Gone Fishing in the Sea of Cortez

By Habeeb Salloum

SEA OF CORTEZ -- "You don't have to lie about your fishing exploits here! How many you catch, how big They are - the sky is the limit!" Jim, an American who was my fellow lodger in Rancho Leonero on Baja California's East Cape, smilingly replied when I asked him about fishing in the Sea of Cortez.

"I caught a half dozen dorados and a huge marlin - that's not counting the ones I threw back into the sea." Jim seemed proud of himself as he downed yet another beer in Rancho Leonero's bar. He continued, "Our panga (fibreglass skiff) ploughed through a half dozen schools of fish. You've never seen anything like it! It's a fisherman's paradise!"

I grinned, thinking to myself, "Perhaps liquor is playing its well-known role. There couldn't be that many fish in a world where the creatures of the sea are fast being depleted!"

For the next few days, I kept busy, participating in Rancho Leonero's many activities - from visiting the nearby historic cities, soaking in the warm waters of the hotel's swimming pool to nature hikes. It was only as I struggled and panted to reach the top of Agua Amarga, a high hill located a little over a mile from Rancho Leonero that I thought of involving myself in something less strenuous.

Exhausted, I reached the table-like crest of this small mountain. Standing atop this mesa as the cool air revived my body, I looked around. The view was spectacular. To the west, the Sierra Laguna Mountains towered in the distance; to the east, the Sea of Cortez sparkled in the sunlight while, below, to the north, Rancho Leonero appeared set like a gem on the seashore, cuddled on one side by the greenery and on the other by the inviting blue waters. "It's time to sail the sea", I thought to myself.

Back at the hotel, I discussed fishing with a good number of tourists, mostly from Alaska and California, who had come, time after time, to the Rancho for the sole purpose of practising this sport. Without exception, they all emphasized the great fishing attributes of the Sea of Cortez. Bob, a sports fisherman from Alaska summed it all up: "No matter what time of the year I come here, I always hook more fish than I expect. It's the best place in the world to fish."

Even though I am no fisherman, the stories that I heard about fish and their abundance perked up my interest. That evening, while dining on Rancho Leonero's fine tasty food, I talked to John Attaway, who hailed from northern California, about my wish to join a fishing party.

John, an avid sports fisherman, said that he was going fishing the next day and agreed to take me along. No doubt he was amused by my naivety when it came to fishing.

The morning air was cool as our panga, steered by Indio, our captain, stopped near shore to pick up a large pail of small herring for bait. As we made our way through the Sea of Cortez, John, a soft-spoken former commercial fisherman and now an agricultural expert, appeared relaxed and content. For the first while, apparently thinking of his favourite sport, he was not too talkative as he attached hooks to the fishing lines.

The sea was calm and our panga seemed to glide over the smooth water. In less than half an hour we had reached a buoy with its attached large pieces of fish placed by fishermen to attract schools of fish. Indio, who spoke no English pointed to the many fish stirring the waters, "Tuna! Mucho (much) tuna!"

I looked around. Pangas and larger boats were converging on the same spot. In a few minutes there were more than a dozen boats swarming like bees around the buoy.

"Look at them! They're all over!" John was excited as he threw his line into the water. "Oh! I've got one! His face radiated happiness as he hauled the fighting tuna toward our panga.

Soon, all around, from the surrounding boats excited voices filled the air. "It's a bite! I've caught it! Wow! It's a big one! It's a beauty! I've lost it! I've hooked a large tuna? Pull it in! Slacken the line! Oh! damn it, it's gone!" The world around us seemed to be a mass of babbling voices as the tourist-fishermen pulled in their tunas.

John was doing well. As soon as he had his first tuna, a twelve pounder on board, he hastily re-baited his hook and tossed his line into the water. At the same time, to entice the tuna, Indio would throw handfuls of living herrings around the panga. In less than half an hour, John, with little help from me (I viewed myself as an obstruction) had landed four, ten to fifteen pound tunas.

As the bites lessened, the boats began to slip away one by one. We were the last one to leave, but soon gathered speed on our way to look for other types of fish.

There are an incredible variety, some 850 species, of game fish found in the Sea of Cortez - considered to be the best fishing grounds in the world. A number of these like the dorado, marlin, pargo, roosterfish, sailfish, yellowfin tuna and wahoo are brought in daily by sports fishermen. This lends credence to the saying 'Baja is the best fish story ever written'.

Now we were taking part in that fish story. As we moved along, trolling for dorado, John's voice rang out, "I've got it! I can see it! Oh no! It's only a bonito!" I could feel disappointment in his voice. However, for Indio, it would be useful. The seven bonitos and sierras, weighing two to three pounds each, caught by John that day, were used for bait.

He attached three of these, above the water, to the side of the boat; then cut them open, smilingly indicating that their blood would attract the dorado. We then moved from spot to spot seeking that tasty fish.

Everyone was in a good mood as we moved through a calm sea. Trolling along, we chatted. John, who knew Spanish much better than myself, would often translate when I talked to Indio. I asked Indio how he conversed with the gringos. He smiled, gesturing with his hands.

"See! See it jump!" Excitement gripped me as I motioned with my hand to the dorado John was hauling in. The bug of fishing had infected me and I felt the joy of accomplishment even though I had not done a thing to bring in the fifteen pound dorado. In quick succession, John pulled in another two dorados, but they were too small and he threw them back into the water, making a total of 14 fish caught that day, nine of which were released or used as bait.

Back at Rancho Leonero, John took his three tunas and one dorado to be filleted and smoked by the hotel staff for a party he planned back home while I went to sit by the pool to write about our fishing trip - a fulfilling experience, but, of course, not the greatest fish story ever told.


photos: Habeeb Salloum

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