This place truly has it all. You can fight blue marlin from a cruiser’s chair, or stand up to a big yellowfin or striped marlin. Fly fish for pargo and roosterfish from the beach, or get close up and personal with the fish from a kayak. Bend your light rod on dorado or sailfish from a skiff. Super pangas with shade can take you flying over the cobalt Cortez after anything from albacora (yellowfin tuna) to yellowtail, and the family is sure to love the white sand beach, the pool, backcountry trails and scenery you can only get at the East Cape.
Perched safely on a low headland, with a good supply of pure underground water, John Ireland’s Rancho Leonero gets the most from cooling sea breezes, with incredible views of jagged mountains and sloping green coastal plains. The late Ray Cannon (author of the famous "Sea of Cortez" Sunset Book) thought this was the best part of Baja, the "Region of Buena Vista," with the best year-round fishing.
Cannon’s discovery was so long before 1982 that some rural folk there were still hand-grinding their corn, but East Cape fishing remains the best Baja can offer, as does the climate. Over the last 20 years, the hotel has become a resort with roomy thatched bungalows, a pool and an impressive exercise gym. It’s more than a fisherman’s place, now. It’s also a family place. If you like it here as much as I do, you’ll be hard tempted to buy a lot in the adjacent planned development. And it’s close, but not too close, to Cabo San Lucas and La Paz.
"Just three hours after you get on the airplane," Ireland is fond of saying, "you can be relaxing in your room near the beach and pool at Rancho Leonero."
Swimming in the sea here is safe, without strong tidal currents or big waves. The water is clear, clean and warm, and there’s no spear fishing allowed on the reefs in front of the hotel, so snorkel and scuba-equipped divers can get right up to the tropical fish living there. Kayaks can be rented, for fishing, sightseeing or just plain old fun. Beach walking is superb for several miles in either direction, and ospreys and pelicans can be seen diving for fish as close as the beach in front of the resort dining room.
Fishing on the beach is good, good as anyplace I’ve ever been. When I fished with kayak guru Dennis Spike from a super panga last April; I took a dozen species on a single Crippled Herring jig on the same day. They varied from a two-pound gold spotted sand bass to 25-pound jack crevalle, including some large sierra and three kinds of snapper. Fishing with live sardinas, we had great success when we cast the baits directly over the many rock piles that dot the shallows.
Offshore fishing begins only a few hundred yards from your bungalow door. There are only a few places in this world where top-quality fishing is so close to the beach. Sailfish, a quartet of marlin species, tuna, yellowtail, snapper, dorado or pompano are here, feeding on bait from pinhead stuff you can barely see up to jumbo squid of five or ten pounds. You may have to run a few miles to get to where the bite is going off. Your choice of fishing from a cruiser or a panga may be determined by factors of speed, comfort and weather. Methods include trolling lures and live baits, jig casting to feeders or fly lining mackerel or sardinas near congregations of gamefish.
Comfort is prime at the Ranch. Your resort stay includes your meals, served three times a day in the dining room or out on the patio overlooking the sea. If you’re fishing in a cruiser or a panga your lunch and iced drinks will go out there with you. The constant seabreeze on the point and air conditioning in the rooms mean that the heat won’t be oppressive. The rooms are large and airy, with bathrooms the size of many hotel bedrooms. You can leave your wallet or purse on the table and the door to your room open, because theft just doesn’t happen here.
"The word is service," John Ireland told me while he was at a fishing show in San Mateo. "That’s what we’re working on hardest right now. The food is good, but we’re making it better.
"I bought a couple of little paddle boats recently. Light line fishing is big here. I added another cruiser, and put all new Yamaha 4-strokes on the super pangas. We’ve got a new booking office, at 1560 N. Highway One in Leucadia. Call us at 760-634-4336 or 800-646-2252. My daughter Genie works in there, with two other people answering phones full-time Monday to Friday, and from 8:30 to 1:30 Saturdays.
"Last year we had two tuna over 200 pounds and 30 or 40 over 100 pounds. Tuna and dorado were consistently available all year. Fishing was good into December. We have some mid-week specials this season, with up to 30% off on the rooms.
"Gary and I lost three 50 wide Internationals on a big, big fish last June. It was a huge black or blue marlin, and I had him to the boat and he just sounded. We put buoys on each of the two first rods. He went straight down. We never saw anything again. The fish was way over 1,000 pounds. He was a big-time freight train; he stayed on top first 40 minutes. It was all Gary’s (foreman Gary Barnes-Webb) equipment."
Gary Barnes-Webb, a former professional hunter from South Africa, is the Ranch foreman. He oversees everything, but his toughest job is seeing that all the boats requested show up on the beach at the proper time each morning. He sees that the right gear is in the boats, from sack lunches to coolers and tackle. If something goes wrong, Gary makes it right. The hunter has become a proficient angler; maybe that’s not surprising when you consider how much marlin and big tuna fishing is like hunting.
"Most of the fishermen come here after marlin," noted Ireland. "We have figures to indicate about a 76% success rate on striped marlin annually. That’s per boat. In fact, we have about a 74% rate on all billfish.
"It peaks at 1.4 fish per trip in March," he added. "You seem surprised. Of course, these numbers would be typical of the whole region. Everybody fishes the same areas. The last two weeks in March is when we have the absolute highest success rate for marlin. Most fishermen know it’s good in summer and fall."
The pangas are 22 to 25 feet long, with shade. The cruisers are 28 and 32-footers made by Luhrs, functional and equipped for tourists who arrive with no tackle. They have heads, and can make 15 to 20 knots when needed.
Ireland opened The Ranch with five rooms in 1985. This year marks the 20th anniversary of his purchase. "It’s been a long haul," he told me. "There weren’t any palm trees at all on this point when I came. I planted them all myself. I just stumbled on this place. I saw it, and it was all over from there on. I knew this is where I belong.
"We have pretty much every blue water species, the widest variety of fish of any destination in the world, maybe, with all the marlin species. We get about one marlin per year over 1,000 pounds. Most of the blues average over 300 pounds. But the inshore fishing is good because it’s calm inside. "This is probably the best rooster fishing anywhere," noted John. "I’d say the average roosterfish was 25 pounds, during the last couple of seasons. The largest was 87 pounds, but it wasn’t uncommon to see 50, 60-pounders. And pargo, cabrilla, a lot of jacks working inside. Snorkeling right in front of the hotel here is awesome.
"The drop-off outside is very abrupt, and that brings the pelagic fish inside, too. The bait changes seasonally, with early bait being green mackerel and sardines, just like up in San Diego. After the water warms we get caballito and Lisa, which is a mullet."
"Of all the fish here, what are the best for eating?" I asked Ireland. "My favorites for eating are dorado, wahoo and pargo, or snapper. Sierra and triggerfish are great for ceviche."
Ceviche is marinated chipped or flaked fish, soaked in limejuice, with tomatoes, onions, salsa and the cook’s choice. The limejuice "cooks" the fish, making it safe to eat. Most people love ceviche, served with tortilla chips and ice-cold Mexican beer like Pacifico, Bohemia or Negra Modelo, going from light to dark. Sierra is generally acknowledged to be the most desirable fish for ceviche.
What if you don’t have fish for ceviche, but you’d like something fresh for dinner? Just give your fish to the cook, and it will be served piping hot for your dinner, cooked American of Mexican style, your choice. It doesn’t come any fresher, or any better, than the fish you caught that day.