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.

Memo to self: No bad days allowed
The day had not started well. I woke up grumpy. I was doing my utmost to put on my best “happy face” for the fishing clients this morning, but it was taking an effort. Just one of those days we all have when one would be best-served to just stay in bed!

I already knew it was going to be a long day. We had problems at our restaurant with the plumbing, and several of our employees were out sick. A vehicle was broken down and required a part they just don’t make in Mexico and there was a chance of rain in the forecast too. Sheeesh. And it was only 5 a.m. in the morning!


Worse of all, the fishing had been bad. And I had grumpy fishermen. More than grumpy actually. Rude and pissed off. The bad fishing had snowballed into complaints now about the service, the captains, the hotel, the food.


Funny how that happens. Catch fish and none of that matters. Don’t catch fish and the world is a terrible place. I could feel that target growing on my back. Anyone who has been a guide or outfitter knows what that feels like. As if we could control the wind, waves, weather and fish! But, we care about how our clients feel so you feel the crosshairs growing.


But, I guess you pay that money and it entitles you to be grumpy and growl and no amount of cheerfulness or cheerleading on our end was gonna change things.


My own mood reflected it as well as a feeling of helpless frustration. If I could make fish jump in the boat, I would. If I could wave a fishing rod in the air, I’d make the clouds go away. Doesn’t work that way.


So, we packed them into our van to the beach in the dark and could feel the tension. Yuk. Mine and theirs.


And then some of our other fishermen came down and climbed into the shuttle. All smiles. Handshakes. Backslaps. Excited to be going fishing. Looking forward to being on the water.


Introductions and greetings. Among themselves. “Hey, didn’t I see you on the plane?” “Where’d you go to dinner last night?” “Really nice to meet you!” “You’re lucky to have your wife. Don’t let her catch all the fish!” (Laughs) The grumpy guys could care less. Golly, is it THAT bad?


The happy folks were all long-time customers. They all came from different parts of the country. I had known them for a long long time and knew their stories. But, all of them were coming together this morning and meeting for the first time. Just happy to be out; happy for maybe more reasons than just going fishing.


Yes, I know their stories.


For several of them, this could be their last trip.


One has a serious kidney surgery as soon as he gets back.


The wife, they were talking about? The gal schlepping the rods and laughing with the boys? She just found out she’s got a malignant tumor in her breast. She’s got a lot on her mind, I know.


One of the other guys? He’s had several strokes. I see the changes in him. He still at it, but he can’t fish every day like he used to. I worry about him pulling on a big fish. He’s fragile, but gutty as hell and won’t let anything stop him.


Another guy in the van, he’s had 24 surgeries. TWENTY FOUR!


He had his first heart attack at 35 years-old. His first stroke at 36. He had a heart transplant several years ago. His face is scarred from skin cancer. Right around his mouth, lips and chin. As soon as he gets home from La Paz, he’s got a date with the dermatologist.


He once showed me what his chest, arms and legs look like from all the surgeries. He laughing called himself “Frankenstein.” He takes several dozen pills a day to keep going. He has to wake himself up at night to make sure he takes some of the pills on time.


He just came back from a salmon trip in Alaska. And now here he is in La Paz fishing with us.


He once told me, “I know people who are more fortunate than me and let little setbacks get to them. They are miserable.


I choose to be happy. I chose to LIVE and enjoy the time I have. I got the message early! Fishing just happens to be the vehicle that gets me off the couch and enjoying life!”


Amen.


None of the folks in the shuttle van know the background of the other folks.


But there were those who were really looking forward to the day. And others who started the day already under a toxic cloud. I guess I could be included in that group.


I want to tell the grumpy guys…”LOOK AT THESE HAPPY PEOPLE!” I want to introduce them and tell the grumpy guys the stories about the happy people. I know it’s not my place.


But, I want to say, a bad day fishing is just that. A bad day fishing. You’re here. You’re enjoying times with friends. You’re doing something that a zillion other people will never ever get to do in their lives. See a sunrise. See the dolphin. Feel the salt spray. Crack beers on the beach. Fishing isn’t life. Life is fishing.


