Aug. 15, 2003, by Gene Kira, as published in Western Outdoors Magazine:
If you’re a Mexico angler who aspires to become an “expert,” Baja California’s semi-remote, Sea of Cortez Midriff area playground, Bahía de los Angeles, or “L.A. Bay,” offers enough course listings to make you a Sea of Cortez profesor for life.
In truth, you could fish nowhere else but this “Bay of Angels” for several lifetimes, and you would never even begin to unravel its multitude of complexities--both subtle and in-your-face.
Here, are furious tidal currents, whipping past points and islands, that can rage like white water rivers; remarkable water temperature gradients that form during the glassy slack tides, sometimes showing you more than 10 degrees of change within a quarter-mile or so; quiet inner bays and rocky reefs, tightly juxtaposed with nearby canyons that can plunge to a mile deep.
Here, the mighty Sea of Cortez is pinched down (hence the term “Midriff”) to a narrow series of inter-island canyons, whose combined width is only about 48 miles. Through these very deep but very narrow channels, enough water must flow four times per day to raise and lower the upper one-third of the Sea of Cortez as much as 20 feet during the new and full moons.
The chaotic ballet of warm surface currents--larded with nutrient-rich, cold bottom currents--that swirl and eddy through the Midriff’s powerful tidal flows can be thought of as an engine that helps to drive the life-force of the entire Sea of Cortez. Plankton blooms of various colors explode on the surface constantly; clear, blue water is rare. The Midriff’s face is not “pretty,” but more like a big bowl of thick fish stew, or sometimes, very thin oatmeal with lots of strange things swimming through it. Midriff waters are simply swarming with life in its seemingly infinite myriad of forms.
All this diversity of habitat creates a grotesque, Hieronymous Bosch-like carnival of mingled fish species that you would think have no business living right next to each other:
--Isolated populations of cool water fish such as sheephead, ocean whitefish, and Sebastes-like rockfishes, can be found cheek-and-jowl with warm water dorado, sailfish, and even exotic panamic aliens such as the Pacific cutlassfish.
--Resident populations of whales abound, and at the south end of the inner bay is one of the few places in the world where whale sharks gather within sight of the beach to gorge themselves on thick plankton.
--And here is the mysterious deep water refuge of the endangered totoaba that spawns in the mouth of the Colorado River, but is thought to retreat to the Midriff’s profound depths between its runs to the north.
For sport anglers, though, there is--and has always been--one particular species of fish that has stood down through the decades as the signature quarry of Bahía de los Angeles: the magnificent, &*^%$#@!, yellowtail, Seriola dorsalis.
Sunrise at Bahia de los Angeles, with birds working over the inner bay and yellowtail waiting in the outer channel.
This explosively powerful member of the jack family has been the source of more thrills, and more severe cussin’ in both English and Spanish, than any other fish caught in the Midriff. Like the large pargos (snappers) caught in tropical waters farther south, Bahía de los Angeles’ good-eating yellowtail are usually associated with hazardous rocky structure, and they are often found near the bottom.
One old-time Baja tour operator, frustrated with seeing his clients “farm” large fish an entire morning without getting a single one away from the rocks, described a yellowtail’s typical feeding technique:
“As a yellowtail cruises around, it’s looking for its favorite prey, a nice, fat mackerel pinned on a hook and held in place by your sinker. When it finds a mackerel, the yellowtail will then look for the nearest outcropping of sharp rock. It swims around to the opposite side of the mackerel, so the bait is directly in line, between itself and the rock. Backing up about 50 feet, it takes aim at the rock, sprints to the mackerel at top speed, grabs it, and keeps going in the same direction until it has wrapped your line around the rock and cut you off. Works every &*^%$#@! time!”
Whether or not yellowtail are really that intelligent is arguable, of course, but it can sure seem like it. Even with 100-pound line and a hammered drag, some larger yellowtail will still get away, due to the wrenching momentum of the strike, the short but very powerful runs, and the unavoidable maneuvering room allowed by a baited line, swinging in the current, say, 120 feet down. That’s why words such as “&*^%$#@!” and “gringo ranchero” were invented in the first place.
The yellowtail populations of the Sea of Cortez have suffered greatly from commercial overfishing during Baja’s modern era, and the days are long past when you could stand in a panga at Bahía de los Angeles and not see the horizon because of the fish boils all around you; gone are the days when the wildly feeding predators would sometimes hit a bare hook dangled two feet beside your boat.
Nevertheless, Bahía de los Angeles’ yellowtail have proven themselves to be perhaps Baja’s most resilient unprotected fish species. Despite an all-out commercial assault of many decades standing, and despite the drastic reduction of Midriff sardines and anchovies by commercial seiners, there are still lots and lots of yellowtail to be caught, and plenty of &*^%$#@! big ones too, if you’ve got the guts, tackle, and proper cuss words for it.
