October 4-9, 2021
Who knew you could have so much fun with a 10 wt TFO fly rod?! That is the line I used when I did the “Old-guy Instagram” thing from the Palapas Ventana resort in Ventana, Baja, Mexico.
On October 4-9, 2021 the SDFF club assaulted the Palapas Ventana Resort near La Paz with more salt water flies, flouro, and fly rods than God. This is an annual trip that the club has been doing for a few years lead by fearless leader, John Ashley. For years these guys have been telling me, “If there is anyone who would enjoy this trip, it’s you, Huckaby.” They were right. I had a ton of success; some real bucket listers. But, I paid my dues in mistakes for sure. I learned a lot on this trip. I can’t wait to get back there next October with the club. I’m actually trying to figure out how to get there in the late Spring it was so fun.
I’m an old trout guy with very little ocean experience (fly or conventional). This was my first time doing the fly fishing thing from a Panga. In the myriad of guidance and preparation communications before we left my takeaways was: “It’s two people in a panga; one in back and one in front. What a learning experience it was for me! And man did I make mistakes for the first couple days before I got it dialed in.
What the captain (by all means not a guide) does is make bait with impressive throws of a bait net; sometimes in total darkness. I was wearing polarized lenses and many times I could not see the bait balls the captain was throwing that net at in broad daylight….without wearing glasses….so impressive. So, typically you start early as the sun comes up. Then, with the live bait in the bait tank you zoom out to where the game fish are (dorado, roosters, jack trevalles, and even trevally….along with 25+ other species). Cerralvo Island is a fairly short run across the sea of cortez and that is where most of the boats go. The captain starts winging the live bait into the water with a cut out Clorox bottle. The gamefish come up to the surface and go crazy in a fish feed. You throw your fly into the chaos hoping to fool one of them. When you catch them, you have the option to let them go, bring them back to the restaurant to compliment the night’s gourmet meal, give it to the captain to enjoy with his family, or have the Palapas Ventana resort vacuum seal, freeze and pack your fish to take home.
Let me try to define a panga. A panga is a skiff; a modest-sized, open, outboard-powered, fishing boat common throughout much of the developed world. The panga is not one of those super nice boats they use in the Bahamas where the fly fisher in front and in back have plenty of room on a casting platform to ensure a long cast. The bow (front) of the panga has plenty of room for a fly caster and relatively nothing up there to grab a fly line. But, it’s not a casting platform; it’s the bow of the boat. The stern (back) is a challenge….at least it was for me. If you cast from the deck in the back, you must heave a heavy weighted saltwater fly over the boat’s sides or the engine or the captain. I’m a pretty good cast and I even hit the captain once. Guess what? “Oww!” is the same word in Spanish as it is in English. Ultimately, I ended up just climbing on top of the rails in the back of the boat to get some height and balanced myself there; sometimes actually standing in the bait tank with the live sardinas. That allowed me to double haul from a height advantage….or seeming advantage…more on that later. And when the seas got rough, I had to lean against the engine itself. So, when the captain turned the boat my ass turned with it. It’s a miracle I didn’t fall into the water. But, I am pretty agile for an old guy. Being perched high meant I could double haul a cast 60-80 feet….which I learned after a couple days of struggling is not really an advantage. Also, every panga seems to be different. Some are newer and slightly modern. Some have years of stories behind them with some impressive “Magiver-ing” of a bait tank.
As mentioned, I was told before the trip is “The captain throws live bait in the water and that makes the fish come up and go crazy. Then it’s a simple 20 foot cast into the madness.” That is kind of true. Just like in trout fishing where there are great guides, good guides, and average guides. The same thing goes for the captains here: some are awesome, some are not. None speak fluent English. Each captain and boat is different and fishes differently in terms of where…and sometimes even how. Mike Hillygus (Montana Lodge owner where we do the annual SDFF trip, and friend of the SDFF club) and I fished 4 days with 4 separate captains and boats. I love that Tim from the Palapas Ventana resort each night at the restaurant does a blind draw on which captain you get each day. One day Mike and I stayed within a mile of the resort near the shore all day. one day we did 10-1 more moving around than fishing; moving from fishing buoy to buoy. There are a number of fishing buoys that have been strategically placed throughout the area that hold fish. two days we ran over to Acervo Island and pretty much fished in the same location all day. Mike and I traded getting the bow each day. Mike out-fished me every day. And it wasn’t until well through the 3rd day that I figured out why.
The School of Hard Knocks
I really don’t know why it took me two days to figure this thing out. It may be so obvious to you Saltwater guys and gals with this type of experience. But, it was not to me. I wasn’t without success. In fact, I had a lot of success. my mission was to catch a big rooster on a fly. I ended up catching a lot of big roosters on the fly. One of the roosters I landed was too big for me to hold to take a trophy shot with it. I had the captain hold it for me. But, now that I know (and now you know), I will be so much more successful on next year’s trip. So, hopefully my malfunctions will serve as guidance for the trout anglers that want to do this type of fly fishing:
- 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.
- Needlefish – I knew about these slimy creatures going in. if you see a needlefish following your fly you simply stop stripping and they will stop the chase. But, if you are hero casting beyond what you can see you inevitably catch them. And you can’t really do a damn thing about it. and the poor captain has to figure out how to release them without getting bit by razor sharp fangs. I’m a conservation guy and feel slightly guilty about when mike and I giggled watching one of our guides twisting the neck of the needle fish killing them so he could safely remove the fly.
