Dave Zoby turned to me and said, “No one is going to believe this.” I laughed and agreed. The fishing was so good. it’s just laughable at points. You see, Dave read my prior article on the annual SDFF camping / kayak fly fishing trip to southern Baja, 600 miles south of the border, from 2 years ago. He then contacted me with an email asking if he could tag along for a few days on the next SDFF club trip to southern baja with the intention of writing a feature article on the adventure for a well-recognized fly fishing magazine. My answer was, “Of course, Yes.” I just didn’t have confidence at the time that he’d actually pull it off. He did. Punta Abreojos in Baja is a long way from San Diego. But, it’s a really long way from Casper, Wyoming. Dave is professor at Casper College in Wyoming and a professional writer with numerous published articles in fly fishing magazines. And now he is just another dear friend I have accumulated over this 30+ fly fishing journey. Along with my Baja mentor, John Ashley and Dave’s dog Henry, we covered some serious water in the mangroves over 3 days during my 11 total days on this trip.
Dave’s dog Henry also made the trip. Henry is a big black lab and a hoot of fun to be around while fishing. But, here is the irony: I’m not a dog guy. At all. I didn’t grow up with dogs. The border collie we have at home I call, “Kelly’s dog”. Which is a testament to how awesome henry is. While Dave and I wade fished Henry would alternate between us, pointing like a hunting dog at the fish we’d hook up on. If I hooked up Henry would run over to me and point. Then he’d hang with me waiting. Only to abandon me as soon as Dave hooked up. That went on for hours and it was hilarious. Now that I’m home, I keep telling kelly’s dog: “You’re not a fishing dog.”
Dave’s article on this trip will appear in the January, 2024 issue of Gray’s Sporting Journal Magazine.
With my description of this year’s encounter, I’ll attempt to augment (and not duplicate) the info & guidance I already did on this magical part of the world with my prior article.
This was my 3rd time to this part of southern Baja on the Pacific Side. It’s an annual trip of the San Diego Fly Fishers club and this year there were 15 of us including 2 females camping on the edge of the Estero. And man did I have fun with the group fishing for 11 days.
One of the big differences this time is that I used a different kayak. In the prior two trips, I used a Hobie Mirage Sport. It’s small and fast; two attributes that make it perfect for the travel there and for navigating the Estero. But, stability was not one of its attributes. It was subject to tipping in current and there was no possible way to safely stand up on it; even in the most calm water. Well, I was lucky enough to stumble into a used Hobie Mirage Lynx Kayak that is perfect for this type of water, travel and fly fishing. It’s built in the materials like a stand up paddleboard making it super light. The boat is only 40lbs making it easy for me to load on top of my Tundra by myself. Because it’s light and built so efficiently for travel in water it’s lightning quick. Because it’s light it gets a bit pushed around in strong wind, but you can’t have everything. The fact that I can stand up and cast on this kayak is pretty awesome. Standing up was also pretty effective in letting me spot fish hanging at the edge of the mangroves. It’s so stable I can pretty much walk up and down its deck.
Fly Fishing Highlights
I’m still no expert in the Estero. But, I can confidently say I am so much a better fly fisher in this place than I was 3 years ago. And my results show it. I’m not exaggerating when I told you I probably strung 10 straight 40+ fish days in a row. Here are the species I caught the most:
- Broomtail Groupers
- Spotted Bay Bass
But, I did catch a number of other species too. I caught so many species in quantity I found myself getting spoiled. I don’t like that feeling. It’s the feeling of disappointment instead of joy when battling a huge fish only to find out it’s an enormous spotty when getting it close to the kayak.
So, it may sound strange that I did experience of component of failure on this trip… and actually like it. It sets the tone for my number one goal for next year: I did not catch a single fish on a popper. And God I tried. I tried every day to get the groupers and corvina to rise to my popper. And I failed. I’m not sure why it was so different from last year when getting a tight cast to the mangroves was rewarded. It might be that the water was not as clear as it was last year. Or colder? Who knows? Either way I have a goal for next year.
