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Angling Abroad: Tuna fever & Baja by kayak

6/1/2006
Pamela Chandler, of Colorado, displays the joy of catching a women's world-record-size sierra. 

LA PAZ, Mexico — Flyfishing aficionado and kayaking guide Gary Bulla was sick with tuna fever.

He had never caught a yellowfin tuna on a fly rod from a kayak prior to our trip to Baja California, a seven-day expedition to Isla Partida, north of La Paz in the Sea of Cortez.

Bulla has led Baja sea kayak fishing and camping trips in the fall and spring for the last five years.

This time ten of us are to paddle from a base camp on the beach of this uninhabited island to test skill and tackle against yellowfin tuna, along with a lot of other species of fish. Some were in for the week; others were doing the "quick escape" half-week program.

We had flown to La Paz, where we embarked on a two-hour panga (motor skiff) ride to Isla Partida, north of Isla Espiritu Santo, where we set up camp.

Desert meets tropical sea best describes this part of the world.

Cardon cactus, similar to Arizona's saguaro, stand on the cliff tops like sentinels watching for Cortez, while pelicans cruise a few feet above the turquoise water looking for fish.

They wheel and cannonball beak-first into the water in a move that gives me headaches just watching. But they catch fish? Would we?

These waters are chock full of marine life; scientists have identified more than 800 species of fish in the Gulf of California. But we were after one species in particular.

Yellowfin tuna are like black footballs with fins: solid with muscle and highly prized as game fish and food.

Bulla had developed a new tuna fly, which he calls the "Lucero" — which means brightness in Spanish — after the family of fishermen in Las Arenas, Mexico, who helped him to design it.

Unlike the flashy and colorful saltwater flies that other fish seem to favor, the Lucero is a bit sedate — a formal tuxedo of black and white without much flash.

Bulla and John Graham, a professor of literature at the University of Colorado, were fishing off a point near our camp when they saw tuna boiling on top of the water near a panga.

Two commercial fishermen were handlining from the panga and had put out some chum, which brought the tuna to the surface.

"As I approached the feeding tuna, the adrenaline was pumping," Bullas said. "I didn't want to troll. If I was going to catch my first tuna flyfishing from a kayak, I wanted to do it with a proper presentation, not by trolling.

"Also I was afraid a tuna hooked trolling could rip the rod out of my hand."

Graham and Bulla cast and both soon hooked up. After a 25-minute fight, Graham boated the first yellowfin; it weighed all of 19½ pounds. Bulla tailed the fish and it almost pulled him out of the kayak as he brought it aboard.

To thank the commercial fishermen for bringing up the fish, Bulla gave them a tuna. He said he never dreamed he could hook and land a yellowfin tuna from a kayak on a fly rod.

"But I also knew we were going to have some great food," he added.

That night, in a weird but wonderful convergence of cultures and technology, our lead guide, Jose Sanchez, filleted the fish by the light of a high-tech xenon headlamp with a knife made on the Mexican mainland by craftsmen using the leaf springs from abandoned cars. He spread wasabi from Japan on the plate. Delicious.

Flyfishing for the tuna proved to be a real test; trip members broke four fly rods trying to land them.

Altogether, 14 tuna were hooked and seven landed. Mechanical engineer Aaron Taylor from Colorado hooked his first tuna just after dark as we were about to go in. Not having caught a big fish before, it was difficult for him to play and land the powerful yellowfin. It towed him a quarter-mile on what we dubbed a Baja sleigh ride.

Our group managed to bring in more than 185 fish during the week. Eighteen species — including cabrilla, yellowtail, barred pargo, black skipjacks, needlefish, ladyfish, Pacific sierra mackerel, bonita and barracuda — were landed; most were released.

One of the sierra mackerel — caught by Pam Chandler, a nurse practitioner from Colorado Springs, Colo., on her first saltwater flyfishing trip — would have easily qualified for one of the open woman's fly-rod world records. But I helped land the fish; it weighed in at 4½ pounds and made great cerveche too, thanks to our jolly cook and panga driver, Alvero.

The next day while fishing from his kayak, Rich Hall got a bit hungry and decided to slice a piece off the Sierra he'd caught. He dipped it in seawater and ate it, skin and all. "I felt like an Indian," he said. "But I'm not sure I'll do that again."

We frequently encountered large manta rays jumping high out of the water and landing with a resounding smack, which echoed like a rifle shot from the red cliffs of Isla Partida.

Later, five rays, perhaps practicing for the 2004 Olympic Synchronized Manta Ray Jumping event, breached together and made a sound like a machine gun as they landed.

Sanchez, a marine biologist who spent five years studying marine mammal behavior on Los Islotes, took us to a sea lion rookery, where some of us snorkeled with the curious mammals.

Later Sanchez explained some of the local history of Isla Partida and Isla Espiritu Santo, which he said are privately owned by a farmer group that had "accidentally" received the land many years ago after petitioning the Mexican government. The islands are now to be preserved as a "bio-reserve".

Our guide spotted blue footed boobies, ospreys and other fowl for us. He led us on a hike through the desert and a paddle along the shoreline, where we watched tropical fish in the clear water and crabs scurrying over the rocks.

And so we discovered that even if you don't have tuna fever, there is plenty to do on this trip.

But should you contact such yellowfin pneumonia, the best cure is a kayak and a fly rod.