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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:

Less is more, or more than enough?
It was almost comical and I didn’t want to say anything. After all, they were our fishing clients. But it took four of us to load all their fishing gear on the panga. It reminded me of an Everest expedition where the intrepid explorers are followed by a line of sherpas.

Artic ice chest, spinning rod, fly rods, bass rods, conventional rods, three jumbo tackle boxes, video camera case, GoPro camera water proof case, underwater extension rods, special seat cushions that had beer holders in them, even “catch flags” they planned to fly from rods for when they returned to shore.

Ahhh…God bless ’em.

They were so excited. First-time Baja fishermen. They were like little kids. It was like Christmas. They had a list of all the species they planned to catch. They had a GPS pre-programmed with all the “hot spots” they had read about. They had waterproof maps and fish ID charts.

So much enthusiasm. Between my captains, deckhands, drivers and other fishermen, it was hard to suppress the chuckles. I really wanted to say something. But what could I say? They had all the toys and they planned to use them.

They took to heart the saying, “Better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it. “

Here’s the rub: I was supposed to go out on the panga that day with them. I rolled my eyes.

My captain had to leap over all the gear to get to the tiller on the motor. There was barely any room to sit. I squeezed on top of an ice chest as we headed out. This was gonna be interesting, but I was grinning. Whatever. Let’s go fishing, guys!

With all the rods jutting out, we looked like a CIA boat bedecked with prickly porcupine radar antennas as we zoomed to the fishing grounds. I counted…1, 2, 3…8…11…15…19…20…26 rods! Custom wrapped. The latest high-tech reels. Spooled full of shiny new line.

When we got to the spot, it got a little awkward.

Do you remember watching your kids at Christmas barrel into the goodies under the tree? Ripping and shredding and laughing, oh the carnage! Oh the humanity!

Well, the gear boxes opened and out came hooks and lures and feathers of all shapes and sizes. Leaders and gadgets and wires and do-dads and thing-a-ma-jigs and watcha-ma-callits and chingaderas came pouring out! Many still in their wrappers.

All organized. Color-coded. Size-coded. Species evaluated. Things for tuna. Things for dorado. Things for dorado AND tuna. Things for wahoo. Need a purple pink speckled marlin lure? Got it! Surface lures…bottom lures…mid-water lures. Everything had a pouch or pocket. Everything in it’s place!

I’ve done plenty of long range trips for 12 and 14 days where I didn’t have this much stuff. We were only going a mile offshore for a few hours. Fishing 2 days total!

And stuff for their belts…pliers, dikes, hook disgorgers, hook pouches, sunscreen holders.

My gosh, they must have accumulated enough points on their Cabela and Bass Pro visa cards to fly around the world!

And just like kids oooh-ing and ahhh-ing…each guy was as eager to show off his “toys” to me and the captain. Simultaneously, he was showing them to his fishing buddy and also seeing what his buddy had brought along. Like opening two picnic baskets at the church luncheon!

I just stood back. Tried to look really really, really gosh darn excited! I mean, I hate to discourage or curb anyone’s enthusiasm. So, I smiled and gritted my teeth.

“Wow…that’s uh… really great you found one of those lures.”

“You got 4 of them in each color?”

“You bought 100 hooks of each size too? No way!”

But, we were burning daylight. I could tell on the radio that some of our pangas were already into fish.

There was stuff scattered all over the decks!

I finally said, “Guys, time’s-a-wasting. Let’s get fishing.”

They looked at me. They looked at the captain like eager kids. The captain shrugged his shoulders and dropped a bomb.

“Tie on a hook. We will fish with bait.”

Silence. They looked at me. I looked at them.

I said, “Yup, bait’s working. No leader. Let’s just tie on hooks. Maybe later we’ll get to use some of that great gear you brought.”

They looked at each other and I could sense the puzzlement and disappointment from their quizzical looks.

