Krazy Salts — Capt. Keith Greenberg
Krazy Salts — Capt. Keith Greenberg
By Elliott Stark
The Galápagos is such an amazing place that describing a trip to these islands is difficult. Whereas recounting the catch statistics in many places provides a pretty good indication of the experience, here it doesn’t scratch the surface. Talking of only the number of giant ass striped marlin you catch in the Galápagos would be kinda like describing a culinary tour of the best restaurants in Italy solely in terms of how many calories you ate.
Just as recounting catch information provides an inaccurate summary of the trip, describing the impact of the experience of visiting the Galápagos perhaps requires a bit of context. These islands are literally in the middle of nowhere. They are 583 miles west of continental Ecuador… from there, next stop China. This remoteness has influenced the region’s fisheries and wildlife and its history.
That the Galápagos is teeming with life is not news. Charles Darwin could have told you that in 1835. He was taken enough with the inhabitants of these islands that his experience here shaped his postulation of the Theory of Evolution. Though Darwin, an English naturalist, is the historical figure most famously associated with the islands, Las Islas Galápagos were discovered by the Spanish ships that were blown offshore when trying to sail to Peru in 1535.
For islands that are so remote, the Galápagos have found themselves strategically positioned for the interests of a number of groups. The period between their discovery until the late 1700s, the islands were a hideout used by English pirate ships who attacked the Spanish treasure fleet. In those days, the waters off of Peru and Ecuador were ground zero for ships loaded with gold from the Incan empire en route to Spain.
In the late 1700s, the Galápagos provided a base of operation for whaling ships in the Pacific Ocean. Sperm whale oil passing through the Galápagos was involved in powering the Industrial Revolution. The Galápagos were annexed by Ecuador in 1832, visited by Darwin in 1835. During World War II, the islands were home to a US naval base for radar operation. By this time, the islands’ importance lie in protecting the Panama Canal.
In 1959, the islands were designated a national park. In the late 2000s, Tim Choate set up his fishing operation—which was largely the first time many outside of Ecuador considered fishing the islands. These days, the Galápagos is largely a tourist economy. In 2018, an estimated 275,000 people visited the islands.
Looking at a map of the Pacific, it’s immediately apparent that the Galápagos are physically isolated. This isolation is central to most everything about the Galápagos. A volcanic archipelago, the islands share a similar origin with many Pacific island chains—Hawaii and the like.
The Galápagos sit at the intersection of three major ocean currents. The Peru Current brings cold, nutrient rich waters northward along the Pacific Coast of South America before spinning westwardly into the path of the Galápagos. The warm Panama Current runs from the north, the result of the Pacific Equatorial Counter Current’s deflection off of the coast of Central America. These currents intermix with waters deflected to the ocean’s surface by upwelling of the deep water Cromwell Current that flows into the Galápagos from the west. Places in the world where deep waters are deflected to the surface are generally among the most productive, the Galápagos is no different.
The combination of isolated islands bathed by a combination of ocean currents from diverse sources contributes to many of the islands’ unique characteristics. It’s tempting to think that it was one of these currents that delivered a land tortoise to the island. A million years later, the tortoises have grown to gigantic proportions (fun fact: did you know that if you place the InTheBite Monkey close to a giant tortoise to take a picture of them, the turtle might hiss at it? When they crane their heads out to hiss, their necks look like giant, thick Slim Jims. It is true.)
The intermixing of currents also contributes to the region’s incredible fisheries. Relative to the normal striped marlin haunts on this side of the world, the striped marlin here are gigantic. The upwelled nutrients support sardine populations that feed them and the throngs of sea lions, frigates, boobies, and all kinds of other birds.
Juan Kayser and his family own and operate Galapwonder charters out of San Cristobal, the easternmost island in the Galápagos. Operating out of a 37’ Bertram, Galapwonder offers a diverse charter regime to clients. Juan was a more than gracious host for our trip in February.
