Gary Graham's Blog

WON News Column by Gary Graham

Gary Graham's published credits would fill many pages, two books on saltwater fly fishing, and hundreds of feature articles.

His  current leadership activities in the sportfishing community include: Avalon Tuna Club, member since the 1980s, San Diego Marlin Club, International Game Fish Association (IGFA), Baja California representative; Federation of Fly Fishers (FFF), certified fly casting instructor; Outdoor Writers of California, president; Outdoor Writers of America.

Gary Graham can be reached at:

Chapter 2016 of Cabo Tournament Chronicles
Sitting here at Baja Cantina looking out over a nearly full IGY Marina on a blisteringly hot afternoon, it just feels right! The first of the major tournaments of the fall season is underway. Has it been a year already?

So as the town fills up with a healthy mix of tourists and anglers the excitement is building, although neither group seems to necessarily be aware of the other.

TRACY EHRENBERG AT Pisces Sportfishing said they have never seen a year where so many 100-plus–pound tuna were caught!

The Los Cabos Billfish Tournament (LCBT) began Wednesday and will wrap-up on Saturday night at Solmar's Playa Grande passing out awards to the 37 teams participating. The first Captains’ meeting of the season is an opportunity for team members to size up the competition — from newcomers to the seasoned veterans whose names are frequently found on the leader board.

Of course anglers were eagerly table hopping, greeting old friends and newcomers alike in the hopes of stumbling across a nugget of information they don't already possess. Some had tales to tell of their astonishing journey though the ‘hot striper and wahoo zone’ above Magdalena Bay where double digit catches were common as they traveled down from Southern California to Baja.

Old friends Mike Hennessey and John Dominic of Team Pangalisa, both frequent participants of local tournaments, were joined by newcomer Phillip Davis. They were here hoping to duplicate their earlier success in August at the Bisbee East Cape Offshore, where with the help of Captain Gonzalo Castillo and his mate, Jose Castillo from San Jose, they trounced the competition in the tuna division.

One of the winners from last year’s LCBT, Bart Scofield, had captured the wahoo category; he has moved over to Dick Landfield's "Reel Quest," a boat that always seems to be a contender.

On "Reel Energy," owner Brian Walley was optimistic for his chances of a repeat of last year's feat when he landed a 419-pound black marlin on the first day, earning the team $113,175 plus an invitation to The Offshore World Championship.

Meanwhile, the Bisbee gang is bustling around the Malecon from their unofficial base at Baja Cantina. Dashing in and out for last minute meetings, they are putting the finishing touches on their two events, beginning with the Los Cabos Offshore on Friday the 15th and wrapping up Sunday night with their Awards Celebration at Maria Corona for their record 111 teams with 525 anglers; and followed by the Bisbee’s "Black and Blue," one of the largest sportfishing tournaments in the world that according to CatchStat, already has 121 teams with 620 anglers signed up at press time. It’s on track for a record turnout as well.

An excited Pat McDonell, Tournament Director for the 18th Annual Western Outdoor News/Yamaha Los Cabos Tuna Jackpot on Nov. 2-5, 2016, could barely contain his enthusiasm about his upcoming event. "I’m more excited about the tournament than any other one in the past 18 years! This year, we are projected to be at 145 to 150 teams; this is after a jump in teams last year to 143 and a record payout of $649,000. With the large number of tuna, the cooler water, and with the solid fields of the other tournaments, it’s going to be a fantastic tournament season for Cabo!”

“We decided to streamline the event this year, switching things up on venues: we are using the 900-seat outdoor theatre for the Captains’ Meeting; the Marina Corona restaurant and patio for the fiesta party on Friday: we are holding the Awards Dinner on the huge Cruise Ship Pier which can seat 700 and Solomon's Landing will be catering the dinner; the experience will be improved on a variety of levels for the anglers.”

Although the billfish will receive most of the limelight during the upcoming week, Tracy Ehrenberg of Pisces Sportfishing recently commented, "We have seen an extraordinary number of yellowfin tuna caught by our boats this season. In fact we have never seen a year where so many 100-plus–pound tuna were caught! We hope it will continue right through November for the 18th Annual WON/Yamaha Los Cabos Tuna Jackpot."

Big fish and big money is a tantalizing combination for anglers literally from the four corners of the world, fueling dreams of wealth and fame that can be found at the end of the line . . . the fishing line.

