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:

Hasta la vista, baby!
Wish we could say it was fun. Adios, Baby! Don’t let the screendoor bang your butt as you exit.

Yea, that’s right. Like the neighborhood kid who comes to hang out but overstays their welcome, we needed a break. Get this kid outta here!

Well, it’s official.

Meteorologists are officially declaring the demise of “The baby boy” a.k.a “El Niño.” After almost two years, the experts are saying the kid is finally on the way out.

The weather phenomenon we know as “El Niño” was first recognized centuries ago by Peruvian fishermen. They noticed that a warming cycle occurred every few years which changed their weather patterns and their fishing.

Insofar as it happened towards the end of the year around Christmas, it became known as “The baby/ El Niño.”

Extremely warm waters is exactly what we’ve seen down here in Baja during this particular cycle and, in fact, on the entire Eastern Pacific bordering the western shores of North and South America.

In fact, this El Niño was one of the strongest on record superceded only by the last great El Niño in 1996-97.

The warmer waters produced more storms and more rain along the western U.S. which was much needed. But, conversely, it produced drought conditions and water shortages in epic proportions on the other side of the Pacific.

However, for the first time since about 2014, the experts say that May was the official turning point. Last month produced cooler neutral water temperatures on our side of the Pacific for the first time.

El Niño hasn’t been very good to us down here in Baja and Mexico.

Sure, it produced rain. The problem is, it often fell all at once. In buckets.

In fact, two historically massive hurricanes, “Patricia” and “Odile”, were among the strongest ever experienced in Mexico. Odile pretty much flattened Cabo San Lucas which still bears some scars. Patricia would have been the strongest ever and barely missed crashing into highly populated Puerto Vallarta.

From a sportsman’s perspective, we know how good the fishing has been in areas around Southern California as warm-water species like tuna, yellowtail, marlin, wahoo and others followed the currents north. It’s been an economic windfall for the sportfishing industry not to mention, a lot of fun.

Those areas produced some of the most exotic and finest fishing ever recorded. In fact, as I’m writing this huge bluefin tuna are being caught in Southern California waters. Hey, and what about all those sharks cavorting in the surf off California beaches? Great fun, right? I’m being facetious.

But for us down here in Baja, the warmer waters weren’t very kind to us. Without the cooler upwellings from down deep, nutrients for baitfish never arrived. Accordingly, baitfish never arrived either which either starved or moved to more fertile waters.

In the food chain, no bait meant no larger game fish or certainly smaller game fish. That was a big ouch to the sportfishing industry here in Mexico.

But, everything is cyclical on this planet. Things come. Things go.

With El Niño headed out, the meteorologists are now telling us to get ready for “La Niña.” (The little sister!). What? Another bratty kid? C’mon already!

But yes. Chances are this little girl is a bit chillier.

However, according to the experts, La Niña isn’t exactly a complete opposite of El Niño. Ice won’t start coating the ocean’s surface.

Whereas El Niño involves huge warm spikes over a short period of time, La Niña is more of mild extended cooling event. The pros say it’s a return to an extended period of “normalcy.” Whatever “normal” means these days.

But, like every planetary phenomenon, what’s good for some is less-so for others.

While El Niño surely helped the drought ravages in the United States, it wasn’t enough to break it as many expected it would. La Niña won’t help at all as fewer storms can be expected.

That’s good for hurricane and tropical storm watchers in Mexico.

Over the past 2 years, there were times when every week one storm after another appeared on the radar and we had to brace for perhaps another onslaught and wonder if the “next one” would hit. Or would it race out to sea towards Hawaii?

However, conversely, the Eastern and Gulf states will be on higher storm and hurricane alerts now with La Niña. Atlantic hurricane predictions are usually elevated during La Niña patterns.

Likewise, along Eastern Asia, the waters will now be warmer on that side of the Pacific. After two years of crippling drought and heat waves, those poor folks will have to contend with the looming aspect of monsoons and cyclones.

And what will this do to the fishing in Baja?

After so many crazy things these past few years, I don’t know what “normal” looks like anymore. I threw my “fishing charts” out the window awhile ago.

I just go fishing. The weather will be what the weather is. There’s always something biting if it’s Mexican waters. And it still beats sitting in traffic.

Hasta la vista, Baby. Thanks for the visit.

The Mighty El Pez Fuerte
Whenever someone catches this particular fish, the uninitiated usually bust out the usual comments…

“I caught a what?”

“Is this like…uh…a tuna or something?”

“Is this a junk fish?”

“Should I throw it back?”

