Running and Gunning - East Cape Frenzies by Terry W. Sheely

Day four dawns with another scalding orange sunrise, plates of abandoned huevos, and a jolt of adrenalin.

Somebody shouts and we run for rods and the water. Gangs of powerful jack crevalle and lightning-fast black and white roosterfish are swarming the beach trapping squads of baitfish, pinning them against the sand, attacking in packs. Terrorized sardinas, ballyhoos, and mullets blow through the surface in tail-slapping, cartwheeling frenzies trying to spin away from the snapping jaws.  In blind panic, baitfish retreat to the beach until they run out of water and throw themselves onto the sand in front of gluttonous gulls.

At the edge of the Sea of Cortez, on the famed East Cape directly below the veranda, fly-fishing chaos arrived in an instantaneous explosion of life-and-death, eat-or-be-eaten; unannounced but enthusiastically welcomed.

One minute I’m fueling up on eggs and ham and red-fleshed melon slices in Tico’s, enjoying the warm and slightly humid salt air at Palmas de Cortez, listening to Bullard orioles whistle, and the next instant it is bedlam.

saltwater fly fishing cape jack

Fishermen are leaping from chairs, spilling coffee, scattering salsa and limes and bolting for the low brick wall that looks down on the sand beach below. For a half mile in both directions the surf is erupting with baitfish, packed into panicked crushes by slashing predators; Blunt-Faced Jack Crevalle, also called Toro (bull), and for good reason. Mixed into the feeding melee are roosterfish, with their war-painted with combs flying, a few toothy needlefish and who knows what else. More than 80 varieties of sport fish hide in these waters.

The predators force the baitfish against the beach...

...pinning schools against shallow sand, then attacking in slashing squads. Every few yards another panic of bait is driven into the sand and attacked in a blowup of water, fins, food and savagery. Survivors tumble into schools of other survivors; the attackers regroup and hit them again.

It’s both terrifying and fascinating. I’m running in sand, stripping 11-weight line, false-casting a glistening white 3/0 pearlescent Clouser, and stumbling into a blow-up that has me shaking. The streamer - 6-inches of tinsel, hair and hope resembling a sardine - launches, straightens, and crashes into the chaos.

Up north, fly fishermen have a name for water disturbed by feeding trout—nervous water they call it. This is way past nervous. This is psychotic water. Crazy and deadly. Froth boils, fish fly out of the water, crash on the sand, land on rocks, and skitter off. Big fins slash through the beach surge. Water swirls and churns. Hundreds of feet away and we can hear the attacks, a sound that is incongruously reminiscent of the tinkling of small waterfalls.

The crevalle and roosters are slashing and gorging, sardinas are beaching, ballyhoo are dying, the sunrise is going tangerine and the sea is playing music.

saltwater fly fishing

I watch one guy, otherwise seemingly sane and employable, strip a tangle of fly line off the reel as he runs down uneven steps to the path of rocks that falls to the beach—the same path that two nights ago was crossed by six feet of rattlesnake.

The fly stripper is focused, oblivious; running full out onto the beach, false-casting as he goes, singularly focused on dumping a streamer into psychotic water.  Barefooted, he splashes into the surf, loads the 12-weight rod with an awkward open backcast, flops out 30 feet of line and is instantly connected to more fish than he bargained for. The jack crevalle, 15 or 25 pounds, races through the fly line, into the backing and halfway to the sunrise. The fisherman just hangs on. Mercifully, the tippet pops and the guy saves his spendy line, rod and a whole bunch of green running line.

Up and down the beach, fly rods are bending, anglers are scrambling for leverage, lines slice the surf, fish are boiling, sardines flopping in puddles on the sand—and the fishing day is just getting started.

Mike Rieser, shorts, sandals, and sand owner of Baja Flyfishing Company ( is the resident fly guru in the authentic little fish community of Los Barriles on the East Cape of Mexico’s Baja Peninsula. As the blowout fades, he collects his fly fishermen and herds them toward the slim, colorful pangas anchored down the beach.