As a footnote, Brian Walley, aboard "Reel Energy" did catch a 370-pound blue marlin the first day of the LCBT and John Dominic, aboard Pangalisa caught a 387-pound black marlin the second day. At the start on this third and final day, both my buddies are the names to beat at the top of the leader board! The 2016 chapter of the Cabo Tournament Chronicles is off to a good start…

Tortuava, totoaba, tuna-pens…vaquita and swim-bladders
The first time I heard of tortuava was in the ’50s. My dad and his buddies went on a fishing trip to San Felipe targeting the tortuava, a fish that turned out to be sort of a white seabass with a Mexican accent.

As I recall, this was one of my dad’s most successful fishing trips, as he had returned with lots of huge fish . . . by my teenage standards. He told tales filled with glowing descriptions of catching the 50-pound fish in the shallow waters where the Colorado River flowed into the Sea of Cortez. While I don’t remember them fishing there but the one time, when the conversation drifted to good fishing for big fish, the San Felipe trip was sure to be at the top of the list.

LESS THAN FIVE feet long and weighing just 100 pounds, it’s about half the size of a bottlenose dolphin with thick dark markings that circle its mouth and eyes.

Many years later in early 2000, my Baja buddy and WON Columnist predecessor, Gene Kira, invited me to join him on a trip to the Universidad Autonoma de Baja California in Ensenada to visit Totoaba Program Director, Conal David True.

True had developed an impressive successful grow-out facility and was planning on releasing the small totoaba into the 3,600 square-mile Alto Golfo Biosphere Reserve which extended north from San Felipe.

Although his program was wildly successful, Semarnat, the Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources, Mexico's federal department of natural resources, turned down their application for a $1.2 million grant request to keep the laboratory operating. According to Kira, “The application was rejected; not one centavo was earmarked for this endangered fish, even though about $25 million was given to roughly 200 other projects in Mexico. Unfortunately, like its cousin the white sea bass, totoaba is highly sought after for its food value, making it a natural target for the indiscriminate gillnets.”

In July of 2016, one of the East Cape restaurants served me fish tacos at dinner. They were delicious! I commented to the chef that the texture of the fish was unusual and tasted like white seabass. His answer astonished me. “It’s totoaba,” he replied smiling. “One of the ‘tuna pens’ where they are growing totoaba broke during the storm. All of the fish escaped and some were caught and brought here.” Apparently, the tuna experiment was not successful because the tuna flesh was not red enough to be valued at a profitable market price according to several sources.

Recently several readers forwarded some disturbing information about the continued depletion of vaquita, Spanish for "little cow," a tiny porpoise that lives in the Sea of Cortez. Less than five feet long and weighing just 100 pounds, it’s about half the size of a bottlenose dolphin with thick dark markings that circle its mouth and eyes.

This little cetacean is relatively new to scientists: it wasn’t officially discovered until 1950, when an ecologist named Ken Norris found a tiny vaquita skull on the beach in Baja. After that first skull sighting it wasn’t until 30 years later, 1985, that a scientist actually saw one in the flesh.

In 1997, the first comprehensive vaquita population survey counted just 567. This year’s population survey estimates only 60 vaquita are remaining. It’s officially the world’s most endangered marine mammal!

Decades of fishing with gillnets is mainly responsible for the decimation of the vaquita. Around 2009, it seemed like progress was being made with new regulations and new research initiatives, but now there’s a new threat to their recovery: totoaba swim-bladders.

But making matters worse, dried totoaba swim-bladders (commonly referred to as ‘maw’) is highly valued in China, alongside other marine products, most notably shark fin, abalone and sea cucumber, prompting a massive increase in illegal fishing in Mexico. While all international trade in totoaba has been banned since 1977, the demand for the dried swim-bladder, or ‘maw,’ of the totoaba as an ingredient in Chinese traditional medicine has seen it dubbed ‘aquatic cocaine’ for the huge sums it commands on the black market.

“The incentive behind the totoaba illegal trade is enormous,” says Catalina Lopez, a researcher with UC Riverside and the Gulf of California Marine Program. “From one single swim-bladder you can get what these fishermen would probably be making in a month.” And gillnets meant for totoaba are just the right size to snare vaquita. Accidental ensnarement in totoaba nets is now the number one threat to the survival of the vaquita.

The Mexican government is going all out to save both vaquita and totoaba. Mexican Marines patrol the waters with boats and helicopters for illegal fishing. They banned gillnet fishing in the entire Sea of Cortez. Fishermen receive compensation if they promise to stop fishing with totoaba nets.

