9-26-22 to 10-1-22
More Lessons Learned from a novice getting better. More guidance and Techniques for Success
For the 2nd straight year, I got to go to the SDFF annual Baja trip at the Palapas Ventana Resort an hour south of La Paz. And for the 2nd straight year I had an awesome time. This year, though, I wasn’t a total beginner. This year I:
- made a lot less mistakes
- was a lot more comfortable on what the hell I was doing
- learned a lot more from the experts on the trip. My fishing partner was none other than Kai Schumann.
- had a lot more success… I caught over 20 dorados! Releasing the majority of them. Giving the captain a couple each day for him and his family.
So I am no longer a beginner at this baja fly fishing thing. But, I’m no expert for sure. I’d call myself an intermediate….which might even be generous. It took me 25+ years to be comfortable calling myself an expert at the trout thing. It’s going to take much more experience in the salt water before I can claim expertise in baja.
You can read about my introduction to baja fly fishing from my trip last year here if you’d like. In that article I documented a number of guidance items I learned the hard way from a beginner’s perspective. It is my intention to add to my lessons learned from this trip in this article.
Here is an abbreviated version of the most relevant guidance pasted from the article of last year’s trip:
- The Double hauling 60-80 feet I was doing over and over is just a wasted workout and burn of calories. When I finally did look over at what mike was doing; he was not doing what I was doing. And having a lot more success. I was basically “hero casting” blind and he was targeting and being efficient about it. I got the guidance from John and Kai before we left, “a simple 20 foot cast is all you need.” For some reason I did not think that through. While I was literally huffing and puffing double hauling casts over and over 60+ feet into the abyss, Mike was waiting for the right moment to cast a 30 footer right into the fish he was targeting. Duh… I was dragging the fly through the bait and feeding predators too late. This was a sobering blow for me when we got back to the resort and in the bar I heard all the success my buddies were having…who simply could not cast (or chose not to cast) over 30 feet.
- The fly really does matter – How many times in trout fishing do we say something like, “the fly really doesn’t matter. Your placement and the drift matter a lot more.” Well, in this type of fly fishing the fly really does matter. Even the color matters. The size really matters too. But, what matters the most is that the fly rides correctly in the water imitating a baitfish as best as possible. If you half-ass drunken fly tying in your man cave and your fly spins you don’t get takes. My first two days I was fishing big heavy clousers with big beaded eyes. Not only are they are they a tough cast but, the jigging thing those eyes produced were not producing as many strikes as mike. Mike was fishing smaller deceivers (and similars) unweighted flies and killing. He was in the right part of the water column; I was not.
- Knots Matter – This is the most painful lesson for me. I have been trout fishing so long. I tie 5 different knots 95% of the time and 95% of the time in 3x and 5x. I can tie them all blind folded. I haven’t failed a knot in years. Well, I had no idea how differently 5x knots up than it does with 30lb flouro. I had no idea that you have to wear gloves and yank those knots as tightly as your strength can handle… no idea. I had no idea that you have to inspect your saltwater knots closely because the heavy flouro doesn’t just slip into place and knot-up like the light stuff does. I learned that the hard way. I lost a big dorado on a rapala knot that simply failed because it was not pulled tight enough. I didn’t even look at the knot after tying it. but, you can sure as hell tell a knot has failed when looking at the flouro after losing the fish. and miraculously I also lost a big rooster on a perfection loop knot I tied for the flouro leader. That is a first. Some huge rooster swam away with my entire leader hanging out of his face… simply because I didn’t pull the knot tight enough. Uggghhh… 30+ years of fly fishing and I am failing knots. I suck. Don’t worry about me; a number of margaritas later that night at the bar fixed everything.
And this is what I learned on this year’s Palapas Ventana Trip:
Fly Design – Tying and selling thousands of flies each year… Well, let’s just say I know my way around a fly-tying vice. My mistake last year was designing and throwing hugely, weighted clouser style flies that worked great on a kayak in the mangroves of Punta Abreojos… totally different fishing; totally different fish. But, did not work so well at all off Ceralvo Island in the Sea of Cortez (La Ventana). Last year I did catch Dorado, Jacks and Roosters. But, not in abundance like this year. Last year I found my fly being stripped just below the water column I needed to be in…no matter how fast I stripped the fly. Depending on leader length, I found my fly cruising anywhere from 1-3 feet under the surface. To be totally successful catching Dorado (and conceivably Roosterfish) in this world, I found you need to be in the top of the water column; like in the first 1-3 inches of it. Which explains why poppers work so well (for Dorado). Success also means throwing unweighted flies typical of a Deceiver. Lastly, it also means the casting is so much easier double hauling an unweighted fly. And of course, I still haven’t met anyone that doesn’t adore fly fishing on top.
