CALIFORNIA'S ONLY SPORTSMAN'S NEWS SINCE 1953

Jonathan Roldan's Blog

BAJA BEAT /
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: riplipboy@aol.com.

Dining in the dark
Many, many decades ago on one of my first forays into Baja, my buddies and I found ourselves to be tragic victims of a common Baja affliction that sometimes besieges unsuspecting tourists. It’s called, “over-serving.”

Poor us.


It started with “just one” innocent drink. The next thing you know, those sneaky bartenders are “overserving” you and pouring you another round. Then another.


Who ordered this round of slammers? Well, I can’t let it go to waste, can I?


Followed by other rounds of something else, with only slight intermissions of spastic dancing, howling, smack talking and lots of “bro-love.”


“Bro, I REALLY love you, man! No, I mean, I REALLY love you!”


And so us “bros” found ourselves just a few hours shy of dawn, cotton-mouthed and stumbling down the street looking for our hotel. We are hungry as heck and know we’d better eat something.


Who’s the idiot who booked us to fish in a few hours? I used to love you. Now I hate you, Dude!


No Denny’s or Jack-in-the-Box here in Baja. All the restaurants are closed. That crushed granola bar back at the room is sounding pretty good right now.


“Forget ’bro-love.’ I’m not sharing it with any of these drunken boobs…” says my buzzing brain. Every drunk for himself!


It was then that we ambled upon the dusty street corner. Like an oasis of light, a string of overhanging light bulbs beckoned to a bustling cart surrounded by other like-minded, booze-addled wanderers. The sound and smell of searing chunks of meat drew us in like a Death Star tractor beam.


Plastic chairs and tables surrounded a portable table filled with colorful salsas, while fresh tortillas were coming off a flaming grill, filled with sizzling meat, and handed over to hungry revelers as fast as they came off the glowing coals.


Paradise found. My first-ever street taco stand! Each of us devoured a half-dozen tacos like ravenous wolves and washed them down with an icy Coke from an old-fashioned bottle. We would surely pay for our indiscretions in the morning, but for now, happy tummies accompanied us back to our hotel rooms.


I can’t remember if we ever made it to fishing.


But, I do remember the beginning of my street-food love affair in Baja.


If you ever want to eat “real Mexican food,” you’ll find it on the streets. It’s estimated that 70 percent of locals eat more than 50 percent of their meals at street carts. It’s fresh, fast, cheap and it’s muy sabrosa!


If you’re ever stumbling around at night like we were, you probably won’t find a restaurant. No Denny’s Grand Slam breakfast or short stack at the International House of Pancakes to bail you out in Baja. But you will find street carts everywhere and probably a line of hungry people winding around them.


Each of them can be very different because each of them is probably a family-run venture. Each has its own specialty salsas (reds… greens… spicy… sweet… fresh… cooked). Each has its specialty condiments (cabbage… marinated onions… picked vegetables… chiles… nuts… spreads… guacamole).


Each might have it’s own particular meats, cuts of meats or seafoods. Usually at night, it will be mostly meats.


These are not the same as American tacos.


Real Mexican tacos are usually served in soft corn or flour tortillas, so be prepared to tell them what kind of tortilla you want. Often, American tacos (thinking of Taco Bell/Del Taco) are in a strange, pre-cooked hard “folder” of corn.


Americans are used to having their tacos with meat, then buried under lettuce and tomatoes. Your Mexican tacos are filled with meat, then you get to have the fun of packing it yourself with all the different fillings. It’s really what makes each taco stand different from its neighbor right next door!

Here’s a quick primer that touches just the tip of all the varieties:


Carne Asada — Grilled beef, either on a flat grill or open flame, then sliced or chopped and served in your tortilla. Different cuts of beef make a difference in the flavor and texture from cart to cart.


Al Pastor — Thin-sliced pork marinated in spices and pressed into a rotisserie “log,” much like gyro meat or shwarma with a fiery brazier cooking it from the side as it slowly turns. Brought over from the Middle East at the turn of the century, pork is used instead of lamb. Often topped with pineapple, it’s sliced from the top down in thin strips right into a handheld tortilla.


Chorizo — Mexican pork sausage flavored with garlic, chile, vinegar and other spices, chopped then grilled. Some folks like it dry. Others like the good, greasy chorizo!


Carnitas — Chopped and shredded pork shoulder usually or sometimes just cut-off chunks of whole suckling pig. A big favorite. Try it mixed or topped with chopped crunchy bits of deep-fried or grilled pork skin (cueritos/chicharrones). Basically think deep-fried pork belly chopped and fried! Who doesn’t like bacon?