With uncanny serendipity, L.A. Bay is located not only at the terminus of Baja’s only paved access road to the Midriff’s awesome waters, but also at the epicenter of the area’s hardcore yellowtail population.
The sunbaked village of Bahía de los Angeles, and the eponymous bay itself, are situated roughly at the south edge of the Cortez’ northern yellowtail population, and also at the north edge of the southern population. At Bahía de los Angeles, the two populations overlap, and as a result, yellowtail are available almost year-round.
This dual-population phenomenon has been studied for the past 18 years by Dr. Abraham Vazquez, a physician who operates a small beachfront resort called Camp Gecko about four miles south of the village.
According to Vazquez, the two populations migrate in rough synchrony--south for the winter and north for the summer--just like birds. In between their home territories sits Bahía de los Angeles. In winter, the northern population is in town, having arrived from its home territory up near Gonzaga Bay. In summer, those fish leave and are replaced by the southern group arriving from its home territory, down in the Santa Rosalia-Mulege area.
The two populations are composed of slightly different fish, Vazquez feels. The northern population has somewhat smaller yellowtail, on average, and prefers a water temperature range in the low-60s. The southern group contains more of the larger &*^%$#@! yellowtail, and prefers water temperatures of 67 to 70 degrees.
In practice, the elegant symmetry of these two coordinated yellowtail migrations is marred by a gap, typically during the month of April, when in some years, neither group is present, and things get pretty tough for a few weeks. “I hate April!” says Igor Galvan, one of “Bahía’s” top fishermen. “Anything can happen in April! I wish there just wasn’t any April!”
Usually, the winter yellowtail, coming down from the north from November through March, do not reach the waters of the inner bay itself, according to Vazquez. They stop a few miles north and are found at locations such as Punta Remedios, about 18 miles north, and Bajo Guadalupe, a reef located in open water about seven miles north of famous, cone-shaped Isla Smith.
The summer yellowtail are in mixed sizes and more widespread, being caught throughout the inner bay and its surrounding waters in all directions during a peak season that really gets rolling in June and can continue through early December.
In addition to these two migratory populations, Bahía de los Angeles also possesses a smaller, resident “home guard” group of yellowtail in mixed sizes that remain in the immediate area. Most of these fish are juveniles, but there are some “mossbacks” mixed in, a vestigial remnant of the hordes that once lived here by the millions.
Bahia de los Angeles sportfishing guide Capt. Igor Galvan (right) with clients and a great morning's catch of yellowtail.
Today, the fishery and economy of Bahía de los Angeles may be seen as a paradigm for the mature endgame, or aftermath, of the Mexican federal government’s decades-long policy of all-out commercial fishing at any cost. This largely unregulated onslaught has wiped out most of the non-migratory fish, including hosts of gigantic bass-like species, cabrillas, and even the giant jawfish, which was harvested commercially during the 1970s. Today, the remaining migratory fish support a blossoming sport fishing industry much more important to the local economy than the sad few pangas that still fish commercially.
These remaining migratory fish are the basis of the current economy of Bahía de los Angeles, with about 80 percent of the sportfishing business based on yellowtail, perhaps 15 percent based on a summer pulse of dorado, and only about 5 percent based on catching the few resident fish still available, according to successful sportfishing captain, Galvan.
It would be extremely beneficial to the local people if the bay’s once “unlimited” variety fishing could be brought back, since it could be an excellent “filler crop” to attract customers between the large migrations.
But today at Bahía de los Angeles, the three most important gamefish are yellowtail, yellowtail, and yellowtail, and there are enough of those fish to keep the sport boats booked solid during the summer, when the weather is good and the season is on. Nevertheless, this isn’t the old days. To be consistently successful here, you must know what you’re doing. Local knowledge is everything.
“You either need to put in a lot of time in your own boat, or get lucky, or hire a local guide,” says Roberto Edwards, a native Italian living in San Diego, who also has a residence at Camp Gecko.
Indeed, just taking a casual potshot at Bahía de los Angeles' famous but challenging yellowtail will more than likely cause you to come up empty-handed. The successful angler here must have the correct tackle, fish with a local expert until familiarity is gained, and be ready to “REEL! REEL! REEL!” real quick. It also helps to have arms like an NFL linebacker and an insensitive groin area, in case you get hit by a big one without your butt belt on.
