Bahia de los Muertos –
The Bay of the Dead
By T. Dietz
I’m on the 0835 flight from San Francisco to San Jose del Cabo on the Baja peninsula. Following a 2 season hiatus, I’m headed back to the Baja to fish. Time is flying by these days as it doesn’t seem possible that 17 years have passed since that first trip with my old friend Glenn and his sons down to Baja. Reflecting back on those years there was great camaraderie and fishing, but not always catching. I’ve written once before about fishing in the Sea of Cortez – Diablo Rojo. Each trip to Baja is an adventure physically and emotionally.
Mexico’s Baja Peninsula is over 700 miles of majestic environments with striking deserts, xeric scrub, and even dry and pine-oak forests. Lying between the Baja Peninsula and mainland Mexico is the Sea of Cortez (Gulf of California) that has been described by the famed oceanographer and explorer, Jacques Cousteau, as “the world’s aquarium”. The Gulf’s 62,000 square miles of surface area and depths of up to 10,000 feet are home to thousands of fish, marine mammal and invertebrate species. The waters however are reported to be in decline due to overfishing, pollution and warming waters. Over my 17 years of fishing these waters I’ve noted a remarkable decline in the numbers and species of sport fish taken.
With a thick stratocumulus cloud layer out of San Francisco as the setting, I dozed off until fairly far south and entering airspace over the Sea of Cortez. As the flight progressed further south, I watched as the Gulf and Baja’s eastern shoreline pass below me. I began searching for the Bahia de la Ventana area highlighted by Isla (Island) Cerralvo also known officially, and controversially, as Isla Jacques Cousteau. This 18 mile long island is surrounded by teaming marine life and is pictured above. On my first of 2 days of fishing I traveled its length to the north side in hopes of taping into some yellowfin tuna (Thunnus albacares,( Bonnaterre, 1788)) that were the days prior hot fish to catch – that did not work out as planned.
This second picture highlights Punta Arena – the long white beach that you can also see in the upper photo to the left. To the far left in the photo is a crescent-shaped beach which is Bahia de los Muertos, the Bay of the Dead. We launched our fishing expeditions from this beach and its where Villa Mirasol, our home for the trip, is located.
After a typical unsteady landing due to high winds, I cleared customs and was met by our old friend Octavio who runs a superb transportation service on the lower peninsula. The two of us headed north to Bahia de los Muertos via highway 1. We passed through the harsh but
beautiful coastal desert and the Tropic of Cancer along the way. Any reservations I might have had about this trip melted away on the drive through this incredible landscape.
Although the exact origins are not known regarding de los Muertos’ name there are a few stories. A Chinese ship was reported to have landed here and lost a crew of 18 to yellow fever after authorities in La Paz refused the ship entry at its port. There is also a story of some U.S. farmers who attempted cultivation of the land around the Bay but died of starvation.
Driving up to Villa Mirasol felt a little like seeing an old friend. As I walked through the doors almost nothing had changed and I expected the crew, who arrived 2 days before me, to be tipping back beers and margaritas by the pool. But all were in siesta mode so off I went for a hike up the surrounding hills. I was not used to the 90+F heat and clearly neither was the poor cow whose skull I encountered. I was ready for a beer and the group greetings that followed. Glenn and his son Doug brought in some nice dorado the prior day and off we went to the nearby restaurant to have the fish prepared for the evening meal.
After dinner, many of us watched the Warriors playoff game plus some great star gazing. Most decided to turn in before the game was over anticipating my first and the groups second day of fishing. I wasn’t sleeping well and feeling a bit queasy so I got up at 0400 and grabbed Glenn’s Fujinon stabilizing binoculars and went star gazing – the highlight being Jupiter and 3 of its moons, Calisto, Ganymede and Europa, all visible.
Finally back in bed for another hour of sleep I was hit with sudden nausea that led to vomiting. Doug then showed up to let me know all but Bob and Glenn were hit with food poisoning – conjectured to be due to the Caesar salad. After repeated bouts of sickness I headed to the main house to find Bob and Glenn ready to go. I was determined to fish and figured if I stayed hydrated enough I could power through. Glenn paired with Bob and I rallied to take a panga solo in case I needed to head back to shore.
I have no idea what my captain, Calamari (that is his name), thought of me throwing up over the side during the hour we spent motoring to the north end of Isla Cerralvo following a stop at the bait boats for live mackerel, but he serenaded me with beautiful Mexican song. Despite the waves of nausea and vomiting, which did subside over the first couple of hours of the day, I was easily distracted by the stark beauty of the landscapes offered by the peninsula and the island. The rocks with their variety, mineral veins and contrasting colors provided a never ending canvas to watch and wish for exploration. Cut to 6 hours finished on the water and only 2 annoying needlefish, that in typical fashion raked the bait, to show for my rallying effort. Skunked. I crashed in the afternoon for several hours but managed to wake in time for dinner and later acted as a Jupiter and its moons guide for my fellow tailhunters.
