Amazing Marlin Fishing Off Mexico's Cabo San Lucas | Sport Fishing Magazine

Striped Marlin Fishing Heats Up in Spring Off Cabo San Lucas

Mexico's Cabo San Lucas hosts breathtaking striped marlin action in spring

Cabo San Lucas — the iconic, rocky cape at the tip of Mexico’s Baja California peninsula — stands vigil at the confluence of two great seas: the Pacific Ocean to the west and the Gulf of California to the east. The harbor adjacent to this magnificent headland — Los Cabos Marina — also serves as the launch point for one of the most prolific marlin fisheries on Earth. One of the best times to enjoy the magical action is in spring — from mid-April to mid-June. I had a chance to experience, photograph and chronicle this ­world-class action when I was invited to fish aboard Don Luis, courtesy of owner Jorge Tellez, who also owns the Solmar Sportfishing Fleet based in Los Cabos Marina. My Cabo San Lucas visit was hosted by the Los Cabos Tourism Board during the 2014 Cabo Marine Show, which takes place in the marina.

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Marlin! Marlin!

“Marlin! Marlin!” Capt. Christian Lopez yelled from the bridge of the 48-foot Bertram Don Luis, pointing to a striped marlin streaking into the trolling spread from the ­starboard side. You could see the marlin’s dazzling bars radiate and its pectoral fins glow as it darted between the two squid teasers in the clear waters off Mexico’s Cabo San Lucas. Before the first mate could drop back a live bait, the striper sank away. Yet moments later, the fish reappeared behind a rigged ballyhoo trolled on a long centerline from a rod holder on the bridge. The marlin’s tail and dorsal carved a wake as it launched an attack, lifting its bill high and inhaling the bait. The trolling rod arced over hard, and line melted from the reel. One-hundred-and-fifty feet astern, the striper went ballistic. This estimated 125-pound fish proved to be just the first of many we would hook, boat and release during two days of spectacular fishing in early May 2014. We rarely went more than 30 minutes without seeing a striped marlin or getting a strike. Cabo San Lucas — the iconic, rocky cape at the tip of Mexico’s Baja California peninsula — stands vigil at the confluence of two great seas: the Pacific Ocean to the west and the Gulf of California to the east. The harbor adjacent to this magnificent headland — Los Cabos Marina — also serves as the launch point for one of the most prolific marlin fisheries on Earth. One of the best times to enjoy the magical action is in spring — from mid-April to mid-June. I had a chance to experience this ­world-class action when I was invited to fish aboard Don Luis, courtesy of owner Jorge Tellez, who also owns the Solmar Sportfishing Fleet based in Los Cabos Marina. My Cabo San Lucas visit was hosted by the Los Cabos Tourism Board during the 2014 Cabo Marine Show, which takes place in the marina. Photo by Al McGlashan

Al McGlashan / almcglashan.com

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Launch Point

While I was originally scheduled to meet the crew of Don Luis around 6:30 a.m., Capt. Lopez suggested an earlier start when I met with him at the dock on the afternoon before our trip. “We might run as far 30 miles, so I’d like to leave no later than 6 a.m.,” suggested Lopez, who possesses an affable yet commanding personality. I readily agreed, reading this as a sign that he and his crew were serious about fishing. Because Cabo is also a tourist town, it’s not unusual for charters to leave later, say around 7:30 or 8 a.m., but a fair number of ­charters also depart before daylight. The marina was walking distance from my room at the luxurious Bahia Hotel and Beach Resort. I enjoyed hoofing it along the quiet streets and marina waterfront in the cool ­pre-dawn hours; the 95-degree afternoon heat made the return trip a bit more arduous but still enjoyable. There were two other reasons for leaving early, as I learned after we pulled away from the dock. The first was the requirement to turn in a passenger manifest prior to departure; a quick stop at the port-authority office, and it was done. Anglers can also buy a Mexican fishing license at the office, though I already had one. The second reason for leaving early was to load up with live bait. You will often find panga fishermen selling Pacific (“greenie”) mackerel and bigeye scad (aka caballitos) just outside the harbor. Yet in our case, Tellez owns the live-bait barge, Francesca, anchored west of the marina entrance; this is where we loaded the livewell with a dozen greenies and another dozen caballitos, which sell for $3 apiece. Generally speaking, anglers pay for the bait. By 6:40 a.m., in the gray of first light, the twin-diesel-powered Don Luis roared past the famous rock formations at Finisterra (Land’s End), including El Arco, the massive stone arch that ranks as the most identifiable landmark of Cabo San Lucas. To me, however, striped marlin are the living symbols of Cabo, and now we were on our way to finding them. Photo courtesy Los Cabos Tourism

