June 5-12, 2021
I’m sun-burned. My lips are so chapped they are bleeding. I have been stung/bitten a dozen from god knows what; swollen and itchy. I have cuts, bumps and bruises. And it is all from an epic 8 day fly fishing adventure 600 miles south of san diego in Punta Abreojos, Baja. It was the most expensive free vacation I have ever taken (because I bought a kayak for it). It was totally worth it. I can’t wait to do it again next year.
This trip is an annual San Diego Fly Fishers Club (SDFF) trip led by Kai Schumann and John Ashley. For a long time these guys and a few others in the club would say things like, “You, of all people, would love this trip.” They were right.
On a trip like this you want to go with fun people. And this trip did not disappoint. I already told you about our fearless leaders, John Ashely and Kai Schumann. Also on the trip was SDFF club president Jim Castelluzzo. And Tom Rundlett who I have fished with a number of times in Montana. Both Jim and Tom are cagey veteran fly fishers and fun to be around. Also, on the trip were 3 I had not met before…and now they are friends. Tom and Marta Phillips, a retired married couple. Yes, there was a female on the trip and she was, without a doubt, a trooper. She fished and hung with the guys and still managed to get q-time with her artwork. There is no way my wife Kelly could hang on this trip. And joining them was their lifetime long good friend, Larry. Now Larry and I are cut from the same mold. Let’s just say we enjoyed a few cocktails together.
Before I get started on how epic the fly fishing was, let me set expectations. This trip is not for everyone. And here is why in no particular order:
- It’s primitive camping
- since I’m a backpacker this part was pretty easy. I spend a tons of nights in the wilderness primitive camping. But, all that primitive camping is on a river with a water source. This was different. because the campground was closed (COVID) there was no access to water. You had to bring your own water. I totally depend on my sun showers for backpacking trips so that was not a problem at all. I “showered” every day. There was no bathroom….well, until Tom and Marta negotiated a deal to use a restroom in the campground ¼ mile away that didn’t have running water…. You poured a bucket of sea water in it to flush it…. still, quite the luxury when you are primitive camping.
- You sleep in a tent or truck or camper. Again, I spend so many nights in a backpacking sleeping bag on the ground in a backpacking tent this was not an issue for me. in fact, because of the warm weather sleeping in the shell/topper in the back of my truck with a pad with the ocean breeze was quite the luxury compared to the sleeping on the ground of backpacking.
- You do a lot of prep. You bring a lot of “stuff”. You can’t forget anything….well, this is a trip you can because with the group someone always has your back…and backups.
- Ice is a premium. There is a little town 15 minutes away where you can resupply…and we did. But, you really need a 7 day cooler like a yeti.
- It requires a kayak
- and not just any kayak. You are most efficient with a kayak that goes backwards. Many of the predators you are targeting hide in the roots of the mangroves. They’ll shoot out to grab your perfectly placed fly. But, then they run back in and snap you off if you are not quick enough to pull them out of there. That means a hard strip set while pedaling backwards. It’s an art form that needs practice. I’m not very good at it….yet.
- I did a ton of research and had all the fly fishing kayak experts in the club to lean on. Ultimately the Hobie kayak I wanted…and put a deposit on… just wasn’t available in time. Hobie had a myriad of production problems with it. It was a new model of a hobie inflatable. So, I ended up with a “hard hull”. It’s a hobie mirage sport. It’s a “little one”. but, I’m a little guy. I love it. I’m a 35+ year float tuber so the luxury of how fast these things go with so little effort is really hard to describe. Plus, you are on top of the water; not in it. no waders needed. I have used it in Agua Hedionda lagoon a number of times now, in addition to using it on this trip. But, ultimately I will purchase an inflatable that is big / long enough for the open ocean so I can wander out through the surf to the kelp beds in Carlsbad one day.
