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Fly Fishing The Sea of Cortez: “The Aquarium of the World”

No saltwater fly angler’s life is complete without having a go at pez gallo.
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Jul 1, 2024
The Sea of Cortez

Fly Fishing The Sea of Cortez

The Sea of Cortez, also commonly known as the Gulf of California, is a roughly 750-mile-long section of the Pacific Ocean between Mexico’s Baja Peninsula and the Mexican mainland. It was dubbed “the aquarium of the world” by none other than Jaques-Yves Cousteau, due to its amazing biodiversity. Thirty-nine percent of marine mammals in the entire world can be found here, as well as nearly 900 species of fish.

For the sporting angler, there is no greater proving ground. From cabrilla (leopard grouper) that can be caught from the beach in the northern stretches of the Sea of Cortez around Gonzaga Bay, to the tip of Baja where the world-famous Bisbee billfish tournament is based in Cabo San Lucas, there really might not be a more abundant and rewarding place for saltwater anglers to fish, anywhere on the planet.

For most fly anglers, the action rightfully concentrates in an area known as the “East Cape” starting northeast of Cabo San Lucas near Cabo Pulmo (where the only true coral reef on the Mexican Pacific coast is found) and extending north along the gulf toward the city of La Paz and beyond.

Here, depending on the season, an angler might encounter any number of fish species that can be caught on a fly pattern–from yellowfin tuna and yellowtail, to dorado (called dolphin, or mahi-mahi in other places), giant crevalle jacks the locals simply call “toros” because they fight like a bull, marlin, sailfish, snapper, grouper and the king of them all: the vaunted “pez gallo,” or roosterfish.

The beautiful thing about fishing this region is that the seafloor drops dramatically within a short distance from the beach (the San Andreas Fault runs straight down the middle of the Sea of Cortez), so you can literally find yourself in pretty blue water within paddling distance of the shoreline. You can catch dorado, or skipjacks, and many other species by paddling a kayak, or stand-up paddleboard, off the beach.

But the star of the show, the roosterfish, can be caught from the beach, as well as from a panga boat you might hire a local captain to run. Made famous by the film “Running Down the Man,” pez gallo (anywhere from 3 to 100+ pounds) occupies its own sacred niche in the fly-fishing world. They cruise the drop-offs in search of baitfish, and when they lock in on a target, and that distinctive combed dorsal fin slices above the waterline as the fish accelerates with a primal charge–especially when they’re chasing your fly–that will make the knees of even the most seasoned angler go weak. Roosters fight well above their punching weight, and they are arguably the most uniquely beautiful–seemingly prehistoric–fish to be caught anywhere in the world on the fly. Ask any die-hard tarpon angler, or trout master, or bonefish guru what their “bucket list” fish is, and the roosterfish is sure to be at or near the top of the list, with very good reason.  

As such, in my humble opinion, no saltwater fly angler’s life is complete without at least having a go at pez gallo.

But be careful what you wish for, and know the deal going in: Fishing the Sea of Cortez from the beach, or boat, is extremely physical. It’s hot–the fishing season is typically the less-windy months between late April and early October, half of which is also hurricane season. The fish themselves take no prisoners–even a little skipjack will turn you into a sweaty mess, and any sizable roosterfish means at least a half-hour fight. 

Fishing here demands long casts with heavy rods and lines. You need backups–rods shatter regularly. You strip line until your fingers bleed, and you literally wilt under the tropical sun (you’re almost directly on the Tropic of Cancer in most places). 

But to borrow from Sinatra, if you can make it here, as an angler, you can make it anywhere, and there isn’t a bonefish or tarpon flat, striper blitz or even giant trevally spot in the world that might intimidate you on any level after you’ve proven yourself on the Sea of Cortez. – Kirk Deeter

Nine Sea of Cortez Fly-Fishing Tips

1. An American angler can fly into Mexico with a max of four rods and reels, otherwise you’ll get fined at customs. Bring one 9-weight for fishing off the beach, two 10-weights (one with a reel loaded with an intermediate sink tip line, a second with a full floating line) and an 11-weight, or 12-weight, with a floater, in case you run into marlin or tuna.

2. You’re going to fish the 10-weights 90 percent of the time, whether fishing off the beach, or from a panga.  

3. Bring extra fly lines, because they’re hard to replace. And bring over-weighted lines. You want a Scientific Anglers SONAR Titan Tropical Clear Tip Fly Line, or a RIO Outbound, and bring sink tips and floaters.

4. Knots are incredibly important. Your trout rig, transposed to salt, isn’t going to cut the mustard here.

5. The typical leader is really simple: four feet of 40-pound fluorocarbon connected to the fly line via a perfection loop, and then three feet of 30-pound fluoro tied to the 40-pound with a blood knot. Tie your flies on with loop knots, using the “captain’s knot” (basically a perfection loop), or a Costa Rica loop knot.

6. If you’re fishing with a local guide, they’ll have the hardware, but I’d bring a good pair of pliers (especially for DIY fishing).

7. Sun-safe clothing is a must. You can fish in shorts, and it’s often best to fish barefooted, so you can avoid stepping on the fly line, but slather your feet in 50 SPF sunscreen before you go out, and touch up if you feel the need.

8. As for flies, you’ll want at least a dozen or more 2-3-inch baitfish patterns with eyes (like “Papa Gallo”), and at least a dozen crease flies with eyes as well. Mostly white, with slight tan or green accents on the baitfish, and white with gray and green on the crease flies and poppers. Sizes range from 2/0 to 4/0 most of the time.

9. Seasons change year to year, of course, but November through March is typically windier, and most of the beachside resorts are ruled by kite surfers. The calmer months are also the hottest months, but rooster fishing is good April through September and into October. Dorados show up in more abundance in June (as do afternoon storms), and tuna show up several weeks later. August and September (into October) are typically the highest hurricane risk months, but it would take a pretty “thread the needle” path for a storm to enter the Sea of Cortez and hit the East Cape directly. 

Product Buzz

We review some saltwater staples for your summer roosterfishing: the Sage Maverick 9-foot 10-weight, Scientific Anglers SONAR Titan Tropical Clear Tip Fly Line. The iconic “HEXA” 7-foot 6-inch 4-weight bamboo fly rod from from master rod craftsman, Shuichi Akimaru, of Japan is worth a read: “Watake is less forgiving to craft into fly rods that its Chinese cousin Tonkin is, but when executed well, it produces an incredibly powerful fishing tool with a delicate feel that verges on the spiritual.” Field & Stream tests and reviews their favorite saltwater rods of 2024. Winston 9-foot 6-weight Air 2 MAX fly rod review from MidCurrent. From Field Mag, the “11 Best Sun Shirts and UPF Hoodies for Keeping Cool and UV Protected.”

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The Fly Angler’s Guide To Hitchhiking from Big Sky Journal. The Flyfish Journal launches their new podcast, Sidechannels, and interviews lodge owners (The Lodge at 58* North) Kate and Justin Crump. The Feather Mechanic book excerpt from from South African fly tier, Gordon van der Spuy. Book review: The Believer from David Coggins–“In a trope-riddled landscape of fly fishing writing, Coggins’ latest is a standout.” Hilary Hutcheson, Montana fishing guide and environmental advocate, on The Wild South Podcast. Trout stream etiquette from Garden & Gun: “On rivers where you might move up and down the bank, high-holing and low-holing are the cardinal sins…”

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