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:

Listen, observe, and learn…
Over many years, I have spent the months of August through November at a procession of high-stakes fishing tournaments from East Cape to Cabo San Lucas where some of the finest anglers in the world compete. Their targets are species varying from billfish to tuna, with dorado and wahoo added to the list.

Along with many other tournament followers and actual competitors, chances are that much of our time was spent listening, observing and learning from the moment we arrived, and chances are better still that it made us better anglers, mates or captains, or at the very least, it gave us a more intimate knowledge of the fish being pursued.

THE WEIGH-INS for these events are open to the public, and a great learning tool for anglers who listen carefully to even the most guarded comments. GARY GRAHAM PHOTO

I caught my first calico bass on the Mascot III in the early 1950s but equipment, methods and techniques have since changed and are constantly changing in the angling world. Keeping up with those changes has always been an important factor for the competitive angler.

Relocating to Baja where the fishery promises big fish in bigger waters, anglers can often find themselves intimidated. A crash course, of sorts, that offers insights into who are the best local anglers, mates and captains, where they fish, best techniques, best live bait, lures, methods, (trolling; kites; downriggers, etc.), is information needed for the “newbie."

The weigh-ins for these events are open to the public. Providing a marvelous opportunity for anyone interested to add to their local fishing knowledge in so many ways.

Hanging around these tournaments each summer and fall, especially around the scales, the amount of information available is astonishing. The clever listener can come away with valuable fishing information not only from the teams who have fought the fish but from other spectators killing time while waiting for the next qualifier to arrive. In addition, most of the events have grid maps which require location be included with each hook-up reported, introducing “hot spots” for the new arrival to Baja waters.

Most major Baja tournaments post a complete roster of boats, owners, captain and crew for review. Often they include prior years archived; a little homework with those lists can give you an inkling of who are the local teams and captains (and visiting teams) to watch before the first fish is ever hooked — local teams usually have the advantage.

When a team arrives with a fish it gets interesting. Most events require that the angler bring the tackle used for the catch to the scales. The set up — line, top-shot, leader type, length, hook type, even the lure size, style and color — is there for anyone to see, a definite learning tool.

Chances are the weigh-master will interview the angler and team of qualifying fish — sometimes an awkward moment when the angler tries to respond and say something without saying anything; but listen carefully, in their excitement, a nougat of unintended but valuable information can slip out inadvertently.

At last week’s Los Cabos Tuna Jackpot on the first day of the two-day event, one team, while weighing in a 200+ yellowfin tuna was asked by Pat McDonell, Director, “Where did you catch your fish?” Obviously, he expected only a vague answer with one day left in the event.

We fished around a large group of boats for a little while before running straight out to sea; we only fished three hours.” the tired angler replied thinking he gave a pretty evasive answer.

However, he had offered several important clues. Interpretation: “Gordo Banks was slow (a large group of boats went to Gordo Banks) and the tuna was caught with porpoise way offshore (He drove straight out from Gordo Banks and back so the three-hours time gave everyone the approximate distance). The next/last day, the bulk of the qualifying catches came from offshore where his tuna had been taken.

I’m often told by anglers, “I have no interest in tournament fishing!” I get it. However listening, observing and learning from those who do can provide valuable insight into Baja sportfishing — well, it may be beneficial to you.

I’ve often told of fishing the beach at East Cape early mornings. Many new arrivals in outboard tin-boats would pass in front of where we were catching fish. We could hear the clicker on their reels howl when they were bit. We watched as they stopped to reel in their fish before trolling on down the beach. Several hours later they would return, trolling, and sure enough have another bite where we had caught fish all morning.

Listen, observe, and learn…

Please release me…
Please release me…

Since August, four of the major offshore billfish tournaments, from East Cape to Cabo San Lucas, have concluded and the results are in. Of course, the big headlines are always the mind-numbing amounts of cash awarded the winners at each of these affairs.

The first, Bisbee East Cape Offshore, awarded $543,825. Then, in October, Bonnier’s Los Cabo Billfish held in Cabo San Lucas, paid out $451,200 to the winners; followed by Bisbee’s Los Cabos Offshore Charity event with a total pot of $772,000 where several teams earned impressive payouts. The last billfish event, the Bisbee’s Black and Blue, the largest tournament of its kind, had an overall purse of $3,511,900. These four tournaments had a combined, stunning total of $5,278,925. 

tranquilo57spencerTRANQUILO (52 SPENCER), easily earned top team honors in the Release Division, led by Capt. Victor Julio. Those efforts resulted in a payout of $68,510.

These annual offshore tournaments combined for 331 teams among the four events, with 2,389 anglers who caught and released most of the 600 billfish along with 4 wahoo and 28 yellowfin tuna.

These are beyond remarkable numbers, particularly the number of teams and number of billfish released. This was partially because of the addition of a “release category” and the unusual number of blue marlin hooked that were judged to be less than the 300-pound minimum weight requirement to qualify.

Of the 600 billfish caught, 562 were released with 38 brought to the scale. According to Wayne Bisbee, event coordinator, “That was the highest number of blue marlin releases in the 36-year history of the tournaments. A 93 percent release rate is certainly a significant achievement!”

However, only 20 of the 38 billfish met the 300-pound minimum. So why were the other 18 that didn’t qualify brought to the weigh-station? The rules are quite clear: Black or blue marlin weighing less than 300 pounds are awarded zero points and additionally penalized 25 points plus two points for every pound under 300.

I was at the weigh-in of most of the events and there are a variety of answers. In some cases, the fish were too close to call and could have gone either way. A few squeaked by, while others failed to make the cut.

A few were just inexperienced guesses about the weight that resulted in the negative penalty points assessed, which in several instances cost teams some money.

Another cause was rule-related. I heard this one from several different boat crews. One team explained that they had already released several clearly smaller fish without incident – conforming to the release rules that required a digital photo as the fish was released next to the boat allowing species identification. Then, when a larger fish that might have qualified was brought to the boat, a crew member trying to measure the fish inadvertently dragged it partially through the transom door. Watching from the bridge, the captain could see that more than 50 percent of the body of the fish was in the boat. Rule: ANY marlin brought on board a boat must be weighed. A fish is considered “on board” when more than 50 percent of the fish is inside the boat.

Another rule: One person from each team receiving a cash award must complete a polygraph examination.

Obviously, it was a tough judgment call for the captain. However, if he hadn’t made the right call then and he had later caught a qualifying fish and ended up on the leader board, the fish in question might have been considered a marginal release and the team would have been disqualified.

For the past decade or so I have been attending these Baja tournaments and have watched the officials and their staffs continue to work to tweak the rules to ensure that as few non-qualifying fish arrive at the scale as possible.

They encourage release by developing release categories for those who wish to compete without keeping their catch. One only has to consider the addition of a release category to the roster at this year’s Bisbee’s “East Cape Offshore” which resulted in an unprecedented 112 blue marlin releases at East Cape.

Congratulations to all of this year’s tournament organizers for a 94 percent release record during this year’s Baja tournament series. It’s certainly one to be proud of.

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.

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