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Inshore angling: Give East Cape by fly a try

4/28/2005

BUENAVISTA, Mexico — In Baja California Sur, where the East Cape is fabled for its big-game angling, billfish get top billing.

So how can surf-fishing possibly compete in a region known for its bountiful open waters?

Very well, thank you.

For the flyangler bent on feisty inshore quarry in a remarkable array of sizes and varieties, marlin and sailfish may soon be merely afterthoughts.

"There is a lot of very interesting and challenging fish that live within 50 yards, 75 yards of the beach," said Dave Cooper, a Castle Rock, Colo., market research analyst who flyfishes exclusively and makes an annual pilgrimage to Baja's southeastern tip.

"The most-difficult-to-catch fish are the fish that are just right along the coastline."

Pargo renowned for their canny ability to race for the rocks once hooked and break off the line.

Ladyfish, a smaller cousin of the tarpon and worthy of its lineage.

Sierra mackerel with teeth sharp enough to cut off about every third line they pick up.

Roosterfish (at right) — once thought impossible to fool on artificial lures, let alone flies — to 50 pounds or more within a dozen feet of shore.

All sorts of triggerfish, cabrilla and other basslike beauties. Young skipjack, pompano, even needlefish.

Talk about diversity; there are some 850 species that swim in Southern Baja and it seems like most can be hooked while your feet are planted in the sand.

Best of all, the angler is in charge.

"The beach is far more interactive than fishing on a boat," explained Gary Graham, who in 1997 added surf-fishing to the Baja on the Fly guide service he formed with his wife, Yvonne, in 1992.

"You go offshore … and you're kind of left to the discretion of the captain; where he goes, you go, so on and so forth."

What allows anglers to be so in control are the four-wheel motorbikes — all-terrain vehicle better known as ATVs — Graham employs.

Indeed, if you can kick the gears, thumb the throttle and grip the brakes, you can determine where and when to fish.

Even if you aren't able to operate the machine, you can bark out your desires from the back of the bike when someone else is driving; anglers often ride in tandem.

"When you do this kind of fishing, you have the opportunity of saying, 'Aha, there's a fish, I want to stop,' and stop and fish for it," said Graham, 58, who guides out of Hotel Buenavista Beach Resort, immediately northeast of La Capilla — his home 200 to 260 days of the year. Back stateside, his company is based in San Diego.

"The thing that is so unique about the beach is that you can travel up and down on the shore on the ATVs and it's an interactive exercise. You make the decision to get off the bike, back on the bike."

Indeed, there is something entirely thrilling about the wind blowing through your hair at sunup riding atop a smooth machine equipped with an 8-weight rod and a stripping basket.

On the bow of a boat, one may feel the ocean's spray; the closest you'll get to that sensation on an ATV is a splash of sand in your face when you get too close to the vehicle in front.

Our first stop came when Graham spotted the distinct comb of a roosterfish after a precipitous decline on the bikes. I never saw it, but he assured me the rooster was there. While the consequent casts did not yield our target, Graham did hook up on a ladyfish.

After landing the specimen and letting Cocci — his West Highlands terrier mix and constant companion — inspect the prize, Graham made several in a series of insights and suggestions.

It's best to use a fast, two-handed strip on the retrieve to entice fish to the baitfish imitations.

When there is a strike, don't lift the rod like a trout angler might do; instead, pull on the line in a maneuver known as a strip set. These are not delicate fish that are best fought with the flexible top section of the rod — which is primarily used for casting.

No, these are hardy, tough-lipped critters that can only be landed after a jarring hook-set and a fight using the bottom half of the rod.

"You have to remember when you are fighting a fish to keep the rod relatively flat, like at a 30-degree angle off of center, so that you're allowing the rod to bend more in the base part, where it has more strength," explained Graham, author of "Guide to Fly Fishing Southern Baja" (David Communications; $18.95) and a member of the exclusive Catalina Island Tuna Club.

From that spot of sand, a ride of 10 minutes or so brought us within view of shorebirds crashing into the surf, which indicated a mess of baitfish on the surface, which indicated a mess of game fish below pushing up their prey.

It wasn't long before I was into the first of 10 jack crevalle — 2- to3-pound bundles of energy that would easily pull trout of similar size backward, if tied tail-to-tail.

The morning was awesome and the sights supreme. Immediately inshore, egrets and osprey called brackish lagoons home. Beyond, thunderheads dissipated as quickly as they formed over the Sierra de la Laguna mountain range.

The afternoon was spent aboard a pontoon, a vehicle Graham uses to exploit nearshore waters. I cast over several fish but only managed to boat a single needlefish, albeit a very spirited one

If it's offshore tuna, dorado and billfish you're after, Graham also can accommodate. But the shore is his bread and butter, attracting many anglers who tire of the waiting game that is billfishing or are prone to seasickness.

But it was only after some trepidation he "opened up the beach" to the 250 to 600 clients that Graham and his guides — up to 10 at a time — cater to each year.

"The beach up until two years ago used to be my own little, private fishery, then I started it off and without a doubt it is the most popular," he said.

For additional information on Baja on the Fly, visit www.bajaonthefly.com or call (800) 919-2252.

This article originally appeared in the Los Angeles Daily News.