They Call it Snow Valley for a Reason

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Winters are tough for me. Opportunities to do what I love to do are extremely limited. As the days go by without any time spent on the water I get cagey and cabin fever starts to set in. There are things to do to keep it at bay when my spare time can’t be spent chasing fish. This blog is one of them but its success really is dependent on me getting out and fishing. My trip to Baja was a nice break from the snow and cold that hampers my fishing but since getting back I had not been out.

When I got up Tuesday morning the snow was still falling and there was at least 30cm on top of my Tahoe. The head muckety-mucks at work called a ‘powder day” and everyone went to the ski hill along with the rest of the town. I don’t ski anymore so while everyone headed to the hill I decided to do what I always do when I’m not working and go fishing.

The Elk River is deep in the grips of winter. Much of its waters are buried deep under snow and ice and its banks are surrounded by mountainous piles of snow. I headed out to a section I knew had some open water and place to park not too far from the river. Big heavy wet snowflakes were falling adding to the already stark white landscape but the temperature was right at freezing. Pretty much as good as it gets for January in Snow Valley. That’s what the Elk Valley is called during winter.

I parked the Tahoe and climbed over a 10’ pile of snow to start the 200-meter journey to the river. Halfway there, stuck in snow up to my crotch, I began to question the sanity of this venture. The thought of turning around this close to water was crushing so I trudged on huffing and puffing from the effort of having to lift my feet over my head to take a step. I eventually found the river’s edge. Its banks were lined with 5 – 6 foot walls of snow and ice. Should it really take snowshoes and ice climbing gear to go fishing? I managed to slip down one into the water. An unsettling feeling crept over me as I found my footing on the river bottom. There was a very real threat of a titanic sinking chunk of ice breaking loose and running over me. There would be nowhere to go. The best case scenario would be a life-threatening swim. Worst case would be drowning, pinned underneath an iceberg. Not that it helped but I “cautiously” made my way to the head of a pool out of the current and felt okay to cast from there. From this spot I could cover a lot of water and didn’t have to worry about icebergs. After several hours of swinging a fly from every vantage point possible, I had thoroughly covered all the open water. My efforts produced a nice meat eating cutty and  I crawled my way out of the river and back the through the snow drifts and called it a day. My cabin fever had been medicated but not cured.

If having cabin fever isn’t bad enough, The condition is made worse by the fly fishing industry as retailers use print and social media to bombard us with tantalizing offerings of the upcoming season. Their Facebook posts of leviathans caught in clear waters surrounded by blue skies and lush green backgrounds creating an anguishing impatience. Magazines offer teasing write-ups of manufacturers latest and greatest  gear offerings for the upcoming season. My unfishable hours and days are occupied by falling victim to the industry and researching gear and dreaming up more modifications for the jet boat. Which wouldn’t be so bad if I could actually implement them but the jet boat is encased in a tomb of snow.

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Just looked out the window and it’s snowing again.

 

 

 

Baja – Recap

So far most of my time in Baja was spent chasing roosterfish on the Sea of Cortez side. For my last few days, I decided to surf and fish the rocky points to the north of Playa Cerritos. The surf was pretty closed out and some locals told me that the waves haven’t been very good since the hurricanes and tropical storms that pounded Baja in early September. Seems they did a little remodeling to the sandbars. A typical scenario with beach breaks. Other locals had told me that there was very good fishing in the area and suggested a few spots. The Pacific side, while chock full of fish presents a different approach.

The Sea of Cortez lacks the swell of the Pacific which makes it a prime destination to fish from shore. Fishing from shore on the Pacific side… Not so much. From the beach, you will have to avoid getting smashed by waves that can quickly rise up to 10 feet and then crash right on shore. Even if you can dodge them casting over their towering mass is impossible. The alternative is fishing from the rocks. While the added height of the rocks does provide an elevated casting platform, you have to constantly monitor the waves rolling in and quickly dance your way back from the edge to avoid getting swept off the rock by the breaking wave. If all goes well you still have to deal with the waves integrating you fly and line into the sharp rocks when the roll into them. If you want to fish from shore on the Pacific side get a mask and a speargun and go under the waves. Using a fly rod is a fool’s errand. I continued to explore the area looking for places I could fish but I mainly spent my time hanging out with friendly locals learning about fishing and life in Baja.