“Any good to eat?”

“My brother caught one once and said it was good fertilizer.”

OUCH! Talk about no respect. Into the rosebeds with the mackerel, the Miracle-Gro and the mulch.

The Mexicans call this fish the “ el pez fuerte.” And its name is well-deserved. Nothing fancy, colorful or elegant. It surely doesn’t rise to the level of say, “wahoo.” Or maybe “sailfish.”

They call it like they see it. “ El Pez Fuerte” means “the strong fish.” Simple. Clear. Word economy at it’s best. At it’s most descriptive.

Most of the rest of us know it as the amberjack. And yea, it’s pretty strong.

Like the rest of the members of it’s family.

That includes the more famous, yellowtail (jurel). And glamorous roosterfish (pez gallo) . And the hard-charging jack crevalle (toro) and pompano (pompano…no fancy name at all). All three of these sure get a lot more press than the amberjack.

Folks line up to get in on the bite when the yellowtail are going off. Anglers come from all over the world to hook up on a Baja roosterfish. Jack Crevalle are a favorite of light tackle and flyfishers.

So, why does the amberjack get slighted?

Better known as the Almaco Jack or the Pacific Jack, these guys sport the same bad attitude as their cousins. Bullish runs. Dogged battles. Quick to bend rods and just as easily send anglers into frustration as they dive back to cover and snap tackle.

They are just bigger and stronger. Actually, they are the largest of the jack family. Fifty, sixty, seventy pounders and larger are not uncommon.

It’s like the old saying about a good big guy is usually better than a good small guy, the amberjack here in Baja are characterized by the big, thick powerful bodies of the roosterfish, but without all the fancy rigging on their back.

They have linebacker bodies compared to, for example, yellowtail which are more slender.

They have muscular tails and blunted heads. And yes, they do get bigger.

The current IGFA record of 132-pounds was caught in Baja waters. In my 20 years here in southern Baja, I’ve seen larger fish that never got to the certified scales.

It happens more than you think. Several years ago, a fish estimated at close to 150 pounds got carved up on the beach before we could stop our amigo who had visions of delicious sashimi dancing in his eyes!

Because for sure, they make great eating. Amberjack in other areas are often tossed back or tossed into the rose bushes. These are the same fish. The pez fuertes we see here are famously tasty.

Roosterfish and jack crevalle have dark stringy strong-tasting meat. Most captains will tell you to release then. Yellowtail and amberjack are at the other end; definitely keeper fish.

The amberjack is a culinary surprise for most folks. Imagine the tender moist meat of the yellowtail, only better.

I had one marine biologist tell me that the amberjack are not as migratory as their kin, the yellowtail. They tend to be more “homeguard” fish and their diets include shellfish, shrimp and mollusks. So, imagine the succulent flavor of flaky white yellowtail with a slight hint of crab or shrimp!

As sashimi, it’s meat is almost translucent and velvety in its’ texture and highly prized. But rarely found because they’re not commercially chased.

So, that leaves it to us sportfishermen…and ladies.

Fishing-wise, folks genuinely are surprised to catch them. It’s not too different from fishing for yellowtail in Baja.

Usually, they are found near structure which would include rocks, reefs, boulders and deep drop-offs like canyons. When scuba diving, I seem to encounter schools where there are vertical objects like rock walls where the fish hold at certain levels.

They’ll take live and dead bait like squid, mackerel and caballitos (a smaller member of the jack family). You can flyline them or fish them with a sliding egg-sinker on a Carolina rig or similar, depending on the depth.

They will often school. Find one and you’ll find others. If they’re hungry, look out. They don’t “nibble” and will slam a rod right out’ve your hand.

And they are not shy. Being the big dog, they don’t have to be. I’ve had spearfishermen tell me they didn’t shoot amberjack because the fish will swim right up to them out’ve curiosity and look right at the point of the speargun.

“It didn’t seem fair to shoot a fish that swims right up to the gun!” said on spearfishing client.

And, they do love lures too.

Slow trolling a diving lure like a Rapala, Yo-Zuri, MirrOLure or other lipped-lure produces well.

If you like to fish the iron or knife jigs, this is another popular way to get hooked up. Drop down and crank like your arm is going to fall off.

Basically, fish like you’re fishing for yellowtail. And that’s why folks get surprised when their reel goes screaming; they’re double-bent; and they pull up a fish that doesn’t quite look like a yellowtail.

Often copper-colored or even golden tan in the sun, it’s definitely not a junk fish. And yes, it tastes darned good. Save something else for the fertilizer!

