Baja spring gives birth to great fishing creating the perfect gift for a river guide’s 60th birthday bash.
For months the wind blew down the length of the Gulf of California. Nothing new, except that for the first time in years the gusts kept up well into the spring and through April, blocking the entrance of the warm water pelagics that make the Sea of Cortez a famous fishing destination.
There are basically three seasons down here on the East Cape – the hot hurricane season, the windy winter season and those epic windows in between when the waters and conditions are pleasantly perfect for both fish and fisherman.
Some friendships made fishing span the globe, or at least the West Coast. I have known Phil Desautels since he was fresh out of Humboldt State and the “Flea” fishing with Gary “Big Dog” Lindstrom’s Smith River Outfitters. Since then we have wet a line together from Alaska to the Hurricane Bank and many parts in between. Baja is a favorite.
When Phil looked to book his 60th birthday celebration down in the East Cape, he knew from experience that the new moon in May would be a good choice. Friends from Alaska, the Northwest, Costa Rica and Fiji started showing up in Los Barriles the last week of April.
The party kicked off May Day at Tio Pablo’s with a Mexican buffet and mariachis, although it really had been in full gear with fishing and activities such as a cooking class on a ranch outside San Bartolo on Phil’s actual birthday and Cocktails in the Dust at Ron and Lynda Tracewell’s little rancho outside of town. That night the palapa bar in front of host hotel Martin Verdugo’s Beach Resort was down to a low rage, what with the first day of a two-day fishing tournament slated to start the next morning.
Tuna had been found under the porpoise offshore the previous couple days – the first of the season – and what was supposed to be a shotgun start turned into the more traditional start mode: whoever has the coolers, bait and team aboard first hauls ass for the fish.
Martin Verdugo’s and Palmas de Cortez down the beach only recently started putting their fleet in the water so to accommodate the 28 anglers in our group, a couple of Van Wormer resort cruisers joined the host boats. Good friend Patrick Bird from Los Angeles, Tony Lopez and Cynthia Speziale of Kasilof, Alaska and I were on one of those.
The mate asked if we wanted to fish the tuna on the porpoise or head up to “the island,” Cerralvo, where the south ended was loaded with bonito, black skipjack, some 50-pound class yellowfin and wahoo. “The captain thinks we should go to the island and get sardinas there,” said Jose.
I said okay, which made the decision as much mine as the man at the wheel. A big tuna or wahoo would cinch the tournament.
We definitely weren’t alone, with much of the La Paz fleet at the island. As we pulled up alongside a bait panga and loaded up on beautiful sardinas for 20 US dollars, another panga zipped by chasing a fish that had the fly rod of the old guy in the bow completely arched from handle to tip. A couple dozen cruisers and pangas surround the high spot and everyone was bit.
Our first sardinas got ripped into hard, putting a surprised look on the faces of the Alaskans, even though they have caught plenty of halibut and salmon. Sashimi grade bonito and huge black skipjack hunted down every bait. The biggest mistake of the day was letting Patrick’s monster skipjack go. Though not good eating, it might have weighed 30-pounds. Black skipjack are pure butt kickers.
But no tuna or wahoo showed, although at least one bait was bit off. Hard to say what it was, that high spot was seriously alive. With all the bonito we wanted, it was time to try for something else. We put out Bomber, X-Rap and Nomad wahoo lures and started trolling the perimeter of the high spot and circling huge schools of bait.
Nothing. Across to Punta Perico and that steep shelf there. Nothing. All the way down the alternating cliffs and beach, trolling along sargasso and close to shark buoys. Nothing.
The memories of the fun morning bite faded, and then were shattered by the sight of two of our boats at the Martin Verdugo’s dock, outriggers choked with white and blue tuna flags, one sporting a striped marlin flag and a red and white release flag at the fore. Greg and Marisol George, who operate the resort (Marisol is one of Martin’s daughters) were busy helping the passengers offload their gear and tuna.
The only species rule Desautels set in the tournament was instant disqualification for any boat that killed a marlin. Anything else counted. Jack crevalle for instance. Or black skipjack. When “Whitewater” Don Irwin (a retired Alaska halibut charter captain who was rooming with John Jelly of Kona right next to us on the third floor), weighed a 28.4-pound yellowfin to take the tournament lead, I had to apologize to Patrick for letting his giant skipjack go. You never know until it is on the scale.