On the trip were Dale Wills, his ten-year-old son Zachary, and myself. Our itinerary included two days of marlin fishing and a day of excursions in the park. The third day of the trip included hiking in lava fields and into caves within them, snorkeling around León Dormido (a rock formation whose silhouette looks like a sleeping lion), and bottom fishing.
While it might sound odd to go snorkeling instead of striped marlin fishing, it was really quite an experience. The rock feature juts out of the ocean to perhaps 300 feet or so. Beneath the waterline is a sheer drop that is covered in coral. Grouper, snapper, all kinds of reef fish cling to the wall. The area is a cleaning station for hammerheads and other sharks. We also swam with a sea lion, a bunch of turtles and some manta rays. The volcano was a wild and interesting experience as well.
Accommodations for the trip were provided at Kayser’s hotel, the Galápagos Planet. A charming, 30 room facility, the place has an in-house restaurant that sits on the pool and features a custom built, wood burning pizza oven. The hotel was in the process of launching a new menu at its restaurant—The
Lobster Shack. Highlighted by great pizza and the fresh seafood for which Ecuador is known, it is a wonderful place to round out a day’s fishing.
The hotel is about three blocks from the marina. Between the boat and the rooms is the town’s boardwalk, complete with bars, restaurants, souvenir shops and beaches piled high with sea lions. Boats are moored in a protected harbor. Getting onto and off of shore involves a short water taxi ride to or from a dock.
The Galápagos’ primary claim to fame in sportfishing circles are the mobs of very big striped marlin. The fishing season here runs from January through June, with February and March being typically the peak. The fishing generally involves running to banks offshore. Once on the grounds, the presence of bait is betrayed by flocks of diving booby birds and frigates. The sight of the birds mobbing a bait ball is one to behold. Even 30 miles offshore, sea lions get in on the action, alternatively lounging around on the water’s surface and attacking bait while porpoising through the water.
When you hit it right, it does not take long for the reports of the great striped marlin fishing to be borne true. There is so much bait in the water that the ocean seems alive. The striped marlin run much larger here than in their other haunts on this side of the world. Kayser estimates the average fish to come in between 150-200 pounds.
Galapwonder’s normal arsenal for targeting the stripes here is pulling lures on Alutecnos 50-wides and a bridge teaser on either side. For those who have spent time fishing in Cabo and wonder if 50-pound gear is overkill for striped marlin, but these fish are a bit different. They run larger than those in Cabo and even those that are caught on the mainland of Ecuador—some 600 miles away. The fish come in fired up and ready for action and fight like they mean it. If they are able to get into the current that runs beneath the surface, it can take some doing to wench them out… especially if you hook a 200-pound striper on a 30.
On the first day our trip, we caught two striped marlin and a hand full of dolphin. While we only got two to the boat, we had 11 bites and saw more than 20. Many of the fish we saw were in groups of two to five, tailing on the surface or lazily swimming about. There was enough food around that they seemed full and content to watch us pass by without committing to eat a lure or a ballyhoo that we packed down from the states.
A couple of the fish that we pitched to switched nicely enough, but dog boned the ballyhoo instead of eating it… swimming along with the boat, rather than cooperating as they could have. The two or three other boats fishing that day experienced the same type deal. The day was a blast. We saw all manner of life and got a good feel for the place. The first marlin we caught was Zachary’s first time tangling with a marlin. The second weighed 200-pounds and could well have eaten your garden variety Cabo striped marlin.
The next day we ran to another bank. We followed the same type of program. Upon arriving at the bank we found the birds who were sitting, diving and raising hell on a bait ball. We trolled around, but didn’t find any willing participants. We saw a pile of striped marlin around the birds, cruising lazily around in small groups. Next thing you know, Zachary yells, “There’s a marlin!” This one looked a bit different than the others—thicker fins that were more purple than blue.
