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Baja Striped Marlin

Targeting striped marlin in Cabo San Lucas

August 6, 2009
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* Overview and Essentials * What to Bring * A Day in Cabo

Last fall, I jumped at an opportunity to fish out of Cabo San Lucas. Short notice and the imminent Thanksgiving holiday made it tough to find a companion, but my son Jesse was able to get off work in the nick of time. He’d cut his teeth on giant wahoo in the Bahamas and marlin off Cat Island, but it had been a decade since we’d really fished together. We were overdue for an expedition.

The winter of 2007 produced an epic striped marlin bite off Cabo, unprecedented in years just prior, and that’s saying a lot for a place where the fishing has a reputation for being spectacular most of the time. We were hoping it would repeat for us. As I did my pretrip due diligence, checking the Internet for fishing reports, a Los Angeles Times story popped up, written a couple of weeks before we were supposed to be in Mexico.

Anglers were catching and releasing 15 to 20 striped marlin a day. At Golden Gate Bank, the writer, in a flush of enthusiasm if not originality, said the stripes were “stacked up like cordwood.” It sounded like the toll of doom. When the fishing is that good a couple of weeks before you are scheduled to arrive, it surely can’t last, but you gotta suit up anyway.

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Unlike my offshore trips in the past, I balked this time at packing piles of gear. We were booked into the Solmar Resort, with two days of fishing included. On subsequent trips maybe we’d tailor our gear, but this time we opted to keep it simple and learn the local drill. We met up, Jesse from Sacramento, California, and me from Newark, New Jersey, at the airport in San Jose del Cabo with nothing more than hotel reservations and our sunglasses.
 
Our first fishing day was a short shakedown. We taxied to the marina in downtown Cabo, climbed aboard the El Compromise, picked up our bait in the harbor and headed into the Pacific, past El Arco, the trademark stone arch at the tip of the peninsula, as the sun rose.

A six-mile run brought us to Lighthouse Bank and a dozen or so boats bobbing on the swells beneath high-circling frigate birds. The first day proved tough. Nothing showed on the surface, bait was scattered, and the few fish that were around stayed deep. We finished up our first day with a couple striped marlin to our credit, but hardly the excitement we’d come for. Release flags, 10 or 12 on some boats returning from Golden Gate Bank farther up the coast, told the story.

The next morning found us heading there, this time with another Solmar boat, captained by Jose de la Peña, who’d grown up fishing these waters with his father and grandfather. He’d learned to fish seamounts off Cabo by drifting them with hand lines, taking soundings with a sash weight, and finding ranges from the peaks looming to the east. Electronics at the helm offered nothing compared to the picture of the bottom he carried in his head.

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With us in the cockpit was Scott Overholtzer, who had fished Cabo for more than 10 years in his own boat trailered from his home in Irvine, California, and as a mate on charter boats. As we made the 24 nautical mile run to Golden Gate, he sketched a picture of the fishing at Cabo. Striped marlin, he explained, are around all year, and during winter they gather at Golden Gate Bank, northwest of Cabo, where the outflow of warm water from Magdalena Bay creates a thermal haven.

Peak seasons parallel water temperature, which begins warming in April. Fall months September, October and November are especially good, and the peak striped marlin season follows on the heels of the blue marlin run, which begins in late summer. Blue marlin to 700 pounds can be expected, as they follow the schools of summertime dolphin onto the banks, and in the case of Lighthouse Bank at the cape, to within a few hundred yards of the beach.

Wahoo are abundant at the same time, though they are more likely found when trolling the canyons that lie between the banks scattered off the peninsula. Primary locations, in addition to Golden Gate Bank, are the Finger Banks, some 50 miles west of Cabo; San Jaime Bank, 15 miles west of Cabo; and Gorda Bank, off San Jose de Cabo, which lies in the warmer water of the Sea of Cortez. Throughout the year, the cooler water of the Pacific and warmer water of the Sea of Cortez offer a range of temperatures, rip lines and breaks.

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Yellowfin tuna are plentiful from September through November. While the tuna fishery isn’t the same as at Puerto Vallarta, it’s nothing to ignore, and big ones will tip the scales at well over 300 pounds. It was a school of smaller tuna de la Peña found as we approached Golden Gate.

We could see the fleet over the bank a few miles to the north, but where de la Peña pulled back the throttles, traveling tuna dimpled the flat surface, and we had the sea to ourselves. We set out a pair of trolling feathers and dropped them back a hundred yards, and de la Peña worked the lures in among the tuna, garnering a quick strike. Jesse stepped up to the first yellowfin fight of the day. The fish hit hard and bore deep – it had a couple thousand feet of water under them to work with – but we pulled several tough yellowfins in the 30- to 40-pound class from the school before the fish headed west into the open Pacific, and de la Peña turned our bow to the bank and the striped marlin bite, which was well underway.

