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FISHING TRIP REPORT: Mexico / US, January 1999.
By Steve Starling

I’ve recently returned from an interesting trip to Mexico and the US, where I fished and visited a large Sportsman’s Exposition. I travelled with Capt. Greg Bethune, owner of the Carpentaria Seafaris live-aboard charter operation out of Seisia, on the northern tip of Cape York Peninsula in Queensland.

In Mexico, Greg and I linked up with Kate Van Gytenbeek and her new husband, Randall Bryett. Kate works for her dad, who owns "Fly Fishing in Salt Waters" magazine, based in Seattle, Washington. Randall is an Aussie and had skippered and decked on game boats out of Mooloolooba, QLD, for several years before marrying Kate and moving State-side. The two of them have now set up a fishing travel business, advising American anglers on angling opportunities ‘down under’.

In Mexico,  we stayed at Cabo San Lucas, which most people shorten simply to Cabo (pronounced "car-bo" by the way, not "cay-bo"). Located at the south western corner of the 800-mile long Baja Peninsula, Cabo San Lucas is a highly commercialised tourist town with plenty of hotels, bars, restaurants, etc. The waterfront area is somewhat reminiscent of Australian ports like Cairns, but the marinas are larger and more crowded. There is a resident fleet of between 300 and 400 sport and game fishing boats (from six metre ‘pangas’ to 30 metre gin-palaces) and this number more than doubles during the high season, as American anglers bring their boats south… It’s a VERY busy port!

We stayed in a small self-contained villa about six kilometres out of town in a walled estate with its own security guards. However, crime didn’t appear to be especially rife, and the streets of Cabo are probably safer than many of those in Sydney or Melbourne. Our villa was a little run-down, but nonetheless very comfortable. It was built in the late 1970s or early 80s for Keith Richards from "The Rolling Stones", but he has since sold it and several new bits have been added on… It’s doubtful if any of these new additions would satisfy Australian building standards! All the same, our digs were comfortable and homely.

Each morning we drove our hire car to the marina, had a hearty breakfast at a waterside snack bar called "Cheeseburger, Cheeseburger" and boarded our 26 foot (8 metre) fibreglass Glacier Bay cat for the day’s fishing.

These US-made twin hulled vessels (owned and operated by Baja Anglers) are powered by dual 150 or 200hp outboards, so they really get along! Before leaving the harbour, we’d stop at the floating bait pens and purchase our day’s bait and berley (chum) requirements. Fish almost identical to our yellowtail or yakkas cost US$2 each, while a generous scoop of lively sardines was US$10. Most mornings we spent US$30 or so on bait. When we asked about catching our own bait, we were informed that this wasn’t allowed — a rule enforced by the local bait-catching ‘union’!

From Cabo, it’s possible to fish south and west into the Pacific, or east into the beautiful Sea of Cortez. During our visit, water temperatures were at their very lowest for the year, and this resulted in below-average fishing results. The water on the beaches was a chilly 19 or 20 degrees C (68F), while offshore, the best we found was 23 degrees C (just over 73F). Air temperatures ranged from night-time lows of perhaps 14 or 16C up to afternoon highs in the mid to upper 20s, although it often felt warmer under the clear, blue skies.

This region is widely regarded as one of the most fertile patches of ocean on earth, due to its dramatic underwater topography and nutrient-rich currents. Whales (mostly greys in the 10 to 20 metre range) were present in staggering numbers during our visit, and I’d guess that we averaged well over 100 grey whale sighting each day — many at close range. Pilot whales, dolphins and sea birds were also extremely abundant.

The fishery off southern Baja has been hammered hard for many years, yet continues to produce outstanding returns. Game boats here average 1.7 marlin per day throughout the year, with really good boats landing as many as a dozen fish a day during the best months. The vast majority of these beakies are striped marlin in the 40 to 70 kg range (90 to 150 lb), although some blues and blacks are also encountered in summer, and a handful of ‘granders’ have been caught. Broadbill swordfish are also reasonably common, and are sometimes found ‘finning’ on the surface during the day.

At times, marlin are hooked within a kilometre or so of land (in water that may be as much as 250 fathoms deep!), but for much of the year, they are more abundant on the various sea-mounts and plateaux 20 to 60 kilometres out, where they swim in schools, along with dolphin fish (dorado), wahoo, sharks and acres of small to medium yellowfin tuna. Unfortunately, this action was shut-down during our stay due to the cool water, and although marlin were being hooked by some boats, our only day spent out on one of the banks attempting to tease up a striped marlin for a fly rod shot resulted in a blank. We raised a wahoo and three dolphin fish (dorado), and caught a small blue shark on fly, but didn’t see a billfish.

The remainder of our days were spent working the inshore waters along the Pacific side of the Baja Peninsula. Here, we typically began our day by anchoring on a reef patch just 100 metres offshore and berleying or ‘chumming’ with live, dead and cut sardines, then fishing small streamers, Clousers and other flies on sinking lines in the chum trail.

