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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:

A hero's gift
I recently attended the Stars & Stripes Fishing, Golf and Music Concert, a charity event, and one of the largest children’s fundraisers of its kind in the world. Seven hundred people not only fished, but also participated in the Golf Tournament and other activities, and participants stayed in the host hotel, the Hilton Los Cabos Beach and Golf Resort. The 33 boats and 180-plus anglers departed each day from Chileno Public Beach, one of the most picturesque bays in Baja.

I had been part of the crew who had worked on the event the year before, and had looked forward all year to once again being involved in the excitement and wonder of the many events this year.


SOON, THE BOAT he would be fishing, the Yahoo, arrived, and Mike Hahn and William “Bill” Wagasy gently lifted Masson and carried him across the sand, onto the portable pier, and then into the cockpit of the waiting sportfisher, without a hitch.

As I unpacked my cameras and my new DJ1 drone, Tournament Chairman Dick “El Dicko” Gebhard hurried by on one of his missions. “John Masson and his family are going out today; be sure to take lots of photos!” he excitedly called over his shoulder as he headed over to greet them.

Master Sergeant John Masson had served in the U.S. Army in Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm with the 1st Armored Division. Additionally, Masson served in Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring freedom as a Special Forces Medical Sergeant with the 20th Special Forces Group (Airborne).

On Oct. 16, 2010, while conducting Village Stability Oper­ations in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, Masson stepped on an improvised explosive device (IED) losing extremities to preserve freedom for us. With the immediate knowledge that he had lost both legs and his dominant arm, he aided his fellow medical sergeant and teammates in treating his wounds — actions which clearly saved his life. Masson received the Purple Heart for his injuries, and a second Bronze Star for his actions in combat.

From Fayetteville, North Carolina, he and his family had been invited by Stars & Stripes organizers to attend the event as an Ambassador of the Gary Sinise Foundation. In addition to the trip, a “Smart Home” was being built for Masson by the Gary Sinise Foundation, for his wife, Dusty; son, Jonathan; daughter, Morgan; and son, Ethan, designed to ease the day-to-day challenges they face. It is scheduled to be completed this November.


ALONG WITH THE rest of the family, they headed out into the Sea of Cortez.

Soon, the boat he would be fishing. The Yahoo, arrived, and Mike Hahn and William “Bill” Wagasy gently lifted Masson and carried him across the sand onto the portable pier, and then into the cockpit of the waiting sportfisher, without a hitch. Along with the rest of the family, they headed out into the Sea of Cortez.

It wasn’t long after lines were put out, that 10-year-old Ethan was hooked to a fleeing, jumping striped marlin.

“Pretty amazing, a 4:30 wake-up call, being carried to the boat at 7 a.m. In no time at all, Ethan is fighting a fish twice as big as he is,” Masson related later that afternoon. “It took him 45 minutes to catch and release him!

“We saw other fish, and a few hours later, Shea Elledge hooked up another one, which she fought for a while before it came off the hook. She commented later that it was the largest fish she had ever fought and she couldn’t believe how hard it pulled.”

When they returned to the Hilton that afternoon, Gebhard greeted them, bouncing with excitement and hugging Masson in elation that they had done so well for the day.

After the Awards Banquet that evening, and before the Sinise and Lt. Dan Band Concert, Gebhard invited Ambassador Masson to join him on stage. As he made his way up, Gebhard introduced Saul Contreras, who has been with him since he began “Stars & Stripes” 18 years ago. “He is a dear friend… why, we have even peed in the bushes to­gether,” he continued. “And he has learned English much better than I, Spanish.”


a 4:30 wake-up call, being carried to the boat at 7  a.m. In no time at all, Ethan is fighting a fish twice as big as he is,” Masson related later that afternoon. “It took him 45 minutes to catch and release him!”

“I had never met John Masson, and I called him and asked what he would like to do while he was here, and what did you answer, John?” Gebhard asked.

“I want to go fishing!” he replied.

“Then I told him that was fine, we could do that. We will take you to Cabo; take you down the dock and you can board the boat and you can ride up to Chileno… or (this word always gets me in trouble). We can carry you across the sand to the portable pier and load you on a panga and take you to the boat. Which would you like?”

