Snook Quest – Mazatlán, Mexico

Anyone who has run across Capt. Kit McNear at the multitude of fishing tournaments and Baja excursions he’s run knows the man is a bundle of energy, a whirling dust devil who combines a passion for fishing with a humor both cynical and optimistic – and all the time displaying very little in the way of patience. And the locals love Señor Kit (“Keeet”).

So, imagine Kit pacing along the dock with a nearby panga and skipper ready to catch the afternoon bite – a short window in the late fall – and the bait hasn’t arrived.

“I went up to the hotel to ask where the bait was and they said, ‘It is coming,’” recalls McNear. “Normally it comes in a car, usually in a container in the back seat.

“Finally, I hear the panga skipper say it’s here, and I look over and all I see is a motorcycle.

On the back is a small box with the live shrimp inside. Only in Mexico. The shrimp farms are on the other side of Mazatlán and a motorcycle is the best way to get through the traffic.”

Live shrimp. What fish doesn’t like it? When this story was pitched to Florida-based BD Outdoors editor Capt. Scott Goodwin, he asked what bait or lure was used. When he was told live shrimp, he said, “You can’t beat that!”

There are lots of places you can fish with live shrimp. Not so many close to Southern California, however, and definitely not many that offer incredible fishing for big snook.

Mazatlán has both – and a regular visitor in Kit McNear. It was a long inevitable path that drew McNear to the mainland Mexico coastline.

“I got my first taste of snook when I was a dive instructor in the Dominican Republic in the ’80s,” says McNear. “I knew nothing of snook. I saw them when I was diving.

“The hotel I worked at in La Romana, the Chavon River was on their property. That river was filled with fish despite commercial fishing, just loaded with snook from 5 to 6 pounds with some up to 25 pounds.

“I had permission to go in there and no one else did,” Kit adds. “I caught a lot of them trolling a red and white Heddon River Runt from a little skiff, but it was best at night with live bait.”

Back in California, McNear used his captain’s license to start a fishing charter business. He got his boost into the sportfishing industry through his friendship with Dick Gaumer, a founder of Angler Magazine and, at one time, president of Fenwick Rods. Through Gaumer, Kit got together with Don Iovino, who helped him get his first sponsor – Ranger Boats. Gaumer renamed Angler Magazine to California Angler and the title, along with South Coast Sportfishing, was briefly owned circa 1984 by US Bass.

Bill Ray ended up with California Angler and that’s where Kit landed as the Fishing Schools Director for 2 1/2 years, staging his first trips to Baja’s Hotel Las Arenas.

Kit met Tony Peña at one of the shows and they hit it off. Peña, who had a fulltime civic government job, was hitting his stride as an outdoor writer, landing articles in all the local publications. Kit helped him get placed in California Angler.

“Tony heard about this new operation, Coral Star, in Panama and he and I went to do a story for California Angler,” says McNear. “Where the boat was anchored at the island was a really good spot to catch snook.”

McNear took his Fishing Schools to Western Outdoors where he would run trips and events for 18 years – and continue to chase snook. While billfish and yellowfin tuna are the big draw for many Panama anglers, it was always the snook for Kit.

“Over the course of 18 trips to Panama with friends like Pat McDonell and Danny Jackson, I caught lots and lots of snook fishing with a small sardine-color Yo-Zuri Crystal Minnow,” he says. “You just have to watch out for those nasty saltwater crocodiles.”

Speaking of crocodiles, another California Angler assignment sent McNear to a resort in Australia to fish for a species related to snook – barramundi. Both fish are catadromous – they spawn in saltwater and move into freshwater for forage and shelter.

“During the big rains in Australia, large freshwater lagoons called billabongs form in the rivers and fill up with barramundi and catfish – and saltwater crocodiles,” tells McNear. “The crocodiles will come right out of the water and take you. I was fishing a 400- by 500-foot billabong and the whole time there was a guide up on the bank with a rifle. He told me if he said duck, I better duck. He never needed to use the rifle and the fishing was great.”

McNear’s work often took him to Baja and particularly La Paz, where he attracted regular groups like Marty Burch and Don Southern’s Team Borracho. Now Kit’s work is all in Mexico running tournaments at the Van Wormer’s Palmas de Cortez Resort in the East Cape and for the El Cid Resort in Mazatlán.

