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:

Asked and answered
As I write this, I’m sitting in my hotel room near Seattle, instead of our place in La Paz. This is the time of year when we’re on the road like so many outfitters, charter operations, guides and travel services.

We’re on the “circuit” travelling each week from one hunting and fishing expo show to another trying to drum up business. These are huge multi-day shows in major cities that attract thousands of fishermen, hunters and outdoor enthusiasts.

In the last three weeks, we were in Denver for their big 4-day show. Then a quick crazy drive through the snow to rainy Sacramento for a 4-day show. And here we are just outside Seattle for a 5-day show. By the time you’re reading this, we’ll probably be at the Portland show. And on-and-on for the next 2 ½ months. Fred Hall Long Beach is coming.

During these shows, I speak to dozens of Baja fishermen every day. It’s a great opportunity to chat; answer questions; get feedback; share stories and hopefully promote and encourage folks to come fishing with us in Baja!

In speaking with so many great folks, I get a lot of the same questions. I’d like to share some of the most common with you and my general responses. Now understand, this is just my own personal little two-cent opinion. I don’t speak for anyone else. Don’t be sending me hater e-mails if you don’t agree.

Here we go:

What’s a good time to go to Mexico?

Actually right now! With the exchange rate at something like 22 pesos to the dollar, the dollar is incredibly strong. It makes Mexico a super value and your tourist dollar goes really as far as what it was a year or two ago.

Airline rates are also dropping a routes are getting more competitive, especially with the advent of new airlines arriving plus well-known budget carriers like Southwest expanding into more cities. Mexico is one of the fastest-growing tourist destinations to be found with great bargains to be had.

When is the worst time to travel to Mexico?

Well, I wouldn’t call it the “worst time,” but I’d personally avoid the week before and the week after Easter. Airline rates are especially high and hotel rooms can be at a premium as well and hard to come by.

This is many folks fly in for “spring break,” but also because for Mexico, more folks fly internationally and domestically than Thanksgiving (Mexico doesn’t celebrate Thanksgiving…except for tourists) and even more than Christmas.

Holy Week (Semana Santa) is much celebrated in Mexico and many Mexicans visit family and relatives. So, flights are booked and expensive.

How come the fishing has been so bad the last few years?

It hasn’t been bad. It’s just been different.

The “El Niño” weather pattern has a lot to do with it and it’s been like an elephant in the room for the last two seasons. It’s nature doing what nature does every decade or so.

With El Niño, the cooler waters that bring upwellings of nutrients never showed up. The waters remain unseasonably warm.

No nutrients meant not baitfish. Without the food supply, the bigger sportfishing never really showed up.

Or, if they did, it was all helter-skelter with unusual fish showing up at different times or certain species not showing up at all. On the other hand, areas like Southern California have experienced giant tuna just offshore; wahoo and marlin within sight of the Orange County freeways; plus delivered much needed rain and moisture for the entire western U.S.

The scientists have declared El Niño over and a gradual return to normalcy is expected.

Is there a lot of anti-American sentiment about President Trump?

On the street level, I’m not seeing much of it. There was a lot of rhetoric and worry during the election that got heated, much like in the U.S. It still continues with a wait-and-see attitude. But, nothing directed at tourists!

In my opinion, Mexicans, are a lot like Americans. They are either very passionate about politics or they aren’t. Most folks at ground zero, seem understandably more ticked at the Mexican government for recently raising gasoline prices by a whopping 20 percent!

For folks who literally can only afford to put in a dollar of gas at a time; or have to ride public transportation, it’s a huge increase. It has resulted in protests and some degree of civil unrest. Again, wait-and-see. Economists say prices will adjust.

And, I guess we’ll see what happens with “the wall” that the President promises. But, I don’t and have not seen any particular anti-gringo sentiment. Anti-politician sentiment…yes! Just like most countries. But nothing directed at individuals. Mexico loves tourism.

What about the new tourist tax that’s coming in Baja?

It’s a non-issue for the most part. With the current dollar-to-peso exchange rate it’s a “massive” 17 dollars and mostly will be part of the airline ticket. It’s like buying gasoline in the states, a huge amount of the price are “taxes and fees.”