Courtesy Los Cabos Tourism

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Prepping Baits

Great numbers of striped marlin migrate into the Sea of Cortez (aka Gulf of California) from the Pacific Ocean at this time of year, according to 29-year-old Lopez, who has been fishing in Cabo since an early age and has s­kippered boats since 18. That makes Cabo San Lucas the perfect intercept point, as the marlin more or less must swim by here as they swing in from the Pacific. While you stand a good chance of finding them, getting the fish to bite is not always a slam-dunk. “They switch from eating species such as sardines to feeding heavily on squid as they enter the Sea of Cortez,” Lopez explained as we cruised toward the offshore fishing grounds on a relatively flat ocean. “While there are lots of marlin around, they’re also kind of picky, since they are keying mostly on squid.” As if to prove the point on our first day of fishing, several of the marlin we hooked spit up half-digested squid during battle. A preference for squid is the reason captains use squid teasers to attract marlin. Pulled at trolling speeds of about 7 to 9 knots, teasers bring stripers into the spread, but sometimes the fish are just window-shopping. “It’s rare to get them to take a bait or lure near the boat while trolling,” says Lopez. “It seems like the long line gets most of the bites at this time of year.” Photo by Jim Hendricks

Jim Hendricks

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Cape of Good Fortune

Based on this migration pattern, most marlin captains don’t stray out into the Pacific in preferring instead to fish almost exclusively east and southeast of Los Cabos Marina. As a side note, on the second day of fishing, Capt. Lopez decided to prospect a bit and turned Don Luis westward to fish the Pacific in the morning. “You never know until you try,” said Lopez, as we worked our way southward along the eastern rim of the San Lucas Canyon. “Plus we might get yellowfin tuna to the outside at this time of year.” While we saw plenty of flying fish and gannets — both prime indicators of offshore-life zones — we found neither marlin nor tuna in the azure waters to the west, and so by 11 a.m., Lopez turned for the inside, working eastward toward our hot spot a day earlier: the 1150 Bank. Located about 23 miles from Los Cabos Marina, the 1150 Bank (so named for its fathom notation on nautical charts) is just one of several deep-sea formations that create nutrient-rich upwellings and attract forage and blue-water big-game species along this coast from Cabo San Lucas northward to Cabo Pulmo. Other well-known marlin haunts on the Sea of Cortez side include the Santa Maria Canyon, Cabrillo Seamount and the famous Gordo Banks. However, it’s not always necessary to run a long distance to find marlin. Lopez says that he has caught striped marlin as close as Punta Cabeza de Ballena (Whale Head Point) — only 4 miles from the marina — and sometimes he’s even scored within eyeshot of El Arco. On our trip, we saw a marlin jumping just 3 miles from the marina. Photo by Jim Hendricks

