Dec. 22, 2003, by Gene Kira, as published in Western Outdoor News:
Baja's fishing year 2003 saw the first-recorded occurrence of four tropical hurricanes threatening southern Baja waters in the same season, including Hurricane Marty which went straight up the Sea of Cortez during the last week of September and wreaked havoc on the Baja coast as far north as Mulege.
In general, 2003 was not a memorable sportfishing year for much of Baja California, as water conditions remained subpar in most southern areas and at the Midriff Islands, and yellowtail, yellowfin tuna, dorado, and especially striped marlin rarely achieved "wide-open" status in any location. (Baja's hottest bite of the year proved to be on albacore at San Quintin, which went totally ballistic in the second half of July.)
One possible beneficial effect of the year's unusual water conditions, however, was the catching of the first ever known albacore at East Cape, on Mark Rayor's boat Jenren about 13 miles off Los Frailes on March 24.
In a major fisheries-related story, Jeronimo Ramos, arch enemy of Baja's conservation lobby, was finally replaced as head of Conapesca, Mexico's department of fisheries, in September. By the end of the year, Ramos' replacement, Ramón Corral Ávila, had visited La Paz and Cabo San Lucas, where he made conciliatory remarks about ending some abusive commercial fishing practices, such as drift gillnetting and large-ship longlining within 50 miles of the coastline.
Here, then, is a week-by-week recap of the year:
Jan. 3: Winter winds whipped down the Sea of Cortez and there were few visitors in all areas of Baja, but some good catches were still made, including a steady pick of yellowtail and dorado at La Paz, and a spectacular roosterfish reported at 110 pounds at Cabo San Lucas. The big roosterfish was caught by Jaime Bliss of Conrad, MT, aboard the Quien Sabe, and if the weight was correct, it was only 4 pounds under the IGFA all tackle record. At San Jose del Cabo, commercial gill netters were quickly reducing a good inshore sierra bite, setting the stage for protests from sport fishing operators and tourist businesses.
Jan. 10: An unusual winter yellowtail bite surfaced in warm 64-degree water at Ensenada’s Punta Banda, reported Vonny’s Fleet, in what may have been the beginnings of an El Niño year for the Pacific Coast of Baja and Southern California. Vonny’s Fleet guide Beto Zamora caught 7 yellowtail on the surface at Punta Banda in one morning for his clients. The fish weighed from 18 to 28 pounds. Vonny’s Fleet’s Ivan Villarino said, “Very unusual. We don’t see them like that in five years.”
Jan. 17: Yellowfin tuna made a welcome showing at the Gordo Banks off San Jose del Cabo after an absence of many months. Eric Brictson of Gordo Banks Pangas said several boats caught 3 or 4 tuna, mostly of 50 to 120 pounds in size. The yellowfin were caught by chunking and chumming with abundant black skipjack baits. Water temperatures at the Gordo Banks were 72 to 75 degrees. Western Outdoor News’ Baja Beat column featured a trip to the closed Revillagigedo islands, where Vince Radice’s trimaran Windsplitter found the Mexican Navy doing an excellent job of enforcing the fishing ban imposed the previous March.
Jan. 24: More than 100 cruisers joined in a demonstration at the Cabo San Lucas Marina API dock to protest 38 longline permits issued to the Ensenada commercial fleet. The demonstration was led by activist Jorge Gonzales Torres of Mexico’s Green Party. At La Paz, an excellent off-season dorado bite surfaced at Las Arenas, and good catches of unusually large yellowtail were made at Punta Banda, Ensenada.
Jan. 31: Signs of an approaching El Nino year surfaced at East Cape and Los Cabos, with water temperatures about three degrees warmer than usual. Chucky Van Wormer, reporting on his family’s chain of hotel on the East Cape, said water temps were in the 71-degree range. At Cabo San Lucas, another rally was staged at the marina by Jorge Gonzales Torres of Mexico’s Green Party, at which President Fox and Secretary of Agriculture Javier Usabiaga were hung in effigy to protest commercial permits given to Mexico’s Pacific longline fleet.
Feb. 7: In La Paz, the first public comment meeting for a Revillagigedos Biosphere Reserve draft management plan was attended by about 40 people, including a contingent from the Sportfishing Association of California who were present to argue that San Diego’s long range fleet should be allowed to resume fishing at the islands. The federal government, represented by PROFEPA and SEMARNAT, indicated no flexibility in enforcing the no-fishing provision of the Biosphere Reserve.
