San Carlos Offshore

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

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Striped Marlin off the coast of San Carlos, Mexico.

Mark MacKenzie

"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.

**Football Season
**On our second day, we decided to dedicate some time to finding tuna. Both bigeye and yellowfin tuna are commonly caught in the area, and are often found incidentally while trolling for dorado and billfish. Most of these footballs weigh around 20 pounds - modest compared with the big boys caught farther south in places like Puerto Vallarta - but beefy fish occasionally turn up and surprise even seasoned locals.

"This year I got lucky with a 150-pound yellowfin. It was my only strike of the day, but the best one in a while!" says Almada. "There was also a 235-pounder caught this past May. That's the biggest tuna I've seen in San Carlos."

Almada generally employs the same tackle for tuna as for other offshore quarry. The lure spread usually includes cedar plugs and jet heads, and he reports good results with Rapala X-Raps. Almada trolls between 10 and 12 knots for tuna, and he sends his lures a bit farther back.

A popular tuna hunting ground lies 20 to 22 miles south of the marina, and captains often team up there searching for fish. The location yielded MacKenzie a striped marlin, which we estimated at about 90 pounds, but by midmorning we left a steady dorado bite to run about 30 miles out looking for tuna birds or other signs of life.

Here, the old axiom proved true once again: Never leave fish to find fish. While we were treated to the sight of multiple pods of whales and porpoises circling the boat (San Carlos' cetaceans are both abundant and friendly), our tuna hunt went unrequited. Luckily, the dorado had waited for us at our original spot, and we were able to quickly put a couple in the box for dinner.

The seas laid down quite nicely toward the end of the day, and after a smooth ride in we enjoyed a uniquely San Carlos experience: We jumped in Almada's SUV and drove the main route north out of town to the small fishing village of La Manga.

Perched atop a cliff overlooking La Manga Bay, a half-dozen or so open-air eateries specialize in fresh, local seafood served at dirt-cheap prices. At Doña Rosa's La Manga Restaurant, we enjoyed stunning views of Tetakawi - the area's twin-peaked landmark - and the bay over an appetizer plate of succulent, freshly shucked local chocolate clams (named for their shell color rather than flavor, which was quite delicate) while we waited for the main course - our fresh dorado grilled in an open-coal oven.

**Thick as Thieves
**Sea conditions on our third day only improved on what had seemed like perfection, and by midday the Sea of Cortez was essentially glassy. We decided to switch our tackle to spice things up and armed ourselves with Accurate spinning reels loaded with 40-pound braid.

A sizeable bull dorado once again disrupted our line setting. Nearby boats gathered quickly around us to sample the hot bite. Captains in San Carlos are charitable with their fishing spots, and the VHF buzzed with details on hookups.

We had already hooked a number of sailfish and dorado by lunchtime. As we trolled on, gazing out from the bridge, looking for signs of life, Almada took advantage of the lull to prepare food. Bad timing! About five minutes after he ­disappeared into the salon, outrigger clips started popping.

"Dorado, dorado!" yelled Herrera. A gang of hungry dorado had suddenly detonated on our spread, and Almada scrambled into the cockpit to start clearing lines - half of which had a fish on the end. MacKenzie, Herrera and I grabbed rods to deal with the quadruple hookup as a blur of green and gold swirled directly below the transom.

Dorado are the bread and butter of San Carlos offshore sport fishing, and multiple hookups like these commonly happen. A good day here can produce seemingly nonstop action - as we experienced - with fish ranging from 20 to 40 pounds, sometimes topping 50. While officially protected throughout the Sea of Cortez as a game fish, dorado still suffer from illegal longlining and exportation, an activity that has drawn the attention of local conservation groups in recent years.

We eventually found time to sit down in the cockpit for a great lunch of tuna sashimi "Sonoran style" with fresh peppers and onions. As Almada slowed our troll to an ineffective crawl, we realized how hot the bite really can be here - we were intentionally avoiding fish so we could eat in peace for 20 minutes.

