By Colin Sutton
An early morning sunrise over a glassy Sea of Cortez is a rare treat that has seared a spectrum of senses forever in my mind. Flaming reds and oranges, coral and piercing yellow illuminate desert memories while the calm lapping of the morning tide teeming with life resonates between my ears, soothing my soul.
Baja California remains a land living in the days of the Wild West. The people are very traditional and take pride in their culture, independence and self-sufficiency, while maintaining old cultures and traditions in a rugged and often harsh land. In order to access Baja, you have to cross some of the most unforgiving wasteland on the planet, with long stretches of vast, empty desert valleys and mountains to remote beaches accessed via long, washboard roads. Travel difficulties considered, Baja is a spearo’s paradise and the rewards are worth all the effort.
With the Sea of Cortez to the East and the Pacific Ocean to the West, Baja has some of the best diving conditions and options available year round. Any given day holds the solid potential a spearfisherman could get into almost anything. Aside from the epic fish, Baja is a land of beauty, be it the warmth and kindness of its people or the vast range of landscapes and seascapes. Baja is a land with no parallels. Waking to the deep reds and oranges of a sunrise over the glassy Sea of Cortez, running out across smooth waters for a day of fishing, then watching an epic sunset over the Pacific Ocean is truly a unique Baja experience.
Baja is the second longest peninsula in the world, twice the length of Florida and 100 miles longer than Italy, and is surrounded by some of the Earth’s most productive waters. Baja’s peninsula extends 800 miles south of the United States’ border, well past the Tropic of Cancer, and is made up of harsh desert mountains and canyons, cactus-filled valleys and floodplains, and remote, empty beaches. There are many endemic land creatures in Baja that have developed from the ecological isolation of the peninsula, including the rattle-less rattlesnake, the black jackrabbit and a bat that catches and eats fish. Northern Baja holds the vast majority of the peninsula’s population with over 75% living in Tijuana and Ensenada. Aside from several well-developed cities such as Cabo and La Paz, southern Baja is still mostly empty of development. The one road down the peninsula was paved as recently as the 70s, and Baja still maintains a distinct untouched feeling.
With over 1,000 miles of coastline on the Pacific side alone, this leaves a wealth of beaches to explore. Baja’s waters have one of the greatest seasonal temperature gradients (over 40 degrees) in the world, resulting in a huge variety of sea life throughout the year. I can think of nowhere else with such a diverse mixture of pelagic and inshore species to choose from in any given season. With a combination of arid desert, deep ocean trenches, island mangroves and strong winds, it is always producing life. Winter winds cause massive upwelling from the depths with nutrient-rich water that supports the bottom of the food chain. A gargantuan plankton biomass feeds resident whale shark and manta populations year-round. Throughout the spring, as the days lengthen and the sun warms the ocean water, sardines, anchovies, and mackerel begin feeding on the plankton, and the predator species of fish move in close to shore. Summer brings less wind, with southerlies and chubascos, or small storm cells, more prevalent, and the water clarity improves. Fall brings cooler, more comfortable temperatures onshore. The water is still warm and clear and the schools of baitfish move offshore to the banks in their migration, where schools of billfish, tuna, and dorado hammer them relentlessly. On a recent dive, I encountered tuna, dorado, wahoo and marlin offshore, while inshore I saw large grouper, yellowtail and white sea bass. That was a special day, no doubt. Very few places have the ability to yield the thriving abundance of sea life parallel to Baja in today’s changing environment.
I have been fortunate enough to travel to many remote dive locations around the world and Baja continues to compete with other top-of-the-list destinations in terms of productivity and variety. For an accessible and cost effective trip, Baja is hard to beat. Flights from anywhere in the western US to Cabo average 2 ½ hours and you can be in the water within an hour of your arrival. The state department of travel currently has no advisory on safety for travelling in Baja California Sur. The violence and crime reported by the media occurs largely in the border cities and far south in mainland Mexico. There is very little crime here, and the beer is cheap!
