saltwater fly fishing

2 years ago I fished Lake El Salto, near Mazatlan Mexico. This desolate desert lake is a renowned bass fishery. Of course catching bass all day was a ton of fun, but what I was really interested in was the off shore opportunities Mazatlan had to offer. Saltwater fishing always intrigued me, maybe because I live no where near saltwater… although the closest sea to Colorado is home to some of the most bio-diverse waters in the world. The Sea of Cortez is a critical feeding, breeding, and nursery ground for some of the
world’s rarest marine animals, including 32 species of marine mammals, 170
species of sea birds, 3,000 species of invertebrates, and 875 species of fish. (Alles)
Photo by Nasa

I have always heard about dorado, Coryphaena hippurus, and how they are voracious predators (we’re talking saltwater dorado, not fresh water dorado from South America). Their elongated bright blue, green and gold body is surrounded by a long dorsal fin spanning from head to tail.
Colorful dorado in water
This unique body design creates a powerful force thrashing and displacing water as they feed on baitfish at speeds up to 50 mph. Dorado, one of the fastest growing fish in the world, also called Dolphin or Mahi Mahi, fight like an Ultimate Fighting Championship heavy weight. Once hooked they make hard runs towards the surface resulting in an acrobatic aerial display pulling drag and fighting hard until the bitter end… just like a seasoned mixed martial arts fighter would.

We hired a guide for a half day and first set out to net live bait. Soon after, we found buoys identifying schools of dorado marked by commercial fisherman. The technique is to chum with live bait and throw spin rods rigged hook-less with bait while trolling. Once you see that rod tip starting to bump and the heads of dorado surfacing clobbering bait fish, its on. Simply throw your fly towards the action and watch as the dorado’s predatory instincts kick in as they inhale your fly.

Once hooked these feisty fighters immediately take you for a ride….
Mazatlan Dorado
jumping and flipping all over

Here’s a nice female dorado, also referred to as a hen…
Hen Dorado
while hens heads are round bull dorado have a protruding head (below)
Colorful Bull
when hooked dorado sparkle like light reflecting off a diamond bursting with a gold shine splattered with neon green and blue markings

After an epic morning catching one after another I was officially obsessed. The non-stop action was insatiable. I immediately told myself I’ve got to get back down here to do this again. I found myself dreaming about dorado feeding ferociously and how insanely hard they fight. Well, it wasn’t until this summer when I considered catching dorado again.

A good friend from my Semester at Sea Spring 2006 voyage has been fishing the Sea of Cortez around the Midriff Islands for over 20 years. Every year a group of 20-30 guys live on an ultimate fishing vessel for a week nomadically fishing the area. When he asked me to join I immediately thought I’d have another shot at some dorado and eagerly agreed to join.

The trip started the last week of July. We boarded a bus in Orange County headed for San Felipe Mexico. After driving from Hot Creek through the night to Orange, CA we spent the majority of the 5 hour drive down the Baja sleeping. I was awoken by a bumpy Mexican road under construction (What roads in Mexico aren’t under construction?). As I squinted and yawned myself awake, I took sight of a sterile desert with wind blown sand drifts and cacti. We were deep in Baja’s far-flung desert.

Upon arrival in San Felipe we got our first look at our new home for the week. The Tony Reyes:

Tony Reyes
This 86′ ship once housed crews of commercial shrimpers.

The destination was the Midriff area which lies about 250 miles south of San Felipe. The plan was to set sail loaded with 10 pongas headed toward the southern end of the Midriff area and fish our way back north.

Most of the target species were all new to me: yellowtail, cabrilla, spotted sea bass, grouper, but what I was particularly excited about was again hooking up with a dorado. This trip was primarily a conventional tackle-stock the cooler kind of trip, but I knew if there were dorado around I could have some fun with my fly rod.

The first day we set out on a boat loaded with heavy jigs and conventional rods with lines up to 120 lb test. We were after yellowtail, more specifically California yellowtail, Seriola lalandi dorsalis, a subspecies of Yellowtail amberjack which are found nearly all over the globe.