Fishing on the Pacific side is almost exclusively done from boats. Pangas are the preferred style of boat and there are old timers that use them to catch 300 pound plus marlin, handlining. Kinda puts things in perspective. I go out with $3000 dollars worth of gear to catch a 20″ trout and these guys are catching 300-pound marlin by hand with a coffee wrapped in mono. I can only imagine what they are thinking when they see some guy standing on shore waving a fly rod around. The bottom line is the waters around Baja are teeming with just about every kind of fish imaginable. And fishing is a way of life in the coastal towns of Baja. So much of life there centers around fishing.

Fishing provides jobs and income for locals. Tourists pay good money for a chance to land one of the many trophy class fish in these waters. But there is more to it than that. Fish are like the Bitcoin of Baja. Nothing is more valued than fish to the locals. You can procure any goods or services with the correct offering of the daily catch. Anything from fixing a flat tire to paying your rent can be accomplished with a payment of fish. In some cases, even a promise of a payment in fish can get you what you need.

There is a different ebb and flow to life in Baja than north of the border. . Baja is isolated and for the most part, very poor. These two realities develop a culture of neighborly ingenuity. Retailers and professional services don’t exist but there are plenty of resources if you know where to look. To live here, people create creative solutions to everyday problems. Everyone is willing to help each other and that includes total strangers. The karma of living here says you will need help so you help others.  I watched a guy trade two different and well-used tires to a guy for a functional rim and tire to replace his rim that had finally run out of hammer and weld fixes. To get the two tires he needed for the trade he promised some fish to an old man for the two tires.  On the way there we picked up another guy that was trying to get to Todos Santos and gave him a ride that got him a little closer to his destination. This is how it goes in Baja.

I will definitely return to Baja. It offers so many opportunities for a fishing junkie like myself. A marlin on the fly sounds like more fun than anyone should be allowed to have and now I know just who to go see when the time comes. In the meantime, I just have to get through another couple months of cold and a few more feet of fallen snow and then I’ll be chasing bull trout in the jet sled. Soon summer will be here and all thousands of kilometers of gorgeous rivers in the East Kootenays will be open and ready to explore..

Baja – Day 9

Will rolled up in his side x side just as the sun was breaking the horizon, casting an orange hue across the still waters of the Sea of Cortez. As I was stowing my rod and gear in the machine the sea seemed to come to life. Whales were breaching 500 hundred meters off shore.  In the blue water, 200 meters out large baitfish were being pursued. Judging by the wake following them it was something enormous. And in shallows right in front of us, small bait balls began to appear.

The rods came out and we each took off opposite ways down the beach looking for whatever was stirring up the baitfish. I waited patiently for signs of a roosterfish. With the sun so low it was difficult to see into the water. I was looking for a wake or the tell-tale sign of a rooster; his trademark comb. After a while, with no concrete sign of a predator, I would throw out a few casts hoping there was a fish out there that I couldn’t see.  We followed the bait as it moved up the beach and eventually as I was stripping in a cast A wake began to close in on my fly. Something was pushing water at the surface and then a comb went up and then just as fast it was gone. There were roosters here!

Over the next several hours we chased fish up the beach and I managed to get combed a few more times but never hooked up. Seeing that comb come up is heartstopping. Watching it vanish for good without taking your fly is heartbreaking.

Around noon we found ourselves at a rocky reef. Will tied on a popper and after a few casts managed to pull in a small jack. Not a rooster but maybe the next best thing. We fished around the reef for about another hour but no more fish. We headed back to my camp.

While I didn’t catch any fish I took solace in the fact that I was able to find some roosters and at least got them to think about eating my fly. Will headed back down the beach to take his family to some waterfalls in the mountains. I heard there were trout up there and suggested he take his fly rod. You never know. I staked out the beach for a couple more hours and then packed up and headed back to El Pescadero.IMG_0357

Will and his jack crevalle.

Baja – Day 8

I was up before the sun came up and had a spot on the beach staked out. Roosters (the kind with feathers) seem to be up and crowing around 3:00am here. Applying that logic to roosterfish I hoped to find some feeding early in the morning as the sun came up. There was a slight breeze out but the water was still pretty flat. Conditions were good and the only limiting factor was the glare of the sun on the water.

My logic was correct and I found a rooster feeding on some baitfish. He wasn’t huge but big enough to get the heart pumping and I made a quick dash into the surf to cast to him. I stripped as fast as I could and he followed my offering only to refuse it at the last second, do a 180, and in a flash, he was gone, headed back to the deep. No second opportunity with this one. I blame my short arms for not being able to strip fast enough. I think to be a good roosterfish fly angler you need at least eight-foot arms.

