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East Cape Made Sportfishing History


East Cape Sportfishing Photo

EAST CAPE'S FIRST FISHING RESORT--Herb Tansey (with crutches, left), founder of Rancho Buena Vista, with Western Outdoor News' first Baja Editor Ray Cannon (center), c. 1957. Rancho Buena Vista had opened as one of Baja's first fishing resorts in 1952. Photo reprinted with permission from "The Unforgettable Sea of Cortez," by Gene Kira.


The brief post-World War II period of 1950-1953 was pivotal in the history of sportfishing in Baja California, Mexico, for it saw the establishment not only of Baja's first four great fishing resorts--Rancho las Cruces, Rancho Buena Vista, Flying Sportsmen Lodge, and Hotel los Arcos--but also the brand new, weekly newspaper that would make them all famous in the coming decades, our very own Western Outdoor News, first published on Dec. 3, 1953.

All four of these early pioneering fishing resorts were established by pilots who flew during the war, and for good reason; in those days, you got around in Baja mainly by donkey, in your own long-range yacht...or you flew a small plane.

In those days, southern Baja had almost no people, no highway, no international airports, and not even any marinas. But what it did have was fish, mind-bogging quantities of fish of every description and size, and nowhere in Baja were there more fish to be caught than in the sportfishing area that today we call "East Cape."

This short stretch of coastline--only 70 miles or so--is the meeting place between the Sea of Cortez and the vast Pacific Ocean, and its rich currents support not only Pacific North America's only living coral reef at Cabo Pulmo, but also a series of drop-offs and deep water canyons that form a seasonal underwater "fishway" for fish migrations into and out of the upper Cortez.

But amazingly, even as late as 1950, virtually nobody was sportfishing at East Cape, except for a few very adventurous pilots who landed on beaches and dirt fields, and convinced goat ranchers to take them fishing in small, rowed skiffs.

At East Cape, the history of the modern sportfishing era really began in 1951. In that year, a retired World War II era TWA pilot named Herb Tansey lived in San Diego, and he had two sources of income that seemingly were somewhat at odds with each other: he owned a bar on University Avenue, and he also gave flying lessons at Kenny Friedken’s School of Aeronautics.

Herb Tansey had two students who were receiving flying lessons for free. These two--Frank Van Wormer (brother of East Cape legend Bobby Van Wormer) and Olen Burger--were partners in a San Diego auto body and paint shop, and they had accepted free lessons as payment for restoring an old car belonging to school owner Kenny Friedken.

Another of Tansey's flying students at the time was a young man named Enrique García, and one day, Enrique’s father, José “Joe” García, came to the school and started talking about a place he knew way down in Baja California where there were “more fish than anywhere else in the entire world.” This place was an old goat ranch called “Buena Vista,” and Joe García said that if anyone ever wanted to start a fishing resort, Buena Vista was the best possible place.

Soon thereafter, Tansey, Burger, and Joe García flew down to Buena Vista in Burger’s Navion airplane. They landed on what is now the soccer field of the small town of La Ribera and caught a ride to the goat ranch.

The fishing was very good. A partnership was formed, with Herb Tansey putting up cash and Joe García putting up sweat equity as onsite manager of the planned East Cape fishing resort of Rancho Buena Vista.

Tansey returned to San Diego to run his bar, and García began construction of the first buildings of what would become East Cape's first fishing resort. They started off with two 19-foot outboard cruisers, which they bought used from Ed Tabor, who was just opening the Flying Sportsmen Lodge in Loreto.

In May 1952, a group of planes flew down for the grand opening of Rancho Buena Vista, but business turned out to be slow, and a few years later Joe García sold his share of the company and Tansey moved to "The Ranch" to take over operations himself.

The East Cape sportfishing business continued to be very slow. By January 1957, Tansey’s money had just about run out and he was ready to give Rancho Buena Vista back to the goats.

But in the final week of that month, an American writer, Ray Cannon, Western Outdoor News' first Baja Editor, arrived by taxi on the long dirt road from La Paz, in the company of another writer, Frank Dufresne of Field & Stream. The two writers were on their first trip around the southern tip of Baja, and they had stopped at Rancho Buena Vista to test the fishing, and in particular to fish for the “albacore” they had heard about in La Paz.

These so-called “albacore” turned out to be yellowfin tuna, a disappointment for Cannon and Dufresne, but otherwise the fishing was a spectacular success, and the two writers advised Tansey to hold on a little longer; they promised him they would help to publicize Rancho Buena Vista and save the business.

Over the course of the next two years, widespread publicity in Western Outdoor News and in such national publications as Saturday Evening Post and Field & Stream caused the East Cape sportfishing business to skyrocket, and Rancho Buena Vista became the most popular fishing resort in Baja California.

But tragedy struck on January 5, 1959, when Herb Tansey and employee Arthur Young were killed in a crash of Tansey’s Ercoupe plane near the town of El Triunfo. (Tansey flew the foot pedal-less Ercoupe plane because years earlier he had lost the lower portion of his right leg in an TWA airliner crash in Ireland, but that's another story.)

Beginning sometime earlier, Ray Cannon had accompanied former U.S. Army Colonel Eugene Walters on East Cape fishing trips to Rancho Buena Vista and the two had talked about how the colonel wished he could find a place just like it to buy and operate during his retirement.

Shortly after the tragic plane crash, Ray contacted Colonel Walters and advised him that Herb Tansey’s widow wished to sell out. In March 1959, Colonel Walters took over as the new owner of East Cape's first fishing resort, Rancho Buena Vista, and a new era--complete with a storybook of future legends of its own--was just beginning.

