The beach was long and white, the aquamarine blue waters lapping gently along it in stark contrast with the barren desert that the beach morphed into. Josh, Nik and I were crammed into the cockpit of a small Polaris 4-wheel-drive vehicle. Up ahead, Nik and I noted some black debris in the water, but both decided it looked nothing like the target species we were hunting: the elusive and beautiful rooster fish. cont...
But suddenly Josh slammed the accelerator to the floor and we bounced violently across the uneven sand. Josh had finally noticed the black objects and his keen senses immediately recognised them as fish. As we approached, Nik and I were incredulous as the shapes became a pair of massive rooster fish, the larger one easily 70 pounds!
Josh raced ahead of the fish and pulled to a sudden stop. Nik grabbed his 11 weight Scott and ran down to the fish. His first cast was off, so he ran ahead and cast again – the fly landing in an ideal spot directly in line with the approaching pair. He then waited for instructions from Josh, our guide, but when that didn’t come, and with the leading fish only a metre or so from the fly, Nik started his retrieve. There was an immediate response as both fish raised their comb-like dorsal fins, from which the rooster fish derives its name, and smashed the fly. I was busy filming the event on my small camera and saw Nik go tight onto the smaller fish. He did a great job of clearing the line as the fish took off, but suddenly he bent over and threw his rod down in despair. Josh ran to him with his hands in the air, and the last seconds on the recording capture Josh asking, in desperation, “What happened?”
Somehow the fish had pulled the hook and the opportunity was lost.
It was to be the only shot we’d get at a rooster fish that day, despite having driven for hundreds of kilometres and spent hours staring at the water.
Rooster fishing is not for the faint-hearted fly fisherman. There are certainly much easier and more dependable ways of landing them, like on live bait from a boat, but for me there was only one option – sight fishing with a fly off the beach. Those who’ve seen the movie Running Down the Man will understand; the movie was shot in the La Paz district of Baja California, about an hour north of Cabo San Lucas airport, and we were fishing the same beaches.
The roosterfish, nematistius pectoralis, is currently one of the most sought-after and exotic game fish for saltwater fly fishermen. They’re found in the warmer waters of the Eastern Pacific from Baja California to Peru. They’re more widely sought-after for their photogenic appeal than their eating qualities and are distinguished by their "rooster comb", the seven very long spines of the dorsal fin. These fins are surprisingly soft and delicate and care needs to be taken when handling the fish so they’re not damaged. While roosterfish can reach up to 1.6m in length, and up to 110 pounds (50kg) in weight, fish over 40 or 50 pounds, sight-fished from the beach on a fly, are considered to be trophy specimens.
Nik and I had flown via San Francisco to Cabo San Lucas, where we were met and driven north in a much-appreciated air-conditioned van to the home of guide Josh and his lovely wife Citlali and their two daughters. Josh’s house is custom made to accommodate a couple of anglers in a self-contained flat above his garage, where two Super Panga boats and two Polaris 4x4 vehicles enable him to cater to their every need. Citlali cooks the most incredible Mexican food, and the laid back atmosphere, wonderful accommodation and great views make for a perfect getaway away from crowds and commercial hotels.
We were greeted with cold margaritas and an amazing three course dinner on arrival, and we soon had the next day planned: we’d sleep in a bit and then, from the Polaris, we’d fish the beaches for our target species. We both rigged nine weight rods with tropical sink tip lines. Despite carrying a ton of flies, we ended up only using Josh’s ‘secret weapon’ flies, which he’d tie fresh each morning as we geared up.
On our first morning, Saturday, we were fortunate enough to spot feeding roosterfish and Josh guided me to a position where I could get a long cast in front of one of them.
As I stripped, the fish lit up and charged the fly. A solid hit and a firm strike resulted in an immediate slack line as the tippet snapped. We spent a lot of time analysing what could have happened – striking too hard, poor quality tippet, and so on, but nothing made sense and we had to chalk it up to mere luck – lucky to have had a strike on the first day and unlucky to have it snap off on the strike.
The rest of the day produced no more rooster opportunities, although we were very fortunate to see two rooster chases where baitfish were sent spraying onto the beach. And we did, by way of consolation, manage to land a few less desirable species that kept us interested. On the flip side, we ended up driving too close to a bush and my brand new, never-been-out-the-tube-before-that-day Sage 9 weight ended up losing its tip! As it turned out, that was a blessing in disguise though, as I removed the line off my 12 weight reel and used that on the 10 weight – the additional backing probably ended up preventing a disaster a few days later…
Sundays are the day when all the locals head to the beach with their families, so we had to travel a long way to get any solitude. The weather was not kind to us, and strong winds meant that we ended up with Nik casting lures along the windswept beach. On one occasion he had an estimated 70 or 80 pound rooster chase the lure, but with no hook-up, we ended the day defeated.
On our third day Nik achieved his first – and sadly only – hook-up of a roosterfish on the trip, as described earlier. Then, with better weather on the fourth day, we had our first success; Josh used his incredible eyesight and apparent sixth sense to put us in front of a group of feeding roosterfish. Standing on the roof of the Polaris, he was able to guide me to a point where I was able to get a cast in front one of the fish.
