The Ridge: An Introduction to One of Baja’s Greatest Fisheries

My eyes snap open as the droning of the engine fades and the sound of the anchor rattling down tells me it’s time to get up. Still bleary eyed, I walk up on deck and the first rays of light are just starting to grace the horizon. Birds are working the greasy calm waters around us as a deckhand up on the tank flips sardines off the port corner. I sip on some coffee and follow the baits as they land. Each one hits the water, scurries around for a moment and attempts to dive down when all the sudden there’s a series of larger silver flashes, a quick churn on the water and the bait is gone. Crew call out the boils and issue reminders on good bait selection as anglers mob the wells like it is a feeding trough. I could tell already that the boat was infested with skipjack tuna that were competing with wolf packs of larger yellowfin, making it impossible for a sardine to last even a few seconds before getting inhaled. Soon everybody is up and the stern immediately becomes mayhem. My first instinct was to grab my yo-yo outfit and head up to the bow to see if anything was beneath the tuna. I drop down and wait to hit bottom when my jig stops about ten seconds in. I know it’s not that shallow. I put my reel in gear and get half a crank before the line goes tight and starts flying off the spool!

This is The Ridge; one of Baja’s most legendary fishing destinations. As epic as I thought this morning was, I would come to learn this is standard fishing for this place. Long range captains regularly make the 400+ mile run down the coast, counting on the wide open fishing that is often the norm. Through this article, I’ll be sharing the personal tips that I’ve learned through fishing down here, as well as understanding what the Ridge is and the best time to plan your own trip.

What is The Ridge?

SatFish map of the ridge in baja california sur

Before we dive into the details of the fishing, it’s important to understand first of all what The Ridge is and why it’s such a fish magnet. Geographically, The Ridge is a 50 mile long seamount Northwest of Magdalena Bay which has four prominent high spots that create an incredibly varied and structured bottom. These four areas include the 13 Fathom Spot, the Uncle Sam Bank, the 23 Fathom Spot, and the Thetis Bank. In the figure, notice how steep the drop off is on the outside edge. This is key in establishing the base of the food web that the rest of the ecosystem depends on. Studies have shown that when zooplankton travel up from the depths and encounter large seamounts such as The Ridge, the turbulence from the currents pushing up the shelf condenses the plankton on these shallower banks and creates an ideal feeding ground for baitfish and pelagic red crabs. This in turn keeps the larger predators in the area year-round.

Timing is Everything

One of the biggest factors that determines what fish will be on The Ridge is the time of year. In the Spring and early Summer, yellowtail rule the area. The colder water hasn’t warmed up to the point where tuna and wahoo find it comfortable, so the yellowtail spread out and take full advantage of the lessened competition. It was during this time that I experienced some of the greatest surface iron yellowtail action of my entire life. We had boiling fish all around the boat attacking anything that hit the water… for three days! Massive grouper are always present on The Ridge, and June is around the time when they start to bite.

Late summer and Fall is known as the prime time to be on The Ridge. This is when the annual congregation of life takes place, and nearly every pelagic sportfish on the coast is present. Yellowfin and skipjack tuna form huge breezers that can be seen from miles away. Dorado stack up under the kelp paddies, avoiding the hordes of striped marlin that have also made the migration from down below. Tight packs of wahoo cruise like seeker missiles honing in on their next target. The Ridge is teeming with life and boats of all types flock to the high spots to get their fill. Don’t be surprised to see commercial seiner teams with helicopters wrapping tuna right next to mega yachts from Cabo trolling for wahoo hoping to make a score.

Yellowtail

Big yellowtail caught on the ridge fishery in baja.

