Ojo Del Toro!

Ojo Del Toro!

Eat or be eaten: Panga fishing for Baja's big-game fishes.

  • By: Scott Sadil
  • Photography by: Gary Bulla
A Jack Close-up

Valente Lucero captains the panga La Venadita, “the little deer,” off the shores of Punta Arena, an hour by car south of La Paz, Baja California Sur. Valente is known amongst family and friends as Venado, a nickname earned at a younger age when the seductions of local tequila often inspired him to hop about the pueblo of Agua Amarga like a deer and, on more than one occasion, climb into the arms of a cardón cactus and leap, like a frightened doe, to the desert floor below.

Halfway through a week spent fishing bluewater off Punta Arena with the Lucero family, taking turns in pangas captained by a cadre of in-laws, cousins and nephews, I discover that, thanks to Valente, my nickname is now El Fiero. At first I’m flattered. In my broken Spanish, I conjugate derivatives from a source that seems to include words involving fire, ferocity, something wild, an animal or beast. Yet two mornings later, Israel Lucero, my captain for the day, informs me that fiero is also a variation of feo—that is, Spanish for “ugly.”

Rising light and the last hints of cool night air trace our wake as we beat a course across a wind-swell sweeping through the channel between Punta Arena and the southern tip of Isla Cerralvo. About us, pangeros stand motionless as seated horsemen, affixed to the handles of gleaming outboards, their boats rising and falling in graceful rhythms that seem only remotely connected to the blistering wail of four-stroke engines. Ahead, tucked tight to Cerralvo’s steep barren beaches, we see the panga of our carnaderos, or bait guys, whose wares comprise the single most important ingredient—beyond fuel itself—to our day’s anticipated success.

Counterclockwise from top: A dorado comes to the gaff (some of these fish are kept for food)

Yet “success” seems suddenly a relative notion. Try as I might, while daylight sharpens and the heaviness of the coming heat begins already to settle over the water, I can’t quite resuscitate the feelings of respect I’ve believed showered upon me each time another bluewater beast has, for days running now, eaten my fly, threatening to pull me off the bow—or over the gunwale—and into the drink. “El Fiero!” the captains, young and old, have taken to calling, as I struggle to stay upright, lurching about a panga’s bow, the rod tip buried in bouncing seas far beneath my shuffling bare feet. El Fiero? The Ugly One? Israel settles us idling just outside the cluster of pangas exchanging U.S. dollars for scoops of wriggling sardines—and immediately, not a short cast away, a toro, a big jack crevalle, explodes through the surface, leaving behind shock waves as if a sack of Red-E-Crete were somehow pitched into the sea.

El Fiero? What do these guys think this is anyway? I ask myself, swinging the 12-weight up onto the bow. A fricking beauty contest?

Sometimes you wish it were. For the truth is, there’s a tenor to Baja panga fishing that can escalate quickly to the level of hysterics—oftentimes at the expense of anglers foolish enough to feel they can match muscle with the alleged aim of their double-hauled casts. Methods are simple, straightforward, techniques as subtle as those found on a high school wrestling mat. What you have, of course, is the richest bluewater fishery in the world, where every fish that swims can be and is preyed upon by something larger and faster than itself—a kind of piscine oneupmanship that doesn’t end until you’ve reached a point so far beyond the effective limits of open skiffs and fly-fishing equipment that you might as well try to hit major league fastballs with a toothbrush.

A yellowfin tuna goes back where it came from.

Not that anyone practices restraint. I’ll have to mention this someplace, so I might as well get it over with right here: While fishing with Juan Carlos, another Lucero family captain, I saw, for the first time in my life, a marlin within casting range. I made that cast, a fairly clever backhand throw to keep the fly from passing over the captain and Tom Kucera, the other ranchero in the boat—and the marlin ate the fly.

So absurd does this all still seem to me, so beyond anything I’ve ever imagined doing or even wanting to do as an angler, that I find the memory of it faintly whimsical, quite unlike the overblown terror I generally remember experiencing during encounters with other big fish. Don’t get me wrong: Juan Carlos and I certainly gave it our best shot. And I recall, most fondly, the 17 consecutive jumps the fish made when, after leading the boat for 10 or 15 minutes toward the horizon, it finally got serious about trying to separate itself from the annoying pressure I was putting on it with my picayune 12-weight. The 350 yards of gel-spun backing contained on this particular reel seemed utterly pointless were it not for the steady hum of the Honda pressing the panga forward. Admirably enough, after well over an hour, we did recover all the line, and at one point I actually hoisted the butt of the leader above the water. By this time I had given my gloves to Juan Carlos, who was game to take a stab at billing the fish, a shot that seemed to me was asking for a hell of a lot more trouble than any of us deserved. As long as a man, something over 100 pounds, I’d guess, the fish was tired but still cruising alongside us at a stately clip, sometimes a silhouette, sometimes a ghostly shadow, capable of moving off from the boat without apparent effort.

