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It Doesn’t Take a Magician to Bring Home a Marlin : Baja Supplies Catch of the Day

Times Staff Writer

By the time the boat left the marina, the wind-blown ocean had become so rough, finding a big marlin would be difficult.

Blue marlin, the bigger females anyway, are known to frequent the waters off the Baja Peninsula during fall and winter months; many had been caught this season. On windless days, they can often be seen swimming just below the surface.

The early-morning chop made for dim prospects, though.

“It’s just too rough,” said Pat Brian, who came here this fall in hopes of catching a memorable blue.

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Brian had already caught one, in calm seas a few days earlier. But that fish took only 8 minutes to land and looked much smaller than the 280 pounds listed at the scale on the docks.

“I just kept his head turned and never let the pressure off,” Brian said of the effort.

Gazing occasionally across the surface of the sea, Brian, who has gone after billfish in some of the world’s more exotic locations, explained his fondness for fishing in the Baja waters.

“There are lots more fish here than anywhere else,” he said. “Tons more.”

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Brian, a construction contractor from Austin, Tex., who builds rods in his spare time, should know. He has fished throughout the Caribbean and in much of South America, off Puerta Vallarta and Costa Rica, where he recently landed a 510-pound black marlin.

“Texas is fished out,” he said of the billfish opportunities there.

Brian, 42, would catch two small striped marlin before this day’s end, a good day by any standard.

And he had already caught one blue, which his longtime fishing companion, Bill Wilkinson, had come here in hopes of doing.

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“I had caught a couple stripers,” Wilkinson said. “But never a blue.”

Brian and Wilkinson described how that changed on their first day here, as they were heading up the gulf-side of the peninsula aboard the Tortuga 5--one of seven cruisers in the Tortuga Sportfishing Fleet--with Brian’s favorite skipper, Favian Castillo.

Conditions were perfect, they said, as the sun peeked over the horizon, the boat rising and falling gently over the swells.

Wilkinson, 41, was set to handle the first strike.

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After 45 minutes of watching porpoises leap and ospreys fly, a feeling of tranquility was broken by the sound of fishing line screaming off one of the reels.

A big marlin had gulped one of the outside lures and, swimming as fast as it could, was intent on getting as far away from the boat as possible.

Wilkinson, who in a matter of seconds jumped from his seat, grabbed the rod and teamed with Castillo--who accelerated--to set the hook, was equally intent on pulling this creature to the boat.

And he was trying to do it standing up, rather than from a fighting chair, because he was using one of Brian’s custom rods, which are made for stand-up fishing.

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His day, in essence, had just begun.

After furiously but ineffectively trying to reverse the marlin’s course, Wilkinson, who occasionally runs a marathon, tried to compare the two forms of exercise but finally gave up, saying simply, “This was a hell of a lot harder.”

By then, the sun was high, its rays showering Wilkinson’s shoulders as the powerful billfish worked his every muscle. Brian offered Wilkinson a beer. Wilkinson said he would rather have water.

After an hour of pumping and reeling, Wilkinson said, he appeared to be winning the battle. The brightly colored lure, 1 1/2 feet long, had slid from the hook, up the line and was coming into view, leading Wilkinson to believe the battle was almost over.

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Not so.

More pumping, more reeling, more sweating.

Finally, Wilkinson said, there was color, a magnificent blue silhouette rising slowly from the deep. Resisting, the marlin was eventually hauled close to the boat and Brian took a swipe at it with a flying gaff.

He missed, though, and the fish sounded, taking with it another few hundred yards of line on a single run.

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The battle resumed, drawing a sigh from Wilkinson.

“I would take 3 cranks of the reel and the fish would take 5,” he said of the experience, claiming his frustration was brought on by one of the deckhand’s fiddling with his reel’s drag just before the hookup.

After a slight adjustment, Wilkinson said, he was able to gain back some line.

Two hours had passed since the hookup.

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“I wish that would break off,” Wilkinson said he muttered quietly, while the fish turned him in all directions in its attempt to break free.

Still, he tried to keep the pressure on as the marlin’s colorful blue markings began showing more prominently.

Finally, more than 3 hours after hookup, it became apparent that Wilkinson would boat the fish.

The magnificent fish, a 390-pound Pacific blue marlin that looked every bit its weight, was subdued after a 3 1/2-hour fight and lay strapped to the boat’s swim step, defeated.

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But Wilkinson said he had been put through the wringer.

“I felt like a hero on the docks that day,” he said. “But I must have lost 6 or 7 pounds.”

Cabo San Lucas, at the tip of the Baja Peninsula, is considered the hub of one of the world’s most productive fishing areas.

Where land ends, fishing begins.

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The town springs to life at dawn, when tourists flock to the docks, either to take in the lively scene or board a boat to go fishing.

Mexican salesmen, outgoing beyond the ordinary meaning of the word, are everywhere, offering anything the turistas might want--fishing trips, sightseeing tours, taxidermy, clothing, jewelry, food. Just ask.