It was a swordfish basking on the surface. It was not giant, maybe 60-pounds. It’s dorsal and tail fins sticking out of the water as it lounged around. We trolled around him a couple of times, hoping for something that was probably not going to happen. Then we thought it might be possible to snag him with a popper on the spinning rod (a redneck approach? Sure, but it sounded like fun). By the time we managed all of this, the fish, of course, faded from view.
While standing on the bow, ready to sling a popper at something—dolphins, sea lions and birds were mashing bait all around the boat—it started raining boobies. The things were dive bombing in every direction and we were about in the middle of it. The things crashed close enough to the boat that I had visions of the newspaper headlines, “Florida man impaled by bird while trying to snag swordfish with popper.”
We wound up catching three striped marlin on our second day. We saw a bunch more and quite a few more lazy bites. For lunch it was dorado ceviche, made the way that Juan and company prepare it at the restaurant. We’ve published the recipe in this issue. It was a wonderful day rounded out by a couple beers in the pool and the chef’s run-through of every item on the new menu for dinner.
The Galápagos has a good run of big tuna in some years. Given its dependence on ocean currents, some years the tuna show up in great numbers, others they do not. There is also a bit of variability in the fishing between the different islands. While San Cristobal, where we fished, gets mostly striped marlin, with a few blues mixed in, the Island of Isabela—which is a bit to the west of San Cristobal—gets a consistent run of big blue marlin each April. Fish in the neighborhood of 400-pounds are common, with reports of substantially larger fish being somewhat common.
Isabela also gets a number of black marlin. The fish are not common enough to target, but when they see one it tends to run large. They also get good numbers of tuna, a solid wahoo bite at certain times of the year and encounter swordfish with regularity. The average fish, Kayser reports, is of the 80- to 100-pound variety.
With all of the incredible fishing opportunities in the Galápagos, you’d imagine there to be a fleet of 100 boats and a contingent of those from the mainland traveling in and out each season. This is not the case. There are not many operations fishing in the Galápagos and private boats are not permitted to fish within the Park’s boundaries. If a private boat comes to the area, it may transit between the islands with ranger on board, but may not fish within the reserve.
If you want to fish the area, it must be on a registered boat with a permitted operator—such as Galapwonder. The permit system is an interesting one. Its origin lies in efforts made to conserve the islands’ fisheries. There used to be a very active number of artisanal commercial fishermen operating in the Galápagos. As a way of conserving fisheries resources without displacing livelihoods, the Galápagos set up a permit system whereby the commercial fishermen were given operating permits to run boats in the park. Through time, these permits have come to allow them to operate the sportfishing boats that work within the park.
The permits are tied to the holder. The permit holder can then register his boat and fish in the area. Companies can enter arrangements with permit holders, but each permit holder is entitled to register one boat to operate. Galapwonder is planning to upgrade its boat for the 2021 season, but the avenue by which it happens is much more complicated than simply buying a boat and bringing it to the islands.
The regulations that govern access to fishing are complicated. They effectively limit access to fishing in these waters. In many contexts limiting entry to sportfishing activities is a bad deal, but the fact that there are still areas that don’t get covered up with boats is somehow part of the charm of the Galápagos. As a result, if you want to experience the Galápagos and its striped marlin fishery, you’ll have to do it with a licensed permit holder and fish with a park ranger on board.
Beyond the difficulty in registering boats to fish, there is the setting of the place. The boats in San Cristobal are moored in a protected harbor. Getting to them each morning requires a boat taxi ride that is an easy deal, if you don’t accidentally step on a sleeping sea lion. Returning to the fuel dock is a trip back in time.
The fuel is delivered to the boat in the form of a pickup truck carrying two or three 55 gallon barrels. From there, gravity takes care of the rest, pushing the fuel through the hose (which is tossed to the boat) and into the tank. Similarly, the islands do not have haul out capability. Bottom work is done on certain beaches at low tide.
The Galápagos are a wild and rugged place, endowed with a certain charm that is all their own. The fishing here can be great, but it’s worth the trip even if you don’t fly 15 striped marlin flags per day. There is much to be seen (did you know that sea lions really seem to enjoy barking at and biting one another, even without much apparent provocation?) It is easy to see why Charles Darwin enjoyed them so much.