The beauty of Baja is in its options and variety. In an hour and a half, one can cross the peninsula and find completely different conditions and fish. If a big swell is running on the Pacific side, the Sea of Cortez can be a great option. If a northerly is blowing in the gulf, it can be glassy on the Pacific for those offshore runs.
Northern Baja has some excellent fish when the timing is right. There are big grouper, yellowtail, and white seabass both on the Pacific side and in the gulf, but the winds can be strong and the visibility is inconsistent. As you travel farther south into Baja, the water clarity and temperature improve, and so does the variety of fish available. Diving the islands in front of Santa Rosalia, Mulegé and Loreto can produce anything from colder water species such as sheepshead and calicos, to pelagics like dorado, amberjack and billfish with yellowtail, gulf, leopard and broomtail grouper, snapper and halibut not uncommon.
Heading further south is a large bay that protects the city of La Paz, the capital of Baja California Sur. With a beautiful malecón (boardwalk) touching the calm waters of the bay, the many marinas, sailboats and waterfront shops make it a very attractive city for a visit. The islands north of La Paz have many protected bays and coves to choose from, complimented nicely by several large shipwrecks, the largest sea lion colony in Baja, and a sea mount known for schooling hammerheads and mantas. The warmer water fish include dorado, tuna, marlin, and amberjack, while the yellowtail hold up the numbers for the cooler water pelagics here. The resident reef species are noteworthy in this area, with pargo (dogtooth snapper) and cabrilla (leopard grouper) reaching impressive sizes. There is one island to the south of La Paz in the Sea of Cortez, and it is known for consistently producing quality fish any month of the year in spite of the amount of sport and commercial fishing pressure it endures. Isla Cerralvo is known for solid wahoo, amberjack, dorado, marlin and yellowtail when in season.
The major feature on the Pacific side of Baja is Magdalena Bay. With its large barrier islands and mangrove networks, it is larger in volume than San Francisco Bay. Within this hemisphere, this is arguably the most productive nursery and breeding ground for marine life in the Pacific Ocean… and it has very limited management. The diversity among fish species here is some of the highest in the world, and would make an impossibly long list. Inshore species of note in Mag Bay include corvina, snook, halibut, yellowtail, white seabass, many species of groupers and snappers, and more.
The Ridge, Thetis and other offshore banks and high spots abound off Mag Bay, where large seasonal migrations of a high grade of tuna, wahoo, dorado, and marlin occur.
To the south lies the Lost Coast, several hundred miles of uninhabited shoreline and empty beaches ripe for the exploring. There are a few small fishing villages here and there, with a handful of pangas piloted mainly by lobster and hand line fishermen. This inaccessible coastline gets very little pressure and few divers.
The very southern end of Baja is Cabo San Lucas, known for its hotels and spring break scene. San Jose del Cabo is a 45-minute drive to the east and boasts an international airport. If you’re into something besides shooting fish, you can experience the country through its cultural opportunities. There is never a shortage of demolition derbies, lucha libre events (picture John Candy in a onesie with a glittery full-head mask), cockfights, goat hunting, mule trips, and other typical tourist activities.
Fall is the time for bluewater in Baja. The water has been warming up all summer and minimal wind has let the water become as clear as gin, with visibility commonly exceeding 100 feet. The big pelagics are around in full force. In Baja, we often dive shark buoys (simpleras) and high spots (bajos) offshore for pelagics. Flashers and chumming are productive here, with a combination of hanging and throw flashers often deadly on dorado and wahoo. Tuna seem to pay more attention to bait, and while a good set of hanging flashers won’t hurt, the chum is really what keeps the tuna coming back around. Leaving before first light to get to the banks, and anchoring and chumming during the crucial dawn hours of the morning feed helps setup divers for success.
