Photo courtesy Gary Graham
A long-time west coast secret, the incredible fishery that is Mexico’s Magdalena Bay is attracting ever increasing international attention. With ever more traveling operations exploring the fishery, we’ve turned to Baja expert and longtime Mag Bay angler Gary Graham to provide a full report on the fishery, how to get there and what to expect.
By Gary Graham
Located on the Pacific side of the Baja Peninsula – approximately 800 miles south of the California border – Magdalena Bay is protected by five barrier islands. Spanning some 131 miles, with most of its shore lined with mangroves, this is the largest bay on the West Coast of the peninsula. An extraordinary habitat, the plankton-rich environment attracts sardine and shrimp with other baitfish which in turn attracts a diversity of sea life. The astonishing offshore fishery stretches approximately 100 miles out in front of Magdalena Bay, from the Thetis Bank north of Cabo San Lázaro, down to below Punta Tosca at the southern end of Santa Margarita Island.
Over the years, as the word spread, the number of local boats large enough to access the offshore action comfortably has grown and many yachts traveling to and from California plan their trips to coincide with the “you have to see it to believe it” fall fishery that can begin as early as August and can last until January. A few yachts make the journey from Mexico, Central America and a few even travel all the way from the U.S. East Coast to experience what many claim can be overwhelming – some of the best striped marlin action on the planet! Yet, the number of boats fishing in the Mag Bay area is still minimal compared to other Baja destinations. Seldom is the visiting recreational fleet large enough or the area fished tight enough to cause any issues and Magdalena Bay continues to remain unblemished by major inroads of tourism.
“The striped marlin fishery at Magdalena Bay is the best there is! When you see the bait show with striped marlin, sea lions, dorado, tuna and whales, it’s like a National Geographic movie…a fantastic fishery!” Capt. Bubba Carter, Los Suenos, Costa Rica, gushed recently. “It is literally a ‘fishing proving ground’ where, more than likely your crew will hook more fish in a week or two than they normally see in most fisheries in a fistful of seasons.” The schools of marlin, wahoo, tuna and dorado that find their way into a boat’s pattern often outnumber the lures being trolled. The multiple double-digit events per day can include four or five species – billfish, dorado and maybe even a wahoo or yellowfin tuna all in one area.
What makes the Magdalena Bay offshore fishing so astonishing is a convergence of conditions that occur in the fall. This spectacle varies from year-to-year but can often reach truly amazing proportions in October and November when the volume of baitfish appears, attracting large schools of billfish – mostly striped marlin – but additional species can also be found feeding frantically on the huge bait balls. “As the sea-temps cool, pelagics that had moved north or came in from the west will move south, following the warmer sea-temps as they retreat down the Baja West Coast. Certainly, the huge volume of bait they find off Mag Bay is one large factor,” observed Steve Crooke, Scientific Adviser, Sportfishing Association of California.
It would be easy to assume that the volume of fish would attract a huge fleet of battlewagons to exploit the Magdalena Bay fishery. Still, the remoteness and lack of facilities, added to the difficulty of getting there has thus far kept the fleet size small. The offshore fishery is primarily accessible only to larger trailer boats and sportfishers with sufficient fuel capacity, water-makers and accommodations that allow extended stays cruising up and down the Pacific Coast of Baja.
Add in a few local pangas and a handful of larger local trailer boats that are available for charter out of the villages of Puerto San Carlos and Adolfo Lopez Mateos for both offshore and in the mangroves, and the number is still insignificant for the size of the area. According to 2018 reports, there were roughly no more than 30 yacht/sportfishers and a few local boats fishing the area at any given time throughout the season that began in October and was still going on in mid-February.
The offshore zone stretches from the Uncle Sam Bank to the north to below Punta Tosca on the southern end, between the “Ridge,” with various bumps and high spots, and including the Thetis and the Petrel Banks along with others. When the fish are in the northern zone, Santa Maria Bay is the preferred anchorage. Ample mackerel are usually around to reload the bait tanks, unless the anchorage is crowded. If that’s the case, there are usually birds picking out at the entrance to the bay where the mackerel are feeding on the surface. Another option to filling the bait tanks is on the fishing grounds beneath the bird schools, that is, if you can keep your crew from getting distracted by all the stripers swimming around the boat!
