Sailfish were thick at Rancho Leonero last fall, and the notion of taping these leapers in midflight drew me to the East Cape. We caught no sailfish, but our guide hooked a 500-pound blue marlin that fought him deep and to a standstill for three hours and 45 minutes. Determined to get some aerial footage, I returned in April.
Cameraman Dan Walsh, producer for Upfront Communications, accompanied me to The Ranch, where we enjoyed wonderful weather, white beaches, Mexican food served American style and the pleasantly relaxed tropical place and pace expected from owner John Ireland. It's so relaxed that guests here don't lock the doors to their thatched stone, air-conditioned bungalows.
On our first day, we fished aboard the cruiser Vigilante with ranch foreman Gary Barnes-Webb. We trolled two marlin jigs and a teaser.
"I like a hard head on my marlin jigs," said Gary, when I showed him an orange and yellow soft-headed jig. "I think the hard head causes the jig to slip into the fish's mouth, where you can hook him. That might not happen, if that soft head sticks to the rough beak." As it turned out, we had no takers for either kind of jig that day.
The Ranch foreman fought and caught the only striped marlin we saw all day. It was a tailer we found quartering down swell. After inspecting it, the marlin ate a dark-colored bait, maybe a striped grunt or similar reef fish. Instead of running and jumping when it felt the hook, the marlin threshed at the surface during the first minute, and wrapped the line around its beak several times. When the hook came out of its mouth during the fight, the point was drawn up to the jam and stuck in the beak, though not very deeply.
After scrapping with the rangy foreman for 20 minutes on a 40-pound bait rig, the striper got a good release and swam off strongly downward.
"I had him lassoed," said Gary when he saw the fish's wrapped beak at boatside. Less than a minute after putting out jigs, we caught a dorado on a marlin jig. The kitchen staff prepared it for our dinner, grilled with breading and some mild spices.
Next day Dan videotaped Dennis Spike, the kayak fishing expert, and myself having fun flylining inshore from a super panga. Dennis is an experienced light tackle angler, and opened our day by catching three pargo right off. I noted his technique, casting a nose-hooked sardina directly over a rock, and successfully tried fishing with the reel in gear, to get the ready biters away from shelter. We caught them from a pound up to six or eight pounds, so many we quit after releasing most.
The technique that worked best for hooking pargo was to strike quickly. The first nibbles were probably caused by the pargo biting the sardina and swallowing it. If you waited until the pargo got the bait well down, it was likely to bite off the monofilament when the hook was set. A quick hook set meant a better chance of lip-hooking the sharp-toothed pargo. We got several large amarillos, and Spike brought in a barred pargo of several pounds.
If you don't mind tying new hooks, you'll get more bites from toothy critters like pargo and sierra by fishing with monofilament line. If you don't have the knack for hooking them immediately, you can go with a thin steel leader. That will stop the bite-offs, but you probably won't get as many bites. We opted for the action.
That was a great day with our savvy boatman Indio, in 74-degree water. About 9 a.m., we were awed by the sudden appearance of several three-foot yellowtail. They came into the shallows like sharks, cruising where they damn well pleased. We got excited when they started taking our chum in six feet of clear water.
Hoisting his long rod up over his head, Spike hooked one of the yellows. It ripped line, took him around the boat, and then popped his 20-pound mono. That day we caught goldspotted sand bass, yellowtail or Amarillo snapper (pargo), barred pargo, cabrilla, sierra, Mexican bonito, jack crevalle, African or gaff topsail pompano and triggerfish. A dinner that night of pompano, sierra and snapper was sumptuous. Those who preferred it were served barbecued steak.
The yellowtail encounter among boulders strewn on the sandy bottom off the hotel at Punta Colorada, where we caught pargo until we had to say "no mas." Once, a rush of dark fish came through the water and powered right past us. Most of the fish were large, chunky and dark, like some type of cabrilla. A few yellow-tailed snappers were mixed in with them, and most of the fish looked to weigh two to four pounds. They came through without pause, with a gurgling swoosh, pushing water at the surface. It was a miniature of the events described by Ray Cannon, in "The Sea Of Cortez."
Indio motored down to the lighthouse off the famous sand spit that reaches into deep water. Everyone swears a marlin was caught here off the beach once. I switched from live bait to jigs here after the sierra started biting. We caught several for dinner and ceviche, and iced them.