I staked out some other spots on the beach for the rest of the day. There were a few baitfish around but no roosters. I called it quits around 5:00 and walked back to camp. On the way back I met a guy in a side x side named Will. Will was from Oregon, in Baja on vacation with his family. We shared some brief fishing experiences from Baja and Will suggested we go out early the next day in the side x side. An excellent idea and I agreed.

It was New Years Eve. In an attempt to be festive I decided to go check out Los Barriles. The sun was down and the town was preparing for New Years festivities. A band was playing In the center of town and everyone seemed to be out. Even the cows had come out for the celebration and were wandering through the town mixing with the revelers. The bars and restaurants were in full swing and I settled on a little cantina just down the street from where the band was playing. After an exceptional pastor burrito with these delicious roasted peppers on the side and a few beers, I was contemplating my options: Stay in town for the party or head back to camp. I had some doubt about negotiating the dirt roads through the desert and finding my back to camp. That, and throughout my history with New Year’s Eve, I tend to overindulge. I’m older and wiser now and opted to have just one more beer and head back to camp for a good night’s sleep.

I should have known better. Latinos are technicians when it comes to a celebration. The whole area partied all night long and some locals living behind where I was camped finally turned the music off at 6:00am when Will rolled up in the side x side. The New Year was here!

Baja – Day 6 and 7

IMG_0355I was back in El Pescadero. After a nights sleep in a bed and some breakfast, I drove into the famed Todos Santos to check it out. It was full of guys sporting big manicured beards who normally wear skinny jeans and lots of flannel. I may be overstating things here but the vibe I got was it was a trendy hipster vacation hangout. It wasn’t really my kinda place. I headed back towards El Pescadero and spent the rest of the day surfing at Playa Cerritos.

The next morning I got up early and headed to roosterfish mecca — Los Barriles. The drive from El Pescadero transports you through some very scenic and quiet mountain towns before descending into Los Barriles. The area has become a very popular vacation spot and finding a remote area to access the beach to fish and camp was difficult. The fishing all along the beach is supposed to be good but I wanted a more quiet place to camp and not fish with large beach houses in my backcast. I eventually found what I was looking for a little ways south of Buena Vista to the south of Los Barriles.

The stretch of beach I was fishing had a series of sandbars all along it that broke any waves and created calm pools behind them. Perfect places to spot cruising roosters. I walked a good ways up the beach without seeing anything. On the way back I stopped at a spot that offered a good vantage point to see fish and plopped down in the sand to stake it out. A couple hours later I spotted a fish. I jumped up began the ritual of running, stripping and false casting as I ran towards the water. I made a cast and a small rooster turned and made a run for the fly but I ran out of water as \i was stripping in. I quickly made a short cast. Strip, strip, bump and he was on. Another baby rooster. A little bigger than my first. Things were going in the right direction so I was pleased. After releasing the little peanut I walked back to camp. I decided to stay here for three days and play the waiting game. Pez Gallo is bound to show up here.

IMG_0356Camping on the beach in Baja is amazing for a lot of reasons but the one I enjoyed the most was the lack of grizzly bears. Being able to cook and eat in your tent is delightful. It is a big no-no where I live as the area is kind of infested with bears. I enjoyed not having to deal with bears. The view of the full moon over the ocean was a close second as was falling asleep on soft ground to the sound of waves rolling on the shore.

 

 

 

Baja – Day 5

I was up early and packed up. I went into La Ventana and had breakfast at a little taco stand. With my nutritional requirements satisfied for the moment, I headed to Punta Arenas. It was an easy drive down a smooth dirt road surrounded by private land on both sides. The road ends on the beach just behind the lighthouse on the point. Arenas is an expansive beach with the deep water very close to shore. But before I could get too excited about the prospects of finding roosters here the wind conjured up huge waves that churned up the sandy bottom and that was the end of that. I knew the wind was coming but I had hoped I would be able to fish there before it did. I had a backup plan — Ensenada Muertos. IMG_0346

Ensenada Muertos has mountains on each end of the bay that provided wonderful shelter from the W. There was clear blue water everywhere absent of even a ripple. It looked like a great spot to find roosters but I suspect it may be hit or miss depending on the timing of the local fishing boat fleet that uses the beach and calm conditions to launch their pangas. There were nice rocky points at each end of the bay and I decided to walk to the southern one hoping to find a rooster on my way. No roosters by the time I started negotiating the rocks to start fishing for whatever variety of fish that lurked among them.

