SO­JOURN ON A DESERT IS­LAND

Sur­round­ing the Steep, Arid Slopes of Mex­ico’s Ce­dros Is­land, the Blue Pa­cific Ocean Teems with Thresher Sharks, Cal­ico Bass and Much More, as Four In­trepid An­glers Dis­cov­ered

Sport Fishing - - CONTENTS - By Doug Olan­der

Fish­ing, re­ally, is never about what will be, but about what could be. That means there’s a good chance you could repli­cate my ex­pe­ri­ence kayak-fish­ing around Ce­dros Is­land, off Baja’s cen­tral Pa­cific coast. Should you be that for­tu­nate, it will be, without a doubt, among the more mem­o­rable fish­ing days of your life.

Last June, I was one of a group of four kayak-fish­ing ad­ven­tur­ers to fly down to this high, parched desert is­land to try out the new Ce­dros Kayak Fish­ing op­er­a­tion — with its owner and hard­core yak an­gler Jeff Mar­i­ani — for five days on the wa­ter.

TOWED TO­WARD THE HORI­ZON

Fast-for­ward to day four of that ad­ven­ture. Just about first light, two pan­gas car­ried four kayaks and four kayakeros — Mar­i­ani, John Bretza of Okuma, Mor­gan Prom­nitz of Ho­bie and yours truly — 10 or so miles north along the south­east­ern shore of Ce­dros Is­land. There, we slid into our re­spec­tive kayaks and or­ga­nized our gear, anx­ious to start fish­ing.

A typ­i­cal Pa­cific light fog lin­gered; without a breath of wind, we ped­aled in a white, still and some­what sur­real world. Al­most at once, Bretza and Prom­nitz held rods bent and buck­ing after cal­ico (kelp) bass pounced on their Sav­age San­deels. I joined them, work­ing close in to the sheer, arid slopes. Buck­ing the trend, I brought in a Cal­i­for­nia hal­ibut of mod­est size.

And so it went for the next hour or so as we worked our way far­ther north along the coast. The morn­ing sun be­gan to break through the low clouds, re­flect­ing off the blue, mir­ror-calm ocean. With the per­fect air tem­per­a­ture, amaz­ing con­di­tions and fast fish­ing, it was shap­ing up to be one of those days you might wish would never end.

But it was about to get bet­ter.

Mar­i­ani had ped­aled far­ther out. I knew this when I heard a shout break the still­ness — and looked off­shore to see him, hang­ing on to his rod arc­ing off the kayak’s bow as it was be­ing towed far­ther out in a rush.

The source of the com­mo­tion sud­denly rock­eted clear of the wa­ter: a jumbo thresher shark that, as it turned out, had grabbed the sur­face iron Mar­i­ani was throw­ing.

The last I saw of the man, un­til later, was a small fig­ure head­ing to­ward the hori­zon.

When Mar­i­ani caught up with us an hour or so after­ward, we learned that he’d hung the thresher, likely in the 300-pound range, on his new Okuma Ko­modo 450 lev­el­wind with 65-pound braid and only 35-pound flu­oro leader — all pretty light duty for this task.

But as the thresher dragged Mar­i­ani a mile or more off­shore, ev­ery­thing held — un­til the shark’s enor­mous tail clipped the braid.

A THRESHER KIND OF DAY

It turned out to be a thresher kind of day. Mar­i­ani hooked an­other of per­haps 120 pounds, and re­leased this one. Prom­nitz hooked two, re­leas­ing

both. We saw yet more thresh­ers free-jump­ing and on our sounder screens.

Sur­pris­ingly, three of th­ese thresh­ers went for sur­face irons, and one Prom­nitz caught on a small Sav­age Gear Squish jig after he marked the shark on his me­ter and dropped to it.

Mean­while, the cal­ico bass fish­ing from the shore out to about 40 feet re­mained pro­duc­tive all day, with some fish up­ward of 5 to 6 pounds. Some of my best mo­ments came while throw­ing out a metal jig, let­ting it sink and speed-jig­ging it back; the bass of­ten slammed it just be­low the sur­face.

At one point, some huge bait­balls formed — though they pro­duced mainly Pa­cific bonito and at­tracted sea lions that were in­clined to re­lieve us of any bonito we hooked.

As the sun be­gan to near the top of the is­land, I found my­self will­ing it to slow its de­scent, but to no avail. With shad­ows grow­ing, we grudg­ingly pulled our kayaks back into the pan­gas for the ride down-is­land to the wait­ing truck and trailer.

