Fishing for Roosterfish in Baja, Mexico
The East Cape of Baja, Mexico is a spectacular place to fly fish. The fishing can be extraordinary, with great offshore, inshore and onshore flyfishing. Offshore, one can expect to encounter marlin, sailfish , dorado, yellowfin and skipjack tuna. Inshore or beach fishing’s star attraction is the roosterfish, with huge jack crevalle, sierra mackerel and a host of other inshore species also available.
The East Cape is called the “roosterfish capital of the world” for good reason. This somewhat remote fishing destination is quickly becoming the Mecca for fly-fisherman seeking roosterfish with a fly from the beach It’s rugged coastline provides perfect habitat and conditions to fly fish for roosterfish. For the fly-fisher this area is truly unique.
Roosterfish are found from Mexico south to Peru. Most of these areas are open ocean. This means big, rough, windy surf. The roosterfish don’t mind these conditions but this type of environment is usually not fly fishing friendly. Even for a seasoned veteran these conditions can make it potentially uncomfortable to fly fish. The East Cape is sheltered and for the most part, bay-like in appearance. Its crystal clear waters, beautiful sand beaches, small surf and light winds make for ideal conditions for fly-fishing. This area is sparsely populated many beaches stretch for miles without a soul to be found. Throw in the most mysterious of game fishes and what more could a Beach Fly Fisherman ask for?
The roosterfish is unique and exotic in its looks and mysterious in its habits. No other fish looks like, or for that matter, acts like them. Their most obvious feature is their dorsal fin, also known as a comb. When feeding they raise their dorsal fin and this display in and of itself puts them in a class by themselves. When raised the spiky comb resembles a rooster’s tail, hence the name.
Fishing the beach for roosters has to be the ultimate sport in fly fishing; it’s the real deal. Hooking a rooster from the beach has to be one of the toughest accomplishments a saltwater fly-fisherman can achieve. The opportunities to cast to a fish are usually brief and fleeting. For success, casts need to be fast and accurate. Small roosters can be easy to catch; big ones are another story. They are legendary for their stubbornness when it comes to eating flies. They will often chase or follow a fly a long way, then charge the fly like a lion, only to veer off at the last second and swim away uninterested. This behavior can go on for days, and in some sad cases, years. They will test an angler’s skills and patience to the breaking point. In this high stakes game even a strike, what we call a ‘grab’ is considered a major accomplishment.
Roosterfish like to feed in areas with sandy beaches bordered with rock outcroppings. When feeding they are constantly on the move, traversing up and down beaches searching for bait. They will work an area over for awhile, then move on. When you see a rooster feeding in a certain spot, it’s a good idea to make a mental note and keep an eye on this area, as they usually will come back to this spot, as it usually means bait is gathering in this area, and the roosters know it. Watch for birds. Pelicans diving are a sure sign of sardines. Frigate birds swooping close to the surface are another sign to look for.
Watch while roosterfish are feeding and notice their habits and movements just before they pounce on a baitfish. The raising of their comb is one sign they are ready to feed but more important are their tendencies toward erratic movement and swimming patterns behind a baitfish or fly that signals the grab. When you see fish feeding and a fish displays either or both of these two signs it’s time to get your fly in front of this fish! This will be your best chance for a take.
Fly fishing for roosters from a boat is also great sport. This method provides the angler several advantages. The most important, perhaps, is that one can spot the fish and follow them with a boat. Chumming and teasing techniques can also be employed. This method keeps the fish up longer and within casting distance from the boat, and chumming with sardines can bring fast action. If conditions are right, anglers can be rewarded with roosters zipping all around the boat, dorsal fins extended slicing through the water in hot pursuit of the bait. This is quite a sight!
Fish start moving into the East Cape sometimes as early as late March, early April. They migrate here following the large schools of baitfish inhabiting these waters. First to arrive are the sardines, with them comes the small schools of roosters. Later in the season, when the gigantic schools of mullet start to appear, rest assured not far behind them are the large schools of big roosters. Really big roosters are an awesome fish. When hooked they normally display an amazing, powerful series of runs. For many, hooking a truly large rooster is what the allure of this sport is all about. When you first see one working the beach, chasing bait , dorsal up , believe me you’ll want one.
