By “That Baja Guy” Gary Graham
Continued from last month…
After about 10 to 12 miles of dirt road, the sandy beach ended and turned into the rocky coastline of Morro Santo Domingo. With the surf crashing, the only visible signs of life were sea birds darting to and fro along with other long-legged birds scampering around, pecking in the sand as the waves receded, exposing their dinner. Tom stopped the car. He threw open the door and announced, “We have arrived. This was our campsite!”
It didn’t take us long to set up camp – a couple of sleeping bags and a full cooler, and we were good to go.
Next, we unloaded the tackle and began rigging. Both of us were light tackle types, using mostly 12-pound, and if we needed something a little stouter, we would go to 20. Tom preferred spin tackle, and I was using my usual bait casting outfit. We had planned to use artificials only, but in the late-’70s, the selection was much more limited than today. Our choices? Metal jigs, a few surface poppers (modified from freshwater bass lures by adding heavier hooks), or the only other option: plastics.
Our friends Joe and Lori Graves had developed a lure they called “Scampi.” An innovative lure that an angler could slip a plastic tail over a weighted head and hook combination. When Joe and Lori heard that we were making the trip, they put together a “care package” of their product in various sizes.
Tom and I headed across the sand toward the surf with casting rods in hand in no time at all. Then splitting up, we took off in opposite directions, searching for holes, cuts, or eddies that might be holding fish. I could hear Tom hollering on his first hookup over the roar of the surf.
For the rest of the afternoon, we were two grown men behaving like children in a playground, whooping, hollering, with bent rods chasing hooked fish into the surf as the line on our spools came dangerously close to the knots. Soaked to the skin and waving our catches in the air for the other to see, we were like hockey players holding the Stanley Cup above our heads after winning the playoffs! Who needed crowds? The only witnesses to this tableau were the startled seabirds that took to the air as each primal scream of “hookup” pierced the relentless roar of the surf!
Back at camp that evening, exhausted yet giddy with our successes, we huddled near the campfire, which provided our only light, basking in its warmth as it diminished the Pacific’s chill. Our voices were spent from all our whooping and hollering. We sat quietly enjoying our respective cocktails and listened to the crackle of our fish cooking on the fire. For the moment, Tom had either forgotten his “Baja Stories,” or maybe he realized he had just lived a great story that he would soon tell and retell many times in the future.
We rolled out of our sleeping bags the following morning, eager to get back to the beach and resume our places where we had left off the night before. The campfire was cold. As we looked around for wood to rekindle the fire to make our coffee, we realized we had a visitor. A grizzled old Mexican man crouched with his back to us, at the camp’s perimeter staring out to sea.
While I coaxed some flames from the damp wood, Tom walked over to the old man, calling out his standard greeting, “Hey, buddy.”
The visitor slowly stood, turned toward Tom with a big smile and a twinkle in his eye. “Hola Tomas, cómo estás?”
The visitor turned out to be a friend that Tom had met on one of his earlier trips. Tom invited him back to the campfire and offered him a cup of coffee.
“How is the fishing?” the old man asked. Then, animated, as usual, Tom told him about the great afternoon we had experienced the day before. The old man remained silent for a few minutes and then pointed toward the rocks south of where we had camped.
“Walk until you get to the second cove,” he directed, “There are lots of fish there!”
Violating my rule of not leaving fish to find fish, I allowed Tom to persuade me to take a walk down the beach and check out the cove. After thanking the old man for sharing his local knowledge, we invited him back for dinner that evening, and we gathered our rods and trudged down the sandy beach toward the cove.
After a short walk past some rocks and over giant boulders, we arrived at the first cove. We scurried up and over more boulders and down to the second cove. Surrounded on three sides by steep rocks, the entire cove was about 75-feet across and appeared to be pretty deep – possibly 30-feet in the middle. We both headed for a suitable perch to use as a casting platform. Once Tom reached his spot, he made his initial cast. After the non-stop action the day before, he seemed disappointed that he didn’t immediately have a bite.
Now, I was in position. As I started to make my cast, I stopped mid-cast! I spotted the telltale dark shadow of an enormous baitball of sardines near the outer edge of the cove! Redirecting my cast beyond the shadow of the baitball and keeping the rod tip high, I let the scampi flutter down. Wham! My rod bent almost double as the line vanished from the spool!
Tom reacted instantly and flung his scampi toward the baitball as well. Before I could land my fish, Tom had hooked his own. Mine turned out to be a 15-pound grouper, but Tom had caught his first white seabass from the shore!
As the incoming tide continued for the remainder of the morning, each of us gave the scampis a workout. It was a “do no wrong morning” as we laughed out loud at each new strike. That cove had more species than most aquariums I have visited. As the morning progressed, it became a contest to see how many different kinds of fish we could catch. We had caught an incredible 16 different species between the two of us by the time the tide became high slack: white sea bass, yellowtail, flag cabrilla, spotted cabrilla, leopard grouper, shortfin corvina, orange mouth corvina, spotfin croaker, surfperch, triggerfish, spotted bay bass, pargo, halibut, bonito, blue shark and even a small stingray.
Our Mexican friend returned that evening. We treated him to a white sea bass dinner and toasted him for sharing his hot spot with us.
As the evening wore on, under a black velvet sky sprinkled with more stars than one could ever count, Tom and I shared the day’s events and basked in the delight of this perfect Baja fishing trip that had bonded two friends closer together. Although both Tom and I had caught exotics from the beach, we agreed that the white sea bass and the yellowtail from shore were our personal “firsts.” We marveled over the sheer volume and number of species we caught which guaranteed that this day would be etched in our memories for the rest of our lives.
It has been almost five decades since Tom, and I made that trip. In preparation for this article, I revisited the area recently. Baja’s popularity has exploded over the years, and I didn’t know what to expect as I drove the washboard road to check out the beach. Would it be lined with ostentatious Gringo houses blocking the way to the beach?
I was relieved as we pulled up to the sand beach in our van. No houses blocked the way or the view; in fact, the beach didn’t look much different than it had 40 years ago. There was a Mexican family with their pickup buried to the axles in the soft powder sand. The grizzled old Mexican man had been replaced by a grizzled old American man who said he had lived there for the past handful of years, but he was reluctant to give me his name. Instead, he reported that he had caught a few white sea bass in the 30-pound class earlier this spring.
Was it my imagination, or could I still hear Tom whooping and hollering, with an occasional “hookup” piercing the air? No, it was probably just the sound of the roaring surf.
With all the changes that the Baja Peninsula has endured, it’s nice to know that you can still return and occasionally find the “old Baja” that caused the Baja explosion in the first place and revisit memories of a time long past.