I made my way through the rocks casting as I went and picked up a few cabrilla. These fish are shaped much like largemouth bass but are brown and have iridescent blue amoeba shaped blotches on them. The highlight of the day was watching a big dorado chase a huge school of baitfish into the little cove just to the left of where I was. The speed of these fish was mindblowing. As they streaked by went into a near frenzy trying to figure out how I could get close to them in that cove to get a shot at a dorado. As fast as they went by they disappeared. No sigh of them. Not a splash, a ripple, or a wake. They were gone. The brief encounter was still exhilarating.

 

Baja – Day 4. Success, Sort of.

I woke up early to relatively calm conditions. There was no wind onshore but a little ways out it was making small waves so on shore it was a little choppy. Not too bad but it hampered visibility in the water a little. I set off down the beach scanning the water for signs of baitfish or roosters. About two hours in I spotted a rooster. He disappeared in the waves but I took a shot at him by quickly firing off a cast in the direction he appeared to be moving. It was a good cast and as soon as the fly landed I began stripping in line A few strips into the retrieve I saw the fish flash and take the fly. A few seconds later he gave it back. I really don’t know what I did wrong but after a few moments of heartbreak, I laughed at myself for thinking I would be that easy.

 I continued down the beach feeling pretty determined after my close encounter with Pez Gallo. The rays were still around playing in the surf. Assuming they may be feeding on baitfish and that would bring in more roosters I stayed with them. I made a few cast to a few baitfish skipping across the surface hoping to find a rooster but kept my casting to a minimum so as not to spook any roosters that may show up. I wanted more definite evidence there were feeding roosters and baitfish fleeing for their lives. I eventually came to a point with a rocky reef and decided to cast among the rocks and see what other species were around. I very quickly hooked a rather large cornetfish. These fish look like pipebombs with fins and can swim backward as fast as they can forwards which makes landing them interesting. They are easy to catch and after catching a few I moved on in search of roosters

About an hour later I spotted another fish in the surf very close to shore. I made a cast. Stripped and nothing. I quickly recast and as I was stripping in a baby rooster nipped my fly and just Like that, I had caught my first rooster. “Baby” makes this fish sound big but it was a rooster and even the small ones are stunning to look at. Shortly after that, like someone flipped a switch, the wind turned on and conditions became pretty miserable. Heavy shore break made it impossible to see anything in the water. Casting was nearly impossible and after a few flies whizzed past my head I packed it in.IMG_0348

I set up camp again in La Ventana with plans to check out Punta Arenas and Ensenada Muertos in the morning. Arenas may be windy like Ventana but Muertos was supposed to shelter from the wind.

 

 

Baja – Day Two and Three

IMG_0350I arrived in El Pescadero on Christmas Eve after nearly 24 hours of travel. I took Christmas day to unwind and do a little surfing at Playa Cerritos. Watching jacks smashing baitfish in the lineup definitely was getting me fired up to chase roosters.

Research told me that La Ventana was a good place to find roosterfish. It also told me that it was the kitesurfing capital of the world so going there might be a bit of a gamble. Casting for roosters is hard enough without wind. With wind, the only thing with a hook in it might be me. La Ventana seemed easy to get to and offered lots of access to the beach so I decided to roll the dice.

La Ventana on the Sea of Cortez. It is the northern part of what they call the East Cape. On the map, the area is shaped like a giant L with El Sargento the northern point and Punta Arena to the south. La Ventana is in between and standing on the beach it seems to stretch forever. Sheltering the bay from the east is the Isla Ceralvo, a towering island made of rock and cactus. The sea is a rich deep blue that draws a distinct line very near shore where it changes to a clear aqua green as the sea bottom rapidly shallows. This is where roosters hunt. Running down baitfish in the shallows.

I have a lot of experience fishing big water. I have fished some of the biggest rivers in North America, regularly and have logged days fishing for stripers and redfish. But this was taking big to a whole other level. The Sea of Cortez is teeming with fish and it didn’t take long to start finding signs of fish. There were small signs of sardina moving in the surf but no signs of roosters. I spent the morning following a school of about 100 rays, watching them play in the surf and wishing they would turn into roosterfish.