IDEAL YAK-FISH­ING

A few years ear­lier, Mar­i­ani had vis­ited Ce­dros for the first time, and was hooked on the re­mote desert is­land’s unique am­bi­ence and the seem­ingly undi­min­ished pop­u­la­tions of game fish in the Pa­cific around its shores. There he built Ce­dros Tackle, and soon after, ac­com­mo­da­tions to house clients who would fly down to the is­land to fish (thanks to reg­u­lar flights to Ce­dros from Ense­nada).

Ini­tially, Mar­i­ani of­fered fish­ing from a panga,

but as an ar­dent kayak­fish­ing fan, he soon added a fleet of new Ho­bie Out­backs, find­ing th­ese wa­ters ideal for kayak-fish­ing. We were among the first to try out his new yak-fish­ing op­er­a­tion.

We were hot to do just that when the Cessna

Car­a­van touched down on the is­land’s as­phalt land­ing strip. Mar­i­ani had ad­vised us that the wait at Ense­nada could be un­pre­dictable and we might not ar­rive un­til late af­ter­noon, so we were happy with the late-morn­ing ar­rival. We were whisked to Mar­i­ani’s com­pound in town, on the south­east cor­ner of the is­land, a large ca­sita di­vided in two — a liv­ing area for Mar­i­ani and one ad­di­tional bed­room for a guest, plus a large kitchen with ad­ja­cent din­ing area for guests. Par­ti­tioned be­hind is a sep­a­rate com­mon area with a kitchen and three bed­rooms. There we hur­riedly dropped our gear and sorted out some rods, reels and lures from the gen­er­ous sup­ply that Bretza had brought down for our use.

By that time, Mar­i­ani’s col­leagues, Luis Lopez and David Mi­randa, had kayaks loaded into four of the six cra­dles on the two-tier trailer, along with Ho­bie Mi­rage Drive pedal units, seats, pad­dles, our depth sounders and other ac­ces­sories — and by 2:30 that af­ter­noon, we were off.

With lim­ited time, we made the two-minute drive down to the port and, in short or­der, we were fish­ing. And, in short or­der, Mar­i­ani was on the board with a 20-pound broom­tail grouper that struck a Sav­age Gear Manic Prey deep-div­ing lure he’d just started cast­ing along the north jetty.

For Mar­i­ani, that ex­cel­lent catch qual­i­fied as a mere min­now: Only a cou­ple of weeks be­fore our visit, he had put a mon­ster 108-pound, 9-ounce broom­tail in his kayak. The fish grabbed a slowly sink­ing Kicker sur­face iron that he fished on a lev­el­wind (an Okuma Ko­modo bait­caster with 65-pound Pow­erPro) just a tick south, near the salt­load­ing dock, and that fish re­mains the all-tackle world (and 80-pound-line-class) record for the species.

As the af­ter­noon waned, Adrian Gray, with the In­ter­na­tional Game Fish As­so­ci­a­tion, swapped out his cam­eras for tackle and pro­ceeded to hook some­thing far larger than he could han­dle. When it gave any ground, it was very grudg­ingly; with dark­ness ap­proach­ing, Gray upped the pres­sure un­til the braid fi­nally parted above the leader. The con­sen­sus: He’d lost a gi­ant black sea bass.

MATCH­ING THE (TUNA CRAB) HATCH

Dur­ing our visit we fished along sev­eral ar­eas around the is­land. For ex­am­ple, in ad­di­tion to the lower east side, one day we put in near the salt­load­ing dock at the south­ern end of Ce­dros. West of the dock, just out­side rugged and wild boiler rocks, we ped­aled into amaz­ing swarms of small red tuna crabs at and just be­low the sur­face of the smooth but high, rolling swells. The crus­taceans were be­ing pum­meled by cal­i­cos, sand bass, blue perch, sheep­head and more.

Frus­trated at var­i­ous lead-heads and tails be­ing ig­nored amid the con­stant sur­face ex­plo­sions, I tried to match the hatch by switch­ing to small (quar­ter-ounce) red lead-head and threaded onto the hook just the last cou­ple of inches of a 5-inch red plas­tic tail. That worked for most of the species men­tioned above.

But crafty sheep­head wanted the real thing — which Prom­nitz gave them: With some dif­fi­culty, he man­aged to scoop up one of the lit­tle tuna crabs for bait. The re­sult was a beast of a red-and-black­sided sheepie.

We ended up catch­ing some cal­i­cos that day to 8 pounds (per Prom­nitz’s Bo­gaGrip) and lost a good yel­low­tail or two.

Our op­por­tu­nity to fish var­i­ous ar­eas around the lower part of the is­land not only gave us the chance to fish vary­ing habi­tats, but it also meant we could

find lee shores if the wind came up (though a south or south­east breeze would have been some­what more prob­lem­atic).

