Baja: Fishing’s Final Frontier
Why would anyone take on 2,000 miles of Mexican highway, teenage guards carrying AK-47s, and the risk of death by Donkey? To reach one of the most fertile fisheries left on the planet.
THERE’S A SHEET-METAL FIGURE of the grim reaper that stands on a highway in the mountains just south of Mulege, about halfway down the Baja Peninsula’s eastern coastline. It’s an eerie-looking thing, a shrine to a dead traveler, with a scythe in one hand and an owl perched on the other. The owl’s eyes are holes punched out of the rusting iron. You can look through them and see dorado breaking bait on the surface of the Sea of Cortez, 1,000 feet below. • I saw the reaper this spring when I passed it with some friends on the eighth day of a nine-day FIELD & STREAM adventure spent fishing Baja California, Mexico, by motorcycle. We’d been on the road that day for 10 straight hours and had at least four more to go before we could stop for the night. Our backs were aching; our heads hurt. Chances were good we’d get a shrine of our own if we pushed ourselves much harder. • This trip had been a stretch from the start. A few months earlier I’d convinced myself, my boss, and three of my friends that we could fish our way from San Diego to Cabo and back in just nine days. Four down, three to catch marlin and roosterfish on Baja’s East Cape, then a speed run back north, 1,100 miles up Mexico’s infamous Highway 1 in time to catch a flight back to New York City. Just to make things interesting, I was doing this without having ridden a motorcycle in my life. I’d crossed the border into Mexico using a learner’s permit.
THE MOTORIZED MULE
There were two reasons I wanted to visit Baja. First, it has one of the most fertile fisheries left in the world. The Gulf of California, a.k.a. the Sea of Cortez, boils with marlin, wahoo, dorado, and yellowfin tuna. And then there are the roosters, vicious inshore predators that grow to 100 pounds and chase prey right into the surf. They look cool in pictures, and you can catch them from the beach.
Second, Baja is a practical place to have an uncanned adventure. Tickets to San Diego are cheap; the border is only 20 minutes from the airport. If you don’t mind eating beans three times a day and sleeping on the beach, you can fish your brains out for weeks without burning up your bank account.
I wanted to fish Baja by motorcycle because (1) the right bike can get to places on the peninsula most cars can’t reach; (2) the riding down there is the stuff of legend; and (3) I figured I’d get a richer sense of the place if I toured it with my head in the open air.
My partners on this trip were my best friend, Kurt Stoddard, adventure photographer Tim Romano, and Quad Off-Road Magazine editor Nick Nelson. Kurt is a flight instructor from Lansing, Mich. We were roommates in college and have been traveling buddies for almost a decade. Tim lives in Boulder, Colo., and is one of the voices behind the flyfishing blog on fieldandstream.com. Nick spends a lot of time racing dirt bikes on the Mexican circuit. He was with us as mechanic, translator, and troubleshooter.
Kurt and I were riding Kawasaki KLR650 dual-sport motorcycles, rigged with aluminum panniers to carry our gear and aftermarket exoskeletons to protect the engines if we dumped in nasty terrain (see sidebar on p. 105). Tim and Nick chased us with the camera in our friend Bill Decker’s white Chevy Suburban, which was set up for offroad touring.
The KLR has a nickname that I like; in adventure cycling circles it’s known as “The Mule.” I thought this was appropriate, since just 30 years before our trip, the only way to access most of the places we were going was by riding a real one.
Days 1 and 2: THE TROUT OASIS
ONE OF THESE PLACES WAS MIKE’S Sky Ranch, which we made a side trip to visit on our first day. Located deep in the north-central highlands, the San Pedro Martir Mountains, it caters mostly to Baja’s offroad riding community, but it also has a year-round waterway running through its front yard. These are the headwaters of the Arroyo San Rafael, and they spring from high enough up in the mountains to support a rare strain of desert rainbow trout.
You can fish Mike’s only if you’re skilled (or stubborn) enough to navigate the road to his place. It’s about 30 miles long, a rutted-up track through sand and rock that’s part of the course of the Baja 500 international offroad race. This is not fun terrain for a novice, especially at the end of a long day on a motorcycle. I crashed once on the way in when my front tire washed out in deep sand, and arrived at the ranch as strung out as I’ve ever been from traveling.
Fortunately, the place has a well-stocked bar, and the bartender turned out to know a great deal about trout fishing. After we bought a few beers he gave us some tips. Get up early because the heat will drive fish under cover quickly. Walk upstream a few miles to find the best water. The fish would be small. The largest he’d taken in 30 years was just 10 inches long.
