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About Tom Gatch

For over a decade, Hooked on Baja author, Tom Gatch, has built a solid reputation as one of the foremost writers and columnists focusing on travel and recreational activities in Baja and southern California. His company, El Puerto Creative Consultants provides professional copy writing services and creative support for business entities on both sides of the border.

Captain Hook’s Gallery: The Story of San Felipe’s Mothership Fleet

Captain Hook’s Gallery: The Story of San Felipe’s Mothership Fleet

Mothership 1

Imagine yourself in a placid, turquoise cove. Although the sun has barely risen, you can already feel its intense rays warming your shoulders. The small panga carrying you and a few fellow fishermen slowly drifts a couple hundred yards from the lee side of a barren desert island only seconds before all hell breaks loose. Suddenly, your rod jolts and bends practically in half and the drag on your reel begins to scream.

Your alert panga captain immediately throws the motor out of neutral and into reverse, backing the boat away from the rocks until you have a chance to regain control of the battle. After ten long minutes that seem more like an hour, your beautiful 18-pound leopard grouper finally comes to gaff. Then, when the euphoria has momentarily subsided, you realize that your first day on a multiday panga mothership trip has only just begun.

Leopard grouper in various sizes are just one of the popular gamefish species available to anglers aboard panga motherships.

The father of Baja sportfishing, Ray Cannon, once referred to the Sea of Cortez as “the great fish trap” due to the fact that for hundreds of miles this narrow sea is tightly bordered by the coasts of Mexico and Baja California, and is open at only one end. As a result, these generally warm subtropical waters provide a nearly perfect sanctuary for the propagation of numerous species of fish and other marine life.

With a line of pangas in tow, San Felipe’s motherships can fish in waters surrounding remote islands in the Sea of Cortez.

Over the course of eons, volcanic upwellings have created numerous small islands and countless concealed grottos beneath the surface that harbor a vast array of hungry fish, many of which weigh well over 100 pounds. Whether anglers are looking for huge broomtail grouper and big cabrilla, or fat yellowtail, giant Humboldt squid, and white sea bass, a trip on a panga mothership offers a chance to experience the fishing adventure of a lifetime.

Well over a half century ago, a young fisherman in San Felipe named Tony Reyes came up with a concept that would end up changing the face of sportfishing along the entire northeast coast of Baja California. Until then most local fishing operations made a business out of crowding as many sport fishermen s possible together on a small boat, a situation that often resulted in tangled lines and flared tempers.  

Motherships offer a spacious and comfortable platform for multiday fishing excursions.

But Tony dreamed of offering his clients a large, livable craft that would tow a small armada of pangas down the rugged Baja coast to fish the rich waters that surround the many rocky islands in the mid and upper Gulf of California. Anglers could fish selected coves from a small craft with no more than two or three passengers per boat, and then enjoy the luxury of returning to a hot shower, a warm meal and a good night’s sleep before doing it all again the next day. The concept of the panga mothership was born.

Shortly thereafter, Reyes acquired a partner and bought an old shrimp trawler, building expanded sleeping accommodations and installing an upgraded galley. Once they got started and anglers from north of the border began returning home with coolers full of tasty grouper, cabrilla, and pargo fillets, their passenger rosters began to fill up.

Today, after serving throngs of happy customers for decades, the unique style of fishing offered by the Tony Reyes operation remains an excellent option for multiday fishing adventures in the fish rich waters of the upper Sea of Cortez.

First time saltwater angler, Don Little, shows off a sweet 110-pound grouper that was taken near a rocky outcropping.

But make no mistake about it, these captivating journeys are not just about catching fish. Most of the areas visited are adjacent to small remote islands and rocky outcroppings that offer near perfect venues to enjoy snorkeling and kayaking amongst schools of the many subtropical fish species that thrive in the region. There are also sublime oceanic sunsets and balmy breezes to enjoy while relaxing on the upper decks of the sturdy 105-foot vessel.

Baja’s Midriff Islands offer a peaceful backdrop for a panga mothership fishing adventure.

The upper Sea of Cortez offers a serene and enchanting environment that will mesmerize anglers once they finally arrive. And for those lucky enough to be aboard a panga mothership, it quickly becomes apparent why the islands of the northern Gulf are considered to have some of the best saltwater fishing in our hemisphere. 