Feb. 14: With the possible approach of an El Nino year, generally good winter fishing prevailed in most areas of Baja, including the El Bajo high spot north of La Paz, where Mino Shiba of Mosquito Fleet found wide-open yellowtail action. Good to excellent yellowtail catches were also being made at Loreto, Bahia de los Angeles, and Ensenada on the Pacific side.
Feb. 21: Yvonne Graham, co-owner of Baja On The Fly with her husband Gary, was named to be a West Coast representative of the International Game Fish Association. The Graham’s thus became the only husband-and-wife couple to be named IGFA representatives; husband Gary is also a representative for the Baja California area, together with Luis Bulnes Molleda and Minerva Smith of Cabo San Lucas. At East Cape, water temperatures 2-4 degrees warmer than usual were supporting a good winter bite of dorado, yellowfin tuna, and some striped marlin.
Feb. 28: Western Outdoor News published a record-setting 184-page special issue to coincide with the Fred Hall Fishing Tackle and Boat Shows, including a 2-page color spread on Bahia de los Angeles where a winter bite on yellowtail to 45 pounds continued in the bay and at Guadalupe Reef to the north. In Baja Sur, it was announced that tourism coordinator Bobby Van Wormer Jr. would immediately assume new duties as the state’s Coordinator of International Relations. Governor Cota’s office also announced an agreement with Mexico City that future revenues from sportfishing licenses would be used for conservation.
Mar. 7: Striped marlin went on a rampage at Cabo San Lucas, with triple and quadruple release days common, and some boats releasing as many as 8 or 9 fish in a day. At Mazatlan, the season’s first broadbill swordfish was caught, a 320 pounder with a deformed spine, caught by Aries Fleet at Marina el Cid. The weekly Baja Beat column featured a productive day of bottom fishing at San Quintin with Pedro’s Pangas and the Old Mill Hotel.
Mar. 14: Tony Reyes Fishing Tours of San Felipe announced plans to build a second panga mothership, in addition to its well-known Jose Andres. The new, steel-hulled boat was to carry seven pangas and be all air-conditioned, and was scheduled to fish year-round, out of San Felipe in the summer, and La Paz in the winter months. San Jose del Cabo resident, Paul Roos, had a first-person reader report on the beach road north from San Jose del Cabo to Ensenada de los Muertos south of La Paz.
Mar. 21: Western Outdoor News’ first Baja Editor, Ray Cannon, was named posthumously to the California Outdoor Writer’s Hall of Fame, sponsored by the International Sportsmen’s Expositions. Cannon is one of five inductees, who also included Tom Steinstra, former editor of Western Outdoor News’ Northern California Edition. At East Cape, water temperatures as high as 78 degrees powered a late winter dorado bite reaching north to La Paz.
Mar. 28: With water temperatures dropping into the mid-60s on the Pacific side, scattered catches of rarely-seen albacore were made on both sides of the arch at Cabo San Lucas. The albacore were caught by several boats over a period lasting about four days. At San Quintin, local guide Rogelio Vanlo Luna, 40, was lost at sea when his boat capsized in surf while fishing with clients about three miles north of the boca.
April 4: A probable all-time first catch of albacore on the Sea of Cortez was recorded by Don Oser and Mark Rayor of Vista Sea Sport, on Rayor’s boat the Jenren, about 13 miles off Los Frailes, on March 24, 2003. A pair of 30-pound albacore was landed in water measured at 70.5 degrees on the cooler, south side of a temperature break.
April 11: Water temperatures averaging 70 to 73 degrees accompanied continued good action on dorado, yellowfin tuna, and striped marlin in the East Cape Area. At Zihuatanejo, a break in the slow-fishing “April Current” brought much better action for yellowfin tuna, as 78-degree water moved to within 8 miles of shore.
April 18: Spring conditions and mixed fishing prevailed in most areas of Baja, with up-and-down winds, varying water temperatures, and sluggish fishing on both sides of the peninsula. At Cabo San Lucas, billfish action improved to about 1 fish for every 2 boat-days fished. The best overall action was at East Cape where boats threading their way out through winds found dorado, striped marlin, and yellowfin tuna.
April 25: Early spring dorado and even striped marlin were spotted at Loreto , and a sailfish was brought to the downtown marina on April 19 by Ismael Murrio of the sportfishing cooperativa. At Cabo San Lucas, fishing action was stalled at about one billfish per day and most other areas of Baja went through a week of relatively slow fishing.
May 2: Baja Editor Gene Kira traveled to Ensenada with Bill Owens of El Cerrito, CA, as Owens donated a full-year student intern scholarship to the Totoaba Hatchery program at the Autonomous University of Baja California. At Loreto, a good late-season yellowtail bite emerged, even as early dorado began arriving and water temperatures averaged 71 to 72 degrees.