“Living on the edge, that’s how we roll,” he replied. “Carry me.”

“Then my dilemma was old boat/new boat? I worried all night, and the next morning on the beach, John was adamant, old boat!”

“Saul, tell everyone what happened next.”

And Saul took the microphone. “I was riding with Señor Gebhard back to the hotel, when I received the call on the handheld VHF at 7:23 a.m. that they were hooked up. When I told “El Dicko,” he pulled to the side of the road and wept with joy!”

With that, Shawn Parr, Emcee and Auctioneer, held up a custom red, white and blue Fender Stratacaster guitar signed by the entire Lt. Dan Band which would be auctioned off with the proceeds going to the Gary Sinise Foundation. In short order, the beautiful guitar was bid up to $15,000 and sold.

Formalities over, the entertainment began; Sinise and the Lt. Dan Band had the crowd dancing in front of the stage and in the aisles.

With silent and live auctions and live music concerts on the beach, the event raised over $2.7 million during the four-days, increasing the total amount for the past 18 years to over $20,000,000. This is the largest amount ever raised for children’s and other charities by a sportfishing-based tournament.

This is one story of what can be done when a dynamic group of interested volunteers, coupled with the enthusiasm of supporters and sponsors, get together to make a difference in someone’s life. Now multiply that by thousands and more whose lives have been touched, and you have to realize there are many heroes in this story.


AFTER THE AWARDS Banquet that evening, and before the Sinise and Lt. Dan Band Concert, Gebhard invited Ambassador Masson to join him on stage. As he made his way up, Gebhard introduced Saul Contreras, who has been with him since he began “Stars & Stripes” 18 years ago.


WITH THAT, SHAWN PARR, Emcee and Auctioneer, held up a custom red, white and blue Fender Stratocaster guitar, signed by the entire Lt. Dan Band, which would be auctioned off, with the proceeds going to the Gary Sinise Foundation.

Don't ignore conditions – confront them
While many are spending their time arguing about the reasons for the lack of sardina in Baja Sur, they should be making adjustments to make better use of the baits that are available ... big baits, little baits, dead bait and, in some cases, cut bait.

Sure, we have had temporary gaps when the sardina disappear mysteriously only to return later in the same fashion. Thus far this year it seems different and is lasting much longer than even Baja old timers can remember.

DEAD BALLYHOO ARE an excellent  bait when rigged correctly, which isn't simply pinning them on a hook and trap hook and dragging them bouncing on the water behind the boat at trolling speed.

While all of us are accustomed to jumping in a boat and finding the local bait guy – and then paying him a good chunk of change to top off the tank – and then go fish. So far this year, if you do find a bait man, the fish in the bottom of his panga are likely to look like they came out of someone's aquarium. Last week, fishing at Las Arenas, I don't remember seeing one sardina.

Our bait selection included ladyfish on the large side and 5-inch live ballyhoo on the small side and a lot other kinds in between. All these baits required not only different techniques, but different style of hook as well as sizes.

Ladyfish, as an example, as most anglers know, are like candy to roosterfish … BIG ONES. The grandes have been more common throughout Baja Sur this year according to the glowing reports. However, hooking a small, let’s say 3/0 J hook through the bait’s nose and expecting consistent hookups may be a tad optimistic.

Those in the know from experience opt for an 8\0 circle hook with the offset flattened and dental flossed to the top of the nose for best results.

Dead ballyhoo are an excellent bait when rigged correctly, which isn't simply pinning them on a hook and trap hook and dragging them bouncing on the water behind the boat at trolling speed. A small egg sinker sewed beneath the chin and perhaps covered with brightly colored skirt will undoubtedly increase the number of bites. Taken a step further, if the backbone is removed, they will actually swim enticingly.

Enough about bait rigging. Tackle and techniques can be modified to fit whatever kind of bait is available. In Southern California, the buzz has been about sardines disappearing and the smaller anchovy replacing them as the common bait. So, suddenly many are considering spinning or lighter longer rods to cast the smaller baits. Perhaps similar adjustments should be a consideration in Baja.