Jim Hendricks

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Marlin Mania

At this time of year — with offshore water temperatures typically around 75 degrees F — trolling with rigged ballyhoo seems to catch the majority of the marlin off Cabo San Lucas. That makes for a contradiction to the accepted wisdom that live bait is the top producer for striped marlin. Indeed, throughout most of the year, live greenies or cabs catch more fish, but during this time, stripers are fixated on squid, and often ignore “fin baits.” A trolled ballyhoo with a 2-ounce egg sinker rigged under the chin to keep it fairly upright and under the surface more closely mimics a squid than does a mackerel or caballito. There’s also the theory that some marlin might be full of squid and not particularly hungry, yet a flashy, fast-moving ballyhoo is enough to catch their attention and trigger a reaction bite, though no one has had a chance to interview a striped marlin on this subject. In any case, combining a spread of three or four ballyhoo with a pair of squid teasers proved highly effective during my visit. As indicated earlier, the striped marlin also showed a clear preference for baits trolled way back in the spread. By the way, frozen ballyhoo are available at the ship store in Los Cabos Marina. Dropping back a live bait to an inquisitive marlin is usually tantamount to rolling a wine bottle through a jail cell. It disappears quickly. Oddly though, this technique proved disappointing during our two days of fishing. Yet our supply of live bait was put to good use later. Photo by Jim Hendricks

Jim Hendricks

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Sight-Casting

On the afternoon of my second day aboard Don Luis, the marlin adopted a different behavior. From the flying bridge, the captain began spotting fish that were swimming down-swell near the surface. When the fish are hunting like this, the top portion of the marlin’s tail often shows above the surface, giving rise to the term “tailing.” These marlin are less likely to attack the trolling spread but are susceptible to a well-presented live bait, as I soon found out. Capt. Lopez relinquished the helm to his ­longtime mentor, Capt. Pepe De La Peña, who had joined the crew on a busman’s holiday for our second day of fishing. This gave Lopez the rare opportunity to enjoy one of his favorite forms of fishing — sight-casting to tailing marlin. Photo by Al McGlashan

Al McGlashan / almcglashan.com

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Casting from the Pulpit

Capt. Lopez stood on the bow pulpit, rod in hand, dipping a hooked caballito in the water to keep it lively while also scouting for marlin. Suddenly he snapped to attention, pointing to the port bow where the sickle-shaped upper lobe of a tail momentarily appeared 100 feet away. Co-captain De La Peña angled the boat left, and nudged the throttle to catch up with the fish as Lopez wound up and lobbed the bait to the marlin, now within 40 feet of the bow. The scad landed about 10 feet in front of the fish, but to no avail. The striper ignored the bait. With the boat still in pursuit, Lopez reeled in and cast again. And again the fish refused to bite. The marlin remained at the surface, and so Lopez asked for a fresh live bait, and a deck hand brought it forward. Lopez quickly pinned on the bait, pushing the 6/0 circle hook through the roof of the mouth and out the top of the nose, and made yet another perfect cast. This time it paid off. The vertical bars on the marlin’s flanks lit up as it uncorked a burst of speed, engulfed the bait and then sank away. De La Peña pulled the boat out of gear as Lopez fed the fish line for five seconds, and then threw the reel into gear and wound as tight as he could to set the hook. The marlin went airborne in a showery series of greyhounding leaps no more than 30 feet off the bow. Lopez glanced back and gave me a thumbs up, as if to say, “That’s how it’s done.” Photo by Jim Hendricks

Jim Hendricks

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Striped Marlin: The Unofficial Symbol of Cabo

The crew of Don Luis went on to hook four more marlin that afternoon — all while sight-casting to tailing fish. In fact, it seemed like we couldn’t move more than a quarter-mile without seeing a striped marlin. Based on the crew’s assessment, this is a typical day of spring marlin fishing in the waters off Baja’s ­picturesque cape. Yet to me, it was pure magic. Photo by Jim Hendricks

Jim Hendricks

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Ready for Release

The crew of the Don Luis works to remove the hook before releasing this striped marlin. Photo by Jim Hendricks

Jim Hendricks

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Captain and Captain

Captains Christian Lopez (right) and Pepe De La Peña both grew up fishing off Cabo San Lucas for marlin. Photo by Jim Hendricks

Jim Hendricks

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Flags of Honor

Flags have largely replaced dead marlin as signs of success in the waters off Cabo San Lucas. A strong catch-and-release ethic has taken hold amid this sport-fishing community. Photo by Jim Hendricks

Jim Hendricks

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