“C’mon, guys, “ I tried to say gently with as much enthusiasm as I could muster. “The fish are biting so let’s get in on it. Get out some hooks and stow the rest of the gear for now so we don’t miss the bite.”

While they stashed all their stuff, the captain and I tied on hooks for them to save time. I didn’t want to look them in the eyes. I felt like I had taken away their toys. Or had told them there is no Easter Bunny.

But, the fish bit. The sun came out. The water was blue. And the fish bit again. And the icy beer and lunches always taste double-good outdoors on the water.

There was a point later in the day when their fish box was filling and the fish were swarming and I asked if they’d like to try out some of their fancy gear. But, they laughed and were too busy hooked up to want to change.

The whole day, they ended up using one rod each. And maybe half-a-dozen hooks. And were happy. Beyond happy.

As one of the guys laughingly said to me as we were headed back, “Somehow, I still have to explain to my wife why I needed to buy all this gear.”

His buddy said, “I once asked my wife why she needed so many shoes.”

“What did she say?”

“Because I say so, Dear. Because I say so…”

“I don’t think that will work on my wife.”

We all laughed.

El Niño ramped down?
At the mid-year mark of the calendar as well as the Baja fishing season, maybe it’s time to take another look at the El Niño phenom we may or may not be having.

At the onset of the season, many of us, me included, wrote about predications that this would be an El Niño season. In fact, scientists strongly suggested 2014 to possibly be one of the largest, if not the biggest one in recorded history.

In a nutshell, the El Niñoevent is characterized by abnormally higher water temperatures, higher rainfall (including hurricanes), higher air temperatures and humidity, and for us fishermen, big differences in the fishing season along the eastern side of the Pacific ocean. Basically, the western side of Mexico and the U.S. are affected.

Early in the season, it was looking pretty ominous. When so many of us down here in Baja and along the Mexican coast base our livlihoods on nature, the weather and the fishing, it’s hard to ignore the predictions.

According to the experts, all the signs were there for a whopper of an El Niño on it’s way. Understandably, it was with some trepidation that many of us kicked off our respective seasons.

Well, now several months into the season, an assessment of sorts can be made. Yes, the waters got really warm really fast. In many places they are higher than normal. In fact, in some spots, it never cooled down from last year. The cold waters never materialized.

No doubt, it doesn’t take a meteorolgist to tell you it surely seems a lot warmer and a lot more humid this year. Just walk outside. It blazes. The air is thick and heavy in the heat.

And the fish?

I think I can speak for a lot of us down here and a lot of folks who have visited. It’s really weird. It’s really crazy.

At the base, there’s very little live bait. That’s all I seem to hear folks talking about. Well, you see, when there’s an El Niño, the cooler waters from the deep carrying all the nutrients don’t make it up.

The nutrients bring the bait. No food. No bait. Or, the waters are so warm, the bait goes elsewhere or dies. It’s just part of the cycle.

If there’s no bait, that’s gonna eliminate a food source for the gamefish, not to mention make life a little difficult for sportfishermen. Certain species don’t show up, or they show up someplace different.

Like slow tuna in Mexico, but tuna show up in big numbers in California and strays of tuna, dorado and marlin make their way up as high as Washington state! Talk about getting lost!

But, now at the mid-way point, the pros are saying, maybe it’s NOT going to be a record-breaking El Niño. They are revising their predictions. Yes, it’s here, but well, maybe it’s not the BIG one!

That’s good news and bad news.

Bad news…like all weather, El Niñois cyclical. It’s the way of the world so-to-speak.

Yes, it brings more rain, but that’s exactly what so many places need along the west coast continents to break extreme drought conditions. In fact, I saw where one meteorologist called it the “Great Wet Hope.” Lord knows rain is needed.

If it’s true that we’re not going to see the historical El Niño, I guess many of us can breathe a little easier knowing that the likelihood of hurricanes is diminished. However, truth be told, even ONE hurricane/ chubasco can be a deal breaker here in Mexico.