As we idled into the fleet, it was evident we were into something special. More than 75 boats sat scattered across the bank, and a fair number of them were fighting fish, which would be the case all day. Bait schooled beneath our hull, and we watched the lit-up marlin, 15 feet down, shadowing them. Jesse hooked up on the first fish of the day, and Scott and I stayed out of the way until he brought it to leader. After the release, we rotated through, each of us taking fish in our turn while the others watched the fight, took photos and kept an eye on the amazing scene around us. Frigate birds patrolled the skies; whales breached; seals worked the bait, scattering the schools; and marlin bounced across the surface all over the bank, some tethered to the anglers leaning into them from the cockpits of probably a dozen boats at any one time, and others just free-jumping.

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It wasn’t marlin stacked like cordwood, but it was spectacular fishing by any measure.
 
The curse of the Los Angeles Times story hadn’t doomed us. Later we’d hear tales of dozens of fish taken in a day and of anglers catching striped marlin from kayaks and being towed around the Pacific.

Our experience couldn’t match these exotic stunts. But what sticks in my mind is what Jesse told me on our last day as he cracked a cold one and reeled up for the run back to Cabo. “This is the best time I’ve ever had offshore,” he said.

Me too.

Cabo Overview

**

WHAT:** Striped marlin.

WHEN: October through February. November and December have been most reliable the past couple of years.

WHERE: Cabo San Lucas, Baja California Sur, Mexico.

WHO: Charter services are abundant in Cabo; fleets offer boats from 28-footers on up. Rates start around $450 per day and increase with the size of the boat, and the supplies and services provided. When booking, be specific about your expectations and how you want to fish. Crews know their business, but you’ll need to tell them what you want to do. If you want to troll for dolphin and wahoo to and from the marlin grounds, say so. They’ll be happy to accommodate you. Budget 15 to 20 percent of the charter fee for tips.

Here are some Cabo top fleets:

Marlin Masters Sportfishing
Fly-fishing, light-tackle fishing andkayak fishing available
770-573-0334
www.marlinmasterssportfishing.com

Picante Bluewater Sportfishing
714-572-6693
www.picantesportfishing.com

Baja Anglers
Specializing in fly-fishing andlight-tackle fishing
619-270-1124 
www.baja-anglers.com

Solmar Sportfishing
800-344-3349
www.solmar.com/sportfishing

Pisces Fleet
619-819-7983
www.piscessportfishing.com

Minerva’s Baja Tackle
Also a complete tackle shopin downtown Cabo
011-52-624-143-1282 011-52-624-143-2766
www.minervas.com

What to Bring

Charter fleets generally provide all the tackle you’ll need. Talk to them ahead of time to be sure they’ll have what you want to fish with. If you book a hotel package that includes fishing with the hotel’s fleet, you may not be able to speak to your captain ahead of time. In that case, you can bring the tackle you prefer or settle for what they have, which will likely be adequate but not always in the best shape.

For the best experience, make sure they provide or you bring:

Rods: Short stand-up-style rods, 30-pound to 50-pound.

Reels: Offshore-style lever-drag reels to match rods. 50-pound reels can be loaded with 50-pound line or 30-pound line. Two-speeds are best if you don’t mind the extra weight.

Lines: 30- to 50-pound mono. 80- to 100-pound leaders and hooks should be available on the boat.

Lures: Baja fishing is live-bait fishing. Baits are $3 each in the harbor – tradition dictates you start the day with 10, then make bait on the fishing grounds with sabiki rigs.

Other: Bring your own gimbal belt and stand-up harness, and a scale for setting your drags.

A Day in Cabo

The past couple years have seen some truly remarkable daily catches of striped marlin. “Four years ago I caught caught 22 fish on Christmas day, and nobody believed me,” says Drew Andrews, whose 58′ Bertram, Get Over It, is a fixture in Cabo. “These days you have to catch a lot more than that before nobody believes you.”

Last November 8, Get Over It caught 197 striped marlin. “It was all about preparation,” says Andrews. “We had 400 baits and 200 leaders tied.” His crew of five are all deckhands and anglers. “You’d kill a single deckhand,” he says. They made bait at Golden Gate Bank at 8:30 a.m. With two anglers on the bow and the balance in the cockpit, the captain continuously maneuvered the boat to maximize hookups. “We had at least two fish on at all times,” says Andrews. “We used 100-pound leaders and circle hooks, hooked the fish, let the leader out of the rod, brought it back on and broke the fish off. Our fish were on for no more than a minute. ” The marlin bills chafed the leaders just enough to break right above the hook. Then the crew tied on another hook, baited up and repeated the process. “We set out to catch 200 marlin,” he says. “We had used everything on the boat that resembled bait by 6:00, and we’d hit 197 and that was it. I don’t think I’ll do that again. It’s almost not any fun. I’d rather just have a good day.”

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