Since the ‘60s, the primary habitats ideal for Mexican snook have evolved, but few areas produce a predicable snook bite at a specific time of the year. Trying to determine the most likely area to focus my efforts slowly evolved to Magdalena Bay with a healthy snook fishery first described by Gene Kira and Neal Kelly in “Baja Catch.”
Mag Bay, considered one of the most important wetland ecosystems on the Pacific coast, stretches approximately 132 miles along the west coast of southern Baja, encompassing nearly 1,500 square miles.
The miles of mangrove-lined channels are considered the largest snook habitat in Baja. Water temperatures peak in the fall months and produce the best snook action. Sizes range from a few pounds to a respectable 40-plus. By far the most productive method is fishing live sardines or shrimp. Live bait drifted in the deeper channels up against the mangroves provides the best shot to catch snook.
The first time I arrived in the heart of Magdalena Bay (Puerto San Carlos) more than 15 years ago, I was snook challenged, having never caught one — and I was limited to using fly tackle.
Ed Brennan, a local who had retired to this working community and built a small hotel, introduced me to Enrique Soto, a local panguero and president of the fishing cooperative.
With loads of local fishing knowledge at his disposal, Enrique suggested I hire Mario, a local commercial diver who speared snook. I paid him to show me his best snook spots with the understanding that I would not reveal any of the locations and I’d release the snook I caught. For two days we traveled from one spot to another. It was a quick education of snook habitat features including depth and current. Mario agreed that I could cast a couple of times at each spot, allowing me to not only catch my first snook but learn which flies and techniques would be most productive.
Over the following years, as I made countless trips to Mag Bay in search of additional snook spots, my fishing buddies would pass on tidbits of snook information. Capt. Gene Grimes, known for his striped marlin and swordfish prowess, shared my snook fascination. He had exciting stories of taking the 90-foot Legend into the shallow, mangroved-lined channels to Devil’s Curve, where the boat’s owner, Ken Battram, caught huge snook, one of which became the centerpiece on the dining table in the Legend’s salon.
Fred Hoctor, Baja writer and editor, told of a world record-sized snook caught by Bob Roulette, one of the founders of WD-40, in a small “estero” (estuary) inside one of the barrier islands. Years later satellite imagery helped me discover which islands might contain an estero matching Fred’s sketchy description.
The following spring, Brian and Judith O’Keefe visited East Cape for a photo shoot. Completing the project early, Brian mentioned that though he had visited Magdalena Bay and had caught plenty of fish, he had never caught a snook. So along with Don Sloan, another fishing friend, we drove to Puerto San Carlos. When we arrived, Enrique launched his panga and less than an hour later, Brian had caught his first Magdalena Bay snook. As we celebrated his catch that evening, I mentioned the mysterious estero and we agreed to search for it the next day.
Armed with GPS we set out for the estero some 55 miles away. After much searching we failed to find the opening to the channel, and moved to one farther south. Upon returning, we spotted two Mexican teenagers pulling their panga over a sandbar. On closer inspection, it became clear it was the channel we had been searching for and this was the estero Fred had told me about.
We idled into the channel, staring into the depths beneath the curtain of mangroves. Suspended above the bottom were the large snook we sought, plus an equally large number of grouper and pargo. Don and Brian jumped onto the sandbar and hooked up within minutes. We caught fish on the fly from shore and panga, photographing them and the surroundings. One of the many fish we released that day made the cover of my book, “The No Nonsense Guide to Magdalena Bay.”
Through trial and error we quickly learned tackle, techniques, which tide and the best times to fish.
Snook have a razor-sharp edge on their gill plates, so you must use as much drag as possible when the fish is hooked and a 40-pound fluorocarbon leader to prevent the line from being cut on the initial run when they flare their gill plates.
We assumed that slack low tide would be best because the snook would not be able to lurk in the mangrove roots. However, the fish feed best when the current is moving. Casting as close to the mangroves as possible and letting the current sweep the fly into the deeper channel was most productive on both incoming and outgoing tides.
Last year Dennis Braid, owner of Braid Products (www.braidproducts.com) and co-host of Trev Gowdy’s Monster Fish, and I decided to visit Magdalena Bay in search of the elusive snook. Bob Hoyt of Mag Bay Outfitters in Lopez Mateos hosted the trip.
The first day, we searched for a commercial shrimp or “camarones” fisherman to sell us a couple of scoops of bait. Loaded with live shrimp, we continued farther to the north. We headed to a 30-foot deep channel along the eastern shore of the mangrove-lined estuary. Using small 1- to 2-ounce sinkers, depending on the current, we dropped live shrimp to the bottom and raised it up a couple of reel turns to avoid the debris.
The bite began with the first drop and continued throughout the day.
When Braid had his first distinctive violent bite of the snook, he could hardly muster his usual smile as he struggled with the big fish. Throughout the week, we went from one snook-producing spot to another, finally ending up at our not-so-secret spot at Devils Curve. November has been the best single month to target snook, during the shrimp season. Live bait has been the most productive, but we have also caught them on swim baits. So far we have had little success with top-water, which is somewhat surprising. We’ve begun using live shrimp for bait in the esteros. Nearly every live shrimp is bit by something when the bait reaches the bottom. If it is not bit, it’s probably dead. Today, seeking snook is in about the same stage of development as roosterfish in the early 1990s when we learned that you could catch them on more than just live bait. I still get stopped at the Fred Hall shows to talk snook. Sometimes I’ll get handed a hastily-drawn map from someone. “Best spot ever, caught a 40-pounder here,” they say. “Don’t show this to anyone!” The preferred secret spot remains Devil’s Curve between Puerto San Carlos and Lopez Mateos, but there is still plenty of water to explore.