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This place yields cock-and-bull, er, fish stories

In the Sea of Cortez, between La Paz and Cabo San Lucas, the marlin might be king, but it's the roosterfish that inspires awe.

June 14, 2007|Pete Thomas | Times Staff Writer

BUENA VISTA, MEXICO — The wary predator emerges behind the boat, unfurling a tall and tattered dorsal fin.

"Rooster!" a crewman yells, and the baiting game is on.

The fin slices shark-like through emerald-colored water, from mullet to mullet, then sinks out of sight.

It has been that kind of morning for John and Jennifer Ireland, who've patrolled fruitlessly for hours in search of roosterfish along the barren Baja California coast.

But suddenly the fin resurfaces and they have a taker. The predator grabs a mullet and line flees the spool.

Jennifer Ireland stands poised for battle. The reel is engaged. The hook is set. Feathers fly....

Lore of the land

Welcome to the East Cape, a.k.a. "the roosterfish capital of the world."

It's a vast Sea of Cortez headland between La Paz and Cabo San Lucas, but a world removed from those metropolises.

East Cape towns, though growing, are flanked by ranchland, parched desert or both; it's impossible to discern the two.

Cows roam freely and scrawny hens peck in dusty yards of small brick homes, whose owners live simply and, when the peninsula broils, slowly.

Here, the pace is like that of honey oozing from a tipped jar.

"I think I'll come back once a year until I croak," says first-time visitor Sam Milham, 75, while marveling at the multihued reef beyond Rancho Leonero Resort.

The Irelands' 28-room hotel is one of half a dozen sleepy lodges whose only real extravagance, by and large, is a well-stocked bar.

But they boast some of the world's finest big-game fishing.

And while marlin may be king, it is the fish named after a chicken -- whose flesh, ironically, is all but inedible -- that inspires the most awe and appreciation.

Marlin are glamorous, long and sleek. They'll light up on the hook and tail-dance across the water. But they're found only sporadically, well offshore, often in rough seas.

Roosterfish are broad-shouldered and thug-like, streaked with war paint and crested with rooster-comb manes. They don't leap, but they charge like runaway freight trains.

And their domain is so close that you often see and even hear them herding and devouring sardines and mullet.

Jonathan Roldan, owner of Tailhunters International charter service, has witnessed roosterfish rise to baits "with backs big enough to saddle."

Many line-class records were set in East Cape waters, and the all-tackle record specimen, weighing 114 pounds, was caught nearer La Paz in 1960.

But roosterfish yarns rarely revolve around records. They're spun of epic struggles and escapades ranging from bizarre to comical.

John Ireland recalls being swarmed by dozens of roosters during his first swim over the reef in 1979.

After buying the property in 1981, he spotted a child walking home hoisting, by the gill plates, a rooster as big as himself.

"In my best Spanish I asked him how he caught it, and he told me, 'Con mi manos,' or 'With my hands,' " Ireland says.

"I couldn't believe it, so I looked over the bluff and roosters were crashing the bait and literally running themselves onto the beach, and then rolling back into the water."

Gary Barnes-Webb, the hotel's general manager, recently baited one from a kayak. It grabbed his mullet, made an abrupt turn and caused the kayak to flip.

The rooster then wrapped the line around the tail of a large African pompano, and let go of the mullet.

With rod in one hand and paddle in the other, Barnes-Webb somehow crawled back aboard the kayak and reeled in the pompano.

Jeff Klassen, a surf-fishing guru now guiding on the mainland in Barra de Navidad, once caught an 84-pound roosterfish after a three-hour fight that lasted into the darkness, off nearby Frailes Point.

Another time he waded to his waist, with pliers, to free a rooster from a client's hook, and heard screams of terror from onlookers as blood and water churned around him.

Klassen emerged a gory mess, patting himself for wounds, sure he'd been attacked. But the eight-foot bull shark got only the roosterfish.

The 6-foot-5 Klassen is walking roosterfish lore. During the "bay of pigs" incident, he was knee-deep and casting when several large roosters and dozens of fleeing sardines bolted through and around his legs and onto the sand.

"I look and see these roosterfish take off with mouths full of little fish," the angler recalls, "but all of a sudden two pigs, two huge hogs, come out of the woods and start gobbling up these sardines."

Visiting fly fishermen consider roosterfish -- which many refer to as the permit of Baja -- the ultimate challenge and are usually overmatched, yet many fly-line records were set in this region.

Says Gary Graham, owner of Baja on the Fly, an East Cape guide service: "Catching one over 20 pounds from the beach on the fly is a feat that only a few anglers have achieved."

A magical morning

East Cape magic is abloom as Ireland and his wife embark on their morning hunt.

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