A Taste of La Paz and the Sea of Cortez

The ladyfish zigged to the right, zagged to the left, and did a couple of nice acrobatic jumps into the air. But Fernando, our skipper, was not to be denied and the nearly two-foot-long fish was soon swimming in the newly created bait tank in the front of the panga. The ladyfish joined a half dozen others and Fernando announced we were ready to go fishing. I had watched with bemusement (and some envy) as Fernando had begun to hook the fish using his simple handline rig—a 4/0 hook and a hollow egg sinker. Toss it out, give a few jerks, and fish on!

I had two thoughts, one positive and one negative. The positive was wow, what would the real fishing be like if it was so easy to catch fish like these ladyfish for bait? At the same time I had read articles that said six-inch bait was the perfect bait in these waters. Six-inch-long sardinas were perfect for roosterfish and dorado and most of the other fish we hoped to catch. The only thing we were going to catch with this big bait was big fish, a big roosterfish or maybe a really big pargo. As it turned out my worry was justified. We failed to hook or catch a single fish! But, as the old saying goes, if you always caught fish it would be called catching not fishing.

Like many, I had long dreamed about fishing Baja’s fabled Sea of Cortez. Like many, something always seemed to prevent a visit. Sometimes it was time, sometimes it was money, and sometimes it was simply the daily conflicts that demand so much of our time. I probably could have made a visit if I had really made the commitment but it just never happened.

Then luck entered the picture. As a member of OWAC, the Outdoors Writers Association of California, I typically have the chance to attend two conferences each year, each in an area that provides setting for outdoor adventures—and articles. With budgets reduced in 2009 and 2010, many of the areas that normally would sponsor a conference had to decline and it was getting harder and harder to find a site for the 2010 spring conference. Up stepped La Paz in Baja Sur, Mexico. Although OWAC had never gone outside California for a conference, it seemed a natural given that many of the members write or have written about Baja.

It wouldn’t be easy for La Paz, there would be many logistical problems involved as well as the sheer cost of hosting a conference. But tourism was way down. In part it was simply due to the economic conditions, a factor that has led many Americans to reduce their time and money for vacations. But there was an additional factor that was specifically hurting tourism in Mexico: the image of violence. Violence in the border areas, travel advisories, and a barrage of stories in the media was leading Americans to look elsewhere when it came time for a vacation.

Opening night saw a beautiful sunset and a dinner along the shore

La Paz, the City of Peace, could afford to see some positive articles to counteract the image that many Americans had formed about Mexico. La Paz, capital of Baja Sur, the East Cape and its iconic fishing resorts, and Cabo San Lucas, the party town, needed to get the word out about their lack of violence and low crime rates.

The view was stunning!

The OWAC conference in mid-May presented La Paz a perfect opportunity to show how it is different and the hosts did a wonderful job! La Paz with its “old” Mexico charm; a town most visited by “family tourists” and those wanting to partake of outdoor activities including, but not limited to, fishing. For me, it presented a chance to finally visit some areas that I had read about since I was a teenager.

Yes, there were the normal meetings and workshops, some really nice hotels (including the one I stayed at, The Marina), and a plethora of great dining experiences.

Our hotel, the Marina Hotel

Beautiful grounds

Mullet in the waters of the adjacent marina



But what really got me excited was the opportunity to fish the Sea of Cortez. I wanted to see if all the stories I had read about over the years were true. And, I hoped to catch a roosterfish! Luckily I was able to catch a roosterfish, in fact four. I was also able to sample some variety and learn some lessons during my visit to the area. Some of the lessons I learned are worth repeating for those who are still hoping for that eventual trip down to these waters.

My first chance to fish was on a Tuesday when I, along with thirteen other OWAC’ers tried our luck with the pangas from Fisherman’s Fleet, the excellent operation run by David Jones and his family. We were picked up at our hotel at 5:15 and headed down the Malecon (boardwalk) along the Bay of La Paz before disembarking and being treated to a morning breakfast at the fleet’s small office. After some hot coffee, advice, and shared fishing stories, David wished us luck while we headed out to our large vans and the ride to the boats.