Tourists don’t even realize it.

For years, many of us visiting Baja paid an “exit tax” to leave the country and had to dig into our pockets at the airport when departing after our vacations. A lot of us had empty pockets by that time!

So, they just added it to the cost of the airline ticket.

Do you need a passport to visit Mexico?

You bet. Easily obtained online. Don’t wait until the last minute to get your passport or try to get it expedited in time for summer vacation at the same time when half the U.S. is trying to get a passport. A passport card is a wise $10 add-on, but it does not work for flying. It’s a backup and added piece of photo ID. Tourism cards won’t work. The days of simply having a birth certificate are long gone.

Do my kids need fishing licenses even if they are not fishing?

You’re not letting your kids fish? C’mon, man!

But yes, anyone on a craft where fishing is taking place must have a license.

Dark canyons of catavina
The rocky canyons near Catavina at night in central Baja are lonely and cold in late December. Mounds and hills of building-sized boulders dot an ethereal landscape eerily beautiful but desolately forbidding, especially in the dark.

We had pulled the Chevy truck off the road for the night up. We negotiated a sandy arroyo and found a sheltered lee against a wall of rocky overhang several hundred yards from the highway. Clear, cold mountain air held nothing but a million stars overhead.

A quick fire of mesquite held back the chill and the worn green Coleman stove propped on the tailgate soon had us warming tortillas, beans and sizzling chorizo (ground pork sausage) by flashlight. The big camp pot sure smelled good.

“Shhhh…listen!” hushed my buddy Brian abruptly from the other side of the truck. “Did you hear that? I think I heard something out there.” His head swiveled nervously into the darkness away from our little intrepid fire, banked against the rock wall.

We all stopped talking.

“I don’t hear anything,” said Laura nervously, also swinging around from staring into the warming flames. She tried hard to pierce the shadows unsuccessfully with temporarily blinded campfire eyes.


“Wait, I hear it. Listen.” I told them while at the same time needlessly and unconsciously motioning them to be quiet.

The smoke from the crackling mesquite wasn’t helping my night vision. But something…or someone was out there in the boulders and shrubs. And it was moving very quietly. Treading lightly.

I was keenly aware that our little campfire made us perfect silhouettes. Subconsciously, we had all huddled a little lower and blinked to focus into the cold Baja dark.

There. We all saw.

Through the smoke. Just beyond the edge of light. Ghostly gray. Dimly at first and moving cautiously.

Hatted heads. Dirty faces.

Two men. Assault rifles in hands.

I could see only their upper torsos above the shrubs and rocks. One young. One a bit older.

“Hola,” said the older one in a flat monotone. In the reflection of the fire his dark eyes took in everything.

Just three of us gringos. An isolated campsite in a rocky arroyo under the stars on a cold December night. Our truck and provisions. Exposed. Vulnerable. Crap…

I kept my own eyes on them not daring to see how Brian and Laura were doing, but their nervous vibe was easily perceived. Being the only Spanish speaker I cautiously said, “Hola Senor,” as casually as I could.

Danged cotton mouth. Swallow hard. I think I raised my hand in a meek greeting. So much for bravado. You think you know how you’ll act when someone has a gun. You don’t.

Voice betraying nothing, “Who are you and what are you doing here?” said the older figures in Spanish.

My normal wise-guy response would have been “Who wants to know?”

This was not that time. I didn’t want to say too much, but explained in my limited Spanish that we were campers and worked for a magazine taking photos of the dessert and driving back to California from Loreto.

I had both of my hands up. I would guess Brian and Laura did, too.

At first the older man said nothing. Too long of a pause. Uneasy silence. Not good. He looked and studied us with a blank expression.

Then, he and the younger man stepped from behind the rocks. Military camouflage uniforms. Boonie hats. Mexican army. The rifles weren’t pointing at us, but they were still arms-ready. My hackles and senses were still lit up.

Two army guys? In the middle of the desert? At night? My body wasn’t moving, but my brain raced through scenarios…and horror stories.

