By Chris Holmes
Tall peaks filtered the sunrise above the rocky shoreline, the sea glass calm and clear as springwater as two pangas, laden with kayaks and fishermen, landed on a white sand beach on Isla del Carmen in the Sea of Cortez.
The small cove is carved into the mountainous desert island, and provided a sheltered area to work out the kinks for a five-day kayak adventure in Baja, Mexico. As the anglers unloaded their kayaks and gear, Captain Francisco grabbed a handful of live sardines from the well and tossed them high in the air. With the dexterity of major league outfielders, bantam-sized roosterfish caught the hapless bait as soon as they hit the water. Colorful combs slashed the water as the sardines swam for their lives. No such luck. With water clarity approaching 50 feet, there was nowhere to hide, and the baits were summarily devoured.
The sight was too much for Morgan Promnitz. Though no stranger to landing roosters, he couldn't wait to get in on the marauding action taking place a mere 30 yards from where he stood. He tossed a small red and white Roberts Ranger, dancing it across the surface with a pack of roosters in hot pursuit. After a few heart-pumping misses, he finally connected with a small rooster. The stage was set for what was to come.
Located on the Sea of Cortez in Baja California Sur, Loreto Marine Park is composed of seven mountainous desert islands surrounded by waters teeming with marine life. These waters offer Baja kayakers an astounding array of gamefish, from giant snapper to roosterfish to dorado, and even striped and black marlin. The park is off-limits to all major commercial fishing, but sport fishing and native, small-scale commercial fishing is allowed. Fishing in the park requires purchase of an inexpensive daily permit that helps keep the area pristine, with healthy populations of marine life. Over the five-day adventure, the pangas took our group from one end of the park to the other. No matter the wind direction or sea conditions, they allowed us the flexibility to fish sheltered waters, protected by the islands.
Day one was planned as a shake-out day to work out the logistics of fitting the kayaks and gear into the pangas, but it turned into a solid day of fishing. The group fished the cove at Carmen until the roosters quit playing and the triggerfish became a live-bait killing nuisance.
Rob Sherman was the first to connect with some serious meat. Tired of the triggers, Rob trolled toward deeper water. As he approached the cove's opening to the sea, a bull dorado engulfed his live sardine and immediately went into full airshow mode. Word quickly spread to the group that Rob was hooked up, and photographer Jeffrey Fortuna raced into position to record the battle on camera. As Rob got the best of the fish, Jeffrey was in the water, clicking away as the fish circled the kayak. Twenty-seven pounds on the Boga, the largest of the trip.
Dorado--it's what's for dinner.
The group maintained contact via VHF as each member ventured off to do his own thing. For Doug Olander, the primary allure of kayak fishing is solitude. If the group went one way, he usually headed the other. Finding, hooking and landing fish completely on his own is a major part of the rush. Doug prefers the simplicity of artificial lures, working the rocky shoreline with a jig.
In short order, he had a monster slam that tried to rip the rod from his hands. Cabrilla? Pargo? We'll never know as the big bite came unbuttoned. Day 1 saw several dorados and a variety of small bottom fish.
The pangas returned to the beach at the Oasis Hotel and the kayaks were rolled to their parking spots on the porch outside the sea-view rooms. After a little cleaning, gear reorganizing and story telling, the anglers retired for a short siesta before dinner. The scene was to be repeated for several more days.
At dinner, a beautifully presented platter of Rob's grilled dorado was accompanied by a variety of sauces and traditional Mexican fare. None would go to waste.
A new area was on tap for Day 2. The loaded pangas again made the short run to a nearby marina to purchase live bait, where vendors milled about throwing cast nets for sardines and the larger caballito. Big baits equal big fish, right? We'd see. The short trip north took the group to a pass between Carmen and the Isla Coronado. The kayaks were launched and the hunt began again. I was the first to hook up with a big jack crevalle. Not a Mexican glamour fish by any means, but certainly a good fight from the kayak.
