by Tom Gatch
Although earlier Spanish explorers originally mapped navigational charts of the surrounding coastal region, no colonized settlements were actually established in Puerto Bahía Magdalena until the late 1800s. The port also served as a supply point for whaling ships and other commercial vessels traveling around Cape Horn on their way to San Francisco. In centuries past, primitive populations of indigenous natives would make occasional pilgrimages to the Bahia for weeks or months at a time to harvest fish, shellfish, sea turtles and cactus fruits, which were recurrently abundant on the nearby desert plain.
Bahía Magdalena has also been a highly revered destination for adventurous anglers for decades, and still offers a wide variety of offshore, inshore and onshore fishing venues that provide access to a vast assortment of species. Over the past several years, the region has also become a magnet for a burgeoning number of eco-tourists that augment the yearly influx of whale watchers who visit the area.
California Gray Whales can generally be observed migrating south along the Baja coast between the months of December and April, while smaller pods of these huge creatures are also visible from the coasts of British Columbia, Washington, Oregon and California. Their prime breeding grounds are found within the warm waters of Magdalena Bay, as well as in nearby Scammon’s lagoon, Ojo de Liebre, Guerrero Negro and San Ignacio lagoon.
In addition to hosting whale lovers, the port city of San Carlos supports numerous tourist oriented operations that cater to a diverse range of recreational activities appealing to visitors in practically every demographic group. The Pacific lagoon is a narrow channel protected from the open sea by Isla Magdalena. The prolific sand dunes on the island stand in stark contrast to the thick, impenetrably tangled growths of mangroves that flourish along its inner coast.
The cloistered canals at the bay’s northern end are a kayaker’s dream, as well as a productive destination for avid fly-anglers targeting the coveted robalo, known to Norte Americanos as snook. These mangroves are both a blessing and a menace, since they harbor many lurking cabrilla and grouper that are receptive to a fly or a lure, but are almost impossible to extricate from their nest-like roots once the fish are hooked.
At the northern end of Santa Maria Bay, the tricky access to Punta Hughes will reward determined surfers with some of the finest breaks on the local coast, while practically endless stretches of adjacent sandy beach make for unparalleled beachcombing opportunities.
For shore casters, the sandy bottom and calmer waters inside the Bahia create a nearly perfect breeding ground for halibut. Although a live, trap-rigged smelt is one of the most dependable offerings for these highly prized flatties, shiny Krocodile-style spoons can be equally deadly at times. The summer months are a good time to catch corvina and spotted bay bass, a variety that is so profuse in some sections of the bay that it is practically considered a pest by those fishing for other species.
Bahia Magdalena is also home to several types of endangered sea turtles and other commercially valuable species such as scallops, crabs, clams and shrimp. Small poblados (tiny villages) along its shore depend almost entirely upon fishing activities for their livelihood. Unfortunately, years of over-harvesting, as well as the negative effects of the ‘by-catch’ of commercial fishing, have proved to be highly detrimental to the bay’s ability to regenerate a proliferation of its own native marine life. Incidents of juvenile loggerhead turtles being captured in halibut gillnets within the bay are still fairly common.
This incredibly diverse fishery with its assortment of inshore habitats can be accessed from ocean waters by several passes that run between the guardian islands, each of which can churn out its own fair share of rod bending action during tidal swings. The most successful anglers who fish these areas always keep an eye out for working birds or fleeing schools of surfacing baitfish as an indication of where to cast.
For those who choose to venture offshore with rod and reel, the months of summer and fall can offer some of the most spectacular fishing available along the entire Pacific coast of Baja. These waters are blessed with numerous banks, pinnacles and high spots that attract large schools of baitfish which, in turn, invite hungry gamesters like big yellowfin tuna, wahoo and billfish to approach within range of both private and commercial craft. And between October and December, this area has also been described as having some of the best striped marlin fishing on the planet.
Many anglers from north of the border choose to trailer down their own boats, which provides them with many more options than if they were to rely solely on local pangeros to take them fishing. The launch ramp at Puerto San Carlos can accommodate vessels that are 28 feet or less, but it is only usable during high tides. Anglers using aluminum boats, inflatables and kayaks will do best by launching from the sandy beach just southwest of there.
San Carlos is not overly burdened with upscale accommodations, but decent food and lodging is available, albeit somewhat pricey at the better properties. If a pre-planned experience is more to your liking, then you can’t go wrong by booking a trip with one of the highly respected outfitters that service the area such as Baja on the Fly, Mag Bay Tours and Blue Water Tours. These operations specialize in ‘turn key’ adventures, and can put together anything from a kayak fly-fishing trip in the mangroves to an offshore foray pursuing marlin and giant yellowfin tuna.
Those who prefer driving on their own can follow Baja’s Transpeninsular Highway down the sometimes grueling 443 miles from Tijuana to the Ciudad Constitución turnoff, which is located at Km 555 south of Guerrero Negro and Km 216 north of La Paz. Then take Highway 22 and drive about 60 more kilometers to access Magdalena Bay. If you happen to be pressed for time, there is always the option of flying into Loreto or La Paz and either renting a vehicle or taking a shuttle to make the ruggedly scenic 3-hour journey west toward the Pacific Coast and Bahia Magdalena.
Because of its somewhat rural location, visitors who have been lured to places like Cabo San Lucas, San Jose del Cabo and the East Cape by polished marketing campaigns often overlook such a remote portion of Baja Sur. But that situation is rapidly changing as more and more people become aware of this magical place where angling records are regularly broken, and great, gray mammals can often be observed nursing their young in a placid lagoon under a warm, golden sun.
Want to visit Bahía Magdalena: Jewel of Baja’s Pacific Coast? Find out more about Bahía Asunción and Central Baja!
Hooked on Baja author & columnist, Tom Gatch, is one of Baja’s foremost writers with a focus upon outdoor and recreational topics in Baja and Southern California.
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