Here’s the drill: Get on the water early, and acquire a supply of sardines (live ones). Cast your imitation of frightened sardine at likely spot while your guide tosses real sardines (also frightened) at same. Then hold on.

Later, when I asked Juan Carlos if he thought we had done something wrong, if there was anything we might have done differently, he shook his head and said, “Mal suerte.”

Had he ever caught a marlin? I asked.

Plenty of them, he answered, smiling in a way that reminded me of the response you might get if you asked a teenager about his success with girls. But this would have been his first fly-caught marlin.

“Possible otra vez, Fiero?” he added, gunning the engine to reclaim the five or so miles we estimated we had covered since the marlin ate the fly.

More routinely, however, consider the fuss caused by those toros—jacks like the ones that erupted each morning while we purchased bait, or cruised the surfline off Punta Arena, furious beasts crushing chum flung by our pangeros as we drifted with wind and current just outside the shore break. The focused close-ups and inshore shots invite you to fish your 10-weight because, well, hey, come on, man, you’re practically surf-fishing. How often do you even see a 10-pound fish this close to dry sand? No matter that here and there the fish that just hit the bait again seems on the order of that sack of building aggregate. “We are light-tackle enthusiasts!” you warble, dancing in the bow to the sway of swell and the dampened vibrations pulsing behind 300 grains of recently airborne love.

The problem, however, is if you hook said toro on anything lighter than your toughest stick, and it does in fact turn out to be closer to 20 pounds than 10, you’re going to suck the life out of a fish that nobody, not even the village pariah dogs, will eat—while the panga captain and your partner will sit in the stern, drink a soda, split a sandwich, and try once again to break through the language barrier—while you’re in the bow doing something that soon takes on the elegance of digging post-holes for a backyard fence.

Which isn’t to suggest that the sport in question is nothing but roll-up-your-sleeves, kick-ass, run-and-gun angling. Even those toro prove elusive if you persist on “shooting the covey.” Fail to cast to individual fish and, shocking though it seems, your fly may go unnoticed as the big jacks slash about and wallop the bait.

It was Valente, the most experienced, senior and gifted of the Lucero family fly-fishing captains, who urged me one afternoon to place the fly as close as possible to single, chummed sardinas, insisting that I needed to get my cast to land simultaneously in the same spot as his own. Fair-skinned and slight, with a nest of curly black hair he keeps hidden under a hat tied so tightly under his chin that the straw brim folds down around his face, Valente has embraced the passionate and sometimes reckless efforts of Baja panga fly fishers, beginning with the early attempts by Gary Bulla, my host on this trip, to devise certain protocol for the game. Using live chum to locate fish or bring them to the surface is now standard practice in Baja panga fishing, making it possible for captains far less talented than old hands like Valente to bring plenty of fish to the boat. The telling detail concerning Valente, however, is that in his panga, La Venadita, he doesn’t carry a radio—or any other means to communicate with members of his extended family’s fleet.

Certainly there’s a bit of old school Luddite to Valente; no doubt most of us would have stayed out of some of the cacti we’ve scaled over the years if we’d had a computer or cell phone or iPod to keep us occupied through the night. But by choosing to fish without relying on frequent contact with other captains, Valente submits each day to the strength of his experience, creativity and intuition, venturing into a private world divorced from the incessant chatter and play-by-play droning about the other boats.

I received instructions to pinpoint my casts while Valente had us backed up close to a heavy shore-break, the result of an early season tropical depression that sent surf marching up the East Cape. Jacks and the occasional roosterfish coursed the margins of the surf, here one moment and gone the next. We had reached the point in the drift where Valente and I were keeping our eyes out for a big wave set—yet as the panga dipped and rose, we also fell into synch, and the next time the fish showed, we both watched as sardine and fly fell to the water and immediately disappeared as one down the maw of a vicious, heart-stopping grab.

It didn’t take a lot of Spanish to explain to Valente the idea of a bullseye—en el ojo del toro!—and while he spun the engine and headed us away from the surf, I staggered about laughing on the bow, picturing that pretty cast while struggling to prevent any more backing from disappearing off the reel.

“Andale, Fiero!” chimed Valente.

Still, there’s no denying that some of the sport offered up on Baja pangas proves about as subtle as a bar fight. Much of what happens while fishing over offshore structure—reefs, sea mounts, pinnacles and other fish-attracting contours located by means of triangulation that leave us gringos spinning in our seats—is little more than a test of strength and the virtues of knots and equipment. Your captain, in effect, is the guy who is really fishing: you’re job is simply to launch the fly, “find it” as your line sinks and straightens in the current, and then hang on tight. Skipjack, bonita and yellowfin tuna leave you pinned to the gunwales to your heart’s content . . . and if I sound, for an instant, like I might have anything against such sport, please note that I just ran out of painkillers for that procedure performed on sun damage to the back of my casting hand. I’d go clamming with a fly rod if I thought I could get those suckers to bite.

A roosterfish is returned to the Sea of Cortez.

