Thetis Bank Marlin on Fly Tackle: A Hectic Learning Experience Logo
Thetis Bank Marlin on Fly Tackle:
A Hectic Learning Experience


Mexico Fishing Photo 1

Gene Kira, left, with fly rod striper #1 about to be released and his saltwater fly fishing guru, Gary Graham of Baja On The Fly.


Dec. 27, 1999, by Gene Kira, Western Outdoor News:

Marlin on the fly is one of the ultimate saltwater challenges, and I always assumed that if it ever happened to me, it would probably happen at "Cabo."

After all, Cabo San Lucas, Baja California Sur, Mexico cranks out more striped marlin for the sport fishing industry than any other place in the world, and if you hope to land one with a feather, a direct-drive reel, and a skinny little fly rod, you need GREAT BIG Cabo-style numbers to tilt the odds in your favor.

But Gary Graham of the fly fishing guide service, Baja On The Fly, had a different location in mind: the Pacific coast Thetis Bank located about 20 miles off Baja's huge mangrove system at Magdalena Bay.

Back when Gary was fishing Southern California waters with conventional gear and live bait, he developed a passion for catching billfish, and he has several walls full of awards and I.G.F.A. records to prove that he got pretty good at it. There are also the stories of his legendary tournament exploits in his series of "Water Closet" sport fishing boats, he being the only angler to catch three "button fish" during the first year of membership in the storied Tuna Club of Avalon, and so on, and so forth. You get the idea that Gary knows his way around a billfish.

So my ears perked up considerably one day recently when we were discussing marlin on fly tackle, and Gary--in an uncharacteristically unguarded moment--let slip those very dangerous fishing words, "I promise... "

Gary's promise was that if we fished at the Thetis Bank, some 150 miles north of Cabo San Lucas, and if we fished in early December, I would see more marlin and get more fly tackle shots at them than at any other time or place in the world.

This was not a prediction to be sneezed at, considering its source. I knew that Gary had been tracking the exact timing and location of the Thetis Bank fall marlin bite for 20 years, ever since he and his wife, Yvonne, accidentally bumped into it while ferrying a boat north from Cabo San Lucas in 1979. I also knew that Gary fishes with a laptop on the bridge, running Nobeltech navigation software interfaced to a GPS unit, and that through a wide-reaching network of friends, he's able to tap into virtually the entire Southern California sport fishing fleet for "significant" numbers.

Finally, I knew that Gary and Yvonne Graham, today, are owners of the super-successful saltwater fly fishing guide service, Baja On The Fly, in Baja's East Cape area, and if anyone could get me a marlin on a fly rod, it was them.

So... how did it go?

Well... the good news is that I did get my first fly rod marlin--two of them in fact--one on a 16-weight, and the second on a puny little 12-weight, two unforgettable fish, and I now have a whole new perspective on what's possible with light tackle.

And... the bad news? I got off to a horrendously clumsy start on these fish, and were it not for Gary Graham and the absolutely incredible number of marlin I had to work with, it never would have happened at all.

On my first fish, the fast-spinning fly reel handle whacked my thumb viscously, bruising the hell of out it, and popping the line.

On my second fish, I somehow caused a backlash so gigantic that the cook and deckhand needed 45 minutes to untangle it. (This awesome level of backlash is supposed to be impossible with a fly reel if the drag is set properly, which it definitely was. Nevertheless...)

On my third fish, I panicked and palmed the reel too hard during a long run, snapping my line again and somehow losing half my rod in the process. (Gary hadn't seen this before, either. Hey, I'm ALWAYS inventing new stuff when I'm fishing.)

Meanwhile, my fishing partner, Ray Barker-Smith of England, was doing much better. Under Gary's expert tutelage, Ray was well on his way to landing his first SEVEN marlin on the fly.


With all that broken tackle filling up the rod racks and lying all over the deck, I finally got my act together and landed my two fish, smoothly and without further mishap, and I learned two important things about heavy saltwater fly fishing that I won't forget:

First, you never raise your rod more than 30 degrees away from the fish. Lift only with the powerful butt section of the rod; the upper two-thirds is only along for the ride. Short-stroke with this butt section, whipping the reel handle one turn at a time.

Second, a direct-drive fly reel, properly used, develops tremendous "1:1 ratio" pulling power and you can whip anything with it (as long as you get your thumb out of the way when the fish makes a sudden run and you have to let go of the handle in a hurry).

The other thing I learned was to believe in Gary Graham's prediction of an out-of-this-world fall marlin bite at the Thetis Bank. This really is something very special, and it provides fly anglers with maybe the best shot they will ever have at landing a marlin.

We fished the bank for five days from Gary's chartered 48-foot boat, the "Garota," which had come up from La Paz for the trip, and for five days we had the most massive concentration of striped marlin I've ever seen or heard of anywhere.

But it was on the warm afternoon of the third day that we really hit the jackpot: an incredible, "once-in-a-lifetime" fish pile-up, that was witnessed by only three boats, just south of the Thetis Bank and about 18 miles west of Magdalena Bay. On this peak afternoon, the marlin were seen in uncountable jumping pods, all visible simulaneously, spaced about one-quarter mile apart, in a grid that stretched to the horizon in every direction.

Our marlin swam in three layers visible from the bridge of the "Garota," with the smaller, 110-pound to 125-pound fish at the surface, larger 150-pound fish about eight feet down, and the largest fish just visible in the clear blue, 72-degree water. Every marlin seen was continuously "lit up" with brilliant vertical blue bars and blue highlights on its dorsal fin.

The feeding action began about 10 a.m., endured throughout the entire afternoon, and was still at full tilt when the "Garota" left the area for its nightly anchorage in Bahia Santa Maria. Depending on how you count it, we raised a very conservatively estimated 150 to over 200 fish to the teasers during our five-day trip.

This massive concentration and volume of fish, and the light passenger load, allowed us to experiment with different teasing, stripping, and hook-setting techniques, and to get a good feel for exactly when and where to present the fly: a lifetime of experience and learning in only five days. Next year, Graham plans a full roster of these very limited load billfish trips for a few, very lucky fly anglers who are looking for this kind of intense learning experience.

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