“Gringos? From California?”

“Si. Yes. Driving back to San Diego.” I pointed cautiously to the dirt and bug-caked California license plate on the Chevy truck.

In that flat Spanish he said, “I have an uncle and cousin in Chula Vista. I like the Padres “beisbol.”

He grinned tightly and he lowered his weapon. So, did the youngster.

A communal exhale. As Laura told me later, she about peed herself. I never admitted I was pretty close as well.

“We have a small camp over the ridge. I have 7 men and we work the checkpoint on the highway to the north. We smelled coffee and cooking meat, then followed it to the glow of your fire and the sound of conversation.”

He explained that they had watched us for a bit. Narcos? (drug traffic) Coyotes? (human traffic) Borrachos? (drunks). They had approached cautiously. If we were just innocent campers, they didn’t want to scare us. (No kidding)

“My name is Sargeant Ramiro and this is Private Antonio.”

The sergeant, who was no more than maybe 25 years old, revealed he was as scared as we were!

“Mucho gusto and I am sorry we made you nervous,” he said extending his hand which we all shook with relief. Antonio, smiled and shook hands warmly as well. Looked like he should be on a skateboard. Really young.

They gratefully accepted an invitation to the fire and cups of hot instant coffee in Styrofoam cups. We huddled close as the fire lit our faces and learned that they were not allowed to have fires while on duty or training.

“Military rules…” he shrugged. He sipped. Steam from the coffee held in two hands rose around his face.

In that clear high desert air in December, the wind in the rocky canyons was bone chilling.

An invitation to spoon up some burritos was not turned down. Romero and Antonio had only eaten cold military food in four days. The three of us also packed some ourselves and wolfed them down with our own coffee. I think it was also the adrenaline coming down.

Not much conversation, but smiles are smiles in any language. And everything tastes good in camp.

As we had that big pot of beans and chorizo and several packs of tortillas, we told the two men to make more burritos, wrap them in foil and take them back to their camp. Their faces brightened.

Soon, we had a little assembly line. Several dozen burritos wrapped in foil Everything into some plastic grocery bags. As we expected to hit the border the next day, in went a bottle of salsa; bags of chips; jerky; some oranges and cans of Coke.

With appreciative handshakes and smiles they trudged back out into the dark bushes anxious to bring their haul back to their own camp.

We waved as the blackness quickly wrapped folded around them. The chilly darkness did not hesitate.

Laura looked at Brian. Brian looked at me. I looked at them.

Whew! The sounds of our hearts in our throats. We all started laughing.

In the morning when we woke up, a handwritten dog-eared note left on our windshield from a stealthy visitor.

Millones de gracias, mis amigos. Bien viaje y que Dios les bendiga. Viva los Padres beisbol. Feliz Ano Nuevo. A million thanks, my friends. Travel well and God bless you. Go Padres. Happy New Year.

Seven scribbled signatures in at the bottom. A salsa smear on one corner.

We all smiled. I had forgotten the new year was upon us. A few days.

The morning sun was already chasing the vapor from our cold breaths. Time to break camp and head for the border.

The note went onto the dusty dashboard. Next to the gum wrappers and sunglasses and sunflower seeds. To be read and laughed about. For the trip. For years…

A story from Mar Vista
Juan Carlos’ old pickup had seen better days. Gears strained up the low incline to his home. It was hard to tell what color it used to be. What wasn’t covered in dents, scratches and dings, the rust and corrosion had claimed. The dust of Baja owned the rest.

He always said his truck looked exactly like him, a truck owned by a hardworking hand-to-mouth handyman.

He said a silent prayerful “Gracias a Dios” (Thanks, Lord) to himself as it bounced and rattled along up the hill. At least he had a truck. A true luxury where most people still walked, biked or took a bus.

And more so, it ran. Gratefully, on half-bald mismatched tires and no shocks, it ran. Just like him. Slow and steady. Not built for speed.

From here to there. And back again. Without it, there was no work.

The tires scratched to find purchase on the loose gravel and powdery dust leading to his home in Mar Vista. It was December and it was already getting dark.