- It’s Mexico
- It’s Mexico, sh@#$t happens; calamities happen. And we were not short of calamities. See my top 5 calamities list below. In one of the planning meetings before the trip John said, “I usually bring $1,000 dollars of pesos just in case.” Sheepishly, with bribing in the back of my head I asked him, “Just in case of what?”. His answer was trite and to the point: “Just in case your car breaks down and the mechanic doesn’t take a credit card.” That makes sense. Well, I left with a wad of pesos and came back home with a wad of pesos. and that is just fine. I’ll use them on other Mexico trips. Like the SDFF club trip coming up to Palapas Ventana in October.
So those are the reasons for why you might not consider a fly fishing trip like this. Here are the reasons for why you want you do want to do this trip:
- The fishing is ridiculous awesome
- Fly fishing for 30+ species. Many times I’d catch a fish only to turn to John and say, “What the hell is this one?”
- Dry fly fishing! On top of the water! Well, technically they are not dries, but you throw tarpon, permit and roosterfish flies that swim on top of the water column as you strip them back and the groupers and corvina come out of the mangroves and attack with vicious strikes on top…and you watch the entire thing go down almost in surreal awe.
- I’m a trout guy. So, this whole mangroves fly fishing experience was new. I learned so much from these experts. John personally took me under his wing and showed me the ropes.
- Your two friends leading the trip (Kai and John) make the trip easy
- They both bring very expensive campers and you get to benefit from them.
- They have years of experience doing this trip and many like it. so, you get to be a follower…mitigating a ton of the risk, hassles, and uncertainties.
- There is no sacrifice on food and drink in this group
- It’s primitive camping yes. But, unlike backpacking you have coolers and fresh food…and beer…and cocktails. Although 95% of this is catch and release, these fish are not trout. So some of them actually taste good. Our dinners were epic. We had steak night. We had fish tacos night. And get this. kai has a green mountain pellet grill (like a Traeger) that extends out of his camper. I bought the biggest brisket that Costco had. We smoked it for 14 hours and it was awesome. For gods sakes kai even made home made pizza for lunch! This is one of those trips you do not come back lighter on. I lose 2-7 pounds on every backpacking trip I take. I think I put on 10 on during this trip.
On John and Kai’s recommendation I handled my Mexican Tourist permit, Mexican fishing license Mexican car insurance through discoverbaja.com. it was super easy and all done electronically and through email in advance. Of interest my Mexican car insurance was pretty darn expensive because of my truck. For 2 reasons: 1. It’s fairly new and popular. because of the pandemic (a number of reasons) there is a shortage of cars. So, the insurance was calculated on a value that was a few thousand dollars more than I paid for it. At the time my 2020 tundra was only 6 months old. its value was more than I paid for it. there have only been a few times and a few cars that actually appreciated in value after purchase. 2. The tundra with a shell/topper is the most stolen car in Mexico. It’s pretty obvious why….you can stuff a lot of humans in the back of that huge truck.
For this trip to Baja…because you are going so far south (between Guerrero Negro and La Paz) I learned there is a strategy to where you cross the Border. We crossed into Mexico at the Tecate Crossing. The Tecate Crossing is a tiny border crossing compared to the other border crossings in California. But it has weird hours and it does not have Sentri (to get quickly back into the US). It’s a beautiful drive that gets very close to the world famous barrett lake. Now for reasons I still don’t quite understand, even though you get your tourist visa well in advance, you have to get it stamped at the border. So, for this trip we drove across and were put in secondary for inspection (God only knows why). After checking our vehicles for bad stuff, we parked on the Mexico side, then found the office where we got our tourist visas stamped. I am still not even sure why we had to get tourist visas because I have flown into Mexico a gazillion times and never had to do it. But, when the leaders of the group say you need to do it, you don’t question them. But, I have to tell you I am curious.
La Poma – From the beginning the plan was to break up the 600 mile trip into two days both on the way there and on the way back. I just assumed it was because 600 miles is too much for one day for the group. But, really it’s because the campground at La Poma on the Sea of Cortez and it’s restaurant are so awesome. The folks that run this place are friends of Kai’s. Such a luxury to have a nice dinner and breakfast when camping on the beach. The wade fishing there was ok. Nothing exciting in terms of size. But a bunch of small spotties on a fly rod from shore is still fun.