If the fish are farther down outside in front of the entrada to Mag Bay proper, Belcher’s Fish Camp, located a few miles inside the bay, offers an anchorage which is also a decent spot to load up on bait. Plus, there is an anchorage in front of Puerto Magdalena, although bait fishing is less likely most of the time. If all else fails in the bait department, the entrada itself often has mackerel schools chasing sardines on the surface; or they can be found on the meter.
If the main body of fish is in the lower zone outside of Punta Tasco at the south end of Isla Santa Margarita, anchoring options are either Punta Tasco or along the lee of Santa Margarita Island – or the adventurous, if willing, can run the narrow channel into the bay (the smallest of the bays mentioned). At times bait is available in the anchorage, but if not, it can be replenished out on the fishing grounds. Mag Bay offshore encompasses a much larger area than many expect. Getting good information from another boat fishing in the area or that has only recently departed can be extremely useful and a good starting point.
Warning: Weather and conditions can change quickly. It is very important to watch for weather changes, calculate fuel consumption, boat range, and have a plan for the closest place to duck inside for cover. The area is remote and access to fuel and supplies are limited…another reason good planning is essential!
Dialing in Striped Marlin
Striped marlin fishing in most parts of the world is often more looking-than-hooking – where every detail is examined and every technique debated – trolling speed, pattern, lure color, single, double or no hook, bait type, and so on, can fill the countless hours in-between bites and heart-pounding action. “Typically, catching is the easy part at Mag Bay. There is a tremendous amount of bird life normally piled up on gamefish. Find the birds and the fish won’t be far,” Captain Mark Rayor, Jen Wren Sportfishing, Los Barriles, BCS.
This fishery is clearly bait driven and enough time should always be devoted to having a full bait tank. Any of the anchorages available in the area are worth a shot at fishing bait while on anchor. Check the meter to see what is under the boat. Use Lucky Joes, Sabiki rigs or anything similar. Because of the size and volume of the bait caught, cutting the rigs in half makes them more manageable.
Just drop them down and either twitch the rig or slightly yoyo. When the bait is tough, cast to the school and let the bait rig move down through the water column at an angle; this method can be productive. If chum is needed to entice them under the boat, cat food is one solution that has become popular and doesn’t take much room aboard the boat.
If the anchorage is crowded, the mackerel may disappear. Watch for bird schools at the entrance and try those spots. Another alternative is to catch them out on the grounds. One of the mistakes often made by crews of visiting sport fishers is their failure to pay attention along the way as they head straight for the high spots or where they left the fish the day before. As an example, when departing from Santa Maria, always check the 100-fathom drop-off that curves northwest from Cabo San Lazaro for bird schools and feeding fish.
Frigates are just one type of sea-bird easily spotted from long distances – either high flying or in tight bunches closer to the surface of the water – a sure sign that there is bait being pushed to the surface by something feeding below. Terns are another sure indicator of feeding fish, often spotted flying close to the surface, picking up the leftovers from a sardine bait school being chased by feeding fish. When running to the fishing area, the more people looking in binoculars the better the results. Although most of the fleet generally heads for the high spots, the fish are usually spread out and the bird schools are a great way to figure out where the fish are on any given day.
Normally, when fish feed on the surface there is no need for an elaborate spread. Hookless lures in-stock colors or ballyhoo should be all that is needed to draw them behind the boat, and then its drop back or cast live bait. Don’t stop on the first bite. Multiple hookups are the part of the game that makes it fun for all.
When examining Magdalena Bay, take time to take a peek at the inshore which offers a variety of habitats. The inshore is equally unusual in a different way. This is marked by a multitude of channels, both deep and shallow, leading to the mangrove-lined esteros. They are remarkable in that they offer their own challenges for white sea bass, spotted bay bass, broomtail grouper, corvina, halibut, pompano, a variety of snapper, sierra, black snook, palometa amarilla, and a host of other species. There are also the sandy beaches, rock structures, and shallow sandbars where many of these species hide out.
There are a few mangrove channels near Puerto Magdalena not far from the anchorage, as well as along the anchorage at San Maria. Both of these areas are easily accessible with an inflatable. There are pangas for hire that dart back and forth between the anchorages.
