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:

Next level Baja vacation
So, you’ve done the Baja/Mexico thing a bunch of times.

Yawn… — You did the booze cruise. Check.

— You’ve danced the Macarena until dawn. Check.

— Photo taken with the Tijuana donkeys painted like zebras? Done that.

— Photo taken upside down at the Giggling Marlin. Want to forget that one, but Check.

— Ensenada love boat/cruise ship. Check.

— Zipline and dolphin swim. Right.

— Flirt with skin cancer without a shirt on the East Cape. OUCH. That too.

— Camel riding? Uh… that one can wait.

So, what next? I was thinking of my personal list of “must do” things if you wanted to go outside your comfort box and maybe take your next Baja trip to the next level. Here’s some suggestions.

Eat at a Mexican food cart — To some of you, that’s as natural as pulling up to the McDonald’s drive-thru. To many locals, it’s exactly the same. I saw some statistics that show 85 percent of Mexicans eat 70 percent of their meals from carts.

However, you’d be surprised how many gringos either really want to try it and don’t know where or how or scrunch their nose at the idea. Give it a go.

Just like back home with a burger joint, go to the place that has a line around it, especially late at night. You can’t go wrong. Not only economical, but some of the best tacos, tortas (Mexican sandwiches), fresh seafood, burgers (served with ham… called a “hamburger” for a reason), burritos and hot dogs (Mexican style wrapped in bacon and slathered with chili, mustard, mayo and onions!)

Befriend a Taxi Driver — If you ever run into a taxi driver you really like, hire him for the day. Most of them jump at the chance to have regular work and not only do you make a great friend, but probably the best tour guide you ever had.

Taxi drivers know the best places for local food, shopping, and tours. Sure, it might be their cousin Sergio’s place, but so what? You’ll probably get extra special attention and better prices than at the tourist places. Tip well and make a friend for the rest of your trip.

Go to a Farmers Market or Open Market — Every Mexican city has an open market. Often in a warehouse, permanent or semi-permanent booths offer fish, seafood, vegetables, cheeses, household items and artisan handicrafts. And the food booths offering empanadas, sopes, menudo, tacos, carnitas (roasted pork) and other delicacies served at food counters or picnic tables are not to be missed. Get some true “local flavor” on all levels. You can smell the barbecue and chilis a block away!

By the same token, many open air “farmer’s markets” are popping up as well. Here’s where folks like us often purchase our organic groceries and vegetables, breads, cheeses, sauces, eggs and chicken. But, many vendors also sell barbecued meat, pies, wine, pastries, pasta and other goodies. You may have noticed a “food theme” in this column this week. Very neighborly atmosphere!

Visit a Church — As in many Spanish-speaking nations, the church has been a religious, cultural and social center since the days of the conquistadors. Take a visit, especially to one of the older churches. If you can, hopefully, you’ll catch a Mass, wedding, baptism or First Communion. If you really want a sense of the local community, this is it.

Be respectful. Guys, take off your hats. Go easy with the cameras. Leave a small offering.

If it’s one of the older churches, don’t forget to look at the architecture and artifacts… the massive beams… the stonework… the craftsmanship borne of religious dedication and simple back-breaking work. Imagine the energy it took in the Mexican heat to build the structure or get some of those items from the old world.

Get Wet Higher Than Your Waist — Our captains and I know what you’re doing when we see you walk out into the water only up to your waist! But seriously, take the plunge hopefully up-current from your buddies. At least step away from the hotel swimming pool!

I fished in Baja for years before I decided to bring a mask and snorkel. That led me to eventually get my dive certification and eventually become a working divemaster. I never regretted it.

It’s an entirely different world “down there” and even coming from Hawaii, Mexico has some of the most intensely beautiful waters in the world and surely more sea life. Jacques Cousteau called the Sea of Cortez the “aquarium of the world” and to-date, more than 700 species of fish have been identified. It will give you an entirely different appreciation and respect for the fragile incredible ecosystem.

Find a Park on a Weekend — Find a bench. Feed the birds. Listen to free performers and musicians. Buy an Indican carving. Purchase some pastries from a food booth and wash it down with some icy sweet watermelon or cantaloupe agua fresca. Listen to poetry readings or school kids doing plays. Join into a game of checkers (no Spanish needed) or for a few pesos buy a card and play Mexican bingo with the locals.

Get yourself invited — I love telling the story of one of my fishing clients who was walking down the street after dinner one night. A retired school teacher, he got stopped by some young men. They invited him to a “party” the next night and said they would pick him up at his hotel.

He came to be a bit anxious and asked me if he should go. Without having been there or knowing more, I told him getting in the car with a bunch of young guys to go to a party might not be a good idea.

I found out later, he went anyway.