Mexico needs water as much, it not more than anyone. And it’s not for golf courses and swimming pools and watering lawns and washing cars. Just basic drinking water is in short supply as well as water for crops.

A little rain here and there or short burst in the afternoons are great. It’s perfect.

But even a good “tropical storm” of any intensity would be devastating in a country where drainage is a problem as well as basic construction. Arroyos become deadly rivers in minutes. Streets become lakes. Neighborhoods become isolated islands. Mexico’s infrastructure doesn’t do well with rain.

A similar storm in the U.S. would generate some fender benders on the freeway. Surfers in Orange Co. would rush to catch “the gnarly break.” And the evening news would show someone trying to kayak down the concrete “Los Angeles River.”

Here… A relatively minor storm of moderate intensity in a few minutes can wipe someone out, destroy businesses, kill people. Let alone screw up the fishing day.

So, if you’re coming down in the next few months, don’t alter your plans. But be prepared. It might just rain.

If there’s something on the radar and the local port captains close the port or put out warnings, common sense dictates that you might be better served sitting by the pool with a cold one. Don’t chance it.

Fishing is supposed to be fun. Safety first. It’s not supposed to be an exercise in survival or miserableness or futility. Many of these “storms” are short-lived, but can be strong. We call them “toritos” (little bulls) that hit with the intensity of a hurricane. In fact, these toritos can come up in minutes and there will never be a warning.

If that happens, by all means, clear the water. If you’re close enough to cover go wait it out. You can go back out later. If you’re that’s not an option, call it a day.

Two weeks ago, we had a waterspout come up that was the size of a city block and sounded like a freight train from several miles away. You could see water gushing up off the ocean. It took a matter of minutes for that to form!

The other side of these storms is that it washes a lot of debris into the water. This includes mud, trash, and vegetation like trees and bushes.

Let it all settle and waters clear. Then look for the temperature and current breaks holding all this floating stuff. You’ll find some of the best fishing around these areas!

Just go with the flow. Be safe. Be prepared.

Memo to self: No bad days allowed
The day had not started well. I woke up grumpy. I was doing my utmost to put on my best “happy face” for the fishing clients this morning, but it was taking an effort. Just one of those days we all have when one would be best-served to just stay in bed!

I already knew it was going to be a long day. We had problems at our restaurant with the plumbing, and several of our employees were out sick. A vehicle was broken down and required a part they just don’t make in Mexico and there was a chance of rain in the forecast too. Sheeesh. And it was only 5 a.m. in the morning!

Worse of all, the fishing had been bad. And I had grumpy fishermen. More than grumpy actually. Rude and pissed off. The bad fishing had snowballed into complaints now about the service, the captains, the hotel, the food.

Funny how that happens. Catch fish and none of that matters. Don’t catch fish and the world is a terrible place. I could feel that target growing on my back. Anyone who has been a guide or outfitter knows what that feels like. As if we could control the wind, waves, weather and fish! But, we care about how our clients feel so you feel the crosshairs growing.

But, I guess you pay that money and it entitles you to be grumpy and growl and no amount of cheerfulness or cheerleading on our end was gonna change things.

My own mood reflected it as well as a feeling of helpless frustration. If I could make fish jump in the boat, I would. If I could wave a fishing rod in the air, I’d make the clouds go away. Doesn’t work that way.

So, we packed them into our van to the beach in the dark and could feel the tension. Yuk. Mine and theirs.

And then some of our other fishermen came down and climbed into the shuttle. All smiles. Handshakes. Backslaps. Excited to be going fishing. Looking forward to being on the water.

Introductions and greetings. Among themselves. “Hey, didn’t I see you on the plane?” “Where’d you go to dinner last night?” “Really nice to meet you!” “You’re lucky to have your wife. Don’t let her catch all the fish!” (Laughs) The grumpy guys could care less. Golly, is it THAT bad?

The happy folks were all long-time customers. They all came from different parts of the country. I had known them for a long long time and knew their stories. But, all of them were coming together this morning and meeting for the first time. Just happy to be out; happy for maybe more reasons than just going fishing.