CAL­ICO AFTER CAL­ICO

For­tu­nately, there are roads (al­beit some that made Mar­i­ani’s truck’s four-wheel-drive op­tion very de­sir­able) around much of the lower is­land’s coast, and in most ar­eas, quiet beach launches are easy.

That wasn’t the case on our fi­nal day when, fol­low­ing an hour drive west from town to road’s end just in­side the long, jut­ting west­ern­most point of the is­land, the kayakeros faced a bit more chal­lenge in­side a tiny cove, call­ing for good tim­ing to make it through the chop sweep­ing around a build­ing-size rock.

By hug­ging the coast, we were able to fish de­spite a scream­ing west­erly. And it proved worth the ef­fort: This was truly big-bass city. The fab­u­lous habi­tat, with rocks and jut­ting points ev­ery­where, pro­duced cal­ico after cal­ico, many in the 3- to 6-pound range. Bretza par­tic­u­larly crushed them fish­ing green mack­erel San­deels. That evening, we com­pared chewed-up thumbs, abraded from re­leas­ing so many bass.

Mar­i­ani had again gone to the top of the score­board here, after — as with his thresher — a big fish took him by sur­prise. He was cast­ing, of all things, a small War­baits War­blade (spin­ner­bait) to the top of a nearly sub­merged rock when he was re­warded with a smash­ing strike while reel­ing the lure over the edge of the rock. A long, hard fight on 50-pound braid en­sued; ul­ti­mately, Mar­i­ani re­leased a 30-pound yel­low­tail.

A RARE OP­POR­TU­NITY

By early af­ter­noon, with the west wind amp­ing up to a good 30 knots, foam­ing the wave tops just off­shore, ev­ery­one headed back to the cove — where Luis and David had a fan­tas­tic shore lunch ready, in­clud­ing grilled steaks.

In fact, that was one of sev­eral out­stand­ing shore lunches we en­joyed. One day we were served one of the best, rich­est stews I’ve ever en­joyed any­where — of goat, fresh cab­bage, toma­toes and more. An­other day, they whipped up bur­ri­tos to die for.

Din­ners of­ten in­cluded our own catch-of-the-day op­tions (in­clud­ing, one night, Mar­i­ani’s amaz­ing hal­ibut en­chi­ladas with green sauce). One night we en­joyed as much lob­ster as we could con­sume.

Few peo­ple ever visit this large is­land; the chance to see some of it is a rare op­por­tu­nity. You’ll find no large lux­ury ho­tels or up­scale eater­ies in the tiny desert vil­lage here. Ev­ery­thing is au­then­tic and, of course, lim­ited.

Don’t fly in ex­pect­ing any sort of nightlife. But then, after long days of ped­al­ing many miles and (the best part) hook­ing many fish, most an­glers will find them­selves ready to hit the sack fol­low­ing the evening rit­ual of cleanup, din­ner and tackle prep to be ready for an early start next morn­ing. Be­ing tired never felt bet­ter.

After a long love af­fair with Ce­dros Is­land, Jeff Mar­i­ani (work­ing a shore­line here) now shares the is­land’s boun­ti­ful wa­ters with other kayak-fish­ing en­thu­si­asts, thanks to his fleet of Ho­bie Out­backs.

BE­LOW: One of sev­eral thresh­ers hooked one day, this shark took a swing at a sur­face-iron jig and missed, get­ting hooked in the head. OP­PO­SITE, BE­LOW: Large, high and arid, Ce­dros is mostly un­in­hab­ited and undis­turbed. OP­PO­SITE, BOT­TOM: With four-wheel drive and a sturdy kayak trailer, Jeff Mar­i­ani heads up the south­west­ern side of Ce­dros to launch in a tiny cove at the edge of the open Pa­cific.

Bass-tackle ’tail:

Us­ing a Ko­modo bait­caster, Jeff Mar­i­ani cast a spin­ner­bait onto a shal­low ledge top to take this solid yel­low­tail. By this time, the an­gler had al­ready re­leased a num­ber of good-size cal­ico bass as well.

ABOVE: The au­thor en­joys the mo­ment, just be­fore he re­leases a cal­ico taken on a Sav­age Gear San­deel. RIGHT: The bait du jour, pe­lagic tuna crabs, worked magic when dropped on a light lead-head. BE­LOW: Jeff Mar­i­ani pulls onto his lap 108 pounds, 9 ounces of broom­tail grouper after catch­ing the world-record beast on a Ko­modo lev­el­wind near the salt-load­ing docks. OP­PO­SITE: On a desert-cool evening, tired kayakeros en­joy cervezas and lob­ster tail at Mar­i­ani’s ca­sita.

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