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
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.
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.
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.