I think there was a reason I saw these folks today. Wake up call. Life ain’t so bad a’tall. I’m blessed. Memo to self…no bad days allowed!


More than potato salad and fried chicken
One of our fishing clients down here in La Paz was sipping a cold one in our restaurant and asked if I missed 4th of July.

Having been down here in Mexico working now almost 20 years, yeah, I really do. I miss it a lot. Being that July 4th is always smack in the height of the summer fishing season, it’s been a long time since I’ve been part of the celebration “back home.” But, this is where work requires that I be down here and so be it.


Superficially, I miss a good parade and watching the kids and the floats and the music -- and most of all standing with hand-over-heart as I watch our vets and service folks marching tall and proud. I get choked up over that.



I miss the smell of green summer grass-in-the-park and that smell of barbecued burgers and saucy ribs and ducking the occasional errant Frisbee. I miss the sand between my toes and a paper plate of fresh potato salad, sloppy pork-n-beans, fried chicken and a beach fire in the dark as fireworks burst over the water to the oohs-and ahhs of the crowd. I miss hearing the Star Spangled Banner played.


So many things parked in my memory banks.


But, I get a completely different perspective living outside the U.S. and looking in from afar, from Mexico. And, although the two countries share borders and so many other things in common, they are still so far apart. And it makes me appreciate the U.S. even more so and what the 4th of July means.


For one, I take fewer things for granted. Simple things.


Like water.


Back home, you flipped on the faucet. Bad as it might taste, you take for granted that water comes out. You can cook with it. Wash clothes. Come home from work and take that long easy hot shower. Wash your car. Water your lawn. Gasp…fill our hot tub and swimming pool!


Here, in Mexico, water is at a premium. What we call “drought” in the U.S. is almost comical in Mexico. Sometimes nothing comes out of the faucet, for days!


Here in La Paz, often water is only sent to your home or business through the city pipes every other day or every two days. And even then, pretty much at a slow drip.


That’s why you see these huge black plastic “tinacos” (storage cylinders) on top of business and houses. That’s to save the water when it’s available and running. If you run out, you have to wait until the city opens the spigots again.


The tourists never see that because the hotels and golf courses and swimming pools are always full. But, I saw a report once that said the fresh water daily allotment for the average Baja citizen is less than one-gallon-a-day. And getting smaller.


And more…


As a former attorney back in California, I don’t take justice or the U.S. legal system for granted anymore. Nor am I so quick to make fun of its many problems. I still challenge someone to come up with a better way to do things. It still has a fundamental premise, that you are “innocent until proven guilty.” And there’s nothing the government can do about that.


Here in Mexico, they still operate under the archaic Napoleanic code from the days when France ran Mexico. Under those laws, the state “presumes you are guilty and it’s up to you to prove you are innocent.”


I have seen the damages up-close-and-personal here. We’ve been victimized ourselves.


Prove you didn’t steal from your neighbor. Prove your kid didn’t start the fight that broke another kid’s nose. Prove your wife didn’t crash into someone else’s car. Prove you didn’t hurt someone’s reputation by something you said. Prove you didn’t sexually accost a fellow employee.


All it takes is an accusation and a report to authorities by someone who doesn’t like you. And now it’s YOUR problem. It’s YOUR burden to prove you’re innocent.


Another thing is that I don’t take the ability to work so lightly. I know in the U.S. we have a serious crisis in employment. I have several college degrees plus a law degree, but I’ve been unemployed. I’ve quit jobs. I’ve been fired from jobs.


But, I always had options. I always had hope that I could find another job.


I’m here in Mexico now because of a choice I made years ago, not because I wanted to live outside the U.S. but because there was a business opportunity that presented itself. But, it was a choice I had because I had options. I had that independence. And I was lucky and blessed.


We have so many good friends, employees and associates and acquaintances after almost two decades here.


I look at them and I’m grateful for what we have as Americans roving this planet who at least have opportunities and options.


