It was 6 a.m. on day five of a rambling bachelor party that had already taken us from San Diego to the southeast California desert, and we stumbled apprehensively across the border into Tijuana. After sorting through the frightening and complicating discovery at the final checkpoint that fishing reels are not allowed as carry-ons with Mexican airlines, Paul, Nate, Jared and I boarded the flight without a minute to spare. An hour in the air, the fog began to clear as the Volaris jet arced over the serrated Sierra de la Giganta, banking back across the massive Islas de Carmen and Coronado.
Mexico as It Was
Founded as a Jesuit mission in 1697, Loreto was the first colonial settlement on the Baja Peninsula. Far removed from the nightclubs and towering hotels of Cabo San Lucas, it strikes an agreeable balance between genuine Mexican community and traveler hospitality. More northerly than Cabo, Loreto also provides a diverse fishery with resident and migratory populations of popular sport fish, from structure-hugging cabrilla (leopard grouper) and pargo colorado (reminiscent of mangrove snapper) to pelagic California yellowtail, dorado (mahi), roosterfish and marlin.
The taxi dropped us at Hotel la Mision de Loreto. Built on the waterfront in the 1960s and renovated in 2008, the stately old building surrounds a palm-fringed pool and boasts high-ceilinged rooms of a class we were not used to, but at a decent price. After dropping our bags, we located the buffet and the bar. It was Paul’s bachelor party, after all.
It’s no accident that we wound up so far off Baja California’s beaten path. Nate’s boss, Terry, had heard we wanted to visit Mexico but insisted we use his boat and connections in Loreto. We’re not the types to reject a free vessel full of tackle. Properly fed and lubricated, we wandered the beachside sidewalk known as the malecon, past the humble marina to where Terry keeps his 21-foot Boston Whaler in a utilitarian boatyard operated by our new friend, Blanca. A striking former lawyer, she moved from Mexico City to peaceful Loreto in her mid-30s to run the yard and a few beachside rental condos with her mother.
She showed us to Terry’s boat, and the guys set about peeling back the cover, sorting the bundle of big-game rods, and making sense of a tackle shop shoved haphazardly into several bags, hatches and the center console while I wired the downrigger Terry brought last time but didn’t manage to make operational. Satisfied, we made plans for the morning with Blanca and Terry’s friend Pam, an American ex-pat who’s run Loreto fishing trips for 30 years. Margaritas and a quick splash in the pool put us to bed.
Mixed Bag On the Sea of Cortez
A faint ember of daylight kindled across the Sea of Cortez as we hustled ill-caffeinated along the breakwater to the marina. Blanca backed down the Whaler with me aboard the boat to motor it off the trailer. I took the throttle and idled over to meet the guys and our pilot at the wharf. Ramón, a retired guide and Pam’s husband, ran the boat for us at Terry’s encouragement so that us touristas could actually fish. Paul and Jared jumped in with Manny, another semi-retired captain. We made our introductions as they putted over to the bait boat to buy live mackerel.
No amount of haggling earned us more than a dozen baits, however, so Ramón ran us out to Isla Carmen as the peach sun rose. Gunsighting off landmarks, he instructed us to send sabiki rigs 400 feet down to a drop-off, where they were immediately animated. Six 12-inch mackerel struggling in unison convinced me a single, much larger fish had somehow taken one of my size-16 hooks. Before long, the livewell was properly writhing and we were off to La Cholla, a high point in the saddle between the two big islands where yellowtails congregate.
Ramón showed us his preferred rig: 65-pound braid to a three-way swivel, with a 12-ounce lead on one end and 6 feet of 40-pound fluoro tied to a 2/0 circle hook on the other. With mackerel baits pinned through the nose, he trolled along at a healthy 4 knots, leaving us to wonder how we’d ever get our baits down 250 feet to where the bottom and the fish appeared to be.
Before long we began getting occasional grabs. Instinctively, I locked down and swung hard at the first bite, but my mackerel returned to the boat alone and lacking a torso. More experienced with these foreign fish, Nate fed them line first, only to shatter his leader as the line came tight. The next one wrapped him in the rocky reef. Nobody said this would be easy.
