Baja -- Big Fish Little Boat


by Will Dornan


The Hemingway story of "The Old Man and the Sea" may seem far fetched to some but it is not. At the end of the story you sit back and imagine yourself in a 3 day battle with a giant fish, towing your little boat across the ocean. I often wondered why Ernest never told us the old mans name. After this last trip I found I could easily put my name in the book.

The location of this particular story was on the East Cape, which is located north of Cabo San Lucas on Mexico’s Baja peninsula. All winter long I dreamed of this trip. I tied flies, ordered equipment and made general preparations.

Finally, armed with a 14 weight fly rod, three 12 weights, one eleven weight (my wife’s), one 10 weight, tow 8 weights, two Jackson Lake trolling rods loaded with 20 pound mono, one 30 pound rig, a 50 pound rod, one Brittany spaniel, one wife and the bible "Baja Catch" we set for one month of camping and fishing on Mexico’s Baja Peninsula. From the beginning we knew this would not be a delicate fishing trip with 5X tippets throwing size 20 Blue Wing Olives. This was a battle.

My tackle boxes were stuffed with teasers that were purple, red, yellow, silver, black and bigger than my last Gros Ventre River cutthroat trout. My fly boxes had flies with hooks so big that I used a set of visegrips mounted on conduit which I bolted to my fly tying bench. What fish could resist 2 - 10/0 hooks lashed together with 100 pound wire and had a half a saddle of pink feathers on it. Anticipation of a new boat can send any man into a mild state of insanity.

San Diego was near and the empty drift boat trailer that took 4 hours to pull out from under the snowdrifts had a new purpose. There was a new 14 foot v-hull aluminum yaught decked with a new 15 horsepower 4 stroke Honda engine and a 6 gallon gas tank waiting to sit on top of it. You know, the Old Man was jealous.

One thousand miles on Mex 1 from San Diego to the bottom of Baja had stories, but nothing compared to the 21 days that began when we crested the mountains overlooking Los Barriles. Scattered through the bay were boats, lots of boats and mostly fishing boats. Something must be happening down there. Set up camp, find ice, get beverages, shove the boat on the beach, find reels and rods, get gas and water and buy more beer were all on the agenda. This was paradise and somewhere out there swam a fish as big as my boat.

We hired a guide in a Mexican panga to see how they might fish for a marlin and dorado. A day of trolling around with Javiar yielded two roosterfish on sardinas (a local baitfish) and later a dorado and marlin, which were both lost. It was good fun but Javiar was doing all the fishing, thinking and driving the boat.

One hour before sun up my wife Erica, Brian Horn, Cody, the fish dog and myself all shoved off to the sea in my 14 foot aluminum Gregor. The GPS unit read 2.1 mph at top speed so we knew it would take a while. The sun was a magnificent ball of red and orange as we slid through the early morning light. Finally, lining up Isla Cerralavo and Punta Colorada we knew we were over the canyons. If the charts were correct, 3 gringos and a spaniel were in 3 to 4 thousand feet of the greatest marlin water on earth. The GPS unit indicated that we were 16 miles off shore.

Horn and I set up rods while Erica videotaped and the dog peered into the depths. Almost joking I held a black and purple teaser high and gave thanks to Jeff Currier for his donation to the adventure. Between Horn being eaten by sharks, whales and swamping our boat we tied leaders and knots with impeccable care, thanks to Jeff. Fly fishing was discussed at length, but today, our first day in a 14' boat we tied 10/0 hooks to our teasers instead.

Off I started, with the boat speed as the next item of debate. Horn says faster, I say slower, Horn says to go north, I say we ride the troughs. You become very intimate with the ocean and team work is critical. I was the captain and Horn watched out the back, making sure the teasers were popping on the 3rd wake at 4 second intervals. Without any warning or visual strike the 50 pound rig doubled over and 50 pound Ande was screaming off the reel.

This was it! Chaos erupted in a 14' space. Nobody saw the fish or the take. The run put so much force on the rod holder that neither Horn or I could pull the rod out. After nearly 200 yards the run stopped and a 100 pound plus striped marlin launched into a series of leaps that left the 3 of us in awe. Screams of fear and excitement followed and Horn grabbed the rod. Between the 15 hp motor, the ocean swells and one really excited Brittany I cleared the other rods and Erica began videotaping. Oh my God, we had a fish on that was nearly as long as our boat. Rather than pulling the fish to the boat we found ourselves pulling the boat to the fish. Teamwork is the real experience out here. We battled for over an hour with a 140 pounds of striped marlin pulling us through the ocean. The leaps were spectacular and frightening at the same time. I knew that eventually that the creature would be next to our boat and so would that 3 foot long bill. Closer and closer it circled.

A massive boil off the starboard side revealed him. Ten to twelve feet of electric iridescent blues and greens lit up the ocean. Barking orders back and forth Horn and I moved the massive fish boat side. Suddenly mayhem erupted. Without gloves on, Horn walked his hands down the 135 pound leader and grabbed the bill. The next 5 - 8 minutes became a blur. Horn was hanging halfway over the side of a 14 foot boat with a death grip on a really upset marlin. I changed to the other side of the boat to keep us balanced. The thrashing and hollering from Horn and the marlin subdued after about 10 minutes.

What an incredible moment when we landed a marlin that measured only 2 feet less than the boat. The hook was buried in deep somewhere amidst Horn and the bill, and I worked without success to remove it. Finally, I cut the leader in desperation. Holding the bill and dorsal fin upright we powered up the motor to revive a magnificent fish. Within ten minutes of pumping water over his gills he gave a powerful tail thrust and the three of us watched as the beautiful marlin slipped down into the depths.

Our technicians became more refined during the rest of the trip. The GPS unit indicated that we spent most of our time 12 - 18 miles offshore. During the remainder of the trip we caught 20 - 30 dorado, several yellowfin tuna in the 30 - 50 pound class and three other striped marlin. Two of the marlin we brought on board for pictures and then released them. Occasionally we threw the fly rod after we hooked a dorado and another one came in close, but primarily we used other methods of fishing.

The trip is over now, but often I daydream. The image of that first marlin silhouetted in the sky attached to our little boat will stay with me forever. I can’t wait to return.