Adjustments may be as simple as letting a fish run a little longer because of larger baits. Tackle stores are filled with a plethora of different top water and swimming artificial lures that have proven productive. If you don't believe it, the next time you see some fly-fishers casting from the beach, more than likely one on them will be flinging a hookless lure to tease the fish closer for his buddies’.

I had clients show up with squid in their cooler because they heard there wasn't any bait. Good thinking; but these days you can buy squid in some of the local markets. What about cat food? That same cat food that is used to chum up mackerel will set off a pretty impressive dorado feeding frenzy.

Experienced anglers are all about adapting and when faced with unfavorable conditions seeking ways to work around them and drawing from prior experiences that may be modified or improved upon to improve their chances now.

Sportfishing is all about challenge that doesn't begin when you hook up. Adapting to conditions has always been an important part of being a successful angler. We've all been confronted by unfavorable conditions and found ways to work around them … not just blithely accepting them as today's norm, but relying on our past experiences to find a way to overcome them.

Just because it’s online, doesn’t mean it’s true
Know your sources

After my customary two-day drive down the peninsula, I arrived in Los Barriles Tuesday June 10, in the afternoon Prior to my departure, several posts on different forums noted delays and dusty detours due to road construction and, God forbid, potholes, in a long litany of disgruntled comments.

The reports caught my eye and caused me some anguish; I even used my notes as part of one of my weekly reports.

Reported road issues for trip down Monday, June 9, 2014: No problem on detour around damaged Toll Road section. Be prepared for rough and dusty detours somewhere between Ensenada and Santo Thomas. Be prepared for potholes between Catavina and Punta Prieta. Intense road construction below Loreto before grade. Then more construction from Insurgentes all the way past El Cien into El Centenario before La Paz.


Despite some underserved grumblings, the El Chaparral Border crossing is slick. As you drive toward the gates, remain in the far right lane to enter the lot. If you need an FMM, enter the parking lot with easy access to the building that houses Inmigración, the bank, restrooms and other services a traveler might require before actually crossing the border. The bank will even exchange dollars for pesos if you need them.

I chose to take the toll road and exited following the detour signs to the route avoiding the portion of the Toll Road under repair. To be fair, it was early – 6ish – when I hit the road and traffic was not that bad until I reached Ensenada.

I find that regardless of the time of day, traffic in the city always surprises me on how much of it there is these days.

A few miles past Maneadero, the traffic lightens significantly and the real Mex One is revealed. While there was some road construction between the area south of Santo Tomas down to San Vicente, there were no delays and I continued on my way into San Quintin Valley, where once again the traffic in that stretch slowed me down.

Soon, I was through the populated area and I pretty much had the road to myself with little traffic for a Monday. Again, there was some road construction along the way that barely slowed me down as I drove farther south to Catavina where the vados at both ends of the village were a bit rough, but easily navigated with the normal amount of water running in both.

As promised in some of the reports, there were potholes from there to Punta Prieta, no more or no fewer than normal, and I kept on rolling through Guerrero Negro. An interesting note for experienced road warriors: The inspector south of the monument did not ask for a $1 nor did he offer to spray the underside of the van. After arriving at Los Barriles the next day, a friend confirmed they had the same experience. Go figure.

Next on my agenda was a fuel stop at the first Pemex on the right at Viscaino, where, for the first time I can remember, they had both regular and premium gas. I'm guessing, but imagine the reason is that several new stations have sprung up in the village in the past few years.

It was smooth sailing on to Mulege and I was parked in an RV space well before dark.

The following morning, the drive to Loreto for my meeting was uneventful and nothing slowed the drive. I was soon back on the road, heading south. The first and only delay of the trip was beyond Nopolo, and just before Juncalito. The road along the cliffs built long before Mex One became a reality, is being completely redone and I suspect it will be a while before it is completed. The flagman assured me it would be 45 minutes before the truck, along with the growing line of cars, would be allowed to pass. So taking one my folding lounge chairs and placing it as close to the edge of the cliff as I could, I was able to take advantage of the cool breeze coming off the Sea of Cortez. In no time, actually less than the 45 minutes, I was on my way. I will gladly forfeit that amount of time every trip, if that’s what it takes to have a highway 1/3 times wider than it has ever been.