Yes, I know their stories.

For several of them, this could be their last trip.

One has a serious kidney surgery as soon as he gets back.

The wife, they were talking about? The gal schlepping the rods and laughing with the boys? She just found out she’s got a malignant tumor in her breast. She’s got a lot on her mind, I know.

One of the other guys? He’s had several strokes. I see the changes in him. He still at it, but he can’t fish every day like he used to. I worry about him pulling on a big fish. He’s fragile, but gutty as hell and won’t let anything stop him.

Another guy in the van, he’s had 24 surgeries. TWENTY FOUR!

He had his first heart attack at 35 years-old. His first stroke at 36. He had a heart transplant several years ago. His face is scarred from skin cancer. Right around his mouth, lips and chin. As soon as he gets home from La Paz, he’s got a date with the dermatologist.

He once showed me what his chest, arms and legs look like from all the surgeries. He laughing called himself “Frankenstein.” He takes several dozen pills a day to keep going. He has to wake himself up at night to make sure he takes some of the pills on time.

He just came back from a salmon trip in Alaska. And now here he is in La Paz fishing with us.

He once told me, “I know people who are more fortunate than me and let little setbacks get to them. They are miserable.

I choose to be happy. I chose to LIVE and enjoy the time I have. I got the message early! Fishing just happens to be the vehicle that gets me off the couch and enjoying life!”


None of the folks in the shuttle van know the background of the other folks.

But there were those who were really looking forward to the day. And others who started the day already under a toxic cloud. I guess I could be included in that group.

I want to tell the grumpy guys…”LOOK AT THESE HAPPY PEOPLE!” I want to introduce them and tell the grumpy guys the stories about the happy people. I know it’s not my place.

But, I want to say, a bad day fishing is just that. A bad day fishing. You’re here. You’re enjoying times with friends. You’re doing something that a zillion other people will never ever get to do in their lives. See a sunrise. See the dolphin. Feel the salt spray. Crack beers on the beach. Fishing isn’t life. Life is fishing.

I think there was a reason I saw these folks today. Wake up call. Life ain’t so bad a’tall. I’m blessed. Memo to self…no bad days allowed!

More than potato salad and fried chicken
One of our fishing clients down here in La Paz was sipping a cold one in our restaurant and asked if I missed 4th of July.

Having been down here in Mexico working now almost 20 years, yeah, I really do. I miss it a lot. Being that July 4th is always smack in the height of the summer fishing season, it’s been a long time since I’ve been part of the celebration “back home.” But, this is where work requires that I be down here and so be it.

Superficially, I miss a good parade and watching the kids and the floats and the music -- and most of all standing with hand-over-heart as I watch our vets and service folks marching tall and proud. I get choked up over that.

I miss the smell of green summer grass-in-the-park and that smell of barbecued burgers and saucy ribs and ducking the occasional errant Frisbee. I miss the sand between my toes and a paper plate of fresh potato salad, sloppy pork-n-beans, fried chicken and a beach fire in the dark as fireworks burst over the water to the oohs-and ahhs of the crowd. I miss hearing the Star Spangled Banner played.

So many things parked in my memory banks.

But, I get a completely different perspective living outside the U.S. and looking in from afar, from Mexico. And, although the two countries share borders and so many other things in common, they are still so far apart. And it makes me appreciate the U.S. even more so and what the 4th of July means.

For one, I take fewer things for granted. Simple things.

Like water.

Back home, you flipped on the faucet. Bad as it might taste, you take for granted that water comes out. You can cook with it. Wash clothes. Come home from work and take that long easy hot shower. Wash your car. Water your lawn. Gasp…fill our hot tub and swimming pool!

Here, in Mexico, water is at a premium. What we call “drought” in the U.S. is almost comical in Mexico. Sometimes nothing comes out of the faucet, for days!