I got in about 4 hours of fishing before the wind turned on and it became painfully obvious why La Ventana is the best place to kitesurf in the world.  No roosters today but I did get in some practice casting and can now confidently cast 60+ feet into an aggressive headwind. An important skill went fishing for roosters. I was done for the day and went exploring to find a good place to camp.

Just to the south of La Ventana, there is a maze of dirt roads and trails that follow the beach behind a bank of sand dunes. The trails spread out through the desert. AN ATV is highly recommended to explore all of these but I did manage to find a nice camp spot nestled between the dunes that offered copious protection from the wind. I set up camp for the night and fell asleep under a bright starry sky listening to the sound of waves crumbling on the shore.

 

 

 

Pez Gallo – Chasing Roosterfish in Baja

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After a freezing cold day sliding around the Kootenay River in the jet boat dealing with frozen guides, frozen feet, fingers, toes and faces one starts to wonder how the other half lives. Don’t get me wrong. As fun as fishing for bull trout is in the East Kootenays in November is, at some point you would like to be not catching fish somewhere warm. The boat would be buried under several feet of snow soon and fishing options here start to disappear quickly as winter sets in. There’s a reason half of Canada goes south in the winter… It’s called winter.

In keeping with the not catching fish theme of winter, I decided that Roosterfish on the fly on foot from the beach should meet those requirements. Pez Gallo, as the locals call him is extremely difficult fish to catch and the odds begin stacking against you as you add in a fly rod and chucking flies from the beach. This is a manner of fishing that requires extreme focus and patience as well as casting skill and slight aerobic capacity. In short: lots of waiting around followed by stripping line off the real while running down the beach casting to a rapidly moving fish that can change directions in the blink of an eye. The East Cape of Baja offers hundreds of miles of beach from which to pursue this demented folly so that’s where we’re going. My goals for this trip were pretty simple: Catch el pez gallo on the fly from the shore. And two: speak only Spanish, and not get lost, killed, or offend anyone with my poor use of the language.

 

Some Thoughts on Fly Fishing

Fishing is nothing more than trying to induce a fish to accept a hook in his mouth. This is attempted through a plethora of offerings using a variety of methods and gear. For the most part, once the “bait” is in the water paradigms tend to equalize. How it gets there is what makes fly fishing special.

The casting of a fly rod is the qualifier that separates fly fishing from other forms of catching fish. A four-year-old can figure out how to cast a traditional fishing rod and operation of the different types of reels is just a formality. The casting of a fly rod is something quite different. It requires skill. Practiced mechanics and muscle memory must combine to produce a cast. This must be learned under ideal conditions and then be adapted to a variety of changing conditions and challenges. High banks, obstructions, the wind, rain, distance, and water conditions are just some of the challenges for the caster.

Manipulating a tiny fly at the end of 30 to 50 feet of line with a long flexible stick to land precisely where desired is the objective. How that happens is a combination of skill and artistry. The mechanics of producing a movement on a 9 foot plus fly rod to influence the placement of a fly on the end of a 30 ft plus weighted line are a study in physics.  Mass, acceleration, force, power, and  speed; the ability to Influence these denominators is fly casting

The same laws of physics that produce a soaring perfectly executed cast are the same ones that will doom it to a fluttering failure. Each movement of the cast must be executed with precision and the correct amount of speed and exact timing. Similar to a golf swing, a fault in these metrics will anger the laws of physics and much like a poorly struck golf ball careening horribly off course a fly line will do the same, resulting in similar nastiness. A well-executed cast delivers the fly to its intended target and lands it on the water in a manner enabling the best chance at enticing a fish to a momentary lapse in judgment. Conversely, when it goes bad any number of repugnant results can occur. Bad casts crash on the water sending fish darting for cover. Flies get stuck in trees or drift poorly in the water alerting fish to their intention. Bad casts can literally tie a line in knots in mid-air requiring vast amounts of patience and dexterity to return to a usable condition.

Power in a cast is produced effortlessly and feeling the rod load and release its energy into the line inflicts a satisfying feeling of mastery.  A perfectly executed cast is a thing of beauty. A synchronization that sends a fly line rocketing through the guides delivering a fly to intercept perfectly with the desired target. Casting creates a rhythm to working a piece of water in search of fish. Cast, drift, mend, drift, repeat. It is a rhythm that begs to be interrupted. Anticipation builds with each cast and when the line comes alive with a fish on the end of it and the rod loads only this time with the object of its intention it’s a feeling that cannot be described. It has to be felt to understand.