May 9: Western Outdoor News published a 36-page Baja special supplement, Baja: Sportsman’s Paradise with a location-by-location recap of Baja areas and charter fishing opportunities, and a special feature article by staff writer Bill Karr on driving down Mex 1 for a fishing trip to Loreto. Also included was a special Baja Norte feature on Gonzaga Bay and San Francisquito, with text and maps from The Baja Catch.
May 16: The annual Western Outdoor News La Paz Yellowtail Shoot-Out featured several fish over 30 pounds and one at 40 pounds as event director Kit McNear said, “This was the best Shoot-Out to date. The fishing for smaller yellows and dorado to 30 pounds close to Espiritu Santo Island was excellent.” Through a coincidence in Zihuatanejo, the maker of the Luis Maciel mystery tuna jig was discovered living in New York City. The rougher, modern version of the jig was available through Alex’s Bait & Tackle in Point Pleasant, NJ.
May 23: Forty-two teams from 22 countries competed in the prestigious Rolex/IGFA Offshore Championship Tournament at Cabo San Lucas. The winning team, from Bermuda, released 15 striped marlin during the four-day event. At Mulege, a group of old-Baja fly-in pilots led by 50-year veteran Larry Hahn of El Paso announced a special version of the legendary Saturday Night Pig Roast on July 12 at Mulege's Hotel Serenidad to honor hotel owner Don Johnson and his family, who had operated the Serenidad since 1961.
May 30: Mino Shiba of La Paz' Mosquito Fleet announced a schedule of remote camp fishing trips for the winter season to be held at San Evaristo, about 65 miles north of the city. Shiba was busy with preparations for the safari-style camp, which was to feature panga fishing around the bajos near Isla San Jose for yellowtail, huachinango, cabrilla, snappers, and jacks.
June 6: The season's first good yellowtail bite showed up at Ensenada's Bahía de Todos Santos and early albacore were caught about 35 miles out in water temperatures of about 58.5 degrees. The first yellowtail of the season were also caught at Puerto Santo Tomas, 25 miles south. Around southern Baja, fishing was generally mixed, except for steady action at East Cape, where water temperatures averaged about 80 degrees.
June 13: East Cape continued to lead the action around Baja Sur as a hot bite of school-sized yellowfin tuna erupted in all directions out of Bahía de Palmas. At Punta Arena de la Ventana, south of La Paz, Western Outdoor News Baja Editor reported on a totally transparent squid brought to shore by a panguero. The squid was taken to the Universidad Autónoma de Baja California Sur for identification and was thought to be a possible new species.
June 20: Summer yellowtail action kicked into gear throughout the Midriff Area of the Sea of Cortez as good catches were made from San Francisquito north to Bajo Guadalupe. Western Outdoor News published an article describing a proposal in Mexico City by Semarnat, the federal department of natural resources, to create a biosphere zone of protection around Isla Guadalupe. Comments by Barney Thompson, a representative of the Sportfishing Association of California, indicated that restrictions from the new reserve appeared to apply only to terrestrial flora and fauna, and it was hoped that sportfishing would not be affected.
June 27: The summer dorado migration up the Sea of Cortez was centered on Loreto as many boats found early limits on fish to over 40 pounds. Pam Bolles of Baja Big Fish Company at Loreto reported a blue marlin lost on the fly after a fight that lasted 3 hours and 10 minutes. At Ensenada a good bite of white seabass surfaced for pangas of Vonny's Fleet fishing at the tip of Punta Banda.
July 4: Cold water knocked the yellowtail count down to 12 fish at the Western Outdoor News/Yamaha Ensenada Yellowtail Championship. The winning team, Laurie O'Connor, Dennis Burlason, and Ed Howerton, ran north 45 miles to the Coronado Islands to take first place with 4 yellowtail totaling 84.8 pounds. San Quintin rancher, Julio Meza, won the drawing for the 150-h.p. Yamaha outboard motor. In the Midriff Area, yellowtail action was in high gear as water temperatures at Bahía de los Angeles hit the mid-70s.
July 11: Albacore action exploded at San Quintin, as boats limited out as close as 12 miles from the point. The first albacore of the year at San Quintin were caught on July 3 by Gordo, son of well-known local guide Bartolo "Bear" Garcia. Ensenada boats also scored on good counts of yellowtail 20 to 35 miles out of Bahía de Todos Santos.
