Survive, is what an angler does the first few minutes after hooking a striped marlin. My friend Nick and I shout with joy, accompanied by excited words in Spanish from our new friends. We watch a reel getting emptied and watch the fish leap, flip, and dive. Thirty minutes later and it’s the post-release chatter, all high fives, and back slaps. The following day, a strong tide is rapidly dumping out of the river we’re fishing, exposing a sandy beach. So we hop out of the panga and begin casting a variety of sinking lines and Clousers into colliding currents. Soon, Nick calls out every angler’s favorite two words. “I’m on!” His ten-weight is buckled in a perfect inverse curve to his smile. Nick gets pulled slowly down the beach before putting the screws to whatever he’s hooked, stopping it just before the sandy shore merges into a mangrove wall. Winning this round, Nick holds a handsome golden trevally that has taken the place of the snook and marlin we came to catch. Landing this exotic and surprising prize opened our imaginations. What else is out here?
Magdalena Bay is the name for a 30-mile-long harbor with a collection of mangrove rivers and swamps near the bottom of Baja’s Pacific Coast. But it is also the common name of the greater environment that surrounds it, including a series of massive barrier islands with their own bays and an active offshore ecosystem. Shades of blue mix with seasonal browns and greens where the desert meets the saltwater within the calmer main bay. Mangroves and sand dunes ring the inner bays and are the hunting grounds of predatory fish, including big snook, grouper, and, apparently, golden trevally. We’d been researching and prepping for this trip for months, bringing enough gear to fish for whatever we encountered. Yet we’d never read or heard any mention of golden trevally in Mag Bay until Nick held one in his hands.
Bluewater in front of the bay holds striped marlin shredding bait and the occasional leader with their bills. Fly anglers heading a few miles in any direction can find all sorts of species slicing through baits big and small. This same apex bait-crashing behavior also happens within the bay and rivers, when snook and their fellow predators are on the bite. For most flyfishers, being surrounded by such variety means you basically have two choices: Go loaded for bear by bringing every rod, reel, and line in your quiver, and just follow the bite wherever it leads; or pick one species and go all in, even if that means pouring days or weeks into a species like snook, hoping for the right tides and right timing.
If you go online searching for flyfishing or outfitting in Mag Bay, you’ll find some operations. Like most destination fisheries, there are a range of options—from dirtbagging yourself down there and putting your money toward boats and guides, to going with all-inclusive, airport-to-airport services. You can find a lot of middle-price-point opportunity, and for the West Coast angler, it’s a lot closer than trekking to the Caribbean. Just don’t expect flats boats, perfect English, or guides with full fly boxes. With such a vast area, and countless species, time typically becomes a limiting factor more so than lack of fish. What to target, and where, within the greater Mag Bay system, are decisions that might leave anglers second-guessing over a vast expanse of quiet water. Or, you could be left shaking your head at the fish-filled mayhem that can turn on at any moment. Check with locals or hire one of the guides on the bay to take you to the current hot spot or species. But know this: If you’re thinking of just rolling down to DIY the bay, make sure you are highly competent in a boat. The currents here, as well as the volume of tidal flats, make navigating treacherous for the inexperienced. Mag Bay will give up nothing easy, but for anglers willing to put in the time, money, and casts, the payoffs can be fantastic.
Ricardo Villegas shows us the rocky point on the north side of the “boca” (Spanish for “mouth of the bay”). According to locals, the rocks here once stood taller, before the Americans used them for target practice in the spring of 1908. He says there are still cannon balls stuck in the rocks. Flies are cast in the general direction of these rocks while the outgoing tide makes a massive rip a half-mile wide. Reels spin loudly to the tune of unknown breakoffs and the occasional Spanish Mackerel. I’m not sure if Ricardo is even aware of how skilled he is at imitating every bird, insect, or wild sound he hears, but I’ve noticed. A surreal feeling begins setting in as the soft light of evening meets the low slack tide. My imagination is already running full speed when I look across the river and can’t believe what I see.
Nick answers my next question in the affirmative: “Yes, John, that’s a coyote trying to drag a giant snook into the mangroves. And yes, the snook is too big to fit between the roots.”
Behind me, Ricardo lets out a soft whistle that sounds just like a distant coyote. My head snaps around to locate it. Outfitting on Mag Bay has increased over the years, and the business of guiding flyfishers seems to be on the upswing. Yet the vetting of anglers capable of the daily will and skill necessary to excel in these waters seems to happen organically. This is not a gentle bonefish lodge or an idyllic river with mountain backdrops. Guides here are well versed in spin and baitfishing, but not so much with flyfishing. Mag Bay is the deep end of the pool. It is a place for fly anglers not in search of banner day after banner day, but in search of unique, memorable events. It’s not a place to learn flycasting; it’s a place where knowing how to manipulate 500-grain sink-tips is just as important as knowing how to move big poppers on floating lines. You may be in the surf one day, taking waves to the chest, and the next morning you could be pulling hard on a 14-weight. How deep into the pool would you like to go?