The next day was an off day for the tournament, so the palapa bar was at full roar late into the night. Hardcore anglers with a fishing clock burned into their souls, many were up for the perfect dawn anyway. The event of the day was a beach BBQ at Lazy Daze Beach Bar hosted by owner Rexie, Pink’s mother-in-law. Cornhole, a one-man band, the chicken shit betting game, burgers and hot dogs, shade and cold beverages kept everyone happy.
Would the second day’s fishing do the same?
The day started off with new fishing partners – birthday boy Phil and his friend from way back to SoCal school days Mike Clifford. Clifford owns a bar in Costa Rica. There was another pleasant surprise from Greg and Marisol, as they arranged for Capitan Alfredo Lucero and his brother Bocha to welcome us aboard the Deborah Lee.
Not that it was much more than a nod, handshake and a mucho gusto, but that’s effusive behavior from these serious local fishermen. They had worked late the day before to finish paint work on the La Paz-built cruiser.
I heard about Alfredo from Alex Rentziperis, a longtime customer of (and visiting barber for) Martin Verdugo’s Beach Resort. Although Alex is one of the funniest guys I know, he says he has to work all day to get Alfredo to crack a smile. The only way to get Bochu to smile is have the right hook or right lure, and a well rigged rod and reel (if you bring your own, though Martin Verdugo’s boats are fully stocked).
Bochu liked our selection of cedar plugs and as his brother pointed the cruiser offshore as he started rigging the trollers up along with ballyhoo and marlin casting setups. It wasn’t long before Alfredo throttled back and a sleeper marlin appeared off starboard. A rev of the motor awoke the billfish but it had no interest in the caballito.
Back to running and about 20 miles out, the splash of jumping mammals broke the smooth surface of the sea. The excitement didn’t last long as the commotion was caused by common dolphin, which don’t usually hold fish in these waters. More running and a total of 40 miles of Cortez water slipped under the hull. The boat slowed and Phil said, “We’re going to put out the marlin lures and look around. I don’t want to fish marlin, do you?”
“No, but things can turn around in a second,” I said, looking at my watch at the same time and surprised to see it was already 10:20. “These guys are good fishermen.”
You just have to believe. It wasn’t long before Bochu climbed down off the bridge.
“I see something jumping far way, I think it’s porpoise; we’ll go see,” he said. “Put the cedar plugs back on.”
It was a good 10 minute run, but there they were: the right kind of porpoise and they were milling and feeding, spinning and jumping, probably a mix of spinner and pan-tropical spotted dolphin. There were lots of them all around.
The starboard corner rod got slammed. Phil took the skunk off the boat with a 15-pound yellowfin. The next strike was a quadruple hookup, with dozens of tuna seen chasing the last tuna hooked right up to the boat.
This was going to be good.
As long as we could keep up with the porpoise — they were booking northeast up the Gulf. Two more of our boats were in the area and in on the action. We all set out in chase and soon all three boats were hooked up. With a dozen tuna in the fish hold, including several over 20-pounds, I looked at my watch.
“Look Phil, it’s 11:25,” I said. “No way! You mean it’s only been an hour?”
As the porpoise scattered, the technique changed. Phil and I broke out our hoochies, his, the traditional plastic squid style and mine, the King Buster stranded skirt version. These are best fished on 25- to 30# setups, with a short leader of 40- to 80# fluorocarbon threaded through the lure and straight tied to a straight shank or circle hook. The bottom of the hook bend should be just above the end of the skirt.
Even though the King Buster has a small bullet-shaped metal head, it is really the drag of the water that pulls the lures just beneath the surface and the lighter line helps with that. The lures are placed deep off each side and down the center.
The best part is you get to hold the rod and produce the bite-enticing action by sweeping the tip of the rod back, several feet towards the bow. The trick is not to throw slack in the line as you let the rod tip and lure slide back, allowing the surface tension to keep the lure swimming.