In the morning we woke before the sun. I felt like roadkill looks, but I rigged a 2-weight fly rod and grabbed a box of attractors, and we headed up a trail that followed the arroyo. We started fishing where the stream entered a low canyon. Its walls shaded the water, which was cold and woke me up when I knelt in it to thread a cast through the brush. Three drifts later a 5-inch shadow darted from some rushes to swipe my fly. I brought it to hand, admiring the colors. It was a jewel of a trout, more songbird than fish, with white tips to its fins, bold parr marks, and a red lateral line that ran through its eye.
We fished for two more hours, working our way up the river, which was wide enough in places to jump across. I wanted to stay longer but we had a long way to go on the bikes that day; as the sun scared the last of the shadows from the canyon floor, we packed up our rods, hiked out, and hit the road again.
Days 3 and 4: GUNS AND DONKEYS
ONE THOUSAND MILES LATER, we pulled into a small fishing village on Baja’s East Cape, about 60 miles northeast of Cabo San Lucas. That we’d survived the trip was something of a miracle; there were all sorts of snares for the unwary gringo turista.
One of these was corrupt officials, of which there were two kinds, military and police. Bored teenagers carrying AK-47s manned the military checkpoints, which we hit at most major intersections (there aren’t many of these in Baja), and in places where terrain funneled travelers through bottlenecks. At one of them the station’s commandant emerged from his gatehouse to check out our bikes and took a liking to my fly rod. He offered to buy it and tried to leverage his bargaining position by flicking off the safety on his rifle. I think I escaped by pleading bad Spanish.
The police might have been worse, but we were fortunate enough to avoid them. Nick said they stop gringos just to take bribes, and he’d brought along a plastic bag full of racing stickers as mordida, which translates literally as “the bite.” Apparently Baja cops love the things. In case the stickers failed, we never carried all our cash in one place, instead hiding rolls of pesos in our shoes, in side pockets in our bags, and even in rod tubes.
Another hazard was the distance between gas stations. There aren’t many towns in Baja, and not all of them sell fuel. Our map marked the ones that did, and we were careful to fill up whenever we saw a pump. But there was one stretch where we had to ride into a nasty headwind, and the extra resistance hurt our mileage so much that by the time we reached the next village we were deep into our reserve tanks. I wasn’t that worried until we pulled up to the Pemex station and the pumps were all taped shut. We were saved by an old cowboy selling gas from the back of a cart a bit farther up the road. For a steep fee he siphoned us some juice from one of his oil drums.
Then there were the animals. Cows sleep on the road in Baja after dark, liking the warm pavement. Wild donkeys live in the desert and take on its colors, which makes them nearly invisible. I almost decapitated one when it jumped in front of my bike near San Ignacio. Bugs were an issue when we’d ride through watered areas. Once I had a giant flying beetle smack me in the face when I was cruising along an arroyo at 80 mph. It left a mark on my cheek the size of my palm. Another time a bee flew down my shirt and stung me three times. I almost wrecked trying to clear it from my clothing.
On top of these dangers I worried that we weren’t finding enough time to fish. We’d planned our route to follow dirt roads along the peninsula’s eastern coastline, adding hundreds of miles to the trip so we could sleep on the beach and fish for a few hours each morning and evening in the Sea of Cortez. But the distances we had to cover, especially on the dirt, took far longer than expected, and each time we got to a campsite the sun was already down. We had barely the time or, frankly, the energy to find a scorpion-free stretch of sand on which to throw our sleeping bags.
Days 5 and 6: MARLIN AND KAYAKS
AT LAST WE had three bike-free days, and I meant to do some serious fishing. We were staying at a place called Rancho Leonero (rancholeonero.com), a sportsmen’s resort perched on a bluff of palms overlooking a reef that drops to 1,000 feet just 500 yards from the beach. With a good pair of binoculars you could sit by the pool in front of its bar and glass boats pulling in marlin all day long.
On the first day we hired one of Leonero’s 23-foot cruisers, the Jefe . We bought live mullet from a bait boat waiting near the dock, then motored out to set our lines. The target was striped marlin, and the rods were thick, like small saplings. They had pulleys in place of guides. We used five rods: two on the outriggers that swung out from the sides of the cabin, one on each corner of the transom, and one in the center of the bridge.
