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In search of Cortez

By Toby Coe

Toby Coe hires a panga off Mexico

Big male dorado
Big male dorado

This was nothing like the bluewater fly-fishing I had read and dreamt of: whilst I was stripping off line and preparing to cast as far as possible, the skipper of our panga casually threw a couple of live ‘sardinas’ over the side. The moment they hit the water, several neon blue, green and gold dorado shot in from nowhere, smashing the bait from the surface in explosions of spray and scales, no more than 15ft from the boat! It was at this point that I suffered a severe episode of over-excitement and adrenalin-ation, my legs turned to jelly and I spent the next three hours having to kneel, rather than stand in the boat!

Loreto, on Mexico’s Baja Peninsula is renowned as something of a bluewater fly-fishing Mecca for its summer run of dorado (also known as mahi-mahi or dolphinfish in the States). I had travelled here in mid-July with the goal of getting amongst the action with this glorious gamefish, which as well as being an aerial acrobat par excellence once hooked, is also perhaps the easiest of the true bluewater gamefish to tempt on fly. However, nothing could   have prepared me for the fishing I was to have. 

Dorado swarms
I had visions of seeing occasional fish busting up baitfish shoals; of 80ft casts to fleeting shadows and days of fishless drifts over vast expanses of sea. The reality was somewhat different. A typical day saw us motor out wide towards the area where the dorado were holding. Once we saw fish chasing bait, or came to a ‘fish attracting device’ (a buoy attached to the sea-bed by a substantial piece of rope), the skipper would start tossing live-baits over the side and the dorado would swarm in. The next few hours would then be spent drifting with the currents, whilst anywhere up to 50 dorado between 10 and 40lb shoaled under and around the boat, waiting for the next baitfish to land amongst them. It is something special watching a big group of dorado all simultaneously light-up as though a switch has been thrown and then tear after the hapless baitfish in huge swirls, crashes and leaps before the inevitable eventually happens.    

Hooking them up on a fly was simply a case of timing the cast so that the fly landed on the water at the same moment as a baitfish. Takes ranged from casual inhalations of the fly to full-blown smash and grabs so fast that striking was out of the question and line-burn was a problem, even though I was wearing stripping gloves and electrical tape on my fingers! The take from the biggest fish I caught (35lb of green and gold fury) was truly spectacular. The moment my fly landed it lit-up, shot out of the water, smashed into the fly as it re-entered and greyhounded off across the surface, stripping line off the reel so fast the dye started to mist out of my backing! I swear you must have been able to hear the scream of the reel and my hollers of excitement back on dry land! 30 exhausting minutes later, I finally got it into the boat. 

We had fish leap so high they were well above head height and ‘down and dirty’ battles with fish that circled under the boat and simply wouldn’t give up, whilst up on deck the sweat would pour off in streams. It is not an overstatement that in the five days we targeted the dorado, myself and my fishing partner probably caught in the region of 150 dorado between 8 and 35lb.  When the fishing is this good in Loreto, days of 30-40 dorado a day between two anglers are not uncommon and the end of the day’s charter is signalled by exhaustion on the angler’s part, rather than running out of time!

After a couple of days of filling your boots and getting used to the fishing, you actually start to get picky. Rather than just hooking up with any dorado, by the third day I started to want only the biggest and actively targeted the big bulls hanging round the edge of the shoals, with admittedly modest success, managing three over 20lb. The difficulty is getting a fly past the smaller school-sized fish! This makes for more challenging fishing and adds another dimension to things.  (These big bulls can get BIG as well – towards the end of July and throughout August 40-50lb fish are relatively common and the IGFA 10kg record of 58lb came from Loreto in 1998).     

Roughing it with roosters
As well as the phenomenal offshore fishing, Loreto also offers inshore fishing for pargo (snapper), ladyfish, cabrilla (leopard grouper) and roosterfish that, while not as prolific as that further down in the East Cape area, can still provide a welcome distraction in the unlikely event of the weather turning rough. Two of the most memorable hours fishing of my life were had drifting in a panga off a golden beach, casting little Deceivers and Poppers to a shoal of small roosterfish and watching in glee as swarms of these tenacious fighters tore in at the fly, combs erect and gills flaring. Truly awesome fun, that has left me with some great pictures and even better memories.

The area also gets some incredible concentrations of billfish, which with the right conditions can be caught by casting flies directly to them (or so I am told). A month or so before we arrived in Loreto, the sailfish were so thick in numbers that the ‘conventional’ anglers were having difficulty getting a bait through them to the dorado! Life can be tough sometimes! However the peak of the dorado season sees them pushed out wide and generally out of fishing range from Loreto. (To give you an idea of the concentration of dorado that can be present, some Americans we met came across a shoal of dorado breaching and jumping that they guess-timated covered a square nautical mile of sea!). 

The whole of the Sea of Cortez acts like a giant fish-trap throughout the summer months and in addition to the dorado and billfish, it draws in whales (we saw three different species in our stay), dolphins, sharks (we had a boisterous little mako free-jump behind our boat for a few, exciting seconds), manta rays and a wide variety of birds, including the agile frigate. A camera is definitely a must on a trip out here and if you are really lucky you might come across a bait-ball being harrassed by huge concentrations of sailfish, dorado, whales and sharks in one giant feeding frenzy.    

Bluewater on a budget
Just to top everything off, the fishing out here is very cheap from a global perspective. Pangas (from which two people can fish comfortably and three could fish from at a pinch) are generally in the region of US$200-250 (£100-125) a day and hotels can be found from as little as US$20 (£10) a night. All in, including flights, two anglers could get a week of world-class fishing for about £1,200-£1,400 each depending on the exchange rate with the US dollar. If you have a hankering to sample bluewater fly-fishing, or even for a bit of exotic fishing, I can definitely recommend Loreto, especially for those on a budget. Just remember to pack some stripping gloves …   

The best time to fish in Loreto is the summer (June-August), with July generally being reckoned as the prime month. However, on a more cautious note: although we had some spectacular fishing, there are years when very few dorado show. This however, is part and parcel of fishing travel – sometimes it’s hot, and sometimes it’s not! However, the general consensus seems to be that 2007 could be another good year…


• Tackle: Virtually all of the author’s fishing was with a 10-weight set-up and intermediate tropical line. Backing was 50lb PowerPro braid. However, he also used an 8-weight and a tropical intermediate for the inshore work and took some quick-sinking Rio T14 shooting heads.

He adds that a 12-weight would have been nice for the bigger dorado, allowing a bit more leverage and lifting power for the 20lb+ fish and is on his ‘wish-list’ for any future trips. Everything needs to be rigged to resist the power of the fish you will encounter and all connections and knots must be bullet-proof.

• Organising the fishing: Everything at the Mexican end of the trip was done through Pam Bolles at BajaBigFish (www.bajabigfish.com), who sorted out the boats, booked the hotel and will even organise the cleaning and filleting any dorado you wish to eat, although there’s a strong catch-and-release ethic.

• Further reading: Trey Combs’ Bluewater Fly Fishing is a useful source of information, the first chapter dealing solely with the summer dorado fishing off Loreto.

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