Here in Mexico, if you’re a dishwasher or you’re a taxi driver, that’s probably what you will be the rest of your life. That’s it. No upward mobility.


There might be some lateral mobility in that instead of a dishwasher you might get to be a truck driver, but not likely. You will live and die a dishwasher or waiter or farmer. That’s it. Same for your kids. What’s a career?


There’s no “correspondence school” or “next big opportunity.” You are what you are. My amigo is a floor cleaner. He will be a floor cleaner his whole life until he dies or his back gives out. Whichever comes first.


Education is mandatory to only 8th grade. How far would you have gotten on an 8th grade education?


Having education, even a college education, could still mean you’re now qualified to work in a retail store selling shoes or in an office filing papers. You can keep your hands clean. Maybe.


And, if you lose your job, that could be it as well.


We know a very good accountant working for a company. She’s 35 years old. She told us if she ever loses her job, she is no longer employable because she is “too old” and companies don’t hire “old people.” She supports a family of 4.


Truthfully, when you hit 65 here, you are forcefully retired. No matter how good, valuable or healthy you are. No matter that you’re the sole earner in your household, you’re out of the work force.


Just yesterday, a single-parent friend told me her son missed a job interview because he didn’t have shoes.


Last week, another friend told me he had to quit a job as a maintenance man because it was too hard to walk 5 miles to work and back six-days-a-week. He’s 62-years-old and supports a family of 5.


We might share borders, but we are so far apart. And every 4th of July away from home, I’m ever more grateful for the opportunities and freedoms I’ve enjoyed and been blessed with. For all it’s problems, the U.S. still enjoys so much that the rest of the world never has or will.


Can someone pass me another piece of fried chicken…



When the big boys (and girls) play!
You’ve had that itch for awhile. You have always wanted to do it.

You’ve seen the photos and the videos. You’ve imagined yourself standing on the bridge of the big cruiser or in the fighting chair braced and battling the fish of a lifetime. You’ve envisioned standing on the winner’s platform bathed in the spotlights, the champagne and the flash of cameras as you pose with a huge check and the bikini girls from the beer companies. Yea…that could be you up there standing tall and basking in the fame! Oooo and ahhhh! A fishing rockstar!

Vamanos! You want to play with the big boys and do a REAL Mexican fishing tournament.

But, then comes the “buzz kill.” Wait a minute. Logic kicks in. You sigh. Who are you kidding?

The last time you got flashed by a camera was when they took your photo for your COSTCO card. Not many 100-dollar-Tommy Bahama shirts in your closet. The closest thing to being on a fishing cruiser was that time you went on a booze cruise for the office Christmas party. There definitely weren’t any beer company bikini girls aboard that you can remember.

And the biggest fish on your resume was a rainbow trout you caught with a worm when your dad took you fishing during a camping trip.

But, one can dream!

But why leave it at that? C’mon, man! Think outside the box Why not you? Why can’t it be you standing up there at the podium?

Your logic side bubbles up. You have no talent. Little or no experience. Even less money. You tell yourself you’ve got no business playing with the big boys in that Tommy Bahama-Ray-Ban atmosphere!

Stop right there. As they say here in Mexico, “Si se puede!” You can do it!

All you really need to have is the desire! Figure out where you want to go and when you want to go. All the big fishing destinations like Cabo, Mazatlan, Puerto Vallarta, etc. have numerous tournaments throughout the year depending on the species.

There are tournaments to fit every budget and experience. And don’t let the “experience factor” deter you!

The best thing about tournaments is that it’s actually a pretty even playing field. Big boats might mean a bit more comfort, but that doesn’t always equate to better fishing. Indeed, I have seen pangas (Mexican skiffs) often outfish the big mega-cruisers! There’s often as much luck as skill. As they often say, “It’s better to be lucky than good!”

And, honestly, it depends on where you’re fishing and what you’re fishing for. As I said, there are numerous tournaments to choose from. If it’s a sierra tournament or a yellowtail tournament, that would be different from a marlin or big tuna tournament. Furthermore, fishing in the calmer waters of August or September is different than fishing in the choppier waters of say, April or May!

