The natural surroundings at Rancho Leonero, located in the heart of the East Cape, provide a spectacular setting - desert, mountains and the sparkling sea.
John Ireland and the staff at Rancho Leonero add another dimension to the equation set up by mother nature - world class accommodations. I had the privilege of covering the 1st Annual East Cape Open sponsored by Pacific Fisherman and Rancho Leonero last year. It was my first opportunity to experience and enjoy the panorama and hospitality to be found at Rancho Leonero. I was impressed enough with the hotel and fishing to book a second trip in September of last year.
Few places I have visited have impressed me as much, so it was with great anticipation that I prepared to attend the 2nd Annual East Cape Open. Experienced anglers and novices alike can all benefit by the deals offered during the series of tournaments held several times a year at Rancho Leonero. A word to the wise - if you are contemplating such a trip, reward yourself by making reservations well in advance. Tournaments for 1994 are filling rapidly, with only a few slots open in November.
Alaska Airlines has direct flights daily from San Diego and Los Angeles to San Jose Del Cabo. Fares are reasonable when arranged in advance. Round-trip coach last month was approximately $235 and change which included airport taxes and exit visa fees.
When you arrive at the airport, in a matter of minutes you can claim baggage and fishing tackle, hire a government licensed van and be on the road to relaxation. Transportation to the hotel will set you back about $80 one-way, but vans can accommodate up to six comfortably and splitting the fare takes the sting out of it. Be sure to instruct your designated driver to make a pit stop at the closest cerveceria to take on adequate refreshment for the drive from the airport to the hotel.
No matter how many times I travel the highway connecting San Jose Del Cabo with the East Cape, I am stunned by the stark beauty and tranquility. About twenty minutes into the drive, I can feel myself slipping into that state of mind best described as "laid back". It's difficult to fully relax though, knowing you are so close to the fishing! Think about it, in less than three hours you can be sitting on the patio at Rancho Leonero, enjoying the late afternoon breezes.
Rancho Leonero is northeast of the airport as the crow flies, and it takes about 45 minutes to 1 hour to make the drive. For those of you familiar with this stretch of Baja known as the East Cape, you know that the hotel is located close to the small village of La Ribera. The terrain surrounding the hotel is nothing short of spectacular. The scenery alone is worth the effort to get there.
Returning to the hotel after six months I was astonished to find some dramatic changes - two spanking new cabanas, consisting of four spacious double guest rooms with queen sized beds, air conditioning and large patios. When I left last year, John Ireland mentioned that he was planning new accommodations, but I was surprised to find them completed and other renovations well under way. New terraces and new patios along with landscaping were in place. The new tile driveway and terraces were well planned and certainly enhance the setting. Quick construction by any standards. Plans are underway to build two more cabanas, a new courtyard fountain and a palapa over the upper dining terrace. The land around the hotel is close to the rugged wilderness of the desert, but the rough edges are smoothed by these comfortable civilized improvements.
This year's tournament was again sponsored jointly by Pacific Fisherman Magazine and Rancho Leonero. Other sponsors provided support in the form of donations of lures and tackle. Proven Pattern trolling lures, Sea Strike and UFO were popular with the anglers, as each was given a generous selection to use during the three days of competition.
The rules for the tournament established in 1993 promote fishing for gamesters other than billfish. Points are awarded for dorado, tuna and the elusive roosterfish. Each team consists of two anglers fishing aboard pangas or super pangas skippered by a local guide. Skippers are "officially not authorized to help". The point system limits the number of each species allowed per day per team.
This places an emphasis on catch and release of smaller fish. Obviously landing a 40 pound rooster would rack up the points, where boating a few 10 pound dorado wouldn't help the cause.
Anglers arrive during the late afternoon on Thursday, to relax, settle in, prepare their tackle and discuss strategies for the three days of fishing to come. It was no surprise to find several of the teams entrenched on the patio discussing the previous day's fishing over a considerable number of cold ones.
Many of the faces were familiar, as four or five teams returned for the second year, including the defending '93 champions - Stan Wright and Leo Reihsen. Several teams had arrived a day or two early to get in a few extra days on the water, others like us, tagged a few days on the other end of the tournament.
Where and how the fishing would be best was the prime topic throughout the evening. The best strategy is to put your faith in your skipper and go with his experience and knowledge of the area. Reports from earlier in the week were discouraging. The only tuna to be taken was rumored to be "a boat ride" away from the hotel twenty to twenty-five miles offshore to the northeast.
After the official alfresco dinner and introductions, the teams checked-in and reviewed the rules. We then retired to our rooms to prepare the gear for the opening day of the tournament. If you are planning a trip to the East Cape you will probably run into as many opinions about what tackle you will need as people you ask. Everyone has a "Baja proven" suggestion to add to your list. I remember my first several trips to Baja, lugging two heavy tackle boxes through the airport, along with coolers and rod tubes. I needed a porter just to get to the van. Enough is enough, and you will learn from experience what gear you enjoy, and what you don't need. Talk to the experts at your local tackle shop and they will provide you with the best information.
For fishing pangas I packed 2 custom short sticks, medium action, each outfitted with a Shimano TLD-15 and 300 yards of smoke or green 20 pound good quality mono for live bait fishing. For trolling, I also carry one short heavy action stick rigged with a two speed Shimano Beast Master loaded with 350 yards of 40 pound mono. Three rods should cover you and make it easier to move around on the panga. Any more tackle per person and you'll be up to your knees in rods bouncing around the bottom of the boat. My tackle box includes medium trolling feathers for tuna, a small assortment of large Rapalas, and of course, room for the lures provided by the tournament sponsors. The only other thing I recommend is a good assortment of hooks - 2, 2/0, 4/0 & 6/0. Truth be told, you will do most of your fishing with live bait. Speaking of which, the abundance and quality of the live bait was the best I've seen.
The East Cape is at its very best when viewed from offshore just after sunrise. The panorama of the rocky shore and stark white beaches that rise from the silver-blue sea provide a shimmering backdrop to the morning. There is no thrill that can compare to the rush of air and sea that greets you as your panga speeds away from the beach. As the sun rises the quality of the light on the water comes to life. Flying fish skim the surface, swimming in the air. Diving birds splash in the distance and all eyes scan the horizon for the churning of bait and the shadow of the fin. It's a primitive experience in primal surroundings. Land retreats from view and becomes a lavender blur in the distance. There is something therapeutic about this, something that can't be explained, but must be experienced to be understood.
By mid morning Friday (Day 1) fishing is slow. I ask the skipper how the other boats are doing. Even though I can understand some Spanish, what is coming over the radio sounds more like science fiction dialect than any known language on earth. I have never been able to comprehend one syllable. To our dismay we learn only one boat has found tuna and even they are not very successful.
The weather is fair, but overcast, water surface is not glass, and the ride turns bumpy. Several boats go north towards Cerralvo, but return with a paltry few dorado. Others are not so lucky and get skunked. Jose "Pepe" Rubino takes the lead with 315 points, followed by team of Roberts and Roberts with 220. Out of 16 teams only 9 make the board with points. By the end of Day 1, the anglers are disappointed, yet optimistic about Day 2. We all look ahead to better weather and more fish.
Day 2 dawns over crystalline water like the surface of glass. This promises to be the day and fishing improves. Our boat stumbles upon a sunning sailfish, which I can't resist. Taken on a live mackerel, I bring this modest beast to the boat in less than twenty minutes after several spectacular aerial displays. We estimate it at approximately 80 pounds, revive it, and let it swim away since it cannot add points and really needs to grow.
Via radio we learn that one of the teams has found dorado near Los Frailes approximately 10 miles south of the hotel. Another team has hooked a nice size roosterfish with a live anchovy 50 yards from the beach just south of Cabo Pulmo. We begin to think maybe we are out to far and spend a few hours zig-zagging feathers back towards the hotel.
By the end of Day 2 it's obvious we have splendid bait but fishing is slow. The team of Connole & McKinnon, out of Newport Beach, take the lead with 1340 points. They have two decent yellowfin tuna topping the scales at over 40 pounds each. Later that evening I l.earn that Dan Connole has had stomach surgery just eight days ago. I'm wincing just thinking about reeling in a 40 pound tuna with stitches in my gut. No Thanks. They also pick up a couple of nice dorado on yellow and green Proven Pattern feathers while trolling for tuna. After bribing them with several rounds at the bar, they reveal to me that they also took the tuna on black and purple Proven Pattern feathers about 30 miles outside, ...another boat ride.
Day 3 was more of the same. Half the teams headed north to Los Barriles or Punta Pescadero, some went south past Cabo Pulmo and Los Frailes. We went outside looking for tuna. Trolling, exploring the true meaning of kicking back, I warn you, "this can be habit forming". Each day had its high points, but ours came in the late afternoon on Sunday. Two hours offshore we were delighted to encounter a school of bottle nose dolphin. We were treated to an unbelievable display of acrobatics and play that lasted over an hour as we motored ahead of the school, determined to find the tuna we knew had to be under the porpoise. I couldn't believe my eyes, there were literally hundreds of them, many going airborne ten to fifteen feet out of the water, cartwheeling and flipping in the air. Awesome creatures and a good omen. We finally luck out and manage to boat a decent yellowfin using the last of our small mackerel.
Overall the fishing wasn't as good as last year, but everyone I talked to appreciated the setting and all agreed, "you can't really have a bad day on the water in Baja". Out of sixteen teams only three were skunked, and although points accumulated to about two-thirds of the points accumulated in '93, there were four more teams than last year. Polling the teams over dinner, half or more were already planning to attend next year and several were already signed up for Pacific Fisherman tournaments scheduled in September and November.
Dan Connole and Bryan McKinnon walked off with top honors and the first place prize of 3 nights and 2 days panga fishing at Rancho Leonero. The second place team of Roberts & Roberts carried home a pair of custom Seeker Standup Tuna Sticks a 2 Penn Senator 6/0 reels. Third place went to the team of Greene and Massey who scored 2 Penn Senator 4/0 reels and an assortment of Eat Me lures. All teams were treated to a complimentary 1 year subscription to Pacific Fisherman and a variety of lures and jigs from Proven Pattern, Sea Strike and UFO.
If you are considering a trip to the East Cape, package deals offered during these tournaments make it very affordable, but you don't have to wait for the next one. Make reservations for any time, but plan in advance. As the weather warms up, so does the fishing and according to John Ireland the hotel is running about 90% occupancy during the hot season.
Of course, no article about fishing can end without irony. As we were packing our van for the return trip to the airport at San Jose Del Cabo on Tuesday, we were interrupted by a radio message. Mike Aktins, enjoying a well deserved break, was fishing south of Cabo Pulmo when he ran into boiling yellowfin tuna. He was headed back to the hotel before noon, with six nice tuna that he estimated would tip the scales at 40 plus pounds. Two days after the end of the tournament the tuna had migrated to just offshore and much closer to the hotel. We were tempted to cancel our flight and remain another day or two, or three, or .... we'll be back.