Friday, May 23, 2008

Baja Beaches…No Respect

It is not unusual for a BIG rooster to eat a hooked ladyfish.

Beachfront hotels encourage sun bathing, snorkeling, and swimming but they basically consider the beach to be a sidewalk to deliver guests to the fishing boats they offer. Most anglers ‘take the bait’ and ignore the beach completely, opting to jump on a boat and get out where the real action is.

The local residents know that the beaches can offer good fishing. Hoards of the locals flock to the beach at every opportunity to cool off and enjoy an outing for the entire family. It isn’t unusual to see small children swimming and playing in the water at one end of camp, with the adults fishing at the other end.

Regardless of your fishing style, spin, fly, or bait casting, include your favorite stick in the rod tube. Fishing from the beach is the ultimate ‘do it yourselfer’ allowing you to figure it out on your own. The results can be spectacular if you are willing to spend the time.

Fishing Baja beaches is like fishing any other venue; it is all about being in the right place at the right time. Standing in one spot and casting until your arm is sore is not going to get it. Keep moving, look for the same signs as you would from a boat… birds or bait being pushed. Often you can spot fish swimming well within casting range. Small chrome spoons, surface poppers, swim baits or plastics all work; select the ones that you have had success with in other places.

The beach species’ list is impressive: roosters, jacks, yellowtail, pompano, pargo, grouper, ladyfish, etc. If you are very lucky you may even land a dorado or tuna. The beach is always full of surprises!

Locals seem to prefer bait while visitors tend to use lures. It is not unusual for a BIG rooster to eat a hooked ladyfish before you can land it. After that happens, you may think pinning that lady back on a hook and cast it out isn’t a bad idea.

There isn’t a bad time to fish the beach: Early morning before breakfast in low light conditions the fish seem to be actively feeding. Mid-day as the sun climbs higher in the sky, it is easy to spot free swimming fish within casting distance, as well as balled-up bait schools. Late afternoon and early evening produces low light conditions again.

Like any fishery worth its salt you need to put your time in. I often see an angler go out on the beach and in less than an hour head back to the pool or bar in disgust. Think about it. As great as the fishing can be in the Sea of Cortez it usually takes your Captain more than an hour to figure it out.

In The Angler's Guide to Trailer-Boating Baja, Zack Thomas talks about the joy of being on your own boat and having complete control of what you do. A Baja beach is the next best thing… allowing you to be your own Captain, using your acquired skills to land quality fish and have fun without depending on another person or boat.

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Monday, May 12, 2008

A New Breed…Time Will Tell

As the bright yellow air line began trailing behind the diver, the pangero began rowing to keep up. “Our diver doesn’t walk, he runs” Juanchys boasted.

We were up before sunrise on the morning of the second day of our trip and hurried down to the beach where the Cooperativa had gathered for the day’s commercial activity.

The crews were given a sheet of paper containing GPS coordinates, the quota of abalone to be harvested that day and a handheld GPS. Each panga was equipped with a small compressor and 150’ of air hose, and consisted of a crew of three, the panguero, a diver and the diver’s attendant. As promised, Juanchys had arranged for Glen and me to ride with them on one of the commercial pangas.
Soon all of the pangas were loaded and headied out to their assigned areas to begin the day’s work.

In less than thirty minutes, we were on the spot. With a yank on the cord, the compressor sputtered to life and over the side went the heavily weighted, wetsuited-diver as he plunged to the bottom forty feet below. I watched as Juanchys managed the air and safety line.

As the bright yellow air line began trailing behind the diver, the panguero began rowing to keep up.

“Our diver doesn’t walk, he runs,” Juanchys boasted. You see, they are not really divers, instead of fins, they wear protective boots and enough weights to keep them firmly planted on the bottom.

After fifteen minutes the diver popped to the surface and climbed into the boat, complaining that the bottom was devoid of rocks and consisted only of sand. The motor roared to life and we made a few hundred yard adjustment.

The diver returned to the bottom and it was barely fifteen minutes before there was a pull on the safety line signaling his dive bag was ready to be retrieved. Juanchys tugged and grunted as he hauled the overflowing bag of abalone to the surface.

An overflowing bag of abalone is carefully measured and counted
Carefully counting and measuring the catch and setting aside the shorts before putting the abalone in the box, Juanchys scrawled the total of 27 with a pencil on the boat seat. When the next bag was hauled to the surface it contained 52 more shellfish.

By now many pangas in our fleet were wrapping up and heading back to the beach having reached the day’s quota of 120 abalone.
Juanchys smiled, “Fifteen more minutes.” And sure enough, Carlos soon bobbed to the surface with the remaining 31 to complete the day’s quota. The few shorts that had been collected were returned by the diver who carefully placed them on a rock on the bottom.