There are very expensive tournaments and there are more budget-minded tournaments. Put together a team of amigos and share the expenses and you’ll find that expenses are much more reasonable.

The key aspect is a good well-equipped boat and a good captain with local knowledge. What you might lack in experience is outweighed by a good skipper running the boat and his or her crew.

Don’t be intimidated by the heavy hitters. Believe me, many of might have fatter wallets, but many of them also have about as much fishing experience as you! But, their captains and crews are their aces-in-the-hole.

So, find a good skipper with a great attitude and a decent boat and you’re in the running! You’ve got as much a chance as anyone of being in the money.

But, attitude starts with you. Sure, there’s some real competition at these events but don’t forget these are huge social events as well! Come to play and party.

Usually at many of these events, the whole town takes on a circus-like atmosphere. It’s a mega-fiesta. The excitement permeates the whole waterfront. It’s a great opportunity to tip-back-a-beer; to people-watch and boats-watch and enjoy the carnival. Except, this time it’s you that’s part of the spectacle of fun. You’re on the inside.

There’s music and food and fishing groupies and spectators and celebrities! The evenings at these tournaments are often filled with huge banquets and parties. I’ve participated in many tournaments and as much as I like the fishing, the social aspects are really the highlight.

Gamesmanship…good-natured trash talk and chest-thumping…are all part of it. I often think more people come for the party and that the fishing is just a convenient vehicle that brings everyone out to play!

There are prizes and dances and a great sense of camaraderie as new friends become old friends and everyone enjoys the festivities. In many of the smaller tournaments in smaller venues, the tournament is often the social event of the calendar. The whole town comes out to watch the “marine gladiators. “

Come play! Si se puede! You can do it!

Saving the rooster
“The fish you release is your gift to another angler and remember, it may have been someone’s similar gift to you.” — Lee Wulff (1905-1991)

They come from all corners of the world to catch the exotic fish. It doesn’t look like anything else in the water. With its wide greyish blue body and heavy shoulders, it powers through the shallow pristine waters of Baja and the Pacific Coast of Mexico. When “lit” and in feeding mode, its lateral black “flank stripes” almost look as though they were airbrushed for a racing car. And then there’s the tell-tale dorsal fins that truly set it apart.

Flaring up and out of the water as it slashes through bait schools, there’s no doubt why the “pez gallo” or “roosterfish” derives its name and is king of the beach in this part of the fishing world.

Ranging in size normally in the 20- to 50-pound category. Larger fish running 60 to 90 pounds are not uncommon and even fish over 100 pounds are caught ever year. The IGFA world game fish record was caught in La Paz waters and was a brute that weighed 114 pounds. It was caught in 1960.

The scary part is that fish much larger than that have been released or never weighed because of the lack of a certified scale. One fish weighing an estimated 150 pounds was released near Las Arenas in 2013.

The fish can be found from southern Baja waters down the Pacific coast of Mexico and into central America. But, it’s in Mexican waters that the fish has made its name.

They favor the warm waters along white sand beaches or around outcroppings of reef or rocks where bait such as sardines, ballyhoo or their favorite mullet or lady fish can be found.

The roosters are voracious hunters and attack their food like a jaguar chases down a gazelle. There is no hesitation or ambiguity of intent. The have often been called “Bullies of the Beach” because of their methods of attack and torment.

For these very reasons, they are a highly-prized game fish and why anglers from around-the-world come to these waters to chase the “rooster.” It is especially treasured by flyfishers and light tackle enthusiasts.

It is also why many efforts have been made to preserve the resource.

Fortunately, the fish does not taste very good (lucky for the fish!) and has a very strong and fiberous taste and texture. It takes some getting used to the dark red meat of a roosterfish.

Consequently, many fish are voluntarily released, either out of sportsmanship, or for pragmatic culinary reasons. There are many other fish in the sea that taste far better!

All well and good.