In the cracked rearview mirror, pinpoint lights of La Paz were already blinking. The black glass of the bay still mirrored what was left of a pink Baja sunset.

The ricos (rich people) would pay much for a view like his, he smiled to himself.

But, he wasn’t one of the ricos. In fact, despite the name of Mar Vista, it was just a notch or two above a shanty town. Above the city. Outside the city. On a set of bare low scrubby hills.

No streetlights or curbs. No running water. Dirt or concrete floors and propane lights. Just houses cobbled together with whatever was available. By people doing the best they could. With whatever they could.

Like Juan Carlos.

He had spent an exhausting day hauling some big appliance boxes and other cartons from a warehouse, but quit early. The boss said it was okay and paid him cash. He would take the last of the boxes to the dump in the morning.

Tonight was Noche Buena. Christmas Eve. And he was going home to his wife, Celine and his little boy, Armando.

And with his money, he had bought some fresh hot pork tamales and steaming pot of pozole soup. Their savory aroma nearly made his stomach rumble as loud as the truck’s ancient transmission.

A small bottle of wine for his Celine and a can of Coke for his Armando lay on the seat next to him. Cradled in a depression on the seat where the springs had given out and the cloth was wearing thin.

No matter. Tonight, life was good. The best that he could do. With whatever he could.

Sadly, he lamented no presents. But as his good Celine often reminded them, God had already given them the best gift of each other. God had surely given him a wonderful wise woman!

Reaching home, he parked; dusted himself off and gingerly reached back in for the food with both hands. He bumped the metal door closed with his back hip and it slammed on its squeaky hinges.

Armando dashed out of the home and wrapped his arms around Juan Carlos faded jeans almost tripping him. “Papi! Papi! I can smell tamales!”

“Espere! Espere! Cuidate, mijo! Wait. Be careful, my son!” said Celine laughingly at the door as she greeted her husband still dragging the happy little boy into the warm room.

No glaring propane light tonight.

With no electricity, candles lit the room. No scrimping for Christmas. Celine had every candle warming their little home seemingly…just for them, thought Juan Carlos.

They all laughed when he told them that people spend lots of money in fancy restaurants to eat by candlelight.

“We have no money, but we have many candles!”

And what a feast, they had. Celine had found some desert flowers in a water glass for the table. On plastic chairs and plastic table cloth and plastic dishes, they ate slowly. Savoring every bite.

Celine told him the masa for the tamales was especially good. The wine was even better. Little Armando burped a big “Coke burp” that made them all laugh.

Enjoying the moment as families do. They held hands at the end with a small prayer to the Baby Jesus. Then to bed with happy tummies.

Mattresses on wooden pallets. One room. Blankets pulled tight against the breezy Baja night. But first a Christmas kiss to everyone and candles blown out to the silent darkness of the night. Somewhere a dog barked. Somewhere the wind carried the faint music of a radio up the hill.

It was Christmas. Juan Carlos and Celine would sleep a little later. Celine touched Juan’s cheek tenderly as she snuggled next to him.

As he started to doze he had a thought. Gracias a Dios.

He would wake up a little early and slip back to his truck. With the big boxes, he would make Armando a…he would make Armando…uh…

A submarine… No, a time machine… Maybe a fort! Maybe all three. Yes, that’s it.

Vamos a ver. We’ll see in the morning. He smiled. He could hear Celine’s breathing as she slept. Armando turned under his covers.

Juan Carlos’ own eyes got heavy as his full tummy. Gracias a Dios. Contentos. Content. Doing the best they could with whatever they could.

That’s my story. Feliz Navidad, a todos. Que Dios les bendiga. Merry Christmas everyone. May God bless you.

Decisions decisions
About this time of year, I get a lot of “Santa” questions. It’s either from wives, girlfriends or kids asking what to buy for the guys.

Or, honestly, it’s a lot of guys thinking about buying stuff for themselves because of the sales. Or for their “buddies.”

When I worked and managed a tackle store many, many years ago, I enjoyed the many ruses that guys used to buy their toys.

