Jonathan Roldan's Blog

WON News Column by Jonathan Roldan

WON’s weekly Baja columnist as WESTERN OUTDOORS magazine’s Baja

Backbeat, Jonathan Roldan came to Western Outdoors Publications after writing for numerous national and international publications and has been writing for over 30 years.

He worked in radio, TV and print publications for many years and then attended law school and practiced as a courtroom litigator in the the ‘80s and ‘90s. However, having been raised fishing, diving, hiking and camping all his life, the draw of Baja and writing lured him away. He moved to Baja Mexico in 1996 where he operates a Tailhunter International fishing tours in La Paz.

Jonathan Roldan can be reached at:

Prepare for the worst?
I’m often asked about what kind of gear to bring or for suggestions about gear for coming to fish here in Baja. Depending on the time of year, location, or species sought, that response can get pretty lengthy.

Given what airlines charge for travelling with your gear and just all the hassle of hauling it around, there’s a thin line between bringing too much stuff and not enough. Of course, we want to bring ALL our toys to play with, right?

There’s that old saying about “Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.” When that’s applied to Baja fishing that doesn’t have to be so cryptically sinister or mean anything bad.

To me, that means if you’re going to put a bait or lure in Baja waters, you never know what’s going to happen. Be prepared for the “worst” …to get your backside kicked and handed to you at any time or any place!

I’m reminded of a time when I was out on the panga perhaps almost 20-years-ago. I was personally guiding an amigo who wanted to go out and fish light tackle.

Being from Washington, the guy brought a lengthy salmon rod…small…thin…whippy and about 8 feet long. It was rigged with 20-pound test.

With my captain on the tiller, we motored out of the small bay. We had just passed over the drop-off where the turquoise waters gradually turned to the deep cobalt of the Sea of Cortez. We were still within a few hundred yards of the shore.

Anything can happen.

A few tossed handfuls of sardines and we got swarmed by a school of small dorado. My guy pinned on a bait. Fish on! Instant bendo.

On the light rod, it was a kick. I kept the fish around with chum. He caught and released 1…2…3 fish and had the biggest grin. This was exactly what he came for. “This is better than salmon fishing for sure!” he grunted between lifting and cranking.

Fish number four took a deep dive under the panga and my guy leaned hard into the thin rod as it strained in a near-parabolic arc. The drag sang.

And then it stopped. And the strain on the rod diminished although the line remained taught. Strangely the line was coming up. At a weird angle.

Suddenly, my captains started yelling, “Marlina grande! Marlina grande.”

There off the starboard side a big marlin came up through the blue. Like a big grayish-blue submarine surfacing through the depths, the marlin was laconically swimming aside us.

And it had a small dorado in crosswise in its mouth! And my guy’s hook was in the in the mouth of the dorado! And the drag started to squeal again…Oh-oh…

“What do I do?” he yelled.

I instructed him to keep a high stick and told the captain to start the motor! It’s not like this kind of thing happens to me all the time.

And there we were, now attached to a dorado… that was attached to a marlin seemingly happily making its way. It was like a big aquatic dog that has a big bone in its mouth. Not a care in the world.

My guy couldn’t set the hook. The hook was in the dorado. All he would do was hang on! And that’s what we did as the big marlin leisurely bulled through the small waves oblivious to us.

No one was gonna believe this. What could we do? Watch and grin. It wasn’t exactly under our control at this point.

After about 50 yards, the big fish started submerging on a gentle decline. In no particular hurry it was headed deeper.

The rod and reel took on the full weight of the fish.

“I can still feel the dorado shaking his head!” said my fisherman incredulously.

Wow. I figured this wasn’t going to last long. Something was going to give. I mean, 20-pound-test-line and a salmon rod is like hunting elephants with a BB gun.

Down went the big fish. Out spun the line. The rod strained, arched and doubled and looked like it was going to break as we stopped the panga. The entire front end of the rod was now in the water. I had no doubts who would win this tug-of-war!

Then…SPROING! The rod suddenly went slack. Oh no! The inevitable happened. Storybook fish gone!

All three of us momentarily exhaled in a communal shrug. Limp rod. Limp line. Happy but limp spirits to go with it.