But there has never been a forceful effort to conserve and study these fish. Not being commercially viable because they are poor table fare, it has not been economically feasible to fund any true research as for example, tuna, dorado, or billfish.

Until now. And that effort has come, not from the commercial sector, but from the fishermen themselves who have taken it upon themselves to marshal the efforts.

For one…

The Roosterfish Foundation was set up by a group of dedicated Mexican and American fishing guides, writers, scientists from Mexico as well as the U.S., Canada and Europe, who saw the need and decided to do something about it. This is their mission statement:

“In recognition of the significance of roosterfish to recreational fisheries in the Eastern Pacific, to ensure that roosterfish stocks remain productive, that the fish continues to be a valuable tourist attraction for recreational anglers, the Roosterfish Foundation is committed to developing a clearer understanding of the biology of this coastal species.

To that end, the goal of the Roosterfish Foundation is to gather the data necessary to aid in the enhancement and protection of this valuable aquatic resource.”

As a result, they have created a systematic way to tag, release and record roosterfish catches. Their website contains a wealth of information: sites.google.com/site/theroosterfishfoundation/home.

At our own operation in La Paz at Tailhunter International ( www.tailhunter-international.com) in an area where roosterfish are abundant, we became members and were quickly provided with all we needed.

Included in our package were very unique tagging devices to insert into the back of a fish prior to releasing it. Addition­ally, data cards were also included so that hopefully, information can be collected regarding the whereabouts of these fish and how to better conserve the fishery.

Additionally, now, the governing body called the International Game Fish Association (IGFA) which regulates, tracks and certifies world records for anglers, is also promoting more catch-and-release activities.

In the past, in order to qualify as a world record, an angler had to kill the fish and have it weighed on a certified scale. Releasing a huge fish was simply out of the question.

Now, the IGFA has a new “Release Category” by which an angler can use a special measuring device to judge the length of the fish and submit the fish as a world record “release fish.”

The angler MUST use the IGFA certified and approved measuring device, but this is highly encouraging for the growing number of anglers who like to release fish, but also those questing to be in the record books. There’s no need to kill a fish. This is especially pertinent to roosterfish since the fish has negligible value as food and heretofore was only killed for photo purposes or for record submission or worse to toss into the trash or garden mulch.

Additional information as well as how to obtain an official measuring scale can be obtained here: www.igfa.org/

All-in-all, good news for a special species of fish as well as all fish in general as more folks realize the important of preserving the sports and fish species.

A dearth of ’dines
It’s an early Baja morning and the sun was just starting to light up with golden blue hues against the western horizon. The heat would soon follow, but for now, the dawn was still freshly tinged with the salty residue of the retreating night.

It is early enough that skippers and anglers alike still hunched shoulders in windbreakers and sweatshirts against the nippy breeze and spray knowing full well that the sun would soon throw open the furnace blast of another Mexican day. But, there was no hiding the anxious anticipation of another grand fishing day in the Sea of Cortez.

The panga motored as quietly as possible into the little rocky cove. Several other pangas were already up against the craggy shoreline of the island. In the bows, a skipper or assistant could be seen with cast nets draped over shoulders and squinting sunglasses-covered eyes into the shallow waters.

The captain of this particular launch cut the motor and drifted toward a little warren of rocks. He jumped lightly forward to the prow. Readied his net and with a circular fling; expertly tossed the cast net into the air where it hung; pancaked open; and fell flatly into the waters.

As the captains pulled the drawstring of the net enclosing the snare and drew it towards the waiting panga and anxious anglers, something appeared wrong. Usually, the “pull” of the net would be evidenced by some bit of strain and effort by the captain.

But, he pulled the net effortlessly up.

Normally, with a grunt, the skipper would heave the bulging net up-and-over above the live bait well and with another pull a “zillion trillion” thrashing, splashing, struggling dark-backed sardines (’dines) would tumble en masse into the waiting waters of the bait tank.

Two or three quick tosses more and the panga would be loaded. Then it would be a sprint to the fishing grounds heavily bulging with hook-sized bait and high on anticipation for another day of bent-rods and bloody decks.