On morning number four of our trip, the cool bay air gives me goose bumps as we motor. I’ve been in the flyfishing industry my entire adult life, and I don’t approach fish with trepidation. But I’m a little scared right now. If even one of the four people in this panga had ever flyfished for marlin before, I would feel better. I’ve battled big tarpon, but this is new, and different, and on this morning the unknown has gotten to me. Captain Aldo Atonto tells us the fish will be up within the hour. “Great,” I think to myself. “This gives me some time to calm down.” Two minutes later, Aldo points and says, matter-of-factly, “Marlin.” I jump to the bow, strip line off my reel, and stand in awe as 15 marlin blitz bait around us. I feel the grab on my second cast. The fear is gone in an instant. This is familiar; this pull, this need to clear my line rapidly. Then “marlin” happens… Music is played loud over a marlin bite. For two days we take turns fishing this bite and entering the marlin’s underwater world. Crispin Mendoza is the living legend of San Carlos, a small town near the bay. Known locally as The Whale King, Mendoza is a pioneer of whale watching and sport fishing on the bay. Whale watching has provided an alternative economy, and in some ways a different narrative, on Mag Bay. The volume of commercial fishing in the bay can be overwhelming for some, yet eco-tourism and a mindset of supporting a healthy ecosystem has more than a foothold here. It has moved onto the next stages, where perhaps more balance can be found with each fisherman’s son or daughter finding opportunity in new industries that are well-managed and well-regulated. Each winter, adventurous tourists come to meet and touch grey whales that have come en masse to get their offspring through the first few months of life. But it’s a short season, and for many locals, the whale-watching jobs end far too soon.
Whale watching has been passed down through Crispin’s family to his adult son—also our host—Marco Antonio Mendoza, who built a safari-style camp at the base of the mountains on a nearby island. His operation is fittingly named Magdalena Bay Whales, but his new camp offers experiences beyond whale watching. Marco and a few locals have begun taking experienced free-divers to the marlin grounds, where they pay to swim near the baitballs found offshore here in the fall. These places in the bluewater world are teaming with life, and they showcase the dance on a daily basis between apex predators like billfish, sea lions, and anglers. Marco and others are finding a way to make both experiences happen safely
Offshore 25 miles, the wind picks up and I hear it mix with the country music coming from our little travel speaker. I hear waves hitting the side of the boat, birds calling out, radio chatter, Spanish being spoken rapidly. I take a deep breath, pull my mask down over my face, and slip over the side of the panga. Then, quiet. Bright blue silence. It hits me with as much depth as the water beneath me. Gathering my thoughts and my breath, I start to move, swimming toward a grey shadow. As I get closer, the bluewater world comes into focus. Marlin take turns tearing into a ball of bait the size of an SUV. The bait moves as the marlin and occasional sea lion push it forward. It’s easy to keep pace with fins.
The closer the big fish get to the bait, the brighter they get with excitement.
If there are five marlin attacking the bait, there are 20 or more slowly swimming beneath it. The closer the big fish get to the bait, the brighter they get with excitement. The more I see this, the more I want to be back in the boat casting to them. But I wait. Staying suspended in their time and place. Frozen in the blue quiet.
When I see the first sailfish approach the baitball, I swim back to the boat. Captain Aldo pulls me up easily, while Captain Ricardo nods and smiles knowingly. How many fisheries in the offshore world allow you to first experience the angling, then immerse yourself in the water with your quarry? This experience leads to an appreciation that goes beyond the norm, beyond expectation, and certainly beyond “fishing trip.”
Marco proudly operates Magdalena Bay Whales, but he may be in need of a name-change soon, as it seems flyfishing might play a more major role in his business. Flyfishing is not remotely new to Mag Bay, but the current state of the sport absolutely is. There are more fly anglers willing to travel now than ever before. Information on the bay, although always a little scarce, has become easier to find. An angler’s skill set and a sense of adventure still has to be there. And in the case of Mag Bay, the bigger that sense of adventure the better.
Flyfishers will come to have a deep love and appreciation for Magdalena Bay, but not for the reasons we normally expect from a fishery. The appreciation for Mag Bay comes from the secrets she keeps. It is such a large area, with so many species and migratory aspects to the fish, that—unless you were to fish 12 months a year, through all the tides, moons, and weather—it would be nearly impossible to “figure out” this fishery. For a fly angler, there is great appeal in the unknown. It is not an easy sport by nature, and when you add an environment that is full of opportunity, yet as challenging as the sport itself, then flyfishing goes beyond sport and into crazy worlds where fish light up, cannon balls get lodged into rocks, and anglers can feel their heart and hands charge with anticipation.