And then the rod suddenly arched again and the line zinged tight…And we were on again!

And, in the time it took to type this sentence…a wahoo goes ballistic out’ve the water snagged on the hook and line!

WHOA!!! And before the words could barely leave our mouths. SNAP! The line cut.

And the waters went silent. And the rod went straight…again. And we looked at each other…again. And broke out laughing.

No one would ever believe this. A sardine bait became a dorado…became a marlin…became a wahoo. Became an incredible story.

You just never know what’s gonna happen when you fish Baja waters. Prepare for the “worst!” But really. Nothing could have prepared us for what happened that day.

After hours
I’m sure it’s happened to all of us. Just when you think you know someone, your entire perception of them gets flipped topsy-turvy. Perception is not always reality.

Many people visit their favorite places in Baja over and over. They come to know certain people…their favorite taxi driver… bartender… waiter… fishing captain. It’s like visting an old friend.

But, beyond the context of being on the water; or chatting at the bar or being driven from the hotel to the beach, we often don’t think about lives beyond the workplace when the salty fishing clothes come off. When the bar glasses are put away or after the apron and order pads are in the drawer after a long day.

Captain Hector had worked for me for a decade. Great guy. Great fisherman. Solid panga captain.

The clients always asked for him.

Every day, he came to the beach in his half-rusted mini-truck. Faded baseball hat. Khaki work pants. The fabric thin and clean, but stained from use. Pantlegs rolled up to his calves over barefeet. The standard panga captain “uniform,” if you will.

I thought I knew him pretty well. Ten years, of course!

Until one day I had to go to his house to bring him some things from one of the clients. My first time. I had called and told him I was coming to drop some things off.

Living in an outlying area an hour away from La Paz City, it’s pretty rustic. We had to dodge a few cows as we snaked and bounced through the Baja desert scrub along a road that couldn’t decide if it was gravel, arroyo or a bin of fine powdery dust.

As I pulled up the dirt driveway, some yardwalker chickens ran through the dust. A dog, presumably Captain Hectors, came up to happily check out the visitor.

The yard was hard-packed dirt surrounded partially by a thorny perimeter of cactus. The rest was a make-shift barbed-wire fence staked to the ground by an assortment of boards, tree branches and metal.

A few gnarled hearty desert trees seemed to have scratched out a living here and there providing some manner of shade.

A faded soccer ball, old tires, a half-rusted boat trailer with one axle on blocks, and plastic 5-gallon buckets held court around the casa. The battered mini-truck was parked next to the fence. Hood up. Laundry hung motionless from a 3-wire clothesline in the hot breezeless afternoon. A tired nylon cast net also lay draped over the wires to dry.

The house was grey concrete block seemingly perched on an equally gray plain concrete slab. A palm-fronned palapa roof shaded the porch. A TV with a soccer game could been seen through the open-front door.

And beautiful splashes of color added Monet-like dashes of vibrancy…

Several full vines of bougainvillea spread an umbrella of electric fuschia up one wall and then cascaded down a sloping roofline. Potted plants with cactus flowers lined the porches and walkway. Colorful bedsheets hanging in the windows caught the occasional whisp of cross-breeeze. They would have made a minimalist designer proud.

But, none more surprisingly colorful than the man I found hanging suspended in a homemade hammock between two porch columns. One leg dangling over the side. One hand wrapped around a cerveza bottle.

The man who peeked over the rim bore no resemblance to the weathered saltero who had fished for us for 10 years.

“Que onda, hermano!” said Captin Hector as he pulled slowly upright clearly doing the Mexican equivalent of “Miller time” now that the workday was done. “Wassup?”

“Hay cervezas en la hielera,” he indicated with a nod towards a battered Igloo on the porch. “There’s beer in the ice chest.”

Hector had on a pink polo shirt. A pair of nice board shorts and some styling flip flops. A clean blue Yankees baseball hat topped off the designer sunglasses on his grinning face.

Who IS this guy?

I grabbed a cold one and dragged a bleached plastic Corona chair over to the hammock. I flicked a pesky fly buzzing my head.

I plopped down. We tapped long-necks with an audible clink. ..the universal salute of the “brotherhood of brewdom.” The first chilly pour burned the back of my throat. Ahhhh… I put my feet up.