It turned out to be a bunch of college students taking an English class and they were on a scavenger-hunt-of-sorts to “bring a gringo” to dinner. The whole class was there for a barbecue along with several other “captured gringos.”

Being a former school teacher, he told me what a great time he had answering questions about life in the U.S., movie stars, English words and phrases. “The girls wanted to know about fashion and how many celebrities I knew. The guys wanted to know about American girls and pick-up lines!” He said it was one of the best experiences he ever had.

If you can make friends in Mexico (like your favorite taxi driver or fishing captain or waiter), get yourself invited to a dinner or a wedding or some other social event. Of course, don’t just wander off into a dark alley or jump in someone’s car, no matter where you are in the world. Use common sense! But, some of your most treasured moments of your vacation are often found away from the hotel swim up bar or buffet line. Be a good guest!

Well, that explains a lot
Well, that explains a lot

I was doing a little online research about some obscure Mexican history and, as web-surfing often does, I stumbled into some completely different stuff.

And, that led me to something else…and something else.

That’s why it’s called “web-surfing.” And there went my evening and my initial research.

I bumbled upon a couple of websites that post lists of the average wages for various Mexican jobs.

Take a look at some of the higher end occupations.

I looked at websites and divided by the current peso-to-dollar exchange rate of the devalued Mexico peso. It’s 18 pesos for one U.S. dollar right now.

Compare them to your own job. Would you be willing to work for these paychecks? Ready to apply?

Remember these are the jobs that require either a bit of education or at least a good chunk of experience. They show median salaries for these job categories.

Of course, these are general and salaries vary from area-to-area. There are also other variables to factor into the equation like experience; city; specific industry, etc.

These might surprise you.

Operations Manager - $28,016 per year ($2334 per month)

Information Technician - $27,031 per year ($2252 per month)

Softwear Engineer - $15,132 per year ($1261 per month)

Design Architect - $10,237 per year ($853 per month)

Physician (General Practice) - $13,080 per year ($1090 per month)

Graphic Designer - $7560 per year ($630 per month)

Check out what your average State and Federal Mexican police officer pulls home (before taxes, etc.)

State Police Officer - $6,666 per year ($555 per month)

Federal Police Officer - $8000 per year ($666 per month)

Municipal police officers make a lot less.

Contrary to the stereotype, there are many good, hard-working and dedicated law enforcement officers in Mexico. But, you can imagine the temptation to either accept bribes; look the other way (“They don’t pay me enough to risk my neck or my family!”) or outright participate in criminal activity.


Take a look at your average worker in Mexico. These are the good folks most tourists run into on a daily basis on their vacations.

As of the beginning of 2016, the average minimum wage in Mexico was raised to a whopping (drumroll please)…

$73.04 pesos…or about $4.05 PER DAY.

That’s not per hour. That’s what you would earn PER DAY if you were an average employee or general laborer in Mexico.

And yes, taxes are technically deducted just like anywhere else. Maybe union fees, social security, etc. That’s an astronomical gross of $28 bucks a week!

Your working day can be 8-12 hours per day or longer. There are no regulations really on how long you have to work. I know guys who work 10-15 hours regularly. And no overtime!

You go 6-7 days per week. Do the math and you’ll get pretty depressed fast.

It kinda helps explain the immigration situation a bit. It’s why your local Home Depot has a ready labor group willing to paint your fence.

What would YOU do if you had a family to feed and you pulled down less than $30 per week?

And, at the rate the peso is falling in the market, you’re earning even less than ever and it’s not looking good!

So, what must your average hotel employee think as Americans toss $20 bills around. Or we think no big thing of $100 dinners.

Leaving two bucks on the dresser of your hotel room for the maid is a ½ day salary for her. Imagine receiving a tip at your own job worth ½ of your daily salary.

Here’s some other general minimum salaries to take a look at:

Chain Grocery Store Cashier - $4.92 per day ($34.44 per week)

Security Guard - $5.23 per day ($36.67 per week)

Hotel Maid - $5.37 per day ($37.59 per week)

Electrician - $5.55 per day ($38.85 per week)

Mechanic - $583 per day ($40.83 per week)

Bartender - $5.36 per day ($37.58 per week)

Janitor - $4.05 per day ($28 per week)

So, let’s see. If you make 4 bucks a day and your boss makes you work a 12 hour day. You work 6 days a week you’re pulling about 38 cents-an-hour for a $28 work week.

You and I both know folks that won’t get out’ve bed for $28 an hour, let alone $28 a week.

My point being is that the next time you visit Mexico, you might see the taxi driver; or the waiter; or the lady sweeping up your beer cans a little differently. Or the police officer. A different perpective for sure.