Punta Abreojos – For the most part the roads all the way there are outstanding. Much much better than I remember from the last time I did it many years ago. Being that said there is a stretch from the sea of cortez side where you cross over to the pacific side where the highway is skinny and elevated. That stretch is also well travelled by trucks (see calamities below). So it might be a bit nerve racking to many Americans who are spoiled by huge lanes on the freeways. The last few miles to where we camped outside Punta Abreojos are dirt roads… but, 4 wheel drive is not required. I didn’t even put my truck in 4 wheel drive. Of interest, where to put the trucks and campers on the banks of the lagoon takes some logistics because of the tides. You have to pick high spots. I would have screwed that up for sure and woken up to my truck in 2 feet of water had Kai and John not provided the parking guidance.
When we returned home, we crossed back into the US at the Mexicali crossing. I have Sentri (Global Entry) so that process took 30 seconds. But, I was shocked when I crossed because the Mexicali crossing is so far east. I had many more miles to go to get home.
It’s all about the tides. In this giant lagoon there are huge tidal swings. There is one significant deep water channel feeding this enormous lagoon from the ocean. On a high tide, the moon pulls an enormous amount of water into the lagoon and holds it there through the slack tide. That is when the predators come in; that is when they are on the move. I did the best fly fishing on the turn; the slack tide. Because there are so many back channels and mangrove lined banks and because of the cohesiveness of water it is normal to have 10 to 20 foot tidal swings. And when that slack tide turns and the moon starts pulling the water out, it goes out in a hurry producing miles of suddenly empty land (under water just hours before) you can walk on. Why is that important? Well, although not unsafe, if you are having too much fun fishing in your kayak on the high and it turns to the low and the water goes back out you will have to put the wheels on your kakak and carry it over the land you kayaked over earlier. If you fish with john, that is just part of the deal. I like that.
The Corvina – Not the “ghost of the coast” corbina that patrols the socal surf. The Corvina is a ferocious predator that is a hoot of fun to fool and battle. I am infamous for saying, “Nothing fights like a trout. I have fly fished all over the world and nothing fights like a trout.” That usually gets quite the raised eyebrow from saltwater fly fishers. Let’s face it, most saltwater fish are big and just pull hard. There are exceptions, of course. But, nothing fights like a wild native trout (aka the Kern River Rainbow). When I got home from this trip I told all my fly fishing trout buddies, “When it comes to battling fish on a fly rod, I have found a worthy competitor of the trout in saltwater: The Corvina.” The Corvina hits hard like a trout. It head shakes like a trout. It does long runs like a trout. The only difference is that the Corbina does not go erratically ballistic like a wild native trout doing those crazy ass herculean jumps like a trout. Another difference: you can release a big trout in the water by removing the hook quickly with your hands. You only make that mistake on a Corvina once. I gave the lagoon some of my blood releasing my first big corbina. The Corvina has fangs.
The low and then slack tide also produces the most ridiculously fun wade fishing. On the 2nd day, John lead me on a mile hike over land that was covered in water just an hour earlier to a deep water channel that compressed all the fish during the low tide. We had to cross a main channel for a couple hundred feet in waste deep water. As we crossed, he said, “I really don’t want to swim this on the way back so we need to watch the tide.” We absolutely killed catching Corbina after Corbina. It was so fun. Big Fish too. We even doubled up a few times. at the crossing the tide was a little higher… like chest high. But, still manageable. And yea, the water is warm. So, there is the perfect set up for the story I tell in the calamities section below.
We were there to fly fish. With 30+ species to catch and release it was a dream. But, also partying in that giant lagoon were pacific bottle nosed dolphins. And, as you’d imagine this place is a bird watchers dream. From egrets to ospreys to some tropicals I couldn’t identify. Also, this place also supports a huge population of well-fed coyotes; even though it’s so close to the beach. I woke up one morning and stared out the back of my truck at the bay to watch a coyote running it at low tide at full speed. Pretty awesome.