Over the next hour, I learned more about Captain Hector than I had in several hundred days on the water with him. Captain. Husband. Dad. Baseball pitcher. King of the barbecue! Not much unlike guys all over the world.

Raised on the waters around Cerralvo Island, he had been fishing since age 6 with his dads, uncles and older cousins in the same way they had fished with their fathers. First commercially. Then, he learned how to fish with the gringos.

He told me, “You get very good when food on the table depends on catching fish!” He grinned and took another swig.

He had never fished any other waters for 47 years. His “area” was defined by how far his outboard motor and liters of gas could take him. In fact, he only visited La Paz, an hour away, only a few times a year.

He had been to Cabo San Lucas or other “big cities” only a handful of times.

“Why? Everything is here. We live very simply!”

He had no desire to every fly in an airplane. He thinks the United States is a good friend, but says he doesn’t need to visit although he would like to see a real baseball game someday especially if it were “Los Yahn-kees or Los Doy-yers” Yankees or Dodgers.

“I have a satellite dish and I can now see the world while sitting in my underwear, “ he laughed.

Fishing has been good to him, but had no wish for his kids to take up the hard and unpredictable life and the whims of nature.

He is proudest of having raised three kids and put them all through college on what he earned on the water.

“Our home used to have dirt floors and that is how the kids were raised, but my wife kept everyone clean. But now one kid is a teacher. One is an accountant. One is a dentist.”

He beams but there is some sadness since all of them have moved to big cities for work and he sees them rarely. His youngest helps him at fishing, but wants to be an artist.

But his passion? Not fishing.

It’s Baseball and he says he is the best pitcher in his pueblo. All of them are fishermen. Years of throwing bait as chum has honed his arm. He is the star pitcher of the village. “Somos los campiones” We are the champions. His team of neighbor fishermen play “los rancheros” (farmers) in the neighboring pueblos.

“Ellos no tienen una chanza!” he claimed with typical macho braggodacio after another swig of beer and and did an exaggerated flex of his right bicep…his pitching arm. “They have no chance.” Another good laugh. Me too.

Some delicious spicy-sweet aromas were wafting from the kitchen. My stomach rumbled. A light afternoon breeze had started moving the bougainvillea.

“Vas a quedar por cena, amigo. Rosa esta cocinando mole de pollo muy rico Su especialidad.” Said Hector proudly. “You’re staying for dinner. Rosa is making her delicious specialty chicken mole.”

How could I refuse? I reached for another beer. No hurry. No worries. Just killing time after hours. But getting to know a friend.

What would Ray, Fred and Gene think?
So, there I was standing at the counter in our booth at the recent Fred Hall Fishing and Boating Show in San Diego at the old fairgrounds about two weeks ago. Doing the usual thing.

Yakking with old fishing friends and clients. Answering questions for prospective new folks interested in fishing with us here in La Paz.

After three months of shows and almost 20 years at this, you kinda think you’ve heard a lot of different questions. I was having a casual chat with a couple of “Baja rat” guys…old timers who had great stories to trade. Flip flops…faded favorite fishing t-shirt…ballcap with salt stains on it…you know the type!

Guys like that don’t need our services. They’ve seen and done it all already. Guys like THAT start services like mine!

So, up walks a young couple. Very nice. They wanted to do some fishing but were seemed more intent on whether there were nice spas to have massages.

The Baja guys moved politely aside so they could let me do my spiel. They smiled and listened as I did my best to respond. I gave the couple some of our brochures…a DVD…and told them we’d love to see them.

Then, a young family walks up. Again, good questions…if you had a family.

“Did all the hotels we work with have air-conditioning?”

“Will there be a kiddie pool?”

“Is the water safe to drink?”

My Baja guys suppressed some grins. Again they listened.

Two new guys then walked up.

“How dusty is Baja?” (compared to what?)

“What’s the hottest months?” (One of them didn’t like heat. Might be better to go to Alaska.)

Again, I did my best. I could tell the Baja guys really really really wanted to chime in, but they let me struggle. I could see them rolling their eyes. I think they were enjoying the entertainment.

Over the next half-hour or so, they heard me field questions like:

“Is it possible to get a mani-pedi (manicure-pedicure)?”