The technique required to catch yellowtail was really not suitable to fly fishing. We were dropping heavy jigs 200-300 feet deep and after a morning filling the boat with nice size yellowtail it was quite apparent that we weren’t going to target these fish on a fly.
yellow tail An average 10-15 lb yellowtail

The majority of our catch was yellowtail, although we were pulling in all sorts of species including:
Bonitobonito
Sheephead
sheephead

Trigger Fish trigger fish

and multiple Species of bass, or cabrilla, which in Spanish refers to any species of bass-like fish
Cabrilla

cabrilla sabrosa

spotted bass Although we weren’t necessarily targeting spotted sea bass we couldn’t keep these big and healthy fish off our lines.

Some boats were lucky enough to hook into some bigger species like Sailfish:Sailfish

While we were having a ton of fun catching all these nice fish on conventional tackle we never gave up on catching fish on our fly rods.
flyfish

Lenny's Bass We did have some success nailing some fish on the fly… but were still looking for dorado

Every night while docked the boats flood lights shined outward to the sea attracting plankton and baitfish. We rigged our rods to catch mackerel to use as bait to the following day. Blake, the experienced fly tyer in our group, saw what we were using to catch these mackerel and immediately decided to tie up some flies to match. So ironically enough we saw most action on fly rods catching bait. Not exactly what we had in mind for this trip but catching 3 mackerel at once on a soft 8 weight was a kick in the ass.

Blake w mackrel
Blake was real excited to catch multiple fish on single casts

I can’t go without mentioning a subject that interests me almost as much as fishing…comida sabrosaMexican food is hard to beat, especially authentic mexican food. On the Tony Reyes we were served 3 meals a day and more often than not the meals were mexican and damn good. The one meal that I still drool over the thought of is the beach BBQ the crew put together for us. We devoured fresh grilled clams we dug up that morning and a yellowtail grilled whole over an open fire on the beach. Fastened to the grill with foil for an easy flip the yellowtail’s crispiness yielded some amazing fish tacos.Picture 32

Speaking of good food, one night we got a chance to go after some squid. Calamari anyone? Using special glowing squid lures that looked like mini fancy chandeliers with spikes sticking out of them in every which way everyone was hooking up with these beasts left and right. I’d heard of people catching squid on a fly before so I had to give it a shot. Blake tied a special weighted bright green fly for my deep sinking fly line. Immediately after I hit bottom I felt a big tug, the squid immediately pulled drag and ran. It felt like a huge fish completely bending over my 14 wt two handed rod. All of the sudden I lost tension and the squid was off. Apparently, you really need those special lures to get them to stick.
Giant SquidHumboldt Squid

My hopes for dorado slowly dwindled. By the the end of the trip only one person had caught one dorado. We just didn’t get into them. I spent one morning walking a remote beach line where I heard rooster fish prowl the banks but I struck out there too. Despite the lack of success on the species I hoped to find on my fly rod this trip was sensational. Simply the opportunity to explore this lush ecosystem was a privilege. I must admit, I wasn’t to excited seeing the amount of fish killed to stock the cooler, but the crew on the Tony Reyes do a good job of helping manage the resource by releasing small fish under a certain size.

Apparently dorado, being prolific breeders, would double in population if they weren’t commercially fished for at all over the course of one year. Who knows if thats true about some of these other species. All I know is that we are very privileged to have such a rich and unique resource in our back yard and hopefully we will be able to utilize and maintain this sustainability for many years to come. As long as crews like the Tony Reyes continue to respect the resource and the Mexican government enforces illegal fishing the future is bright.

With that said… I leave you with a time-lapse reel I shot of the Tony Reyes wandering through the Sea of Cortez

Works Cited:
Alles, David (2007) The Sea of Cortez
retrieved on sept 30th from: HERE


When I first caught the fly fishing bug about 6 years ago I found myself obsessed with all the different species you can catch on a fly rod. Trout were fun and still are, of course, but when you think about it, the possibilities of going after various species of fish in fresh and saltwater all around the globe are almost endless.

It was winter ’05 when my fishing buddy Billy asked me if I wanted to go to Costa Rica with him during our break from school and workouts in May. The first thing that came to my mind was “I wonder what kind of fish we can catch there?” Thinking back on it, I didn’t have a clue what fly fishing in saltwater is all about. So, I did a lot of research and found “The Rich Coast” offers good variety of waters to fish. You can either go deep sea or off shore fishing on the west coast for Marlin, Rooster-fish, Dorado etc. while the Caribbean ocean on the east coast offers more of a tropical flats style of fishing, maybe some bonefish or permit and this a fish called a tarpon. At the time, I didn’t really know what a tarpon was, and was completely clueless as to the incredible fighting abilities it possessed. However, Billy and I soon found out.