But, this time there was no grunt-and-heave. The net came up virtually empty. Four mini-sardines…FOUR…were released into the bait tank. A dozen more net tosses and 90 minutes of searching and scouring produced only a handful of baits for their efforts.

Each fruitloss toss-and-retrieve caused shoulders to sag.

Nothing like starting the fishing day where elation and anticipation backslids into deflation. No bait?

The other pangas did not do much better. They would end up making the best of the day with sliced bonito; a few live ballyhoo; some scrounged mackerel and some chopped-up squid. Just not quite the same as being able to chum handfuls of sardines into the water to get the fish going.

It’s been happening with increased frequency in Baja waters. Especially this year as a combination of variables seems to be combining for a “perfect storm” in terms of bait.

Part of it can’t be helped. It’s nature. Nature does what nature does and it’s like trying to stop sand from getting in your hot dog at the beach. It’s gonna happen.

This appears to be an El Niño season. But, more o, the scientists are saying maybe it’s a “super”
El Niño season with the warmest water and air temperatures in the history of recording El Niño conditions.

The cycle pops up every few years and, in a nutshell, means warmer ocean conditions along the Eastern Pacific coast along the western side of the U.S., Canada and Mexico. Warmer waters mean more storms; higher incidence of hurricane. It’s the reason folks in Washington encounter stray dorado and tuna that lose their way in the warm currents and head far more north than their usual comfort zone.

But, these warmer waters mean the colder waters from the deep trenches don’t come to the surface. The cooler waters bring the nutrients. The nutrients bring the bait fish. The bait fish provide food for the sportfish. Are you following this? One big circle of nature. And tag…this is us this year. Warm waters = less bait.

The other side of the equation is perhaps more ominous. Some would say even a bit sinister. Because we’re doing it to ourselves. We can’t do much about
El Niño. But, us humans aren’t doing much to help ourselves either.

It’s the fish pens. You’ve heard of them. The controversial but apparently successful capture of juvenile tuna and yellowtail in huge nets then raising them in a net-like corral. Grow ‘em big and sell ‘em off. It works. It’s great. It’s economical.

Supply and demand. The planet craves seafood. Heck, it needs food period! The fish pens help fill the need. If it didn’t work, they wouldn’t be using it.

Here’s the rub. Everyone gets the impression that fishing farms are “green.” And there’s a lot of controversy about that. I guess it depends who you’re reading.

But, I’ve read that it takes anywhere from 3 to 10 pounds of “bait food” to grow a tuna one pound bigger. . So, let’s see…to grow a 50-pound tuna? Do the simple math. Hmmmm…that’s a lot of food. It has to come from somewhere.

Arguably, wherever they have set up these “pens” they have depleted the bait stocks. Pretty much raided everything in the waters that could be used or ground up into fish meal. It reminds me of those days when the cattle or sheep came to an area and ate all the grass that held the soil. Resulting in dust bowls. Are we headed for a “toilet bowl?” Are we destined to be live-sized versions of the Tidy Bowl man adrift in blue water?

Here, in La Paz, the head of La Paz Tourism, Sr. Pedro Aguilar told me that the fishfarmers are prohibited from taking bait in the bay and around our two islands. However, our local sportfishing captains tell me that the bait guys from the pens are out at night scouring those very areas capturing all the bait they can get.

The other side is that all the “waste” product has to go somewhere and it’s going right into the waters and creating a whole separate ecological issue. Tons of “fish poo” isn’t a good thing, especially in these shallow areas where the pens are located and ocean currents aren’t there to sluice out the after-product.

If you’ve ever even seen what your kid’s goldfish can do to a home fish bowl after a few days of not changing the water, imagine what a net load of fat tuna can squeeze out.

It’s not just here. It seems to be happening all over. And again, we have the challenge of balancing the need for food; the ecosystem; the sportsmen…and then, of course the corporate interests.

So…a double whammy curse on us. And I don’t know what to do about it. Awfully discouraging.

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