“We’re coming for 4 days, will there be laundry service?”

“How good is the room service?”

“How hot is Mexican salsa?”

“Do you think I should use a lot of sunscreen if I come to Baja?”

“Do they have nude or topless beaches in La Paz?” (True question!)

“We heard Mexican toilet paper is rough, should we bring our own?”

“Are the Mexican police tough on tourists who bring their own pot to smoke?” (Not kidding!)

“What if I don’t want to catch big fish, can I just catch small fish?”

“I hear Mexican ice is bad. How can I drink my blended margaritas?”

After awhile there was a break in the action. I just looked at the two Baja guys and shrugged. They busted a laugh.

“Dude…THAT’s the kind of questions you have to answer?” guffawed one of them.

“All day and every day, my friends, “ I sighed with a shrug and grin of resignation.

“Back in the day, all you needed was beer, gas and be pointed towards the ocean to fish! And if you had two-out-of-three, you were grateful!” With that they high-fived me, laughed and moved down the aisle.

Yes, that’s the kind of questions we answer…all the time!

But, it got me thinking about my predecessors here at Western Outdoor News who wrote this column before me. Going back decades.

Ray Cannon. Fred Hoctor. Gene Kira. And can’t forget Tom Miller either. If you don’t know them, Google their names. Lots of Baja history there.

Grizzly, crusty, brilliant award-winning writers and authors. And all of them amazing storytellers and wordsmiths.

They didn’t just write about Baja. Heck, these guys put Baja on the map. Before there were “Baja Rats,” there were guys like these who frontiered the whole idea of undiscovered beaches; acres of breaking fish; incredible landscapes and wonderful people.

They didn’t just go rumbling down some Mexican road. These guys ran around Baja when there were only burro trails and they hewed their own paths out of the unforgiving Baja rock, sand and sun.

No ice. No gas stations. Minimal water. No such thing as air-conditioning.

Busted axles, blown radiators and punctured tires gave their lives in the course of seeing one more undiscovered cove…one more stretch of fish-filled water…the view over the next rise…and yes, even a virgin palapa-roofed cantina or two. They fired our imaginations with their literary articulation.

Some of their books and stories are still used as Baja Bible’s by the rest of us who followed.

I’ve been fortunate to have had a leg on each side of the transition. I saw the remants of the old Baja. And, I’m obviously part of the new Baja as well.

And, I wonder what those guys would have thought and what they would have written about.

How would those guys have handled subjects like deep tissue aromatherapy massages…booze cruises…swimming with dolphins…day care for tourist kids…sushi bars…internet cafes and time-share sales offices.

I never got to meet Ray or Tom. In my rookie years of outdoor writing, before he passed away, Fred Hoctor would call me and comment about something I wrote. He was what you might call an “old cuss.”

The phone call would usually start with, “Hey dumbass. I read your column…” Not even a hello. But, I always knew it was him. Good to hear from ya, Fred…

I like to think that all these great guys would spit, smirk, chuckle and toss a few invectives around hearing and seeing how much Baja has changed. They’d probably have a thing or two to say about my writing as well.

But, I hope I could still get a high-five from them. They left big footprints in the sand. Even if that beach now has condos on it.

The cycles come around
At the time of writing this, we’re just about to wrap up three months of attending the fishing/ hunting shows across the Western United States. We’re here at the Del Mar Fairgrounds in San Diego for the Fred Hall Fishing and Boat Show.

JONATHAN AND JILL at the Del Mar show opening Day in Del Mar with WON Editor Pat McDonell, who will host the 24-person second annual Summer Panga Slam June 16-21. There are still six spots remaining, but not for long.

Back where we started in December.

From here, we drove to shows in Sacramento, Denver then Seattle. From there we did the big Portland show then Phoenix and Yakima. From there the drive west to the Fred Hall Show in Long Beach, then Salt Lake. And well, here we are back in San Diego!

If attendance, bookings and retail sales are any indication, the economy is looking up. It’s been an exciting three months.

Many of these shows were “off the hook” as it were. Attendance records were broken. Crowds were shoulder-to-shoulder in the aisles.

