I watched the trailer for “Running Down the Man” and I was hooked. I like wading for bonefish. I like running for fitness. What could be better than sprinting down some beach after a large, exotic-looking roosterfish?
After a fair bit of research, I booked a trip with Grant Hartman of Baja Anglers in Los Cabos, Mexico. Out of all the guides available, he had the most experience at beach fishing for roosters. He generally does week long trips, but I nabbed him for 3 days as his prime season was winding down at the end of June.
He met me at the Cabo airport and we hopped in his pickup for the hour long drive out to Los Barriles, a small town on the East Cape of Baja – north of San Jose del Cabo on the Sea of Cortez. As we drove, Grant’s passion for roosterfish, especially on the fly and from the beach, bubbled up. He compared them to permit and maintained that even a single big one, or “grande,” in one trip was a real accomplishment
Los Barriles is a very comfortable place for tourists and visiting fishermen, with good restaurants and a variety of accommodations. A beautiful, white sand beach stretches the town’s entire length. Grant dropped me off at my condo at the Villas de Cortez. (Note: On the East Cape, booking a condo through a site like HomeAway is a great alternative to a hotel room.) “See you at 9AM tomorrow and don’t forget to wear something drab,” he said.
At 9 AM the next morning, we were in Grant’s truck again, bouncing down scenic back roads through cacti and low hills. After about 20 minutes, we pulled up at a fairly deserted beach; a couple of vacation homes were the only things around. Immediately, we started rigging up my 10 weight. Before knotting on one of his custom 10 inch long flies, Grant asked me how much backing was on my reel. “About 225 yards,” I replied confidently. “Better use this,” said Grant, and he handed me his personal reel with about 400 yards of gel-spun.
What followed was a crash course in Grant’s highly refined tactics for beach roosterfish – the approach, the cast, the retrieve, and the hook set. I’d love to describe them but I’ve been sworn to secrecy! It was all based on wading the shallow surf and spotting the fish before it spotted you. One thing I can mention is that the line of choice was a tropical Outbound Short with an intermediate head.
The preliminaries took about half an hour and then we were walking along the beach looking for roosters. After about 15 minutes, the first one showed – a dark shape I’d get quite familiar with over the next few hours, swimming parallel to the beach and maybe 60 feet out. Grant had done a great job at prepping me but I don’t think anything can really ready you for that first shot. My running line got tangled in my feet and my fly got impaled in my pant leg; there were no more chances for that fish.
Nevertheless, another fish showed minutes later and my second shot fared slightly better. The running line and the fly both steered clear of body parts but the latter was a disappointing 15 feet short of the target. I frantically stripped in line and started to run down the beach for another cast. And promptly tripped, tangled in the running line again.
A third rooster showed up and I finally managed a good cast – right across its line sight. The fly had absolutely no impact on the fish and it kept motoring down the beach. So I stripped in my line and sprinted to get ahead of it. The next cast was also shunned. More stripping and more sprinting led to a third cast… And a third refusal.
I was about 200 yards down the beach from my starting point, breathless and sweat-soaked. (Remember, this was Baja in the summer!) Mercifully, the rooster had disappeared to deeper water. Grant seemed like a speck on the horizon and I trudged toward him.
Then another fish appeared… That meant three more reps of casting, stripping, and sprinting. Now I was three hundred yards from where Grant stood. When I finally got back to him he grinned broadly, “Some good casts, bro, but I think those last three were to a milkfish…” I very quickly learned to make out the characteristic tube shapes of milkfish and ignore them.
The action was quite consistent that first day. We visited several beaches, ranging from completely pristine to somewhat populated. Sometimes we walked along the beach. Sometimes we drove. Sometimes we just waited at a likely spot. I probably had shots at upwards of a dozen roosters. They often just swam past me – no running required. But some needed a burst of speed – along with the requisite heavy breathing and perspiration – to overtake the fish and get in position. Roosterfish are not like bonefish, meandering along and rooting around here and there. Most roosterfish seem to have a pace that is unfailingly linear and brisk.
The end of the day came around 4 PM, due to the lack of a high sun for spotting fish. I had experienced nothing but refusals, but a couple of them were spectacular…
One “grande” – that Grant estimated at fifty pounds – broke from its flight path and closed the distance to my fly in an instant. I stripped frantically, desperately trying to move the fly, move as fast as possible. The rooster tracked the fly perfectly, always an inch or two behind it. When the leader was a couple feet from entering the guides, all I could see was the mouth of the roosterfish trailing my fly. It looked enormous, like it could swallow my fist whole. I was on my knees in the shallow surf, trying to stay invisible to the fish. As the leader entered the guides, the fish abruptly swam off. I was almost shaking with excitement and didn’t even try for a second shot.
