Tough-to-get-to Magdalena Bay is a remote, immense, prolific ecosystem extending 132 miles north and south on the West Coast of Baja. Miles and miles of mangrove-lined esteros fuel the imagination. Mag Bay has produced more than its fair share of stories, myths, and legends over the years.
Stories of huge snook, pargo and grouper have drawn an adventuresome band of Baja fishermen in search of the big bite. Like dorado to a shark buoy, the list of those attracted to the Bay reads like the Who’s Who of Baja Legends: Ray Cannon, Ed Tabor, Tom Miller, Fred Hoctor, Gene Kira and Neal Kelly are just a few that come to mind.
Baja adventures are nothing new and I have had my share, dating back to 1969 when I jumped on Ed Tabor’s DC-3 with my eight-year-old son Greg and headed to Loreto’s Flying Sportsman’s Lodge. Since then, there have been too many to count. I suppose one of the most memorable was with Tom Miller of Baja Book fame.
In the mid-70s, we spent a week exploring the deserted beaches from the border to Guerrero Negro. The fishing was fantastic. We caught 15 species including 30-pound white seabass, all on artificials. That was an extraordinary adventure and I cherish its memory; I thought it could never be exceeded.
One of the things that makes Baja special to me is that every time I think I have seen it all, I discover a new location, technique or species that rekindles my excitement.
That is exactly what happened nearly six years ago. Two Baja on the Fly clients, Jamie Pierre and his buddy Jim Lasardi drove down from the Seattle area and met me and BOF Guide Josh Dickinson at Lopez Mateos.
Josh and I had an easy, uneventful five-hour drive up from my home at East Cape on the well-maintained Mex 1. While we were unloading our gear into the comfortable American-style house provided by Bob and Diana Hoyt of Oceanside, Calif., Jamie and Jim came rolling in with tales of their first journey from the border to Lopez Mateos. Their tricked-out Jeep was crammed full of fishing gear, ice chests, and more, with barely enough room for the two passengers. While they unloaded, Josh fired up the blender and served a round of margaritas, officially beginning the trip.
Later that afternoon, Bob and Diana—operators of Mag Bay Outfitters, an operation at Lopez Mateos offering a variety of services which included island tours and day fishing trips to both the esteros and offshore—arrived to welcome everyone and brief us on the next day’s trip. They had arranged our trip to Magdalena Island. We would be using Jamie’s Jeep and their Suzuki Sidekick. A ferry used by the locals to send a truck to the island to service the fish camps would transport vehicles, gear and people across the mile-wide channel at high tide the following morning.
Anticipation was high and alarms were not needed the next morning; everyone was up and ready to go.
Both vehicles arrived early and loaded quickly onto the rustic but serviceable outboard-powered ferry and we were on our way. Mexicans are amazing; their ability to take a piece of equipment and retrofit it to serve their purpose is uncanny. The Captain of the rig had to steer the vessel by crouching and peering under the vehicles. It seemed to work fine, as we didn’t collide with anything and 30 minutes later we drove both rigs onto the Island.
We soon headed across the island following a well-worn path of tire tracks toward the northwest. We found ourselves on a flat, sandy beach extending as far as the eye could see in both directions. Turning to the left, traveling on the damp, hard-packed sand it became our beach, not shared with anyone.
We headed toward Cabo San Lazaro with a sense of exhilaration that has to be experienced to be understood. With the surf rolling in, sea birds of every description flitted about as we sped along. The scene had us all believing we were Spanish Conquistadors exploring our Baja Beach for the first time.
The sand turned to rocks and the coastline seemed reminiscent of La Jolla half a century ago. There were tide pools teeming with life and sea lions barking a warning if any of us came too close to their rocks where they sunned themselves. Standing on a high rock and looking down into the water, large, dark shapes could be spotted lurking just below the surface on the back side of the swells.
On closer examination, one could see the distinguishing characteristics of jack crevalle, pargo, white seabass and snook. All of us made a beeline back to the vehicles to grab our favorite rods.
Some with flyrods, others with spinning tackle, we fanned out to different perches, casting toward the shapes. It didn’t take long before cries of “fish-on” and “hook up” could be heard over the roaring surf. For several hours, everyone’s rods were bent more often than they were straight.