Another great feature about fishing the East Cape are the remote resorts located here that cater to fisherman, many located in the very heart of roosterfish-ville, as it were. All are situated right on the beach with a fishing fleet of boats manned with Captains and mates ready to take you out to the happy fishing grounds. Several miles of desolate beach separate each of these. All the resorts are located on beaches that are known as roosterfish haunts. With some, you can literally walk out your hotel room to the beach armed with a rod, and immediately start fishing.
When I travel there I go for two weeks at a time. During my stay I’ll move every 4 or 5 days to a different resort. The advantage of relocating from one resort to another, above and beyond a change of scenery, is that it can also change your fishing opportunities .
We’ve been going down to the Baja for the past 15 years. In that time I have stayed at most all the different resorts, and every one of them has a roosterfish story. As with any fish story, many are to be be taken with the proverbial grain of salt, though some are as true, as ridiculous as they sound. When we first started traveling there, one resort claimed in its brochure that one can actually see the roosterfish directly from your hotel room. I thought to myself, “yeah right, Now this I will have to see to believe!”. To my pleasant surprise, the first afternoon, while sitting on my balcony sipping a Margarita and setting up gear, I saw a roosterfish zipping along the beach chasing bait. Moving as fast and as close to shore as it was, when it made it’s final pounce it actually launched itself onto the sand, much like footage most have seen with killer whales corralling seals and devouring them along the beach. A few flops and it was back in the water. I was shocked and excited, thinking that this place, and indeed, this fishery was an unbelievable thing to witness, and better yet, be a part of.
Rods: you can squeak by with a 9 wt. for the beach, but in my opinion a 10 would work better. Some of the larger flies and poppers need that extra punch of a 10 wt. For boat fishing, I would go with a 10 and a 12 weight. With a boat you can cover more water and really fish for some of the big ones, the 12 wgt. will come in handy.
Reels should have good drags and plenty of backing. Big roosters can really run.
A good pair of polarized sunglasses are a must. Stripping baskets are also helpful and recommended, whether casting on the beach or from a boat.
Leaders don’t have to be to fancy, 7 ½ to 9 ft. , 20 lb. tippet is standard.
Flies designed for roosters are relatively few in number. Some flies work some of the time, most don’t work at all. When pursuing roosters, as with any flyfishing really, it’s best to match the fly to the size, shape and color or the local forage. Roosters feed on all sorts of baitfish; sardines, mackerel, ballyhoo and their favorite, mullet.
Poppers work well here. I recommend showing them as little of the fly as possible when fishing for selective fish. Crease flies and a number of different poppers will work. In Baja they fish a big silver popper, size of about that of a ten gauge shotgun shell (which for those not familiar with firearms is larger than the thumb of a large man’s hands) wrapped in silver mylar tape with a sparse tail of white buck tail and flashabou. My first rooster was caught on this pattern.
For sardine patterns you can use various patterns such as Sea Habits, Clousers and East Cape Sardines. A local pattern is the See through Sardine, which matches small sardines and is a standard beach pattern.
For mullet patterns a big clipped deer head Bill Catherwood type pattern works well. Also big flies tied with synthetic materials for the wings and belly of the fly. You can tie larger size flies with these materials and it doesn’t add much weight, so they are still castable.
I prefer flies tied with natural bucktail and feathers with synthetics flash material added to the wings and sides for flash and attraction, such as the “East Cape Mullet”. Flies tied in this manner track true in the water and look more natural. A heavy hook also helps to keel a fly. Flies tied with too much material and not enough hook will have a tendency to cant to one side. Roosters are normally real fussy and your flies need to act like a real baitfish.
If you’d like to try something new, chasing roosters just might be the ticket. Offshore, inshore and on-shore fly fishing can be had along the Baja Coast. Best of all perhaps, especially during these times, may be that all this can be had at a reasonable cost.
If you have any questions about the fishing, flies or places to stay contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Here is a gallery of the photos from this story: