EAST CAPE, Baja California— As dinner was being served here one night at Rancho Leonero Resort, Joe Sebestyen forgot his manners and bolted from the table. “Didn’t even say, “Excuse me,’ “ his wife, Carolyn, said.
Sebestyen, who owns Pacific Sky line Glass and Mirror in San Diego, grabbed a fishing pole standing nearby and ran to the edge of the crystal clear blue waters of the Sea of Cortez.
A school of breezing roosterfish was churning the water, and Sebestyen had to get in that last cast before sun set.
“I couldn’t stand seeing so many fish boiling like that right in front of me,” Sebestyen said. By trip’s end, Sebestyen had his own tales of roosterfish and more stories of Carolyn catching and releasing her first marlin, of landing dorado, giant squid, pargo and 50-pound amberjack that, as Joe recalled, “kicked her tail.”
That’s the way it is on the East Cape, 70 miles north of Cabo San Lucas by car, but light years from the commercialism that has engulfed Cabo.
“This is like my cabin in the woods, the place I come to get away from Cabo” said Michael Kelly, editor of Destino: Los Cabos, a new quarterly publication in Cabo San Lucas. “Even down here, we need a place to get away to, and this is it for me. It’s like that North Woods fishing lodge you’d find in Minnesota or Canada, only with palm trees and no mosquitos.”
San Diego’s Gary Graham has a working agreement with Rancho Leonero owner John Ireland and takes Rancho Leonero guests fly-fishing as part of his venture, Baja On The Fly. Graham goes by both boat and ATV to cover as much water as possible. He’s ready to fish for roosterfish or jack crevalle inshore or marlin, sailfish, tuna and dorado offshore.
“Catching a marlin on the fly is like reaching out beyond the rod tip and grabbing the line while you’re trolling,” Graham said. “And when the fish hits the lure, you set the hook with your hands. It’s the world’s most expensive hand line, or, I tell people it’s the world’s most expensive Lucky Joe (mackerel teasers).”
PGA golfer Nick Price recently spent two weeks here, and the former resident of Zimbabwe who now makes his home in Hobe Sound, Fla., said the area has no rival in its atmosphere, the quality of fishing and the quantity of fish. Price was making his fourth visit in three years.
“The thing I like this place is it’s so laid-back, “ Price said. “You can wear your shorts and T-shirt for breakfast, lunch and dinner. You wear a shirt, and you’re overdressed here.”
Price had his family and friends at Rancho Leonero throughout his two-week stay. He said they fished, fly-fished, rode ATVs, paddled kayaks, snorkeled and had barbecues and bonfires on the beach, never once having to leave the ranch. He and his family and group fit in well with the other visitors.
Owner Ireland has preserved the area’s old-style Baja feel, but he has added something that has made his resort a favorite destination in East Cape. He’s made it family-friendly.
“You can’t fish the whole time you’re here, “ Price said. “There has got to be other things for the family to do, and John has done a great job here with that. It’s just great family vacation here. My wife and kids just love it.”
Price is best friend with Gary Barnes-Webb, who has been Ireland’s resort manager since July 1999. Ireland said Barnes-Webb, a South African, has proven to be the best hire he has made since opening the resort in January 1986. Ireland bought the ranch and two miles of beachfront property in 1981.
Ireland and Barnes-Webb have been teamed for three years now, and the results of that partnership show throughout the ranch. The resort maintains a laid-back feel, as Price said, but both men make sure it’s run efficiently. The rooms and flagstone-and-thatched-roof cottages are kept spotless, the meals are family-style buffets, and the pangeros have their pangas, super pangas and sport fishers ready for fishing at 6:30 every morning.
But all of that would be folly if there weren’t good fishing, too. Ireland knows that fishing is what draws most of his guests.
That’s why Ireland became involved in the area’s politics, starting in the mid 1990s when he banded with the Mexicans here and fought for a marine reserve off Cabo Pulmo, at Pulmo Reef. The Mexican government listened and established an 11 mile-long marine reserve, a national park, to protect it from commercial fishing. Before the government’s action, commercial fishermen from mainland Mexico swept in with their nets by day, their rowdy attitudes by night.
“These are really gentle people here, very non-confrontational,” Ireland said. “To see them finally stick up for themselves was a beautiful thing. What they did is they got results, and that can be very difficult down here.”
Ireland teamed with fellow resort owner Bobby Van Wormer Sr., to effect changes in fisheries management decisions. To this day, Ireland and Van Wormer pay the monthly salary of federal fish and game officer who patrols the marine reserve, now the No. 1 diving destination for snorkelers and scuba divers.
“We are protecting the only living barrier reef on the Pacific side of North America, “ Ireland said. “I remember hunting it with my spear gun in the mid-1980s, and it was a beautiful place, full of fish. But year-by-year it was getting depleted, over-fished. But now it’s come back. I was in there in April and we saw 15 different groupers over 200 pounds and hundreds more between 60 and 100 pounds. We saw turtles, sharks and rays. The reserve is working.”
It all takes Ireland back to his salad days, to when he ventured up here in 1981 from Cabo San Lucas as a tagalong with a group interested in buying Rancho Leonero. An accomplished waterman from Santa Monica, Ireland went snorkeling while the men talked business.
“I went out there, right in front of where the hotel is now, to the double reef,” Ireland said, pointing to the water marked to the south by Pelican Rock. “A whole school of big-eyed jacks, jack crevalle, surrounded me, and it was just magical. I knew then it was my destiny to be here.”