The first Europeans ever to discover the Galápagos were blown offshore of Peru. Charles Darwin got here on a Beagle… a wind-powered ship by that name. Fortunately, visiting the islands is much easier these days. There are regular flights to and from the islands into and out of Guayaquil, Ecuador—a city that also has a full-service international airport. Kayser explains that some groups fly down to Quito, Ecuador, a city through which the Equator passes. Quito has a good tourism infrastructure with quite a bit to do, but does not offer flights to the Galápagos. After spending a couple days enjoying Quito, these groups fly to Guayaquil to board a plane to the islands.
For more info on traveling to Galapwonder send us a message.
By Elliott Stark
As we all sit here awaiting the world’s return to normalcy, the fact that the world is more connected now than ever before is an inescapable conclusion. Everything is interwoven. Events and decisions that are made in one place can affect many others—even those that live on the opposite side of the world.
While much of this interconnectedness–and the impact that personal choice can have on others– has been focused on the health side of the equation, there are many aspects to consider. Fishing is something that is normally considered an individual activity or one that is accomplished by a small crew of people—after all part of the charm of going fishing is that you’re not doing it at the mall surrounded by 5,000 people.
Unlike the iconic image of a lone fisherman walking down a deserted beach or stream, the sportfishing industry is far from a singular entity. It rather depends on an interconnected web of commerce and purchase decisions made by people across not only the United States, but the world. As with most any business, those within the sportfishing industry rely on a series of transactions to generate the revenue they need to keep going. For many businesses around the world Covid-19 and its associated decreases in travel, consumption, and overall economic activity has interrupted the necessary chain of commerce.
As we wait this deal out, there may be nothing that we can do to speed along the freedom to travel—you couldn’t jump on a plane to your favorite international destination today if you wanted to (even if you flew down there on your own private jet, they might not let you in). There are however decisions that we can make to help sportfishing businesses weather this time of lost income and general uncertainty. For many, the essence of this movement has been captured in the phrase “Postpone, don’t cancel.”
Postpone, Don’t Cancel
If you have a trip on the books that has to be moved because of the pandemic, consider postponing it rather than canceling it. This helps charter businesses considerably. Will Drost, who operates Maverick Sportfishing (https://www.mavericksportfish.com/) out of Los Sueños explains it like this, “For us the best case is for clients to plan long range trips. We know that nothing in our industry hasn’t been affected by this, but we appreciate that most of our clients have been postponing instead of canceling trips. For our situation, everything is in place for postponing trips—airline companies have been issuing credits for displaced travel.”
Captain Kiwi Van Leeuwen who, with his wife, owns and operates the Sailfish Oasis Lodge in Guatemala (https://sailfishoasis.com/) provides a bit more context. “All of our clients have rescheduled instead of canceled, we are thankful for that. For us, it’s best if clients can reschedule for later this year instead of the same dates next year. If that happens (rescheduling for the same dates next year), we effectively lose those days. We are hopeful to be back in business by October. We feel that the Guatemalan tourist industry is in a relatively good position because the government acted early and closed the borders. We hope that this will mitigate the impact that we feel in the country a bit.”
The Charter Industry is Particularly Vulnerable
The men and women who own and operate charter boats and fishing lodges depend on visiting anglers for their livelihoods. While most within the general public might think of a fishing trip as a vacation– an optional trip that can be cancelled without too much inconvenience, the money spent by charter guests is the lifeblood of charter boat businesses and the livelihoods of those who operate them.
Operators in this segment are particularly impacted by the virus. This impact is felt on two levels. The first and most obvious lies in the impact of the travel ban. If you are physically prevented from visiting an area, you most certainly cannot fish there. This leaves operators and lodges forced to close their doors—even if it is the peak of their season. Have you seen the tuna videos coming out of Venice, Louisiana in the days leading up to when the marina was closed? It was the best it had been in years.