Here are my top 5 calamities of the trip in no particular order. Take notice that I own 3 of 5 calamities:
- My Trxtyl Fly rod holder – Well, because of the Kayak I bought Yakama racks so I could put it on top of my truck. I did tell you this was the most expensive free vacation ever. Well, I love this company Tryxtl from Helena, Montana for many reasons. So, I asked to join their pro staff team and bought their fly rod holder. I’m sure it was my fault in the way I mounted the fly rod holder on the Yakima Racks. But, it didn’t survive the trip in. It loosened in the journey on the Mexican roads, snapped off the racks, and disintegrated as it hit the highway. A bummer for sure. But, I didn’t have any rods in the holders so not a crisis by any stretch. I’ll replace the Trxtyl rod holder with a new one.
- Kai’s mirror – I mentioned the skinny, elevated stretches of highway. John told a story of losing his mirror to an oncoming truck on a prior trip. Well, on the way home I was two cars back from Kai’s camper in the caravan and went through a wash of broken glass. I was pretty sure what happened right away. It was Kai’s rear view mirror. The bummer is that Kai had his window open when the rear view mirror of his camper hit the rear view mirror of an oncoming truck and exploded. So he was bloody with small cuts when we all pulled over to inspect the damage. The window in Tom Phillip’s Sprinter van also broke as a result of the disintegrated rear view mirror parts. Not a crisis. That is what insurance is for.
- Tom’s tire – around the end of the 2nd day Tom Rundlett, who’s camper was parked next to my truck. In between was my giant “easy up” that served our eating, relaxing and partying area. Well, Tom says, “It looks like my tire is low.”. I didn’t think anything of it because at altitude my tires do weird things. But, we were at sea level. By the 3rd day it was a problem. It was a slow leak that wouldn’t hold air. John instructed Tom to go to the little town of Punta Abreaojos and within an hour Tom’s tire was quickly fixed for a ridiculously low amount of pesos.
- My dead battery – When it was time to leave everyone started their engines and drove away… except for me. My new truck was dead. I’m still not sure how it happened. I could have left one of the internal lights on and not noticed. Or it could have been 5 days of charging all my devices in the back of the truck at night. I started to pull out the jumper cables a little panicked when john doubled back, then ran over with a compact car jumping device. He jumped my truck with that device and everything was fine. I now own that gizmo and it lives in my truck. I wish I knew what happened. It kind of haunts me. my new tundra has so many buttons and gizmos I’ll never learn them all. in that regard I miss my 14 year old Tundra that I gave to my son in Bozeman, Montana. If you don’t put your seat belt on in that truck it doesn’t care. And it has a cassette deck. I miss that simple truck.
- My getting caught by the tide – This I my best story of the trip. Above I described how much fun John and I had wading the low tide through the slack tide on day 2. Well, I decided to do it on day 3 alone. I walked the mile across bay that was filled in high tide and got to the channel crossing. It was just about the same height as the day before; waste high. I started fishing and was killing in the exact same spot just like the day before. And I was laughing and commenting to myself and having a hoot of a time. I did notice the tide turn go the other way pretty quickly. I did see the tide coming in. I don’t know why I didn’t put 2 and 2 together more quickly. I guess I lost track of time having so much fun. I totally underestimated how quickly that tide comes in. Well, by the time I left I was saying to myself, “I hope I didn’t screw this up.” And walking as fast as I could towards that channel crossing. When I got there I said out loud, “Holy Sh@#$t…” I blew it. I could tell right away I was going to have to swim it. It wasn’t like I was in danger. I wasn’t going to get swept out to sea. The tide was coming in. I’m in good shape for an old guy. the issue was I had my fly rod. That meant swimming one handed while holding on to the rod with the other. I was wearing a backpack with my gear in it. but it was a fancy Columbia dry pack. When I buttoned it up it actually served as buoyancy. I only had to swim a hundred yards or so. And it was more like a one-handed dog paddle. When I staggered back to camp I was dripping wet head to toe. John immediately said, “I thought I was going to have to get you in my Kayak.” And I told them the story laughing.
Again, this trip isn’t for everyone and you really do need a kayak that goes in reverse. But, if love an adventure and catching multiple saltwater species on a fly rod. And you love camping with fun people and good food and beer and cocktails, this trip is for you too. I can’t wait to do this annual trek again next June.