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September 21, 2007

Yankees In Baja

A pair of New Englanders discover summer fishing on the Sea of Cortez.

We were not well people. How elsecan you explain the seemingly irrational decision to leave NewEngland at the height of a long-awaited summer to fish on theedge of a desert? But understand, Rich Johnson and I had readthe stories and seen the photos depicting high adventure on theSea of Cortez, of anglers battling marlin and tuna from littleboats in glass-calm seas. Then there was the relentless desertheat. Blast-furnace heat. Dog-breath heat. Heat that made yousweat with everyblink and breath. Bring it on, we said. Bringon that heat.

Was this an attempt to jointhe ranks of extreme-sports dude-dom, or simply some latent formof masochism? No matter; we sought punishment from the cruel Mexicansun. We wanted to perspire. We too wanted to fight large fishfrom a small, open boat until we were shriveled husks. Then wewanted a big, fat margarita.

One place that couldoffer all of this was Las Arenas Resort, an angling oasis on theshores of the lower Cortez. Long a popular destination among Bajaregulars in the '70s and '80s, Las Arenas had recently reopenedits doors after a seven-year hiatus and was again offering primeaccess to a mind-boggling array of game fish.

While Las Arenas is justa short flight away for California fishermen, getting there fromMassachusetts turned out to be both hellish and a lot of fun,in the way that only really long trips with good friends can beboth hellish and fun. Our itinerary took us from Boston to Pittsburgto Los Angeles, then across the border to Hermasillo, where welanded and took off again in a terrifying thunderstorm renderedless so by a few well-placed Modelo beers distributed by our relaxedand friendly Aero California crew.

At 9:00 p.m. we finallytouched down in La Paz. The plane door opened and we braced fora sledgehammer blast of heat that never came. Instead, the airoutside was disappointingly balmy; rather cool and pleasant. Wefelt slightly cheated. Of course, we couldn't see the parchedland that extended in all directions as we left the city in ashuttle van and bounced our way 44 miles south to Las Arenas.Exhausted from our 20-hour journey, we checked in, gulped downa bowl of soup and a cheese sandwich, and turned in.

Sea of Life

Bonita (black skipjack) are typically thought of as bait, but the author had fun catching this one on fly tackle.The next morning we woketo an eager rapping on the door, indicating that we had overslept.Down on the beach, the other resort guests were busily loadinggear into their pangas and roaring off to the fishing grounds.The orange sun, already large and menacing, was hovering abovethe peaks of Isla Cerralvo, five miles to the east.

After a quick brushingof teeth and a slather of sunblock, Rich and I stepped outsideand got our first look at the surrounding landscape. Here wasa dry and desolate country. Aside from the palm trees that hadbeen planted inside the resort compound, the local vegetationseemed to consist mainly of saguaro and low, scrubby brush. Eventhe distant mountains to the south were uniformly brown and barren,sun-baked and furrowed. What on earth lived out there?

It was our first realtaste of the contrast that makes Baja fishing so, well, surreal.For if the land supports relatively few forms of terrestrial life,the sea is filled with creatures of all types and sizes, fromjellyfish to whale sharks. The nearshore waters are home to myriadgame fish, including roosterfish, pargo, cubera snapper, groupers,and several species of jacks. Best of all, when blue water pushesinto the lower Cortez, which typically occurs from May to October,sailfish, dorado, yellowfin tuna, wahoo, and marlin can be caughtremarkably close to shore, sometimes within surf-casting distance!

The abundance of marinelife also supports the existence of humans, among them veteranpangero Loreto Gonzalez, who was patiently awaiting ourarrival on the now-deserted beach in front of the resort. Likethe majority of pangeros who service Las Arenas, Loretolives in La Paz, but keeps his boat on the beach in front of thePunta Arena light house, a mile or so from the resort. The guidesbeach their boats here because Punta Arena is closer to many ofthe prime fishing spots - a major benefit of staying at Las Arenas.

The Bite off Cerralvo

Dorado are abundant in the lower Cortez during the summer, and can sometimes be caught within casting distance of shore.After shoving off fromthe beach and scrambling to the stern of the 20-foot fiberglassskiff, Loreto turned the bow towards the southern tip of IslaCerralvo, where the rest of the panga fleet was into a hot biteof "football" yellowfins and bonita (skipjacktuna). Here was the scene we had envisoned, complete with calmseas, small boats, and anglers hooking up left and right.

Once we had procurred a stash of sardinasfrom the local netter, Loreto scooped up four or five of the six-inchbaits and tossed them behind the boat. The poor little guys didn'tstand a chance. They hit the water and immediately started skitteringacross the surface in a desperate attempt to escape a pack ofskipjack.

Rich and I wasted no time in hooking a pair of sardines through the nose and free-spooling them behind the boat, where they instantly vanished in a seriesof boils. After landing my first fish, I tried a fly, which workednearly as well as the live bait.

Granted, most peopledon't come all the way to Baja to catch skipjack (except to useas bait), but the fish's willingness to hit a fly was a treatfor someone used to the frustration of chasing notoriously fussybonito and false albacore off New England. Our morning was notwithout more noteworthy catches, however, for we also managedto score a 35-pound yellowfin near the end of the bite by sendinga sardine into the depths on a weighted line.