This produced Sierra mackerel to 4 kg or so, thicklip and bluefin trevally, African pompano (pennant fish), green jacks, trigger fish and flute or trumpet fish.

Sierra mackerel are very similar to spotted or Queensland mackerel, but have attractive gold spots. They are at least as fast and strong as our school mackerels and have very sharp eyesight. Short shock tippets or bite leaders of very fine single-strand wire were all we could get away with, and even then, many Sierras chased the fly without striking. Discarding the wire resulted in more strikes, but two out of three Sierras would bite the fly off within seconds of the hook-up on straight mono.

After an hour or two of chumming, the action would slow, so we’d pull the anchor and begin hunting roosterfish right behind the surf break. To do this, we motored slowly along just 30 to 50 metres off the beach, trolling a live, hookless teaser bait and casting a hookless popper on spinning tackle into the turbulent surf line. When one of these teasers attracted roosterfish, we’d cut the motors and begin casting flies.

Roosterfish are an extremely attractive, alert and challenging target species. A member of the trevally or ‘jack’ family, they are somewhat reminiscent of a cross between a queenfish and an amberjack or yellowtail kingfish. They have high, backward curving soft rays extending from the top of their first dorsal fin, like a rooster’s ‘comb’. These are black, as are the striking markings on their silver, green and mauve bodies. Their eyes are large and they swim fast, often carving the surface with their erect dorsal rays as they hunt bait fish. Roosters have been recorded to weights of almost 40 kg, but are rare over 30 kg.

Teased-up roosterfish remained ‘hot’ and catchable for just a few seconds before losing interest and returning to the protection of the white-water in the surf break. They were also choosy about flies and extremely leader and boat shy. So, although we raised several dozen fish each day, our results on fly were modest, and we regarded five or six successful captures and releases of roosters as a very good session. Similarly, although we raised roosterfish well in excess of 10 or 12 kg, the largest we landed was a specimen of around 6 kg taken by Greg Bethune. The rest were mostly in the 1 to 3 kg range. Although relatively small, they pulled hard and erratically, and occasionally jumped or thrashed wildly on the surface. We were extremely impressed by these tough, wily fish, and all agreed that we’d like to tangle with a 10 kg-plus specimen on fly!

Fishing hours ran from roughly 8AM to 3.30PM each day, giving us plenty of time to check out Cabo in the late afternoon and evening. Not surprisingly, the night life there is lively, with bars and clubs such as "El Squid Roe" and "The Giggling Marlin" packing them in every night. The whole town jumps with music, colour and action until the early hours of the morning, and tequila consumption could probably be measured in megalitres, rather than bottles! High point for us Aussies was working out the beer trade-in system… Mexico must be unique as the only place in the world where the beer costs less than the bottles! Our first carton (20 bottles of Corona) cost about US$25. However, if you return the carton and empty bottles, the next carton of 20 cost just US$8. Can you imagine… Ice cold Coronas for 40 cents a bottle! Oi chihuahua!

All too soon, our week in Cabo San Lucas came to an end, and we winged our way north to San Francisco, where we would spend the next five days attending the San Mateo Sportsmans Exposition.

This show — which covers fishing, hunting, camping and boating — has roughly three times the total floor area of the big Melbourne Fishing & 4WD Show and attracts an amazing number of visitors. Interestingly, the fly fishing sections (salt and fresh) at San Mateo were as large as the hunting, camping and general sportfishing portions combined, clearly reflecting the massive growth of fly fishing in the United States over the past decade or two, and its continuing popularity.

Each day at the show, I presented one hour seminars, backed by slides, giving an overview of fly fishing in Australia. These pulled reasonable crowds and generated a good deal of interest. Greg and I also helped Kate and Randall out on their combined "Fly Fishing in Salt Waters" and "Australian/American Fishing Connection" booths.

The emphasis at the show was very much on conservation, which is becoming increasingly important in America, as elsewhere in the world, due to declining fish stocks. Catch-and-release is strongly espoused, as is habitat protection and restoration.

On the tackle front, there doesn’t appear to be a great deal of really radical or cutting edge stuff headed our way this year or next — certainly nothing in the league of, say, gel-spun fishing lines a few years back. It appears, instead, that we are now in an era of consolidation and specialisation.

Things that really excited me included the newly re-born Powell Rods company. This firm has been making fly rods for years, but they have recently undertaken a major overhaul and revamp (along with a change of ownership and a massive injection of capital) and are now doing some very innovative stuff. One of their fly rods — a three-piece 14 weight capable of throwing lines from 9 to 15 weight and really putting the hurt on strong fish — was especially exciting. They also have 18 and 20 weight rods on the way, which will certainly be interesting!

The Abel Reel company has also expanded, adding a range of high class fly and conventional rods to its existing line-up of premium fly reels. These rods also attracted plenty of interest at the show.

All-in-all, it was a fascinating and memorable trip, made all the more enjoyable by the great people I shared it with… I’ll certainly be trying hard to get back over there in January 2000!

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