Mexico–Baja California Sur: “Fifty More Places To Fly Fish Before You Die”

December 18, 2011 By: Chris Santella

Fly Fishing Roosterfish

East Cape rooster. Photo Tim Romano

AT THE OUTSET of the award-winning short film Running Down the Man, angler Frank Smethurst offers the following summation:

For the longest time, everybody has told my brother and I that you cannot catch a roosterfish on a fly. Here you are in this giant ocean, in big water, with a silly little fly rod, trying to catch this giant, pretty, brilliant fish. I mean, at some point you’ve got to say to yourself, ‘God you’re really setting yourself up for this not to happen…’

In the course of the film, Frank and his brother Willliam go on to show that indeed it can be done. And their exploits—immortalized in YouTube clips that have taken the fly fishing community by viral storm—have inspired others to go running down the man, including Jad Donaldson.

“I could spend all my life chasing permit, trevally, and roosterfish,” Jad began. “To me, roosterfish are right in between the first two species—sometimes they can be pretty picky about eating a fly, other times they’re just voracious. Though they’re very fast and strong fighters, the greatest appeal to me for roosterfish is their appearance. Roosters are exotic, even sexy—and I don’t often use that word to describe fish. As Frank Smethurst has said, they’re the Liz Hurley of sport fish.”

Roosterfish (pappagallo en Español) are a member of the jack family and indigenous to the inshore waters of the eastern Pacific, from Baja California to Costa Rica and Peru. Roosters can reach more than 4 feet in length and 100 pounds in weight, though 20-pound fish are more common. Pappagallo are marked by one of the sportfishing world’s most unique dorsal fins—a series of seven long spines, its namesake rooster comb. They are exceedingly fast; watching a rooster close the 20 feet that rests between it and a fly will make you gasp! While roosters can be successfully pursued in deeper water off the Pacific coasts of mainland Mexico, Costa Rica, and Panama, it is on the East Cape of Baja California where roosters are in reach from the beach. This region—from Cabo Pulmo in the south to La Paz in the north—has become the epicenter for fly fishers seeking roosters. (It was also here on the calm waters of the Sea of Cortez that the Smethurst brothers filmed their famous assault.)

Baja California is a peninsula that extends 660 miles south from the California border, bounded on the east by the Sea of Cortez (which separates the peninsula from the rest of Mexico) and on the west by the Pacific. Baja is crisscrossed by four mountain ranges—Sierra Juárez, Sierra de San Pedro Mártir, Sierra de la Giganta, and Sierra de la Laguna—which divert the little moisture that flows over the peninsula, rendering the eastern side of Baja quite arid. The East Cape is a land of stark contrasts: rugged brown mountains frame the background to the west as scrubland dotted with saguaro cactus stretches down to white beaches and the turquoise sea, with a cloudless, cerulean sky above. The party pleasure-seekers of Cabo San Lucas are far-removed from the sleepy East Cape, where macadam roads often give way to gravel, and there’s nary a Señor Frogs in sight.

Roosterfish are certainly a sight to behold, though, striking enough to be an object of intense desire. But as in many amorous pursuits, the quest is frequently as engaging as the capture. For fly fishers on the East Cape, it means a day on the beach—walking, riding an ATV, or sitting—depending on your state of mind. “Fishing for roosters is all sight-fishing, and you need the sun high in the sky,” said Bill White, who guides for roosters around Cabo Pulmo. “Most days don’t start until 9, and the best fishing is usually over by 4—real banker’s hours. One misconception that people who’ve never fished the East Cape have is that you always have to be running. Some people certainly will walk the beach, searching for fish on the move, but another option is to find a spot high on the beach with good visibility, and wait for the fish to come to you, sometimes with the aid of a teaser that’s surf-cast into the blue water. The biggest fish that we got in 2009 was caught by an angler who sat in one spot all day—by a cooler of beer!”

