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: riplipboy@aol.com.

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 government...so 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.

The little panga that could
It’s Baja. It’s the fall. It’s “tournament season.”

Up and down the Baja, but especially in southern Baja, this is an exciting time to visit. Weather is awesome. Airline rates go down. Towns are less crowded as families are mostly back in school.

At least, the kids are back and school. Mom and dad can take a few days off and run to Mexico for some R ‘n’ R between the hectic summer and the approaching holidays at the end of November.

It’s also a great time to fish and that’s a big reason there’s so many tournaments…big and small…going on this time of year. Marlin tournaments. Tuna tournaments. Catch-and-release tournaments. Dorado tournaments. Charity tournaments.

True-to-form, there’s a lot of big money involved. Hundreds of thousands…even millions of dollars in purse money to be won.

But, on the other side of it, big money to play as well.

Mega-yacht-sportfishers…100-foot foot battlewagons…professional crews and fishermen from around the world with every gadget; every bit of technology; any “edge” that will get them that big check on the last day.

And then, there’s the little skiffs and pangas.

Dwarfed in the middle of the pack of world-class sportfishers, they’re bobbing around out there. Huffing and puffing and ready to join the fray.

There’s Bob and Mike with their favorite captain Armando and his son Nacho.

And there’s Kevin and Patty too. And her brother Alex with their hopes pinned on Captain Julio and his panga skills.

The little pangas that could. The little pangas that can.

With a 75 hp motor; a canvas baitwell hanging off the transom; an ice chest full of beer and burritos. No one has matching “team shirts.” There’s no air-conditioned salon. There’s no tuna tower or flybridge. They’ve got a radio; a tank of gas; their rods …and a world of hope, enthusiasm and expectation.

I love ’em. They make me smile.

It’s like rooting for the Jamaican bobsled team or the marathon runner from some village in Tibet who has zero endorsements and one pair of shoes.

Running and barking with the big dogs. Perfectly entitled to howl at the moon!

The little panga. Like that kid’s story about the “Little Engine That Could.”

I think I can. I think I can.

“Nice to see ya kid, but stay outta our way and our wake,” says the big sportfisher. “You might get hurt.”

“You just watch me!” says the little panga with a feisty rev of its little outboard motor. Vroom vroom vroom!

The audacity. Panga-chests puffed out. Every right to be in the lineup!

They become local and crowd favorites. As blue-collar as it gets. Pulling for the little guy against the goliaths.

And just like in the story books, every now and then, the tortoise beats the hare. Every now and then, the “Rudy” comes off the bench to score the winning touchdown and Rocky busts up Apollo Creed’s rib to win the title.

At one prestigious tournament, two local kids got enough donations from friends and neighbors and running their own fund-raisers to charter a friend’s panga. A local tackle store jumped aboard with provisions. A sandwich shop donated meals.

They came in third out of more than 100 teams and earned enough money to pay everyone back with interest. The docks erupted when their fish was weighed and they were literally carried off on shoulders like the winning coach at the Super Bowl.

I saw another local panga team win a tournament using a home-made lure. The lure had been made by the captain’s grandfather back when abuelo was a local commercial fisherman in the days when they used 6 hp pull-start lawnmower outboards.

The captain told me, “My grandfather gave it to me just for this event. He said, the lure was good enough to feed the family for many years. It will bring us luck.”

Back in 1990, a local La Playita pangero and two American friends who fished with him funded the entry in the first-ever Cabo Tuna Jackpot and won it with a 218.9-pound yellowfin on the panga Estrella Del Mar. When they came to the weigh-in dock they were told it was a tournament and couldn’t tie up there. They had the winning fish and a 150 pounder for good measure. There wasn’t much room left in the boat for the three anglers.

One of our own panga captains entered a tournament in San Jose del Cabo a number of years ago and won a sizeable prize.

I was very excited for him.

He told me that all the big boats went way offshore to chase the schools of tuna. His little panga did not have the range so he stayed closer to shore. He found a school of tuna and happened to catch the winning tuna!

I asked him how big it was expecting him to tell me a story of a monster yellowfin tuna.

He laughed and held his hands about 3 feet apart.

“15 kilos (30 pounds)” he grinned.

“That’s all? That small?”

“It only had to be bigger than the next one!” he smiled back.

You just never know.

You don’t have to be the biggest, fastest or fanciest. You don’t have to be the richest.

You just have to be the best. Or the luckiest. For one day. One morning or one afternoon.

And that could happen to anyone at these tournaments! Anyone can play.

Yes, you could. Yes, you can!

We have to get up when to go fishing?
It seemed a lot easier back in the day to go on vacation when we were kids. But, then again, that’s from kid’s perspective.