When I got up and saw the tuna working the surface that first morning, I knew that the smaller fish would be around us most of the day, so I wanted to grab my yo-yo jig to see if a big yellow was hanging beneath. We were on the 13 fathom spot in early November, and The Ridge can hold incredible amounts of yellowtail ranging in all sizes this time of year. The best way to get to them in this setting is going deep beneath the tuna with either a dropper loop or a heavy jig. My go-to setup for both these choices is the PENN Fathom 40N lever drag filled with 80lb braid and either 50 or 60lb mono paired with a Calstar 770H which has enough backbone to stop anything from getting back into the rocks. The bottom is sharp and unforgiving, especially on the high spots and the Thetis, and the fish try to use this to their advantage. Fishing a tight drag with the proper rod is key, as keeping constant pressure against a stiff backbone will make it harder (but not impossible) for the yellows to turn their heads and get back into the reef. The current can be very strong on The Ridge, and a 12 or 16 oz sinker might be required to stay on the bottom if the dropper loop is getting bit. As the crew will show you, the sinker is on the bottom of the rig, and two or three feet above that, a surgeon’s loop of about 6-8 inches with a 5/0 or larger hook tied to the line and not just looped in. Heavy, 40-60 lb line is also best for yo-yo jigs. The JRI 66 brass jig has quickly become one of my favorites because of its weight and larger profile. Color doesn’t seem to matter too much, but keep in mind that pelagic red crabs are almost always present on The Ridge, so having a few orange or red jigs in the box is definitely recommended.

yellowtail caught on the ridge in baja

Even though every spot on The Ridge holds quality yellowtail, the Thetis Bank is historically known as the place where the bigger ones tend to be caught. During our last day, we arrived around lunchtime and same as before, the anchor goes down and the chumline starts. The pace had slowed from the 13 Fathom Spot, and you needed to wait more than just a few seconds to get a bite. I’m cycling through baits using 30lb on my Fathom 25 and Grafighter 800m when I get picked up. I noticed that I got bit right after I switched to shoulder hooking mybaits rather than the usual nose hook. Sometimes these little changes in technique make a difference. After being hooked, the fish hauls straight out on the surface and dumps half my spool. It starts sounding down as I walk up the rail and get into a good position on the port side of the bow. I keep my rod tip high and continue a steady grind without pumping. I’m thinking at this point that it might be a nice wahoo so I didn’t want to start pulling too hard yet. I get straight up and down and whatever I have starts dogging me trying to get back to the bottom. Definitely not a wahoo. I tighten the drag and start into a cadence of lifting, then winding down, making sure never to drop the rod tip and put any slack in the line. Soon a muted, green-silver glow emerges from the depths. Getting closer, I don’t change anything. I keep the same lifting and winding cadence, with my feet at the rail. With a deckhand ready by side, I keep winding and a beautiful 30lb yellowtail crests the surface and is promptly brought on board. This is what The Ridge is all about.

Wahoo

wahoo caught in baja on the ridge trolling

The wahoo fishing on The Ridge is hands down some of the best you’ll experience anywhere in the world. Every fall, hundreds of wahoo form tight wolf packs and congregate along The Ridge following the warm water and huge schools of bait scattered all across the region, providing long range anglers the rare and incredible opportunity to experience full-speed fishing for these fierce predators. The size varies on the school but expect the average grade to be anywhere between 20 and 35 pounds with standouts going well over 50. The three most effective ways to catch wahoo during this time is by trolling, throwing bombs, or using live bait. Even though it’s the same fish at the end of the line, each one of these methods requires completely different techniques during the fight in order to be successful.

wahoo caught on the nomad DTX minnow while trolling in baja on the ridge

The easiest way to get a wahoo is on the troll. There are tons of wahoo trolling lures on the market, but the two that bring me the most success are the hot pink Nomad DTX Minnow and the Yo-Zuri Bonita lures in the larger sizes. The first thing you have to know is wahoo trolling demands heavy tackle. Crews want to see 100 lb+ line and rods and reels matching this class to withstand the pressure of the lure and fish as the boat is moving along at 8-10 knots. Once set up, it is important to check the action of the lure next to the boat and ensure that your plug is running true. If everything looks good, send it back and keep it short (20-50 yards) so it’s kicking not far behind the prop wash. Clip into straps on the stern and once your troller goes off, unbuckle it and plant your feet at the rail and just turn the handle. Constant pressure will lead the wahoo right to the boat like a dog on a leash. A funny tip that a long range captain once told me is that the best wahoo trolling reel is your old 6/0 senator collecting dust. The sticky drags on unserviced reels set the hook better in the wahoo’s bony mouth.