When Indio made a short move, I trolled a two-ounce metal jig, unwinding a reel full of 20-pound mono, to get rid of an over-wrap. When I wound the line back on, there was a fish on the jig. The fish began to peel off my good work on the line. It took most of that line. We chased it, and 10 minutes later, I viewed a nice jack crevalle for my efforts.
"I haven't caught much on this particular lure before," I said to Spike. "But this morning it's been hit by pargo, jacks, sierra, pompano and triggerfish."
"I tell my guys to bring all the jigs that don't work up in California down here," the kayaker affirmed. "They'll bite 'em down here. It doesn't matter what kind they are."
We watched as Indio released the jack, which sped off into the depths just a stone's throw from the sand spit.
Our last move was to a canyon head off the arroyo mouth at the little town Rivera, where most of the guides and resort employees at East Cape live. Dan said it was called "Spike's Fish Market," from their success at the end of the day before. Indio said it was "The Sticks," because when it flooded, all the debris in the long arroyo washed out and settled to the bottom here.
Fishing sardinas on a two-ounce slip sinker, Spike got a couple of pargo on the bottom at about 120 feet. I got Mexican bonito, some pargo and another jack crevalle on the Crippled Herring, which by now had less paint and was showing some spread in its light treble hook. An angler in another panga showed us his yellowtail, and said he got it on a six-ounce iron in brown and yellow. The crevalle came when a school of jacks cruised through the area, making a light green spot in the water. I literally dropped the lure into the visible fish, and it was instantly gnashed. I'll remember it as one of my very best days of inshore fishing.
Jumbo foot-and-a-half-long squid were thick 12 miles offshore, to the northwest. We found the squirts pooling at the surface the next day, under a bright sun aboard the clean, commodious 29-foot Luhrs cruiser Chupacabra, with skipper Mario and mate Martin. We jigged a few big squirts for bait but got no reward for them.
"I wouldn't mind owning this boat," said Dan admiringly. Chupacabra (the name means a comically fearsome monster that sucks the blood of goats, a made-up creature like the jackalope) had been refurbished recently, with new decking and interior. A 1968 model, it actually looked new, and its big single diesel pushed us along at 18 or 20 knots, in wide-hulled comfort.
Two fighting chairs were the sole encumbrances on the after deck. Captain Dan Walsh still maintains his 100-ton license, and at one time skippered Mike Keating's long range Spirit of Adventure, when it was new and a dive boat. Walsh is also a veteran dive instructor, undersea photographer and cameraman-producer of televised motocrosses.
We baited a half dozen jumpers and a feeder to no avail, and trolled all day for a dorado. Twice, free-jumpers put on a wild show within a hundred yards, and we shot their antics with a pair of digital camcorders. There was one marlin boated among the 40 or so boats in our area, though we saw plenty of jumpers, and jumping mantas. At night, we could see the lights of two big commercial boats fishing the same area.
Mild weather allowed our evening meals to be served outside, on brightly colored Mexican blankets for tablecloths. Steak, chicken, fish, shellfish and Mexican dishes were served nightly on the veranda overlooking the beach. Breakfast and lunch were had inside the dining hall, with the same view. Breakfast was cooked to order. "They've got the coldest beers in Baja at this bar," remarked Dan, holding a fresh Pacifico. He liked it in the long-necked bottle, a favorite of mine as well.
On our last morning Dan tried snorkeling. "I followed a little moray eel on his morning rounds," he said happily. "Most other places, they won't let you get that close to them, and they don't swim around much in the daylight. There's lots of tropical fish right in front of the hotel, and they're almost tame."
Dennis Spike had a group of kayakers fishing for snapper and sierra two hundred yards offshore. I could see his instructor Mike, fly casting out by the moorage buoys. Mike had waterproof electronic navigation and fish-finding gear in his kayak. Another kayaker fished with live bait, towing a bucket.
I walked with my wife above the shoreline in an area she hadn't already hiked. I taped cactus wrens, white-winged doves, Scott's and Baltimore orioles and a couple of tropical birds I'd never seen before. Dan got shots of two Iguanas in the rock garden outside his door. In the heat of afternoon we rode in an air-conditioned Ford van through the parched desert brush to the Cabo airport. Two hours later we were in San Diego. It was a climatic shock. The hills were all green. It was near dusk, starting to rain.