But it’s unclear whether any of these efforts will pay off. Rumors circulate that drug cartels are in on the totoaba black market trade. There isn’t enough money for the level of enforcement needed. And the compensation for law-abiding fishermen is much less than what they get for totoaba bladders.

Some organizations have urged boycotting Mexican fisheries if the trend in vaquita population continues.

“[The fishermen] know that if the vaquita is extinct, the consequences could be significant to them,” Lopez says, and most of the licensed fishermen she’s worked with are willing to comply with new regulations. “But we are fighting against a huge economic incentive.”

And with only 60 vaquita remaining, they are running out of time.

Newton nuances
Hurricane Newton developed into a high-end Category 1, sweeping up over the tip of Baja including Los Cabos and La Paz, before careening up and across Baja’s midsection in early September 2016.

Apprehensive locals feared the worst as the storm approached that night. In the wee hours of the morning there were power outages and flooded streets were reported via social media outlets as the eye hovered over Cabo.

IN THE COMMUNITY of Santa Rosalía, the seat of government for the Municipality of Mulegé, dozens of houses and vehicles were buried in rocks and dirt as a result of the torrential rains that accompanied the hurricane.

“I have no internet or power at my house but power is back up in many places. My generator is doing its job except for AC — very little damage around town. We should be back up to almost normal in a couple of days. Many stores and taco-type restaurants are up and running. For the most part everyone is fine, so no worries; it could have been a lot worse.”…Mike Tumbiero

Mexico is considered to have one of the best hurricane-preparedness processes in the world, so they were ready for Newton. Luckily, the hurricane remained a Category 1, the lowest, on the Saffir-Simpson Scale.

Palm trees were toppled along Cabo San Lucas' coastal boulevard and some windows were broken. Army Colonel Enrique Rangel said "There is only minor damage — fallen branches, some fallen banners, some cables... But there was calm in the city as firefighter’s cleaned refuse from the streets during the day.”

Later that week, Pat McDonell, WON Editorial Director, confirmed. “Hurricane Newton was a direct hit last Tuesday but with little lasting damage . . . just water and mud; the Cabo port was closed through Thursday even though it was flat calm with flat seas...”

Jonathan Roldan, my WON column partner in La Paz, also took to social media to reassure everyone that they made it through the hurricane fine, thanking everyone who had asked! He even went so far as to post a video admonishing everyone to, “turn up the sound to get the full effect of the hurricane!”

Conapesca, the National Aquaculture and Fishing Commission, confirmed that five people aboard the shrimp boat Mariano Pérez X died. The vessel was traveling from Ensenada to Mazatlán when it was caught in the hurricane.

However, as the hurricane travelled over land during the day, up the east coast of Baja to Punta Chivato, videos of waves crashing over the sea wall on the Malecón in Loreto, posted mid-day confirmed Newton wasn’t done yet. Mulege, Punta Chivato and Santa Rosalia were in its path before it barreled across the Gulf of California in the dark. The town of Hermosillo, 60-miles inland from Bahia de Kino, reported wind gusts of 80-mph as Newton went past. The former hurricane continued across the Sonoran desert up into southern Arizona on Wednesday night.

Initial reports said damage from Newton was light, but that was before heavy rainfall took its toll.

Mexico 1 is washed out in three places between San Ignacio and Mulegé. Expect delays and detours.

In the community of Santa Rosalía, the seat of government for the Municipality of Mulegé, dozens of houses and vehicles were buried in rocks and dirt as a result of the torrential rains that accompanied the hurricane.

Judging from reports and photos of damage to Mex 1, from Santa Rosalía south the road is passable all the way down the peninsula, but there are a few areas where delays and detours should be expected.

Highway 1 from Santa Rosalia to Mulegé is in rough condition with many parts of the road washed out. It’s passable but be patient and expect delays and detours.

Santa Rosalía, Mulegé, and Punta Chivato experienced heavy flooding and roads washing out, causing difficult access. However, roads in and out of Lopez Mateos and Puerto San Carlos are open and passable.

Scorpion Bay: The north road remains impassable. There is access on the south road for four-wheel drive vehicles with high clearance. Drive with caution as there are many washouts and rough spots.

There is construction between Ciudad Insurgentes and La Paz with a six-mile bypass that is now washed out around Km. 60. Expect delays and detours.

Jennifer Kramer, Discover Baja Travel Club, recently warned, “Drive with caution and during daylight hours; it takes longer for damaged roads to be repaired in Baja than people are used to in the U.S. Unfortunately the areas in the middle of the peninsula often suffer the most after a disaster because they are farther away from the larger cities and resources.”