WEATHER: More kayakers and small boaters are killed at Bahía de los Angeles than anywhere else on the Sea of Cortez. Due to the very deep tidal upwellings prevalent in the area, Midriff waters are generally cooler than either the northern or southern Cortez, and sudden “westy” winds from the west, or persistent “norte” winds from the north can cause swamping or capsizing, with the resultant hypothermia and death, even with lifejackets on. Extreme caution and local advice are necessary until you learn the signs. Sometimes, but not always, “westies” are preceded by eyebrow-shaped clouds hanging over the mountains surrounding the village. “Nortes” usually give more warning and are sometimes preceded by a hazy look to the horizon in the north, or by the obvious “wind line” of rough water coming toward you. When swift tidal currents run opposite either of these winds, truly awesome sea effects can result, and these are best viewed while sipping a beer on shore. Get off the water now! If caught out in rough wind and waves, take any available shelter, in the lee of an island, point, or cove. These abound throughout the area. Most deaths occur when terrified boaters attempt, against cool reason, to return to the village through impossible conditions.
TACKLE: Light tackle is fun, but only up to a point. Smaller “firecracker” yellowtail of about 3 to perhaps 20 pounds may even be caught on fly gear here, when they rise to the surface in the spring and early summer. Medium and heavy spinning tackle? Sure...go for it. With luck and skill, you’ll land yellowtail to about 25 pounds. However, if you wanna catch Big Daddy yellowtail consistently, come loaded for bear, and stay awake. Conquering these rock-hugging S.O.B.s, from about 25 to about 40 pounds, requires very heavy tackle, very quick reflexes, and a fair amount of luck. Lightweight tackle, “cleverly” loaded with super-heavy braided line, will simply melt or explode in your hands. For this brutal kind of “forkie” fishing, there’s no realistic purpose to using light tackle, unless you just want to witness the destruction.
You need three basic outfits:
1. A 20-pound conventional or spinning outfit for making bait and fooling around. Take Sabiki rigs in several sizes for making bait, and take four and six-ounce torpedo sinkers. Add whatever bait hooks, small trolling plugs, and small iron that you wish, but you won’t use it much. This rig is mainly for making bait.
2. A 40-50 pound, 7-8 foot jigstick outfit for casting and yo-yoing lures and medium bait fishing. Take bait hooks of #1 to about 7/0, and torpedo sinkers of 8, 12, and 16 ounces. Take plenty of iron jigs, such as Salas 6X and 6X Jr., Stingers, and Bridgeport Diamond Jigs, in chrome, blue-white, all-white, and scrambled egg. Take medium trolling plugs, such as Rapala 14 and 18 Magnums in green mackerel, fire-tiger, and orange-gold. Take trolling “feathers” for dorado, such as 6-inch “albacore” feathers, and “skirted-squids” as described in The Baja Catch. Basic feather colors should be: purple-black, all-white, and green-pink. The reel for this outfit should be high ratio, about 5:1, for jigging/yo-yoing rapidly, and it should be able to hold, say, 300 yards of 50-pound line.
3. An 80-100 pound “Terminator” outfit for heavy bait and jig fishing, with the stiffest 6-foot rod you can find (old-fashioned, pre-Spectra rockcod rods work great). Same hooks and sinkers. For trolling, add heavy, deep diving plugs, such as the MirrOlure 111MR in purple-black, hot-pink, orange-gold, green-mackerel, and blue-silver. The reel for this outfit should be 6/0 or larger, and be low-ratio or two-speed. If it’s a lever drag, it should be a fairly big one, so you can get enough drag and still have free spool. You don’t actually need a lot of line capacity; yellowtail runs are very powerful but short, so about 300 yards is plenty. However, you’ll want a bigger reel than that, because you need the drag pressure, cranking power, and general strength.
TECHNIQUES: After making bait--usually mackerel, either off the Punta Arena lighthouse in front of the village, or between there and Isla Smith--you’ll typically start hitting any of a few dozen high spots, in the bay, off large Isla Angel de la Guarda on the horizon, and fanning out in all directions to about 20 miles from the village (see map). These spots are very well-known. They “turn on” and “turn off” at a moment’s notice, depending on tidal currents, time of day, and the unfathomable moods of the fish gods. Local guides still prefer “MPS,” Mexican positioning system, for locating spots by sighting on surrounding mountain peaks. However, high-tech GPS, Global Positioning System, is making steady inroads on this artisanal skill.
The choice of which spot to fish depends on the time of year, the timing of the tides, and of course, where they bit yesterday. Often, in deep winter, you’ll run north if the winds permit, and in summer, you could be going in any direction. Yellowtail tend to hit better with running currents, right on top of high spots, and off points, but extreme tides can also keep you from reaching the deeper fish with your bait, so there’s a tradeoff. You’ll be fishing anywhere from about 20 feet deep, to over 200 feet. Rising tides tend to be better than falling. Fishing action at slack tides can drop completely dead with astonishing speed, say, within ten minutes. Full moons are tricky, and cause unpredictable variations, not always bad, such as a hot bite at slack tide. Trust your guide. He knows best, or at least, better than you.
On any given morning, the first choice is bottom fishing for yellowtail, and if that’s slow, resident cabrilla (leopard grouper), with live mackerel. Then, jig fishing. Some guides, such as Igor Galvan, love jig fishing and are such masters at it, that they prefer it over bait fishing. Last choice is cut bait fishing for triggerfish and other miscellaneous species, if there’s nothing else going on.