Arrachera — A personal favorite. Tender flank steak that has been marinated in citrus juice, garlic and other spices sizzled on the grill then slices going right into my tortilla! Way better and more tender than your usual carne asada.


If you’re at an authentic place, you’ll know if it they serve these. Don’t turn your nose up at it. Get past the names and it’s tasty stuff and there’s often a huge line of people waiting to eat these tacos, telling you you’re in the right place:


Lengua — Trimmed and cleaned beef tongue. Grilled and tender. Has a chewy texture and mild flavor.


Buche — Pork throat and stomach. Actually very flavorful and delicious on a corn tortilla.


Cabeza — Steamed cow head/cachete cheeks — meat cut from the head and those tender cheeks. Eat this and you’ll get high-fives from the locals eating next to you!


A quick word about taco cart etiquette:


There may be a line, but you have to sometimes step up and tell them what you want. They’re jamming and busy. Raise your hand if you have to. On a Saturday night, it can be like a mini-version of the Wall Street stock exchange. Everyone is hungry! Don’t worry, it’s not impolite to yell out your order.


Reach into the ice chest for your sodas. Keep count of your tacos. It’s an “honor system” and often everyone there is a neighbor of the owners.


They trust you to keep count of how many sodas and tacos you scarfed down.


When your tummy is full, they’ll tally it up for you. Don’t wait for a bill to show up. There usually isn’t one!


Now go back to your hotel room and don’t forget to set the alarm to wake up for fishing! Oh, and drink lots of water.


Weather or not
For the last few months or so…well…actually since winter…I’ve been whining about the crazy windy conditions in all my fishing reports. As many of you in the U.S. may have noticed, winter is being a tenacious beast about going away.

Memorial Weekend has come and gone. I’m still hearing from amigos north of the border about abrupt snowstorms; unexpected hail; crazy winds; and rain. Folks are uncovering their swimming pools; getting ready to mow lawns; pulling out the barbecue — and winter sweeps in with an 11th -hour punch.


Even, in Mexico City, they had historic hailstorms causing damage!


Well, it’s been the same down here in Baja.


We should be into balmy hot sunny weather about now. I should be hearing from fishing clients laughing asking for “a little breeze” to knock back some of the heat.


Instead, we get sporadic windstorms that kick up the ocean. They muss up my water. They scatter the bait. They get people seasick. They gum up the fishing!


So, I complain. And I whine. And I rail about “the wind.”


In fact, as I write this column at about 4 a.m. in the morning, the winds outside are howling and I can hear it rattling my windows. I can hear waves crashing outside and the palm trees are somewhere out there in the dark being rudely rustled by a strong northwind.


And I’m dreading putting out my fishermen in about an hour. The forecast says the winds will calm down, but I know they’re gonna get wet. And bounced. And uncomfortable. And that’s not what I want. It sure doesn’t look like the fancy brochures right now!


But, last time I checked, I didn’t have a “weather control” button. Dangit!


Anyway, a good friend asked me a great question that I don’t think I’ve ever been asked before.


“When is it too windy to fish?”


Relatively speaking, that’s an easy answer.


Like asking “When are the waves too big? Or “When is it raining too hard?” Or not. You walk outside. You figure it out pretty fast. Yes or no. You then decide to go. Or not.


But, if you’re like me, you want to play the odds a little better than just looking out the window or showing up at the docks. This is especially true this year whether you’re going to Baja or anywhere else for that matter.


Since our livelihood down here with our fishing fleet depends on putting our customers on fish, I look at several variables. Internet weather and wind sites are invaluable. I use several to get the best picture of the coming forecast.


I look at:


1. Wind speed


2. Time


3. Direction


Obviously, with regard to wind speed, I want it to be as calm as possible. If the windsurfing and kiteboarding crowd starts to gather on the beach, something is up! I want to know if the winds will be single or double digit speeds.


If you’re going to be panga fishing, then double-digit winds could be problematic. If you’re going to fish inshore, maybe it will be okay. If offshore, you might want to re-think things. If you’re headed out in a 50-foot sportfisher, probably not so much.


The second variable I check is time. When will the wind be blowing? If it’s going to be blowing in the early morning and calm down later in the day, that’s not too bad.


If the forecast calls for double-digit winds, but during the fishing hours, it settles down then, I really don’t care. Let the wind blow all it wants when I’m back at the hotel hitting happy hour after a good day of fishing!


