Yaks in the Cortez! -

December, 1998 - Pacific Fisherman
By Gundy Gunderson

When Dennis Spike phoned and asked if I would be interested in fishing John Ireland’s Rancho Leonero on Baja’s East Cape by kayak, I bristled at the opportunity. These were fabled waters, legendary in the annals of sportfishing.

Since reading Ray Cannon's classic book, The Sea of Cortez as a youth, (A book found in every Baja aficionados library) I've often dreamed of a chance to fish these waters in my own craft. And to fish in the intimacy of a kayak was more than I could imagine. Anticipation was high in preparation for this trip.

This area provides an ideal combination of near shore subterranean canyons, reefs and sandy bottom in a warm food-rich environment. All manner of sportfish remain in the area throughout the year. The zone is entirely within the tranquil confines of the Sea of Cortez and thus experiences little of the heavy swell and crashing waves characteristic of the Pacific side of the peninsula. These distinct features make the East Cape the perfect place to take big game on the kayak.

Weather here is moderate year around, with humidity causing occasional discomfort during August and September when most of the area's precipitation occurs. Prevailing winds are from the north November through March and from the south the balance of the year. Strongest winds occur during January and February.

Dennis Spike, operator of Coastal Kayak Fishing Schools based in Reseda, California and Pacific Fisherman associate editor; Leo Rutten, a rose grower and avid kayak fisherman from Carpenteria, California; and this writer, an experienced fisherman and paddler, arrived at John Ireland's Rancho Leonero Resort with six days exclusively devoted to fishing the silent boats.

Rancho Leonero or "The Ranch" is one of Baja's jewels. Situated on Baja California's East Cape, an area known since Ray Cannon's day as one of the best fishing holes in the world, "the ranch" recalls the feel of an old Mexican rancho and traditional East Cape fishing lodge. Wood and stone architecture with palapa roof, airy bungalows, verdant grounds and splendid views distinguish the resort. The 100 fathom curve bends tight to the beach and Baja's great gamefish feed near its canyons as they migrate into the Sea of Cortez.

Since 1995, Rancho Leonero has maintained a fleet of kayaks for both fishing and recreational use. The boats are easy to paddle, stable and rigged with rod and paddle holders for anglers. They are excellent fishing platforms tailored for the phenomenal fishing found amongst the many reefs scattered in front of the resort.

Kayak or kayak-like craft are not new to Baja California. The presence of these sleek, silent, personal craft have been felt in Baja's water for many years pre-dating Baja's short written history. An age-old Baja inhabitant, the Seri Indians first used their kayak-like reed boats to navigate and trade the many islands on the Sea of Cortez crossing often from Bahia de Los Angeles to Bahia Kino in Sonora on the mainland. The "stepping-stone route" as it has been called for generations, passes never more than seven miles from land.

Under the wrong conditions, however, it can be treacherous. Ray Cannon's description of the crossing was titled "Voyage of Terror," because of a fierce storm he encountered. Cannon authored the 1966 classic on Baja's marvelous sportfishing, the Sea of Cortez.

From the late 1700's until the 1860's, Aleution kayakers enslaved by Russian traders hunted Northern Baja waters for seals, sea lions and sea otters. For 8,000 years these seafaring people had hunted the Siberian Coast and Aleutian Islands in these sleek, swift and silent crafts. The sea kayaks or baidarkas as the Russians referred to them, were made of seal skins stretched over a whalebone or driftwood frame. The boats ranged from fifteen to twenty-five feet in length and weighed from twenty-five to one hundred pounds. They rank among the most ingenious hunting boats ever devised.

When Russian and European explorers visited the Aleutian Islands, they found thousands of these crafts. Because of the silent bairdarka's effectiveness in sneaking up on game, they were soon coveted by the Russian traders. Russian ships flying the Russian American Company flag, forced thousands of Aleut hunters into servitude as sea mammal hunters. Most had been killed or died by the time the Russian traders reached deep into Baja. Cedros Island off central Baja, is thought to be the furthest extent of these market hunters in a dark chapter in Native American history.

As for our group, we were bent on making our own history. But before getting into the fishing, let's talk a little about tackle. Bring plenty of iron. We took ninety percent of our fish on the iron. One of the best jigs down here is the Luhr-Jensen Krocodile. Bring as many as you can in several different sizes. The 2 1/2 ounce was the best size overall. The 1, 1 1/2 and 7 ounce are also good to have. Chrome prism is my favorite.

Standard iron, also works well. I took fish on Salas 6x Jrs, Ironman 5's and Tady BA’s and 9's. Chrome and blue or chrome and black were my best colors. But be sure to bring other colors like green and yellow, scrambled egg and dorado.

At times, when the fish are shallow, they will take poppers. This is one of the most exciting ways to take a fish. Also bring small Rapalas. The smaller the bill the better they pull. Bring lures that will troll slowly behind a kayak.