I’m sure mom and dad worked hard to make it all work out, but from the view at ground level, it didn’t seem too hard at all.

Dad piled us into the station wagon. How hard is that? Yup, the one with the seat facing backwards towards the tailgate.

We sang along to an AM car radio. Or themes to TV shows. Dad and mom sang along with us. Corny? Not then!

On the car roof was one of those canvas rooftop carriers. It held the musty Sears Roebuck tent and those sleeping bags that had flannel insides printed with moose and jumping fish.

Mom always made magic happen.

To this day, I would swear she got the entire family’s clothes into one single giant suitcase. One coat. One pair of Redball Jet or P.F. Flyer high-top tennis shoes. Some jeans and your swim shorts. That’s all you needed.

Mom produced wonderful meals. Picnics emerged daily from a single dented and scratched green Coleman ice chest.

Could it have really been that simple?

Fast forward to family vacation 21st Century. You’ve gotta be kidding.

You’ve been planning for months. You’re finally eschewing the annual fishing “man-cation” with your posse of buddies and you’re gonna bite the bullet and take the family clan.

You knew in your heart it was time.

You couldn’t keep coming home and telling ‘em what a great place Baja is…then possibly hope to keep it to yourself. Every bastion…every frontier must eventually fall.

So, somewhat reluctantly you acquiesced to your wife’s suggestion, “Honey, I think you should take me and the kids with you to Baja this year! Maybe your mom and dad want to come too!”

Eventually, you got into it, but now as you’re about to embark, there’s some trepidation and, admit it, some of the excitement is tarnishing. It’s indeed NOT like heading south with the boys.

You survey the mound of matched designer luggage, backpacks, duffels, and cosmetic bags, that make your ice chest and fishing tube look like they don’t belong.

Matched outfits. Matched shoes. Several bathing suits. Technology and the attenuant cords, cables and chargers for iphones, ipads, notebooks, tablets, laptops, smart phones and cameras. Per person!

That doesn’t begin to include the toys…snorkel gear…golf bags…surfboards…tackle boxes and of course, that 8’ long rod tube. Holy cow, you need a parade of Napalese sherpas to schlepp it all.

And, assuming you’ve survived the journey and made it to Baja, you’re again reminded that it’s NOT gonna be your regular trip with the boys.

“Why do we have to get up that early to go fishing? Isn’t it OK if we go AFTER lunch?”

“All the TV shows are in Spanish!”

“I can’t believe the internet is soooo slow in Mexico! How can I skype my boyfriend or watch youtube?”

We have to change hotels, a gecko lizard keeps running across the wall. It’s icky!”

“You actually eat the fish the same day you catch it?” Can we just have McDonald’s like at home?”

“No room service or hair dryers?”

You can’t just throw up your hands and head to the bar. That’s not gonna earn you any family points at all.

Here’s what it all comes down to…EXPECTATIONS!

Yessiree, this is NOT like vacation with the guys so know everyone’s expectations about this trip. Then plan accordingly and alter YOUR expectations so everyone has a good time.

You may have to cut down on the fishing a bit if the whole family isn’t into it. Or, make them easy days of fishing if they’re new to it.

No need to be hardcore if it only makes everyone miserable. And, if you do go fishing, or any other activities, remember, it’s about THEM, not about you. If everyone has a good time, you’ll have a better time too.

So often, I’ve seen guys, or sometimes even both parents, get on a boat and literally expect the captain and deckhands be the babysitters or watch the kids while mom and dad do their thing. No bueno. Taking care of your kids is not their job.

If you’re gonna go someplace rustic, make sure the family knows you’re not staying at the Four Seasons or the Ritz. Or even the Best Western. There might not be shopping, or fancy restaurants or a gourmet menu, etc. Or a spa!

If it’s really a deal breaker, either make other arrangements or spend some time on a day trip or something similar so that you can take them shopping, dining or other activities everyone will enjoy.

And, that’s a key too. Do stuff everyone will enjoy. Do things and go places that are age and activity appropriate.

For example, hanging out all afternoon on certain parts of Medano Beach in Cabo San Lucas with lots of drunk gringos at Spring Break, might not be the best idea if you’ve got young kids.

By, the same token, if the glass bottom boat tour or zip-lining aren’t your thing, but the family really wants to do it, suck it up. Put on a smile and set it up. You just might enjoy it.

This also goes if you’re bringing along say…mom and dad or older folks. Include them in the activities and family fun.

For Pete’s sake, don’t park them out in the hot sun at the pool then run off and leave them! Your dad might love sitting by the water watching string bikinis, but if he gets heat-stroked, it’s gonna ruin a lot of vacation.