Also unique this year was the sheer amount of broom-tailed groupers I caught. For the prior two years I really struggled to find them. It made them special. They are the target species and that was a challenge for me in prior years. not this year, though. This year I caught a gazillion of them. I also caught a gazillion big corbina (called the “ghost of the coast” here in Southern California and really difficult to catch in the surf). They were rare for me to find last year. For some reason, though, unlike last year I did not catch a gazillion Corvina. I bet I only caught ~20 of them this year. Strange. Each year the estero gives you something different. I like that. We do this trip in Spring every year. It sure would be interesting for me to fish it in each of the seasons. Another goal.
Hands down my favorite part of this trip in terms of fishing was teaching Kainoa how to fly fish. Kainoa is a 20 year old, straight A college student at UC Irvine and was there with his dad, Rich. These are great people who are fun to be around and veterans of this trip and of Baja. And both are veteran conventional tackle fisherman. This type of fly fishing in the Estero is not conducive for success for beginners. You really do need at least a 40 foot accurate cast and good line management and quick line stripping skills for success. So, I was confident I could get him casting proficiently. But, not so confident he was going to get takes like I would be with a beginner on a trout stream. Because of his prior fishing experience, he took to the overhand cast quickly. I even taught him to roll cast so he could get the line in position for a big overhand cast. It was his pickup that was impressive. A good line pickup off the water is hard to teach. That type of skill just seems to only come with hours on the water; not from a beginner. Once he mastered the pickup he was averaging an efficient cast about a 1/3rd of the time and recognizing what happened on the failed casts. So, he was way ahead of a normal beginner. But, that stripping the line thing is physical and takes some dexterity. He was getting better…. But, not getting takes. And it didn’t help that people were catching fish all around him. He stayed with it, though. I gave him some space to figure things out like I do with every beginner and fished myself. But, by the end of day one he had not gotten a take. Day 2 was a different story. He caught a small spotty and it was high five time with pictures. I joked that I taught him 6 of the 7 elements of fly fishing. But, failed to teach him the 7th: the trophy shot. It wasn’t just a few minutes later when I looked over and saw his rod bent in half with him losing line. I quickly set my rod down on the sand and ran to him fumbling with my camera. After a decent battle we could see it was a big halibut. A beginner without any fishing experience would have lost that fish right at their feet. But, since Kainoa was not a beginner to fishing he used the rod and momentum to swing that halibut up to shore immobilizing it. I was hooting and hollering and clearly more excited about it than Kainoa. Since Rich and Kainoa were going to harvest this fish we had time to do a proper trophy shot.
We always remember the ones that got away more than the ones we catch and release
On the last day of fishing I got out on the kayak early with the group. And we all absolutely killed. Mid day the gang headed back to camp in fear of the afternoon winds which had been brutal every day. I decided I was going to push it to the max (temping fate with the winds and current of tide shift) because it was the last day. But, I did stay close so that no matter how bad the current or the wind got I’d have less than ½ mile to peddle back to camp.
Alone now, after successfully fishing “grouper alley” pulling a few broom-tailed groupers out of the mangroves I found myself close to the main channel, a ½ mile entrance and exit of the current into and from the pacific. There was an amazing channel against the mangroves that I fished on foot a few days earlier on the other side at low tide so I peddled over to see what stage of tide it was in. Unfortunately, where I waded on sand was already under water. So, with no place to put the kayak safely while the tide rose, I turned to figure out what I’d fish next. I had always done well stripping fast while trolling in the main channel for bonefish so that was an option. Facing the ocean, I saw the current ripping in by a point of sand. That formed a current seam of 2-3 feet of slow water behind the protection of sand with the current ripping by in 5-10 feet of water on the other side of it. The type of water that would be epic in a trout stream where the trout use the least amount of energy in the seam only to dart out into the current as the food goes by. But, here in estero I had only experienced predators in the base of the mangroves or in deep water. So I moved the kayak into position and casted into the current seam. My line tightened. Hung up. I immediately envisioned breaking off and calling it a day… calling it a trip. We’ve all had this happen: Then my hung up line started moving. It was slowly moving away from the ocean towards the mangroves. At first I thought, “Darn, I foul hooked another shovel nose shark.” But, then I thought to myself, “There’s no way a shovel nose shark would be there in that position unless he randomly swam right into my strip.” That is when I felt the head shaking. It now realized it was hooked in the face. The fish picked up speed. I had him on the reel but was losing line as he picked up speed dragging my kayak with him. I chased him like a captain would do on the open ocean getting an angle fighting to get the line back the line. Multiple thoughts ran through my head. I assumed it was a huge halibut. But, it could have been a legendary grouper. Could it have been one of john’s infamous red pargos? Then the fear set in: 20 LB flouro, a size 2 hook that could bend out. and what I had the most fear of: two knots involved I personally tied…
After a number of runs. After about 10 minutes of battle I got him to the leader and up to the side of the boat….. I still didn’t get a good look, but it did see it was a monster. Too big to pull onto the kayak and it was not tail hooked. He shot away again. around the 20 minute mark I tightened the drag to max. this was no cheapo reel. It was a high end Orvis large arbor designed exactly for this type of battle. 20 lb flouro. The fish was toasting my reel at full drag.