Vendors were selling everything they had and running out of inventory. I saw them scrambling to find fishing rods, t-shirts, lures…you name it!

“In all my years doing shows, I’ve never run out’ve fishing rods to sell,” said one of my amigos who specializes in custom rods. “And people weren’t even bargaining this year. They paid the price on the sticker.”

“We had to have extra equipment drop-shipped from the manufacturer," admitted another amigo. “I ran out’ve some things by the second day of a five-day-show!”

Lodges, outfitters and guides also seemed to be having a banner season on bookings.

“Our lodge is completely booked up with a waiting list for the year. At the shows we’re actually booking for 2016 and 2017! “ said an Alaskan outfitter.

A couple who run a guide service in a remote part of northern Canada were wide-eyed, when they confided, “Our bookings are triple what they normally are. That’s a good thing. The bad thing is that I think we’re gonna have to hire more staff.”

One of our other friends who owns a South African big game hunting operation. Hunters pay up to $30,000 for a hunt. They wrapped things up after three shows and went home.

“We cancelled all the rest of our shows. We don’t have any more room for more hunters this season and most of next season, too," he told me proudly. “We’re going home early to get ready.”

The general feeling was that either the economy has gotten better or folks are just frustrated of “tightening-the-belt” and the pendulum has swung the other way. People are spending on vacations again.

For a while, a few years back times were slim. If people are losing work or fearing foreclosures or other events, then fishing and hunting trips aren’t very high on the list of necessities. Understandable.

A lot of outfitters never made it through the bumpy times. We lost a lot of friends along the way. I guess it mirrored what was going on for everyone.

But, a lot survived. Hung in there. They learned to run leaner and work just a little bit harder to hang onto their passions and livelihoods and thereby keep alive vacation dreams for so many others.

It’s good to see. It’s about time. The cycle always comes around if you can ride out the tough times.

It was like that for the fishing fleets of the West Coast, especially Southern California that just had a banner fishing year.

El Niño currents brought exotic and incredible fishing for tuna, wahoo, dorado and marlin to folks who normally never get to see that kind of action.

The frenzy of plentiful fish brought out the crowds. And many a landing owner, captain and boat operator let out a sigh of relief. They struggled during the years of tough fishing and slow economy, too.

One San Diego captain told me, “We saw and continue to see crowds we never saw before. Guys who hadn’t fished in years re-discovered the fun of being on a boat again. They came out once, twice or more.”

“They brought their families and kids too! And maybe that’s the most important. We were losing the kids to Xbox and Facebook. Fishing got them off the couch and onto the ocean. New fans for fishing!”

For those of us running operations south of the border, a string of setbacks put many in a spin. This included a slack economy; nervousness over swine flu; high airline rates and crime issues. The stellar fishing to the north meant there was no need to travel south for exotic fish.

But, an owner of one Baja resort put it in perspective. “As long as people are fishing that is good. Some years it is fantastic in Mexico and other times it is better in the U.S. “

“Like this year. Good fishing is good fishing. Think of all the people who started fishing again and all the new people who started fishing. At some point, they will think of coming to fish in Baja!”

It’s all a matter or perspective.

As it turns out, many of the Baja outfitters, hotels and fleets are also seeing an increase in bookings this year. We’ve been waiting.

Coupled with the heightened interest in fishing. Mexico is still a bargain place to visit. In fact, it’s the #1 destination for Americans to visit and has the highest tourism growth of any country. Additionally, lowered oil prices have resulted in cheaper airfare across the board.

It’s going to be a good season! We’ve been waiting!

Baja Editor Jonathan and his wife Jill Roldan operate Tailhunter Adventures in La Paz. They will be hosting the La Paz Summer Panga Slam with Western Outdoor News June 16 to 2, a three days of fishing, parties and a one-day tourney. See their website at

A museum is where you find it
Every now and them someone comes up to me and says, “I looked all over for a good museum, and didn’t find anything that I couldn’t walk through in 5 minutes.”

I agree.

Especially, in Baja, and even more so in the smaller areas, it’s hard to come across a “real museum” like the kind the average tourist might be looking for. There just aren’t that many.

But, I have found in my travels that if you really want a glimpse into the history, culture and soul of any place or people, there’s usually a museum in even the smallest towns or pueblos. They’re just not labeled as such.