And don’t forget to keep them hydrated, especially in Baja. Don’t laugh, I see this happen quite often! Older folks need special care…and their meds!

If all else fails, shrug your shoulders. Surrender. Smile. You’re not gonna win. Do what dads and husbands have done for centuries. Smile and say, “Yes, dear!”

Passport panic
Oh no! Did you really let that happen?

A chill goes up your backside. Palms get clammy. You just want to bang your own head against something unforgiving… like a concrete wall.

You can already hear your family or friends rip into you. But, it can’t be much harsher than the names you’re already calling yourself.

Everyone has been planning this trip to Baja for months… or years! Everyone was looking forward to it. It’s all everyone has talked and thought about. You’re jacked. You’re pumped.

If you can’t go, it affects everyone’s vacation. Not just your own.

And now you feel like a total doofus supreme.

You realized your passport is expiring. Or you forgot to get one!

Until now. And the trip is just around the corner.

Your own excuses sound pretty lame. Even to you.

“I was really busy!”

“I forgot!”

“No one told me!”

“I need a passport?”

And there’s absolutely no one you can throw under the bus except yourself. It’s your own darned fault! Your own stupid negligence. Let the flogging begin.

Or you can get past it and go pro-active and see if you can salvage this.

Let’s start with the basics. Tacks and nails. Maybe it’s not too late!

Your passport is good for 10 years. Read this. Go get your passport now and take a look at it. Don’t wait until the lady at the airport asks you to show it to her for seat assignments, with a long line of anxious people behind you.

(Sidebar note. Some countries require that you have at least 6 months validity still remaining on your passport.)

Still good? Great. Move along. Take a breath. Crack a brew.

Expired? About to expire? You don’t have one to begin with? OK, time to move.

It takes about 4-6 weeks to get one. Maybe longer if it’s that “rush” time when everyone is getting passports. Like just before summer or holidays.

Start here: https://travel.state.gov/content/passports/en/passports.html. You can do a lot of it online.

Got less than 6 weeks? Crunch time? Underwear bunching up?

You can get one expedited in 2 to 3 weeks. It’ll cost you at least an extra 60 bucks, peanuts really given that your butt’s in a vice.

According to the government, you can expedite by mail. Get your application documents together, toss a check into the envelope. Mark “expedite” on the envelope and overnight the thing.

For some folks, like me, that would be too nerve-wracking. I don’t want to be waiting by my mailbox. I don’t want to wait everyday for the mailman as the trip gets closer.

The alternative is making an appointment at the nearest passport acceptance facility and take care of this in person. Get this done! Here’s the link to find the nearest acceptance facility near you: https://iafdb.travel.state.gov/

If you’ve got less than two weeks. You’re not beaten yet! You’re just a bigger knucklehead. Suck it up.

You must make an appointment at a Passport Agency or Center. In addition to extra fees plus the applications and documents, you must show proof of impending national travel. You must call for an appointment. Call1-877-487-2778 or 1-888-874-7793.

But wait. You really blew it and you’ve got less than a week before the trip.

You’re not completely out of the game yet. Maybe. Close, but not yet.

There are private “courier companies” that are called “Passport Expeditors.” They are not part of the government or government run, but are allowed to submit passport applications on behalf of folks like you.

They are listed online. Read all their fine-print of what they can and cannot do.

Basically, your negligence is their emergency. They’re SWAT and Seal Team Six last ditch black-ops to get your little blue book.

Just know this. Just like the real military guys, nothing is guaranteed. This is your own fault for waiting until the 13th hour.

The U.S. government also says that there’s no guarantee that it’s any faster than if you made an appointment at a regular government input facility. At some point in the process, you’ll still have to drag yourself to a government passport center.

Even if the expeditor says you can do everything online, the government says, nay nay. “We still wanna see your stressed self face-to-face.”

The government will not intervene nor does it have anything to do with these collateral services. But, they’ve been known to be helpful in a pinch.

This will also cost extra for the service. But, it’s an alternative source that might be able to help. You’re trying to save your vacation!

If all this fails. Fall on your sword. Man up. Blame the dog for eating your application or the postal service for losing the mail.

Hope it doesn’t come to that because otherwise, we’ll miss you down here! We’d had for you to watch everyone’s vacation on Facebook when they share photos!

Chubasco – one outfitter’s two cents
Well, as I write this, we just came through another hurricane down here in Southern Baja. I think for me, it’s about number 8 or 10. Several while in Hawaii. Several of them here in Baja.

It doesn’t happen often.

I forget the litany of names. Norton was the one that just paid a visit a few days ago. Juan was a kicker. Henrietta busted us up pretty bad many years ago.

