Catching Roosterfish in Baja, Mexico
I can vividly recall watching Frank Smethurst’s Running Down the Man for the first time and being instantly drawn to the raw “mano-y-mano” style of fly fishing for Roosterfish off the beach.
“No guide no boat,” “you against them,” “Standing in this giant ocean waiving a silly little fly rod,” “Running up and down the beach chasing this giant brilliant fish,” “The Elizabeth Hurley of fish,” these are the quotes that have been in my head for the last 7 years. This spring, I finally reached a boiling point where I just had to taste the salt of Baja and go fly fishing for Roosterfish.
In preparation for the trip, I found myself learning how to tie knots I never bothered to learn and I actually thought twice about how I was putting backing onto a reel just in case I might need it. As I watched 500 yards of 50LB gelspun go onto a Lamson Vanquish, I thought no way a fish could take even half of this backing, and if they did…how can you fight a fish a quarter of a mile away from you?!?! More questions I was soon to have answered. The night before finally came and I found myself up all night dotting my “i’s” and crossing my “t’s” (re-spooling backing, retying less then perfect bimini knots) until the sun came up and it was time to go to the airport.
I’m certainly no authority on what you need to go fly fishing for Roosterfish, but from those who are, here is some of what I was told to bring…
Rods/Reels/Lines for fly fishing for Roosterfish from the beaches of Baja.
- 10wt Scott S4S for the big rooster fish with a Lamson Vanquish fly reel in size 10 or 12 spooled with 450 yards of 50LB gelspun backing, and 10wt Tarpon Clear intermediate Line
- 8wt Scott S4S with a Lamson Litespeed 3.5 or Vanquish 8 spooled with 300 yards of 30lb Gelspun & Clear intermediate Bonefish line. This rig is great for throwing to smaller Roosters and other species under 20 lbs you might encounter.
- Scott S4S 6wt with a Lamson Litespeed 3.0 or the New Speedster 3.0, 200 yards of 3lb gelspun and any type of floating 6wt line that adequately loads a stiff rod. I used a 7wt SA Expert Distance line.
Tippet and Leaders: Rio Saltwater Flourocarbon tippet: 60lb, 40lb, 30lb and 20lb to build your own leaders.
Flies: Basically have some mullet patterns, clousers minnows, and some crease flies to throw on top. Skip the lead eyes and bucktail wherever possible on the Clousers, as the beach quickly renders these ineffective or eyes broken
Tying Material: Bring your vice, saltwater hooks 3/0-6 , lateral scale, and other saltwater body materials in an assortment of colors. You want to think about materials that are going to shed sand as you drag your fly along the beach. EP fiber is not one of these!
Hydration Pack: This is Probably the most important thing you will bring. Any of the fishpond backpack hydration systems will work. Make sure you have the biggest hydration bladder you can stuff in there!
Clothing/ Footwear: Lightweight breathable clothing. Any of the Simms sun protection clothing is essential . I particularly like their Solarflex Hoody. Buff Headwear is an essential, but just make sure to bring a lighter colored one. I had a darker color and just couldn’t wear it. Footwear-I think the best way to do it is to pick up some of the Simms Ebbtide Flip-flops and when you see a fish, kick them off and start running.
Travel Gear: Fishpond makes some great travel bags for fly fishing. I would pick up the Fishpond Rod/Reel Carrying Case, and a travel duffle for all your clothing. Carry on the rod/reel case and check your other bag.
Lodging & Guides: Two highly recommended lodging options are at Cabo Pulmo Copalapa for those seeking the more rustic life on the beach in the marine preserve. For those seeking top shelf resort lodging, check out Rancho Leonero with guide Lance Peterson or Jeff DeBrown who is the longest running guide in Baja.
WHAT NOT TO BRING!
The first lesson I learned about traveling to Mexico came as I went through customs where I learned you are only allowed to bring 6 cans of Copenhangen into the country. With three logs in my possession, I got taken into the backroom for what felt like forever as three guys speaking spanish sat in front of a calculator figuring out how much I owed the country of Mexico. 2,000 Pesos later they let me enter the country. I’ve been threatening to quit that nasty stuff for a while, and $24 dollars a can has become a pretty good reason for me to try and give it up again.
