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April 01, 2011

San Carlos Offshore

Fish the other side of the Sea of Cortez - off Mexico's mainland

"San Carlos? Where's that?" An alarming number of well-traveled anglers asked that question as I planned my October journey to this low-key desert oasis on the Sea of Cortez. I'll admit I had to look it up before booking my travel. But after three days of consistent, multiple hookups of dorado and billfish, great food and unbeatable small-town ­hospitality, the issue is no longer finding San Carlos, but finding a way to get back there.

Diminutive San Carlos (population: approximately 3,000) lies about halfway down the mainland Mexico side of the sea in the state of Sonora. And despite the town's lack of visibility as a top fishing destination, weekenders and retirees from the U.S. Southwest regularly make the easy four-hour drive from the Arizona border.

San Carlos also may be easily accessed by air and has plenty of fishing amenities to offer: full-service marinas, knowledgeable captains and many modern accommodations - all in a safe, friendly resort town. And, if you come at the right time, as we did, the offshore bite can be positively explosive.

I fished San Carlos with Mark MacKenzie, an online manager with Sport Fishing, Capt. Fernando Almada, owner of Catch-22 Sportfishing Adventures, and Almada's friend Adrian Herrera. Almada, who was born in nearby Guaymas proper, grew up fishing the San Carlos area. Five years ago, he left behind a lucrative career in finance and business ("I can't imagine going back," he'll tell you) to follow his passion.

Almada runs three boats for his regular charters: two diesel-powered 26-foot Grady-White walkarounds and a Shamrock 26-foot center-console. When we visited, however, we fished aboard a privately owned 34-foot Phoenix that Almada captains part time.

Early Fortune
Prodigious numbers of dorado, sailfish, tuna and marlin (striped, blue and black) migrate north to this corner of the Sea of Cortez every year starting in May. Action continues into the fall with an occasional lull in August, when water temperatures can creep into the lower 90s. October is regarded as the absolute best time to fish with upward of 20 shots at billfish on a good day.

"Our runs are 15 to 20 miles on average," Almada says. "Once in a while we go up to 50 miles out looking for blue water, but that would be the absolute maximum. Sometimes we fish as close as two to three miles."

Despite rugged onshore terrain and sheer offshore drop-offs, San Carlos waters feature far less structure than areas like Cabo San Lucas and the East Cape. Finding blue water is key, as is locating temperature and current changes. Almada uses services such as Terrafin (terrafin.com), which sells sea-surface temperature and chlorophyll charts, to find sweet spots. "I try to look at the charts almost every day and find some kind of pattern - where the currents are moving, and where the color breaks and temperature breaks are most prominent," he says. "It saves fuel and time, and helps us tremendously to find 'fishy' conditions."

On our first day, Almada's homework paid off. We deployed lines at around 10 a.m. after a 20-minute run. As we set out our third line, the sea came alive. "Vela (sailfish)! Two of them!" the captain cried from the bridge. The sails eagerly attacked the baits and soon both were tail-walking at the end of our lines.

After successful releases, we high-fived but secretly hoped we hadn't peaked early with a bit of beginner's luck. The appearance of a hungry striped marlin just a few minutes later put those fears to rest.

Almada usually trolls at 7 to 8 knots for billfish and dorado, deploying a seven-line spread that mostly includes Pakula lures and skirted ballyhoo. One of his favorite go-to lures is a purple-and-black Pakula Mouse. "I always have this one," he says. "I never take it out of my spread. I don't feel like I'm fishing without it."

Beneath the lures, Almada uses a Pakula shackle rig - two stainless Mustad hooks at a 60-degree angle attached to the leader with a quick-change shackle. When rigging ballyhoo, he prefers a single-hook rig.

Almada's trolling gear consists of Tiagra 16 and 30 reels loaded with 50-pound braid and a 40- to 50-pound mono Momoi top shot, tipped with a 120- to 150-pound, 8- to 10-foot leader.

Before the day was done, we would catch-and-release an additional sail (which surprised Almada - usually in October the waters are thick with striped marlin but the sailfish have thinned out) and send three dorado into the box. When we returned to the marina, the chef at the El Embarcadero restaurant at the Marinaterra hotel expertly prepared our catch four ways, and we enjoyed a tranquil dockside dinner before heading upstairs to turn in with sore arms and stiff backs.