NOTE: The number of stop signs in Ciudad Constitución has seemed to grow over the years to double digits and they are on nearly every corner through town.

From there all the way to La Paz, there were other patches of road construction that, although they required some driving on dirt, didn't really seem to be much of an inconvenience. The longest patch was after the inspection station north of El Centenario.

Since I was dropping off some things in La Paz at The Tailhunter Restaurant and FUBAR Cantina, I was forced to drive all the way into the Malecon. Needless to say, the big city traffic was no fun and I was delighted when I finally reached the village of San Pedro, the last village at the south end of La Paz. But even with the delays and detour into the town of La Paz, I was at East Cape RV, my home base when in Los Barriles, long before dark.

The Internet is a valuable resource, but one must be careful to realize that much of the stuff posted on various forums may not be reliable. A word of advice: If you are planning to drive to Baja, you will do much better to check with Discover Baja, Vagabundos del Mar or Baja Insider. All are experts in Baja travel, particularly driving and road conditions. To be forewarned is valuable as long as you know your source.

Even June gloom came early…
"The bluefin are biting big-time," the phone call began early on Memorial Day morning. Bill McWethy, San Diego businessman and owner of the C Bandit, a 75-foot luxury sportfisher built by TITAN MARINE USA continued, "Fish to 125 pounds according to a deckhand on the Shogun and Pete says we can leave tomorrow at noon; are you in?"

Appointments were rescheduled, business lunches and interviews were cancelled and I was at the boat Tuesday, well before the departure time. In addition to Captain Peter Groesbeck, there was Jeremy Smith, Victor Hourani, Pete Giacalone of Kusler Yachts, Bill and myself making the two day trip.

OUR LAST STOP of the trip was a sundowner that limited us out.

In case you hadn’t heard, Baja Norte is experiencing one of its most promising spring sportfishing starts in years. Just below the border, the waters surrounding the Coronado Islands have been on fire. "Some of the best yellowtail fishing in years," smiled John Campbell, Yellowtail Derby Tournament Director, at the event’s kick-off earlier in May. "Not only is there more volume of fish, there are some mossbacks up to 50 pounds being landed … all of which prompted us to make several overnight trips to the islands.”

But even farther down Baja Norte's west coast, the story seems to be echoing.

“I have been fishing Ensenada and So. California for over 40 years and I have never seen such a volume of fish as I am seeing now," exclaimed Captain Louie Prieto.

Edgar Sanchez, of the Marina Coral Store in Ensenada, agreed. “The sportfishing boats here in the marina have had some outstanding fishing lately.”

All the way down at San Quintin, Captain Kelly Catain along with Captain Juan Vargas have been recording impressive catches of everything from halibut to early season white sea bass adding to Baja Norte's super spring.

As we cruised inside of south Coronado Island, huge clouds of sea birds diving on the bait forced to the surface by feeding fish provided encouragement for the crew while they finished the task of rigging and retying leaders and hooks for the next morning’s fishing. Continuing our journey in search of the ever-elusive bluefin tuna, the seas were oily slick and our ride downhill was smooth.

Our first jig strike came at 6:30 a.m. on Wednesday – a double on yellowfin tuna just short of 140 miles south of the border in 66° degree, calm, blue water … an encouraging sign. Throughout the morning, in spite of the lack of any signs, it was a steady pick as the boat’s sonar led the captain from one spot of fish to another. A single here, a double there, and even a few quadruples followed by a few bait fish, all of which chewed up the morning quickly. This was in a sea devoid of other boats!

As we drifted on farther down the coast, the bite continued. Kelp paddies provided cover for huge schools of yellowtail ranging in size from “nice one” to “firecracker-size” throwbacks. It wasn't until mid-afternoon that we spotted the Pacific Queen on the horizon.

Inside of us, Pacific Queen Captain Drew Card reported similar action, including the lack of any signs of the bluefin that had been seen in the area for the past three weeks. But perhaps the biggest signal that things were a’changin’ was the absence of the seiners that had been in the area.

The day continued with each stop being better than the last. Late in the afternoon, we did finally spot one tuna seiner whose bright yellow helicopter circled us during one of our frequent stops.