The travel bans, and decreased travel in places where it is not banned outright, effect fishing operators all over the world. Those international lodges that rely on US customers suffer from closed borders. There are also travel restrictions in the states as well—you can’t get into the Florida Keys without proof of residency. Marinas are closed and fishing has ground to a halt in many of the hotbeds of the charter industry—the Gulf Coast of Florida, Venice, Louisiana, Ocean City, Maryland, the Outer Banks, South Florida—you name it.
Restricted travel is but the first level of vulnerability faced by fishing operators. The second layer is less obvious, but no less daunting. For many, a fishing vacation is considered a luxury item. What is the first thing that is cut back when someone feels an economic pinch? Luxury items.
How does that happen? The economic impacts from the pandemic are widespread. Beyond those whose jobs or livelihoods have been directly affected to this point, many others have tightened their purse strings as they worry about what the future holds. Economists describe this level of impact in terms of consumer confidence.
As a general rule, when things are good and consumers (people who buy things) are confident that they will continue to be good into the future, people spend money freely. When consumers face uncertainty—such as that caused by the virus and how long its impacts will last—they tend to spend less money. When they decide to spend less money, the fishing trips and other “optional” items are the first to go. Both of these scenarios- restricted travel and dampened consumer outlook– impact the bottom line when it comes to businesses in the sportfishing space.
What Can You Do?
Let’s start with a couple of conclusions. The men and women who operate sportfishing businesses provide a hell of an important service to all of us. Unless you have your own boat or happen to have a good buddy that does, about the only chance for the average person to fish offshore is by hiring a fishing guide. Many of the people that now currently own boats can trace their desire to purchase one to an experience fishing with a guide or lodge. They are also the type of local, small businesses that every community needs.
The second consideration has two facets: Charter boat owners face bills and overhead whether they are chartering or not. Bills such as dockage, maintenance and overhead must be paid whether there are clients coming down the docks or not. Beyond the fact that bills are due whether clients come or not, charter fishing for many operators is a seasonal affair.
In most places, operators make the bulk of their income for the year during their high seasons. For some—like operators in the Bahamas, places like Destin, Florida that depend on spring break business or sailfish operators in Costa Rica—the high season is now. The effect of closures for these men and women is doubled. Not only are they forced to close now, now may be the time that they earn the money they need for the rest of the year.
Captain Adam Peeples runs One Shot Charters (http://oneshotcharters.com/) in Destin. He explains the situation like this, “The big thing for us is that we don’t know when we can get back to work. Having to refund deposits hurts. The beaches are closed through April 30. Right now I have a good May and June on the books, but if the closures are extended it could really hurt. The optimal situation for us right now would be for customers to be flexible. Without knowing when things will open, if they could reschedule to come down when they’re able that would really help.”
“The charter community here typically spends quite a bit of money over the winter time getting the boat ready for our spring break business. The average charter guy’s financial situation tends to be pretty tight—you do this because you love it not because you’re going to get super rich. You spend the money in the winter time to recoup it in the spring. The spring break season in Destin is lots of bottom fishing—four and six hour trips, but it’s a lot of business. Being down March and April, I might be down 60 or 70% on the year. Its recoverable if we have a good remainder of the year.”
“The consensus around here is that this is worse than the BP Oil Spill or the recession (of 2008).”
Now is a perfect time to….
If you and your family have been fortunate enough to not have been financially impacted by the pandemic, now might be a good time to consider planning a fishing trip. Thinking about—and better yet starting to plan for—a future fishing trip makes the time of being stuck around the house in quarantine that much more palatable. This is a direct benefit to you.
More than that however, putting a deposit down for a future trip can inject some cash into a local fishing business that could probably really use some about now. You can think of it in whatever terms you like, but the deposit could well be used for groceries or a mortgage payment for your favorite charter captain and his family. Not only can a deposit now inject some cash, having a day booked in the future helps with providing the confidence that every small business owner could use about now—that there is hope for a solid rebound once all of this craziness subsides.
