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Mothership Kayak Fishing - The Sea of Cortez

by Adi Ljubovic

It may be just me, but I feel it takes a novel to really capture awesome fishing experience and great time we just had down in San Carlos. It was a major blast, every minute of it including the non-fishing time. Having all 8 or so of us plus the driver stacked up in that caravan while laughing my ass off trying to keep my neck intact since we were doing 50mph on that bumpy road in a beat up car – priceless… The whole time, I felt like I was 18 years old again.

On Our Way There

We loaded our kayaks and gear on Brent’s trailer the night before. I know I wasn’t the only one having difficulties falling asleep... I was way too hyped up. You wonder if that childish excitement the night before is ever going to die off. Fishing won’t kill me, but the lack of sleep the night before fishing may.
We got together and headed East around 6:00AM. Long drive to Arizona flew by rather quickly. Good times chit-chatting in the car, feasting on Chinese bagel sandwiches (ok, I bought bagels in Ranch 99 store the night before), enjoying desert scenery and listening to Mexican music in effort to acclimate (yeah right).

At the Tucson airport we met up with Andy’s dad John, a wonderful gentleman. Shames (I know, how the hack did he say you spell that?!?), a co-owner of El Duque mothership, was waiting for us. We hooked the trailer to his van and headed towards the border.
I was surprised how nice the road to San Carlos is. Nothing like Baja – we were cruising 70+ mph on a highway with 2 lanes going in each direction, physically separated and in very good condition. The van was rather new – it had an AC, DVD player… First class.
Shameless without an “l”, experienced free-diver, clued us in to the local situation. We were to expect warm water, warm weather and warm welcome from dorado, marlin, sailfish and a variety of bottom critters. Running into some tuna was a possibility. We learned that the local fishermen were not big on live bait. They were getting the most of their fish trolling feathers and rigging dead ballyhoo…

We figured 7 knots trolling speed would be quite a problem for our kayaks. We were really hoping to have live bait. Our local skipper Alex was trying to get some for us. Besides, we brought our Sabikis

We got to San Carlos around 8:00 PM… Tasty carne asada tacos for dinner at the local stand - the 1st ones out of many we will have during the trip. We then started loading all our stuff on the mothership. Having to do it in 85 degree humid conditions after a long day of driving made it pretty tough… But I guess the idea of eventful tomorrow kept our spirits up.
We ventured out to find shelter and anchor in one of many small coves that exist in this natural harbor. Brian did great job quickly putting their bait tank in business. Smelt and other small bait started swarming under the boat lights. We dropped our sabikis down, but they found very little interest. Andy, Mr. hot bait stick (and marlin stick, we would learn later on) managed the first caballito. Great bait – we started howling and hollering in excitement. I remember thinking – gee, wonder how are we going to behave tomorrow…
Since it was slow pick on bait, we convinced the skipper to move us to another spot. We found more action not far away and managed to load our bait tank with maybe 6-7 cabalitto, a handful of small croakers and a whole bunch of “mexican lookdown”. We had some nicer/bigger fish on the sabiki. Andy’s sierra would be the most notable. Feeling great about how we kept accomplishing the small steps of our mission despite the glitches we encountered, we went horizontal to catch a couple of hours of much needed rest.

The plan for the first day was to head out West in search of exotics and big game fish. We were to come back to spend the night at San Pedro Island, some 14 miles out. We were going to fish the Island hard during the second day. Pretty good plan, we all agreed.

Day 1

The feathers we trolled from the boat started getting hit only a couple of miles out. Dodos would hit and start their remarkable dance, proving it to be quite an efficient survival technique. I’d say we landed only 1 in 4 fish that hit the trolling rods.

In order to launch our kayaks, we knew we had to find some “target” – a bunch of floating debris we’ve been reading about, lots of birds revealing the presence of a big school of dorado, something. We would see a piece of bamboo floating not longer than 6”; we would troll by it and pick up a dorado. We saw some birds working the surface – we would get a dodo or just miss one… Fish or strike here and there, but we found nothing promising and inviting enough to make us commit to launching our kayaks. We worried if we launched and ended up in non-productive area, we would loose a lot of time loading our kayaks back on the boat to move someplace else. We wanted to be certain we found the “real battlefield”, where we would just knock them dead.

At one point we saw the birds working. Porpoise feeding on real small bonito (or where those small skippies??) were under them. We started catching these small fish on sabikis 5 at the time. They looked great for bait, but we learned quickly they just couldn’t survive in the bait tank.

I wanted to soak my kayak in that area baaaaaad… I wish we did. It was the only spot out in the blue water where we found a ton of bait. It was already almost passed noon… I was getting anxious to launch… I kept thinking and still do - Dodos must have been there.