July 18: The close-in albacore bite blew wide-open for boats at San Quintin, with most anglers limiting, and some returning before noon. The main body of fish were found 12 to 17 miles off the point in clear, 67-degree water. Ensenada boats were also finding good counts of albacore, 18 to 28 miles off Punta Banda.
July 25: The albacore bite intensified to ballistic at San Quintin as some boats stopped making bait, and some were back at the docks by 10 a.m. At Cabo San Lucas, a potential new women's record for yellowfin tuna, caught at Puerto Vallarta, was certified at 308 pounds by local IGFA representative Minerva Saenz.
Aug. 1: The summer dorado migration up the Sea of Cortez arrived in the central midriff area, as boats from San Felipe and Bahía de los Angeles caught them on weeds in a concentrated area about 2 miles northeast of Isla Smith. At San Quintin and Ensenada, the hot albacore bite continued from 12 to about 35 miles off the coast.
Aug. 8: A booking agent scandal blew a trip for the San Felipe panga mothership, Capt. Villegas, as 30 fully paid-up anglers were left standing on the dock and the boat refused to leave port. Agent Ernie Peñaloza, who booked the trips and collected money for them, together with his former partner, Gordon Bryne, d.b.a. Cortez/Pacific, was being investigated by police at Santa Paula, CA. In a special 52-page supplement, Western Outdoor News announced the fifth annual Tuna Jackpot Tournament, in Cabo San Lucas, Nov. 5-8, 2003.
Aug. 15: Albacore disappeared from fish counts at San Quintin, but the first few dorado and yellowfin tuna were caught as water temperatures offshore reached 70 degrees. Hector Villegas, owner of the San Felipe panga mothership Capitan Villegas, was looking for a new booking agent after agreeing to replace trips lost in the scandal with his former agents, Ernie Peñaloza and Gordon Byrne.
Aug. 22: Dorado action heated up in the Cortez Midriff as school-sized fish were caught by boats out of Bahia de los Angeles and panga motherships out of San Felipe. At San Quintin, the albacore migration left for parts north, but boats scored good counts on yellowfin tuna, dorado, and yellowtail as offshore water temperatures warmed to 72 degrees.
Aug. 29: Hurricane Ignacio, Baja's first hurricane of the season, swept up the Sea of Cortez, causing minor flooding but little damage. Scattered power and water service outages were experienced as far north as Loreto, and in San Felipe, panga motherships were held in port. Ignacio was the latest "first hurricane" on record.
Sept. 5: A week of continued tropical storm activity followed Hurricane Ignacio, but boats were fishing and the bite was improving by the weekend in all areas from the Midriff to Cabo San Lucas. On the Las Arenas side at La Paz, sardina live bait was seen for the first time in over a month. However, Mulege reported continued very slow fishing.
Sept. 12: Police detective Joey de los Reyes of the Santa Paula, CA Police Department asked victims of the Capitan Villegas scam not to call or fax evidence to the department. De Los Reyes said a criminal investigation was underway after the stranding of nearly 100 clients of the San Felipe panga mothership. Agents Ernie Peñaloza and his former partner Gordon Byrne were accused of not delivering deposits to boat owner Hector Villegas. De los Reyes said all victims would be interviewed within three or four months.
Sept. 19: Steady limits continued for boats at San Quintin, as limits were caught on yellowfin tuna, yellowtail, and bottom fish. Fishing around Baja was generally sluggish, except for good action along the north Pacific coast.
Sept. 26: Hurricane Marty approached a dead hit on the tip of Baja on Sunday night, knocking out fishing as far north as Loreto with high winds and torrential rain. The predicted storm path was for landfall near Magdalena Bay, and a run northward up the middle of the Baja peninsula.
Oct. 3: As crews worked furiously throughout southern Baja to cleanup the mess from Hurricane Marty, the Mexican government announced the replacement of fisheries chief Jerónimo Ramos by Ramón Corral Ávila, a PAN party senator from the state of Sonora. In other moves that could have far reaching impacts on conservation and sport fishing issues, three weeks earlier, the government had also replaced Secretary of Natural Resources Victor Líctinger and his Attorney General José Campillo. In Los Angeles, Jigstop Tours announced that it had become the exclusive booking agent for the San Felipe panga mothership, Capitan Villegas.
Oct. 10: Southern Baja prepared for the arrival of two more hurricanes over the weekend. Hurricane Olaf was expected to go straight up the Sea of Cortez, followed only a day later by Hurricane Nora, which was to make landfall near Todos Santos and cross over the peninsula to East Cape. All this, while still cleaning up from Hurricanes Marty and Ignacio. Never before had Baja been hit by more than one hurricane in a season.