Of course, the most common one was simply paying cash so the purchase wasn’t traceable to the home budget. They would then boldly “hide” the new gear somewhere in the deepest recesses of the man-cave/garage so it wouldn’t be found.

More cleverly, two guys would conspire together.

Each guy purchased something the other wanted. It was wrapped and they exchanged the “gift.” Come Christmas morning, each announced joyfully to his respectively family, “Oh my! Look what my best fishing buddy bought me!”

Some guys would come to us at the tackle store with a “Santa’s list” of their own.

They knew full-well that their wives would come to the tackle store to make a purchase. It was their sincere hope that our staff would steer the thoughtful wife in the proper direction. “Oh honey! How did you know that’s what I always wanted? You’re the best!”

Well, the holiday season is upon us again.

Whether you’re purchasing for yourself or for someone else, there’s a few tips for hopefully scoring the right thing.

Of course, like everything else, a lot can be done online.

If you’re looking for stocking stuffers, it’s a great place and there’s all kinds of deals to be found. If you have no inclination, time or ability to visit an actual tackle store then purchasing online is a no-brainer.

This is where you can find stuff like pliers, dikes, and lures. Stuff for boats and the things that go along with fishing like camping and outdoor things work well. What guy doesn’t like electronic fishing gadgets?

Books and videos are also great gifts. If you know proper sizes, it’s hard to go wrong. If in doubt, look into a gift certificate. This is especially true for clothing and footwear.

A number of charter operations also sell trips online that make a great gift. Or, give some thought to an actual fishing vacation. To someplace like Baja (hint-hint)!

You can also purchase fishing licenses online. That includes Mexican fishing licenses as well.

But, there’s some things that you probably shouldn’t purchase online if at all possible. Like a few other things in life.

For one, some items are just a bit too pricey to pick the “right one” to someone in a backroom or warehouse no matter how good they might be. Especially, if it’s a gift.

Or, if you’re not very knowledgeable about the item to begin with! It helps to talk to a real salesperson.

For another, some things in life just need to be touched and held and examined before you lay down your cash. Things like shoes or jewelry come to mind.

Additionally, no matter what you think, often no two items are the same!

That includes some fishing gear. Unlike say, a TV set…or a set of pots and pans…or a box of chocolates, I bet most folks don’t realize that no two fishing reels are alike. Guns can be like that. Guitars are like that. One item has “the feel.” Others just don’t have it.

I’ve been in a store and asked them to take out a certain fishing reel. I can try five of the exact same model, especially conventional reels. And no two will be exactly alike. The drags might feel different. One free-spools like a dream. The others might be a bit sticky.

Rods can be that way too. Depending on what the rod is going to be used for, the grips might be different. More important to me is the “taper” and the backbone of a rod. Where does it shut off (bend)? It’s something I like to check with my own hands.

Nothing against, Walmart, because there’s some good gear there and great folks, but if you can get to a tackle store that really knows their stuff you’ll be better off. You might pay a little more, but maybe not. However, you’ll get a better handle on making a good purchasing decision.

Even in some of the mega outdoor stores like Bass Pro or Cabela’s find that “one guy” that knows his stuff. If you live in some place like Denver or even northern California, the staff might be more on top of salmon or flyfishing. But, I’ve found there’s usually that one guy who can steer you right.

If all else fails…gift certificates or gift cards.

Personally, I better get on my own horse. I haven’t even started yet!

All forked up
One of the great rewards of being down here in Baja and doing what we do is turning folks on to new experiences. For many, it could be the first time out of the country, or the first time to Mexico.

For others, maybe it's the first time fishing; going snorkeling; or seeing dolphin. There are so many things that we take for granted. If you're a regular reader of my columns, we don't even think twice about so many of them.

For example, this past season, we had a wonderful large family come visit. As I put them on the fishing boats in the morning, one of the nice ladies told me, "This is our first time seeing the ocean!"

Hard to imagine, isn't it?

They had never seen the ocean! It was like the time a few years ago when my dad told he had “…never seen the orginal Star Wars movie or any Star Wars movies.” Everyone has seen the ocean. Everyone has seen Star Wars! Haven’t they?