Wahoo in particular have shown themselves in best numbers during the early dawn hours. These fish are like ghosts of the blue, appearing suddenly at your side and disappearing again as they wish. It is worth reminding yourself to continually be scanning your surroundings and looking in all directions for your chance at one of these impressive beauties. Wahoo will sometimes follow the propeller of a boat (especially stainless props) and often the first diver in the water spots several fish right off the stern upon entering the water. Lowering your gun into the depths and slowly retrieving it by your floatline can sometimes bring a fish in close as it follows your gun up in curiosity.
Many divers underestimate the distance of a fish in clear blue water and pull the trigger while the target is still well out of range. Waiting until you can see the definition of the fish’s eyes can help ensure you are within range for a solid holding shot. The use of slip tips, bungees, and even the ability to dump your terminal float to allow the fish to take one float down are all tricks that can help land these trophies. Once the fish is shot, give it plenty of line and let it go on its run; it’s not going anywhere, and you want it to tire out before you try to handle an animal with such sharp teeth.
Many of the productive high spots in Baja for pelagics can also hold excellent fish over the reefs, allowing the diver to choose from a variety of prey. Several species of pargo and broomtail, gulf, and leopard grouper can all be found hovering over ledges and rocks, daring you to test your gear on them. Hunting these fish can be an excellent challenge for a diver, as depth and bottom time become a more essential part of the stalking game. Dropping down to the reef and laying on the bottom, then coming back in as they get more comfortable and curious about you is the most common practice, as the fish spook on your descent. Again, keep your head on a swivel as your eyes work hard to make out the dark shapes cruising along the reef. With these fish, unless you get a nice stone shot, be ready to put on the brakes as they head for the rocks. They are known for holing up deep in tight caves, and will take their toll on your gear. Heavy cable, slip tips, a gun with enough punch to penetrate, and a floatline choked up to the depth you are diving all help to land the larger fish. Make your first shots count as the larger grouper tend to leave once a fish or two is shot in the area.
Inevitably, the exceptional visibility, warm water, and large pelagics of the fall go their separate ways and winter is upon us with more wind, cooler temperatures, and different types of fish. Baja is the number-one destination for windsurfing and kite boarding in the world, and the winter migrations of whale sharks and breeding humpbacks in close to shore can be observed from above or below the water. For the spearo, winter marks the entrance of the yellowtail, white seabass, striped marlin and pargo. There are several different fisheries of yellowtail in Baja, and these fish can be caught here year-round in certain places.
Winter and spring are the best months for consistently seeing large yellowtail in diveable depths. Yellowtail are very curious fish, and a smooth descent with a bit of patience will often see the prey swimming close by for an inspection. If they do not appear to be coming in on you, often a flash of a gloved hand or a strum of your bands will trigger their curiosity enough to bring them within range. Upon initial sighting of a yellowtail, I find that acting scared or swimming away from them catches their attention and sometimes brings them in close enough. Once shot, these fish invariably look for something to wrap up on, and will even rub their bodies against rocks during the fight in hopes of tearing off. Good steady pressure to keep them up off the reef is usually sufficient and rarely do they take a float under. Slip-tips or flopper shafts work well with these fish, and mono is a good shooting line choice for better shaft speeds.
Another fish often encountered while hunting yellowtail is the pargo. Year round residents, the pargo come into shallower water to breed and the highest numbers of these fish are seen in mid-spring. For their size, pargo are one of the strongest quarry I know of and their initial run leaves many divers wondering how a 20-pound fish just worked them and took their gear 25 feet back inside a cave before they made it to the surface. A 15-pound pargo will happily bend your shaft if you let it and many divers commonly overestimate the size of the pargo from the intensity of its fight. A good rigging technique for pargo is to use one less wrap of shooting line on your gun to be able to put the brakes on the fish sooner and keep them away from the rocks. An excellent diver and good friend of mine, Roy McDennon, shot the biggest pargo of his life (estimated at 60 pounds) this winter, and the force of its initial run sheared off the flopper on a brand new shaft, leaving him empty handed.