The third thing I take into consideration is the direction of the wind. If it’s going to be blowing harder than I would like; if it’s also going to blow during the hours I want to fish; then I want to know where the wind is blowing.


If the winds are coming full-speed out of the north and I’m going to be heading north to the fishing grounds early in the morning, then I know it might be a long bumpy wet ride.


If we’re heading south and the winds are coming from the north, then it would mean the wind is at our backs. It’s going to push us along very nicely to where we want to go. (Although coming back might be an issue if the wind is still blowing.)


By the same reasoning, if those north winds are going to kick up and we’re going west or east, then it might create some swells and rollers as the boat goes side-to-side. You might want to be sure everyone has their seasick pills that morning and stays away from the greasy breakfast burritos!


Slow down for what!?
I’m as guilty as the next person.

Stuff to do. People to see. Boats to launch. Boats to bring back in. Clients arriving and departing on planes. Snorkelers and divers. The beer delivery is here. Where’s that order of onions for the restaurant? Got all that fish to clean and pack. The van has a flat? Again? Someone lost their wallet at a bar last night and they want me to find it? And his passport?


And all that BEFORE NOON!


So much for that “Jimmy Buffett” lifestyle we project.


We’re blessed. No complaints! LOL


Run. Run. Run. It’s what we do. Your vacation is important to us.


In more than two decades in Baja, we see all kinds. Butchers… bakers… candlestick makers… doctors… moms… students… lumberjacks… jugglers…


You name it. All walks and wonders of life.


They have a schedule. They have an agenda.


Fishing 3 days. Snorkeling another day. Dinner reservations for another night. Scuba. A day of surfing or a day trip to the mountains. Get in. Set up. Do this. Do that. Let’s go! Up at dawn. In bed by the witching hour.


And don’t get me wrong. I love it. Your vacation is OUR job. Our pleasure. Let’s get you booked and rolling!


And then we have to send you home. And you’re looking as breathless and tired as when you arrived. Hopefully, a “good tired.”


Sad to be leaving, but knowing full well you’ve gotta change gears as soon as you get home and get back to work. Back to the grind. Back to traffic and phone calls and the real world. “Hit the ground running,” I hear so often.


And whupped. Don’t get me wrong. Vacation time beats 9 to 5 hands down, and a bad day fishing is still better than a good day at work. Right?


Listen, I love booking you. I’ll never say no to money. Mama didn’t raise no dummy.


But, it’s still refreshing to have someone say, “I’m gonna take the day off and do nothing! “


Good for you. Sleep in. Eat a real breakfast. Go back to sleep. Read a book. Take a siesta. Put your toes in the sand. Sip something cold. Get a massage.


Or do absolutely nothing at all. You’re off the clock. There’s nothing wrong with that. Nowhere you MUST be. You rock. Taking a day off is not a “party foul.” Your “man card” does not lose any credits. No apologies necessary.


I was sitting with a client’s son a few weeks ago. The 12-year-old had just come back from a fun day of fishing with his dad and grandfather.


In the course of our chat, he said, “When was the last time YOU fished, Jonathan?”


I had to think. And think hard. It has been over a year since I’ve fished. Are you kidding me?


Rather quietly, I told him it had not fished in over a year.


“Dude! You’re missing out.”


His dad called him over so he got up; knuckle bumped me and walked away. As he walked away he looked over his shoulder and said, “But you LIVE here!”


And he said it like I was some kind of loser. Like I really disappointed him.


Yes, over a year. It couldn’t be. I live on the beach on the Sea of Cortez. I run two fishing fleets. And I hadn’t had time to go fishing in over a year.


And that is very disappointing.


And here, I tell everyone else to slow down.

Savor that Baja sunrise.


Breathe deeply the spray and salty air as you shoot out in the morning off the beach.


Feel the warmth on your skin of the Baja sun and spending quality time to enjoy the company and conversation of friends, buddies and family.


Stupid jokes and horseplay.


Dolphin, seabirds and manta rays.


Barefeet and that perfect feel of sand between the toes. Feet that have been encased in shoes for months. Warm blue bathwater ocean.


The satisfying burn at the back of your throat of that first icy cold one as you put your feet up after a satisfying day on the water.


An unrushed seaside dinner under a palapa watching the palette of the Mexican sunset slowly pull an evening of brilliant indigo and a zillion starpoints over a great day.


Dude. You’re missing out.