Most everything, however, is geared to fishing. All hotels have booking offices and taxi service to and from the docks. Most have customers’ top catches mounted somewhere on the premise. Seafood is popular fare and many restaurants--the Giggling Marlin and Senor Sushi, to name a couple--will prepare your non-billfish catch for dinner. They serve it cooked or raw, basted or breaded, as you request.

In the marina itself, diesel engines warm up at a low idle before the sun rises. The odor, similar to that of a busy bus station, is almost overwhelming.

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Fishing guides, their faces weathered by exposure to the sun and salt, scurry about, trying to find their customers.

Customers, many aglow at the prospect of successful outings, eventually locate their respective craft, which range from rickety old cabin cruisers to state-of-the-art yachts. They hop in and head out.

By 7 a.m. the day is well under way, as scores of boats slowly leave the marina. Some get live mackerel from the Mexican skiff operators, who have been out hand-lining for this popular bait since dark. Others have already done so and are ahead of the pack, cruising past the arched mass of granite that signifies land’s end.

Some head into the Pacific, some into the Sea of Cortez.

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Porpoises flourish here and jump often. An occasional wahoo, slender but powerful, leaps much higher, perhaps spooked.

This tiger-striped fish has been known to jump 30 feet and fishermen have even reported large wahoo landing on the decks of their boats.

All eyes, however, are peeled for marlin, the primary target. And it usually isn’t long before the captain of a boat starts the excitement.

“Azul! Azul! (Blue! Blue!)” bellowed the captain aboard the Olita III on a recent autumn morning as he pointed to a blue marlin he sighted on the surface off the right front. “Reel! Reel!” the deckhand instructed his passengers while hastily hooking a live mackerel, which he would offer as bait to the intended target. The customers reeled in the trolling lines as he tossed the foot-long mackerel into the marlin’s path.

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Just off the bow, the large billfish--estimated at more than 300 pounds--breezed slowly along the surface, heading toward the boat.

“Es Grande! (It’s big!)” the grinning deckhand yelled as the boat got closer to the fish. Catching this particular fish would not only satisfy one of his customers, thus earning him a bigger tip, but once strapped to his boat’s swim step the fish would serve as an effective advertising tool when the boat returned to the marina that afternoon.

But this particular marlin showed only nominal interest in the hooked mackerel, swimming closer to get a better look, then disappearing below the surface, apparently uninterested.

Trolling lines went back out, the waiting game resumed.

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This being a good year, the three passengers aboard the Olita sportfisher each caught his or her first marlin before the day was over.

Two were early-morning catches of stripers in the 120-pound class. The third was a 140-pounder caught by Linda Zupan of La Crescenta, who by volunteering to be the last angler to handle a hooked marlin, managed her 40-minute battle while undergoing a constant soaking as 5-foot waves crashed systematically over the boat’s stern and fighting chair in which she was harnessed.

Many others, too, caught their first marlins. Or second, or third . . .

“I must have seen at least 50 striped marlin on the surface in one day,” Wilkinson said. Fishing is generally good all year, but November signals the beginning of the best season. The weather cools to a comfortable level--daytime temperatures are in the high 80s--and hurricanes cease their summertime assault. And the female blue marlin move in to supplement the abundant waters.

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Striped marlin, dorado and tuna comprise about 90% of wintertime catches.

“This season has been excellent,” Darrell Primrose, owner-operator of the 7-boat Tortuga fishing fleet, said. “But the majority of blues have been between 220 and 260 pounds, which is smaller than normal. There have also been a lot in the 600-pound range, but there have been none in between.”

Last season, Primrose said, most of the marlin caught weighed more than 300 pounds.

Recent big catches here this season include:

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--A 746-pound blue marlin caught by a fisherman aboard the Miss Palmilla of the Palmilla Hotel Fleet. Another big blue, a 650-pounder, was caught by another Palmilla customer.

--A 650-pound blue marlin by the Tortuga fleet.

--A 619-pound blue caught aboard the C-Time, a private yacht.

The list goes on.

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“We get three to four times more marlin per angler than they do in Hawaii,” Primrose said, offering a comparison between two of the world’s most popular marlin fishing grounds. “A lot of guys over there fish 5 or 6 days before catching a marlin.”

The world-record blue marlin, a 1,376-pounder, was caught off Hawaii’s Kona coast in 1982. West German Ewe Lindenau caught a 1,353-pounder in August off Mauritius, an island in the Indian Ocean.

For those who want to catch a marlin for the first time, though, there probably is no better place than Baja.

“Cabo San Lucas is the most prolific striped marlin fishing grounds in the world,” said John Doughty of Newport Beach, an authority on billfish who monitors Baja fishing. Ron and Julie Zermeno of Ventura came here to celebrate their 10th anniversary and Julie’s 30th birthday, one she spent catching a 130-pound striper on 40-pound-test line.

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“Every time I’d get (the fish to the surface), it would go back out,” she said. “I was determined to get it in, though.”

John Lewis of Fresno also caught his first marlin, a 240-pound blue, after a 45-minute fight.

“It fought like a barn door,” he said. “It was a hell of a lot of work. I didn’t expect the fight to be that tough. But it was beautiful.”


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