Here in La Paz, often water is only sent to your home or business through the city pipes every other day or every two days. And even then, pretty much at a slow drip.

That’s why you see these huge black plastic “tinacos” (storage cylinders) on top of business and houses. That’s to save the water when it’s available and running. If you run out, you have to wait until the city opens the spigots again.

The tourists never see that because the hotels and golf courses and swimming pools are always full. But, I saw a report once that said the fresh water daily allotment for the average Baja citizen is less than one-gallon-a-day. And getting smaller.

And more…

As a former attorney back in California, I don’t take justice or the U.S. legal system for granted anymore. Nor am I so quick to make fun of its many problems. I still challenge someone to come up with a better way to do things. It still has a fundamental premise, that you are “innocent until proven guilty.” And there’s nothing the government can do about that.

Here in Mexico, they still operate under the archaic Napoleanic code from the days when France ran Mexico. Under those laws, the state “presumes you are guilty and it’s up to you to prove you are innocent.”

I have seen the damages up-close-and-personal here. We’ve been victimized ourselves.

Prove you didn’t steal from your neighbor. Prove your kid didn’t start the fight that broke another kid’s nose. Prove your wife didn’t crash into someone else’s car. Prove you didn’t hurt someone’s reputation by something you said. Prove you didn’t sexually accost a fellow employee.

All it takes is an accusation and a report to authorities by someone who doesn’t like you. And now it’s YOUR problem. It’s YOUR burden to prove you’re innocent.

Another thing is that I don’t take the ability to work so lightly. I know in the U.S. we have a serious crisis in employment. I have several college degrees plus a law degree, but I’ve been unemployed. I’ve quit jobs. I’ve been fired from jobs.

But, I always had options. I always had hope that I could find another job.

I’m here in Mexico now because of a choice I made years ago, not because I wanted to live outside the U.S. but because there was a business opportunity that presented itself. But, it was a choice I had because I had options. I had that independence. And I was lucky and blessed.

We have so many good friends, employees and associates and acquaintances after almost two decades here.

I look at them and I’m grateful for what we have as Americans roving this planet who at least have opportunities and options.

Here in Mexico, if you’re a dishwasher or you’re a taxi driver, that’s probably what you will be the rest of your life. That’s it. No upward mobility.

There might be some lateral mobility in that instead of a dishwasher you might get to be a truck driver, but not likely. You will live and die a dishwasher or waiter or farmer. That’s it. Same for your kids. What’s a career?

There’s no “correspondence school” or “next big opportunity.” You are what you are. My amigo is a floor cleaner. He will be a floor cleaner his whole life until he dies or his back gives out. Whichever comes first.

Education is mandatory to only 8th grade. How far would you have gotten on an 8th grade education?

Having education, even a college education, could still mean you’re now qualified to work in a retail store selling shoes or in an office filing papers. You can keep your hands clean. Maybe.

And, if you lose your job, that could be it as well.

We know a very good accountant working for a company. She’s 35 years old. She told us if she ever loses her job, she is no longer employable because she is “too old” and companies don’t hire “old people.” She supports a family of 4.

Truthfully, when you hit 65 here, you are forcefully retired. No matter how good, valuable or healthy you are. No matter that you’re the sole earner in your household, you’re out of the work force.

Just yesterday, a single-parent friend told me her son missed a job interview because he didn’t have shoes.

Last week, another friend told me he had to quit a job as a maintenance man because it was too hard to walk 5 miles to work and back six-days-a-week. He’s 62-years-old and supports a family of 5.

We might share borders, but we are so far apart. And every 4th of July away from home, I’m ever more grateful for the opportunities and freedoms I’ve enjoyed and been blessed with. For all it’s problems, the U.S. still enjoys so much that the rest of the world never has or will.

Can someone pass me another piece of fried chicken…

When the big boys (and girls) play!
You’ve had that itch for awhile. You have always wanted to do it.

