Anglers Get Something to Crow About : Fishing: Members of L.A. Billfish Club head south each year in pursuit of more world-record roosterfish.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Making the trip here for nearly a quarter century, the Los Angeles Billfish Club has developed a fondness for the land and its people. It knows firsthand of the game fish available offshore.

But the club largely ignores the majestic marlin, the sailfish and tuna. Instead, these anglers are competing to catch a lesser-known species that prowls the sand and rocks slightly beyond the surf--the roosterfish ( Nematistius pectoralis ), as formidable a fish as any for its size.

So prevalent are roosterfish during summer months that the area has been dubbed Roosterfish Capital of the World. "And nobody's disagreed with me yet," says Tarzana's Tom Snyder, who with his wife, Pat, came up with the label for Punta Colorada many years ago.

The Snyders are regulars here.

"One reason is, most of the boats from all the other hotels (in the East Cape region) come down here to fish, in front of (the town of) La Rivera or Punta Colorada," Tom Snyder says.

Anglers can watch the rooster-fish feed from Hotel Punta Colorada's red rock patio, which affords a panoramic view of the Sea of Cortez, and of deserted beaches that span for miles to the north and south.

There, the roosterfish corrals a school of mullet, called lisa, near the beach. Its unusual dorsal fin--frayed, like the feathers on the head of a rooster--slashes through the surface while it inhales the bait fish one by one.

Pelicans, stirred by the commotion caused by the panicking bait fish, partake in an aerial assault, emerging with the bait fish.

Pat Snyder, 57, has two world records from roosterfish she caught in these waters: a 63-pound fish she took on 16-pound line and a 43-pound 8-ounce roosterfish taken after a three-hour fight on six-pound test, which because there is no longer a category for that line class, is a women's record for eight-pound line.

Tom Snyder won the International Game Fish Assn.'s annual fishing tournament last year with a 63-pound 14-ounce roosterfish taken last July. He once caught a 75-pounder.

Twelve current line-class world records were set between La Paz and Cabo San Lucas, points north and south of here. Three were set in the immediate vicinity. Five were set in the East Cape region, at the southern end of which lies Punta Colorada. The all-tackle world record, a 114-pound roosterfish that measured longer than five feet, was caught off La Paz, 85 miles north of here, June 1, 1960.

It is here, however, that conditions warrant a tournament such as that held by the L.A. Billfish Club.

"You've got to have a good supply of fish in the area, and you've got to have the bait," says tournament chairman Bob Manos, who has entered the tournament 19 times. "And the bait is probably the most important factor."

The exciting thing about fishing for roosterfish, Manos says, "is when you're trolling a mullet and you get to see the strike on the surface. The mullet jumping and the rooster striking back and forth, back and forth, trying to catch it until he finally gets it. And then the subsequent battle, because they do strip off a lot of line very quickly and the bigger ones--I've seen them jump out of the water just like a billfish. I've seen them jump many, many times."

Two current world records, Pat Snyder's 63-pound fish and Michael De Marco's 57-pounder, still the men's record on a 16-pound line, were set here during the club's tournament.

Three other club members set world records during the week of the tournament, two of which have since been broken. Herb Kameon's 39-pound 10-ounce fish taken in 1977 is still a line-class record in the eight-pound category.

There is a long waiting list to get into the tournament. Twelve boats are in the hotel fleet and each holds only three anglers.

The competitors come armed with rods, reels, leaders and hooks. Line-strength has gone from 20- to 12-pound test over the years, to add to the challenge. Competitors are given a spool on arrival.

Rules dictate that all fish must be fought for 20 minutes or less. Any longer, the catch is void. Each fish, large or small, is scored 100 points. One point is added for each minute under 20 it takes to reel the leader swivel to the rod tip. A fish measuring 38 inches or longer gets a 50-point bonus.

All fish are to be released, barring a possible world record or a fish likely to die after the struggle.

On this day, anticipation is high for the 24th annual roosterfish tournament, despite a tropical storm gaining strength off Cabo San Lucas. Waves are wrapping around the point to the south, generated by the chubasco . The sea is wind-swept and covered with whitecaps.

The 12 cruisers set out in search of pez gallo (pronounced pez-GUY-yo), or roosterfish. In the interest of fairness, teammates won't be fishing on the same boat. Most boats go north, where more protection is offered from the storm. All stick close to shore, from 20 feet to a few hundred yards.

Fishing begins immediately.

Mullet are hooked through the lips and tossed over the rail. They falter and fuss for a few seconds, before settling down to swim naturally to keep up with the slow-moving boat.

Norm Wallis of San Bernardino is one of the first to do battle. As he begins to reel in his tiring mullet, there is a large splash behind the boat. A roosterfish wants his mullet and takes it.

Line spins off the reel, but Wallis waits patiently for several seconds. He motions to the skipper, who opens the throttle. Wallis clicks his reel into gear and the hook is set. It is 9:08 a.m.

His fish takes one long run, then another. It shakes its head above the surface trying to shake the hook, but Wallis keeps a tight line while methodically pumping and reeling.