 

Baja.com is a comprehensive online source of first-hand travel information for the Baja California Peninsula. We offer Baja travelers expert advice about local restaurantshotelsvacation rentals and activities, as well as guides, maps, complete event calendars and great stories about incredible travel destinations, from Tijuana to Cabo San Lucas.  We also provide free personal travel consulting, planning and booking services in Los Cabos, Todos Santos and La Paz, with prices that match or are below best advertised price. For more information, please call toll-free (US/CAN) 855-BAJA-411 or email us at info@baja.com.

 

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Baja Norte’s Captivating Coast on the Sea of Cortez

The Baja Coast along the Sea of Cortez offers treasures to the intrepid traveler

by Tom Gatch

Situated at upper end of the Sea of Cortez, the eastern coastline of northern Baja California supports an entirely different type of habitat and marine life profile than does the Pacific side.  Rugged volcanic outcroppings and occasional groups of small, rocky islands intermittently interrupt the many miles of warm, sandy beach that adjoin a tepid desert sea.

 

San Felipe on the Sea of Cortez enjoys spectacular sunsets

The narrow highway south of San Felipe that eventually meets the small settlement of Puertecitos some 50 miles away, runs parallel to long stretches of unpopulated beach.  The inshore waters nearby are a kayak angler’s dream, and catches of croaker and orange mouth corvina are not uncommon here during the summer months. In spite of being so close to the rapidly growing tourist town just to the north, this area along Baja’s Cortez coast is truly rural in almost every sense of the word.  This is a place where travelers should be prepared to provide their own creature comforts.  Puertecitos offers a small launch ramp; but aside from that, don’t expect to find any fancy hotels, gourmet restaurants or other tourist amenities in this somewhat isolated venue.

 

“Las Chivas” on the Sea of Cortez

For those wanting to relax after a long day fishing or hiking around the local foothills nearby, one of the most beguiling aspects of Puertecitos is that it features an adjacent proliferation of small, volcanic hot springs that flow nearby.  Just offshore, the Islas Encantadas, or Enchanted Islands, offer solid bottom fishing for leopard grouper, cabrilla and other popular gamefish, which often makes them one of the first stopping points for the panga festooned mothership operations based in San Felipe.  During the warmer months, the area around the islands is a prime place to catch large white sea bass and yellowtail.

 

Fishing can be rewarding along the rocky coastline of the Sea of Cortez

Beyond Puertecitos, the dusty and uneven thoroughfare heading south has a longstanding reputation as one of the most rutted roads in northern Baja. It can be very intimidating, and probably should not be undertaken except by the most seasoned of Baja travelers.

That having been said, the secluded areas of Bahía Willard and Bahía Gonzaga several miles down the coast offer breathtakingly beautiful seascapes and the solitude to truly appreciate them.  The onshore, inshore, and offshore angling opportunities here can also be outstanding throughout the entire summer season.  This entire section of coastline features a wealth of open, sandy beaches and rocky coves that are guaranteed to tempt the wandering beachcomber.

Bahia de los Angeles on the Sea of Cortez

Bahía de Los Angeles is a very popular fishing location that lies even further south, but is best reached by automobile via the Transpeninsular Highway. As is true along the entire Cortez coast, summer visitors should expect extremely warm daytime temperatures and plenty of sunshine. The nearby islands attract large schools of baitfish as well as big white sea bass, yellowtail, skipjack, grouper, and cabrilla.

The region is also home to the world’s largest cactus, the giant cardón, which some Native Americans believed that the cardón cactus could even take on the attributes of human beings, and actually meander around the moonlit desert while they slept at night.  It can reach a height of over 60 feet.

 

Giant cardón cacti dot the coastal areas along the Sea of Cortez

 

The first time I ever saw one of these huge cacti, I mistakenly referred to it as a saguaro. This is a common mix-up, since it greatly resembles a smaller, related species that is common in the deserts of Arizona.  There are a number of other specimens dotting this arid landscape, such as the painfully notorious cholla, sometimes referred to as “jumping cactus.” Also present are a plethora of barrel cacti and nopal, which produces moisture rich and  bright red fruits that are light green inside and taste a bit like kiwi fruit.

Nopal cacti are found in the coastal desert along the Sea of Cortez

For thousands of years before the first Europeans ever set foot here, the roots, leaves, seeds, and fruits of many of these native plants provided a valuable source of food and water for countless generations of indigenous peoples that had to survive in this harsh environment.  Young and tender nopal leaves and cactus fruits referred to as ‘tunas’ and ‘pitayas’ are still relished northern Baja California today.