The gang had landed jacks, snapper and pargo when everyone decided that it was time for a late lunch at one of the fish camps – all-you-can-eat lobster, refried beans and tortillas washed down with plenty of cerveza.
At one point, after embarrassing myself with how many lobsters I had consumed, I went out to check on my dog, Coci. The cook’s husband followed me out and asked what I was doing. When I explained that I was making sure that Coci had plenty of water, he offered to bring him some lobster, too!
Back to the beach, full as ticks, we raced to meet the ferry at the appointed time. As we waited to be picked up, we all agreed that Baja had once again delivered a memorable day that we all would remember for the rest of our lives.
Several years later, I decided to do an instant replay of that trip with my friend, San Diegan David Lewis, who has been traveling with me occasionally since 1973 when Mex 1 officially opened.
After an uneventful two-day drive from San Diego, we arrived in Lopez Mateos late one afternoon. Lance Peterson, Baja on the Fly guide living at East Cape, had driven up to join us for the trip. Bob and Diana Hoyt confirmed the ferry was still in operation and had even been retrofitted with a console so the Captain could operate the rig from the deck.
The next morning we met the ferry on our ATVs rented from Mag Bay Outfitters. The three rigs were quickly loaded and soon we were driving them onto the island. With a wave to our Captain we headed out the dirt trail paved with sheets of cardboard toward the beach.
Once again, we experienced the exhilaration of a deserted Baja beach on an almost deserted Baja island occupied by a few fish camps, a handful of cabins now rented by Mag Bay Outfitters, and a lonely lighthouse.
There was little aside from a few deserted, rusted vehicles that seemed to have been abandoned wherever they had gotten stuck or quit running altogether. The few shipwrecks were still there sporting a few more layers of rust.
The fishing spots we had fished were just as productive as before and the three of us fished the incoming tide for several hours. Pargo in shallow water that barely covered their backs were easy targets. Farther out, grouper, corvina and jacks lurked, eager for whatever artificials we threw, from swim baits to poppers.
Next, we headed out to the rookery where the sea lions still barked their warnings to us. The only difference on the second trip was that the fish camp had been thrashed and deserted from a recent Chubasco. So we missed out on the lobster lunch.
I left a pair of flip flops on the island in memory of my friend and fishing partner, Tom Miller, and we returned and settled for hot dogs at the local stand that evening.
As we feasted on our hot dogs, I explained to my companions that I had written a feature on Tom Miller, Baja legend and author of The Baja Book, first published in 1974. Tom had introduced me to the Baja beaches in the mid-70s and his book became my Baja bible, providing the most up-to-date information at the time about Baja and its beaches. This book, and others he wrote, inspired me to a lifetime of fishing Baja.
One night, Tom said he had something to show me, and out of his backpack he fished a red patch which was emblazoned with “THE DEATH VALLEY SURF FISHING CLUB.”
“This is my new fishing club,” he smugly said, “What do you think?”
I had long forgotten about Tom’s club until I received an email from his daughter, Diana Miller Johnson, long after his death:
“You have no idea how wonderful it was to read your 2007 article, ‘Sentimental Journey’ about one of your fishing trips with my dad, Tom Miller. I found a PDF of it while searching the Internet. What a great surprise! THANK YOU. I loved your last paragraph. ‘Was it my imagination, or could I still hear Tom whooping and hollering, an occasional ‘hookup!’ piercing the air? No, it was probably just the sound of the roaring surf …
“I remember Dad speaking of you. May I ask a favor? On your trips to Baja would you occasionally take a pair of cheap rubber flip flops of the kind Dad lived in, and leave them high up on a Baja beach. Draw a circle in the sand around them as he usually did.
His idea was that someone who frequents that beach and perhaps fishes there would find them and put a few miles on them. And perhaps in that way take him on another Baja adventure along with them. It is something I used to do but I’m landlocked now in Arizona. I don’t get to the beach anymore.”
Diana’s request is honored. Often! I carry the flip flops on board and a pair is deposited on many of the beaches I visit. However, in this Internet era, I couldn’t resist attaching a sticker to them with my email address … kind of a Tom Miller-Baja version of a “note in a bottle.”
Magdalena Bay is still remote. The beaches are still uncrowded and they still fuel my imagination. The fishing is still prolific and exciting. And it was as memorable on this trip as it had been in the past. Will it still be in five years is the question. Quién Sabe?