La Paz has long been where Kit keeps his boat(s). Early on he found out he was literally sleeping on snook when he stayed aboard in the marina.

“I always have a swimbait and a Krocodile ready on my boat,” he says. “It just so happens that my marina is the oldest and holds more fish. The bait, sardinas, comes into the marina and they stay there and there is always a lot of mullet.

“I’ve caught small snook in the marina at night off my dinghy and landed a few bigger snook up to 19 pounds.

“All the other ones I hooked…all I know is they ripped off line and went under the boats and that was that!”

A famous pangero by the name of Mario holds the unofficial record for the biggest snook taken out of La Paz, McNear notes.

“Mario spearfishes snook for the market – it’s legal for local commercial fishermen – and 15 years ago he showed me a snook he speared at the outer dock that was 57 pounds weighed on the market scale.”

The world record is a 59-pound, 12-ounce black snook caught south of Quepos, Costa Rica by Orlando, Florida snook guide Ward Michaels, who reportedly caught the huge fish trolling six-inch sardines over spawning area outside a river mouth.

Mario knew of a wreck in Bahia de La Paz that held huge snook, and Kit arranged for Tony Peña and friend Linda Niles to go out on Mario’s panga.

“They blanked the first day, the conditions just weren’t right – Mario said he knew the fish were there,” recalls McNear. “The second day they trolled a CD-18 Rapala and hooked and lost several snook in the 15-pound range. All they had for bait was dead mullet. They put that out and Linda Niles caught a snook that weighed 35 pounds. So, the big ones are out there.”

Yet McNear soon found a spot centrally located with everything needed for excellent snook action – Marina El Cid Beach Hotel Mazatlán.

When this writer saw Marina El Cid it was brand new, the first of several El Cid marina developments that include a Yucatan location, and isolated on the edge of the coast adjacent to a new breakwater channel in a largely undeveloped area surrounding a massive estero. Now there are four marina complexes, numerous beachfront resorts, shopping centers and golf courses. Few are as beautiful and as well located as the El Cid Marina Beach Hotel.

Marina El Cid’s Aries Fleet has quick access to a wide stretch of coastline that is studded with submerged wrecks. There are also numerous developed and undeveloped bocas (river mouths).

The sum result is one of the most unheralded inshore fisheries in the world and some fantastic opportunities for big snook.

Up until recently, something was missing from the equation – live shrimp.

“About 8 years ago the fishermen out of Mazatlán started using live shrimp,” says McNear. “It made sense. There are lots of shrimp farms around, why not use it for bait?

“Here’s how I found out about the fishery: five years ago, I was running a Dorado Shootout in November at the El Cid and I heard about the snook.

“I have been friends with Geronimo Cevallos, the Director of Marina Operations, for 25 years,” adds Kit. “He is a graduate of the Maritime Academy of Mazatlán, a legend, and a pioneer.

“Geronimo took me out in his boat and there were lots of boats out there. We drifted between them and I caught 5 snook and 3 or 4 pargo in less than an hour. We could have caught more but we had to get back to the tournament!”

Kit has made it a point to target Mazatlán’s inshore fishing a couple of times a year and especially the fall action.

“Here’s the interesting thing. If two anglers fish half a day, they’ll only need 125 to 150 shrimp for 5 to 6 hours of fishing. It is not hard to keep the shrimp alive, but they do require clean water and a low flow in the bait tank. They can live in a tank with water sloshing in and out. They tried keeping a big container of it in the water at El Cid but you have to feed it, etc. So, they just went to delivery. The Marina places the order for the shrimp for anyone who is fishing inshore.”

Which takes us back to the beginning of this story. After wrapping up the 2019 Van Wormer’s East Cape Tuna Shootout, Kit jumped on a Calafia Airlines jet from La Paz to Mazatlán (there are direct flights out of LAX) and a 30-minute ride from the airport later he was at the Marina El Cid, ordering shrimp. Live, please.

“The first day I fished on a super panga with Ramon, an experienced skipper who knew why I was there,” says McNear. “There are 10 wrecks outside the marina. We fished four hours that morning for 2 snook, a corvina and 21 pargo (you can keep 10).