The hit is solid and you feel the complete take. Even see it much of the time, since the hoochie is running shallow behind the wake and the predator is lit up. Better, the tuna often blow up on the bait. Besides tuna, I’ve hooked wahoo and marlin on the three-inch lures. Patrick, Mike, Phil and I all rounded out our limits (5 each) with this method. The other boats did as well, and one got their striped marlin sighting to turn into a catch and release.
Alfredo told us we were 58 1/2 miles from home. The water, stirred only by a cool breeze all day, stayed calm as the Deborah Lee sped back to Los Barriles. Mike Clifford had the biggest of our tuna and fell just a few tenths of a pound short of third place with a 24.4-pound yellowfin.
That night the awards dinner was held at the Hotel Los Pescadores and its mellow garden vibe and lobby sports bar. Just before the Monster Band from Ensenada (they drove down for the party) played their unique rock act, Phil announced the tournament winners. Whitewater Don Irwin was first with a 28.5-pound yellowfin, second went to Ed Vondahn for his 25.5-pound tuna and Keith Madden third with a 24.9 pounder. The first two won $540 (the price of the base fishing package at Martin Verdugo’s) and Keith got what was left of the $50 entry fees.
Most everyone stayed in Baja a couple more days considering it was cheaper to spend two more nights in paradise than fork out for a Sunday return airfare. Los Barriles has a bunch of great little restaurants where meals are never more than $10 American each (with a soft beverage) and made up of seafood and meats in many different Mexican styles. A favorite is your own catch grilled or sliced thin and raw.
Patrick and I spent most our time fishing off the long white sand crescent that rings Bahia de las Palmas, both in front of the resorts or the many sand coves and reefs strung for miles along the massive bay, hunting along the beach in quads for baitballs and attacking rooster fish. We had follows, short bites and great opportunities that were simply ignored. We cooled off under the palapa at the Palmas de Cortez bar with Clancy and Keith Madden, listening to tales of Clancy’s island home in Fiji. Clancy and Keith both worked the North Slope during the oil boom, as did many attending the party.
When not casting, we had a front row seat on the balcony in front of our room or from the bar for the shoreline action. Roosters and jack crevalle were taken right in front of Martin Verdugo’s, often from the pier. A persistent young fly fisher went straight from a day casting his white Clouser from a panga to tossing the same fly off the beach. About 100 casts later he hooked, photographed and released a 10-pound rooster.
Klamath River guide Wally Johnson and Dee Labbe of Seiad, California got their first roosterfish while fishing live bait from a panga that took them to La Ribera near the southern end of the Bay. Brett Gesh hired a solo panga to try and get his rooster on the fly. He had his chances and did manage his first pez gallo with a bait. Others went four wheeling up the arroyos towards waterfalls and San Bartolo ice cream, or bar and pool hopping down the beach to legendary spots like Rancho Buena Vista, Buenavista Beach Resort and Rancho Leonero.
At midnight Monday night, Phil told Martin Verdugo’s bartender Eduardo it was time to shut the bar down. His birthday celebrating was not done, just moving north. Within days he was posting photos of Clancy’s waterfront property on Alaska’s Skilak Lake and the birthday presents he got from local friends. He’s a young 60.
Martin Verdugo’s Beach Resort
Martin Verdugo’s Beach Resort is a hardcore Baja fisherman’s resort, old school right down to the prices. The deal offered to our party was standard — $540 per person, minimum double occupancy, for 5 days and 4 nights, including two days fishing on a cruiser with 4 anglers with free complete hot breakfast and boat lunch (chicken and beef burritos or fried chicken). Extra nights as low as $89. Some kitchenettes, refrigerators on request, three beds with firm mattresses in most rooms, air conditioning, shaded balcony and patios, saltwater pool, palapa bar, incredible Sea of Cortez beachfront. RV spaces also available.
There are many excellent restaurants, taco stands and street food vendors in Los Barriles. Smokey’s handled all the fish processing for the group and was also a popular eating choice.
El Pirata produced one of the best meals of the trip – fire grilled fresh caught yellowfin tuna and Imperial prawns (cheese stuffed, wrapped in bacon and put on the grill) with all the taco fixings. Shuttle service from the airport is available and often augmented with a quad from one of the many suppliers in town. A rental car is also an affordable option due to the competition at the international airport in San Jose.