So, in the weeks before the trip I started “interweb studying” the Mexican sardina (Flathead Herring) in all it’s stages of life and the fly designs out there for the Mexican Sardina. I knew I wanted to design a fly with congo hair (poor man’s EP fibers). I just love the way congo hair saturates and moves in the water. Then dries in the air on the double haul. Congo hair doesn’t shape as well as bucktail when you haircut it. But, congo hair does take shape in the water well. And it is durable. I also have this thing for tying in a bleeding gill plate. It might be psychological thinking that it helps. Lastly, I have just become enamored with these modern-day thin epoxies that are cured with an ultra violet light. I used Loon thin for this batch of sardina patterns I designed. But, there are plenty of worthy competitors. Epoxy provides a durable head to the fly…which is really needed because these fish have teeth and bite hard. It also provides a great way to “cement in” the eyes securely.
But my epiphany came when watching Guy Allen tie his sardina pattern for Baja. It wasn’t his pattern that caught my attention as genius as much as it was two of his tying techniques that struck me as absolute genius:
- Technique 1: The first thing Guy Allen does is tie 5-10 strands of crystal flash on the back of the hook for the entire length of the fly. He lathers those strands in epoxy then cures them rigid in line; in parallel with the shank of the hook. Why? With that rigid line of crystal flash running down the middle of the fly in line with the hook it helps tremendously in not fouling the hook. I had a ton of trouble last year fouling hooks with congo hair. When it doubles back, it catches easily on the hook (or barbell eyes as was the case last year) causing the fly to swim improperly. Genius. Oh yea, a little flash in a saltwater fly never hurts.
- Technique 2: Shaping the first third of the fly body with epoxy. It’s a totally messy process. But, this technique gives the fly the form and structure of the natural sardina, yet allowing it the free flowing movement of the last 2/3rds of the fly, imitating the tail movement of a fast swimming sardina. Guy Allen is a Genius. You can watch the youtube video of his sardina fly construction here.
I also caught plenty of Dorado on poppers. I used the Crystal Popper by Solitude Fly company in both small and large sizes with both silver and yellow bellies and both worked great for me and Kai.
My favorite story from this years trip: Our Captain yelled “Dorado! Big dorado!” and pointed directly out the stern (back) of the boat. I could see the dorado in frenzy feeding about 50 feet away. Well, Kai was screwed because he was on the bow (front) of the boat. But, I was screwed too because that fish was directly behind the boat 50 feet away. And I had a popper (heavy) on. I’m left-handed. If I casted from the port side, my not so tight loop would wizz by and hook kai in the face. If I casted over my right shoulder on the starboard side my not so tight loop would hook the radio antenna which goes about 10 feet tall next to the console on a panga. So, I roll casted as hard as I could… almost like throwing a fastball. The popper, mostly because of the weight, only made it about 20 feet. A feeble attempt. But, it plopped on the water from about 10 feet high with a thud. Strip, strip, Whack! The thud on the water (maybe because these fish are used to these panga captains throwing sardines in the water) caught the dorado’s attention. They are so lightning quick, that fish made it from 50 to 15 feet in as fast as I could make two fast strips. Unbelievable. I believe Kai saw the whole thing and said something sarcastically like, “Oh my god…”
I also caught 4 dorado on a few of the kinky muddlers I tied (on another absolute expert, John Ashley’s advice) for the cherished and protected fantail grouper from the mangroves of Punto Abre Ojos on the annual baja camping trip.
And lastly, just because I wanted to prove it would work… I did catch a dorado on the Huck Huna I designed for the Fly Fishing in Hawaii. I tie and sell a ton of them. It imitates the Banded Coral Shrimp (Opea Huna), which is the most common of the reef shrimp in Hawaii. – a shrimp that the blue finned trevally love. Unfortunately, my Huck Huna is not durable enough for the jaws and teeth of the dorado. That dorado I caught on the Huck Huna just destroyed it. Making it one of those “one fish flies”. Huck Hunas are a pain in the ass to tie with expensive materials so I didn’t throw any more at the dorado.
Let me elaborate a caveat: Kai and I saw very few Roosterfish this year. I can only remember casting at a couple of them. One of them I hooked and it immediately came unbuttoned. So, the flies and techniques I describe above for the top of the water column may just be successful for dorados. I’m told dorados are the only fish to take poppers which would support the argument. Only next years’ trip will tell….assuming the roosters show again.
Observation – This year I spent a lot more attention watching the experts and watching those who were not doing so well. Even at the expense of my own fishing. Of course, it helped a lot to be fishing in the same boat as an expert for 4 days (Kai).
Luck – Like in any type of fishing there is a component of luck & karma to this type of fly fishing. And it starts with the captain finding the fish. If you get a clear shot at a dorado or rooster with out pelicans (pinchi patos) or needlefish or other fish in the way consider yourself lucky.
Naivety – on one of the particularly good days, I hooked and lost 7 dorados in a row before I realized a prior landing of a dorado straightened the hook on me. Duh. I guess that is ignorance, not naivety. It was on the little sized poppers… which is a bit disappointing. Another lesson learned. Just like in trout fishing you need to check the fly after catching a fish. Duh.