Working basically as a sort of "beach boy" at that early Rancho Buena Vista resort was a American young man named Bobby Van Wormer, brother of one of the original three fishermen who had flown down in 1951. Through an amazing, "only in Baja," series of serendipitous events over the coming decades, Bobby and his wife, the former Rosa María "Cha Cha" Ruiz Gonzalez (they were married in Santiago on June 27, 1965), would eventually become living iconic symbols of the modern tourist industry of East Cape, and themselves the owners of three resorts, Palmas de Cortez, Playa del Sol, and their original Hotel Punta Colorada.

These East cape fishing resorts--along with the original Rancho Buena Vista, the nearby Buena Vista Beach Resort of the old time Chuy Valdez family, John Ireland's Rancho Leonero sitting like a South Seas island retreat at the south end of the bay, and Martin Verdugo's Beach Resort in downtown Los Barriles--have so far remained remarkably true to the old fly-in sportfishing formula established in 1951.

Granted, nowadays, guests fly down in airliners and land at Los Cabos International Airport, rather than crash landing their own planes on the beach behind the hotel, but other than that, at East Cape, the golf, partying, and nightlife of modern packaged tourism still takes a back seat to good old fishing, just like the days when the likes of John Wayne and former President Dwight D. Eisenhower fished here.

From its 1951 beginning to the present day, there has always been a special, unique relationship between the sportfishing industry of East Cape and Western Outdoor News, and in the earliest days, this closeness was established mainly because of the long lasting friendship between W.O.N.'s first Baja Editor, the legendary Ray Cannon, and East Cape's original fishing resort, Rancho Buena Vista.

Throughout his career at Western Outdoor News, Ray wrote more columns about the East Cape’s Rancho Buena Vista than any other place in Baja. It wasn’t only the wonderful fishing and the quiet, tropical setting that attracted him; a trip to Rancho Buena Vista offered many other pleasures, including a stopover at his favorite city of La Paz and the opportunity to visit "The Ranch’s” owner, his close friend, retired U.S. Army Colonel Eugene Walters.

These two men from different backgrounds shared an intense love for the Sea of Cortez. They grew old together after meeting at The Ranch in 1957, and they would die within a few months of each other in 1977.

Sometime about 1966, it was decided that Colonel Walters would build a permanent house for Ray on the grounds of the resort. A choice spot was chosen at the edge of the water just north of the main buildings, a small cabaña was demolished to clear the area, and construction was begun on the famous Ray Cannon “Round House.” The architect of the semicircular, single-story building was Dale Frederich, who had accompanied Ray on two of his best-remembered early Cortez cruises: the 1957 “Hurricane Cruise,” and the 1958 “Kids’ Trip.” A special circular bed was constructed by San Diego furniture manufacturer and Vagabundos Del Mar club member Roy Wickline.

In January 1969, the "Casa Cannon" Round House was completed and a lease was executed between Ray and Colonel Walters that entitled Ray to occupy it for the rest of his life at the rate of about $21 per month. For the remainder of his career, Ray Cannon would return to the Round House as often as possible, and he would consider Rancho Buena Vista his “home” in Baja.

During the remaining ten years of his life (Ray Cannon died in Los Angeles on June 7, 1977) and his career with Western Outdoor News, Ray would chronicle the week-by-week passing of the seasons at East Cape, as the other major East Cape fishing resorts were built and gradually enlarged, the hurricanes came and went, and the great yearly migrations swept through each spring and summer, bringing striped, blue, and black marlin, dorado, tuna, wahoo, roosterfish, yellowtail and a hundred lesser game fish to fill his columns.

Ray came to stay at his Round House at Rancho Buena Vista as often as he could, and it was to this place that he made his last pilgrimage to Baja in 1976, when he knew that he was dying. During that visit, in the aftermath of Hurricane Liza, he took pictures of the Casa Cannon Round House in disrepair, with its roof gone and its glass doors broken out by flying wood. (Casa Cannon, with its roof having been repaired many times during the past two decades, can still be seen on the grounds of today's Rancho Buena Vista.)

In one of his last columns for Western Outdoor News, Ray Cannon wrote from his beloved Rancho Buena Vista, just a few weeks after the passing of terrible Hurricane Lisa:

"...The dishwashers and chefs and all other kitchen workers were singing again. Glory had returned to the earth and its heavens. The light spectrum from the sun was again painting the Sea a royal blue....As I write this a couple of marlin cruisers from the resort’s fleet of 22 are edged in just below the sunset’s orange haze lingering just above the sharp line of the horizon...Except for one boat with a big marlin hookup, all cruisers are in. Most of them look as if they had been decorated for Christmas, with outrigger poles bearing pennants of many colors. Most of them indicate dorado (dolphinfish), half-a-dozen sailfish flags, one for striped marlin, also one for a yellowfin tuna, a roosterfish, jack crevalle, threadfin pompano and several for sierra." (It is unknown how Ray was able to determine the names of so many fish species from the basic colors of the outrigger flags, but that's another story!)

Ray took his final voyage on the Sea of Cortez on June 25, 1977, when his ashes were scattered upon the waters of Canal de San Lorenzo near La Paz, just north of East Cape, by Carla Laemmle, the beautiful and loving woman with whom he had worked and shared the most profound intimacies of his life for the preceding forty-two years. As the solemn motorcade and police escort passed through the city that Ray had watched grow up from little more than a village, the people paused in their daily tasks and lined the roadside in a sorrowful, silent tribute to the American they had known as “Señor Cannon.”

It was a tribute not only to the man they had loved for so many years--Ray Cannon, the pied piper of Baja California’s Golden Age--but also to their own memories, for they knew that something beautiful had passed into history; their land would never be the same again.

(Related East Cape articles and reports may be found at Mexfish.com's main East Cape information page. See weekly fishing news, photos, and reports from the major sportfishing vacation areas of Mexico including the East Cape area in "Mexico Fishing News.")