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.

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

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


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


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


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


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


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


Experience


Talent


Ability


Attitude


Hubris


Ego


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


The level of “jolliness” was slipping away.


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


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


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


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


Getting high-fived at the end is great.


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


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


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


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


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


Again, a very experienced angler.


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


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


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


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


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


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


The head of the group stopped me right there.


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


Every now and then…even the principal surprises you.



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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


Feed the pelicans and seagulls? What fun. Sure!


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


The times have changed.


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


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


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


“Sorry, amigos. No bait today.”


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


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


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


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


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


So, que paso? What happened?


I speculate that it’s a combination of things.


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


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


That applies all the way up the ecological food chain.


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


Simple economics.


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


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


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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


You get my drift. No pun intended.


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


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


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


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


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


Hope hoped for the best. Planned for the worst.


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


Then…


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


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


Men of the (Hawaiian Print) Cloth
The first time these “guys” came down to fish, I was a little pensive.

Let me ask you something.


Did your shorts ever get a little tighter when you were a little kid and you found out your teacher, priest or minister was coming to visit…or to dinner…or sat at your table at the pancake breakfast or scout meeting?


There are certain people in life’s journey who occupy a special pedestal. Being a good Catholic kid, priests and teachers, nuns and lay teachers in my case, come to mind.


I mean…you’re little. You were down here close to the floor. Then there were your parents. Then there were these unassailable folks waaaay up here on levels where you tread lightly.


I was a pretty outgoing kid, but around these particular individuals, I was slack-jawed and goofy-brained. I would scuff my shoes around and never ever make eye contact!


Heck no. They could fix you in those tractor-beam eyes and then you’re done. Or something could happen.


They thought I was rude or shy. I was just scared!


So, in those social events that we all go through like school festivals, Knights of Columbus spaghetti dinners, Christmas pageants and the like. It was giggle-and-point time to see such esteemed personage chowing on barbecue; dressing down in regular-people-clothes; picking up a bat at the softball game (and clubbing it) ; or bringing their spouse to the PTA dance.


Hard to believe they did “normal people things!”


“Hey, Sister Mary Paul is eating a real hot dog!”


“Mrs. McNulty is here with her (gasp) husband!”


“Father Flynn is wearing shorts and a t-shirt in the dunk tank!”


Whoa!


So, it was with some apprehension many years ago when Rabbi Bernie booked his group of other rabbis and members of his congregation to come down to fish. Including the clergy, it also included Jewish lawyers, Jewish accountants and Jewish executives. All from the same temple.


This would be interesting.


Back in the day, I actually used to go to the airport to pick up our clients and wasn’t sure what to expect.


I knew they were not Hassidic so I didn’t expect the long black robes, hats and beards, but as they arrived through the terminal, I admit I was relieved to see shorts, sandals and Hawaiian print shirts and baseball hats! Whew.


And each of them greeted me with the biggest hug and told me how glad they were to be there, as if we were old friends!


The next few days dispelled any anxiety I might have had.


At dinner that evening (I made sure there was no pork), it was nice to see them sip a beer. Put their feet up. Relax.


As one of the rabbis told me before headed to bed, “It’s nice to decompress. Nice to not be under a microscope. Just like normal dudes!” Dudes? Did he just say “dudes?”


The next day on the pangas, I was out there with Rabbi Bernie. He wasn’t exactly fishing too hard with a lot of energy.


I was trying to imagine this man in his temple vestments. Today, he was “styling” with Ray Ban sunglasses; a pirate-print bandana and a very loud red Hawaiian shirt.


He leaned back against the gunwale with his feet up, “You know, I don’t care if I catch a fish or not. Out here, there’s no phone. There are no emergencies. If I want to belch or have an occasional beer or have Rabbi Jerry pull-my-finger, I don’t have to worry that someone might see and judge me.” He laughed.


I never thought of it like that.


He then started to softly sing a Hebrew song in a wonderful resonant voice that had graced many a congregation. His voice swelled.


As water will do…his voice carried to another panga. And the song was picked up by the rabbi and the lawyer in that panga.


As I was told later, it was a biblical song about prophets finding an oasis in the desert of Israel. How appropriate.


It was picked up by another voice… then another. Beautiful manly voices carried across the water. Glorious. Uplifting. Spiritual. Every fisherman on every panga stopped to listen!


And then it stopped. A moment of silence. And then one-by-one, there was a hand clapping. And another. And another. And soon a dozen captains and their fishermen blended their applause and cheering!


“That was cool!”


“Awesome, dude!”


“Que bueno…excelente!”


And then the craziest thing…


The rabbi broke out into the rousing Broadway tune “OKLAHOMA” from Rogers and Hammerstein! Four others joined in and we had rip-roaring-deck-stomping a-capella going! With gusto!


“OOOO-kla-homa where the wind comes sweeping down the plain…!”


“…and when we say…YEEOW! A Yippie-yo-kai-yay…”


It was an incredible treat for everyone who witnessed it. And heard it.


At the end, again the applause and hoots!


Rabbi Bernstein sat down on the panga bench seat with the biggest smile. He shrugged like it was no big deal. He winked.


“Several of us were theater majors in college as well as theology students, “ he revealed off-handedly with a laugh as he tossed a new bait into the water.


