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Baja California, Mexico: Fly Fishing The Sea of Cortez

The big league of saltwater fly fishing. No angler’s life is complete without having a go at pez gallo.
Kirk Deeter
June 28, 2024
Baja California, Mexico–Sea of Cortez (East Cape)
destination
One of the best places in the world to tangle with large saltwater fish on a fly rod–marlin, tuna, dorado, jacks and the fabled “pez gallo” (roosterfish). The beautiful thing about fishing this region is that the seafloor drops dramatically within a short distance from the beach, so you can find yourself in pretty blue water within paddling distance of the shoreline.

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’ll make the knees of even the most seasoned angler go weak. Roosters fight well above their 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.

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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).

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.

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 also. 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.

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.

Pros

Amazing diversity of fish species, from roosterfish to dorado, and much more.

Deep blue water, within reach of the beach–you don’t need to pound through a 20-mile boat ride doing “kidney crunches” to find blue water.

You can fish from the beach or from a boat. DIY is totally do-able. 

It’s a generally safe area, easy to get to, easy to stay in, and if you stay in the right place, the food (fresh seafood with Mexican flair) is unbelievably good.

Everybody who goes here inevitably returns as a better angler.

Cons

It’s difficult fishing. Hard physically, and hard technically. If you can’t cast and hit the ocean from the beach, stay on the trout stream.

You will fry your ass off. Bring sunscreen and sun-protective clothing.

You really need to play the seasons, and expect that conditions can change, and you could get blown off the water for a few days.

You need very specialized, often expensive, equipment to succeed here. You need at least one good, fast-action 10-weight rod, an 11-weight and maybe a 9-weight, and you need lines that both sink (intermediate, maybe a full sink). And you need an array of baitfish fly patterns and crease flies for fishing on top–plan on what you might expect and double it.

Lodging: Fly Fish Mex 

“Since 1985, we have been fishing the Sea of Cortez. Fly Fish Mex is currently one of the oldest fly fishing outfitters on the world’s youngest sea. We are proud to offer exclusive lodging along the beaches of the most concentrated fishing grounds of the East Cape.”

Lodging: Buena Vista Resort

“Buena Vista has a long-earned reputation as an East Cape favorite among big-game anglers. The resort and staff are well equipped to serve the saltwater fly fisher, spouses, and families. Among the amenities are spacious guest rooms, delicious food served in the dining room overlooking the scenic beaches, a swimming pool, fishing boats, and beautiful grounds.”

Outfitters: The Reel Baja

“The Reel Baja is based in Los Barriles, East Cape, Baja Sur Mexico. We fish the entire cape of Baja, from La Ventana around the waters off Cabo San Lucas and all the way up the Pacific Coast to Magdalena Bay. Wherever the fishing action is best. We build custom fly and light-tackle fishing packages that suit your plans.”

Hosted trips: Gary Bulla Saltwater Flyfishing

“Every spring, summer and fall a few of us from both coasts spend a week panga fishing at Cerralvo Island/Punta Arena area. Yellowfin tuna, skipjack, Pacific jack crevalle, dorado, five species of pompano and snapper and rooster fish keep our rods doubled over. The food is fantastic. We have two local cooks, who prepare all of our meals, but you will have to open the cooler door to get an icy, cold beer.”

Obviously, you need a passport.

Bring clean, preferably uncirculated, American dollars–10s, 20s, 50s and maybe a few 100s. U.S. currency is perfectly fine (often preferred), but the locals will reject bills that are torn, exceptionally wrinkled, written-on, or dyed along the edges. The typical tip rate for a panga captain is at least $60 U.S. per day, and bait (for chumming and teasing, highly recommended if you’re fishing from a boat) will cost an average of $30 U.S. per day. In a pinch, you can visit a local ATM, but it’s best to come loaded with American cash–you can always bring the excess home.

Remember that Mexican Customs will limit you to four rods and reels, and more than that will elicit an extra surcharge/fine.  

This area is generally amongst the safest in Mexico, but play it smart. Don’t go off the beaten path on your own. Use a reputable travel agent who can connect you with local guides.  

You don’t need any special immunizations, but you do need to carry your own prescriptions, and it’s smart to pack a personal medical kit with Neosporin, some Band-Aids, aspirin, Advil, medical tape (for your stripping fingers), anti-diarrheal tablets, foot powder, Benadryl, sunburn relief aloe, sunscreen (of course!) and other things you think you might need.

Drink the purified water most places will provide you with. That includes brushing your teeth.

It’s a good idea to stop and stock up at a local grocery store for snacks, soft drinks, liquor, and so forth–most of the places you stay at will have plenty of beer and water. Your driver/guide will gladly make the stop if you ask them.

Fly to San Jose del Cabo. Don’t mess with funky connections.

Gear List for Baja California…

So, you think you’re ready to play in the big leagues of saltwater fly fishing?

Awesome. You won’t be disappointed.

Unless, you bring a 20-foot trout cast to the Sea of Cortez and expect to catch roosterfish.

Or you let yourself fry in this oven without the proper sun protection.

Or you come under-gunned with flimsy rods, light lines and tiny flies.

If you come legitimately prepared, this is probably the best saltwater fly-fishing destination in the world. It is uniquely great, because you can legitimately catch many large fish on the fly, often in a single day. And if you are really lucky, you might just catch a vaunted roosterfish, or a few, on a fly.  

You must show up in the right season (April-October). You should expect, even then, some conditions that throw you off the plan. You have to come loaded for bear, and be able to fend for yourself, in all regards.

Don’t play around. Don’t cut corners. But for goodness sake, start making a plan.

Do this right, and catch pez gallo–and everything else in the entire fly-fishing world is simply gravy.

Travel partner: Yellow Dog Flyfishing

Yellow Dog is a quality travel partner that can help you plan and book your Baja California roosterfish trip.

Fish landing in ocean
driftwood fort on beach in baja with man standing by with flyrod
Roosterfish being released
beers with limes in opening backlit by sunset
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