The streets of La Paz were still largely quiet as we threaded our way out of town and soon we were headed south on the 35-mile, one-hour-long journey to the “Las Arenas side” of La Paz (a colloquial name given to the area due to Hotel las Arenas, a now closed landmark in the area). Our destination was Bahía de los Sueños (the Bay of Dreams), the south facing launch point used by pangas during winter and spring (nearby Punta Arena de la Ventana is used during the summer).

While some decided to nap, others like myself tried to watch the scenery which, given the time of morning, was not easy. The lights from the van showed the usual desert scene—sand, cacti, more sand, and more cacti—until we neared the end of our drive. We had sped along at a brisk pace most of our journey but slowed as we followed a pickup truck down an incline toward the sea. The truck was dodging potholes in the road and our driver followed suit. Lights and a small town appeared to await us a couple of miles down the road but to our left was a beautiful red dawn, the sea, and an island off in the distance. Soon we passed through the lights and the small village, one that was just starting to awake. The grove of date palms, and fields filled with corn and chili, hinted at the agricultural nature of the area. Soon thereafter, the paved road ended, and we traversed a dirt road the final, short distance to the bay. Within minutes the van pulled up to a crescent-shaped beach and there, on the sand, were the pangas.

Unloading the van

The bay and pangas

Each panga was a narrow, 20+foot-long wood or fiberglass boat with stout bulkhead benches in which the first section is utilized as a bait well. Some boats had fishing chairs, some did not, but all had several rods to accompany the anglers, large, powerful engines, and experienced skippers. We were introduced to our skipper Fernando which gave me a chance to whip out my copy of Spanish For The Fisherman. “Buenos Dias, Capitán! Fernando Valenzuela?” Fernando grinned, “no, Fernando Lucero.” Fernando spoke limited English but we were able to communicate, in a fashion, and it turned out he had been skippering boats for the Fisherman’s Fleet for 19 years. How long had he been a fisherman? Since he was a baby. I would get more chances to practice my fractured Spanish.

    Our skipper Fernando

As soon as the potty breaks were over (and there are no bathroom facilities on the boats), we placed our lunches into Fernando’s boat Brenda, climbed in, and headed out.

Our boat Brenda

Our departure point, Bahía de los Sueños, was once called Ensenada de los Muertos (Bay of the Dead) until realtors forced a name change; that name would prove prophetic for the day.

With this fleet most skippers catch their own bait each morning and generally that means netting some sardinas. Unfortunately for us, there had been a shortage of sardinas for a couple of weeks. Alternative bait was needed and the skippers had decided to use ladyfish. My concern, as mentioned, was that we would either get big fish or no fish and I was right.

Ladyfish would be our bait

We paralleled the shoreline for a half-mile or so as we headed toward Punta Arena de la Ventana and soon stopped to make bait as described earlier. Richard Azevedo, my partner in the boat, and I were wishing we had brought our light tackle with us because the ladyfish looked like a lot of fun. Fernando simply saw them as trash fish and bait.

Soon after we were crossing Canal de Cerralvo the channel that separates the mainland from Isla Cerralvo (Cerralvo Island), an 18-mile-long island populated primarily by goats and seabirds. (Ironically the name of this island has also been changed. Today it is officially known as Jacques Cousteau Island but no one I talked to uses the new name or agrees with the change, a name assigned by Mexico City, a city far, far away.)

Crowned by high cliffs, and sitting between two deep-water channels, the island is noted for its large fish including many marlin, sailfish, dorado, wahoo, pargo and roosterfish (and it was here that the world record 114-pound roosterfish was caught). David Jones had mentioned at breakfast that he personally liked to fish the Las Arenas side when he went out even though he also ran boats out of La Paz. Why? Simple, he felt it was the best place to really get into some nice fish. He also said he preferred an hour ride in a van versus a two–hour ride in a boat. But it was a little early in the year for most of the fish and we didn’t have the best bait.

Greg Niemann looks like the “Old Man and the Sea”

Initially we joined some of the other boats slow trolling for pargo and we saw anglers on two of the boats catch fish, including a large pargo by my fishing buddy Jack Holder.

