Reeling in Baja -

September, 2001 - Men's Journal Magazine
By Jack Stephens

Only one thing limits the number of big billfish you can land off the East Cape: lack of arm strength

The Spaniard Hernán Cortés liked his novels, particularly a best-selling leather-back of 1510 that described a race of warrior women who fought with weapons of gold on a desert isle called "California." He needed only to hear rumors that the place actually existed before deciding to seek it out himself. On the Baja peninsula, he found neither Amazons nor gold, just stark desert peaks and 700-odd miles of white-sand beach, so he retreated back to Mexico City across the sea that now bears his name, a year older and poorer for his effort. Had Cortés bothered to drop a baited hook in the water, he might have found that in Baja the sea itself holds the gold.

More-recent fortune seekers have gotten wiser, drawn to Baja by equally fantastical tales of sportfishing. Even in renowned angling destinations like Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, and Montauk, New York, the 30-mile stretch north of Cabo San Lucas known as the East Cape is acknowledged to have the best, most diverse game-fishing in North America. Nowhere else does the legendary 100-fathom line -- the deep-water highway followed by convoys of pelagic game fish -- cut so close to shore. Fish that elsewhere would require an 80-mile run can be found in the Sea of Cortez within a mile of land. Between now and November, in a single day, an angler off Baja can tangle with all manner of billfish -- especially marlin and sails -- and everything from wahoo to dolphins to roosterfish, yet still have time to kayak off the beach, hook an 80-pound yellowfin tuna, and get pulled on a "Baja sleigh ride."

All along the 20-mile stretch of the East Cape known as the Bay of Palms, boats bristle with trophy pennants -- one for each game fish caught, hung upside down if the fish was released. When I arrived at the Hotel Rancho Leonero, in Buena Vista, the flags offshore were really flying, the hotels' thatched waterfront bungalows were booked to the gills, and the sunburned anglers' beer-cooled grins offered compelling evidence that I was looking out at Baja's best waters.

It was happy hour in Rancho Leonero's palapa bar when I met local fly-fishing guide Andre Farr, a South African native, and Gary Barnes-Webb, the resort's manager. Also from South Africa, Barnes-Webb had been a sixth-generation big-game- hunting guide until one of his clients, Leonero's owner, John Ireland, talked him into relocating to Baja and turning his sights to piscine prey. Before long, Farr and Barnes-Webb were regaling me with tales of hunting in the bush. Barnes-Webb whipped out a deck of photos: him with lion, him with rhino and springbok, and finally him with kudu, holding the antelope-like animal by its great corkscrew horns. An impish twinkle came to his eye. "Nothing beats fresh kudu heart," he said.

"Aye!" agreed Farr. "Slow-cooked, with lots of sloyced onion."

"But it has to be just-killed," Barnes-Webb insisted, like an epicure talking foie gras. "Fresh. Or forget about it."

I found myself wondering aloud whether I was here to big-game hunt or go fishing. "Both!" he laughed. "The fish here are big game."


After dinner, we got down to the business of arranging for the next day's fishing craft. In ascending order of cost and appointment, Rancho Leonero rents three types of vessels: panga, super panga, and cruiser. Pangas -- pared-down 22-foot skiffs with outboard engines -- offer plenty of elbow room, useful should you switch from conventional tackle to fly-casting. Super pangas are a couple of feet longer, with more-powerful outboards and bimini tops to get you to and from the fishing faster, drier, and more comfortably when weather turns. Cruisers are 32-foot fly-bridge trollers with outriggers and fighting chairs. "Whatever's best to land a big one," I told Barnes-Webb. He told me not to worry: He'd personally scout out billfish for me the next day. After sizing me up, he said, "First, try a super panga."

Rene Lucero, captain of the Olé, picked me up at the rolling dock at daybreak, then banked us south toward Bahía de Frailes. After scooting by oasis-like coves, we entered the clear sapphire waters of the Cabo Pulmo Reef National Marine Park -- a 14,000-acre haven for more than 200 species of tropical fish, and the only living coral-reef system in western North America. Ten miles farther south, near the parched headlands of Bahía de Frailes, the surface boiled with shoaling sardines. These manic snacks were herded from below into a massive, flashing ball by exuberant, football-size bonitos, which in turn were tailed by yellowfin tuna in the 30-pound class. Another level down lurked yellowfin weighing as much as 100 pounds. Lucero and I brought out our spinning rods, and within 40 minutes I'd put two 30-pound tuna on ice. When I strung up my nine-foot, ten-weight fly rod, Lucero grinned. "See you later," he chuckled in barely accented English, turning to re-coil leaders with all the haste of someone who's found an extra hour in his day. His expression changed suddenly when a tuna took the freshwater bass popper I had tied on. After a half-hour lower-lumbar workout with the fish -- probably a 40-pounder -- on my noodly rod, I heard Barnes-Webb's voice crackle over the radio: "Sailfish sighted five miles to your north, boys." Lucero gave me an impatient look -- Well? The chance to hook billfish was what had drawn me here, so I slung the tuna enough line to spit the fly, and off we went in search of bronze sails.

Back at Rancho Leonero that evening, Barnes-Webb was fretting. I hadn't hooked a single one of the sails he had spotted. "I'm sending you with David Macklis tomorrow," he said. "If he can't find you big game fish, nobody can."


In the morning, Captain Macklis steered his cruiser, Vigilante, out of dock while studying the featureless sea and gray sky for signs of life. Before we had gone 200 yards, he put us on top of a school of bonitos. We caught a few for bait, then headed to open water.

Fifteen minutes later, we crossed a swarm of ten-pound dorados. Macklis cut the engine, and the ship's mate, his cousin Edmanuel, heaved a fistful of sardines. Glinting like coins, they disappeared into the flashing shadows while I cast a streamer after them. A dorado on a fly line feels something like a bonefish, something like a steelhead. After a vicious turning strike, he'll jump five or six times to try to shake the fly. I once heard novelist Richard Price describe dorados as "Fabergé fish." After I hooked one -- golden, and bejeweled in sapphire and emerald scales -- I saw that he had been close to the mark. I landed one for the skipper, one for the mate, and one for dinner before we moved on.

But I still hadn't hooked the big quarry. As we trolled for billfish a mile offshore, Captain Macklis scanned the blank waters from the bridge. Suddenly, two narrow, long-billed shadows appeared behind our drag bait: six-foot marlin. "Ayi!" Macklis cried out -- the first thing I'd heard him utter in hours -- and revved the motor to incite them. After a few seconds, I cast a line right between the marlins' wagging bills and the bait. I waited, waited, then set the hook hard. Twenty electric minutes and two long runs later, a 150-pound striped marlin peeled 100 yards of line off my reel before rising up and snake-walking 20 feet across the surface. Just as my arms began to feel like lead -- and my weakening grip was about to cost me the fish -- the marlin lost his fight.

Macklis drove us slowly to pass water through the fish's gills while I leaned over the gunwales and grasped it by its long, rough bill. A kudu horn must feel like this, I thought. No, probably not this good.

With a kick, the marlin revived, and we let it swim off. Half an hour later, we sidled up to the dock with a marlin flag, upside down, affixed to our outrigger pole. At the dock, Barnes-Webb was busy overseeing the removal of boats from the water, but when he saw the trophy pennant, he rushed me before I could disembark. Throwing a nod Macklis's way, he said, "Was I right about this guy?"