One thing is certain:  However you get there, wherever you go, there is a special magic that exists in this section of Baja Norte’s eastern desert region that consistently manages to enchant visitors, many of whom never suspected that they might eventually fall under its spell.

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.

Want to find out more about traveling in Baja Norte?  Where to stay, what to do?  Read more on Baja.com!

Baja.com is a comprehensive online source of first-hand travel information for the Baja California Peninsula, supported by a full-service tour operator staffed by Baja locals (our “Baja Travel Savants”). We offer Baja travelers expert advice about local restaurantshotels and vacation rentals, as well as guides, maps and articles about events, sports and activities. We provide bilingual customer support, information and sales seven days a week, 365 days a year.

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The Noble Totuava — Fish Story with a Sad Beginning and (Maybe) a Happy Ending

By Tom Gatch

Tony Reyes, "Papa" Gorgonio and his son, Chichi, after unloading a catch of totuava in 1953.

Nearly a half century ago, San Felipe was little more than a tiny, remote poblado at the northern end of the Sea of Cortez. Few people north of the border even knew that it existed, let alone entertained the thought of ever going there. The rare exceptions were dedicated anglers in pursuit of the mightiest croaker of them all, the giant Totuava.

The Colorado River delta is the primary spawning ground for this indigenous species, and also serves as a nursery for very young fish. Juveniles begin migrating south after about two years, but then must survive for another six or seven years before reaching full sexual maturity. They have been known to live for 25 years, but because of overfishing and inadvertent bycatch, fewer and fewer of the now relatively rare fish even live long enough to reproduce.

Totuava can easily attain weights of well over 200 pounds. They are considered gourmet table fare and, along with shrimp, were the backbone of San Felipe’s economy at the time. Ironically this factor eventually became the totuava’s undoing. During the middle of the previous century, large quantities of their ice covered fillets were trucked up to satisfy the growing demand north of the border for what was then referred to as ‘Mexican sea bass’.

Giant totuava provided great sport for countless visiting anglers during the mid 20 th century.

Unfortunately, it was later discovered that even more money could be made by catering to the desires of epicures in Asian countries who prized the totuava’s swim bladder as a prime ingredient in gourmet soup stock. The skyrocketing value of such an easily harvested and cheaply processed product created a situation where beaches around San Felipe often became strewn with huge, rapidly decaying totuava carcasses which had nothing more than their swim bladders cut out.

This tragic waste, along with excessive shrimp trawling in the region and the incremental damming of the Colorado River up in the United States, reduced the flow of fresh water in the Rio Hardy to a virtual trickle. Such a profound environmental change spelled certain doom for the noble totuava.

During the late 1970’s, when it seemed as if the last nail had finally been driven into the coffin, the Mexican government intervened and instituted a strict ‘no take’ embargo on sport and commercial catches of the now endangered totuava.

The good news is that, with current aggressive husbandry programs and organized habitat enhancement efforts, the totuava is starting to make a comeback.  In May 2002, a cooperative program with UABC (Universidad Autonoma de Baja California) and conservation groups allowed the release of 1,600 totuava’s into the Sea of Cortez.  Their stocks, however, will probably never return to the number and size that were common during San Felipe’s ‘glory days’.

The cooperative efforts of both government agencies and civilian environmental groups are now helping to reintroduce totuava to the waters of the upper Sea of Cortez.

Today, this region still offers solid fishing opportunities for various species including orangemouth corvina, shortfin corvina and spotted bay bass and smaller grouper. Shore fishing from can also be productive during periods of good tidal movement. If you don’t have your own boat, a commercial panga can be booked right on the beach, and deepwater charters targeting larger fish at Consag Rock just offshore are also available.

Further south along the coast toward Puertecitos, the long stretches of sandy beach are a kayak angler’s dream, and catches of large corvina are not uncommon during the months of summer.

Although the big totuava may be gone, the wise angler will never visit San Felipe without a fishing pole.  Want to cast a line in San Felipe?  Ask us how!

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.

Baja.com is a comprehensive online source of first-hand travel information for the Baja California Peninsula, supported by a full-service tour operator staffed by Baja locals (our “Baja Travel Savants”). We offer Baja travelers expert advice about localrestaurants,hotels and vacation rentals, as well as guides, maps and articles about events, sports and activities. We provide bilingual customer support, information and sales seven days a week, 365 days a year.  For more information, please call toll-free (US/CAN) 855-BAJA-411 or email us at info@baja.com.

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