As I stripped the large fly a comb suddenly materialised behind the fly and there was a solid take. The next moment the flyline was shooting in the air as the fish ripped the line through my fingers and headed out wide. When I finally managed to turn it there was an alarmingly small amount of backing left on my reel, and I was then very glad that I’d used the larger reel! After 40 minutes or so, I finally managed to use a wave to bring the fish onto the beach, where Josh rushed in and grabbed it.
I was ecstatic and over the moon with finally landing a roosterfish and, at 50 pounds, one that was also a new all-species personal best for me on fly.
As Josh battled to lift the fish from the water I saw its depth and girth, and realised why this had been such a long fight.
While originally considered a distant relative of the jack crevalle family, they are now classified as their own unique species. They have a steep head like a GT or mahi mahi, and are very tough to turn. After a couple of quick photos the fish was gently released and swam away strongly. I wasn’t ready to pack it up for the week yet, but my mission had certainly been accomplished!
The following day saw us change tack and head out on the boat. Josh had a family emergency to contend with so we spent the day with Josh’s skipper, Puma. Good English and a great sense of humour meant that we had a wonderful day, despite some tense moments with the Mexican Navy chasing the boat! Unsure about whether we had licenses, we were concerned about the navy checking, but as it turned out Josh had them and it would not have been an issue. However we still ended up fishless and shaken after a long day in the wind on sloppy seas.
Thursday was our last day of fishing and both Nik and I had different agendas, Nik heading out early with Puma on the boat, while Josh and I settled in for a long day in the Polaris. Unfortunately the fly fishing at Baja is not exactly a secret and we spent the day dodging other anglers patrolling the beaches on quad bikes. Fellow South African Jako Lucas, along with Oliver White and the film crew from Yeti, were among those we encountered. It was to be an enjoyable and interesting – but fishless – day.
We were again treated to the sight of an aggressive rooster fish chasing bait, spent some time chasing milkfish after mistaking them for roosters, and had a half hour session trying to actually hook a milkfish. We saw an elusive triple tail fish swimming past, possibly the biggest that Josh had seen, but well out of range. As with other days, large schools of dolphins and mobulus rays entertained us, the rays displaying amazing aerial abilities, flying into the air and crashing down in huge groups. I also learnt how frustratingly selective jack crevalle can be, and had the frustration of a large rooster turn away from my fly at the last moment before the take, when the loop of my flyline drifted out and met the fly! A line tray would have meant a hook up for sure, but a lot of time was spent running down the beach after the rooster fish, and so a line tray was not a particularly practical option.
It was time to head back and pack up, and as we drove along the beach, we watched the fishing boats returning to the jetty, most of them flying flags showing success on marlin, tuna or roosters. Near the jetty we spotted some small bait fish, so I decided to try and end the trip with a fish of some description, and threw a small clouser at them on my eight-weight. I hooked an energetic two pound lady fish and was enjoying the fight when suddenly the feel of the fight changed and the line started peeling from the reel. A huge needle fish, probably 20 pounds plus, had grabbed the ladyfish and was attempting to eat it! Despite it not actually being hooked, I had to fight the needle for several minutes before it dropped the ladyfish and mooched off. Then, as I was retrieving the battered and lifeless ladyfish, a large rooster fish materialised out of nowhere and charged my catch, only to refuse it at the last moment! I’d come close to hooking three different species of fish on one cast!
The last night was spent with Josh over some beers and local cuisine at a Mexican restaurant, celebrating and reflecting on successes and disappointments. As we sat in the bar we were amazed at just how many anglers we saw driving around the streets, many of them with rigged fly rods still in rod holders on their quadbikes.
We weren’t due to leave Josh’s house until 1pm the next day, so he kindly offered to take us for another cruise along the beach. Nik was a bit under the weather and declined, so Josh and I took that last drive. The water colour had changed to a greenish hue and apart from the odd turtle and some milkfish, we didn’t see anything else of note. Approaching midday, I decided to have a last couple of casts where I’d had the near-triple hook-up. After a few follows from smaller fish, I decided I should change down to the 8-weight and small fly for my last cast. Then, as I was stripping in the fly, a large dark shape materialised out of nowhere. I managed to stay calm and remember to back up as I stripped to ensure continuous movement of the fly ... and suddenly the fish lunged and engulfed the fly! I was into my second rooster!
Luckily I had already broken my ‘duck’, as I had some serious time pressure due to having to catch a flight. However, with the fish also being slightly smaller, I managed to land it within about 25 minutes, eventually getting a firm grip around its tail and hoisting it up for a photo. At around the 40-pound mark it was smaller than my first, but an amazing end to a wonderful trip nevertheless! After a quick release we raced back and I just had time to shower and finish packing before the airport taxi arrived.
Rooster fish have always been on my bucket list of species to catch and I hadn’t been disappointed. What I did discover though, was the importance of having a good guide, and I’m indebted to Josh for his expertise and patience, and indeed to his whole family for making us feel so welcome – even if we had totally blanked, the trip would have been an amazing experience!