When it became clearthat the tuna had either sounded or stopped feeding, Loreto ranback to the middle of Cerralvo Channel and began trolling longstrips of bonita belly around the numerous shark buoyslocated between Isla Cerralvo and the mainland. The waters ofCerralvo Channel, which plummet to over 1,600 feet, are home toan abundance of sharks, which are caught by the local commercialfishermen in fixed nets suspended from large foam blocks. Naturally,the net buoys attract schools of dorado, as well as the occasionalwahoo and billfish.

The belly strips produceda few strikes, but no solid takes, so Loreto decided to breakout his secret weapons. Seems he had four dead flying fish stashedaway, and we hooked two dorado within minutes of putting themout. As our fish neared the boat, Loreto began chumming with livesardines, and soon the entire dorado school was swarming aroundthe boat, eager to grab anything we showed them.

The beauty of the situationsuddenly struck me. Here we were, fighting a dorado double-headerwithin sight of the resort, in calm seas, with burritos, orangesand cold beer in the cooler. And yes, we were sweating - a lot.The Baja had already delivered!

Rich Johnson and master pangero Loreto Gonzalez with a 30-pound yellowfin.At 2:00 we returned tothe beach and unloaded our catch alongside our fellow anglers.While our fish were being cleaned, filleted and packaged by theresort staff, Rich and I retired to the pool and discussed ourplans for the next day. The choice was clear, for no trip to thispart of the Cortez would be complete without a serious attemptat catching a roosterfish.

After all, Punta Arenais widely regarded as the "roosterfish capital of the world,"and for good reason. The beach in front of the lighthouse is legendaryfor its spectacular feeding blitzes, with big roosters rippingthrough dense schools of sardines, their tall dorsal fins slicingthe surface. The world-record rooster of 114 pounds was caughtin these waters, and numerous 80-pound fish are taken each year.

Loreto was pleased tohear of our plan when he picked us up at the beach the next morning,and immediately ran south to round up some rooster baits neara rocky point. To our surprise, the baits in question turned outto be 20-inch ladyfish, which are too large to draw the interestof the local houndfish.

With the seas calm andskies overcast, things felt extremely "fishy." However,there would be no roosterfish on this day, although we did experiencea few exciting moments when something large boiled on the surfaceand briefly chewed on one of the baits. After four hours we decidedto cut our losses and try for another species, and managed tosalvage the day by catching a few dorado before calling it quits.That's the beauty of this place: if one species doesn't cooperate,another is willing to oblige!

Our third day at LasArenas was very different from the previous two, in that we hadarranged to fish aboard a 28-foot "cruiser" insteadof a panga. These fly-bridge charter boats are a good option foranglers who don't want to fish in the smaller pangas. They generallyfeature a cabin, chairs with fighting gimbals, a cockpit Bimini,and a head. Cruisers are also capable of fishing farther offshorethan pangas, and are more comfortable and drier in rough conditions.

This wasn't a concernin our case, however, as the seas were again flat calm. We startedthe day by trolling small tuna feathers off Cerralvo, then madeour way back toward the Baja mainland. Along the way I decidedto rig one of the rods with a mini spreader bar I had broughtfrom home. The captain's amusement when I first produced the tangledcollection of tiny rubber squids was apparent, but he got realserious when a fin appeared behind the rig not 15 minutes later.The billfish - most likely a small striped marlin - took a swipeat the bar, then disappeared. We circled the area several timesto no avail, then continued trolling south along the Baja mainland.

At around noon we decidedto join the fleet of pangas that had gathered five miles southof Las Arenas and were catching small yellowfin less than a half-milefrom shore. The fish were holding deep by the time we arrived,but letting a live sardine swim down into the strike zone seemedto be working well enough. Indeed, everywhere we looked, peoplewere hooked up or gaffing tuna. Schools of dorado were also cruisingthrough the area, occasionally tearing up the surface as theychased small pods of nervous sardinaswhich had been thrown out as chum.

It was an appropriateending to our Baja initiation trip, since this was the sort offrenzied fishing scene we had envisioned from the start. Our mainregret was that we were leaving the next day, just when we werebeginning to get a feel of the place. I still wanted to catcha dorado on fly, and there was that date with a roosterfish tofulfill. And what of our goal to catch a marlin or tuna from apanga? Obviously, it would have to wait, because three days inBaja is just not enough.

Las Arenas Travel Info

Las ArenasPunta Arena del laVentana, commonly known as Las Arenas, occupies a spectacularpromontory overlooking the Sea of Cortez and its southernmostisland, the 16-mile-long Isla Cerralvo. It is situated on a remotestretch of Baja's desert coast between the port city of La Pazand the more numerous resorts of the famed East Cape.

The nearest internationalairport is at La Paz. Guests take the one-hour shuttle from theairport to Las Arenas.

The 40-room hotel,which includes a tackle shop, swimming pool, full-service diningroom and bar, is the only on-site accommodation in the region.Its solitude, friendly staff and panoramic views have been attractinga repeat clientele for decades.

Panga fishing isa bargain at Las Arenas, with full-day rates starting at about$60 per person for a two-angler charter. Super pangas, whichtypically include a center console, live-bait well with pump system,Bimini top and 70-hp outboard are about $90 per person. Ice,bottled water, beverages, lunch, fish-cleaning and freezing arestandard at Las Arenas. To contact Las Arenas directly, call theirSan Diego office toll-free at 888-644-7376 or 619-460-4319 or visit their website at www.lasarenas.com.

-- Tony Pe¿a

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