I turned my head and observed a supercharged frigate bird circling and diving as we slow-trolled in the wash parallel to the bright, sandy beach. In my periphery I noticed a large pod of pompano nervously crashing the surface between our panga and the sandy shoreline. The winds were so calm and the water so still I could see every nook and cranny on the bottom nearly 30-feet below. Suddenly, I caught a quick glimpse of a silvery predator staring up between two enormous boulders. The hairs on my neck were standing straight up as I held a death grip on the 30-pound class boat rod. Although I was focused on the prize at stake, an enormous gray whale breached no more than 300-yards to the east, jumping, crashing, flopping and simultaneously diverting my attention.
I looked to my fishing partner, Gary Barnes-Webb, General Manager of Rancho Leonero Resort, and commented that the water looked mighty fishy. Before I could complete my sentence he jumped to his feet and shouted, "Rooster just swirled my bait. Big one. Get ready!" My eyes were locked on his bait nearly 40-yards behind our panga when a huge fish with demonic black dorsal spikes launched into the air with a giant goggle-eye in its mouth. Gary gave the massive Pez Gallo a few seconds to engulf the bait before forcefully setting the hook. My nervous goggle-eye was feverously trying to take to the sky as an even larger rooster closed in for the kill. The pugnacious predator lunged forward and the bait hung from its bony mouth. Both fish were incredibly feisty and stretched out in opposing directions at an alarming rate—even with our drags socked down. Jorge, the captain of El Cazador, did a masterful job of chasing down my rooster first, and then Gary's. As my beaten adversary came boatside, I could see that there were three other schoolmates trying to seize the tasty morsel attached to the poor fellow's mouth. We boated the gorgeous specimen for a few quick snapshots before releasing it to fight another day. We then turned our focus to Gary's fish and after a quick release, we celebrated the double header with a couple of cold Pacificos.
I've had the pleasure of visiting Baja's East Cape on previous occasions, but for this particular endeavor I was on a righteous mission to catch a Sea of Cortez inshore slam, which consists of a roosterfish, barred pargo, and a sierra mackerel. If luck was in my favor, I would also bring in a cabrilla (sea bass) to complete the coveted grand slam. I chose to visit this incredible destination in late March, as I knew the roosters would be thick as thieves with big pargo and cabrilla ready to tangle with adventurous anglers. In addition, the sierra mackerel would be filling their bellies and shearing the lines of many plug and jig-hurling enthusiasts. I was up for the challenge to complete the slam, employing well equipped pangas to cover a 25-mile network of beaches both north and south of Rancho Leonero, ATVs to access remote beaches far from the nearest dirt road, and my own two feet to stalk aggressive roosters from the surf.
The Sea of Cortez is shaped like a massive fish bowl and ranges from 30-feet deep only a few yards from shore to about 10,000-feet at its deepest point. One of the best spots for targeting inshore game fish is off the old lighthouse about 5-miles south of Rancho Leonero. The cobalt blue water comes right up to the beach where predators easily ambush prey along the rocky edges. You can catch a giant pargo or roosterfish upwards of 20-pounds, to be followed in short order by a brightly colored dolphin enticed from the depths. On the day Gary and I had our jumbo rooster double we also pulled in a few nice dolphin, while a nearby boat scored hefty yellowfin tuna and a supercharged striped marlin. They say that anything goes on the Sea of Cortez, and you never know what to expect.
As with all fishing excursions, they're never long enough. Before I knew it I was already packing for my return trip to reality. It was the last day of my adventure and I had caught multiple roosters, an assortment of pargo and a few sinewy sierra. I had achieved my slam, but the cabrilla were playing hard to get. The morning of my flight back to Chicago I strolled out to the rocky reef in front of the Rancho. The sky was eerily lit by the nearly full moon, and I was confident I'd connect with my last target to complete the grand slam. I tossed out a ballyhoo plug on a circle-hook and thought about how wonderful my trip had been. Within 5-minutes I was rewarded with a sharp tug on my line and I quickly subdued a 5-pound leopard grouper with lovely spots shining in the early morning moonlight. After releasing my speckled quarry, I hooked my last piece of ballyhoo onto the circle-hook and cast it back into the sea. Within seconds, the clicker started screaming as the line cascaded off the reel. I took one crank to set the hook and the fish at the end of the line nearly pulled the rod out of my hands as it headed due east. The 30lb. braided line flew off the reel and I was quickly spooled, never knowing what sort of speedster I had connected with.
"Roosters, five of them at 10 o'clock, all big ones," hollered Jeff DeBrown, our expert fly-fishing guide, as he wildly cranked his teaser. His hands were a blur against the silver reel attached to a flimsy 12-foot surf rod. In hot pursuit of his teaser tumbling and popping along the surface were five angry roosters, each trying to outrace the next to the hookless enticement. Jeff instructed me to launch my fly just 3-feet in front of the lead fish and to strip like crazy. I complied with a perfect cast and the first in line veered toward the sardine colored offering, but just as quickly changed course and followed the gang which had detoured to the east once the teaser had been lifted from the water. All of us standing on the beach felt the jolt of electricity as the roosters thundered by. Even though there was no hookup, we were laughing and jumping like a bunch of kids. Catching a roosterfish from a boat is no doubt exciting, but with your toes in the sand it is a completely different experience.
Since every rooster in these parts is released, they are quite savvy and extremely line shy. When talking terminal tackle Jeff recommends you rig with the lightest tippet that allows for successful catch-and-release. Since you will encounter both adults and juveniles, it's a good idea to carry both an 8 and 10-weight rod and spool your reel with plenty of backing. Regarding flies, anything that looks like a baitfish will do the trick. Jeff did a superb job of providing encouragement and helpful tips all day as we worked our way north of the lighthouse. Once we got the swing of it we nailed some glorious looking roosters and powerful jack crevalle.
Let me leave you with this. If you are looking for an easily accessible angling experience that is sure to leave a lasting impression, East Cape is a must visit destination on any angler's wish list, regardless of your skill level. The region is teaming with all sorts of life accessible in all sorts of ways. One thing is for certain. Visit once and you will surely go back. That's a guarantee!
Where To Toss the Bags
At the southernmost tip of Baja, Cabo San Lucas presents a full-fledged resort town offering everything from modest motels to elegant palaces. For the hardcore angler, I definitely recommend the East Cape with the jewel being Rancho Leonero Resort, located just south of Las Barilles on the Sea of Cortez. The fishing opportunities are endless and can be fine-tuned to the desires of the guest. Whether your passion is trolling for pelagic predators or chasing outrageous inshore marauders, Paco, Rancho Leonero's fishing wrangler, can put you in the right boat with the right guide. Their fleet includes center console super pangas and spacious cruisers up to 40-feet in length. They also offer an armada of kayaks decked out with everything you need to get connected. To reach those long distance rooster raiding stops, the Rancho has ATVs outfitted with numerous rod holders. If your passion is fly-fishing, Rancho Leonero has partnered with Jeff DeBrown of The Reel Baja to offer a motherlode of awesome fly-fishing opportunities.
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