So it Begins…
After that debacle with border protection, we packed into this tiny little car with no A/C loaded to the max with fly fishing gear. For the next two hours down the Baja coast, I sat as close to another dude as I ever care to again in 100 degree heat! After a quick stop for fresh air, Modelo, and groceries, my feet finally touched Baja sand!
This first afternoon, was a big wake up call into this style of beach fishing and that it wasn’t going to be a “walk on the beach.” I didn’t feel like lugging my camel pack around so I left it and started walking away from it. Bad idea! The first and foremost thing I can say for beach fishing is have water with you. As we walked down the beach looking for Roosterfish, we were met with a number of other species which the more experienced beach fisherman brought in hand over fist.
As for myself, I was quickly humbled by this grueling style of fishing. For the last 3 years, I have never failed to throw a 9′ 5wt any less than 90′ feet in any competition I’ve done and yet I found myself barely getting the leader out of the rod tip half the time. The biggest challenge I had was keeping the line out of the surf. When a wave grabs a 10wt intermediate line off the sand and drags it out into the water, good luck making a cast. The other thing I learned is that Baja and the Sea of Cortez at this time of year, does not give us right handed casters any help. There is a steady crosswind coming over your right shoulder every second you are fishing. The chuck and duck cast, or wicked backhand cast is a necessity. After four hours I hadn’t seen a single roosterfish, I was parched, exhuasted and pretty convinced I was not going to catch a roosterfish.
Talking with other anglers, it was encouraging to hear that other people were seeing fish, but discouraging to hear everybody give the same story. “Saw quite a few fish, had a few follows, got combed once.” “Getting combed,” is the term used when a roosterfish is seriously thinking about eating your fly and they flex there comb up as they chase your fly. If I got one fish to do that, I probably would have been pretty stoked with that alone!
Tomorrow is a New Day!
The next morning we got going around 9am, loaded up the ATVs and the Bravo for “lights on” around 10AM. “Lights on” is the term used when the light really hits the water and allows you to see fish.
As we cruised down the beach in the Bravo, we came across a school of mullet which is what Roosterfish thrive on in the Sea of Cortez.
As we watched the baitfish, I looked out 300 yards and saw this incoming black streak zeroing in on the school of mullet. As the torpedo came closer, it starting moving faster and faster and finally closed a 75 yard gap to the school of mullet in the blink of an eye.
Until then, I had never seen anything swim that fast, and it was love at first sight. After what had just happened sank in, I grabbed my rod, started stripping off line and sprinting in the direction the fish was heading. After a 100 yard dash, I finally caught up to the fish stopped, planted my feet on top of my fly line and totally botched the opportunity.
At that moment, a lot of questions were answered for me.
- Yes, you do have to run down the beach to catch up to these fish to get in position to make a cast.
- Roosterfish swim faster than I ever imagined a fish could swim.
Just Keep Runnin’…
As we spread out across the beach, I found myself alone and as determined as I have ever been to have a fish eat my fly. For the next 3 hours, I probably did 2 miles worth of sprints in the sand. I made casts to probably 20 fish, and of those only 1 appeared to be even remotely interested in my fly. The fish turned and started following it as my heart started beating a mile a minute. I was stripping line as fast as I could strip it and this fish was swimming sideways examining my fly. I’m not sure if this fish was actually interested in the fly or just wanted to taunt me and show me that it can swim sideways as fast as I can strip a fly. Nonetheless it was pretty cool.
It was the first moment in 3 hours of running that I felt like I actually accomplished something by having a fish even look at my fly. Then came another fish down the beach and I was running again left to right stripping off line. I made a good cast right on the fish, made three fast strips, the fish put its comb out of the water and the next 2 seconds was a blur. It was like when a trout eats a dry, jumps and spits a fly. The difference being in that short two seconds I was already into backing before I even registered that I had hooked a fish and that it got off. I remember thinking, did that just happen?!?! Unbelievable. That split second fight with a rather small 15 pound Roosterfish had me scared to think what a 30-50 pound fish might do.
