Jim "Tug" Tuggle
“I didn’t think a fish could possibly jump that high! It looks like it was dropped out of an airplane!” “It’s not a fish, Tug. It’s a dolphin,” my wife Susan smugly corrected me with a smile. “Okay, but you know what I mean. Terry, did you get a picture of that? Please tell me that you did!” Terry Sheely, one of my fishing partners every year at Hotel Palmas de Cortez, had his camera glued to his eye and was feverishly clicking away at the spectacle of dolphins jumping in every direction, some clearing a height of an Olympic pole vaulter. “I think I did,” was Terry’s grinning reply, and then his eye was stuck back on his camera only to be pulled away by the ratcheting click of the drag of his Penn fishing reel. Fish on!
We were on our 12th annual Amigos trip to Hotel Palmas de Cortez in Los Barilles, California Baja Sur, Mexico, where the desert meets the sea, the land of palm trees, sunshine, great hospitality and fish – lots of fish. Every year at this world class fishing paradise has been different for me, and this year it was more of the same: different! It was the year of the tuna. Yellowfin style. Not too big, but just right for our light tackle – if you call thirty pound line light tackle.
Trolling across the blue of the Sea of Cortez, we hadn’t yet hooked up a marlin, but we expected to do just that. Our skipper picked up the mic on the radio, had a conversation with another captain of the resort fishing fleet, and then ordered us to reel up our gear. He had just received word of a school of tuna about a half hour’s run to the east. The marlin gear was stowed, the boat’s diesel roared, and we headed toward the sun. The fishing that soon followed was some of the most exciting of my life.
Quadruple hookups on yellowfin tuna with our Amigos, Jim Goerg and Terry Sheely, couldn’t have been much better. Over and under we ducked and then handed our fishing rods to keep from tangling lines while the yellowfin went berserk. Reels quickly depleted of monofilament amid shouts and laughter. Grunts and groans replaced some of the laughter, but not all, as we strained to land the powerful tuna which, characteristically, keep fighting all the way to the boat, not relinquishing their zest for hard pulling on the line – ever. Once gaffed and brought aboard, our deckhand and captain helped us put back the hoochie-like lures in seconds in order to maximize the exciting fishing frenzy. In a couple of minutes all four Amigos were hooked up again. More chaos, more laughter, more grunting and reeling. And we weren’t quite done yet. That episode ended with a deck load of shimmering sapphire and silver ocean treasure trimmed in gold in the form of yellowfin tuna.
Mornings are a special time for me at Palmas de Cortez. I grin as I leave our air conditioned cabana in my quest for coffee, to again be reminded how warm and pleasant the Baja air is here at 5:30 AM. I don’t even need a light jacket. It’s not yet daylight, but the promise of the sun is peeking over the purple eastern horizon. After a quick stroll from my room, I reach the restaurant. I always seem to be one of the first, if not the first one there. I scan the eastern edge of the earth to admire in ultra-slow motion of an orange sherbet ball of sun slowly emerging from the Sea of Cortez. Braced on all sides by friendly purple blue and magenta clouds, every day the dawn here is pure magic. As I sip my coffee small songbirds flitter on the veranda. Mexico seems to yawn, as this world awakens from its nighttime dreams. I watch the pelicans and frigates soaring overhead as they patrol the golden sand of the beach searching for their first meal of the day. My first meal is only a few minutes away.
On the water in front of the hotel the captains and the deckhands begin arriving in outboard powered skiffs, and are then delivered to their respective craft, one or two at a time. From our breakfast table I see them readying their vessels, busily doing what they need to do to get ready for the day’s fishing. Soon they will be jockeying their cruisers and pangas within a conversation’s distance of the pier in front of the hotel, as we excited Amigos, in floppy hats and flip-flops, shuffle a few yards through the sand to the pier where we’ll be boarding. Coolers stuffed full of the coldest ice this side of Greenland also contain our choice of lunches and beverages for the day, are handed from the pier to the boat’s crew as the anglers are assisted onto their chosen boats.
Breakfast is history. The hot coffee, scrambled eggs, toast, Mexican style beans and sauces, hot cakes, and a variety of fruits and juices has filled even the heartiest of appetites. Now it’s time to board your boat and get down to business. And just what is the business of the day? Fishing! The quarry is up to you, but I advise you to pay attention to your captain’s advice. He wants you to have a good day, and he knows what’s been biting, and where.
I love to tell the story of several years ago when Terry, Jim and I eagerly awaited our chance to go fishing for roosterfish on our first day here. “Marlin fishing is very good right now,” the captain suggested. After a few more statements about the good marlin fishing from the captain, we thought about changing our plans. So we did. What followed was epic fishing, landing five billfish before ten in the morning! Considering that our boat ride took about an hour to the marlin grounds, there was only a few minutes, after we had begun fishing, that we weren’t playing a marlin or a sailfish. They take a while to reel in (whew!) Moral of this tale: Listen to your captain.
