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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.

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.


When is a day not a day?

A French philosopher once penned, “A drunk mind speaks a sober heart.”

And so it was that I was sitting around with one of our captains that work for us in La Paz.


Stubble-faced leather skin. The “Baja squint” from so many years staring into the glare of the Sea of Cortez. Character lines earned from a lifetime on the water make it hard to tell his age. Maybe 65? Could be 10 years younger. I’ve never asked. He’s never told me.


He’s worked for my fleet for 20 of those years. His salt and sweat encrusted Dodgers hat has to be at least that old.


After a sip or two, people often say things prudence might otherwise put the brakes on. And in this case, after a long day of good fishing, a little pyramid of cans was building on the worn plastic Modelo Beer table with the faded logo.


Some small talk. But then…he looked up at me and said thoughtfully, “Do you want to know what I really think of you gringo Americans. “


Oh-oh. Danger. Danger. Little red lights go off in my head.


It wasn’t said belligerently. It was said the way one guy at a bar talks to another guy when he wants to let the other guy in on something…or get something off his chest.


One of those situations we all get into. Even if you said, “No,” they are going to tell you what they think anyway.


Except, I was his employer. And, although I’ve been in Mexico two decades, the gringo label on my head still hasn’t rubbed off.



But, this wasn’t like the guy from the mail room at the Christmas party slobbering over the CEO. I respected this man and considered him a friend.


No matter what you think of yourself, it’s often harder to hear what others think about you. Or people like you. Tread lightly.


Okay. Bring it. But, I leaned back a bit defensively. Arms crossed in classic body language.


“I think Americans are good people. Very generous. Mostly very kind and thoughtful.”


My anxiety eased a tad, but I could hear a “but” coming.


He took a sip of beer. Swirled and swallowed choosing his words carefully.


“But (here it comes)…they have too much money (he laughed). And they do not understand what a day is.”


He paused and let that sink in. I looked curiously and cocked an eyebrow. He had my attention now.


“For example, me and a gringo fisherman are the same age. If we both die at the same time, I will have lived twice as long as him!”


Made no sense. I hoped this wasn’t going to be a one-sided rambling of a guy on a buzz.


But he explained slowly and pointed at me.


“The problem with gringo Americans is that they are always in a rush. Go here. Go there. Running. Even on their vacations, they are always in a hurry. Their day is always too short. Too complicated. They do so many things. They have too many things. But, they never really enjoy what they have. “


“My day is simple. My day is NEVER too short. My day is twice as long as yours! So, I will live twice as long! “ He said with a emphasis and a laugh.


He swallowed a burp. He slapped me on my back; winked at me; and teetered into his house to the call-of-nature. And to think about what he said.


A drunk mind speaks a sober heart.


Left to contemplate, I sat there in that dusty yard under a tree watching him disappear into the house. A bee buzzed the empty beer cans.


With my own beer in hand, I tried to wrap my brain around the logic of a simple Mexican fisherman who plans to live twice as long as me…twice as long as most of us.


Because he lives slower.


It was a hard logic to rebut.


People tell me I’m “living the dream.” Don’t get me wrong. I’m blessed.


But, I’ve often wished my day was 2 or 3 times longer so I could get more done. I live with a cell phone in one pocket. Another phone in my hand. A clipboard in the other. Two laptops on my desk and an internal clock in my head that’s always ticking.


The only reason I happened to be sitting for a few minutes with my captain friend was because I had to pick up some work-related equipment he had fixed for me.


And I think of so many of our friends and clients who come down to La Paz to see us. They eat at our restaurant and all of them are glued to tablets and smart phones as they eat. Every day of their vacation, there’s an agenda item that requires a schedule. They live full exciting lives. They talk business, family and obligations even while fishing.


They video everything, but I often wonder how much do they really watch later. Who has the time?


Every now and then it’s good to be reminded not to forget the here-and-now. THESE are the “good old days” you’ll be talking about tomorrow.


The way that sun rose over the Sea of Cortez…that day the tuna exploded behind the panga…the day your kids swam with the whalesharks…the afternoon the lady at the taco cart became a new friend… the stupid jokes you and your buddies told over the campfire that night…the day in Baja you did absolutely NOTHING and didn’t see another person on the beach all day.


These are the days that should be savored and locked in our brains and hearts and not just in our cell phones or stored “on the cloud.” Take our lives down a notch. Live slower. Live longer via the logic of a simple country fisherman.


My cell phone rang. I let it go to voice mail. I sighed and pulled another beer from the battered ice chest.


They say the secret to success is to hire people smarter than you. I’m gonna sit for a little longer with my captain friend.


Ain’t over ‘til it’s over
As write this, we’re tooling southbound down the highway through the Utah desert. Fueled on pumpkin seeds and ice tea, Jill is driving so that I can work from the passenger seat on my laptop.

We just finished the Sportsman’s Show in Yakima, Washington. We’re on our way now to the big Fred Hall Fishing Show at the Long Beach Convention Center for the show that goes March 2-6.