Just find the church.

Remember when we were kids and many of us had to build a “California Mission” in 4th grade? It threw our families and fathers into a frenzy!

Our older sisters had to do it. Our younger brothers had to do it. The school chum next door had to do it. There was no escape from the cardboard, sugar cubes, construction paper and macaroni rooftops!

But, for many of us, our delving into the missions pretty much stopped when the mission got dumped into the trash.

But, the California missions were just a long line that extended all the way down to the tip by Cabo San Lucas. Those missionaries from Spain accompanied by their conquistadores were a busy lot. Claiming land and native souls for the Spanish crown…and the Church.

In that endeavor, they blazed a crazy trail up and down the western coast setting up churches big and small.

Many of us have visited the California missions regularly and they are huge tourism destinations…San Juan Capistrano…Santa Barbara…San Luis Rey. Pretty much many California cities can trace their genesis to an adobe house of worship around which grew a plaza…then a pueblo…then a village…San Diego…Los Angeles…Monterey to name a few.

The same thing happened in Baja but with less notoriety. But, the Fransiscan, Jesuit and other Catholic padres toiled in perhaps greater hardship in more arduous situations to create footholds in Loreto, La Paz, San Jose Del Cabo and numerous other little dots in the Baja desert. Some are still there. Others have disappeared into the deserts.

The history of each location is written in the church. As the center of culture, religion, and the life of the pueblo, history is recorded.

In my travels, I have found this to be unfailingly true….Buddhist temples…Jewish Synagogues…Christian cathedrals…Greek Orthodox churches…even the littlest chapel in the middle of nowhere, there is history to be found.

Where we live in La Paz, one discovers that the city church took numerous tries to be established. The Spanish kept getting rousted by the local natives who didn’t take well to being overlorded by a new king or religion.

Check out the church in San Jose Del Cabo and find out about the padres who were martyred in their efforts. They died horrendous deaths attempting conversions.

Take a day trip up the winding goat-trail-road to the mountains above Loreto to San Javier. The candle soot on the walls has been there for eons. Who in the world carried these giant beams up this mountain to build this church? How many native “converts” were convinced to haul this massive Spanish altar here using only ropes, burros and sunburned backs?

In any church, look at the woodwork; the pews; the statues; the art. It had to come from someplace or someone’s backbreaking work.

Even more so, take a reverent walk through the cemetery. Check out the last names. Spanish? Indian? Anglo? Italians? Asian? A surprising number of Asian and Italians were part of the Baja frontier. So were the Portugese who joined along as pirates, adventurers, convicts and merchants either voluntarily or involuntarily hoping for a better life in the New World. Remember also, that the Spanish came with slaves.

Check the dates. Life was short and brutal.

If you made it to 30 years, you were pretty much dubbed an elder! Many babies and children are buried as well. Disease and a hard life took many early. Women and girls married early. Many died in childbirth. Men married again. Had more kids. More kids died.

If you see an abundance of deaths close to each other consider an epidemic of smallpox? Measles? An attack by natives? All of that is there to ponder and discover.

Inside many of the churches themselves, are the tombs or relics from the old padres themselves or, in some cases artifacts from the actual saints for which the church is named.

Someone, from thousands of miles away in Europe carefully brought it over. Imagine that journey. Months on a leaky pestilent wooden ship. Overland on foot or animal in the heat in sandals or boots. Mountains. Deserts. Rocks. Insects. Hostile locals. No water.

That’s how they rolled. All for a piece of bone. A bit of vestment from the old country or the old monastery that belonged to the venerated saint.

Yes, those are right there under the brick and cement by the altar. If you can still make out the chiseled lettering…You’re standing on the 300-year-old tomb of the old padre who made that insane journey on a wooden ship from Spain and never made it home again.

If you’re looking for history, look no further than the local house of worship. Just remember that these are still churches and should be treated as such. The ghosts of the past are always willing to speak to you, but don’t forget that the living are still holding Mass…getting married…getting baptized. Church remains the center of life for many as it did centuries ago.

Doff your hat. Keep your voice down. Take it easy with the photography. Drop a few dollars in the poor box. Listen carefully and history will tell you its own story.

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