Odile in 2014…that was historic and its effects still linger. You can see Odile’s tracks today. Broken buildings that never got repaired. Missing trees. Busted billboards never fixed.

Odile was a Category 4 or 5 hurricane with winds at almost 200 mph. Roofs went flying to Oz. Trees were tossed about as if a giant hand knocked over a chessboard. Boats were torn from anchor chains and moorings. No water or power…sometimes for weeks to some of the outlying areas.

We live in La Paz, the capital of the southern state of Baja Sur, and you’d think we had those essential services pretty fast. Well, it’s not like back in the U.S.

We went almost two weeks using flashlights and seeing how many creative uses we could find for a single bucket of water. Showers… flushing… cooking. I have to say, we got pretty good at it.

Newton, which rolled in a few days ago, was pretty mild by comparison. Some trees. Lots of mud. Some busted glass. Some roofs (although that’s hardly “mild” if you’re the one losing part of the roof of your home!).

I have mixed feelings about hurricanes… "chubascos”… if you will.

As we run two big fishing fleets of pangas plus a large open-air restaurant, my first concern is safety for our guests, clients and employees. And their families.

If, like this last one, it doesn’t look too bad, we’re good to go.

Newton was only going to last a day at most. With winds at 50-60 mph and gusts to 100, that sounds like a lot. However, if you warn folks to stay indoors, stay away from windows (or tape them up), it’s just a big storm racked up on steroids.

Secondly, and sadly, folks are gonna lose a day of activities be it, fishing, snorkeling, diving, day tours… whatever. I hate that. Vacations mean a lot. But, back to safety. We don’t want accidents.

Even if it might look good to you, trust us. Or you want to go out “for a few hours until the storm hits.” Nope. We keep you off the water for good reason. We don’t do “Three Hour Tours” a la Gilligan’s Island.

Weather happens. We can’t control rain and wind any more than I can control sunshine and tides although some folks DO expect it.

Yes, if you paid for the vacation, it surely is MY fault. “Why did you make us come down for a storm?” or “You ruined our vacation!”

I hate to break it to you, but this isn’t Disneyland where all the rides are robotically controlled and every environment is hermetically sealed for your convenience. I’ve looked all over for the on-off switch!

Believe me, every outfitter I know from Alaska to South America hates to have to cancel trips, too! We all rely on happy smiley people.

So, as much as possible, we try to take the lemons and make lemonade… or margaritas, in our case. I put a positive spin on it, as much as we can.

We tell our guests to stock up on beer and water and ice. Munchy food is good to have too. Yup…go hog wild with Doritos and Chips Ahoy! Most of the better hotels have generators or at least loss of power is minimal.

And, I make a point of keeping folks informed.

Where the storm is coming from. How long it might last. Why it’s happening. Why we can’t fish. What to do when it hits. Information about airports and flights. People are terribly hungry for information.

Most have never been through a big storm like this.

And this is where I like to “sweeten those lemons” and brighten the potential gloom.

As long as they’re safe, I like to tell folks to enjoy it. Honest.

What else are you going to do?

To me, it’s fascinating to watch real weather… watch the skies and the ocean and rain all come together. I marvel at the power of nature frankly the magnificence of it all.

We have come so far with technology and consider ourselves the center of the universe and the apex of evolution. NOT!!!

When you watch a storm roll in…the ominous sheet of black clouds…the winds that sound like an approaching train… the sheets of rain…it’s a rare person that isn’t humbled.

I know that I am.

We have yet to harness the earthquake… the snowstorm… the tornado… the hurricane. Mother Nature sends us these little reminders about our relative place on the planet.

I try to impart that to our guests.

And, in that respect, I guess we are a lot like Disneyland.

It’s an “E-ticket” ride that might get a little scary. But at the end, you come outta the dark funhouse back into the light. The “safety bar” comes up and you all laugh… sigh… and head for a hot dog. And all along, you knew that’s how it would end.

“Most interesting part of the trip!”

“Wow…that was incredibly fascinating!”

“Maybe you should charge extra for that next time and just schedule a day off from fishing!”

“Best Baja trip ever!”

“Sat inside and just watched nature’s big screen TV in awesome HD!”

“I wanted to sleep in anyway!”

“Drinking margaritas and being part of… instead of watching the weather channel was kinda cool.”

“First time in years… no phones no internet… my office couldn’t reach me. I wasn’t compelled to answer e-mails. I had forgotten how wonderful that was! I read a book and took a nap… in the middle of the day with the sound of rain outside!”

Are some of the comments, I’ve gotten.

Of course, this is not to make light of the seriousness of the larger storms; those who have indeed suffered bad property loss or injury; or the safety issues.

Always, safety first.

Weather happens. Make the best of it.

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