As the group fanned out over the open water, the boys caught and released a few dorado, but the action was not hot and heavy. A sea lion colony roared in the distance. Isla Coronado was full of life, both onshore and off--not all of it welcome. Depths less than 30 feet saw bait-destroying triggerfish again ascending from the seafloor to take a couple of chunks with their razor sharp chompers. Doug went into solitary mode again, in search of bottom structure to work with a jig. He was rewarded with a chunky cabrilla.
The group opted to head back to Coronado for Day 3. It proved a wise decision. The seas were flat and the dorado again came out to play. Then it happened. "Marlin, Marlin," came over the radio as Francisco yelled for the attention of the kayak anglers. Off in the distance, a striped marlin free-danced across the glass surface for what seemed like a 5-minute show. Almost in unison, the kayak armada turned and high-tailed north in the direction of the last known sighting. Could it happen? Certainly. All of a sudden, Rob's caballito was airborne, lodged in the jaw of an angry striped marlin. The show was impressive. The big fish leapt and danced, covering distances that seemed impossible. As Rob's fish settled in for the rest of the battle, other marlin were seen free-jumping in the same area. Fortuna quickly pedaled over to take a risky swim with the marlin, emerging as usual with great images.
Heads on a swivel, the kayakers scanned every direction. Francisco came through again with another marlin sighting near the panga. Gary Graham was far away, but still the closest to the sighting. Graham put his 75-year-old legs into high gear and closed the distance like a Tour de France cyclist. He intersected the marlin and the group was in for another impressive show.
Graham is no stranger to catching billfish. He has hundreds to his credit, but none from a kayak. He managed the fish in short order and had it to leader as Fortuna closed in for photographs. Mention catching a marlin from a kayak and many anglers see it as an effort in futility. Graham now knows otherwise. "It's the easiest way I have ever caught a marlin," he said.
The marlin were on a flat--a 200-foot-deep plateau surrounded by deep water that surpassed the Lowrance depthfinders' 1,500-foot maximum range. The marlin apparently liked the area above the underwater peak. When not free-jumping, we spotted several nosing along with bills and foreheads on top of the water.
Morgan was the next to connect. It was exciting, but short lived. The fish exploded and tail-walked, burning line off the reel, but quickly came unhooked. The Hobie fishing products manager was heartbroken. A few more surface fish were intersected, but refused to eat the baits pulled past their noses.
But the party wasn't over yet. Doug soon hooked up with something substantial, but when no aerial show was forthcoming, we assumed it wasn't another billfish. The beast that eventually emerged from the depths proved to be a large hammerhead shark. That didn't deter Jeffrey, who promptly slipped into the sea with the toothy critter for some astounding underwater photos.
We didn't hook any other marlin, but three hookups out of a group of five kayak anglers is an epic day in anyone's book. There was no doubt where we'd fish the next day.
Again, we started with some tasty dorado destined for dinner, but everyone had marlin on their minds. One free-jumper was seen in the distance, but despite similar conditions to the day before, it appeared they had all but left the area. The search expanded, and as Morgan got a bit closer to the shore, he sent another billfish high into the sky. No marlin this time, but a feisty sailfish that put on an airshow worthy of the Blue Angels. Fortuna pedaled into a shotgun position behind Morgan, shadowing him as he documented the entire fight, including the extraordinary photograph that graces the cover of this magazine. Several jumps came within mere feet of the kayak--as exciting as they were scary. The circle hook was firmly embedded this time, and Promnitz finally grabbed the sail's bill. A few quick hero poses, some underwater shots, and then Morgan pedaled with the sailfish alongside the Revo until it was fully revived for release.