We’ve been on the road since before Christmas and have hauled our booth to shows in Billings, Montana; Denver, Colorado; Sacramento, CA; Seattle, WA; Portland, OR and last week in Yakima, WA.


The shows are always fun and a great opportunity to talk with folks about fishing in Baja. Hopefully, they’ll fish with us at Tailhunter in La Paz! But, it’s just fun to chat with other Baja fans or folks interested in fishing in Baja or Mexico in general.


One of the big questions that pops up a lot is about El Niño.


In case you’ve never heard of it, it’s the global weather phenomenon that pops up every decade or so whereby warm water currents push up against the western side of the U.S. instead of across the pond over there in Asia.


It has had a big effect on fishing this past year or so. In the rare case you’ve never heard if it, you’ve been affected by it, even if you don’t fish.


The unseasonably warm weather? That’s El Niño. The above-average rain and snow? That’s El Niño. Drought-busting floods ? That’s El Niño. Non-stop winds? El Niño is the culprit.


As I’m writing this, huge ocean swells are hammering California and Hawaiian surfers are all over the 60-70 foot swells slamming the islands north shores.


When the current El Niño descended on us over a year ago, it was predicted to possibly be the largest El Niño since the 1997. Many predicted it to be the largest in recorded history. It still remains to be seen if the present El Niño lives up to predictions. Vamos a ver…we’ll see!


But the scientific community says El Niño is gonna hang with us until at least the middle of 2016 when it will slowly dissipate.


Maybe yes. Maybe no. It’s not like weather is an exact science, and even if it does ramp down, it’s not like it will be there one day and stop 24 hours later.


Rain might do that. El Niño does not. It will be something gradual. Until the next “weather thing” comes up. Nothing is over until it’s over.


If you’re reading this, then you already probably have some idea of how it has affected ocean fishing since its genesis.


With the unseasonably warm water, many warm water species moved into otherwise unusual areas from Mexican waters. Southern California for the past two seasons has seen a bonanza of fishing.


Yellowfin tuna less than a mile from shore. Wahoo and billfish off the beaches of Los Angeles. Kayak fishermen catching dorado off San Diego kayaks. Anglers on ½-day charter boats limiting on big yellowtail.


Because of the shifts in warm water, some of these species were seen as far north as Washington. I had one fishing outfitter from British Columbia, who fishes a lot in Baja, tell me they caught some pompano (jacks) and he was the only person who knew what they were. He had caught them in Loreto in southern Baja.


Other friends and clients tell me about tuna and occasional dorado in Washington and northern Oregon!


In Baja, I would surmise that the effects have been mixed. Probably more negative than positive.


As mentioned previously, many species normally found in the tropical Baja waters migrated north of the border. That left Baja catches often wanting and below average in size and quantity.


With the warm waters, Baja didn’t get the colder water upwelling from the deep that brings nutrients necessary for bait stocks. Bait was few or non-existent. Sportfishing catches resulted in smaller fish (nothing to eat) or very few fish at all. Baja still had good fishing. Just really different.


The same thing happened up north to salmon patterns. With a dearth of colder waters, the areas lacked nutrients for the baitfish, salmon and steelhead. The result is smaller fish or as one scientist put it, the fish are “starving to death” with long-term effects waiting to be seen.


Further, in terms of simple weather patterns, El Niño has produced a cornucopia of weather issues for us in Baja


Over the past year-and-a-half, the Pacific Coast of Mexico and Baja have been belted by numerous tropical storms and higher incidence of precipitation.


On the other end of the spectrum, there were times over the last two fishing seasons, when we were always on “hurricane watch” with attentions glued to chubascos that seemed to materialize every week. Most did not hit and blew out to sea. However, two of the largest ever, including Odile in 2014, were historic and did tremendous damage.


Even without the rainstorms, every time there was a weather system north of the border, it created heavy wind conditions south of the border. For example this past winter, with all the snow and rain dropped in the U.S. produced one of the windiest winters in memory. This rendered fishing almost impossible many days.


I would venture to say that Odile was responsible for more rugged days of fishing these past two years than anyone could remember and resulted in more canceled fishing days as well.


So, what do I tell everyone who asks about El Niño?


I tell them it hasn’t been really great for us down south. But, on the other hand, rain and snow are needed up north and the fishing has been great on the Pacific side in many areas.


It’s all part of the cycle. Everything comes and goes.


El Niño will come and go as it has been doing long before anyone cared about El Niño and it will continue long after. There’s not much to be done about it except accept it as part of Earth doing what Earth does.


With all the banner fishing that has taken place outside of Mexico, numerous anglers have rediscovered their enjoyment of fishing. Many first-timers have been brought into the sport as well.


It’s been great for the fishing industry. Great for the sport.


I feel eventually, these folks will expand their horizons and find their way to Mexican waters. And we’ll be ready for them. Personally, I’m looking forward to a great season!


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