Never seen the ocean.

Wrap your brain around that for a moment. Think what it might have felt like climbing into a relatively little fishing panga at sunrise to go fishing and all the things that might be going through their minds.

Probably like Columbus headed west across the ocean with a lot of faith that he’d be coming back.

The questions the family asked me started making sense.

"Will it be deep?"

"How big will the waves be?"

"Is this an 'ocean' or a 'sea?'

"What if a shark wants to jump in the boat?" (One of the kids asked that one...which drew some nervous laughs from the rest of the family!)

Happily, they put on brave faces and stout hearts and went out about 200 yards and came back with big smiles and lots of fish and stories to tell to the folks back in the Midwest.

One of the other great experiences…a treat for us Baja rats, but eye-opening to newbies is having your fresh caught fish cooked up for you.

Having our own restaurant puts us at ground zero when it comes to visitors eating fresh fish and especially their own catch.

As I often tell folks contentedly telling me about the great fish dinner, , "Nothing better or fresher than fish that was swimming around this morning!"

And it's true.

Real? Fresh? Fish? Folks are blown away to find out that fish that has never been frozen, canned, shipped, transported or processed can taste so much better when prepared and eaten straight away.

Whether it's plated up as tacos, grilled, broiled, fried...or whatever...then served up Baja style with fresh tortillas, frijoles,vcrice, some homemade salsas or sauces...Well, fewer things are better and surely a highlight of your Baja visit.

But, there's a few things you should know about restaurant fish in Baja.

Almost any restaurant will be happy to cook up your fish. Speaking from experience, it's a lot easier if YOU have already cleaned it.

Having you show up with 5 big pargo or 3 tuna straight out of your ice chest that still need to be cleaned is gonna take awhile. The restaurant might not be equipped to actually clean and dress out a fish for you. They might not know how!

Also, if the restaurant is in a rush and busy, it's hard to pull one of the kitchen staff off his station and have him clear a spot just to clean fish. Many restaurants don't have a "fish cleaning" station per se.

But, that aside, by all means, bring in your fish. Any and all fish are welcome!

What many folks don't know is that there are some fish that are prohibited from being on a restaurant menu here in Baja. Two of the most common fish that come to mind are dorado (mahi mahi) and roosterfish. Also, totuava.

All 3 of those species are prohibited from commercial fishing. So, by law, a restaurant can certainly prepare your fish that you caught and brought (totuava is completely endangered and prohibited). However, that restaurant cannot legally purchase species like roosterfish or dorado and sell them to you or anyone from on our menu.

Restaurants are only allowed to sell "commercially" legal fish. To date, roosterfish and dorado are solely for "sportfishing" purposes. That means YOU with your hook and line. Roosterfish and dorado are prohibited from commercial harvesting.

Likewise, the restaurant can cook YOUR dorado or roosterfish, but it cannot legally purchase that fish from you (because it was sport caught) or from a commercial business. So, chances are, if you see roosterfish, dorado or totuava on a Mexican menu, it probably shouldn't be there.

There are several reasons for this.

For one, there's certainly the ecological impact commercial fishing would have on these species. Commerical and sportfishing pretty much wiped-out the tasty totuava population years ago.

The Mexican far...has recognized that roosterfish and dorado are extremely important to the tourism/fishing industry and are a valuable resource. Translated, that means, they are worth a lot of tourist dollars. They don’t want it going the way of totuava.

There's also the health issues.

From the perspective of a restaurant, purchasing fish from a non-regulated source like from a fisherman or from illegal harvesting could pose a health fish. Simply, in the chain-of-handling, there's no way to know that the fish is safe to eat.

There's no assurances (as far as that goes) to quality-control and inspection. Was it taken legally and correctly harvested and within the size and weight limited specified by law? No way to be certain.

Eat fish. Eat YOUR fish. Eat fresh fish on the menu too. However, it doesn't hurt to ask what kind of fish you're eating or raise an eyebrow if you see something wrong on the menu.

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