My Fresno buddy Jack Holder (who writes about trout fishing in the Sierras) and a nice pargo (snapper)

But action was slow and eventually the boats scattered with each skipper heading to his special spot. Fernando took us to his spots, and we fished a lot of water, but we never had a bite. The island

We did see a good deal of what is an interesting island and Fernando treated us to knot tying lessons. I was able to practice my Spanish on fish names: pez gallo for roosterfish, pez agujon for needlefish, toro for Jack crevalle, jurel for yellowtail, etc. But all we had were the names; a few of those fish on the end of our lines would certainly have increased the fun. But it was not to be.

Colors #1

Colors #2

One final try

Finally, at around 1 pm, we headed back across the channel to fish some mainland beaches. The results were the same, no roosterfish, no dorado and no pargo. Eventually time was up and had to head back to our home beach.A nice Roosterfish!

After unloading we checked out the other boats and their fish. Unfortunately it had been slow for most of the boats, the only fish we saw were two big pargo and a large roosterfish, all fish that had to approach 30 pounds in size if not larger (and Jack’s pargo may have been bigger than 30 pounds).

Fernando held up the large roosterfish for a picture but it didn’t change the fact it was a slow day. So ended my first day on the Sea of Cortez. A fun day but not exactly what I had hoped for or expected in these fabled waters.

Jack Holder and his pargo

The next day saw us fishing on a boat from the Pirate Fleet in La Paz. This fleet is located just a few miles from downtown La Paz and has a variety of boats available to anglers.

Some of the skippers

We would be fishing on a Triumph 210, a 22-foot-long boat equipped with a 150 H.P. engine, live bait wells, padded seats, and even a porta-potty. Tackle consisted of Ugly Stick Tiger rods, Avet LX4 reels, 40-pound line, and 4/0 hooks.

A speedy and comfortable boat

As the day before, we had an excellent skipper, this time Luis Alberto. During the course of the day we asked him about the biggest fish he had taken on his boat. He mentioned that he won the La Paz Tournament in 2008 with a 48-pound yellowtail and had caught a 650-lb marlin, 100-lb roosterfish, 50-lb dorado and 280-lb yellowfin tuna. Not too bad for any boat.

Luis Alberto

Our destination this day would be Isla Espirtu Santo (Espiritu Santo Island), a roughly 20-mile-long island that sits directly north of Bahia de La Paz. It’s considered one of the most interesting islands is the world with an amazing variety of fish. In fact, part of the OWAC group had decided to go out and swim with the huge whale sharks that visit the La Paz Bay each year. Another group took kayaks into a mangrove swamp populated by snook.

There were three of us in the boat and this day we would have live sardinas as bait.

What a difference the bait would make! We would catch 27 fish, none large but some decent fish and nice variety—8 dorado, 7 roosterfish, 5 trumpetfish, 3 cabrilla, 2 needlefish, 1 jack crevella and 1 triggerfish.

One of the many coves

When we started the trip, Luis had asked us what we wanted to catch. We told Luis that we were hoping for roosterfish and possibly dorado. Luis said he knew the spot and after picking up some live sardinas we headed to one of the coves that cut deeply into the island. Shallow aquamarine water, no more than a dozen feet deep, and we were rewarded with seven roosterfish in less than an hour.

KJ and a Roosterfish

Jack Holder and a Roosterfish

Mike McKenna and a Roosterfish

Next he asked if we were ready to try for dorado? Sure! Soon after we were catching dorado. Luis would show us a number of different spots that day, most yielding up some fish, and also take the time to point out interesting highlights of the island.

Moving to the area for Dorado

Jack Holder and a Dorado

KJ and a Dorado

Mike McKenna and a Dorado

By the end of the day we all agreed we had had a great time. We had a great variety of fish and caught what we has set out to catch—Roosterfish and Dorado.

Jack Holder and a Jack Cravelle

KJ and a Trumphetfish

Mike McKenna and a Cabrilla

KJ and a Cabrilla

Jack Holder and a Cabrilla

KJ and a small Orangeside Triggerfish

On the way back to the dock Luis pointed out a small settlement of tents on a seemingly deserted beach. “See those tents?” said Luis. “Those belong to my uncle who is a commercial fishermen. I grew up fishing with him.” It was easy to see where Luis had learned how to fish.