The other great aspect is that a good time to fish for them is during the same season as the yellowtail. That would be the late winter and early spring.

However, when the yellowtail have moved off to follow the colder waters, the amberjack can stick around for many months into the summer or even longer.

I’ve got work to do
Fishing has been a bit tough right now down here in Baja lately.

Some days there’s a lot of smiles. Other days…well, maybe not so much. The smiles are a little more forced.

There’s a lot of factors that go into a fishing day and any one of them can be the difference in a good day, a great day or a stinky day.

You can do something about some of them. Some other things are just the way they are. You roll with them.

Of course, there’s the natural factors like weather, wind, heat, current and bait.

There’s the mechanical factors like the boat, the equipment, or the technology.

Then, there’s the human factor. Oh my, that list is long.







Of course, there’s also plain-dumb-luck too!

Again, some things you can do something about. Some others…well…they just are what they are. But, it all comes to the table.

I had an interesting study in contrasts last week. I had two groups of fishermen. They all had some success, but overall fishing was scratchy. It was really a pull. Compared to previous years, it was rugged fishing with long days in the sunshine punctuated by the occasional bite.

The fish were there. Conditions seemed right. But, for whatever reason, the fish “lockjawed” on us. You’ve seen it. I’ve seen it. It happens.

The head of one group made it pretty clear he wasn’t happy.

As each day wore on, he got a little more sullen. A little less ebullient. There was less chest pounding. He was making less and less eye-contact with me.

He wasn’t saying anything directly to me, but the vibe was not good. Anyone who has ever been in the sportfishing business knows the feeling.

Everyone says, “It’s fishing, not catching” until they are the party that’s not catching. Believe me!

The level of “jolliness” was slipping away.

Unfortunately, it was rubbing off on his group as well. It’s toxic. How the leader goes so goes the troops. Naturally.

And that’s too bad because as often happens, as the enthusiasm wanes, the energy level wilted right along with it.

They weren’t trying as hard. They were mailing it in. Like the 2nd half of a game…down by 20 and just wanting to take the ball and get off the field.

At the end of trips, before anglers head home, I like to chat with them and assess things. It’s always better when things go right and the sun stayed out and the fish bite.

Getting high-fived at the end is great.

It’s so much harder to face a group, knowing that you did everything you could to make it work, but there are things that couldn’t be controlled. Simply put, sometimes the fish just don’t cooperate.

So facing a group or leader that had a bad outing is like taking that long walk to the principle’s office. And you know it’s not gonna be good.

The head of the first group and his guys said, it was “OK.” Just OK. I heard comments about the weather…the bait…the currents…the wind…

It’s what I expected. They shook my hand climbed in the vans back to the airport and off they went. I doubt I’ll be seeing them again. No one’s fault. We just didn’t shine down here as far as fishing was concerned.

Then there was the head of the other group. And his guys.

Again, a very experienced angler.

He and his gang fished the same waters as the other group. Used the same gear. More or less had the same results. Some good. Some bad.

Like the other group, it was their first “Baja adventure.” You just never want first-timers to have a bad time.

Obviously, we want everyone to have a good time. Surely, we want everyone to also come back. Returning happy clientele is what makes or breaks any business. No matter what you do.

It was my turn to say adios to them as well.

With some trepidation, I started out apologizing for the crummy fishing.

“I’m really sorry the fishing wasn’t…”

The head of the group stopped me right there.

What followed was one of the most refreshing comments I’ve heard in more than 30 years in the fishing industry.

He said, “That’s not your fault. We had a great time and can’t wait to come back.”

“Uh…really?” I said with some skepticism. “You’re joking right?”

He went on to say with a grin, “The fish were there. Everything looked good. You did everything you could and more. Your captains busted their rears working. We’ve fished all over and sometimes fishing is just…well…it’s fishing.” And he laughed and slapped me on the back.

“When the fish don’t bite, it simply means that ‘I’m not good enough.’”

That caught me by surprise! “You’re not good enough?”

“All fish eat. All fish hunt. As a sportfisherman, my task and challenge is to find a way to get them to bite. If they don’t bite, then I have work to do. There’s something else I need to learn. There’s something else I need to improve.”

“Maybe it was my bait presentation. Maybe it was the color of my line. Maybe we trolled when I should have drifted. Maybe it was just luck and I should have worn my lucky green shirt instead of my lucky red shirt.”