Line Strategy – When the Dorados weren’t around… which was few and far between when we were hunting for them… we did fish the reefs a little and did blind cast bouys that held fish like green jacks. In those times Kai was outfishing me 2 maybe 3 to 1. I didn’t think anything of it at the time. He’s an expert. It wasn’t until the last day that I found out he was throwing an intermediate sink line in those scenarios. I was fishing the top of the water column with a floating Rio Outbound tropical. Those smaller fish don’t really dig coming up on top with so many predators in the air above them.
Leaders – Of all the thought leadership from the experts that i listened to, read, etc. the fly was first and foremost discussed and the leader was 2nd. But, the most NOT agreed on was the leader. I found the discussion and disagreement fascinating. On this trip I heard John Ashley asked how long the leader should be. I listened intently when he said, “this much.” as he stretched your arms open to max. I’m much smaller than John. So, I settled on between 4 & 5 feet of straight 30 lb flouro. Many, if not most, use a tapered leader in much larger lengths. I don’t need a tapered leader because I’m a pretty good cast. I don’t need a tapered leader because I use such a short leader (4-5 feet). I don’t need a tapered leader because I concentrated on that first strip as soon as the fly hit the water.
“An 8 weight is Stupid.” – It’s just not enough for this type of fly fishing. But, after breaking both my 10 and my 12wts, I had no choice for my 2nd rod. I caught 4 dorados on my ancient Sage Fli 8wt rod. But, each time it bordered on calamity. With anything lighter than 30 LB flouro as a leader there would have been no way i could have landed those Dorado. And that is because I had to straighten the rod so many times to prevent it from snapping. In particular I did catch and release a big dorado on an 8 wt. but it wasn’t pretty. After wrangling it to the boat after a battle that had me drenched in sweat and huffing and puffing, the captain missed landing it by trying to grab it by the tail. That pissed the dorado off and it dove straight down. I had no choice but to point the rod straight down and tighten up the drag to max. I then literally reeled him up, rod pointing straight down saying to myself, “if he breaks me off then that is fine. Because using an 8 wt for this is stupid.”
Rod & Stripping techniques – I have already elaborated how much success is generated by striping the fly as quickly as possible. This year I found I could out strip the speed of the needlefish. Any needlefish I did hook this year was foul hooked. Last year I caught a ton of them. And I caught a ton of pelicans last year. This year I only caught one pelican and that was a cast that struck a pelican in the air. I cannot out strip the pelicans. They are too fast. But if a pelican grabs your fly and you stop stripping, it’s smart enough to drop your fly. To my discredit there were drastically less pelicans this year. I cannot help but think they may have been terminated at the hands of the local commercial fisherman. I hope not.
Also, this year I worked really hard at stripping the fly immediately when it hit the water. And that paid dividends in spades. I don’t typically do that when I’m making big casts over 50 feet because, obviously, if the line is shooting across your hand instead of dangling freely there is going to be some friction causing the fly not to go as far. But, I found great success with a strip immediately on impact. If you think it through, a sardina flying through the air doesn’t lay there stunned after it hits the water. It immediately darts away.
- I broke two rods. That is the bad news. The first was my 12 wt TFO BVK (an older rod which is superseded by the Bluewater SG) and it was totally my fault. It was a big dorado I brought up to the side of the boat to be landed, pictured and released. These captains are fool proof at gaffing. But, grabbing a pissed off dorado by the tail in the water so it can be released is not so easy. When the captain missed, this dorado dove too quickly for me to react…snap! The second break is just a bye product of having so many rods on a panga. A drift boat has a place for fly rod storage that protects them. A panga does not. Both Kai and I had our rods snapped on the same day by a captain leading with his knee trying to land a fish over the side of the boat by grabbing it by the tail. This snap was my favorite TFO Lefty Kreh Ticr2 300-400gr (an older model which could be substituted for the TFO BC Big Fly. The good news? It’s TFO: An awesome company with awesome service. $50 each to repair/replace. I received the brand-new ones less than a week after leaving baja and sending them to TFO. I could name a certain Montaña based rod maker of which I have two expensive rods, that charges $175 to repair a rod and makes you wait six months… but I don’t want to get whiny….err….
Ideally, now that I have done this twice, it is of my opinion that you would bring 3 rods on the panga if you are willing to take the risk of breakage by accident. This is what I will do next year:
- 10 or 12wt with a floating line armed with a popper for the dorado
- 10 or 12wt with a floating line armed with a fly that is stripped in the top 1-3 inches of the water column for the roosters, big jacks and dorado
- 8 or 10 wt with an intermediate for full sink line armed with a weighted fly like a clouser for the reefs to catch some of the exotic species like pargo, sierras, popano, etc.
- Montezuma’s revenge – damnit it happened to me again. I’m sure it’s my fault because I wasn’t careful. Tequilla makes me drop my guard.