Sometimes you’ll see the fish coming out of the deeper water toward the beach from 50 or 60 yards away like dark torpedoes; other times, they’ll appear out of the trough where waves break on the beach, just a few feet from shore. On a good day, you may see upwards of fifty fish and have many shots, though anglers should be happy landing one good rooster in a day’s outing. “The first time I went roosterfishing, I stepped out of the truck at the beach and asked the guy I was fishing with what the roosters look like,” Jad recalled. “He pointed to an incoming wave, and there was a black shape riding the crest of the wave, running sideways to the shore. I asked him what I should do, and his response was ‘GET DOWN THERE!’”

Once the fish come in toward the beach to hunt or coral baitfish, the madness that is roosterfishing really begins. Roosters have excellent eyesight, and the fly—a 6- or 7-inch baitfish pattern flung on a 10-weight rod (Many East Cape anglers prefer a fly called a Rasta created by Frank Smethurst)—needs to be presented a bit in front of the fish and then stripped aggressively. (To further speed the fly’s motion, some anglers will step backward while stripping line, resulting in a nuanced dance step that might be called the Baja Soft Shoe.) Between the surf, the line that wants to tangle around your feet or rod butt, and the adrenaline rush of a large, aroused fish with its ‘combs up’ barreling in your direction, making the cast when a fish is coming right at you is a challenge. But when the fish turns right or left and you need to sprint ahead of it while keeping your line clear and not sinking that 2/0 hook into your scalp—then things really get interesting. Sometimes you’ll only get one shot before the fish retreats to the deep; sometimes you’ll get three or four, and find yourself sucking wind 150 yards up the beach from where you started. On this level, roosterfishing is the fly fishing equivalent of the winter Olympics biathlon event, where competitors cross-country ski from target to target, trying to hit the bull’s-eye.

“I’ve had fish take the fly 60 feet away, and I’ve had them take nearly at my feet,” Jad added. “When I first started doing this, I thought I’d have to strip like a madman, but it’s more about the fly accelerating, never slowing down. While they’re willing to chase bait, they’re not always dumb about it; though on one occasion, I had a fish going so fast that it beached itself!”

Captain Jad Donaldson’s professional piscatorial pursuits begun in 6th grade when he wrote an essay stating his intentions to be a “professional angler.” Now as a full-time fly fishing guide and instructor and with 17+ years of experience, he has turned his ambitions into reality. With seasons of guiding in the Great Lakes and Western AK under his belt, Jad now plies his trade in the fertile steelhead filled water’s of the Pacific Northwest as he has for the last 10 year’s. Annual stints of guiding on the East Cape of Baja and hosting travelers to saltwater destinations have firmly placed Jad on the map of the fly fishing world. He is employed as a guide and specialist by Kaufmann’s Streamborn in Tigard, Oregon. His newest passion is the pursuit of Albacore Tuna on the flyrod off the Oregon coast and has plans for a saltwater sportsfishing operation are in the works. He resides in Portland, Oregon and thanks his wife Sarah, for all of her  support.

Prime Time: Roosterfishing heats up with the temperature, so May through July tend to be best.

Getting There: Most visitors fly into the Los Cabos International Airport, which is served by many North American carriers. The East Cape is roughly an hour’s drive from the airport.

Accommodations: Pappagallo offers palapa-style lodging on the beach in Cabo Pulmo and can provide guide services. Hotel Punta Colorada (877-777-8862) offers more upscale accommodations, also on prime rooster beaches.

Guides/Outfitters: A number of guides lead fly fishers to roosters on the East Cape, both from the beach and from pangas just off the beach. These include Bill White, Baja Flyfishing, and Bay Anglers. Jad Donaldson also leads rooster trips during the prime season.

Equipment: A 10-weight rod fitted with a clear intermediate “slime line” is ideal for beach fishing. Your reel should have 400 yards of backing; you can’t chase the roosters once they take off into the ocean! The favored Rasta flies are available once you arrive.