Sometimes things are about fishing. Sometimes they are about humanity. Then there are times when the two interconnect. That fishing and humanity intersect so tangibly shouldn’t be surprising anymore—after all, it seems like just about everything in the world depends on something else these days.
If we can help you with any charter recommendations in the United States or beyond, shoot us a note…
The First Place I’m Headed” is a virus-free web series published exclusively on InTheBite.com. It profiles the first places that we’re headed to fish as soon as normalcy once again returns to this world of ours…
By Elliott Stark
Every year in the middle of May, no matter where I am or what I’m doing, I get the itch to go to Panama. The yellowfin tuna and black marlin fishing surrounding the Coiba region of Panama that time of year is wonderful. The sight of big tuna stacking up bait on a floating tree, mashing as many blue runners as they can binge as fast as possible ranks among the most amazing thing you can see on the water.
I first became aware of the great fishing around Coiba Island in Panama while I was working at The Billfish Foundation. Of course, the great fishing here has been known to others for much longer than this, but things have a way of becoming important to you once you hear about them for yourself… My good buddies Captain Wade Richardson and his father John would take their operation—the Hooker, a 42’ Merritt the Picaflor and mothership to Coiba in April and May. That must have been 2010. Their stories– and pictures of the big ass blacks they turned loose– made quite an impression.
In March 2012 I left The Billfish Foundation to take a job running a mothership operation in Panama. It was a pretty big leap that came with a giant learning curve, but the next thing you know, Alex (we’re married now, but were engaged at the time) and I were living and working on a 164’ ship with four sportfishers and a panga in tow. While our base of operations was in the Pearl Islands for most of the year, we’d take the boats to Coiba to fish April and May. Once there, we’d anchor in a cove on the island that was about eight miles removed from the Hannibal Bank.
We’d take out mostly Canadian and American charter guests, who on the whole generally had little to moderate offshore fishing experience—even less if you excluded salmon fishing in British Columbia. We’d introduce clients to tropical ocean fishing by tying them into big tuna and if they were lucky, a marlin or two. Most of them would leave with the same feeling about Coiba that I had.
The first year the bosses brought down a film crew from Canada to document a trip fishing here. In three days’ fishing—a trip that spanned May 14, 15, and 16– we caught two blacks in the neighborhood of 600, a 500 or so pound blue, and pulled up to more than a couple frothing masses of tuna frenzying on the surface. Our other lodge boats caught a bunch of other fish too. Carlo Wein and his crew from Alterna Films had a front-row seat to just how incredible the place can be.
Our second year fishing in Coiba, Dale Wills came down with the 2012 Captain of the Year Rob Moore and Frank Rodriguez—owner of the Fa-La-Me. They had a captain of the year party on the boat and caught some really quality fish too. It was highlighted by Frank’s 700 or so pound black marlin.
During our second go-around in Coiba, I had the privilege of meeting Captain Shane Jarvis. We had a maintenance issue with one of the boats and Shane was nice enough to fill in and take a pair of clients fishing for us. It was a father and his son. The son was probably around 20 or so.
How well did Captain Shane produce? Upon returning to the ship for the evening after their first day of fishing, the father was quite mad at me. He claimed that because Shane had put them on so many big tuna, that he thought his son had torn his biceps. His son didn’t actually injure himself and by the end of their time the father was no longer mad (and the son had a bit better form fighting tuna).
And so it has been since returning to the states, Shane and I have remained friends. We see each other once or twice each year usually at ICAST or somewhere. Sometimes he comes to the house for dinner while in town for a boat show. We frequently talk about fishing and have been planning a trip for some time.
Shane and his father own a private island from which they have built their lodge from the ground up (www.fishpanamatoday.com). They host charter clients for most of the year. In January they took delivery of their third 33’ World Cat. A while back we published an article about the lodge and the story of its growth. Shane shared his story and about how the lodge came about.