The fall season is always a popular time for many to travel down Mex 1on the Baja Peninsula. In years past, information about the effects of the weather on road conditions was tough to come by. Social media has been a welcome addition, allowing Baja travelers to be better prepared for their own Baja adventures by paying attention to the sometimes slightly different or varied accounts of recent events that might affect their travel plans.

Putting a spin on it
For most of my fishing career (which began in the mid-forties), conventional tackle was the tackle of choice. The first time I even remember seeing a spinning reel was in my early 20s.

My Dad and his buddies who fished on half-day boats were first in line to buy the new spinning reels. They were using live anchovies that were difficult to cast on conventional tackle and they found they could cast them twice as far with that “contraption.” For that reason, the reel gained popularity and became a common sight on the old Mascot III and Warrior VII out of H&M Sportfishing. They soon earned the derision of most fishermen because they were poorly designed for salt, and when drags failed, they were often referred to as “coffee grinders.”

THESE TOUGH FISH with their bulldog mentality were just what we were looking for to test the strength and durability of these spinning reels.

But most reel manufacturers continued to improve their various models and by 2012, several different ‘media types’ were invited to test the Penn Spinfisher® V at Crocodile Bay Resort in Costa Rica. I was one of the media who received an invitation.

Boasting a 50-pound drag system, the Penn Spinfisher® V raised eyebrows until we were on the water and the yellowfin tuna appeared stage left. The Spinfisher® V strutted its stuff! These tough fish with their bulldog mentality were just what we were looking for to test the strength and durability of these spinning reels. Of course there were also sailfish, roosterfish, pargo, snapper, grouper, and even a small snook caught one evening from the long pier in front of the lodge.

After three days of hard fishing, everyone agreed the new drag system performed flawlessly and remained as smooth as silk. Receiving high marks for the amount of pressure that could be applied during battle, it provided plenty of fish-stopping power which is needed for large and tough fish. No one disputed that the new Penn Spinfisher® V was “the toughest spinning reel Penn had ever made.”

All major manufacturers have continued to improve and fine-tune their spinning reels, as well as rods, to match any fishery. Walk down a Baja beach and spinning outfits with huge reels filled with braid, clamped onto beefed-up rods — some as long as 13-feet, are as common as sea shells.

Of course, we’ve all heard of the unprecedented successes in Southern California using similar spinning outfits with poppers on both bluefin and yellowfin tuna.

Stories of subduing monster tuna weighing up to several hundred pounds are not uncommon, creating a seismic shift in attitudes toward “ spinning tackle” for most anglers.

However, most of the focus is on heavier applications and huge fish. Heavier rods with bigger and stronger reels seem to receive all the attention these days.

Last weekend, I attended the Tuna Club’s annual Avalon Benefit Tournament.

The “Flying Fish,” owned by Greg and Michael Stotesbury, along with team members, Greg Stotesbury, Dave Pfeiffer, Jack Rainwater and Steve Behrens, won High Boat and Greg Stotesbury won High Angler with a single striped marlin caught on 12-pound Dacron. “It was a pair of tailers that ignored the baits cast from the bow with spinning gear before sliding into the wake and eating my drop back bait on Talica 10/Terez-custom combo,” filled with 12 Dacron he confided.

Later I asked my long-time friend Greg about his tackle choice; his answer may surprise you.

“We started using spinning tackle two years ago specifically for fishing 8- and 12- pound Dacron in the Tuna Club Albacore Tournament,” he confided. Adding, “We could cast farther, the drags were incredibly smooth and we could easily change out spools of line when we got spooled (frequently on 8-pound!). We landed a number of 8- and 12-pound Dacron fish on the Stella spinning reels and Terez spinning rods with no problem.”

Hmmm, so the ‘bigger is better’ fad that engulfed spinning tackle has other possibilities?

While I have often mentioned spinning tackle for use on Baja beaches, now would be an excellent time for the Baja bunch to consider all the information available regarding spinning tackle options, both heavier and lighter versions.

Greg’s comments certainly would indicate that using lighter spinning tackle could be an interesting option for fishing from a boat. The concept of being able to cast farther and with better accuracy is always compelling.

Like everything else, fishing tackle technology continues to change. It’s interesting to me that several folks that I have suggested the consideration of spinning tackle in one application or another, have reacted by rolling their eyes with a horrified expression on their face as they sputtered, “No way! No ‘coffee grinder’ for me!” — that of course shows their age. Sort of the same way, my peers, many years ago adamantly insisted they would never drive a car with an automatic transmission.