Day 4 saw a change in conditions and the need to hit more sheltered areas. Francisco got word of a hot yellowtail bite on the backside of Coronado. It was easy to find. Every boat in Loreto was taking advantage of the calm seas and it looked like a panga parking lot. Francisco idled to the outer edge of the group and the kayaks were launched and quietly worked their way into the mix. As usual, the stares and chatter revolved around the crazy kayakers fishing so far from shore. The yellowtail were there, but they were deep. A jig or live sardine sent to the bottom was guaranteed to get a hit. Just one problem: The bottom was 400 feet below. Yellowtail are great fighters, and a 400-foot vertical battle can quickly go from fun to work. A few 25-pounders was about all the "fun" our spoiled group could handle.
A change of scenery was in order for the final day. With several species already conquered, the group opted to head south to Isla Montserrat. The 20-mile run was long, but picturesque. The targeted species: big roosterfish, pargo and anything else we hadn't managed to catch in previous days. The seas were a little rough, but manageable. Francisco advised that the big gallos (Spanish for rooster) preferred to hang in at least 25 feet of water. As usual, the triggers were on patrol and killed baits as fast as they were sent down. Caballitos were scarce among the bait boats that morning; feeding them to triggerfish didn't seem the best use when there might be bigger game.
Morgan moved out a little deeper, trolling a big caballito on a circle hook attached to a Gerry Rig livebait clip. The small spring steel clips use a tiny rubber band to attach the clip to the hook. The thin, lightweight clips make bridling bait a snap, and do very little damage to the bait. The clips keep bait alive much longer than impaling them directly to the hook.
The strategy paid off when Morgan connected with a good rooster. After a brutal battle, the rooster was ready for its cameo. Jeffrey was there to oblige, and another classic Baja species was checked off the list. Having just finished up with his rooster, Morgan was on the board again with a feisty barred pargo. Roosters aren't good on the table, but the pargo was destined for the final night's meal.
The other anglers saw their fair share of action, but Rob was destined to cap off his status as king of the trip. With the largest dorado and a striped marlin amongst his take for the week, he finished the final day with a beast of a roosterfish. From a distance, I could see the impressive speed as the rooster towed Rob away from shore. There was no doubt he was attached to something big. After an extended fight, Rob was as exhausted as the rooster as he clamped the Boga onto its jaw.
Loreto is legendary for its dorado fishing, but according to locals, the lack of sargassum weed in recent years has lessened the dorado population, or at least has made the fish more difficult to locate. They believe that the water temperature now remains too high to cultivate sargassum. That being said, our group found its fair share of fish, and certainly made up any deficiency with several other species.
Gumbo is often cited as an example of the melting-pot nature of Louisiana cooking. One of its virtues is that it's very forgiving. Measurements do not have to be exact, ingredients may be changed to use what's on hand. Loreto kayak fishing proved the same, adapting to changing conditions. The end result was a kayak fishing adventure second to none.
The best time to fish for billfish and dorado is generally June through September. Although those months are not considered best for yellowtail or roosterfish, we had decent success with both species in late June/early July.
Kayak logistics are more complicated. We shipped our kayaks to Mexico, as there is no real kayak package operation in the immediate area. There is a retail store, Sea Kayak Baja Mexico, in Loreto that rents sit-on-top kayaks for about $55 a day including PFD, paddle, dry bag and Marine Park permit. The Hotel Oasis can assist in arranging panga captains, but there is no experienced, dedicated one-stop shopping to arrange a successful kayak trip. We brought all our own fishing gear.
Rick Hill joined our group for the final day of fishing. Rick is an American expat who works with a tour company in Loreto and has lots of connections. He said that he would be happy to assist with arranging kayak fishing trips similar to ours, and has access to the pangas and a variety of sit-on-top kayaks. Hill can be reached directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or toursloreto.com.
The Oasis Hotel room rate was about $110 per night for two people (bottom floor, open view). Our group also purchased a meal package that included breakfast, lunch and dinner for $35 per day--no alcohol included. Comfortable, clean and great food. Lunches were made in the morning so we could take them fishing with us.