Back on the beach Juanchys introduced me to Enrique Lucero, Cooperativa Administrator, a young man who appeared to be equally as comfortable on the damp sandy beach as he would be back in his office at the recently completed cannery. Enrique oversees the entire commercial abalone and lobster operation for La Bocana and was supervising the offloading of the day’s catch.
“All the Cooperativas along the west coast from Turtle Bay to San Ignacio have banded together.” He explained. “As a group they have been able to apply innovative techniques to both lobster and abalone fisheries, with a common goal of restoring a sustainable fishery that produces a consistent yield from year to year while increasing the resource.”

Employing their own marine biologists, they have developed formulas that allow them to do just that and both the lobster and abalone stocks seem to be growing in spite of the continued commercial harvesting.

Enrique also indicated that his group is interested in developing more tourism and sportfishing throughout the VizcaĆ­no region in the future. Later during my trip I spoke with a hotel owner who had visited the area recently and was considering establishing an operation there.

THE RECENTLY COMPLETED cannery is a technological marvel employing state of the art equipment

The newly completed cannery is a technological marvel employing state of the art equipment to process the catch and send the product off to market as efficiently as possible. Enrique encouraged Glenn and me to visit the facility.

Less than an hour after returning to the beach, we were at the cannery. We donned protective wear and were taken inside of the facility. The crews were already wrapping up after processing the entire fleet’s catch for the day.

After watching the commercial fishermen and their Cooperativas decimate marine resource after resource in Baja over the years, spending the morning on the panga with a crew that was careful to adhere to the instructions they were given, then, listening to Enrique as he enthusiastically outlined goals and techniques being implemented by his group to maintain the resources, I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of hope that maybe some of the new breed of commercial fishermen are beginning to get it right!

Baja Growing Pains….

LA CAPILLA, A beachfront development (where my family lived for seventeen years in “Ranch Deluxe”) has already scraped the existing structures in preparation for construction.

In April, I drove Mex 1 from the border to the tip and back which allowed me plenty of time to reflect on Baja’s recent accelerated growth. The windshield of my Roadtrek van was like an HD Flat- screen TV, displaying the underbelly of Baja, as I sped along the main road.

You don’t have to travel far to realize that the real estate boom is on in Baja, mirroring the one we had in the U.S. until recently. It is hard to ignore the “For Sale” signs that are almost as common as cactus these days as you travel down Mex 1.

Developers from around the world are invading Baja like the conquistadors of long ago, with cash instead of a sword. They bid against each other, driving up the costs. Left in their trail is a growing list of projects including beachfront homes, marinas, condos, time shares, golf courses, etc. Everyone seems to have caught the fever and Baja prices are increasing at an alarming rate.
Cabo San Lucas is an example of what happens to an unsuspecting small fishing village when large developments are added. The cost of living is increased, there is a strain on the infrastructure, an increased crime rate, housing becomes unaffordable and a “touristy atmosphere” that many deplore are all products of rapid growth.

Communities like East Cape are already feeling the effects of the boom. A handful of proposed projects are in varying stages from planning to actually beginning the initial grading… La Capilla, a beachfront development and “Cabo Rivera” an ambitious marina project in La Ribera are two of these. It is rumored that several thousand skilled laborers will be bought in to complete the construction. While businesses and many local officials are eager to cash in on the windfall brought by these developments, a number of local residents are anxious about the impact this growth could be on their way of life. Many long-time residents are seriously considering selling their properties and businesses and moving on.

You often hear old timers yearning for the good old days when things were less complicated. I suspect their wishes may fall into the “be careful what you wish for” category. I can remember how 30 years ago, I waited in line to make a telephone call to the U.S. at the local, one-line telephone office--- sometimes waiting as long as 45 minutes or longer for the operator to place my call. On the drive down in the early days, we were uneasy about our next tank of gas…stations were few and far between and often out of fuel. Potholes where common, some large enough to swallow a tire. They would often remain for months until a repair crew could resurface, only to have the chubascos arrive and wash them out again. Ground tackle had to be hauled down for anchoring in Cabo bay, as there were no slips or even a marina. And while the local mechanics were well known for being able to repair a transmission or engine with bobbypins and rubber bands, the larger yachts would often fly in their own mechanic if there were problems. These are just a few of the inconveniences in the old days.

While the simple Baja life was part of the charm that drew us to Baja in the first place, many of improvements are welcome. Now, there are full service marinas with slips to moor your boats, even keeping them secure in case of a chubasco, and you can find skilled mechanics if you run into a problem. Telephones and Internet have become commonplace. Mex 1 is well maintained; it is rare that you find a pothole that isn’t resurfaced quickly. There are many more service stations along the highway to choose from. And gas is cheaper in Baja.

The Mexican officials are scrambling to combat the recent crime increases by adding more Military checkpoints and involving the Military in local crime enforcement. It’s not quick enough, however, for the U.S. State Department who recently advised caution when traveling in Baja---specifically Baja Norte---but it is a beginning.

Growth in Baja is inevitable and will undoubtedly continue to cause growing pains during the process. For some this will be the “straw that broke the camel’s back.” Others will embrace the improvements while searching out the overshadowed but still uncomplicated Baja that still exists.