Putting a spin on it may be just the ticket to improve catch rate and at the least, increase your fun fishing ratio -- just sayin’. . .

Being Prepared
I received an IM from Russell E. Fritz recently about his personal ‘best catch’ at East Cape — a 110-pound wahoo. He questioned whether it would have been a record on 30-pound test continuing that it wouldn’t have mattered because the scale was an old sliding weight scale, probably not calibrated since manufacture, and wouldn’t be certifiable. It had been used for weighing cows after slaughter.

HE QUESTIONED WHETHER it would have been a record on 30-pound test continuing that it wouldn’t have mattered because the scale was an old sliding weigh scale, probably not calibrated since manufacture, and wouldn’t be certifiable.

As it turned out, the current IGFA World Record is held by Dean Ettinger, MD, who spends quite a bit of time at Los Barriles and has fished there for years, evidenced by the date of his record which was caught in 1994 on 30-pound test and weighed 127 pounds.

Back to Fritz’s wahoo: “The fish measured 5 feet, 11 inches long, from the nose to the fork in the tail, and was 34 inches in girth at the midsection. My reel is a Penn 16 two-speed, with over 300 yards of 50-pound Spectra, with a top-shot of 200 yards of 30-pound Ande mono. The lure was a Billy Bait black & purple, Shake Rattle & Troll — 10-inch long Mylar skirt, with a heavy head.” He further mentioned that his 30-pound top shot had been attached to the 50-pound spectra backing.

I explained that because the two were attached, the heavier line would have been the line class used to determine the IGFA World Record.

He responded with a question. “Is that true for fly fishermen who use a 10-pound tippet and 50-pound backing? The logic seems a bit contrary, to count the backing as the line test, when the lighter line is what the fish is being fought on, for most of the fight. I know I’m showing my ignorance, and a bit of old age crankiness and no harm is intended. Very little of today's world seems to make sense to me anymore. I do not wish to tilt at windmills...”

I referred Fritz to the IGFA Rules:

Conventional Tackle

If the fishing line is attached to backing, the catch shall be classified under the heavier of the lines.

Fly Tackle

Any type of fly line and backing may be used. The breaking strength of the flyline and backing are not restricted. Only the leader (tippet) breaking strength matters.

Since I’m often asked about fishing in a small boat at East Cape, at my request, Fritz shared the details of his fishing day in his small boat out of La Ribera. Here is a synopsis of his day:

He and a buddy left from the La Ribera Marina before sun up. After paying their launch fee and collecting some bait at the receiver, they cleared the jetty around 6 a.m.

For several years, Fritz and his fishing buddy have been targeting wahoo, trolling fairly fast (14 mph) on their way to wherever they plan to fish. This particular day, it was off Los Frailes where they would bait fish for yellowfin tuna on the drift, then troll for wahoo on the return trip.

According to Fritz, they trolled with heavy-head, large feather jigs, rigged with short wire, and long 300-pound mono, purple/black with chrome Mylar in one corner. His choice as he followed the old rule: 'Dark day, dark lure." The opposite lure was dark blue/white with the same chrome Mylar. However, they had no bites as they ran down to their tuna spot.

The return trip to Punta Arena was the same until they were above the Lighthouse where they landed a 16-pound dorado in 170 feet of water. After several circles of the area, they headed for the Marina. Approximately one mile south of the entrance in 80-feet, they had a rod doubling strike that peeled off nearly 350 yards of line! No jump — so they assumed the fish was either a wahoo or large jack crevalle. Even after several more runs, they still had no clue as to what it was. Repeatedly, Russell could feel the head shake, and the line shudder, but not the pump… pump… pump of a big tuna!

The first time he brought the fish to the boat, his fishing partner, Boney, saw that the mono leader was in his mouth and spoke very rapidly in Spanish, with Russell catching only one word "Toyota"... indicating a prize-winning fish. Boney gaffed it behind the head, and held it while Fritz got a second gaff in, and together they pulled the large wahoo over the rail and into the fish box.

“This fish swallowed almost 18 inches of lure and leader, and had the 300-pound mono in his jaws. Why he did not snip it off, I will never know!”… Russell E. Fritz

When I shared the story with Michael L. Farrior, IGFA Trustee and experienced world angler who was inducted into the California Hall of Fame recently, he advised. “Be prepared…IGFA World Records are one bite away!” He added, “I cannot overemphasize the importance of reviewing the IGFA Rules and Regulations and making sure ones tackle is in conformance before that world record catch comes along!”

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