It takes an alert angler to capitalize on the opportunities found inshore. Anglers who have fished mangroves before already know that many freshwater techniques can come into play – fishing the current as steelhead fishermen do, using top water poppers like bass fishermen, or fishing different parts of the water column like trout fishermen with streamers.
Understanding tidal flow is crucial! The temptation to attempt to capitalize on high and low slack is always present. Contrary to offshore behavior, the inshore bite usually shuts off at high slack. Incoming or outgoing tide or current is an angler’s friend regardless of what style fishing: live bait, artificial or fly. Ripping current and water color are a couple of clues to watch for together with birds diving, baitfish on the surface and fish chasing bait.
Casting along the edges of the channel, using different lures – top-water, sub-surface or heavier gear on the bottom – until the right combination is found that the fish can’t resist, can be the key to success. An excellent way to determine the most likely area to target is slow-trolling a Rapala-style swimming lure along the mangrove-lined shoreline in order to locate spots where the fish are schooling.
According to Captain Peter Groesbeck (see sidebar), “The key to the whole area is about bait. When fish come into that area (either offshore or inshore) or any area down there, the bait is the reason why. If the conditions are right and there’s a lot of bait, they will find it!”
So, if you want to experience some of the finest fishing available, Mag Bay should be your destination. Be sure to do your homework, be patient and you can experience the marvel of the Magdalena Bay action.
Recent Reports from Mag Bay
Captain Peter Groesbeck is a 30-year-veteran of fishing Mag Bay. In 2017, aboard Total Chaos, Groesbeck observed that the striped marlin bite went off in August and lasted until mid-December. In 2018, the action began in October and was still happening in February 2019, although there were few sports fishers remaining in the area. The reports received by that time were from Long Range boats passing through.
This year, 2018/2019, there was a large volume of fish with three different schools from above the Thetis Bank, down off Santa Maria Bay, outside Mag Bay and off Punta Tosca. The bait could be made either out where the fish were or inside Mag Bay at Belcher’s or even in front of Puerto Magdalena. Although some bait was at Santa Maria, the number of boats in that area made it hard to catch.
“We used the ‘run-and-gun’ method when the fish were up feeding; and dredges, teasers and ballyhoo when the fish weren’t showing. Both techniques were very effective. We didn’t use lures often, but when we did, normal colors worked,” Groesbeck concluded.
There are flights available to Los Cabos, La Paz and Loreto from San Diego and Tijuana – and many other places in the States. The main international airport, San Jose Del Cabo (SJD), is about a half hour’s drive north of Cabo San Lucas. From the Los Cabos Airport by car, it is a five and one-half hour drive (263.7 miles) by car to Puerto San Carlos and to Adolfo Lopez Mateos, 265.8, miles or a little over five and one-half hours.
From the La Paz airport, there are a couple of options: Mag Bay Outfitters offers shuttle service to both villages and the other option is by rental car. It is a three and one-half-hour drive to either village.
From Loreto, the best bet is the shuttle service of Mag Bay Outfitters, a taxi, or a rental car for the one and one-half hour drive. Mag Bay Outfitters can also arrange a ride out to the anchorage at Santa Maria Bay to meet your boat as well as deliver fuel to the boat.
Hotel Choices – Puerto San Carlos
The Brennan Hotel, www.hotelbrennan.com.mx/Secciones/inicio
Hotel Alcatraz, hotelalcatraz.mx/hotel-san-carlos/
Hotel Choices – Adolfo Lopez Mateos
Whale Tales Inn, magbayoutfitters.com/whales-tale-inn-1
Sportfishing and other services including Transfer Service from La Paz and Loreto, as well as out to private sport fishers anchored at Santa Maria Bay.
Mag Bay Outfitters
Google “Sportfishing Hotel Happy Shrimp,” ballenasypescadeportivaenlopezmateos.com/en
Jen Wren Sportfishing – Custom Mag Bay Charters, offering multi-day offshore trips. www.teamjenwren.com
For private aircraft (both jets and standard), Ciudad Constitución Airport is one mile east of the central business district with a paved 5,250-foot runway. There is also a dirt strip available at Adolfo Lopez Mateos