“We went in for lunch (because I ate all the food on the boat) and fished from 2 to 5 that afternoon,” Kit adds. “We went to some different wrecks. I told Ramon he could fish and we caught 2 pargo, a 27-pound jack crevalle, a permit and we both lost several big fish in the wrecks. He caught a 20-pound cabrilla on a spot he said held big grouper – 20 kilos and up.

“That’s where we lost most of our big fish. It’s a really big wreck and we just didn’t have a chance. One fish was smoking off line and we were going to cut the polypropylene anchor line and chase it. Then it found the wreck.”

While the tackle on the boats is okay, McNear recommends bringing a couple of short, fast action, heavy jigging rods like the Shimano Butterfly or Flat Fall rods. A strong reel that gets line quickly on the spool (the smaller Penn Torques are the local choice) loaded with 50#- to 65# Spectra and topped with five feet of fluorocarbon leader with a dropper loop and 5 ounces of weight completes the setup.

“Anything over 50# fluorocarbon and you won’t get any bites,” notes McNear. “What I have found – and the local skippers don’t agree – is I get more bites with 30- to 40# fluoro.

“If the snook turn their heads and get into the wreck, it doesn’t matter what you have tied on!”

Position and conditions are key.

“Time of day doesn’t seem to matter, the water color varies from off-color to semi-clear – that doesn’t matter, what matters is you have to have current,” Kit says. “As far as position, it’s fishing a structure spot and you just have to be on the structure. The skippers know where the structure is, but sometimes they don’t really want to get right on top of it or miss it using their reef anchors and polypropylene rope.

“This is fishing on the bottom and you have to be right on top of the wreck,” he adds. “I’ve seen this on side scan sonar: The snook are right on top of the wreck, the pargo just off it, while the jacks, corvina and permit kind of move around the wreck.”

McNear had time for a morning trip on his last day.

“On the second day my captain was Jonny Boy, another old, experienced skipper,” says Kit. “We caught 9 snook and lost another 4 or 5 big fish. We had to come in – we were out of shrimp and out of food. I had a delicious lunch. There’s a professional cleaning station right there at the dock. You just need to bring Ziplock bags and most rooms have a kitchenette and you can put your fish in the freezer.”

McNear notes that there is also a great fishery close to the El Cid and Mazatlán for snook chasers who like to chuck lures.

“There are really big snook during the spring near the river mouths, and I have fished that with Geronimo,” says Kit.

The fall fishery is all about the shrimp – and it has to be alive and the bigger the better.

“If the shrimp is dead a snook or corvina won’t eat it, but pargo and just about everything else will,” McNear advises.

“There are two theories on the best way to hook a live shrimp. Either way, you use a 2/0 to 3/0 O’Shaughnessy-style hook,” says Kit. “One is in the head, which is a technique especially popular in Florida. There is a ‘horn’ on the top of the shrimp’s head in front of the brain where you can pin the hook.

“The other method is to pin the shrimp through the tail and that’s the method I like to use in Mazatlán. You hook the shrimp through the tail one time through the last little fleshy area right in front of the tail.

“Some people like to use two shrimp hooked through the tail because it offers a bigger profile, like two squid for seabass,” he adds. “Just remember 150 shrimp gives two anglers up to 4 to 5 hours of fishing when fished one at a time. On the other hand, bottom bandits like triggerfish and small pargo are a nuisance, but usually only take one shrimp at time. Just like seabass fishing, when the big guys see little guys feeding, they often move in and take over.”

Kit points out that hooking through the head is a more natural presentation, particularly in situations such as shallow water fishing in Florida when anglers cast and drag the shrimp back along the bottom.

Yet getting a hook through a shrimp that remains alive is the main goal for the inshore fishery.

“Another reason I like to use the tail is I am more successful at keeping them alive,” he admits. “Shrimp are spiny, and they get more pissed off when you hook them through the head, so it’s easier hooking them through the tail.”

After a live shrimp is effectively booby trapped, snook fishing the wrecks off Mazatlán is just dropping the bait down on the wreck and getting ready to pull like hell.

“The most fun comes from never knowing what you are going to hook up with next!” concludes Kit. “You do all right and land a few nice fish and the next thing you know a fish takes you right into the wreck. Once the skipper kept saying ‘Tanto, tanto!’ which means fool. I thought I was fishing with Mr. T!

“I can’t wait to go back.”