Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Go With the Flow

For the rest of the day, he stood in the port corner of the boat, rod in hand, becoming more agitated.

In the past few weeks of football playoffs, often players would try to force a pass, run or tackle in an attempt to compensate for a broken play. It reminded me of how many anglers attempt to do the same thing.

As prolific as Baja fishing is, there are times when it can behave likewise, refusing to perform as expected. When that happens many anglers react, resolutely attempting to coerce the conditions to fulfill their expectations which usually results in a disappointing trip.

A few years ago I fished with an angler from the East Coast, who had traveled to many of the world's striped marlin hotspots with limited results. After hearing the many stories of double-digit shots at marlin attacking the hookless teasers in Magdalena Bay, he was convinced to make the cross-continent trip to catch striped marlin on the fly. For months emails were exchanged, tackle, flies and techniques were covered extensively and thousands of dollars were spent in booking the six-day trip on a sixty-foot boat. He planned to fish alone so that every opportunity for a striped marlin would be his. By the time he arrived, I was convinced that his trip would be one of my most memorable and it was…

We met at Puerto San Carlos to begin the trip; tackle was rigged, techniques discussed and strategies established. The following morning, we ran through the Entrada and headed downhill toward our last hot spot. The hookless teasers bubbled in the wake as we watched and waited.

It wasn’t long before a shimmering gold bull dorado streaked behind the flat line. If you fly fish you get use to refusals. However, it is usually the fish not the angler who refuses. The dorado was in easy casting distance and I screamed over the noise of the engine, ”CAST”! My client looked at me shaking his head, "I only want marlin."

For the rest of the day, he stood in the port corner of the boat, rod in hand, becoming more agitated. He shook his head in refusal as dorado, tuna, and wahoo continued to appear so frequently behind the teasers that I felt like Professor Harold Hill in Music Man leading the parade.

By day’s end, it was clear the marlin that had been so plentiful the week before were gone… down or who knows what. I was sure that the second day ‘Mr. Marlin’ would lighten up and take a few shots at other species for practice or at least to catch dinner.

However, the second day was more of the same, except we actually raised five marlin. Mr. Marlin missed four and caught one. After watching his performance, I realized he needed all the practice he could get. However, no matter what I said, he never consented to cast to anything but a billfish. He absolutely refused to attempt to cast to any other fish that frequently appeared in the wake.

The final day, we found the mother lode of marlin that we had been seeing the prior week. Mr. Marlin had his multiple shots and demonstrated his woeful inexperience as he managed to catch only a couple. Instead of using the week to fine-tune his skills, he stood in the port corner with what I am sure he would describe as ‘firm resolve’ waiting for striped marlin. In my book, he was "forcing it."
Magdalena Bay 2009 season was one that will go down in the record book as an unusual year. Most of the yachts and sportfishing fleet that came in search of billfish soon were seen heading over the horizon when their target couldn't be found, leaving in their wake some of the best wahoo, tuna and dorado fishing in recent memory… not to mention the Estero fishing which was equally as good.

Sportfishing, like football, requires an understanding of the conditions available and exploiting them, not trying to force the fishery to fit your expectations. Go with the flow!

Monday, February 1, 2010

Mag Bay's Secret Weapon

The operative word is live. Don't bother using the dead ones; they won't work.

Why didn't I think of that? We have all had those moments. Several years ago at the beginning of a fishing trip inside the bay out of Lopez Mateos, Captain Sergio Garcia idled the Mar Gato alongside an odd-looking commercially rigged panga to purchase a scoop of live shrimp.

When I had fished inside Magdalena Bay, the focus had always been on using artificials including a variety of flies and lures. My friend, Captain Gene Grimes, often told me, however, that he had great success with live bait. He would jug the bait tanks on the Legend with mackerel and sardines and head up the uncharted channels in search of snook. He had also discovered that several lures, including white pencil poppers, were nearly as effective as the live bait.
But for years none of the local pangas were equipped with bait tanks, so live bait wasn't an option.

We fished mostly fly, but when we had anglers who wanted to fish conventional tackle, they were limited to artificials including surface poppers and swimming lures. By the time some of the boats that we fished with added bait tanks we had become comfortable with the artificials, and gradually included bait (shrimp) in our arsenal. Mag Bay provides the ideal habitat for the little critters that seem to be quite comfortable with the ebb and flow of the big tide swings in the bay.
When purchasing the bait, after a few minutes of negotiation, the price is agreed on and the panguero passes over several scoops of the squirming medium-sized shrimp that are quickly placed in the bait tank. The operative word is live. Don't bother using the dead ones; they won't work. Save them in the cooler for later to serve during cocktail hour.

Be aware, possession of a Mexican sport fishing license does not entitle you to catch your own shrimp. There are two varieties…blue or brown; the blues are generally caught during the day and the browns at night. Ideally medium sized in either color are equally effective. The season in Magdalena Bay takes place from October through January and may only be caught by licensed Mexican commercial fishermen.

Rigging is not complicated. A selection of sinkers from one to four ounces should get the shrimp down to the bottom, depending on the current. Tie the sinker directly to the main line of an outfit with a minimum of 40-pound line. Use a three-foot section of 40 to 60 pound fluorocarbon attached to the sinker. Try using a strong 'Owner Gorilla' light live bait hook; size should match the shrimp size usually 1/0 - 4/0.

There are two ways to put the shrimp on the hook. The easiest method is to place the hook laterally in the back. There is a black spot directly behind the head to use as a reference point. The second method is directly through the mouth with the hook point up, exiting slightly off center behind the antennas. In a strong current this method allows a more natural presentation and when done right, prevents the shrimp from spinning in the current.

Often the fishing will require drifting along the mangroves but seldom will it be deeper than thirty feet. Drop the rig down to the bottom and then reel up a couple of cranks. The bottom depth is usually erratic and covered with roots and stuff. The trick is to recognize the difference between a snag and a bite. When you feel something, raise the rod tip before setting the hook to avoid snags.
Of all the techniques that we have tried, live shrimp have been the most productive in terms of both quantity and quality. Pargo, snapper, grouper, cabrilla, pompano, halibut and other species that I don't even have names for are up for grabs, eager for the shrimp.

Will I use shrimp all the time? Probably not. While there is no doubt it works, it has simply confirmed Magdalena Bay's potential. With that knowledge, the challenges of both fly and artificials are more intriguing than ever.