I didn’t touch my fly rod until day 12 of the trip. I wanted to figure out what I was doing. I wanted to find my flow. Learn the tides, currents, wind, and weather. But especially these first miles, these first days, I needed to get to the point of autopilot, of relaxation. This is a very long trip, and I want to do it right.
I decided to paddle the length of the Baja peninsula down the Sea of Cortez on my Pau Hana standup paddle board to raise awareness for the critically endangered Vaquita Porpoise. The world’s smallest and most endangered marine mammal on the planet that only lives in the upper Gulf of California. I am not a scientist or even an athlete. But what I do have is passion. Passion for our environment. Passion for standup paddling. Passion for Baja. And with the intent to use these passions, I hope I can write stories and share my experience to get others to care.
There are dangers. It is a dangerous place. I discovered this firsthand and have known about it for the last 17 years traveling to Baja as a surfer. But the dangers the media portrays about the place are not the dangers I experienced.
For instance, the people are where the confusion begins for me. I have yet to experience generosity like I have in Mexico. The people of Baja made this first part of the trip possible. The people helped me with a loaner car so I could drive into town to resupply with food and water. Offering me granola and oranges when I was starving on a remote stretch of coast. And most importantly, giving me a ride to San Felipe, the start of my trip, with my 12-foot paddleboard, two dry bags, 5 gallons of water, all my camping gear, and my ten-weight fly rod.
Selfishly, a huge driving factor for my trip is fishing. I wanted to get a roosterfish on the fly so bad that I dug hard on certain days to get southbound, where I know roosters gather in great numbers. In the meantime, I continued with the drum beat of getting my gear dialed, gathering strength, and learning about the sea and what elements she intended to throw at me.
Four days in, with three nights of camping on sandy beaches, I was finding my groove. The upper gulf of the Sea of Cortez is murky to almost a dark green, making the visibility relatively poor. But by day four, sixty miles in, the water began to clear, and the bottom of the sea floor begged my attention with each stroke of the paddle. Fish with many colors swam around the boulders, some even coming up to see what I was. A sea turtle darted away after it surfaced. And I couldn’t believe my eyes; a roosterfish.
It was October, and my impression and knowledge of roosterfish and the other species I wanted to target wouldn’t be seen until later in the trip. But as I paddled southbound on day four, with my rod still in its rod tube and reel and flies locked away in a dry bag strapped to the deck of my board, a surge of water and splashing came from my left and rushed directly at me. At first, I thought it was a seal thrashing a baitfish with its head. But as the chase was coming straight at me, the long spines of its dorsal fin were unmistakable as the ten to 15-pound rooster chased a baitfish directly under my board and ambushed it into a crevasse of the rocky shoreline before darting back out under my board and into the blue never to be seen again.
It felt like slow motion, but in reality, the whole scene lasted three seconds. With a paddle in hand and my jaw on the board’s deck, I was stunned. Without a care in the world, that rooster was a heat-seeking missile targeted at that baitfish with little consideration that a floating vessel like mine was even on the water that day. I remember the look on the rooster’s face as it was chasing the baitfish. Its laser point accuracy was guided by its hunger and wouldn’t deviate until it got its meal. Then I remember the look on its face when it swam back under my board after it achieved its goal, and the smugness of a bully that just beat up some kid at school in the locker room was what came to mind.
I made it to camp that night, just another random piece of sand without anyone around. Still, the coyotes kept me company, and I lay in my tent while the sun was setting and realized that should I have had my fly rod ready, that fish would have been gone before I could even react. In my sleep, I reminded myself that I wanted to target as many species as possible. But as a freshwater angler venturing into the salt for the first time, a lot is still to be learned about where I was. The Sea of Cortez has been dubbed infamously by the legendary ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau as the “Aquarium of the world.” And with that, I intend to explore as much of it as possible with hopes of casting.