**Fall's Yellow Frenzy
**When offshore fishing cools down, the second big fishery in San Carlos ignites: Wintertime yellowtail action here is legendary and is usually in full swing by late fall. "We usually start chasing yellowtail in November, when the water cools off, and continue till April or May, when the water temps rise again and the pelagics move in," says Capt. Almada.

Most captains prefer jigging in 80 to 300 feet of water for yellowtail, which average 18 to 20 pounds, though 30-pounders are not uncommon. Almada uses Shimano and Accurate reels loaded with 40- to 65-pound braid to quickly pull these powerful fish off structure. He warns, "If you are undergunned and trying to jig deep with light tackle, you will lose quite a few jigs, and they don't come cheap!"

Almada targets San Carlos yellowtail along the rocks surrounding the north and south ends of Isla San Pedro Nolasco, which juts out of the Sea of Cortez approximately 16 miles northwest of the marina entrance. This area reliably produces the biggest fish, as well as catches of snapper and grouper. Anglers can usually expect eight to 10 yellowtail on an average day. "On a hot bite you can catch more than that in 45 minutes, but your back pays for it!" Almada says. "We've had days where we get a fish on every drop during a hot bite."

Almada also trolls for yellowtail on occasion, using braided line and short mono or fluoro leaders tipped with Rapala X-Raps. Live baiting also produces fish.

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**Natural Wonders
**Rocky desert hills drop toward the sea to form a large natural harbor for the San Carlos Marina. The most prominent of these hills is twin-peaked Tetakawi (also called "Tetas de Cabra" by locals - politely translated as "goat teats"). Tetakawi marks the marina entrance and provides a handy reference point to offshore boaters, much like El Arco in Cabo San Lucas. The steep terrain it illustrates is replicated offshore as quick ­drop-offs.

A month after Sport Fishing's visit, in mid-November when the billfish season traditionally winds down, Capt. Almada reported an unexpected hot striped marlin bite only a few hundred yards from shore. "We released a total of 11 fish in three and a half days of fishing, including a solo trip I was on for three hours, where I released one and lost another," he said. All the action was virtually in the shadow of Tetakawi.

**City by the Sea
**San Carlos is located on the Sea of Cortez just four hours south of the U.S. border by car, in the Mexican state of Sonora. Anglers driving from Arizona take Mex 15, a well-maintained and patrolled four-lane highway. Find more information at the San Carlos website, www.sancarlosmexico.com. (For updates on travel safety in Mexico, visit www.travel.state.gov and click on Travel Warnings.)

For air travelers, Aeromexico (www.aeromexico.com) provides regular daily service to Hermosillo, which is just over an hour away from San Carlos. Daily direct flights are offered from Los Angeles and Phoenix; multiple connecting flights are available through Mexico City from many U.S. cities. Catch-22 Sportfishing provides its customers complimentary pickup from Hermosillo.

We stayed at the Marinaterra Hotel and Spa while in San Carlos, which provides spacious and comfortable accommodations just steps from the charter docks at the San Carlos Marina. The Marinaterra (www.marinaterra.com) offers 92 deluxe rooms, 18 junior suites and two honeymoon suites, and many rooms have kitchenettes. A full-service restaurant, El Embarcadero, boasts a prime waterfront location and will gladly cook up your catch at the end of the day. Standard room rates generally run $160 a night in the high season (spring and summer) and $90 during the off-season.

We fished aboard the Prime Time, a 34-foot Phoenix owned by Eddie Davault of Scottsdale, Arizona, and Chris Strahan of Las Vegas, and skippered part time by Capt. Fernando Almada. Almada, owner and operator of Catch-22 Sportfishing Adventures (www.catch22mexicosportfishing.com), offers charters aboard two 26-foot Grady-White walkarounds, the Pez Vela and the Rubina, and a 26-foot Shamrock center-console, the Chanoc. Almada offers inshore and offshore charters. Rates run $250 for a half-day, $400 for a full day aboard the Chanoc, and $300 for a half-day, $500 for a full day aboard a Grady-White.

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