Not too long after, a rooster of about 25 pounds peeled off towards the fly and followed it from about three feet back, staying deep enough so that all I could see was a dark shape. When the leader was almost in the guides, it accelerated towards the fly and its spiky dorsal fin, or comb, broke the surface.
To me, the comb is what gives a roosterfish rock star status. When I saw it bristling out of the water, I braced myself for a hit and thought, “Strip strike… Strip strike.” And then the fish vanished, leaving me with no more than a permanent image of its comb in my brain.
The second day of fishing dawned much like the first. The sun was bright, perfect for sight fishing. But the wind was howling, making the water on the turbid side. Grant said it would be a tough day and he was right. We tried most of the same beaches but saw absolutely nothing. Grant even tried teasing some from the deeper water out of a fly rod’s range. He used a nine foot spin rod to bomb a hookless surface plug about the same distance as most golfers hit a five iron. Then danced it back into shore. My job was to throw the fly in behind the plug when it came into range. Regardless, nothing showed itself.
Finally, about an hour before quitting time, we staked out a spot where a couple near shore troughs ran towards each other and met on a shallow bar. A roosterfish swam out of one trough and onto the bar, close enough for an easy cast. Unfortunately, it ignored my fly and quickly made its way towards the blue water. This happened twice more, in quite rapid succession, before we called it a day. I had been quite discouraged but the flurry of action gave me a shot of optimism for the next day.
My third and final day looked pretty hopeful. Grant took me on an isolated highway through the mountains and the sun shone brightly. Although the road was paved, it was still very much an adventure. We stopped to help three young locals with a flat. “Never pass anybody in need in the desert,” said Grant. Their spare wasn’t the proper size, so Grant gave them his aerosol tire sealer and inflator.
A little further up the road, sections of roadside pavement were missing. The only thing taking their place was a steep drop down a cliff. After about an hour, the “highway” transformed into a rocky track through scrub and cacti. I was glad Grant drove a 4X4. Eventually, we steered off the rocks and headed down a sandy path toward the ocean. After about 100 yards of this, we emerged onto a very isolated beach. It was rockier than those we fished the last couple of days. As well, the hills seemed to be crowding it into the ocean. Although there was one beach house off in the distance, I got the impression that we had somehow left civilization far behind.
Geographically, it seemed like an ideal place, but meteorologically, things had gone down hill. It was completely overcast and the wind was howling. The water was choppy and dirty; sight casting was impossible. To be honest, back casting was also impossible. The wind had a fierce tendency to blow my fly into the back of my head with every forward cast. The only thing I could do was lay the fly line down behind me on the beach and launch it without a backcast. (You have probably heard of water-loading a forward cast. … This was beach-loading.)
Nonethless, Grant had me blind casting and working my way down the beach.
And then I got bit! Strip strike! Rats, I missed it… Then another hit and another miss on the same retrieve. With the next cast, 18 inches of silver torpedo rocketed half a rod length out of the chop. “Ladyfish!” yelled Grant. I grinned. It sure felt good to have a fish attached to the line.
And so went the day. The ladyfish action was incredibly entertaining and almost non-stop. Every so often we lost contact with the school; however, with a bit of moving around, we always found it again. I have now seen why ladyfish are sometimes called a poor man’s tarpon; they are amazing leapers. They are not big but they certainly are fun. Grant cut back the 10 inch roosterfish fly to a ladyfish-friendly 4 inches. “Careful,” he warned, “Roosters like to snack on ladyfish and that fly is still big enough to tempt a rooster.”
The certainty of a jumping ladyfish and the possibility of a hulking rooster kept me busy all day. The wind and the clouds never disappeared but they did not bother me in the slightest. As we drove back to town at the end of the day, I thought about the last three days. I had not caught a roosterfish but the trip was still a success in my mind. I had seen a rooster’s comb bristle at my feet and also caught a bunch of ladyfish. For me, both were firsts…
The trip still was not quite over. The next day was spent snorkeling at Cabo Pulmo, a marine preserve south of Los Barriles. The tropical fish below the water and the stark headlands above the water were both beautiful. Even though I didn’t bring a fishing rod, I have to admit that I kept glancing around, looking for the dark shape of roosterfish gliding alongside the beach…