To find marlin you scanned the water, looking for bills and fins breaking the surface, for the splash of a feeding fish, or for one breaching–when the fish would leap 10 feet out of the water, turn in the air, and land with a smack against the surface. Jeff DeBrown, a guide at the resort, told me later that day (Capt. Hermando didn’t speak English) that they do this to knock off the lice and remoras that attach to their sides.
A sighting meant pandemonium. “Marleeen! Marleeeen!” Hermando would shout. Jabbing his finger toward the spot where he’d seen it, he’d gun the engine to get our lures ahead of the fish. At times we saw marlin jumping in all directions from the boat. We’d each point at a different fish, screaming “Alla! Alla! Alla!” (“There! There! There!”), which gave the captain whiplash. All of us (except for Tim, who was shooting) hooked up at least once. Kurt and Nick both landed 140-pounders; I broke off another after a 30-minute battle.
In the afternoons, Tim and I fished with fly rods for roosterfish from the beach. On the East Cape, beaches consist of parrotfish dung. Parrotfish eat coral, then excrete bits of limestone. Around midday this coral sand gets hot enough to burn your feet.
To catch a rooster from shore you have to spot it, then cast to it, without its seeing you first. This means you walk far back from the waterline, to where the sand is broiling hot, ducking low and looking for shadows in the surf. Every few minutes I had to stop, sit on my butt, and hold my feet in the air to let my soles cool off.
The next day, we took sea kayaks rigged for fishing to the dropoff, where we dunked bait for fish cruising the reef’s edge. Our guide was Dennis Spike (kayakfishing.com), a kayak-fishing specialist who rents out boats at Leonero eight months out of the year. We caught lots of triggerfish and some snapper, and Kurt somehow hooked a manta ray on a piece of squid.
Visit fieldandstream.com/bajabybike to view a narrated slide show of this Baja by motorcycle adventure, including dozens of great shots that couldn’t fit here.
Once, when I was live-lining a mullet, something struck it with enough force to knock me off balance and I almost dumped from the boat. The fish dove into rocks and busted me off, my drag useless. Later that day a 12-foot hammerhead swam slowly past my kayak. Spike told me I should have paddled at it to scare it away, to teach it that people aren’t something to mess with.
All of this was fun, but my heart was most set on catching a big roosterfish like the 50-pounders mounted on the walls of Leonero’s bar. We weren’t having any luck doing this from the beach (Tim caught a baby, but that was it), so we called up the Jefe again and had Hermando take us near Los Frailes, a point of rocks close to the tiny town of La Ribera, 25 miles southeast along the coast. The scuttlebutt was that monster roosters were busting sardines here 100 yards offshore.
Day 7: THE SILVER BULLET
YOU CAN CATCH A roosterfish from a boat in two ways. The first is by chumming live sardines. This was simple: The mate, Rigo, would grab handfuls from the live well, thump them against the transom to scramble their brains, then toss them into our wake. The idea is to tease the roosters into a feeding frenzy and then cast a sardine with a hook in its head into the carnage. The less exciting method is to just troll off the back of the boat, one sardine to a rod, one rod per angler. We held the rods in our hands so that we could react quickly to strikes.
At Los Frailes it didn’t take us long to realize we were in the right spot. Roosterfish have a unique dorsal fin called a comb, seven long spines that they erect when they get in a killing mood. Every 15 minutes we’d see new combs break the green surface, cutting white wakes as their owners dashed about and chopped sardines to pieces. These were big roosterfish, working in pairs, and they were smart. We spent all day chasing them around and sticking sardines in their faces without so much as a take.
Toward the end of the day the captain pulled out his secret weapon. On the way down we had purchased our sardines and some odd-looking mullet from two local fishermen selling bait from a small rowboat. The mullet looked odd, I realized, because they were not mullet, but bonefish. I hadn’t gotten a good look until Hermando grabbed one out of the live well, stuck a hook through its nose, and handed me the rod.
I asked DeBrown about this later, and he said that using these for bait is relatively normal, and not frowned upon in Baja. The area is full of bonefish but you can’t really fish for them because there aren’t any flats. Instead the locals catch them in nets and eat them, or use them for bait. They’re also a favorite food for roosterfish.
Two big roosters were working off the transom, so I flipped my bone into our wake and let it drift back toward them. One turned, its eyes fixed on the bait, and attacked. When I set the hook, the fish nearly jerked the rod from my hands.