Alex, the skipper, finally tells us that his buddies on the panga are about 10-ish more miles out. They had the “net” put in the area, and supposedly – the fish were there too. Sounded like what we were looking for – a specific target likely to hold the fish, a point of reference that we can work up and down…

Close Encounters of the Lamb Kind

Few minutes into the troll we see two marlin chillin’ on the surface. Just as we passed them, Brent’s hand made marlin jig gets slammed… Mike gets to enjoy a couple of wild jumps…

…then, let me see… I think his phone rang; was it that his girlfriend was calling about landscapers working on sprinklers in the yard or something?!? Anyway, he was too much into the exciting phone conversation so he handed the rod over to masta Andy.

Andy made a quick work out of that ~100# striper, bringing it to the boat in about 10 minutes. Brent, the most experienced of all of us with marlins, grabbed it by the beak to get the hook out. He must have sustained shaking in the equivalent of magnitude 8.0 earthquake for a few minutes. Good thing that big MKNOTT was holding his shirt… If it was anyone else, Brent would have been riding on that fish. The crew wanted to filet the fish. We explained we’re not about killing beautiful fish (yeah right, like dodos are ugly).

So, the striped beauty swam away unharmed. High fives all over… Our local crew all bummed out… We promised we would go for the kill if we happen to hook a lil’ one… I asked them which ones are better to keep, thinking maybe smaller marlin tastes better?!? Their reply was “biiiig one… more meat”.
We jumped in the water to cool down and celebrate. Brent and Seamous grabbed their snorkeling masks to work on a tank intake hose - we were getting the air in when boat was moving, stopping the water flow.

Seamous came up on the surface… He was all excited, telling us there were 3 dorado under the boat. My flyline rod was close by… I pinned one caballito on and tossed it overboard. Dodo inhaled it instantly… I counted – I’m getting picked up… I’m getting picked up… Long baaaaaaaaah twice and 3 short baaahs… BAMMM, Jumping Jack Flash was on. That fish had a privilege to be landed by Andy’s dad John. He proved that it just runs in the Allens family…

We picked up maybe one or 2 more on the troll and lost as many or more by the time we arrived at our destination. The panga (btw the “cutest” I ever saw, lovely color selection) was there, so were the canisters along hundreds of yards long “net”. Definitely something to work around.

It was 2:00 PM and dead calm. No swell, no wind what so ever. It was one of the most memorable moments in my fishing career – you see the Baja waaaaay out in the distance West; Mexico’s mainland as far out in the East. We launched our kayaks in the middle of Sea of Cortez in to the 90.5 degree water. We had more than a descent shot to hang some lamb. Does it get any better than that?!?

Mike got picked up first. He had a nice weight on for a couple of seconds, than the fish bit off his 30# leader.
Hoping for a shot at Marlin or Sailfish, I fly-lined caballito on my stocky 6.5’ rod with Avet 2 speed, 400 yards of 50# spectra and a few feet of 40# fluorocarbon leader. I paddled along the side of the “net”, hoping for dodos hanging out under those colorful floating canisters. As Brent announced on VHF that he just got picked up by a dorado that shook the hook while jumping, I got hit… I set the hook and I was on for a nice fight. Those dorado are pretty cool fish to catch, and they really make you work for it. It jumped many times, while my heart was pumping… I watched the school of 7-8 of them following my fish, right under my kayak.

I paddled back to our mothership to put the fish in the cooler. I kept bleating and yelling “sheeba”, which is what the captain told me is how you say “lamb” in Spanish. I don’t think that’s the case – I could not find any reference on the net….
Whatever - I got to see that 37#-er that Seamous speared. He later said he saw the fish under our boat right as we all got in the water. He waited for the plastic fleet to split so he can shoot it. It could have easily been caught by one of us. Seeing his fish got me all pumped up.

As far as bait, at that point we only had a few of those “mexican lookdowns” left in the tank. I took some dead whole squid I got at Ranch 99 with me. I flylined this “foreheady” bait, and rigged 2 oz sliding sinker to flyline dead ballyhoo. The big dead bait was too much for my clicker, so I slightly engaged the lever to stop the line from coming out. That turned to be a bad idea. Ballyhoo soon got picked up; as the fish started running, the drag got engaged more and more. By the time I reached for the rod to put the reel in free spool, the fish spit the bait.
We kept seeing big fish breaking the surface not too far away from us… Marlin and sails… It was quite tense out there.
Brian then picked up a nice one:

We started getting hit on pompano, or I should say that “Mexican lookdowns”. It turns out that ridiculously shaped, almost squared fish, was just too much for those dodos. It was hard for them to swallow it. It was even harder for us to set the dang hook. As I lost my last bait, I pinned the whole dead squid on…. I trolled it suspended with 1.5 oz led with only my clicker on. 10 minutes later, zzzzzzzzzz…. Poor thing didn’t jump at all. I let it run with that squid for too long - the hook was deep in her throat. Andy got the whole fight on tape – another smaller hen in my lap.

