In the world of destination travel, many fly fisherman, including yours truly, seek that next great undiscovered spot, no matter where it may happen to be. Multiple days of travel, detailed logistics and great expenditure more often than not lead us to spectacular fishing. However, many of fly fishing's "diamonds in the rough" float by unnoticed, literally right under our very noses.
A short two hour flight from Phoenix has our "not so weary" group of anglers touching down in the modern and comfortable airport at San Jose Del Cabo on the southern tip of Baja California Sur. The flight path paralleled the entire Sea of Cortez and revealed an uninhabited coastline bordered by an inhospitable desert lorded over by dry volcanic mountains. In stunning contrast to this desolate landmass, a fertile, azure blue sea quickens the fisherman's pulse and fires his imagination. For those looking for a more traditional vacation atmosphere, the resort towns of Cabo San Lucas and San Jose del Cabo are just minutes away and offer a multitude of recreational opportunities.
But we were in Baja to fish, so we immediately boarded our air-conditioned van for the hour and twenty minute ride to Baja's remote East Cape. This part of Baja is far away, both in terms of mindset and distance, from the glitz and glamor of the southern resort towns. This is old school Baja and these are fishing towns. Sparsely populated, the East Cape is a world of one lane dirt roads, roaming farm animals and weathered panga fleets. This isn't a spruced up and tidy resort town. The people are weathered and hard working, the architecture is old Mexico and the ocean and fishing rule the lifestyle. Living very modestly, most of these indigenous people survive in a hostile desert environment on very limited economic resources. As tough as the living conditions might be, the locals always offer a friendly wave and a smile for the visiting Gringo.
What drew us to this remote area was the opportunity to catch a roosterfish just inches off the beach on a fly rod. The East Cape of Baja is the best place in the world to make this happen. But even so, the task is not so easily accomplished. The roosterfish (locally pez gallo) inhabits these isolated and seemingly endless white sand beaches around this East Cape area. A migratory creature, roosterfish arrive in force by mid-May. As the season progresses into June and July, the daily roosterfish parade intensifies and includes any number of beaches that span several hundred miles of the best Baja has to offer. In a normal year, good opportunities exist for these amazing fish well into the fall.
The roosterfish is a member of the jack family. It is arguably the most finicky fish in the ocean when it comes fly patterns and complicated presentation techniques. Unlike most jacks who kick ass and ask questions later, the roosterfish has the size and strength of a giant trevally combined with the intelligence and natural nervousness of a permit. It's really quite amazing to see a 50 lb. brute crash a school of 12" mullet right at your feet. Often a big roosterfish will nearly beach himself in his frenzy to feed. But the most amazing part is in all his lit-up recklessness, he still has the savvy to refuse your painstakingly crafted mullet pattern. At times, the refusals become too frustrating to bear. It is a common sight to see a roosterfish angler slack-jawed and despondent. But for those who persevere and are lucky enough to put this ultimate jack on the beach, they join a small fraternity of our sports most accomplished anglers. Simply put... if you can hang in there and achieve even a small degree of consistency, you've got serious fly fishing game!
Not so long ago, the idea of successfully feeding a roosterfish a fly off the beach was viewed as impossible by those who decide such things. But our hardcore group marched ahead and sought to catch this ultimate predator in the surf. This apex predator, who lives and feeds among the unfriendly waves, can be seen under optimal conditions of wind, temperature, light, water clarity and surf as they ride the swells shoreward in search of prey. A plentiful shoreline diet of mullet, sardinas and ladyfish seem to keep the roosters pointed beachward offering one of the very few times that these fish can be fooled with a fly and without the use of chum.
The deceiver-type fly patterns that fool these fish most consistently possess subtle lifelike bait fish qualities. These include attention to size, shape, flash, motion and color. Rooster's prey species are at times extremely large. It follows that a fly capable of fooling the wary rooster is pushing the size limits of castability and is best described as "nasty" to cast. One such pattern, the "rasta," was developed by our host Frank Smethurst of the Scott Fly Rod Company. This fly combines all the above characteristics into one incredibly seductive roosterfish pattern. For ten years, Frank has had a silent obsession for roosterfish. His close friends refer to him as the "rooster man"... while Frank refers to the roosterfish simply as "the man." He is humble about the title and assures us, in his zen-like manor, that he is simply (as he says not entirely tongue in cheek), "the vehicle through which the rooster speaks."
There are fish cruising these beaches in the 50 to 60 pound class that are clearly candidates for a 12 wt. rod. However, from an endurance and stealth standpoint, a 10 wt. rod is the most practical tool for the average 20 lb. rooster. Oversized reels with smooth, sturdy drags should be filled with a minimum of 400 yards of 50 lb. gel spun backing. This ample backing allows for long runs that help protect light 20 lb. fluorocarbon tippets. Remember... there is no motoring after a hooked fish while fishing off the beach. But even before the hookup, stealth is the operative word as roosters are hypersensitive to the presence of fly line and tippet. Full clear, weight forward intermediate sink fly lines and fluorocarbon leaders and tippets are a must. The lighter the tippet, the greater the number of hook-ups. During our week, we had a 50 lb. plus rooster landed on 20 lb. tippet and a 25 lb. rooster landed on 10 lb. tippet.