The Things You Will Always Remember…
Towards the end of the day we spotted a rooster coming in from the depths as we were making our way back to base camp. I asked if anybody else wanted to take a shot, and the guys graciously said, “go for it.” Without hesitation, I started stripping out line and running left as the fish started moving faster towards shore. I felt like a quarterback on the run waiting for a receiver to get open. Just then, two more fish came from the left and the three fish did something of a circle around each other 80′ feet out. Without thinking, I made one hard haul and slammed the fly down right in the middle of this circle and started stripping. All three fish lit up with curiosity and turned towards my fly. The biggest of the three circled around the fly combed up, and ate it without hesitation. As I felt the hook drive into the fish it was almost like both the fish and I were thinking, What the hell just happened?!?! She kinda rolled in surprise and I just stood there holding a bent rod feeling just as surprised. In hindsight, I probably could have gained some ground on this fish right there by breaking her will early, but I was not about to lay the wood to this fish that I know could snap 20lb like hair.
Once we both realized what was going on I tightened the drag as this fish turned and ran 350 yards out to see! Once the backing finally started coming off the reel a little slower, I was told it was time to start playing tug of war. The fun was now over and the work was about to begin. For the next 45 minutes, I’d walk back away from shore 40 feet, and then reel down as I walked back towards the water. For every 20 turns of the reel I’d gain on the walk down, I’d loose 5 on the walk back. Finally about 30 minutes later, I could see my fly line!
My forearm was cramping so bad, but I didn’t care. I was determined to put this fish on the sand. Once the fish got close enough to shore it was time to take a shot. The way to land a Roosterfish is to keep walking back until you get them in a wave that carries them onto shore enough for somebody to take a shot at tailing them. It was comforting having a guy who has tailed as many Roosterfish as anyone waiting for the opportunity to close the deal for me. Even so, it was the most intense nerve wracking minute I have ever had in fly fishing.
When the opportunity came, Frank ran up on the fish grabbed her tail and got the fish as smoothly as it could possibly be done. To this day, I still can’t believe it actually happened. After a quick photo, I walked her out into the water neck deep and let her recuperate from a long fight. Watching that fish swim away no worse for the wear is a memory I’ll never forget.
Ten Rounds With Tyson
The next morning, I woke up feeling like I just went ten rounds with Mike Tyson. every inch of my body hurt. If you’re going to try this at some point, I’d strongly recommend getting a gym membership before you go and get in shape! The heat, wind, sand, and the burley nature beach fishing for Roosterfish is no joke.
That day, I fished hard but not anything like yesterday. I don’t know how I could top what had happened the previous day, nor did I have any desire to. It would be like winning the Superbowl and going out and playing the game again the following day. So instead, I had a blast with the 6wt and 8wt fishing for the number of other species that are accessible from the beach.
On the third and last day of my trip . I woke up with a stomach bug, exhuasted and so sore, I simply had no desire to fish. I started feeling better in the day and went out in front of base camp with a floating 8wt line and had a blast throwing Crease Flies for Lady fish and the ever so tasty Pampono. It was a good way to close out the trip.
Rods, Reels, Lines, Gear, $25 Cans of Copenhagen= Ha, Don’t Ask! Fly fishing for Roosterfish off the beach with good Friends….Priceless.
I definitely dropped some coin to get ready for this trip, but at the end of the day I don’t remember how much I spent on new lines, reels, rods, etc. What I remember is a good time with friends, the fruit which tastes better than anything in the states, beautiful beaches, and holding one of the most incredible fish in the sea!
What to Do Next Time
Beach fishing is extremely fun and extremely challenging. Put simply, I wasn’t prepared for such grueling elements, casting, and style of fishing. Having now had some time to reflect on this trip, here is what I will do next time.
- 1. Get in shape! I thought rowing a boat in WY wind for 3 months prior had me in shape, but an arm and leg workout are two different things. I’ll be at the track on the hottest days running sprints barefoot for a month next year!
- Practice casting on the run: Casting on the run is not easy but an essential part of beach fishing. If you want a realistic chance at catching one of these things, I’d make sure you can stand and throw at least 90′ of line and at least 60′ on the run. When your heart is pounding and there is a big rooster swimming at you, your 90′ cast becomes a 45′ cast and your 60′ cast on the run becomes a 30′ cast more often than not!
- Pace Myself: Unless your a glutton for punishment, plan a few days to do something other than beach fishing. Get in a boat and get after some blue water fish like Marlin, Sailfish, Dorado, etc.