“Great way to start the day,” he says with a wink as he walks past, and then he turns and adds, “see what I mean—you don’t have to be a great fly caster to fly fish down here. If you can pick up a rod, you can catch fish on the fly—boat or beach.”

Years back Mike gave up Colorado trout for the East Cape and never looked back. His skin is the color of healthy sand, etched by desert rawness, with eyes that can pick out a blow-up in the surf a mile off and identify the translucent flash of a bonefish or the black shadow of a rooster or pargo in the rocks. Baja and specifically the East Cape became his religion until finally he wrote the book on it: Fly Fishing the Baja and Beyond (Baja Time Publications 2011).

My best East Cape days are Mike Rieser fly days, when we climb into his red beachmobile, sometimes with top guide Merry Waugh and her magic iced Thermos, and run the empty sand paralleling the surf line, watching for black shadows on white bottoms in soft turquois water, throwing big lines at sticks and shifting shadows that hold who knows what. Dozens of gamefish species are looking for flies: striped marlin, sailfish, yellowfin tuna, wahoo, dorado, sierra, barracuda, ladyfish, roosterfish, jack crevalle, pargo, pompano, needlefish, trumpet fish, mackerel, grouper, amberjack, white bonito, skipjack, snapper, cabrilla, even a few bones and……

The monster beach-eruption that I wrote about at the beginning is an exception, not the norm, although blowups can and do infrequently erupt. More typical is running the beach, watching for moving shadows, casting to troughs, and chasing small blow-ups of bait and predators.

buggy fly fishing sand saltwater

We run and gun on miles of piled white sand, all public, watching for frenzied eruptions or moving shadows, racing to cast, stripping like crazy; two-handed speed is best. More running than gunning, everything on the East Cape is in motion: waves, wind, sand, moving fish, shifting bait. Fish and fishermen are constantly on the hunt.

Fat-tire rental quads, available in Los Barriles, LaRibera, and some resorts, open miles and miles of beach—every inch of it public. Guided pangas can cover the same water from the sea side with the added option of slipping out a mile or two when billfish, yellowfins or dorado show beyond beach-casting range.

Like most run-and-gunners, we are more likely to resemble desert bandits than single-minded fishers.

Faces covered from the desert sun and burning reflection with neck gaiters, buffs and wrap-around sunglasses, big hats, SPF shirts, quick-dry shorts, and expendable sandals. This is the East Cape uniform, evolved out of necessity—sun-blocking, quick-dry coverings that shed sand and chaffing, and polarized glasses that penetrate bouncing reflection to pick apart the underwater. Make no mistake, this is sight-fishing and the more fish you see the better the day.

Typically, we run the beachmobile high on the sand to elevate the view, spot a moving target, power ahead, jump-off and run into the surf. Find the fish, cast beyond and ahead and if it’s a glory fish—rooster, jack cravelle, dorado—sweep the rod and strip faster than you think you can. Either the apparition eats or you chase it. Rarely do you have the luxury of a two-casts fish. 

The East Cape’s sub-tropical options eclipse northern definitions of hot.

I’m convinced a five-pound skipjack from the Tropic of Cancer will pull a 15-pound Gulf of Alaska chinook backward.

They fight the big fightno mas is not in their vocabulary. 

A decent rooster in the surf will kill your fly, stress your reel, break your leader, crush your heart, and send you for a cerveza. You’ll see that masked face, the high black comb rise through the surface, shake and attack long after the fish goes away.

Schools of cruising predator fish appear in the Polaroids and ghost away. Mike, Merry and I stop in the sand near the stark light house at Punta Arenas, wade into the Sea of Cortez, until the rolling surge breaks around our belts, and throw 10- and 12- weight intermediate sink tips as far as we can. On good casts we fight sierra, needlefish and once, two rare bones, while watching for rooster shadows.