Again, we were a little too early for the really hot fishing but we really didn’t mind. We only wished that we had brought along some light tackle for the smaller species that were so abundant. Others in the OWAC group were better prepared, and a couple of the guys had some great fun using fly rods on the fish, but we had left the rods back in the motel.

So it goes at La Paz, a variety of options as far as fishing locations, boats, rates, seasons and variety of fish. So too with the two great islands, Espiritu Santo and Isla Cerralvo, the largest and southernmost islands in the Sea of Cortez. Few if any other areas can offer the possibilities for fishing, diving, kayaking, snorkeling, sailing and boating in such a unique and diverse environment.

Still, there are lessons to be learned from these two excursions and as well as later trips that week in the East Cape:

1. Be sure to decide ahead of time what type of craft you want to have and check out the offerings of the various fleets. Remember that many pangas do not have any protection from the sun nor comfortable seats. Almost all of the boats at the Las Arenas site are pangas but if fishing out of La Paz itself there are a range of boats, and prices, available.

2. Bring along long sleeved shirts that are light and cool. Protection from the sun is important and sunscreen products, and proper clothing, are essential.

3. Check the Internet as to the different areas, what fish are seasonally available, and what type of boats are available. The fishing at Espiritu Santo, Isla Cerralvo, and the East Cape can be quite a bit different both as to the available species and what boats work best. For instance, fishing for pargo is easy to do in a panga. Fishing for marlin is usually more comfortable in a larger boat (and of course more expensive).

4. Consider bringing along some lighter tackle but also discuss this with the landing and your captain. One night, over dinner at an East Cape fishing resort, I had an interesting conversation with a fellow guest and his wife. They had fished for two days on a cabin cruiser. They mentioned how much more fun they had the second day versus the first. Why? On the first day they had trolled all day long for a single fish, a marlin. Although they enjoyed catching the marlin, they did not like trolling all day for one fish. The second trip they talked the captain into letting them do some small game fishing for part of the day. They proceeded to catch a couple of dozen small fish of various species— ladyfish, needlefish, jacks, small pargo, and had a really fun time. Most captains assume their passengers want some large fish and go in that direction. If you’re satisfied with smaller species, more fish, and more variety, make sure you discuss it before the trip. A happy client is a repeat client and communication of “your” expectations is the key. Too often anglers simply “go along” with the plans of the skipper assuming the skipper knows best. The skipper’s are the experts but a clear expression of your goals can make his job much easier.

5. Go with realistic expectations. Yes, the Sea of Cortez is still one of the great fishing regions in the world. But it’s also a region that has suffered much since the early days of the 60s and 70s. There are a number of reasons for the decline but bottom line is that there are good times and bad times, better times and poorer times. Do not expect to automatically catch big fish or even fish every time you go out. Plan your trip carefully around the seasons and you should have a productive fishing experience. But be realistic.

The La Paz Fishing Fleets—

The Fishermen’s Fleet


Owner: David Jones

Phone: 1-408-884-3932

Email: fishermensfleet@hotmail.com

Boats: Open Pangas in Las Arenas

Baja Pirate Fleet


Owner: Leonard

Phone: Toll Free 1-866-454-5386

Email: leonard@bajapiratesoflapaz.com

Boats: Pangas and Super Pangas in Las Arenas; 22-foot-long Triumph 210 and a variety of cruisers in La Paz

The Baja Mosquito Fleet



Phone: Toll Free 1-877-408-6769

Cellular from USA +52 1(612) 120-3585

Boats: 22-foot Pangas, 26-foot Super Pangas, and a 28” Cabin Cruiser

Jonathan Roldan’s Tailhunter International


Owner: Jonathan Roldan

Phone: Toll Free: (877) 825-8802; or, from the US: (626) 638-3383; From México: 044 (612) 125-3311

Email: fishermensfleet@hotmail.com

Boats: Pangas in Las Arenas

Fish Taco Chronicles

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