It’s moving too fast. I’m moving too fast.


The beach is right outside my back door. The water is lapping 10 yards away. What a loser.


I’m going to finish typing this week’s column and then I’m going to leave my cell phone and my clipboard on my desk. And I’m going to sit on the beach for a few minutes. Just sit.


There’s some birds crashing a school of bait. Maybe I’ll see those dolphin that were out here yesterday for awhile.


E-mails and phone calls can wait a few minutes. Something more urgent is calling. I think it’s me. Baja is on the line. And I shouldn’t keep putting it on HOLD.


Is the whole island surrounded by water?
Yes, you know who you are. I don’t think any worse of you for asking me that question. Thanks for making me smile.

Any of us who are down here working in whatever capacity could come up with lists of similar questions. Whether we work in fishing, diving, restaurants, day trips…whatever.We are the humble conduits of information for all our Baja visitors. Good, bad, or otherwise.


Many are the same questions over and over. That’s par for the course.


Where’s the best place to exchange money?


Is the water okay to drink?


Who has the best margaritas?


What’s the temperature going to be like this week?


And then there’s the other ones…


What kind of meat do you use in your teriyaki chicken dish ? (BEEF)


Does the sun always rise in the East over the Sea of Cortez? (IT CHANGES DAILY)


Why can’t I take my top off and walk down the street like in France? (IT’S NOT FRANCE?)


Can you do something about the wind blowing in the morning when we’re fishing? (LET ME JUST WAVE MY MAGIC WAND A FEW TIMES)


Can you catch one of the dolphin so my son can ride it? (YES, I AM A FULL SERVICE OUTFITTER)


Hey, it’s what we do and the folks are good folks with good honest questions. I’m thankful for them for putting a little grin in my day!


But, if you’re coming down to Baja it helps to do a little research first. At least a little.


No matter where you go for your travels, especially with so much social media and information out there, a little knowledge will help any trip go smoother. This is even more so with Mexico and Baja.


The phone systems are very very different. Internet, while growing, does not always work. Or when it works, it can be very sporadic even in the most urban areas. Forget it if you’re out in the bush or out on the water.


I mean, c’mon. Admit it. It’s one reason you come down here so you can’t be reached, right? It’s still the Baja frontier.


But what if YOU need to reach out? Especially if something goes hinky with your vacation.


It’s far better to have the details and plans worked out ahead of time so that there’s as few glitches as possible.


There’s nothing like having your wife, girlfriend, family members or buddies giving you “stink eye” because something is amiss and it’s YOUR fault! Or maybe not.


Especially in Mexico.


Even more so in Baja. Double-dog affirmative in Baja where not only might technology be a little sticky, but don’t forget…they speak Spanish here!


It’s kind of a national thing.


Yes. Surprise. Spanish is the language here, and I am often perplexed at how many visitors are equally surprised that Spanish is spoken and (“surprise again”)…not everyone speaks English!


So, if something goes wrong, if something on your tour itinerary goes screwy…if the 5-star hotel you booked only has a single light bulb hanging from the ceiling and has a lovely view of a parking lo…if they send a four-seater Nissan Sentra Taxi for your group of 1…if your fishing tackle goes to Cleveland and your wife’s make up case got left in Seattle…(you better know which bag has priority in your life!)


Things might not resolve as quickly as making a simple phone call or dealing with the person “in charge.”


Some folks just “book it on whim.” They find something on the internet and run with it. Many don’t even do that. “Let’s just be wild and free!”


A little pre-planning takes the guess-work and stress out of your vacation which should be YOUR time to enjoy. Not sweating the details.


Just because a website has pretty pictures is not enough. Exactly what does “close to the beach mean?” How far is “walking distance to restaurants?”


And, if it’s on the beach, can I swim there? Or use the beach? I know several hotels in Baja where they warn you NOT go to in the water. Too rough. Too rocky or dangerous? I know one that looks awesome but it’s built next to the outflow of the sewage treatment.


Just because one city is “two inches” away from another city on the map could mean 20 minutes apart or two hundred miles away!


Will the owner of your charter operation be there on site to answer questions? Can you just walk to the docks and book a boat any time? What does “all inclusive” really mean at the hotel? It didn’t include lobster or steak or mixed drinks?


I’m a vegetarian…vegan…Kosher…diabetic…have food allergies. Good idea to check.


I do need to still keep in touch with my family/ work/ office. Will my phone, computer, texts work? If they need to reach me, can they?