Mike and Merry launch the heavy gear like linear poetry. I struggle with left-handed casting into a right-handed wind. Sand squirts from under the beach machine. The hunt continues. At each stop I get better, closer to the rhythm of unfamiliar gear.

We end the search east of a freshwater lake, where white egrets pose. Mike points to the stub of a tree left in the water by Hurricane Odile or maybe it was Newton or one of several monster tropical fall storms of the past. He gives me a shrimp pattern, small by comparison, says to cast along the log and retrieve in small strips. The first fish is a mullet snapper. Three others trail it. I’m having a ball with the plate-size snappers when a table-top size shadow moves around the log and heads up the beach. “Pargo! Pargo! Bunches of pargo!” Mike shouts, and we run and we gun.

It will be another two days before I hit the 60-pound rooster. Longer yet before the big marlin lights up on the teasers flashing in the cruiser’s wake, leaving me quivering.

This is serious fly-fishing.

When big, visible fish are at stake—giant roosters, marlin, wahoo—I have exactly one good cast in me.

If a second cast is necessary it will be a hurried disaster, a tangle of premature movements, crashing line, knotted leader, and snarled fly. I get excited. I’m not alone.

If ever there was a place to try warm saltwater fly fishing, this is that place.

“Roosterfish Capital of the World,” the signs brag.

Fishing is year-round. Best May-through November, later if the storms hold off.

Gamefish follow bait—sardinas, mullet, ballyhoo, needlefish—and bait follows specific water temperatures. The warmer the water, the better the fish. Seventy-eight to Eighty degrees is good, more is better. What you catch depends on water temperature and seasonal timing. Call and ask.

Quality tackle, patient and efficient guides/instructors, miles of public beach for run-and-gun hunts on rental quads, small cruisers, pangas and kayaks, and enough big, nasty, aggressive fish to turn every newbie, novice and super-flyer into a smiling Sea of Cortez fanatic.

Los Barriles is an authentic fishing community only an hour, and an entire life-style, north of the jet ports, customs, neon, parties, tourists, and the congestion in Cabo San Lucas.

Several other small East Cape fishing communities are nearby—LaRibera, Buena Vista, Cabo Pulma, Los Frailes, each an outpost on the Sea of Cortez, with sand streets, cold cervezas, caracara eagles, and sprattle-legged lizards. Each community sits between the withered cactus, thorns and elephant trees of the arid Gulf Coast Desert and the humidity in the Sea of Cortez. 

What sets the East Cape apart is that it is one of the rare spots in the world where the plunging sea bottom, a trench more than 1,000 feet down, contours near shore mixing sea and ocean currents and temperatures that attracts bait and predators. The near-shore depth brings bait and big predator fish into the strangely green water within casting range of the miles and miles of white beach; it’s unique, challenging and productive.

I’ve been coming here to Los Barriles for 14 years, always in mid-May before the tournaments and triple-digit temperatures. Mike thinks I need to come down in October-November when the water is hotter, and the fishing—especially for big dorado—is even hotter. I’m addicted to May and roosters, but October is enticing.

Why not two trips?

The last day always tugs at my heart. This time a friend and I are sitting on the patio at Playa de Cortez, waiting for the airport shuttle with our feet on the stone railing, soaking up coffee and tropical sunshine, and feeling like kings.

fly fishing saltwater sunset

Bait boats ghost in through the sun rise, throwing cast-nets toward the beach, dumping the haul into puddle water on the bottom of the boat to be sold as conventional-tackle baits or fly-fishing chum.

A hundred feet off shore a few jack crevalle erupt on a bait ball.

Manta rays leap, flap and fall into the sea like lead kites.

In the near-distance two anglers are in a panga casting to small roosters and ladyfish near the beach. Fly fishers in a cruiser slow troll around the edge of a cloud of baitfish.

Twice we hear, “Wahoooooooos!”.

And we smile.

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