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Captain Hook’s Gallery: The History of Baja Sportfishing

Captain Hook’s Gallery: The History of Baja Sportfishing

At the conclusion of the Mexican-American War in 1848, one of the conditions of the resulting Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was the surrendering of Mexico’s vast land holdings in Alta California and what is now New Mexico to the government of the United States.

Avid Baja angler Julio Meza shows off one of the reasons why the the Baja California peninsula now draws fishing enthusiasts from around the globe.

The richness of the Pacific coast and the fertile inland valleys nearby were considered obvious assets that served the popular concept of Manifest Destiny. The narrow finger of land just below it that is known today as Baja California, however, was considered to be an arid, cactus covered wasteland populated primarily by rattlesnakes, scorpions, coyotes, and a smattering of indigenous Indian tribes. Had the authors of the treaty realized the wealth of exotic fish and other marine species that flourish in the beautiful azure waters that surround the peninsula, it is likely that Baja would have been annexed as well. But the fact that it was not was to the ultimate benefit of future generations.

Because of its rugged volcanic landscape and previous lack of negotiable travel routes, it took almost a century before people north of the border began to take notice of Baja’s charms. One of the first was the celebrated author John Steinbeck, who had once studied marine biology at Stanford, along with his close friend Dr. Ed Ricketts, who was the inspiration for the character of Doc in his classic novel Cannery Row.  

The History of Baja Sportfishing

Author John Steinbeck and his friend Dr. Ed Ricketts explored Baja and the Sea of Cortez in early 1940. Image: Nobel Foundation

In early 1940, Steinbeck and Ricketts procured a sardine fishing boat named the Western Flyer and a four man crew in Monterey and then headed south, ultimately spending over a month an a half traveling down Baja’s Pacific coast and up through the Gulf of California while collecting biological specimens. Steinbeck found himself astounded by the seemingly endless varieties of fish and invertebrates that they encountered during this voyage. His account of their experience, The Log from the Sea of Cortez, was eventually published in 1951, and helped to generate interest in Baja and the Sea of Cortez.

Other well-known people were also spreading the word about Baja’s great fishing and recreational potential. Earl Stanley Gardner, author of the Perry Mason mystery series, was an avid Bajaphile who often flew to various remote locations on the peninsula in a small private plane. His book, The Hidden Heart of Baja, offered additional impetus for the curious to actually visit Baja themselves.

During the middle part of the 20th century, adventurous anglers from Southern California discovered Baja’s fishing potential while seeking the giant sea bass known as totuava, available near the small poblado of San Felipe at the northern end of the Sea of Cortez. The dirt road down from El Centro and Mexicali was rugged, and the trip from the border may have taken 12 hours or more, but catching a totuava weighing over 200-pounds was a sufficient reward for the ordeal.

The History of Baja Sportfishing

Southern Californian Charlie McGee shows off a sweet pargo perro (dog snapper) that he caught near Isla Cerralvo.

A little over a decade later, a retired military pilot named Ed Tabor, who hosted a local Los Angeles television show called the Flying Fisherman’s Club, converted an old B-25 into a 6-seat passenger aircraft and began flying customers out of L.A. and San Diego down to his Flying Sportsman Lodge in Loreto. Soon, anglers started to return home with enthusiastic tales of effortlessly catching bounties of big dorado, yellowtail, tuna, snapper, and grouper. The cat was now out of the bag; Baja offered fantastic fishing opportunities, but the frustrating reality was that most areas were virtually inaccessible to anyone not traveling by airplane or boat. But that all changed in the mid-1970’s.

Completed in 1973, Mexico’s Highway 1, also known as the Transpeninsular Highway, opened up road access to the entire peninsula between Tijuana and Cabo San Lucas; a distance of over a thousand miles. Since the entire peninsula is barely 100 miles wide in most areas, the new highway created an opportunity for appropriately outfitted vehicles to traverse the small dirt or gravel roads leading to many of Baja’s remote fish camps. This also turned out to be beneficial to many of the local commercial fishermen, who quickly realized the potential financial benefit of catering to visiting sport anglers in search of big fish.

After the construction of Baja’s Transpeninsular Highway, Tom Miller’s Baja Book was the first comprehensive guide to finding the region’s best places to camp and fish.

It is probably fair to say that Southern Californians were the first to benefit directly from the discovery of the exceptional fishing available in Baja California, but once the word got out about how easy it had become to access, anglers started showing up from around the globe.

Shortly thereafter, a procession of outdoor writers began offering up engagingly detailed information on the best ways and places to enjoy a memorable fishing trips in Baja. Perhaps the most prominent publication involved in the promotion of Baja sportfishing has been Western Outdoor News. While legendary Baja writer Ray Cannon may have been their first columnist to tackle the subject, a succession of knowledgeable writers and authors such as Tom Miller, Fred Hoctor, and Gene Kira have helped keep the legacy alive through the years.

A History of Baja Sportfishing

A prize winner from Bisbee’s 32nd Annual Black and Blue Marlin Tournament.

Today, there are literally dozens of easily accessible sportfishing venues around the peninsula that cater to anglers of all skill levels. For those in search of competition, there are a number of tournaments occasionally held at regional hotel properties, as well as the high profile, big money events organized by Bisbee and Western Outdoor News.

When you consider how popular Baja sportfishing has become, along with the fact that the state has still managed to retain its reputation as a bucolic sanctuary for those seeking solace from a nervous world north of the border, it makes sense to give thanks for that extremely fortunate oversight in the framing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.

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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.

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