Despite me crying, the crew insisted that we all get back on the boat. The panga was picking up their “net” (bringing a ton of dorado on board, btw) and leaving… the Sun was about to slip behind Baja. We had a couple of hours to go to make it to the island.
Masta Mike showed up with a hefty bull, I thing 23 or 24 lbs… He picked it up on dead ballyhoo.

We loaded our yaks back on the mothership and jumped in the water to wash off and have fun. We started trolling back towards the Island.
10 minutes later the clicker goes off. Déjà Vu - Andy catches another marlin. This model was some 30-40 pounds bigger than the 1st one. It made an impressive first run quickly shaving off almost all the line from that spool… Alex started backing the boat, and Andy quickly put the things under control.

Another 10-15 minutes goes by and we have the fish by the swim step. It was still green when Brent grabbed it, and quickly managed to break off with the hook in its mouth. We were all happy. Our Mexican crew was bummed out again. Despite that, they set us up with another awesome dinner. Carne Asada tacos (at that point we were already addicted), and they cooked some fresh dorado. Very, very tasty.
We arrived at San Pedro Island in the dark. The crew dropped the anchor; Andy and I dropped sabiki. Everyone else dropped unconscious, including big Mike who kept BS-ing how he was going to fish the whole night. We tried hard for about ½ hour, but just couldn’t get anything to go. We went to sleep.

Day 2

We woke up to find Mike snagging some bait size fish… Brent went down for a dive. A steady 7-8 knots South-ish wind was blowing. It wasn’t as nice as the day before, but not too bad. The boat pulled up tight to SW corner of the Island. We launched our kayaks to work the West side, while drifting North. San Pedro Island is awesome.


Uninhabited, untouched natural beauty. Every ridge, every cove was something to see. The drop off in front side of the island was pretty steep, but there was no waves crashing. I was paddling a few feet from the rocks. I kept casting swim bait tight to the rocks, retrieving while letting it sink following the bottom.

All sorts of intriguing structure on the fishfinder, with marks on it. That place is just loaded with fish. They were hitting squid strips, swimbaits, grubs… pretty much anything you dropped down. We almost had a non-stop action.

We caught nothing too big, but I’m sure there were some big’ns lurking down on the bottom. We released majority of the fish we caught. We kept a couple of bigger models that Alex later turned into the best ceviche I ever had.

At one point, the birds started working maybe ½ miles out. Andy was closer and paddled towards them. Having caught my dosage of bottom fish, I was eager to venture out. Another pile of birds formed up closer to me, so I charged their way. With no protection from the island, the wind chop was nasty. The birds kept moving; I never really caught up to them. I kept working the area where I thought they hang out first, dragging rapala and the dead squid. The clicker where I had the squid soon went off. I set the hook and lil’ dorado started jumping. Sweet, there were some at the Island as well!

As I brought him under the kayak, I saw another follower. I popped my camera out and tried to get the lil’ guy on my line to go airborne for a Kodak picture moment. He was worn out. He finally charged behind me and almost jumped in my kayak, hitting the side and falling back in the water. I cut him out of his misery and put him on the stringer.

Went back in tighter to the Island. I skipped breakfast; I was starving. El Duque was anchored at the NW corner - time for me to get back in.
I borrowed snorkeling mask to check out how it looked underneath. I saw big schools of fish of all sorts of shapes and colors… Amazing.
We started heading back to San Carlos in the PMs. We were going to spend the night on the boat anchored in the slip, and head back home early in the morning.
We slow trolled, drifted, made stops to jump in the water. We even had a casting contest going on! Like kids - having pure fun and loving every minute of it.
Sunset over the San Pedro Island.

Boyz were back in town… Not much of a town, and not too many people as the season down there is just starting. A couple of places to eat & drink along the bay, thatz it. OK, there’s a strip club too but we didn’t feel like stripping that night

Some more carne asada tacos and beer…

I will definitely go back, there is no doubt about that.
Fishing is just great down there; the exotic stuff that we crave so much around here seems very much available this time of the year. Going there with a group of friends will etch it in your mind forever.
Big time thanks to Brent and OEX crew for inviting me over...

Just unforgetablambelievable!

Long drive back home… After such a trip – piece of cake.