Recently, while diving for yellowtail around deep structure in classic yellowtail hunting conditions of cold, green water with limited visibility, three yellowfin tuna in the 150-pound class blew by me. I resisted the urge to pull the trigger with my severely under matched setup of a Rob Allen railgun and one small float. Tuna were not in season and were not supposed to be here! I didn’t show such self control the next day when I saw another small school of big tuna and let my shaft fly. I am always impressed with the quality of the Rob Allen spring steel in their shafts! In the moment that my shaft penetrated the fish’s shoulder and it took off in a flurry of bubbles created by its tails’ explosive force, I could see my shaft bending to perfectly contour the form of the animal. The fish took off for the depths with my insufficient setup in tow. After 10-15 minutes searching by boat, my float and setup surfaced with an empty but surprisingly straight Rob Allen shaft hanging at the bottom of my floatline.
Southern Baja is one of the only places I know of where you can have a large, bleeding and struggling pelagic fish at the end of your line…and nothing shows up to eat it. It’s a shame that commercial fishing has had such an effect on our oceans, but it sure is nice not to worry about losing your fish to a shark. It is common practice to dive the shark buoys for dorado, wahoo and marlin in Baja and it is VERY rare to see a shark while diving.
Occupying our time on the windy, blown out days when we don’t want to be on the water has been the most entertaining part of guiding down here for me. Several hundred years ago, some Spaniards discovered that if they left domesticated goats on the islands of Baja they could come back and have a steady supply of meat on demand. The goat populations are doing well, with only an occasional shark-fisherman hunting them between sets of longlines on his shark buoys (quite the sight to see a panguero in full foulies and rubber boots hiking out of an arroyo with a couple of goats on his shoulders).
The legalities and permitting of firearms in Mexico are tight and consequences are severe if rules are not followed, but the perspectives on archery are very different and much more open. I have had federales at military checkpoints request that I sling arrows at a nearby cactus while cars wait behind me in line and the soldiers crack jokes about Robin Hood…thinking the bow is harmless. There is a solid selection of game to choose from in Baja; aside from goats, there are bighorn sheep, wild pig and mule deer all with very little pressure from hunters. If you’re not into hunting on land, there are still plenty of options for adventure. We have taken folks on mule packing trips up into the mountains to see old ranchos, cave paintings and hot springs.
In Baja, you can wake up to a beautiful sunrise on a desert island, share a cup of ranchero coffee with a local lobsterman or panguero who was probably born on the same island, dive hard all day, then clean up, put your best dancing shoes on and see how the action is in Cabo Wabo or Squid Roe. I first came down to Baja nine years ago, and have been drawn so strongly to this place that I’ve done whatever I could to spend as much time as possible here. Yes, the fishing and diving is good, but it is the beauty of the land and sea, and the kindness of the people that keep me coming back. I have developed strong friendships with locals from remote villages and islands, and they have always shown the utmost hospitality and generosity toward me. Working in Baja would not be possible without their help, and their influence makes this place special.
I have been very fortunate to work in a place that I love. Baja has a certain appeal, and its history of adventurers is well documented in such classics as Ray Cannon’s The Unforgettable Sea of Cortez, and Carlos Eyles’ Last of the Bluewater Hunters. These stories of the past show what potential this place has, and I am excited to be a part of the next era of Baja and the effort to successfully manage this important fishery and ecosystem. Helping people experience the best of a place that is wild and untouched, while those places still exist is valuable to me. It’s great to share the excitement and stoke with others experiencing something for the first time. I had several good friends get the fish of their lives this fall, with one friend almost losing gun, shaft, and floatline in one fell swoop on a shore dive with a 60-pound amberjack. I’ve celebrated with the experienced diver who was ecstatic to capture three new species in one day, the father and son dive team that each got their first fish, both over 25 pounds, and the mother and daughter that swam with over 15 whale sharks one day. It makes the work easier when you’re feeding off of the excitement of someone seeing their first whales up close, then listening to them sing from below the surface. Baja is a special place and I am grateful to be able to share its secrets with good people!
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