What makes this program so grueling, is the difficulty of getting your fly into position where a rooster will take a look at it . As most veteran saltwater anglers know, the head-on shot is the money shot. With roosterfishing, that's where the fun just begins. Here's the scene: It starts with a burning sun beating down a brutal 95 degrees on you from directly overhead. A two angler team, sporting Camel Back hydration systems, rides a four wheel drive ATV on the sand berm high above the incoming waves. One guy drives while the other scans the wash, the trough and the incoming swells for a surfing rooster. Spotting roosters under the changing light conditions is an acquired skill and critical to getting the best shot. Blind casting for roosters is a strenuous, low percentage undertaking and to the initiated, senseless. With the two man team alternating shots, the roosterfish decathlon begins as the chosen angler sprints barefoot 50 yards down the beach over scorching hot sand while double hauling 60 feet of fly line. When in range, he launches a 6 inch soggy fly, javelin-style, as far as possible into a 20 knot head wind. Why barefoot? Because as you streak down the beach, your bare feet alert you to the ever present danger of the fly line wrapping around your feet and legs. Although hooking a rooster with the fly line wrapped up around your legs may be the least of your problems when you consider sunburn and jellyfish.
A successful cast will turn the fly over and lead your fish by about 8 feet. If you make the right shot, you just MIGHT get a follow. But there are no guarantees in this game! Once the fly is in the water, strip as fast and as smoothly as you can while crouching low. As the fish nears, back up the beach and accelerate the fly progressively until the fish commits. What happens next, if all goes well, is one of the most electric moments in fly fishing. As the seven long dorsal rays of the rooster shred the surface, your heart stands still. You've just gotten "combed" in 18 inches of water by "the man"... a four foot, lit-up roosterfish. Heart-stopping is an understatement! If he doesn't eat your fly, you're on the run again sprinting down the beach, dragging your fly line through the sand and surf to where you can get another shot. You regain the head-on position as your rooster cruises the trough. Winded, you repeat the entire process. It's not uncommon to have multiple shots at a single fish. You can invest many minutes and sprint hundreds of yards down the beach before your rooster returns to the deep or he eats your offering. On an average day, you may see up to 40 roosterfish, have shots at 20, get followed by 10, combed by 5 and hook one. It's not the easiest way to catch a fish on a fly, but if it was all about ease, you wouldn't be a flyrodder.
Rooster fishing gets in your blood! Part of what makes the entire process so enthralling is that it's so damn hard. Matching your angling wits with the roosterfish and getting so very close only to get shut down, makes it a personal challenge. During our week at the "roosterfish house", we had plenty of fish around, many shots and some amazing success stories. But success was not nearly as common as failure! With six veteran anglers in the house including two trout guides, two fly shop owners and two fly fishing industry reps, we appeared (at least on the surface) well prepared for success. But it was usually roosterfish schooling anglers and not the other way around. But we gladly accepted our fate. We all knew the odds and greeted each day with optimism. To our credit, each of us caught roosterfish. Some anglers were successful each and every day and we put a 60 lb. monster on the beach. This was a great way of enticing us back for next year! But what was really important was that we had a GREAT time with some truly hysterical characters and enjoyed a carefree week on the beach.
One of the best kept secrets of rooster fishing in Baja is you can stay up late, have that extra margarita (or two), sleep in the next morning and have a leisurely Baja-style breakfast. You can then tie the fly of the day and even take a swim before the action gets started. A fishing trip where you actually come home somewhat rested... imagine that? Ideally, we found ourselves prepped, ready and on the beach each day by 11:00 AM. That is when the light conditions become optimal to see roosters. When we weren't in pursuit of roosterfish, we had a 23 foot, center console off-shore boat at our disposal. We kept it anchored in the bay in front of our house. A long time high school buddy of mine, Mark Henninger, had made the two and a half day drive down the Baja Peninsula from San Diego with this new boat in tow. Several mornings we did the dawn patrol to keep the house well stocked with dorado and tuna. We wrapped up our blue water efforts slightly before noon, grabbed a quick sandwich and then motored to the beach where we quickly swam ashore to meet the rest of our group with the ATV's and our rooster gear.
This was a top-shelf program for sure. If you're interested in trying your hand at roosterfish with the option of dorado, tuna and marlin, Mark is in the initial stages of starting up his own Baja liveaboard enterprise out of La Paz. Angling Destinations, Inc. will be booking Mark's 52' catamaran sailboat. He will tow the 23' center console offshore craft. Mark's program will feature week long fishing trips that will offer scuba and surfing opportunities too. We will be keeping track of Mark's progress and expect to see him operational by the Summer of 2005. Mark is a quality guy and when this program comes together, it should offer an extraordinary live-aboard opportunity. We'll keep you posted in the Angling Destinations, Inc. newsletter. The next issue is scheduled for October 2004.
Written by Todd Sabine