It’s pretty harsh where someone like a Mexican doctor makes less than a high school kid at McDonalds back home. And depressing.

And makes you a little grateful for your own opportunities and blessings and a little more tolerant and appreciative too.

Hasta la vista, baby!
Wish we could say it was fun. Adios, Baby! Don’t let the screendoor bang your butt as you exit.

Yea, that’s right. Like the neighborhood kid who comes to hang out but overstays their welcome, we needed a break. Get this kid outta here!

Well, it’s official.

Meteorologists are officially declaring the demise of “The baby boy” a.k.a “El Niño.” After almost two years, the experts are saying the kid is finally on the way out.

The weather phenomenon we know as “El Niño” was first recognized centuries ago by Peruvian fishermen. They noticed that a warming cycle occurred every few years which changed their weather patterns and their fishing.

Insofar as it happened towards the end of the year around Christmas, it became known as “The baby/ El Niño.”

Extremely warm waters is exactly what we’ve seen down here in Baja during this particular cycle and, in fact, on the entire Eastern Pacific bordering the western shores of North and South America.

In fact, this El Niño was one of the strongest on record superceded only by the last great El Niño in 1996-97.

The warmer waters produced more storms and more rain along the western U.S. which was much needed. But, conversely, it produced drought conditions and water shortages in epic proportions on the other side of the Pacific.

However, for the first time since about 2014, the experts say that May was the official turning point. Last month produced cooler neutral water temperatures on our side of the Pacific for the first time.

El Niño hasn’t been very good to us down here in Baja and Mexico.

Sure, it produced rain. The problem is, it often fell all at once. In buckets.

In fact, two historically massive hurricanes, “Patricia” and “Odile”, were among the strongest ever experienced in Mexico. Odile pretty much flattened Cabo San Lucas which still bears some scars. Patricia would have been the strongest ever and barely missed crashing into highly populated Puerto Vallarta.

From a sportsman’s perspective, we know how good the fishing has been in areas around Southern California as warm-water species like tuna, yellowtail, marlin, wahoo and others followed the currents north. It’s been an economic windfall for the sportfishing industry not to mention, a lot of fun.

Those areas produced some of the most exotic and finest fishing ever recorded. In fact, as I’m writing this huge bluefin tuna are being caught in Southern California waters. Hey, and what about all those sharks cavorting in the surf off California beaches? Great fun, right? I’m being facetious.

But for us down here in Baja, the warmer waters weren’t very kind to us. Without the cooler upwellings from down deep, nutrients for baitfish never arrived. Accordingly, baitfish never arrived either which either starved or moved to more fertile waters.

In the food chain, no bait meant no larger game fish or certainly smaller game fish. That was a big ouch to the sportfishing industry here in Mexico.

But, everything is cyclical on this planet. Things come. Things go.

With El Niño headed out, the meteorologists are now telling us to get ready for “La Niña.” (The little sister!). What? Another bratty kid? C’mon already!

But yes. Chances are this little girl is a bit chillier.

However, according to the experts, La Niña isn’t exactly a complete opposite of El Niño. Ice won’t start coating the ocean’s surface.

Whereas El Niño involves huge warm spikes over a short period of time, La Niña is more of mild extended cooling event. The pros say it’s a return to an extended period of “normalcy.” Whatever “normal” means these days.

But, like every planetary phenomenon, what’s good for some is less-so for others.

While El Niño surely helped the drought ravages in the United States, it wasn’t enough to break it as many expected it would. La Niña won’t help at all as fewer storms can be expected.

That’s good for hurricane and tropical storm watchers in Mexico.

Over the past 2 years, there were times when every week one storm after another appeared on the radar and we had to brace for perhaps another onslaught and wonder if the “next one” would hit. Or would it race out to sea towards Hawaii?

However, conversely, the Eastern and Gulf states will be on higher storm and hurricane alerts now with La Niña. Atlantic hurricane predictions are usually elevated during La Niña patterns.

Likewise, along Eastern Asia, the waters will now be warmer on that side of the Pacific. After two years of crippling drought and heat waves, those poor folks will have to contend with the looming aspect of monsoons and cyclones.

And what will this do to the fishing in Baja?

After so many crazy things these past few years, I don’t know what “normal” looks like anymore. I threw my “fishing charts” out the window awhile ago.

I just go fishing. The weather will be what the weather is. There’s always something biting if it’s Mexican waters. And it still beats sitting in traffic.

Hasta la vista, Baby. Thanks for the visit.

The Mighty El Pez Fuerte
Whenever someone catches this particular fish, the uninitiated usually bust out the usual comments…

“I caught a what?”

“Is this like…uh…a tuna or something?”

“Is this a junk fish?”

“Should I throw it back?”

“Any good to eat?”