Five of us rallied for my second day of fishing. I was partnered with my old friend Bob in a well-kept panga captained by Jorge, considered the best captain in the fleet. We rode out into an incredible rising sun and with the temperature building quickly. It would reach into the high 90’s before we returned to shore.
The bait boats were working a section of the coastline that steeply meets the sea. They work fast and hard and it almost seems a distraction for them to take my $20 for a bucketful of live mackerel. Watching them hand line fish or expertly handle and throw large purse seine nets is a fascinating enterprise. Many of the fisherman and bait hunters are relatives or close friends and they share with each other in many ways. Jorge had a hunk of Jack Crevalle that he handed over for use as bait for the live mackerel round up efforts.
Jorge turned the boat back toward de los Muertos and then immediately jogged toward a section of shore I know well having caught dorado there in the past. He had spied a school of red snapper, Pargo (Lutjanus campechanus, (Poey, 1860)). Jorge’s eyes were uncanny in their ability to pick up fish from a distance. The school surged all around us, very visible at approximately 10-20 feet below the surface in the clear baja waters. We quickly dropped line with live mackerel and then tossed bait on either side of the panga to attract the school’s attention. Minutes passed and I was trying to will the fish that I could see to take my bait. Bob was first to hook up, but despite the large numbers of pargo, he landed a relatively small sea bass, Cabrilla. Before I could even look what species of Cabrilla he landed and released, my line drew taught. Figuring I had hooked a reasonable sized Pargo, I reeled quickly to keep the fish from heading toward the rocks where its next to impossible to coax or pull them back out from that labyrinth of bottom structures. My drag was not tight enough and I lost the fish to the rocks. Nothing. Bait and hook gone.
While I was baiting back up, Bob’s line went tight again and another small Cabrilla was fought with minimal effort. I was starting to get agitated that I was left out of the hunt when my new bait was hit. My drag set tight this time, the hook set firmly and all three of us thought we had a good Pargo on the line. 3 minutes later I had not a Pargo but an aggressively fighting Pompano beside the boat and it flashed a brilliant yellow at its edges before bringing it on board. Pompano are members of the jacks family (Carangidae).
Back in the water and still fishing the schooling Pargo, I finally got mine. I reeled fast to keep out of the rocks and was rewarded with a nice snapper that ran strong for a few minutes. This was followed by another one that at first felt like he made the rocks but clearly not quite. Once off the bottom he gave the good fight. Having had our fill of the schooling snapper for about an hour, we headed further south back toward los Muertos as Jorge had spotted dorado. We were alone in our quest for fish south as the other boats had decided to move north for the yellowfin. There was some jack crevalle action, a rooster fish and at least one enviously sized snapper from the other boats.
Jorge had us motoring south after spotting dorado (mahi-mahi or common dolphinfish, Coryphaena hippurus, (Linnaeus, 1758)) signs in the water. We quickly had the mackerel 100 feet behind the boat enticing the dorado to chase. After just a few minutes, my rod bent over and the line started out. It took me a few seconds to get the rod out of the boat holder and into my hip holster. That process allowed for the several seconds of patience needed to allow the dorado to swallow the bait and for me to set the hook. Keeping the rod high at first for several turns of the reel I started the pull up, reel down rhythm that keeps the line at firm tension. As the fish fought, running deep I was hyper alert to its direction and strategically reeled in as line felt like it might slack.
Patience. I let the fish run and finally it jumped, doing the tail dance and a few flips while I reeled rapidly to keep any slack out of the line. It felt like 10 minutes but was more likely 6 or so as he started to wear down with the runs shortening up. As it ran near the boat flashing its greens and yellows, Jorge got the gaff ready. This fish would be landed as not many were being caught and all would be eaten either in the Baja or back in the States. I almost always practice catch and release but since several anglers that came to bring fish home were waylaid by the Caesar salad I decided to fill their coolers as best I could as did others who thought the same.
We powered further south of los Muertos to hunt for more dorado and wahoo but other than one dorado that surface-chased our bait but avoided our hooks we were only rewarded with more beautifully desolate vistas and acrobatic manta rays some of which did full flips while charging up at bait from the depths.
Baja and its Sea of Cortez once again delivered a spectacular adventure. Good friends sharing a remote fishing experience, good food, fine drink, and stories of this and past fishing expeditions.