He also told us about his favorite day fishing… Try this one for size, “There have been a lot over the years,” he says, “but if I had to pick one, I’d say the day we got a 50-pound dorado, a 50-pound cubera snapper, caught a bunch of tunas up to 100-pounds or so and released two black marlin.” Yes, that was all in the same day.
Shane put a trip together last year with our good buddy, and former contributor, Charlie Levine. Charlie went down in the middle of May. Shane put Charlie and his buddies on the meat—they mugged the tuna… mashed ‘em. Looking at Charlie’s nightly pictures from the trip made me a little sick that I wasn’t there (the guys invited me down, but I couldn’t make the dates work).
2020 was going to be different. Shane called me up and said he was putting together a trip in May… the 19th to the 23rd. The plan was to fly into Panama City, spend the night—enough time to grab a giant super colita (20 ounce tri-tip steak) and a half pitcher of Sangria from Gaucho’s Steakhouse—before heading to Shane’s island for a few days of tuna slaying.
I’m not exactly sure of the timing at this point, but there you have it. What’s the first thing I’m going to do once things open up? I’m going to kill some tuna… a bunch of them with Captain Shane Jarvis. We’ll spend a few days racing around between Jicaron, Montuosa, Ladrones and the many other small and fishy islands that dot this very special, uniquely wonderful part of the world. It’ll be a few days of fishing with a good buddy or two, telling stories of trips past and those to come, eating as much sashimi and yellowfin sushi as Shane’s chefs can make, and trying to remember which type of Panamanian domestic beer I like best.
Where’s the first place you’re headed? Send us a note you might see it on InTheBite.com. For more information on Shane’s Sport Fish Panama Island Lodge, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or fill out the form below and our InTheBite concierge service will be happy to assist you.
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!
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. It 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.
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 the code), 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 Villas-Isabela, www.magdalenabaywhales.com
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
“InTheBite is excited to announce our upcoming 6-day trip to the Galapagos Islands Feb. 25 through March 1 to experience the culture and the fishing within this archipelago in the Pacific Ocean.
A designated UNESCO World Heritage site, these 19 islands located several hundred miles off the Ecuador coast are renowned for their natural beauty, on and off the land. And with a location at the convergence of three ocean currents, these waters are the go-to for offshore angling action.
And this isn’t just any fishing venture — InTheBite Publisher Dale Wills will be making the trip with his son, Zachary, who just turned 10 and is already doing his research on these islands. To prepare for their trip, Zachary, an angler in his own right, has been reading a book about the Galapagos for the past couple of weeks on his drive to school. We think he’s ahead of the game for this once-in-a-lifetime father-son trip.
“This isn’t only a trip to go fishing, it’s also an educational trip for both he and I,” Wills says. “I just feel really privileged to go on this trip with my son.”
The adventure starts at Galapwonder — which provides anglers with all-inclusive sportfishing experiences — from where Zachary and the team will be heading out to fish on the 35’ Bertram Andale, one of Tim Choate’s old boats, known for raising fish.
According to Galapwonder Founder and Owner Juan Kayser, the weather has been hot with scattered showers and the bite has been on since January with boats averaging double-digit raises on striped marlin. There have also been big blues showing up in addition to sightings of bait, sharks, sea lions and killer whales.
Throughout the trip, we will be keeping viewers updated through our website, InTheBite.com and our social media pages. Our goal is to document and showcase Zachary and his dad on their first international billfish adventure as well as the lodge, recreational activities like snorkeling, and, of course, the beautiful natural environment.
We look forward to sharing this exciting trip with you and highlighting the diverse wonder known as the Galapagos Islands. And stay tuned for the full story in our upcoming issue of InTheBite Magazine. We’re going to have some epic days ahead.
By Mark B. Hatter
“We know more about the moon than we know about the habits of billfish.”