He added, “To me, putting that right combination together is what makes it fun. That’s why I want to come back to fish here again and solve that puzzle. That’s why my whole group wants to come back. We learn. We get better. We learn from each other and we learn from the fish! “

“We have work to do before we come back! And we’ll be back. And the fish I missed this time will only be that much bigger next time. But, I will also be that much smarter!”

Every now and then…even the principal surprises you.

Big bait, big fish… no bait, no… ?????
Yikes! Hijole! What’s wrong with this picture? You may have heard the old saying in fishing. “Big Bait, Big Fish.” Basically, to catch a big fish, use a big bait. Makes sense.

So, what if there’s no bait? No bait no…?

For the past two to three years and maybe even a touch longer, there’s no doubt that something is up with the bait stocks here in Baja. What’s up with that?

Here in the “Aquarium of the World” as Jacques Cousteau called it, we are used to huge dark undulating ribbons of millions of Mexican sardines. We are used to giant baitballs of mackerel. We’re used to having a cornucopia of all the green jacks, cocineros, ballyhoo and other baitfish we needed for sportfishing.

So, what’s going on and why have we all been scrambling to find bait? In the local Baja waters where we took bait for granted, we’re lately perplexed, annoyed, troubled and sometimes angry at the dearth of stuff to stick on the hook!

The commercial bait guys used to pull up to our cruisers and pangas and they’d be hawking and competing against each other to sell you all you wanted. They’d be zipping around in their own pangas like gadflys from customer-to-customer trying to make a deal in their best Span-glish…

“Almost free, amigo! Almost free! Cheap bait, Señores! Best quality! C’mon! C’mon! How much you want to buy? Vamanos. Let’s go. No waiting! Sure, we got change! Twenty dollars, no hay problema! Si, señor!

And we surely used it too! We burned through it like a sailor burns through his money roll on a 24-hour liberty.

We tossed handfuls out for chum. If a bait wasn’t looking exactly real good or lively, we tore the hook out and pinned on another one.

Feed the pelicans and seagulls? What fun. Sure!

Dead bait? Don’t need it. We scooped it over the side and watched the trigger fish chomp it or the scavengers in the marina water frenzy on it.

The times have changed.

Before, there was so much bait, the bait guys eked out a living because there was such an abundance and so much competition, prices were low. Now, they eke out a living because they can only find a few bits and pieces and gringos are willing to pay dearly for each precious piece.

But so often, fishermen now pull up on the commercial bait guys in those early mornings and find the carniceros still trying to catch or net enough to sell.

And, to a greater degree, anglers are met with a shrug and frown and hands turned up in resignation.

“Sorry, amigos. No bait today.”

“No mas, amigos. No more bait today. Ya los vendemos. We sold it already.”

“Si, pero tenemos solo poquito. We have just a little to sell.”

And we get angry with them or wrongfully blame them or our crews. And can’t understand why we don’t have bait today. Heck, two years ago, we had all we wanted. Or we think that the bait guys just didn’t work hard enough on YOUR day that YOU want to fish! It’s THEIR fault!

Actually, believe me. If they had it, they’d sell it to you. There’s families to be fed and kids need shoes.

Chances are, by the time you’re ready to go fishing at 5 a.m., the bait man has been trying to catch bait for you all night. He’s as ticked, perplexed and disappointed as you.

So, que paso? What happened?

I speculate that it’s a combination of things.

As a matter of nature, we’re in an El Niño cycle. Waters are much warmer than normal on this side of the Pacific.

The cooler waters from down deep never came up, bringing with it the micro-nutrients that the bait fish need. The bait fish either starve or don’t reproduce in their normal numbers or simply follow their food source somewhere else.

That applies all the way up the ecological food chain.

With altered and diminished food sources, the sportfish also lack their usual chow. They are smaller. Or they starve. Or they move to other areas. Simple, natural logic.

The other part of the equation is points directly at us.

There’s more pressure on the current bait stocks, small as they are.

There’s more anglers on the water. There’s more boats and charter operations. Everyone wants bait. Everyone expects it! Plus…

As sportsmen, we’re used to having all we want and we will use all we can get. And we’ll also use anything we can find.

Whereas, before, we might use 4- or 5-inch mature Mexican sardines, now we’re taking one-inch fry. We’re sticking 3 or 4 of them onto a hook at a time because one doesn’t cover the hook.

Conversely, the bait sellers are using nets with smaller and smaller mesh-holes to trap the smaller baits. Nothing gets to grow up.

As one bait vendor sadly told me, “I know we’re not supposed to use nets so small, but I am just trying to make a living. I know that this is taking all the small baby baits. “

The other side of the commercial coin is aquaculture. Huge stocks of bait are being used to grow marketable fish in the fish farms. It takes many POUNDS of baitfish to grow one of these market fish a single pound larger.