I’ve come to the conclusion that the majority of the guests here at Hotel Palmas de Cortez want to catch a marlin, or possibly a sailfish. After all, this may be the best place in the world to do just that. But I have been more than pleased with catching some of the inshore species here, especially roosterfish. There’s something about trolling along the rocky shore, watching your live bait trailing in the wake of your cruiser or panga. When Mr. Roosterfish pursues your bait, you know it. Why? Because the bait gets really active. (Some have described the bait’s action as “Nervous”. I would describe its action as “Terrified”.) It can sense the predator zeroing in on it and the rooster’s comb-like doral just breaking water, and the live bait just wants to go somewhere else. It dodges and dives, turns right and left to avoid Mr. Roosterfish. (Theme from Jaws playing here.) Often I’ve watched the predator take a pass at the prey and miss it! Then the rooster regroups and takes another swipe at the tethered bait. And so it goes. Sometimes you hook up, and sometimes you don’t. But the excitement of the action is hard to describe.
Because we use relatively small hooks in the live bait in order not to damage its action, Roosterfish are difficult to hook. They have relatively small mouths for their size, and once they take the bait in their mouth, you must wait for them to turn away and give them a couple seconds to get the bait in their mouths before setting the hook HARD! One! Two! Three times! If you’re lucky, you’re hooked up to one of the hardest fighting fish in the world, pound for pound. On medium weight salmon tackle, which is what my wife Susan and I use, they take long runs, change directions and are generally totally unpredictable, much like a salmon on steroids, but swimming much faster. You need to reel, reel, reel, and keep your thumb off the spool on long runs, or risk an immediate blister or a lost fish.
On one memorable occasion I watched a worried Terry Sheely look at the rapidly departing monster roosterfish and gasp as the 30 pound test mono disappeared from the spool of his Penn Reel. The captain turned the cruiser to chase the great fish, and it was barely in time to keep Terry from being spooled by the largest rooster of his life – and he’s caught a lot. I don’t want to admit how big that fish was, because it’s larger than any I’ve ever caught, but it was north of 60 pounds. That same day Jim Goerg landed one about the same size – maybe a might smaller. I had to “settle” for a mere 35 pound jack crevalle a few moments later. Not all days are like that, but the potential of having a day similar to that keeps me fishing. Someone defined an angler as “a hook on one end of the line, with an optimist on the other.” Fishing is like that, isn’t it?
Working with your vessel’s captain you can make any sort of plan to target the species of fish that turns your crank, so to speak. We always target a number of different types of fish during our four or five days of fishing here. Even though roosterfish are my favorite, days offshore seeking marlin can be memorable. It’s an entirely different world just a short run offshore and besides trying to catch a big billfish, you get to see wondrous things. Have you ever seen a flying fish? I hadn’t until I started coming here. How about a sea turtle? Manta rays are commonly seen somersaulting in the distance, or next to your boat. Once we saw a school of dolphins as large as a football field zero in on a patch of sardines that we were jigging over for bait, only to witness mass chaos as the dolphins totally destroyed and consumed the huge bait patch in minutes. Whales? The Pacific Northwest has them, but we don’t have blue whales, the largest creature EVER to inhabit the earth. Susan and I saw one a couple trips ago. There are hammerhead sharks here, as well as other species that I have trouble identifying but your captain won’t.
The warm Mexican sun sinks into my tired bones, and my winter/spring aches and pains seem to disappear when I get to Palmas de Cortez. I forget about mowing my lawn and weeding my young garden. There are more immediate thoughts facing me. Should I have my Dorado made into ceviche? Or should I have it prepared at the restaurant as a main course or supplement to tomorrow’s dinner? Do I want to take a nap before dinner, or join the fishing crowd at the open air and swim-up bar? Coca Cola or Margarita? Pacifico or Modelo? Or just some fresh squeezed lemonade? Questions, questions.
In the last few years, Susan and I have begun eating some of our evening meals in the small fishing village of Los Barilles. Several of our favorite restaurants are within a five to ten minute stroll of the hotel. Casual dining, indeed, is the order of these cafes. The best shrimp tacos of my life are served at the Smoke House. Our friends Jay and Cammy Webster, and Pam Meredith were more adventurous than we were, and pioneered some of these restaurants that are now our favorites. Delicious and fun. Besides, then you get to get a little ways away from the luxury of the resort/hotel and experience some of real Mexico and its quaint neighborhoods.
The evenings are wonderful, but the mornings are the best here, I think. Anticipation is palpable as the anglers board their boats. Each day is different to those who fish. I can’t count the number of different fish that I’ve caught in my years here. I think Jay Webster told me he has taken thirty two different species and seems to add to the total every year. Last year Susan and I caught Dorado, skip jack, bonito, pargo, triggerfish, yellowfin tuna, roosterfish, needlefish, ladyfish, and some little thing I couldn’t identify.
As fishing getaways go, this is the best. Each spring after bone-chilling fishing trips to the Columbia for spring Chinook, or on a favorite lake for the beginning of trout fishing, I need a break. A warm and exciting break. Susan and I are not wealthy by any means, but we save a little bit each year for this trip, our number one vacation priority. Except for the cost of air transportation, which is definitely a consideration, the cost of this trip is so reasonable it’s surprising. If you compare the cost of the fishing, a hotel and good meals, this exotic trip costs about the same as a five day trip to Westport for salmon! As little as $810 (new reduced prices for 2018) for the fishing extravaganza this coming May.
If you haven’t joined us Amigos yet, it’s about time to try. If you’re a returning Amigo, tell your best fishing friends about this trip, which begins the day after Mother’s Day, or whenever you get here, each year. We’ll be back again this year, for Amigos 13. See you there?