Brad Philipps, captain, owner and operator of the charter boat Decisive and Guatemala Billfishing Adventures, introspectively remarked as we sipped whisky and smoked Cuban cigars on the rooftop of his Casa Philipps in Antigua, this January. It had been a VERY slow week, yet under the uncharacteristic circumstances, we raised and released more sailfish using fly tackle than any other boat in the fleet.
So, I am not so sure about Philipp’s moon and billfish remark.
In November, I rode along with Philipps on the Decisive during the three-day charity No Sancocho tournament sponsored by Casa Vieja Lodge in Puerto San Jose. It was a remarkable tournament played out under a variety of conditions, from glassy calm to stacked waves from the “Papagayo,” which blew hard on the third day. Yet, under the changing conditions, one thing was abundantly clear: Brad Philipps knows more about billfish than science knows about the moon!
By the end of the tournament, the competitors were, well, in a word, crushed! Philipps and his team racked-up an amazing 55 sailfish releases (including three triples) and an unprecedented eight blue marlin releases, including four on the last day. All on light tackle!
I have been to Guatemala many times in the last 15 years and have fished with several captains. Yet, until last November, I was only familiar with Philipps though his peers, where his reputation preceded him. Invariably, his name invoked admiration with, perhaps, a tinge of envy.
And why not? In his 20 years fishing Guatemala he has amassed a plethora of trophies and accolades from every blue-water organization on the planet. On November 30, 2015, Philipps released his 30,000th billfish. He is getting close to exceeding 40K by now, his wife and business partner, Cindy, has been nagging him to give her the current update so she can post it on their website.
Considering that the Guatemala fishing season runs October through May, when you do the math, it deduces to an amazing average of 16 sailfish releases per day. No wonder why his crew rigs at least one hundred ballyhoo for a day’s charter and why he carries and, more importantly, may deploy dozens of different plastic teasers out of his arsenal of more than 100 in a day’s outing.
When I came back to fish with Philipps in early January, guess what I carried with me? More new, custom teaser heads and sheets of plastic skirts he’d ordered from the states!
Philipps is humble and will downplay his successes, explaining that his formula is simple: consummate preparation will reward you when opportunity presents itself. This was self-evident in November during the No Sancocho tournament and again in January where Philipps found agreeable sailfish for the fly rod when the bite was virtually nonexistent.
“I wish I could at least see a F*#king sailfish!” one captain quipped over the radio as we had yet raised another aggressive fish in our spread on our last day.
The next time I hope to sip whisky with Captain Brad Philipps, I will remind him of our January starlight cocktail conversation. Then I will offer him the following corollary: “We know more about the moon than perhaps most know about the habits of billfish.”
And I know just who that exception is.
By Elliott Stark
“I am a redneck, I eat gas station nachos. Before that phone call, I didn’t even know what a feminist was… and I certainly wasn’t trying to piss any of them off,” says Bobby MacGrath, director of the Marlin Grander Prix. “We’ve just been down here, minding our own business – running a fishing tournament for three decades. Aside from a couple weather cancellations, the events have gone off without a hitch. Then this happened.”
By Dave Ferrell
Grander marlin popped up like ants at a summer picnic this past November on the Great Barrier Reef, providing lucky anglers and crews with some of the best black marlin fishing they’ve seen here for some time. According to Granderwatch.com, boats took or released 15 fish over 1,000 pounds this year, with two weighing over 1,200 and one topping 1,400! (And the way they routinely let go of 900-pluses on the Reef, you can rest assured crews caught plenty more). The 1,431-pounder, caught on the Too Easy II on November 29 with Capt. Russel Gage at the helm, narrowly missed Capt. Peter Wright’s Australian-record fish weighing 1,442-pounds caught way back in 1973!
One of the best wiremen in the world, Captain Shane O’Brien knows what hard work, a lot of grit and more than a little determination can reel in while out on the water. The Kona, Hawaii resident shared one of his most memorable days fishing when Capt. Bart Miller hooked a 1,656-pound blue marlin in 1984. But Miller didn’t forge ahead alone, he called in O’Brien to wire the beast.