We also brought some live bait tackle. Live bait is available, but you must have a means to keep it alive. When the bait was large, we could only drag one, first thing in the morning. Bring hooks, a small assortment of sinkers, and leader material.

On our trip, we found thirty pound test to be the best line class. We used a little twenty and twenty-five, but once we lost a few nice fish, it was time to move up. If the fish are running larger or when trolling live bait, I chose forty and fifty pound. Bring plenty of line for spool-ups. You'll go through it.

For this trip, and it is important, I brought reels that can easily be dismantled and repaired. Bring high speed reels for jigging and lower speed for live bait. Your gear will take abuse. They will get wet, banged up, and have drags burned to a crisp. Bring a tool kit and be prepared to fix them. Match your reels to your standard saltwater rods. The difference fishing from the kayak is negligible.

In addition to tackle preparation there are important things the angler needs to do for his or herself. Number one is sun and heat protection. Baja heat is extreme. Heat stroke is a serious threat. Wear protective clothing - light colored shirts, shorts or light pants. Sunglasses and hats are a must. I like the broad billed lifeguard hats. They keep your head cool and out of the sun. A good waterproof sunscreen is also important. I also bring an extra towel that can be wet and laid over the legs.

Another critical element is water. Bring at least a half gallon and preferably a gallon of drinking water per outing. We stowed the water where it was accessible and constantly sipped off the bottle. Because of the excitement, many fail to drink enough water. Proper hydration is essential when combining physical exertion with extreme heat. Additionally, limit your alcohol intake it will affect your paddling and cause dehydration.

In addition to protecting ourselves, we limited our fishing to the cool, morning and late evening hours. When the mid-day sun hit, it was time for a cool dip in the Rancho Leonero pool, a delicious lunch, and an afternoon siesta. The early morning and late evening hours were more comfortable and provided the best fishing of the day.

Finally, before we get into the actual fishing, it is important to understand what makes a good fishing kayak. I suggest anglers put a little time in before heading south. Having the tools and utilizing them is important to your success. There is a different way of doing everything on a kayak. If you are considering a boat purchase, new to the sport, or wondering what to bring in addition, then this primer prepared by Spike, will be useful.

Spike's Tip's For Selecting And Rigging A Kayak for Fishing

1) Open deck or "sit-on-top" plastic kayaks are generally accepted and more fishable over traditional sit-in kayaks (except in extreme cold water fisheries). Always Paddle Before You Buy and exercise patience when making your purchase. No single boat can do everything. Consider how you will be using it. The kayak must fit the fisherman. Comfort and stability in the forward seated position and the ability to sit sideways while moving up and down the deck are essential in choosing a "fishing" boat. Be wary of the influx of newer plastic boat manufactured that tout additional stability as "better." Stability comes with a price, decreased speed and tracking. Stick with the long established manufacturers of kayaks to insure getting proven technology and design coupled with the best craftsmanship in a finished vessel. Seek the advice of a kayak seller experienced in serving the needs of kayak anglers.

2) Select a PFD - Personal Floatation Device - designed for paddling and comfort. Make sure the device is comfortable in both activities, paddling and fishing, yet provides adequate floatation.

3) Invest in a thermal molded seat rather than a fabric covered foam seat and a fiberglass split-shaft paddle instead of a cheaper aluminum. The additional cost (under $100) is well worth the increased performance, comfort and durability of both very important pieces of equipment.

4) Paddle clips secure the paddle to the deck when fishing and rod holders stow or hold rods when fishing, trolling or paddling. Mounted to the deck of the boat, these two accessories are important in facilitating fishing and preserving your equipment. Rivet a scabbard on the deck of your boat to keep pliers and a bait knife conveniently located.

5) Add a bowline to the deck. A small folding anchor and an 18 to 24 inch sea anchor are an important part of boat control and positioning when fishing from a kayak. Both anchors are run up the bowline and are rigged off the bow for proper boat control.

6) Utilize hatches and dry bags or boxes for organizing and stowing gear inside the boat. Use dry bags, boxes and packs for above deck storage with kayaks that do not afford internal access.

7) Have a gaff and or net accessible to the cockpit. Use a cork to protect the point of the gaff.

Spend the first several months with your outfitted kayak gaining experience in familiar waters close to home. Begin by developing an arrangement of carefully chosen gear. Each item should have a distinct purpose and must be accessible to the angler/paddler. After you become comfortable with your boat and know your way around the deck, then tailor your boat and equipment to your particular style of fishing. As your skills and commitment increase, you will want to consider a portable fishfinder (an invaluable tool), a live bait well, adjustable rod holder or even a GPS. Don't go out and buy everything at once. Buy the best boat and paddle you can afford, and add accessories that work best for you. Grow into your gear as you grow into the sport. in a few year's time, you will have purchased just about everything you will ever need to fish your kayak successfully.