On those days, I had a mixed feeling of taking forever to get around certain sections while blurring together into a fusion of colors that no artist could ever replicate. The Sea of Cortez and Baja’s beauty engulfed my senses, and I became a sensei of its religion. Like a disciple marching on Bethlehem, I, too, was on vacation to the holy land of fishing paradise and remote coastal bliss.
The coastline mixed with geography. It went from long stretches of wide-open beaches with sting rays darting out from hiding in the sand as I paddled over them to extremely rocky and deep coasts, making it impossible to land my board in case of an emergency. The landscape was painted brown with desert, but also of bloom where the hurricane season dropped moisture, bringing flowers and greenery.
Another aspect of the trip that became my nemesis was the wind. The wind is an understatement in Baja. And I have known this since I was a teenager coming down here to surf. But I only gave it much thought once it negatively influenced my well-being. El Norte occurs in the Sea of Cortez when winds rip down the sea at 40 knots, creating a nearly impossible white-capped sea to paddle in. But during these events, I can rest, catch up on journaling and eating, and rig up the fly rod.
I was forced onto a beach during an “El Norte” event and, frustratingly, had to call it a day on the water after only a few hours. But it granted me an opportunity amongst the rocky shoreline to tie on that blue and white comet and start casting to see what was home around the rocks.
With a sinking line and a weighted tip, I’d cast, count to ten, then slowly retrieve. Within the first three casts, I had a fish on. When casting in the ocean, you have no idea what struck your fly. I couldn’t wait to see what had smacked my fly so hard that I thought it would rip my arm out of its socket.
The fight was brutal but astonishingly quick. I’ve had trout fight for a more extended amount of time. The battle was an instant slugfest as if you just hooked a tarpon, and it made its run for the first time. Then after a short period, it was like pulling up a trout that you accidentally belly hooked. When surfaced and to hand, it was some kind of bass, with a Jurassic-like jaw and spines as a dorsal fin, but a gorgeous brown and tan body with spots of red. Later I would learn that these fish are called Cabrilla.
On nearly every cast, the Cabrilla would obliterate the fly, give your arm a rush of strength for a few seconds; then it was a limp weight you pulled to hand. After a while, I realized that these bass-like fish are ambush predators. Waiting in and amongst the rocks for when bait swims by, they dart out, grab their meal, and quickly dart back in. So when the fight was abrupt at first, then limp, I realized they weren’t going back to their hole, so the open ocean was a helpless state of despair.
Luckily for the Cabrilla and all other species of fish, I want and intend to target on the trip, none of which I will keep to eat. I decided that if I was raising awareness for a creature of the sea, I shouldn’t partake in taking from it as well. Cabrilla weren’t the only customer along this rocky shoreline, trigger fish showed their presence as well. These, so far, are the ultimate game fish for this northern part of Baja. With what the Cabrilla only had for a few seconds at the initial hook set, the triggers would fight the length of the battle with that energy and wouldn’t give up even in hand. My ten-weight fly rod has never bent with such voracity for a fish the size of a Frisbee. It became exhausting trying to land these fish. Pound for pound, they’re an incredible game fish.
I safely made it halfway down the peninsula when winter appeared early. Winter in the Sea of Cortez means El Norte all-day and every day. I hoped to complete the trip all in one go, but sadly got sidelined right before Thanksgiving and had to pull the plug on the trip until early spring. With a Baja legend that lives in Loreto offering to store my board and gear, I flew home to recharge and prepare for the second part of the trip. Where dorado, roosterfish, and other tropical species can all be caught on the fly and even from the beach.
So far: I have burned 110,399 calories, paddled 397.46 miles, taken 36 days to make it halfway, 31 nights of camping, caught 13 fish, offered eight beers, had to use my emergency saltwater pump eight times, fished for five days, stayed in four houses, showered four times, stayed in two hotels, and only got Montezuma once. Starting part 2 on March 1, 2023. Follow along @jansen_journals for updates on Instagram if interested.
Angler Story from Sean Jansen, be sure to follow him on Instagram @jansen_journals. Stay tuned for Part 2 of “Paddling With Porpoise!”