Captain Hook’s Gallery: Baja’s Biggest Bass
The closest most anglers along Baja California’s Pacific coast ever get to catching a member of the tropical grouper family is when they have hooked one of their distant cousins, such as a calico bass or cabrilla. Up until the mid-1960s, however, there were healthy stocks of giant black sea bass (Stereolepis Gigas) thriving in the rocky lairs along coastal islands such as Islas Coronados off Rosarito Beach, and Todos Santos, which lies a few miles west of Ensenada Harbor.
Sadly, abusive harvesting over a period of many years took a heavy toll on larger members of this slow growing species. North of the border, protective moratoriums were eventually enacted to save this valuable resource, and have been in place for several decades.
The good news is that Baja California still supports a viable number of these fish, particularly around the volcanic islands located in the mid to upper portion of the Sea of Cortez. This type of angling is the specialty of the Mothership panga fishing businesses operating out of San Felipe.
Today, juvenile black sea bass are occasionally being caught in California waters, and although they must still be released immediately, it is a sign that bodes well for the future of this valuable species.
Another positive indication of the healthy population increase of giant black sea bass in southern California waters is the growing number of sightings from observers who have seen them swimming just off Southland beaches, as well as escalating incidental catches being reported by commercial sportfishers in the region.
On the Pacific side of the peninsula, the waters off of Bahia San Quintin are still a well-known haunt for giant black sea bass. Proceeding south, grouper populations begin to increase, particularly around rocky structures. This fact adds to the ultimate challenge of catching and actually landing one.
One of the most effective techniques for catching a large grouper involves a lot of teamwork and cooperation. The skipper positions the boat within 50 yards of a likely grouper hole, and then places the engine in neutral. The angler then drops over a sturdy bottom rig connected to an 80 to 100 pound test fluorocarbon leader, which is baited with a live mackerel. The line is kept tight with the weight on the bottom until the angler detects a pick up. At this precise moment the angler alerts the skipper to hit it, at which time he throws the boat into gear and immediately pulls away from the spot until the fish is too far from its rocky cavern to return. Once a big grouper is allowed to lodge itself back into its home, it is almost impossible to extricate.
When fishing for them, however, it is extremely important to release the smaller ones as soon as they are caught so that they may have the opportunity to leisurely grow into big ones. As an example, black sea bass weighing 30 pounds or less should be returned to the water. While you may not be used to releasing such a good eating fish of this size, it should be remembered that this species is capable of eventually growing to weights of up to 700 pounds.
Admittedly, when it comes to elegant table fare, there is nothing quite as delightful as a large, thick fillet of black sea bass, or mero, as it is referred to in Baja California. Its flesh is firm, white and delicate, with a flavor that has occasionally been compared with fine shellfish. Bake it, sauté it in garlic butter or grill it over mesquite. The fact of the matter is, unless you overcook it, this is one type of fish that is difficult to prepare improperly.
Catching and landing one of these huge groupers can be the angling experience of a lifetime. But even while fishing for them legally in Mexican waters, it is still important to always let your conscience be your guide.
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