For live bait fishing, tie on a large, single dropper loop, about eight inches long, about two feet up from your sinker. The hook may be tied to the end of the dropper loop with a palomar knot, or less securely but perhaps more enticingly, it may be allowed to slide free on the loop.
Drop to the bottom, crank up one or two cranks, and wait for the semi-truck to arrive. When it does, crank instantly and with all the power you can muster for the first 20 or 30 feet, in order to keep the S.O.B. out of the rocks. Then, work it up normally. Until you get used to the violence and power of a big yellowtail hit, you will lose many fish in the rocks. That means you are a “ranchero.” Learn to live with this. It never goes away completely. It is very satisfying to see that it also happens to your guide occasionally.
For jig fishing, drop to the bottom, crank up about 5 feet to avoid snagging, and either sweep your rod up and down repeatedly, or crank straight up as fast as you can. One of these methods is called “jigging,” and the other is called “yo-yoing.” Which is which? Opinions vary. Take your pick. You can also cast out, let your jig sink to various depths, and wind it in with various forms of “action” applied. You can get hit on the fall, or on the retrieve, in any part of the water column, so be ready.
In general, the bigger the fish and the closer to the bottom they are, the heavier your rig should be. For 39-pound yellowtail, tight to the rocks, 150 feet down, cleated off anchor chain is just right.
Trolling and cut bait fishing is about like anyplace else, with one exception. When trolling the MirrOlures for yellowtail, use your heaviest rig, especially in shallow water less than about 50 feet deep. Hits can be very strong, and you want to plane that sucker up to the surface before he takes you down. This is no place for “sportsmanship.”
GETTING LOOSE: When bottom fishing, of course, you monitor your clearance constantly to stay close to the rocks, but hopefully, avoid snagging them. When you do hang up, the best way to get loose is to reel in slack line, but don’t tighten it completely, and whip your rod rapidly as far up and down as you can reach, as though you were beating a ten-foot cobra to death with a golf club. If that doesn’t work, make big, 100-yard circles with the panga. Still stuck? Wind the line around your reel to truly button it tight, and run the panga to break it. Be ready for an occasional pleasant surprise. Sometimes there’s a big fish on the hook.
OTHER ATTRACTIONS: Although yellowtail are the undisputed stars of the show at Bahía de los Angeles, some anglers also come here for the great variety of bottom fish, eels, and Lord-knows-what that will hit a line in the Midriff’s very complex environment of deep and shallow waters, and steep temperature gradients. For these anglers--who seek to learn the ways of everything from giant Humboldt squid to very deep benthic fish and species still lacking names--the waters around beautiful Bahía de los Angeles provide a lifetime of exploration and enjoyment.
CONSTRAINTS TO FISHING: In summer, Bahía de los Angeles can be insufferably hot. It can be pretty dang cold in winter, too. And look out when the wind decides to blow. Because of the topography of the mountains surrounding the bay, the west wind, especially, can go from zero to over 50 knots in a matter of minutes. In winter, the “nortes” can blow for a week at a time.
ACCESS: No real issues. The road is paved all the way to the village from the U.S. border at Tijuana. The 40-mile side road from the Transpeninsular Highway is maintained better and better each year, but watch for potholes after the 25-mile point. For Baja neophytes, this is a look at what the whole Transpeninsular Highway used to be like. Recently, the gas station at the Catavina Hotel la Pinta reopened, closing a big gap. The gas station at Punta Prieta remains closed. Reliable gas at a modest premium is available from drums at both Punta Prieta and Bahía de los Angeles.
ACCOMMODATIONS: Bahía de los Angeles offers a variety of accommodations including free, traditional, open beach camping at various locations including Punta la Gringa at the north end of the bay, eight miles from town; several developed beach camps with tent spots, RV spots, cabanas, and simple rooms; and beachfront motels that serve meals.
BOATS: There are no fishing fleets at Bahía de los Angeles, but it is home to perhaps a dozen pangueros who specialize in sport fishing.
LAUNCH RAMPS: There are several serviceable, concrete launch ramps in town, but the best is located at Guillermo’s restaurant and campground in the center of town. This add-on to the old Guillermo’s ramp offers the best “reach” into the water at lower tides, and the slope can handle most any trailer boat. The new ramp is attached to the left side of the original Guillermo’s ramp. There may or may not be a small fee charged for use of this ramp (usually not), so check at the store before use. Offers a pleasant outdoor restaurant seating area beside the ramp, and the showers and restroom facilities of the campground. Semi-secure parking is in the campground or near the store.
(Related Bahia de los Angeles (L.A. Bay) articles and reports may be found at Mexfish.com's main Bahia de los Angeles (L.A. Bay)
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