Now the fish had dragged my kayak 200 yards in the main channel, and it appeared to have intentions of dragging me out to sea. ½ mile away was the door to the open ocean. Getting dragged out to sea was not an option; too dangerous. So, I man’d up and horsed him, risking breaking him off.
It was the end of the day and the wind was up; The surge / chop was up. There was no one around to witness my battle. I kept going through scenarios in my mind convincing myself there was no way to land it…. then as quickly fantasizing about hauling a halibut the size of my kayak back to camp. I fantasized how I’d kill it because I didn’t have a tool with me to do that. Then as quickly I switched to fantasizing about taking a picture of it on the shore and dragging it back into the water to let it go. I fantasized that I was now “old man of the sea”….with no one crazy enough to still be out fishing; no one to see me in this battle; no one to believe it. I looked down to my reel and I could see the backing coming. It’s my hang up. But, I just believe there are so few scenarios (if any) where a fly fisherman needs to be in the backing. Getting pulled into the backing is for amateurs that don’t know how to fight a fish and don’t care if the fish dies as a result of the battle. it’s really hard on the fish to get all the way into the backing if you intend to release it. again, that is my hangup. That is when I decided “enough is enough” and decided the battle needs to stop whether I lose this fish or not. I took a 45 degree angle towards shore about 50 feet away and peddled like crazy. My strategy was to beach the kayak with the rod held high, get out and battle the fish on foot. I knew it was risky in terms of losing the fish. But, the battle was getting unsafe and I was alone. I got out quickly and beached the kayak. but the fish was going the other way taking out line and now my rod was parallel to the water, full drag, and the fish was still headed out to sea. I lifted the rod so it could help in the fight, It was not long after that when it broke off. I have to admit I was bummed. I typically laugh when I lose a fish. I reeled up and there was some consolation that the flouro broke right in the middle of my leader and not in either of the knots. I peddled the ½ mile back to camp getting pounded by the waves, fighting the current, but still in a fantasizing state of mind. I fantasized about fishing in the main channel on next year’s trip. Another goal for next year.
Fly Fishing Guidance
As mentioned prior I’m no expert yet at fishing the esteros of southern Baja. But, each year I learn a little more. And each year the Estero fishes differently. 3 straight years I have seen different conditions which demanded different types of flies, fly lines and tactics.
I can tell you this, though, with conviction: The color of the fly I fished in the estero this year was insignificant as compared to the structure of the fly. It should be stated that many of my fishing partners, some of whom are experts on the trip disagree with me. They only fish yellow or chartreuse over white. Those colors definitely work. And those colors are the only colors that they fish. well, I fished every color I had and everything worked….as long as my fly was in the right part of the water column. What did not work were flies that were designed to fish in the wrong part of the water column.
