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