wahoo bomb fishing jig

When I was first shown how to throw a wahoo bomb, the technique was explained to me as “caveman fishing”. A bomb is essentially a weighted skirt head that sits above a large J-hook. During a nice day on The Ridge, you can see packs of wahoo right on the surface circling the boat. Casting this bomb in front of the pack and burning it back as fast as you can fires up the school and results in one of the most jarring and powerful strikes you’ll ever experience. Don’t be fooled into thinking you can let up now. Wahoo have a tendency to bite the lure right in the middle, and clamp down just in front of the hook. The pressure from you pulling will instinctively keep their mouth shut, but as soon as the pressure releases, they open their mouth and the lure falls out. Bomb fishing is caveman fishing because as long as you’re winding fast, you’re doing it right. As soon as that lure hits the water, you’re cranking full speed, and you better not stop till there’s a ‘hoo on deck. You might experiment will sink rates, like 15 seconds or more if the surface grind does not work. The best outfit for throwing the bomb is a stiff 7.5 or 8 foot rod paired with a PENN Fathom 40 High Speed. This reel in particular is my absolute favorite for bomb fishing as its taller sideplate and higher gear ratio allows for more inches-per-turn than any other reel I’ve used. This increased speed has definitely resulted in more bites.

wahoo caught on live bait in baja

Fishing with a live bait for wahoo is also known as the “finesse” method because you’re able to use light line and play the fish to the boat. I use the same 30lb bait outfit that I do for yellowtail, a Fathom 25N paired with a Calstar 800m. For a leader, I use 16 inches of 40lb wire with a simple 1/0 Mustad live bait or “J” style hooks, haywired to one end and a small solid ring on the other where I connect to my main line. If you plan on using wire frequently, the more expensive nickel-titanium “Knot 2 Kinky” wire is well worth the investment. True to the name, you’ll experience no kinks and the wire is supple enough to tie with regular knots. A flyline tip that I picked up during a scratchy bite is to put a small quarter ounce egg sinker above the wire leader, and simply drop your bait off the stern without casting. This works especially well when the weather is rough and the drift is faster. Wahoo have a tendency to sit right beneath the boat, and I have caught several just feet under the stern by dropping a hot bait straight down and seeing the bite. Pay close attention to your bait and be prepared to feel a *tick* and then nothing. Sometimes wahoo inhale the entire bait, but more likely than not it has sliced your bait in two, and is coming back around to eat the other half. Be patient as a bite is coming. Once hooked, wahoo have a tendency to fly up the rail and take some of the most explosive runs you’ll ever witness. However they begin to wear out after the initial blaze, and keeping a high rod tip and a steady wind will bring them to the boat.

Tuna

yellowfin tuna caught in baja on the american angler sportfishing boat

Yellowfin tuna that are found on The Ridge tend to be of the schooling grade between 15 and 40 pounds. However what they lack in size they make up for in aggression. Swarms of skipjack and yellowfin rush the boat, readily taking artificial lures with the same ferocity as live bait. The surface iron, popper, and slow pitch jig all prove deadly when targeting yellowfin on The Ridge, so have fun and experiment. If you’ve never caught a fish on a skip jig, this is the place to do it. Use a flat-sided surface iron such as a Salas 7x and cast out as far as you can. Put the reel in gear before the jig hits the water and burn it back with a high rod tip. The jig mimics a fleeing baitfish jumping on the surface and the tuna will be flying out of the water trying to eat it. On many trips, the yellowfin are accompanied by skipjack tuna all over The Ridge. The “skippies” are usually regarded as pests, however, a mid-sized skipjack makes for an excellent grouper bait if there’s a heavy outfit ready to go.

As a final note, if you are from out of the area or new to this fishing, check with the landing or the boat regarding rental gear. The quality of these loaner outfits for the long range boats is very good, and might save you from buying a setup you may only use once or twice. Also, make sure to stop by and chat with the guys at the local tackle shop or stay updated with recent long range reports. Staying informed and up to date on the latest lures and techniques is the best mental pre-trip preparation you can do.

This is the first in a series of articles that will go over all things Long Range, covering everything from the basics of getting ready for your first trip to understanding all the differences between the legendary spots you might visit. Whether you are a veteran long ranger or thinking about making the jump from the local fleet, this series will have you covered.

Growing up in Oceanside California, Nathan Winicki found his passion for fishing at a young age through going on open party trips with his dad, a former sport boat captain and veteran long ranger. For the past 14 years, Nathan has experienced everything from overnight trips to 10 day voyages, and ha...
Sick write up! Appreciate the detail of each bait used, techniques, and experiences.
Nice write up! Your info is spot on. Keep the articles coming. :-)
Great reading article. Keep them coming.