His swivel touches the rod tip at 9:22--a 14-minute fight has come to an end.

Fellow competitor Don Damron, the designated scorekeeper on the boat, reaches over the rail with a 38-inch stick and holds it up to the fish. "Two inches short," he says. The fish is released, the lines put back out.

Wallis earned 106 points.

Diesel engines roar unsteadily as the boat bounces gently over the swells. Fishing is slow, the anglers becoming less attentive, taking in the surrounding scenery instead of that off the stern, where roosterfish are most likely to show.

The town of La Rivera comes into view, its palm-lined streets and its church, standing tall in the center of town.

The destruction wrought by Hurricane Kiko in 1988 is still evident. Windows are still missing, roofs still caved in or damaged. Palm tree trunks still dot the sandy coastline.

Bob Van Wormer, 65, who built Hotel Punta Colorada 25 years ago, remembers the storm well.

"There was so much howl and wind and noise. The heavy stuff lasted 2 1/2 to three hours in the north, then the eye went through, which is calm, then it came about for another hour or so from the southeast," he says. "The sound was so tremendous. After the hurricane was over the people act like they're shell-shocked. They kind of just run around."

Although the residents received some relief from the government, Van Wormer, whose hotel made it through with only moderate damage, didn't.

The tournament would raise almost $2,000 for hotel workers most affected by Kiko.

The boat ride becomes especially long, except for those aboard the El Tomas, the hotel's top sportfisher with arguably its best skipper and mate, Guillermo (Memo) Sandez and Daniel Agundez.

Cerritos' Ken Warner, who by luck of a draw drew the 32-foot cruiser, has caught three fish. Two others on the boat have recorded one apiece.

Only 12 roosterfish are taken the first day of the tournament, setting an unfortunate pace for its remainder.

"One of the worst first days . . . ever," says Tom Snyder.

Subsequent days prove equally fruitless, one competitor going so far as to blame food in his sack lunch.

"There are damned bananas on this boat!" says Frank Barnett as he digs through his lunch. He lets one banana fly, side-armed. It whizzes past the head of another fisherman and into the sea. He throws another wildly. It splatters against the rail and plops on the deck in a messy heap.

Yellow fruit is taboo to many a superstitious fisherman; Barnett would catch no fish this day.

He curses and accuses longtime friend Randy Egerer, fishing on another boat, for purposely packing the banana in his lunch. Egerer, who acknowledged doing that to Barnett once in Hawaii, maintained his innocence back at the hotel.

On another boat, Jan Warner is fishing in a short-cut leopard-skin skirt. It's Day II and she didn't catch anything on Day I. "I've got to try something. I've heard cats love fish," she says.

She, too, would catch no fish.

Connie Stockman, widow of five-time tournament champion Fred Stockman, emerges from her room one day wearing her late husband's clothes in hopes some of his luck would wear off. "I've got on Fred's pants and Fred's shirt, Fred's belt," she says.

She does hook into a large fish, but it refuses to give in within the necessary 20 minutes. She locks the drag 19 1/2 minutes into the fight and the line breaks.

After the tournament, it is agreed by all that such superstitions were inconsequential and that the chubasco was responsible for one of the least productive tournaments since its inception in 1967, when a bigger storm made fishing impossible.

The 36 fish taken were the fewest since six participants caught 14 fish in 1969.

"When you get a storm like that it drives the bait out into the deeper water," said Manos, a two-time winner. "It probably makes it more accessible to some of the bigger fish, and consequently they filled up when the bait was in the deeper water, and then when the storm subsides and the bait comes closer to the shore where it normally is, they were full and not ready to eat."

Ken Warner wins the tournament with the three roosterfish he caught on the first day. He won it in 1988 with 15 fish. That was a good year, Warner said. Then there were 289 roosterfish caught.

It was almost as good as 1980, when 30 anglers combined for 292 fish, Neal McNamara taking individual honors with 16. In 1987 there were 208 roosterfish caught and the two years before that produced more than 100.

"It's a very prolific area for roosterfish, a fantastic area," Van Wormer insisted.

Clearly, pez gallo is legendary in these parts.

Says longtime club member Dennis Gagnon: "I once had one run straight for the beach and it didn't stop. It ran right up onto the sand. It was bouncing all over. I dragged him back into the water and landed him."

Dick Egerer, 62, current club president and two-time winner of the tournament, says the roosterfish performs a lot like an albacore.

"But you don't see the albacore jump," he said. "The roosterfish will sometimes make two or three leaps. They'll usually have three strong runs. You'll get 'em up close and then they'll run again, you'll get him up close--a good size one will usually tire after the third run."

With such a quarry so available, the roosterfish tournament continues to grow in popularity.

Said Manos: "Having found this location, where there are a lot of roosterfish, and then later discovering there were mullet, and Van Wormer extending this money to buy this big net, and teaching the guys how to net the mullet--that's when everything changed as far as the tournament is concerned.

"It grew quickly."

Something that an off-year probably won't change.

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