“God can be glorified in many ways… in many languages and I’m sure he likes a lively Broadway tune now and then!” He laughed again. And so did I.


I have no doubt that God also smiled on us that day.


Later at dinner, one of the rabbis said, “Jonathan…Before we were ever members of the clergy, we were all guys. Regular guys. And we did guy things. Trips like this are an opportunity to be regular guys again, and that’s why these fishing trips to Baja are so special. Thank you for having us.”


They toasted.


It was I who was grateful.


Shortly after, I saw a half-dozen 50-and-60-year-olds start a spit-wad fight with straws and wadded napkins.


In the restaurant.


You never heard such laughter. Boys will be boys. A guy has to do what a guy has to do. And when a target presents itself…I grabbed a straw and joined in. I hadn’t done that since 2nd grade! Duck!


When they left after 3 days of fishing, Rabbi Bernie pressed a little note into my hand. He had scribbled…


“Sometimes it is better to sit in a fishing boat thinking about God than to sit in a church thinking about fishing.”


Shalom Jonathan. Peace.


I never forgot. And to this day, I remember the words to “Oklahoma too.” And a special day in the Baja sunshine


‘How’s the fishin?’
It was one of those rare days when I was able to get out on the water with one of our favorite skippers and one of our long-time clients. Captain Julio has been with us for two decades. Billy has been fishing with Julio and our operation for almost that long. Every year. Twice a year.

Billy’s wife opted out for a day at the spa. And I just couldn’t take another day in the office back in La Paz. Let me out!


So, it was really like three old amigos fishing together. Lots of years among us. Families, chins and wastelines had grown. Hair and stubble had gone south. Lots of stories to tell. Good laughs. You know. Guy stuff…


“Remember when…”


“What about the time…”


“There was this girl I met who…


“There was that one fish…”


“We stopped for a quick tequila…”


No one hardly noticed that we hadn’t caught a fish in awhile. Actually none at all. Yawn.


Captain Julio had his rod in a holder and the other lazily draped over the outboard tiller and gripping a cold beer. He was grinning and making an obscure point about Mexican politics and bad soccer teams.


Somewhere under the shade of his ragged straw lifeguard hat, Billy was sipping on another frosty one in between laughs. His bare feet were up on the ice chest and rod loosely under his arm balanced on the gunwale. If a fish bit…Adios! Billy’s rod was going for a swim.


I didn’t even have a rod in the water. I figured if the fish bit, I’d get in the game. I told the boys I was “conserving energy.”


Let Billy and Julio get the bite started. It’s not as if they were exerting a lot of effort. I don’t think Billy even knew if he still had bait on his hook. Julio had let us drift off the “hot” spot half-an-hour ago.


We were so into talking about achy joints and the Los Angeles “Doyyers” that we hadn’t noticed another panga drift up close by and hail us.


“Hey guys, how’s the fishing?” asked one of the occupants hopefully.


“Muy bueno!” responded Captain Julio with a laugh.


“What are you catching?” yelled back one of the fishermen.


“A buzz!” waved back Billy with a Pacifico upraised. He nearly fell over busting a gut with his wittiness…which set me and Julio off as well. I nearly spit out my own beer! Like guffawing knee-slapping idiots.


“What you got in the boat?”


“Bait!” I roared back! Such a smartass…Now I’m doubled. I think Julio almost snorted beer out his nose!


You know how it is. Once you get started everything is funny. No stopping.


I’m sure the other panga mumbled something about us being “knuckleheads and idiots.” And pulled away. We were obviously no help.


Great fishing.


Catching? Less so. At least as far as fish are concerned.


But who cares?


Someone once told me that I was an “alpha dog fisherman.” It was a compliment.


I caught bigger and more. It was important to me. I studied fishing books and magazines. I actually kept records and charts. I poured over “fish porn” on the internet…photos…reports…weather (admit it…you’ve done it too! LOL).


What a nerd. Tunnel vision angler! In many ways, defined by my fishing success.


To me it was FILA…First in…Last out.. as far as my fishing day was concerned. If there was a mud puddle, I’d be looking at it as a fishing hole. All bodies of water were seen in the context of whether it was fishable!


And now here I was, sitting in a drifting panga in the Sea of Cortez. I didn’t even have a rod in the water. Ho-hum.


It just wasn’t that important. I’ve realized that as I’ve gotten older, it’s become less important. I want everyone else to catch fish. I get a bigger kick out’ve that. But, my own rod doesn’t need to be bent.


I was having more fun “catching a buzz” off the day. I was away from the office and e-mails and cell phones. I was drifting in the warm sun on the water and moreso spending time with my THREE good friends…Mr. Billy…Mr. Julio…and the ever-icy Mr. Pacifico (mas fina) !


Nothing to prove.


How many fish would we catch today? Fish limits would not be an issue today. Time was our only limit.


Time.


Not enough time to sit out here forever. Not enough time to laugh about “Los Doyyers,” politicians, bad old girlfriends, legendary fish and funny bar stories.


Three good fishing friends subtley understanding that there were probably more days behind us than ahead of us. And reveling in every moment! Just three knuckleheads drifting in a boat having a great day fishing.


Not catching. Not fish at least.


We were catching a few things probably much more important than fish.


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