For as soon as I finish fussing around in the mangrove esteros for a few days, making sure I still know how to sail a boat and cast a 400-grain line, I am offered a forecast of clear skies and light winds to go along with a week of neap tides. I’m all over that. I sail to the boca and, starting at the sandspit, begin my reacquaintance with a number of old friends—palometas, the Baja variety, bright as newly minted dimes, the fish I often choose to kill for my daily fillets; ladyfish, the superb-fighting little cousin of tarpon; cocineros, the almost cylindrical green jack that, like all jacks, fights far out of proportion to its size. Late in afternoon, with Madrina now far enough off the beach, in the rising tide, that I may have to swim to her, I also land a trio of pompano, the true Baja permit, the first one so powerful I first think it might be a manta ray when, after a long fight, it rolls on its side and flashes a broad pale profile while line again shudders off the reel.
Photographing this handsome fish, I’m reminded of the confusion in these parts about what is and isn’t a palometa, a pompano, and the genuine Baja permit, Trachinotus kennedyi. Locals use palometa and pompano interchangeably, including when identifying the Baja permit. Don’t expect me to sort it all out. All these species—plus several other closely related elegant, upright, inshore fish—are a thrill to catch when standing on a wild beach, wielding a fly rod in the wind. You can easily tell one species from the other—but the truth is, the literature remains sketchy about what’s what, and the locals’ loose nomenclature does little to help. For the record, I’ve seen and caught the actual Baja permit upwards of 20 pounds.
Now where are we?
Shortly after dark, the tide changes, the wind builds, and I spend another restless night on anchor. So much for forecasts. Boiling water for coffee at 3 a.m., I decide my next boat will have firmer bilges—or a motor that can propel me each night into the shelter of the mangroves. At dawn, the wind still bucking, I get out binoculars and try to see what kind of seas are getting pushed up against the far shore. Do I dare anchor off a lee shore, relying on Madrina’s old-fashioned lug rig to make headway should the chop turn to actual waves?
I’ve been in these waters often enough to feel all but certain this morning that the wind won’t go through the roof—at least now that the chubasco season has passed. Then again, 50 years in Baja teaches you never to underestimate winds that lie latent along a narrow desert peninsula, rising thousands of feet along its spine, and separating two sharply different seas. Packing up my boat tent, preparing to set sail, I’m also reminded that, despite my faith in her, Madrina is really little more than a doubleended rowboat with sails. I recall the few pictures I’ve seen of her with me seated at the helm, and how surprised I am seeing my knees poking over the gunwales.
I raise the big mainsail and follow the sandspit until it reaches the reefs and steep headlands along the boca’s near shore. Headed toward the open Pacific, I continue along the rugged cliffs until my nerves get the best of me; I know I could pass through the surf rolling in over long sandbars stretched toward the horizon—but then what? Instead, I tack and sail across the boca, through the chop and lumpy currents that make this passage intimidating even on the calmest days.
Approaching the outside reach of the promising beach Joe and I fished in spring, I try to get some sense of the size of the shore break and whether I’d be foolish to run Madrina up onto the sand. The best plan seems to be to sail the length of the beach—see if the water’s quieter in toward the bay. I head along the edge of the deep trough just outside the shore break—and while I’m at it, I pick up a rod, point it behind me, and with one hand wrapped around both the tiller and foregrip, pull off a bunch of line.
Don’t get me wrong: I don’t consider a trolled fly genuine fly fishing. Then again, when I hook a fish and turn upwind, allowing the sails to luff while whatever’s on the end of the line tries to wrap the rod around the mizzenmast, I feel like a 14-year-old again, scrambling about Madrina’s cluttered cockpit, trying my damnedest to fight the fish and not get blown backwards into the shore break and washed up on the beach—a delightfully gonzo fishing moment predicated on the age-old notion that there’s something on the end of my line and I really would like to know what it is.
Rooster. What do you know. Schooling size, six to eight pounds of linebacker muscle, with that outrageous comb I still expect to see trending in major league sports any day now. Two more roosters the same size come to the trolled fly before I conclude that, yep, they’re here, all right—and rather than continue to look for a safe spot to beach Madrina, I drop sails, row right through the shore break, slide up onto the sand, and plunge over
the gunwales, rod in hand.
I stayed a few days. There were memorable moments, including a broken rod and, on what looked like a 20-pounder, dragging me up and down the beach, a backing knot that exploded with a sound like gunfire, my fly line disappearing quietly through the surf. I returned three weeks later and the fish were bigger—in the teens, in the twenties, one I claimed was 30, but, come on, how would I honestly know? Sometimes, anyway, it really does seem just too good to be true. If you don’t feel like the luckiest guy in the world, something’s wrong with you. Fifty roosters caught off a wild beach all to yourself. I got home and started planning my return.
Scott Sadil lives in Hood River, Oregon. His newest fiction collection is Goodnews River, published by Stackpole Books.