- Pelicans – “pinchi patos” I laughed out loud when our captain yelled that as I caught my first pelican. I speak decent Spanish and that loosely translates to “f-ing duck”. Pelicano is a beautiful word in Spanish. The captains don’t use that word. they call them “pinchi patos”. Btw, there is competition and hilarious chatter on the radio between the captains. At one point, laughing, I said in Spanish, smiling, to our captain, “you do realize I understand what you guys are saying, right?.” He laughed …because there was a comment about one of my buddies in a different boat not having enough manhood to fight the fish he hooked. I’d write what he said in Spanish here, but common decorum precludes me from doing it here (god, I hope someone gets that animal house reference.) But, my god the pelicans. On the day that our captain stayed on shore within a mile of the resort the pelicans followed us the entire time. It was fairly frustrating. Those birds have become accustomed to the captains throwing bait in the water and intercepting that bait. which means they have unnaturally flourished in population because of it. at points I had to pinpoint cast a 2 foot window through the gauntlet (50 or more) of pelicans with no way to strip the fly back without the pelicans taking it. if you see a pelican take your fly you learn quickly to stop stripping. They spit your fly out if you wait; which is excruciating if the fish are going nuts. But, if you strip too quickly after that you risk them grabbing it again. and then there is the good chance of simply leg hooking them as you strip your fly back; many times with a fish chasing. On that day I caught ~15 pelicans. Let’s just say the captains don’t really dig pulling a barbed fly out of a pelican’s mouth or leg. Pinchi patos.
The Palapas Ventana Resort
I am no stranger to fly fishing lodges; I have been lucky. Let me just start by saying the Palapas Ventana resort is a fraction of the cost of the high-end lodges in Alaska, Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. Remember that I was joined by a Montana Lodge owner, Mike Hillygus from the Stillwater River Outpost Lodge and the Clark Fork Outpost Lodge. Mike was surprised at what a deal it was. It’s Mexico.
For the SDFF club trip we had two people in each Palapa; Mike was my roommate. These are not really palapas at the resort; they are so much better. A traditional palapa is an open sided cheap building with the thatched roof. These palapas are stand alone buildings with a large bedroom and separate large bathroom…. With air conditioning; key for this part of the world.
“They have a bar.” That is the line I usually start with when describing this place. I love bars and I’m not shy about it. they also have a complimentary restaurant that goes with the bar. But, this isnt’ just any Mexican restaurant. Each night we were served a gourmet quality meal. One night we had a Japanese themed sushi and sashimi set of dishes that riveled anything I have had in the states…. Or in the Japan for that matter. You don’t go back skinnier on this trip; the food is that good.
Within steps of the bar is an Endless Pool where you can stare at the ocean. Imagine fishing for 8 hours and battling big fish on your 10 weight to come back, grab a beer, walk into the pool and just stare at the ocean while saying things like, “this is the good life”.
They focus on service – Tim and his partner have trained his seemingly enormous staff well. From the groundskeepers to the servers to the bartenders to the financial manager. They are friendly and attentive. On the first night he introduces his generals to the entire group. It’s a classy move. When you leave you end up hugging these people they are so awesome.
I should mention that Palapas Ventana is not soley a fly fishing lodge. In fact, Ventana is more famous for it’s wind surfing and scuba diving. Both those are options at the resort. Also the resort provides snorkling equipment for free while you are there. It’s a tropical fish and coral paradise in front of the lodge. It just so happens that if you are tropical fish you have to always be on the lookout for that patrolling roosterfish. Yea, it’s conceivable to DIY the roosters right from the shore like you see on those fly fishing shows.
Getting there: I believe the cross border exchange (CBX) is the best kept travel secret in the united states. It consistently shocks me that even San Diegans still don’t know about it. in their description it is “A faster, more comfortable, one-of-a-kind way to cross the U.S.-Mexico border, exclusively for passengers of the Tijuana International Airport.” Basically, you drive to the border in otay mesa, park in a huge parking lot. show a passport and plane tickets in a completely uncrowded modern building. then walk across the border on a 200 meter air conditioned covered bridge that drops you right into the Tijuana Airport. It’s $35 and worth every penny. They even have a bag drop. You don’t even need to check in with the airline at the airport. This allows you to fly from TIJ on a number of Mexican airlines for a fraction of the cost of flying from San Diego. My round trip flight to La Paz was around $100…not kidding. In La Paz the drivers from the resort are waiting for you with a sign to make the hour drive to the resort. Simple and painless.
I know my way around a trout stream…that is for sure. You learn a bit when you do it for 35 years. What the many experts in the SDFF club have taught me…and continue to teach me, is the fly fishing saltwater game. Let me tell you it’s compelling. I watch all the fly fishing shows on TV and it is frequently mentioned that catching a large roosterfish on the fly is in the top ten of fly-fishing bucket listers. I caught a bunch of big Roosters and from what I wrote above you can tell I barely knew what the hell I was doing. In the bar after that first day of fishing I told my fly fishing compadres, “I had no idea how fast those dorado swim.” When you hook up with a Dorado you watch the entire thing… they are so colorful and beautiful. It’s almost surreal how quickly it happens when they take your fly.
Complimenting this awesome fly fishing is simply an awesome resort at Palapas Ventana. It’s run so well with awesome food and service. They make you feel like family when you are there. Did I tell you they have a bar? I am definitely going back to Palapas Ventana.