Jeremy spotted a huge kelp bed in his stabilized binos that was about three miles away and Giacalone, who was at the wheel, turned the boat in its direction only to be stopped by a double. Meanwhile, Captain Drew volunteered not to hit the paddy before we could reach it. As it turned out, it was loaded with yellowtail and we moved on, leaving it for them.

Our last stop of the trip was a sundowner that limited us out. As for the bluefin that drew us down in the first place? Once again, they demonstrated their elusive quality. Just like snook, once you hear about the bite, it's probably over.

By this time of year, usually it’s the action at the southern tip of Baja that gets all the ink. But even with the June gloom in May, this year the yellowfin and yellowtail make Baja Norte an interesting option for your quick fishing fix. Don't miss out!

Tuna pens, sardine, sardina and the blame game
“I just wanted to bring into light the fact that there seems to be very few sardines or flat iron herring left around the East Cape and La Paz areas. I've trailered my boat down there for over 16 years and this situation concerns me. I believe this to be a direct impact to the commercial tuna corral operations depleting the local supplies of sardines to fatten up their tuna in the pens over past couple of years. The damage may take years to repair itself, if it ever repairs itself! What can we do to shed some light on this situation? I know for a fact that many local fishing guides are oblivious as to why the sardines have vanished! … DB”

OF COURSE THE tuna pens operation has had an impact on the sardine fishery since they first began operating, as well.

Thank you for taking time to share your concerns regarding sardina (flat iron herring) and sardines and the impact of the tuna pen operation on those fisheries.

The shortages of both bait fish share one common distinction: greed! Beyond that, the problems are vastly different, so let's begin with sardine. Anchovy was the common bait when I first started fishing on half-day boats out of San Diego around 60 years ago, and the consensus then was that the sardine was overfished and gone forever. Most of the boats fishing them moved on to other species.

Now, more than six decades later, history is repeating itself. Since the early 2000s, the Mexican government has been upping the quotas at Magdalena Bay. My friend Gene Kira began sounding the alarm when Moon Industries arrived at Puerto San Carlos. The Mexican government welcomed Moon and accommodated their arrival by doubling the sardine quota from 200 to 400 tons.

In a Roadtrekker column, Mag Bay Burning, published in 2012, [see below] Mike McGettigan, founder of Sea Watch, doubted that the sardine fishery could remain sustainable. Putting the 400-ton per-day quota of sardines in perspective, he calculated three sardines per pound would equal 1.2 million sardines being processed a day.

Another result of the higher quotas is size reduction. It used to require only 7 to 9 sardines to fill a one-pound oval tin; today it requires twice that many.

Since the first increase in quota size, they have been increased several times and the sardine biomass appears to have been decimated. Of course the Tuna Pens operation has had an impact on the sardine fishery since they first began operating, as well. However, they are the relatively newcomers and an easy target to blame.

With regard to the sardina (flat iron herrings) blaming the Tuna Pens for the lack of those seems to be looking at the problem from a myopic viewpoint.

The catching and selling of these bait fish has become a thriving cottage industry that is as full of greed as the sardine seiners. From Baja's tip throughout the Sea of Cortez, $$$ have clouded common sense.

As an example, Eric Brictson, Gordo Banks Pangas, lamented the other day, "Recently, all we had left off the beaches outside the marina were sardina fry less than an inch long that were slipping through the mesh of the nets we used. Because of demand, bait fishermen simply switched to nets with smaller mesh destroying any likelihood of a sardina spawn anytime soon."

As the sardina have diminished in quantity, the ingenuity of the "Bait Bandits" must be grudgingly admired. What was traditionally a regional enterprise has changed as the shortages have increased.

Now, pickups are rigged with “Walter Mitty contraptions” to preserve the baitfish as they are transported longer distances from where they are caught to the eagerly awaiting anglers miles away. Others simply save their catch in five-gallon plastic buckets, throw salt on the mess and package the bait in Ziploc bags that bring $20 plus per bag.

So, DB, there is your answer: There is enough culpability to fuel the fires of the "Blame Game" for years to come, but it makes much more sense to go to the source and demand that the Mexican government stops increasing quotas and stops looking the other way every time another dollar drops.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012 Magbay burning

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