There are, of course, notable exceptions to the deepwater game—sporting opportunities that have more to do with angling skills than Kevlar loops, triple-edged cutting-point fly hooks, your weight-training regime, or second mortgages taken out to invest in reels capable of stopping—or at least slowing down—a horizon-bound Bugatti, say, piercing the shimmering heat waves on a Nevada highway.

Take, for instance, dorado, mahi-mahi, dolphinfish—call them what you will. No doubt dorado have hooked more anglers on the elegance of bluewater Baja fly-fishing than any other Sea of Cortez species, even if you do hear that these slender, acrobatic leapers are relative pushovers in comparison to the powerfully configured, deep-diving tunas and jacks. Such comparisons, however, mean absolutely nothing when, drifting through a school of surface-popping skipjack, your captain suddenly hollers, “Dorado! Dorado!” hurriedly pitching a handful of sardines. There, in amongst the blasting skippies, appears a fish so bright with blues and yellows that for a moment you might be excused for indulging in a vision of a lit-up state patrol car that just got wind of that speeding Bugatti breaching that desolate Nevadan mirage.

But then you better make your cast. Quickly. Accurately. Because these glowing neon surface tracers, although recklessly aggressive during their initial rush through bait, are known to grow increasingly wary the moment they spot a boat and sense line and lure leaping this way and that way above their iridescent heads.

The trick with dorado is your chances improve dramatically if you actually fish for them. This sounds obvious but, amidst the wealth of so many other fish, it’s often overlooked. Granted, you can fling your 500-grain head into the gullet of the ocean blue and now and then—because this is, after all, just fishing—a dorado will eat your fly and, once again, you’re off to the races. The biggest problem, however, with this kind of chuck-and-strip fishing is that there’s a very good chance you’ll already be hooked into something else should a dorado actually arrive—and what do you do now, your rod bent double, while the fish you really want is slashing about through your captain’s chum with the ferocity of a prizefighter’s right hook?

A psychedelic sailfish dorsal.

Conversely, if you sight-fish first, you can make choices not afforded when blind-casting. The day after the marlin encounter, we had a leather-colored hammerhead appear off the back of the boat, apparently interested in the scent of a couple of skippies we had dangling in the water to help attract dorado. I took a long careful look at the shark—about the same size as the previous day’s billfish—and I thought, No thank you, and I declined the invitation to cast.

Besides waiting and sight-casting, the other commitment one makes for dorado is to carry a rod rigged with a slow-sinking, intermediate or even floating line, as well as, perhaps, employing an actual surface pattern like the easy-to-cast Crease Fly. Baja panga anglers commonly venture offshore with impressive bundles of rods, all of them strung up and ready to go, in preparation for specific species and sizes of fish and an array of different conditions and situations—but also simply because of the number of times reels fail, rods break and even lines, for whatever weird reasons, disappear overboard. That said, just as many panga anglers pretty much keep one rod in hand all day—and when, say, a dorado appears, they simply cast and strip quickly, keeping the fly near the surface rather than trying to switch rods in the flurry of excitement that invades the boat when suddenly the water is lit up with pelagic pyrotechnics.

What you don’t want to be is an angler wondering if you’re using the right rod, the right line or reel or fly. Has anyone ever explained to you that you don’t catch fish without your fly in the water? In case I haven’t made it perfectly clear yet, let me emphasize right here that Baja panga fishing is not exactly rocket science. There is, mind you, a lot to think about. There is a lot to know. But my advice is to do your questioning and tinkering and problem-solving back on dry land, and keep as much thinking as you can out of the boat.

Above: The author displays a hefty Baja dorado. You can catch them by chance, but you’ll do better if you actually target them. Obvious, right?

I’m only being a little facetious. Baja panga fishing is more athletic than intellectual, more reactive than prescriptive. Aim for feeding fish. Try to put the fly as close to one as possible. If something pulls, pull back. If it pulls hard, pull back harder.

Obviously, there’s got to be a little more to it than that. And over dinner each night—the sweet scent of Negra Modelos mixing with the aroma of grilled dorado and amberjack, the heady tang of ceviche, the authentic ranchero music “oompahing” through the palm-frond ceiling—advice ranged widely that might have made any of us better anglers if not also better citizens at large. But I hate to introduce too much ambiance or a bunch of subtle intricacies into what might best be described as a sport of reckless casts into the dangerous dimensions of chaos. There’s a beauty to this kind of sport—but it has a lot more to do with the wind and the waves and the wild animals eating one another all around you than anything you do with a fly rod. It can also get a little ugly. But I’ll tell you this as well: It can be a hell of a lot of fun. If you like to think, go trout fishing. If you like to wrestle fish till your knees shake, put your hopes in the hands of a panga captain and $20 worth of live bait.

Scott Sadil chases fish with a fly rod and waves with a surfboard wherever they are found. He’s considered an expert on Baja bluewater fly-fishing and, in fact, penned the book, Angling Baja: One man’s fly fishing journey through the surf. His most recent book, Fly Tales: Lessons in fly fishing like the real guys, was released last August. He lives in Hood River, Oregon.