We flew into the capital, San Jose, and hopped on a bus headed for a small town in the most southern tip of the eastern coast. Just north of Panama, the town of Manzanilla sits in the midst of a jungle lush with various species of primates, birds, and insects that never stop chirping, humming, and singing to you.

Within minutes we found a fishing guide, Delroy, who greeted us on his rusty bicycle outside what appeared to be the only bar/restaurant/hotel this tiny town had to offer. He said, “You FLY FISH?” in his broken english and we set up a trip for the next day. The next morning we boarded his ponga and motored down the coast until we reached a large river mouth spewing its muddy water into the clear blue ocean at the edge of a dense green jungle. He pointed to the water and said “cast.” We didn’t have a clue what we were doing so he showed us. He flopped the fly in the water and let out some line and let the fly sink. He demonstrated stripping the fly in against the current letting his fly line fall and collect on the floor of the boat. All of a sudden his line went taut and his fly line started flying around everywhere, he hooked a TARPON! It was like he hooked a train. Out in the distance we saw a large silver fish flying out of the water completing a full back flip. Delroy struggled to let the line through his fingers as it wrapped around his thumb. “Oh shit” Billy yelled as I tried to help Delroy unwrap the line tight around his finger. Suddenly, the line went loose, the fish broke off. I asked Delroy “Man, what would you have done if it didn’t break off?” He responded, by lifting his opposite hand and showing us his other thumb that was severed at the knuckle. He said “Thats how this happened” pointing to his injured thumb. Apparently fishing the same technique cost him half of his thumb.
426446164205

Delroy needed a nap after the tarpon almost took his other thumb.

You’d think he would learn a new technique. Like the technique Captain Clifford Ramos taught us at the Barra del Colorado (Barra is spanish for “place where river current meets sea tide.”)

After a day of fishing off Manzanilla we traveled north for a few days ending up in the Barra del Colorado, a small fishing village nestled where hundreds of miles of river maze ends and flows into the Caribbean Ocean. The Barra del Colorado is only reachable by boat or plane. When we arrived by a small passenger boat, little did we know that we were in one of the best places to fish for tarpon in the world. The large river mouth provides a low salinity breeding ground which tarpon prefer for spawning activity. We spent the next two days with Clifford who taught us a technique that would NOT result in a severed thumb by simply not stripping line, rather jigging it, letting your line stay taut with the pull of the boat against the current and holding the same spot in the line and retrieving it back and forth against the current. This way, when a tarpon takes the fly, you don’t have to worry about all of your slack shooting up and potentially wrapping around something, like your thumb.

We finished the two day trip jumping about 20 fish between the two of us. The tarpon, completely annihilating our gear.
670888105205 This one I hooked right next to the boat while I was reeling in my line. He immediately jumped right over the back of the boat 6 ft in the air nearly knocking out Clifford, He successfully ducked, dodging the fish. He then smiled while telling us it wasn’t the first time that has happened to him. He estimated it weighed about 180 lbs. The beast snapped my fly line in two.

While Billy surrendered and moved to conventional tackle the silver kings still managed to strip the drag on his spin reel. It was making loud cracking sounds as he reeled in. 843234305205 Despite the equipment problems he still managed to land this nice 60 lb tarpon.

Honestly I was disappointed I didn’t land a tarpon on that trip, but after talking to other tarpon anglers and reading up on the subject, I realized that jumping a handful of giant tarpon like that was a pretty good accomplishment. Anglers typically don’t “land” tarpon that often, its usually a game of “I jumped a couple tarpon today” rather than “I landed a bunch.” To land a big boy is quite the feat. So I was now officially obsessed with Megalops atlanticus.

After landing a couple Puerto Rican baby tarpon on my Angling the Globe trip I still think about those 180 pounders I hooked in Costa Rica.

This spring I got a chance to head south to Boca Grande, Florida to chase after some big tarpon on the flats and beaches. Tarpon migrate north in the late spring early summer in search of spawning grounds. They daisy chain and swim in circles surrounding the spawning female and follow each other along sand bars up the coast. This time of the year (late spring early summer) is best for sight fishing to a 100+ lb fish. With a good guide and a decent cast you can put a fly right in front of their face, its just a matter of getting one to take your fly…

So if you haven’t yet, go after some tarpon. So far, I haven’t found a more exhilarating fish to catch. Just watch out for your thumb.