There’s great resources. Talk to others. Get other opinions. A great starting point are Trip Advisor, Yelp, Google and others. Compare. Ask questions. Also, even 10-star places have a bad review or a bad day or simply had a bad customer that loves blasting places. Don’t rely on just that one single bad review or two. A place that has 200 reviews but only two bad reviews is better than a place that has only 20 reviews and has two bad reviews.


Take that into account and make informed decisions! Take the guesswork out so you can enjoy your time!


What date will the dorado show?
So, can you tell me what date the dorado will show up?

I don’t know.


Fishing is not an exact science.


Dorado don’t participate on social media. No Facebook. No Instagram. No cute dorado tweets.


They don’t answer my text messages either. Party foul. Just rude.


Come to think of it, the tuna, marlin, wahoo and yellowtail don’t respond to me either. Yes, there are days when I take that personally, especially when I have fishing clients here ready to burst.


Or they’re trying to make travel reservations and want to know specifically when to book their airlines.


“C’mon, Man! You’re supposed to know stuff like that, Jonathan! “


Right. Right. Right. I’m the “expert.”


Honestly, however, most times, it’s said with a smile. I’m never afraid to say that I don’t know something.


And the questions are good honest intelligent questions from fishermen who are just enthusiastic and want to get as much of an edge as possible. I get it. I’m the same way. Especially with fish.


But, there are some things that are just not controllable. If I was as good as some guys think I am, then I’d be able to wave my rod over the water and the fish would just jump in the boat.


I don’t have those Biblical abilities yet. That one is right up there with the miracle of loaves and fishes or parting the Red Sea. Nope. That’s up a few levels…actually a lot of levels…above me!


So, let’s work with what we have. If you’re simply going to use the calendar, let’s just say it’s a start.


There’s so much more that will allow you to fine-tune things.


A calendar is just a bunch of numbers on a page. The fish don’t get calendars. They don’t know that your yearly vacation starts June 1.


They don’t care about Christmas, Memorial Weekend or that you always fish on your birthday in November. They could care less that you always caught yellowtail in March or that on your last three Baja trips the tuna were great in August.


So, don’t curse the fish or the fish gods if things don’t always go as planned. If you fish by the calendar, you take your chances for better or worse. Go fish. Have a good time. It’s still better than working!


What the calendar can tell you is about the seasons. Don’t look at it as specific dates. Look at the calendar to tell you if it’s winter, spring, summer or fall because “generally speaking” certain fish usually show up during certain seasons.


For example, sierra, yellowtail and pargo in the later winter winter and spring. Dorado and billfish show up when waters are warmer. And so on. Like I said, it’s a start.


What fish do care about is food. Big fish. Small fish. All fish. They gotta eat. And they will go where the food is located and show up when and where the food can be found.


If you want to track food, track the water temperatures because even “food fish” have to eat as well. So, don’t watch the calendar. Track the water temperatures instead.


Even a few degrees can make all the difference. Warmer water is bluer. Colder water is darker, greener and cloudier. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It depends on what species you’re hunting and several different water temperatures can be found in the same areas. And that’s not unusual.


So, if you’re hunting yellowtail or amberjack, you’re looking for cooler waters. Billfish or dorado? The warmer waters are where you want to be fishing. Tuna? Well, that depends. What kind of tuna? Yellowfin tuna like warmer waters. Bluefin and albacore like the cooler end of the blue water.


And that’s just the surface temperature!


Below the surface, there are thermoclines where water temperatures also vary. The surface temperature can say 80 degrees, but 30 feet below that it’s only 70 degrees!


Confused? Too much to wrap your brain around?


Might as well put technology to work.


That’s where I take my personal fishing to the next level beyond just looking at the calendar. Veteran fishermen will back me up.


Websites and services such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) has excellent satellite images of surface temperatures put out the by the U.S. government.


Here’s a sample: http://www.ospo.noaa.gov/data/sst/contour/gulfcalf.cf.gif


Terrafin has been online for years and is a awesome resource ( www.terrafin.com) and specifically directed at fishermen up and down the Pacific Coast.


Another fine service is Fish Dope put out by Bloody Decks ( www.fishdope.com) that not only has water temperatures specific to certain fishing areas, but also various other fish finding services. It’s well worth it to check out before you go fishing or setting up a trip.


It’s all in the details and a degree or two in water temperatures can make all the difference in the world.


Still waiting for the fish to answer my text messages. Until then, I guess I’m stuck with the technology at hand!


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