Back in high school I’d once manned the scoring booth at our fire department’s annual truck and tractor pull. My job was to record the distances that competitors driving souped-up farm equipment could drag a weighted sled up a loose dirt track. The way this rooster pulled reminded me of one rig I saw there, a rocket-powered tractor that shot 15-foot flames from its pipes. As I held the fish up for pictures, I could feel why. Its flanks were pure muscle, its body as wide and solid as a keg of beer. We estimated its weight at 60 or 70 pounds. Catching it made my trip.
Days 8 and 9: HEAVEN AND HELL
THE CELEBRATION AT THE BAR that night was muted, because the next morning we had to get on our motorcycles and ride back to San Diego in just two days, half the time it had taken to arrive.
Pushing so hard was a foolish idea. We were already tired from three long days spent battling fish in the sun, and before that the grueling ride down. There would be no breaks, unless we wanted to ride into the night, a very bad idea with those cows on the highway.
Mex 1 is dangerous. It has two lanes and no shoulder, just a bank of sand and gravel steep enough to pull a car off the road. There are few guardrails, even where the road winds through the mountains. Topes (speed bumps) and vados (sharp dips) are often unmarked, and we saw washouts on the way down large enough to swallow a Volkswagen. Some actually had; we saw corpses of the cars rusting at the bases of cliffs.
But I had set the trip up in part as a test. Too many hours in a New York cubicle had me questioning myself. Could I still handle the hard stuff? Or was I just another desk jockey dreaming behind a computer screen? If I could bike the Baja like this and live, I thought, I could handle damn near anything. So as the sun came up we rolled back onto the highway, pointed north.
We should have failed, or died. You get careless when you go such long distances without resting. At times I rode almost sidesaddle, hanging my butt off the seat to give it a rest. Kurt’s relief position was different; he’d put his feet on the passenger pegs and lean forward until his chest was flat against the tank bag. We pushed the loaded bikes as fast as they could move (my top speed on flat pavement was 97 mph) and still got caught in the dark at the end of the first day, pulling in to the Baja Oasis Motel in San Ignacio at 10 in the evening. When I closed my eyes for the night I could still see the road moving in front of my handlebars.
In the morning we hit the Pacific. The ocean currents along Baja’s western coastline flow south from Alaska, bringing cool water to the sunburned land. This made the air very cold. I wore all my layers and still rode shivering, pressing my legs against the bike to absorb the heat of the engine. A fog lay across the desert, and we traveled north through a forest of shrouded cacti.
But the ride back wasn’t all pain, terror, and tedium. On one long stretch of highway just south of El Rosario I realized how much better I’d gotten at handling a motorcycle. It was the afternoon of our last day, and the road was as winding as any I’d seen so far, switchback after switchback, with guardless corners that crumbled into canyons. We banked through miles of the turns, swooping through the mountains and whooping with joy. At the end of the section Kurt pulled into a rare turnout and took off his helmet. His face was glowing. “This,” he said, “is where all good bikers go when they die.”
Two thousand, three hundred and twenty-one miles. I’d do it again in a New York minute.
LESSONS FROM BAJA
Riding in the desert does bad things to your body, and worse things to your motorcycle. Here’s how to prepare for an offroad adventure.
Protect Your Bike. The Kawasaki KLR650 can handle difficult trails right out of the box, but prudence dictates that you make a few modifications before heading into deeper wilderness. One is to add nerf bars. These look like a steel rib cage for your engine and protect the radiator from getting banged up in a fall. The bars we used, from Happy Trails Motorcycle Products (800-444-8770; happy-trail.com), mounted an extra set of foot pegs that saved our butts, literally, by giving us a different position in which to hold our legs on the long ride. Another necessity: aftermarket skid plates. Also from Happy Trails, these are made from steel and replace the stock skid plate, which is made of plastic. We also added a fork brace, a set of reinforced hand guards from Moose Racing, and aluminum panniers to protect our gear.
Protect Your Body. A dual-sport motorcycle gives you freedom to explore terrain you’d never consider traveling through in anything short of an M-1 tank. But riding offroad means that you will crash. To keep safe, bring protective gear. We wore motocross boots, gloves, and helmets all the time, and should have worn the protective jackets and pants we brought more often than we did (it was just too damn hot). Find what you need at Tucker Rocky Online (602-369-1143; powersportrider.com). If you want more information on long-distance riding, read Riding the World by Gregory Fraser, available from Whitehorse Press (whitehorsepress.com). –N.M.