Oct. 17: Hurricanes Olaf and Nora suddenly weakened and veered away from Baja over the weekend, but ports were closed temporarily all around the Sea of Cortez and the west coast of Mexico. In Baja Sur, fishing was mixed in all areas as water conditions rapidly improved after several days of wind and rough seas.
Oct. 24: Mostly school-sized yellowfin tuna lead the action at East Cape in generally slow fishing conditions around the tip of Baja. At the Los Cabos Billfish Tournament, only three qualifying fish over 300 pounds were weighed after 180 boat-days of fishing. The 301-pound winning fish was caught by the Gaviota VII.
Oct. 31: Que Sera took $1,165,000 cash plus a Porsche Carrera sports car with a 565-pound blue marlin in the 2003 Bisbee's Black & Blue Tournament held at Cabo San Lucas. Winning team members were Brady Bunte, David Kohler, and David Finkelstein fished with Capt. Nayo Winkler. Off Magdalena Bay, marlin action took off in the first indications of the Thetis Bank fall fish pileup.
Nov. 7: Larger yellowfin tuna began showing up at the tip of Baja just in time for the Western Outdoor News Los Cabos Tuna Jackpot Tournament this week. Tracy Ehrenberg of Pisces Fleet reported tuna of 120 and 330 pounds. Grant Hartman of Baja Anglers also reported an estimated 200 pounder lost.
Nov. 14: A record 184 teams competed for a record $425,200 in cash prizes during the Fifth Annual Western Outdoor News Los Cabos Tuna Jackpot Tournament at Cabo San Lucas, Nov. 5-7. The overall top prize of $105,560 was won my Team 123, captained by Lloyd Carter on the Fish Tales II, with Capt. David Morales, with a 157.8-pound yellowfin tuna.
Nov. 21: Western Outdoor News published a special 24-page supplement with photos and full details on the 2003 Los Cabos Tuna Jackpot Tournament. The dates were announced for the sixth annual event, Nov. 3-6, 2004. At Bahia Magdalena, more anglers began visiting the area for the peak fall season, inside the mangrove channels, and outside at the Thetis Bank fall fish pileup.
Nov. 28: Winter winds reduced fishing activity along most of Baja's Pacific and Sea of Cortez coasts. Detective Joey de los Reyes of the Santa Paula, CA Police Department asked any Western Outdoor News readers involved with last season’s panga mothership booking problems with the Capt. Villegas who have not yet been interviewed to call him immediately at 805-525-4474. The criminal investigation was proceeding and De los Reyes expected to have more information about the case soon.
Dec. 5: L.A. Bay's winter yellowtail bite took off with good counts on fish to about 28 pounds at Isla Horsehead, Bernabe Rock, Los Machos, and Punta las Animas. Larger yellowtail to over 20 pounds were also being caught consistently at Ensenada's Punta Banda by the pangas of Vonny's Fleet. Julio Berdegué of Mazatlán documented Mexican government permits for 49 pelagic gill net and long line boats, as opposed to 32 in 2002.
Dec. 12: Although there were very few tourists in town, Mulege locals bagged a good catch of yellowtail averaging 30 pounds, from San Nicolas in the south to Isla San Marcos off Santa Rosalia. In Ensenada, an historic first meeting took place between the two biologists most responsible for Mexican research on the endangered totoaba, Conal David True of the UABC, and Julio Berdegue, the first totoaba researcher in the 1950s.
Dec. 19: Sam Saenz of Puerto Santo Tomas Resort announced the awarding of a federal concession from the Mexican government that will allow legal tourist development of the resort's beach front property on the bay. Half of the resort's beach front was awarded to local commercial fishermen, who will be able to continue fishing operations. Saenz said one of the first things he wants to build is a launch ramp in the protected part of the bay, to replace the resort's present ramp facing the open Pacific.
Dec. 26: At meetings held in La Paz and Cabo San Lucas, recently appointed Mexican fisheries chief Ramón Corral Ávila indicated a positive attitude toward increased protection of the fishery within 50 miles of the coastline. Corral Ávila stated that he would be in favor of banning drift gillnets within that zone, restricting longline fishing to boats 27 feet long or less, and prohibiting the taking of species reserved for sportfishing by boats with commercial shark permits. It was not clear if, when, or how these measures would be enforced.
(Related Baja California, Mexico, articles and reports may be found at Mexfish.com's main Baja California information page. See weekly fishing news, photos, and reports from the major sportfishing vacation areas of Mexico including the Baja California area in "Mexico Fishing News.")