In my notes from last year I remarked that I tied too many clousers. Last year the fish were mostly in the top of the water column so I was missing them. I was stripping back flies below the fish in the water column because clousers have big, weighted eyes. So, this year I must have tied 3 dozen unweighted deceivers. And guess what? This year, most of the time the fish were in the bottom of the water column so it was the clousers that didn’t work last year, that worked great this year. In my notes to myself from this years trip… which I’ll read 11 months from now as I prepare to tie for the trip, it says: “tie clousers in all sizes of eyes so that you can cover all parts of the water column”. It also says, “Design a deceiver like pattern that has a little weight to it to fish in 1-3 feet of water”. I have some ideas…
Hands down one of, if not the most special experiences on this trip was finally getting to visit the tiny city of Punta Abreojos and being invited for dinner into the home of Bacilio & Leonor Romero. The drive is about 15 minutes from where we camp. This tiny city is run and managed by a cooperative. In the US we call that a “co-op”. In mexico it’s called a “Cooporativa”.
I have to admit I used GPT to help me with the next part:
Punta Abreojos is a small fishing village located on the Pacific coast of Baja California Sur, Mexico.
Fishing cooperatives, also known as “cooperativas pesqueras” in Spanish, are organizations formed by fishermen to collectively manage and sustainably exploit marine resources in their area. These cooperatives play an essential role in promoting sustainable fishing practices, protecting the environment, and ensuring the economic well-being of their members.
Typically, fishing cooperatives have a set of regulations and guidelines that govern fishing activities, such as defining catch quotas, enforcing fishing seasons, and establishing sustainable fishing methods. By working together, fishermen can have more control over their livelihoods, negotiate fair prices for their catch, access credit and resources, and participate in decision-making processes.
Bacilio is one of the profession fishermen of the Cooperotiva. The Cooperotiva has their act together in terms of conservation unlike many Mexican towns on the pacific (and frankly much of the US) that are “fished out”. The cooperotiva at Puntos Abreojos even has a full time watch for poachers. They are famous for a lobster season that they regulate and manage. Their ocean is a healthy one. They manage a thriving ecosystem.
I met Bacilio last year through John Ashley on this trip. God only knows how John originally met Bacilio… and that is a testament to John. Last year Bacilio brought his home-made ceviche to camp for us. Just a surprise gift. That is how awesome he is: a bunch of gringo fly fishers come into his town and he welcomes them with open arms and brings them gifts of food. This year Bacilio showed up at camp with Leonor and a pot of Frijolies Charros. Leonor knows her way around a kitchen. In broken Spanish we communicate. Of course, the more alcohol John and I consume the better Spanish speakers we are. Well, I guess I shouldn’t have been shocked when Bacilio and Leonor invited us to come over to dinner on Saturday night….all of us. We drank beers and laughed. We were served “sopa de albondigas de pescado” (fish meatball soup). It was specatular. I could have called it goo there. but, no. out came the fish tacos. It was an honor and I will spend the rest of my life trying to figure out how to repay them for their generosity and kindness.
If you have read my stuff on this site before or have gone on a fly fishing trip with me, you will remember my tradition of “the ceremonial last cast” right before ending a fly fishing trip and leaving. I pack up everything except for one rigged fly rod and when it’s time to go I execute. Typically it’s 5-10 casts and mostly I get skunked. I never change the fly that is tied on from the day before and many times that fly is not appropriate for the conditions or time of day. And that doesn’t matter to me. So, after 11 days, after 2 hours of packing HUKTRUK, and after mounting the kayak on the Yakima racks on top, ready to go I announced to the gang, “Time for the ceremonial last cast.” I walked down to the water and within 4 casts I caught and released a halibut. I couldn’t help but think of a quote from Steve Rinella, an accomplished writer and TV personality from one of his Meat Eater hunting shows. So, I have taken the liberty of slightly wordsmithing Steve’s comment from one of his shows because it reflected my thoughts at the time so well:
“As we prepare to leave this place. I’m as entranced as the first time I came here. I alternate between excitement about plotting my return and pushing even farther into the mangroves. And dread about the idea that this place and people will change somehow into something unrecognizable; something less unique. I try to grab onto snippets of visual memories and to lock into my brain those moments that most exemplify the things I love here. In hopes of keeping the images from fading away from my mind the way things seem to slip into the currents of time.“