“My brother caught one once and said it was good fertilizer.”

OUCH! Talk about no respect. Into the rosebeds with the mackerel, the Miracle-Gro and the mulch.

The Mexicans call this fish the “ el pez fuerte.” And its name is well-deserved. Nothing fancy, colorful or elegant. It surely doesn’t rise to the level of say, “wahoo.” Or maybe “sailfish.”

They call it like they see it. “ El Pez Fuerte” means “the strong fish.” Simple. Clear. Word economy at it’s best. At it’s most descriptive.

Most of the rest of us know it as the amberjack. And yea, it’s pretty strong.

Like the rest of the members of it’s family.

That includes the more famous, yellowtail (jurel). And glamorous roosterfish (pez gallo) . And the hard-charging jack crevalle (toro) and pompano (pompano…no fancy name at all). All three of these sure get a lot more press than the amberjack.

Folks line up to get in on the bite when the yellowtail are going off. Anglers come from all over the world to hook up on a Baja roosterfish. Jack Crevalle are a favorite of light tackle and flyfishers.

So, why does the amberjack get slighted?

Better known as the Almaco Jack or the Pacific Jack, these guys sport the same bad attitude as their cousins. Bullish runs. Dogged battles. Quick to bend rods and just as easily send anglers into frustration as they dive back to cover and snap tackle.

They are just bigger and stronger. Actually, they are the largest of the jack family. Fifty, sixty, seventy pounders and larger are not uncommon.

It’s like the old saying about a good big guy is usually better than a good small guy, the amberjack here in Baja are characterized by the big, thick powerful bodies of the roosterfish, but without all the fancy rigging on their back.

They have linebacker bodies compared to, for example, yellowtail which are more slender.

They have muscular tails and blunted heads. And yes, they do get bigger.

The current IGFA record of 132-pounds was caught in Baja waters. In my 20 years here in southern Baja, I’ve seen larger fish that never got to the certified scales.

It happens more than you think. Several years ago, a fish estimated at close to 150 pounds got carved up on the beach before we could stop our amigo who had visions of delicious sashimi dancing in his eyes!

Because for sure, they make great eating. Amberjack in other areas are often tossed back or tossed into the rose bushes. These are the same fish. The pez fuertes we see here are famously tasty.

Roosterfish and jack crevalle have dark stringy strong-tasting meat. Most captains will tell you to release then. Yellowtail and amberjack are at the other end; definitely keeper fish.

The amberjack is a culinary surprise for most folks. Imagine the tender moist meat of the yellowtail, only better.

I had one marine biologist tell me that the amberjack are not as migratory as their kin, the yellowtail. They tend to be more “homeguard” fish and their diets include shellfish, shrimp and mollusks. So, imagine the succulent flavor of flaky white yellowtail with a slight hint of crab or shrimp!

As sashimi, it’s meat is almost translucent and velvety in its’ texture and highly prized. But rarely found because they’re not commercially chased.

So, that leaves it to us sportfishermen…and ladies.

Fishing-wise, folks genuinely are surprised to catch them. It’s not too different from fishing for yellowtail in Baja.

Usually, they are found near structure which would include rocks, reefs, boulders and deep drop-offs like canyons. When scuba diving, I seem to encounter schools where there are vertical objects like rock walls where the fish hold at certain levels.

They’ll take live and dead bait like squid, mackerel and caballitos (a smaller member of the jack family). You can flyline them or fish them with a sliding egg-sinker on a Carolina rig or similar, depending on the depth.

They will often school. Find one and you’ll find others. If they’re hungry, look out. They don’t “nibble” and will slam a rod right out’ve your hand.

And they are not shy. Being the big dog, they don’t have to be. I’ve had spearfishermen tell me they didn’t shoot amberjack because the fish will swim right up to them out’ve curiosity and look right at the point of the speargun.

“It didn’t seem fair to shoot a fish that swims right up to the gun!” said on spearfishing client.

And, they do love lures too.

Slow trolling a diving lure like a Rapala, Yo-Zuri, MirrOLure or other lipped-lure produces well.

If you like to fish the iron or knife jigs, this is another popular way to get hooked up. Drop down and crank like your arm is going to fall off.

Basically, fish like you’re fishing for yellowtail. And that’s why folks get surprised when their reel goes screaming; they’re double-bent; and they pull up a fish that doesn’t quite look like a yellowtail.

Often copper-colored or even golden tan in the sun, it’s definitely not a junk fish. And yes, it tastes darned good. Save something else for the fertilizer!

The other great aspect is that a good time to fish for them is during the same season as the yellowtail. That would be the late winter and early spring.

However, when the yellowtail have moved off to follow the colder waters, the amberjack can stick around for many months into the summer or even longer.

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.







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.

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