There’s a hungry world out there and the demand for seafood exceeds the supply.

Simple economics.

The earth is doing its thing. And it’ll cycle around again. El Niño is supposed to be slacking off this year.

I’m not sure what we’re doing about our end of things. But, I know I sure don’t take those little fish for granted anymore.

Young enough
“We love Baja and I want to bring my family, but I have a 6-year-old and I don’t think he’s old enough yet. “

“My dad is 85 and he has always wanted to fish in Baja, but he thinks he’s now too old. “

I get comments like this all the time. Too young. Too old. Whatever.

But, it’s a common question as the parameters of Baja visitors change. Although it is still “la frontera” (the frontier) and there’s more than enough ruggedness in the Baja to go around. There’s no debating that this is not your grandfather’s Baja.

For better or worse. It’s a kinder-gentler Baja.

There’s no doubt more families; more kids; more wives and girlfriends are now coming down. And they’re not just here to splash poolside at posh resorts; drink infused martinis; go to spas; and line up at the all-inclusive buffet lines.

They’re fishing; surfing; off-roading; zip-lining; scuba diving and grabbing their vacation by the two-fisted-double tortillas. The spirit of adventure is far from dead. It’s just that nowadays, there’s a safety net.

If your car breaks down now, the vultures won’t start circling overhead. There are very few roads that don’t have a gas station or convenience store nearby. And…Walmart probably has your part.

If you run out of water or ice, it’s no longer an emergency. (Well, maybe running out of ice IS an emergency to some people!)

But, you simply walk down the hall to the ice machine. Or call the front desk.

Boat radio goes out? Grab your multi-satellite cell phone.

You get my drift. No pun intended.

Mistakes, accidents and quirks of nature, are much more forgiving in Baja than back in the day. Back then, venturing to the Baja was sometimes about like going on safari.

You carried enough parts to rebuild your car or boat engine. You had everything from cables to belts and hoses to air filters.

You strapped on enough extra jerry cans of gasoline to cover those long stretches of desert highway. Or build a big enough bonfire if you had to signal for rescue. (That actually happened to me once…but that’s for another story).

This was Baja in the year “BC.” (Before cell phones).

You brought a first-aid kid that would have made a trauma team proud. And you never went anywhere without duct tape, some rope, shovel, some rope…and the simple necessities like toilet paper!

Hope hoped for the best. Planned for the worst.

Usually, for most of us, nothing happened harsher than bad hangovers, mosquito bites, a touch of Montezuma’s dance, a dinged surfboard or a few flat tires. But with each trip, we always left with a lifetime of memories.

In that respect, it hasn’t changed that much!

But, back then it was good to have just a bit of madness in you; a pirate spirit and it didn’t hurt to have a hearty constitution.

However, now Baja truly is accessible to everyone. There’s stuff for everyone to do.

So, when I get a question about someone’s age and the ability to visit Baja, it’s not an issue of how old you are. At least not chronologically.

I have 4-year-olds who have the time of their lives. I’ve had 92-year-olds who outfish and outlast the “youngsters.” Conversely, I’ve seen “30-somethings” that should have stayed home and had no business down here mixing it up.

It’s not how many rings on your personal tree trunk; crow’s feet at your eyes or candles on your cake. To me, it’s how young your heart is.

If you’ve got enough “play” in your heart and in your spirit, Baja has a lot to offer.

If you still don’t mind the occasional skinned knee to go along with a good laugh and believe a little sunburn is a small price to pay for a little adrenaline rush or a memory of a lifetime, then you can never be too old or too young.

If you think you can break away for a few days to a place where everything is not climate controlled and hermetically sealed… where you might only get 1-bar on your cell phone… where you might not find your favorite diet soda… where nothing and no one moves faster than they have to… where there’s no happy meals but you love the greasy street tacos cooked up by a smiling amigo in a threadbare New York Yankees shirt… you’re gonna do just fine down here.

Believe me, there are some folks who can’t handle that! I’ve seen them freak out down here!

If you can handle miles of beach that has no lifeguard station; dusty cobblestone streets; unfettered sunshine on blue waters; friendly people who speak a different language, but say more with smiles and their eyes then you’re used to…


… Don’t ask about how old you need to be. Ask how young you want to feel? How young do YOU feel?

I’ve always believed that we don’t stop playing because we get old. We get old because we stopped playing. Come down and play!

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