You’ve seen the photos and the videos. You’ve imagined yourself standing on the bridge of the big cruiser or in the fighting chair braced and battling the fish of a lifetime. You’ve envisioned standing on the winner’s platform bathed in the spotlights, the champagne and the flash of cameras as you pose with a huge check and the bikini girls from the beer companies. Yea…that could be you up there standing tall and basking in the fame! Oooo and ahhhh! A fishing rockstar!

Vamanos! You want to play with the big boys and do a REAL Mexican fishing tournament.

But, then comes the “buzz kill.” Wait a minute. Logic kicks in. You sigh. Who are you kidding?

The last time you got flashed by a camera was when they took your photo for your COSTCO card. Not many 100-dollar-Tommy Bahama shirts in your closet. The closest thing to being on a fishing cruiser was that time you went on a booze cruise for the office Christmas party. There definitely weren’t any beer company bikini girls aboard that you can remember.

And the biggest fish on your resume was a rainbow trout you caught with a worm when your dad took you fishing during a camping trip.

But, one can dream!

But why leave it at that? C’mon, man! Think outside the box Why not you? Why can’t it be you standing up there at the podium?

Your logic side bubbles up. You have no talent. Little or no experience. Even less money. You tell yourself you’ve got no business playing with the big boys in that Tommy Bahama-Ray-Ban atmosphere!

Stop right there. As they say here in Mexico, “Si se puede!” You can do it!

All you really need to have is the desire! Figure out where you want to go and when you want to go. All the big fishing destinations like Cabo, Mazatlan, Puerto Vallarta, etc. have numerous tournaments throughout the year depending on the species.

There are tournaments to fit every budget and experience. And don’t let the “experience factor” deter you!

The best thing about tournaments is that it’s actually a pretty even playing field. Big boats might mean a bit more comfort, but that doesn’t always equate to better fishing. Indeed, I have seen pangas (Mexican skiffs) often outfish the big mega-cruisers! There’s often as much luck as skill. As they often say, “It’s better to be lucky than good!”

And, honestly, it depends on where you’re fishing and what you’re fishing for. As I said, there are numerous tournaments to choose from. If it’s a sierra tournament or a yellowtail tournament, that would be different from a marlin or big tuna tournament. Furthermore, fishing in the calmer waters of August or September is different than fishing in the choppier waters of say, April or May!

There are very expensive tournaments and there are more budget-minded tournaments. Put together a team of amigos and share the expenses and you’ll find that expenses are much more reasonable.

The key aspect is a good well-equipped boat and a good captain with local knowledge. What you might lack in experience is outweighed by a good skipper running the boat and his or her crew.

Don’t be intimidated by the heavy hitters. Believe me, many of might have fatter wallets, but many of them also have about as much fishing experience as you! But, their captains and crews are their aces-in-the-hole.

So, find a good skipper with a great attitude and a decent boat and you’re in the running! You’ve got as much a chance as anyone of being in the money.

But, attitude starts with you. Sure, there’s some real competition at these events but don’t forget these are huge social events as well! Come to play and party.

Usually at many of these events, the whole town takes on a circus-like atmosphere. It’s a mega-fiesta. The excitement permeates the whole waterfront. It’s a great opportunity to tip-back-a-beer; to people-watch and boats-watch and enjoy the carnival. Except, this time it’s you that’s part of the spectacle of fun. You’re on the inside.

There’s music and food and fishing groupies and spectators and celebrities! The evenings at these tournaments are often filled with huge banquets and parties. I’ve participated in many tournaments and as much as I like the fishing, the social aspects are really the highlight.

Gamesmanship…good-natured trash talk and chest-thumping…are all part of it. I often think more people come for the party and that the fishing is just a convenient vehicle that brings everyone out to play!

There are prizes and dances and a great sense of camaraderie as new friends become old friends and everyone enjoys the festivities. In many of the smaller tournaments in smaller venues, the tournament is often the social event of the calendar. The whole town comes out to watch the “marine gladiators. “

Come play! Si se puede! You can do it!

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