Yellowtail, Seriola lalandi, is closely related to the amberjack anglers in the Caribbean often refer to as “reef donkeys.” Their strength and speed always earn them esteem among the anglers they humble, and their pork-colored flesh ranks among the highest grades of sashimi—commonly labeled in restaurants under their Japanese name, hamachi. I didn’t understand why Terry could care less about marlin until I hooked one of these treasured California yellowtails.
By midday, the birds, boats and fish had dissipated. We drifted and trolled in what appeared to me an aimless search because Ramón simply never looked at Terry’s Lowrance sonar and chart-plotting unit. You have to respect that ability to intuitively locate fish using only distant landmarks alone. But I was watching the sonar, and as we came to the tip of Isla Carmen, I saw the bottom jump from a featureless 300 to a jagged 120. I free-spooled until my lead clinked on the bottom. Reel reengaged, the rig lifted off the structure, then ripped back toward it.
The heavy rod bent like a willow as I struggled to release tension. We took the boat out of gear as the weight appeared to take root among the rocks. I cranked the drag down again and lifted with everything I had. The weight tore off with broad strokes of propulsion, then it planted again. I hadn’t landed a yellowtail yet, but it didn’t seem like that’s what this fish was.
With turns of the reel handle, I began to uproot whatever old growth I’d anchored to in the deep. But without any searing pelagic runs, the fish fought me for every inch, a pugilist exchange of tail beat for crank turn. Halfway up, it found new energy and took me right back to the bottom. After far longer than seemed reasonable, a speck appeared in the clear water below.
“Ah, garopa!” Ramón declared with comprehension.
The massive fish refused to submit until it reached the surface. Nate and I were briefly without words.
“Que tipo de garopa?” I asked, lacking a better question.
“Eh, negro,” he said with a shrug. “Esto es un macho.”
After the day expired and we returned to Loreto through a miles-long swath of traveling dolphins, I dived into the first internet discussion of native Baja fish my phone could locate, discovering that biologists call this a Gulf grouper, endemic and extant only in its eponymous Gulf of California, Magdalena Bay and the Revillagigedo Islands. A protogynous hermaphrodite, these fish are believed to shift from female to male as they mature and can grow to 50 years old and more than 100 pounds. The all-tackle world record tipped a scale at 113 pounds on the same Loreto docks where we reconvened with Paul and Jared, who had managed to land one of the supercharged yellowtails that had eluded our own boat.
We delivered one side of Jared’s fish to the hotel restaurant to be prepared “de cuatro maneras,” or four ways: ceviche, baked, fried and coconut-crusted. The dense, meaty flesh paired gloriously with cerveza, margaritas, and the sun setting over the palms.
The next day followed the same schedule: Buy and catch bait, get wrecked on the rocks by a couple of big yellowtails, drift toward the submarine structure midday, then hook up with a monster.
I guessed right away that this was another grouper, but seemingly of a new class. I knew what I was in for, but remained shocked by the battle of attrition. We collectively gasped when the fish finally arrived athwart the Whaler. It was nearly 10 inches longer than the last, likely pushing 70 pounds. Paul and Jared met us at the marina, excited to show off the cabrilla (leopard grouper) and pargo colorado they had caught nearshore, only to be stunned to hear that I had landed an even bigger grouper.
On our final day on the water, Jared hooked and landed four yellowtails, saving one more for Paul. In our boat, Nate connected midmorning and refused to allow this yellowtail to beat him in the rocks. I gaffed his fish, some 35 pounds, and we fell to pieces after finally achieving our target species. Shortly thereafter, I performed the feed line just right and set the hook, but felt the 65-pound braid shred at a weak point. My ego is still recovering.
We enjoyed our final evening with yet another fish feast before wandering the centuries-old cobblestone streets to the famous Jesuit mission and past it to a vulture-themed brewery, where we once more toasted our best friend on his impending nuptials.
We trudged back across the border from Tijuana the next day, heavily laden with soft coolers packed full of frozen hamachi, cabrilla and pargo. The casual observer might have accurately guessed we were returning from a bachelor party, but they would likely have been wrong about what really kicked