Presented by High Adventure Company: Gallo, gallo! Cast quickly!” yelled Santos.

Gallo is Spanish for roosterfish and I’d waited long and travelled far for this fleeting instant of opportunity. I had no intention of screwing it up.

Fifty feet off the stern of Santos’ 24-foot panga, the water boiled and frothed. Roosters, with combs erect, viciously attacked sardina fresh from the live bait well. Jeff deBrown threw the chum and Santos spotted the fish. Now it was up to me; my task was to drop one of Jeff’s “match the hatch” baitfish patterns smack dab in the middle of the watery chaos of predator and prey.

For an angler weaned on salmon and trout, this was a completely novel challenge. There would be no leisurely false-casting or delicately dropping a dry fly; no tiny dimples formed by rainbows gingerly slurping from below. This would happen fast and furious, or not at all.

Aided by just one swift false-cast, I dropped my three-inch offering dead on the target.

“Strip . . . strip,” Jeff yelled in my ear. With my rod tip touching the water I stripped line like crazy.

Roosters are notoriously hard to fool, and as you can well imagine, tiny baitfish in the presence of roosters are always in a hurry.

“He’s on it!”

Every molecule in my body tingled in anticipation of the strike. I could see a storm surge of water pushed up behind my fly and the rooster’s comb zigzagging in heated pursuit. The strike came in a flash just 20 feet from the boat. I jabbed back with the stoutest strip-strike I could muster.

“You got him on,” I heard through a fog of fish-induced euphoria.

My reel screamed and my rod bent right to the cork from the rooster’s scorching run as Jeff reached over and tightened my drag.

“Keep your rod tip down – you’re in the salt, man. Forget all that freshwater stuff.”

Jeff is a wonderful teacher, albeit a little abrupt at times. After years of hooking up on roosters, he still gets excited. And he’s working on toning down his bedside manner just a tad. For my part, I like to learn all I can from an expert. Back in Newfoundland on a salmon river, I’m the expert. On the Sea of Cortez, I’m the student.

By keeping the tip down and applying constant pressure, I slowed and finally stopped the big rooster with only 50 yards or so of backing left on the spool. When the fish darted left, I switched pressure to the right – and vice versa. That’s the dance that saved me from being spooled.

I’ve never been in a battle so intense. Any advantage I had seemed to ebb and flow as the fish kept tearing off in different directions. I’d pump the rod then reel as fast as I could, my arms aching and sweat rolling down my back.

Roosters don’t run deep, but their speed is phenomenal, covering huge expanses of water in seconds. One instant the fish is in sight and the next he’s gone.

Finally, the rooster began to tire and I was able to lead him to the boat where Jeff grabbed him by the tail and hoisted him aboard. After a quick photo he was swimming free, none the worse for his brief encounter.

Over the last decade the roosterfish (Nematistius pectoralis) has become one of the most coveted catches in fly fishing, drawing hardcore anglers from all over the world to the Pacific coasts of Mexico, Costa Rica and Panama. The fish’s sense of hearing is akin to the permit’s – absolutely phenomenal. The rooster’s swim bladder penetrates its brain and comes into contact with its inner ear, effectively amplifying sound. Stealth is essential for the angler.

Thirty- to 40-pound roosters are common; an exceptional catch would be 70 pounds. The IGFA All Tackle record, weighing 114 pounds, was caught off La Paz, Baja, Mexico, in 1960.

Roosterfish are ferocious fighters, noted for spine-tingling displays of dexterity and sheer power. And if brawn isn’t enough, the rooster is a captivating beauty among fishes, a saltwater version of the peacock. Its grayish-blue back and silver sides are laced with distinctive dark stripes. But the rooster’s most unique characteristic is its dorsal fin, which consists of seven comb-like spines that it erects whenever it’s excited – feeding and fighting.

A pack of roosters rounding up baitfish for the kill is a spectacular sight. The baitfish flee for their lives, leaping into the air in panicked flight, while the big hunters, their long combs fully erect, dart about with deadly purpose. It can make the saltiest knees wobble with excitement.

I’m from Newfoundland where there’s great fishing for trout and salmon. But I crave more exotic fish in faraway places. I watched a YouTube video about catching roosterfish on a fly and it became an itch that had to be scratched. I contacted The Reel Baja and Jeff deBrown, who after a lifetime of fishing all over the world finally settled in the East Cape region of Mexico’s Baja Peninsula, a place steeped in angling history and culture.  For more than ten years now Jeff has been guiding both inshore and offshore, in addition to beach fly-fishing excursions.

I chose to stay at Rancho Leonero, which is likewise blessed with an exclusive angling heritage. The original hotel was built in the early 1950s by Gil Powell, a gifted wildlife cinematographer with connections to Hollywood through actor and relative, William Powell. When Cabo San Lucas was still a sleepy fishing village, actors like John Wayne, Bing Crosby and Errol Flynn were all frequent visitors to this remote fishing paradise. I can only imagine a Baja sunset while sitting at the Rancho Leonero bar with a cold Mexican beer, swapping tales of the day’s adventure with The Duke. Today, it remains a spectacular, albeit off-the-beaten-path, place to fish.

The elements all came together in my quest for roosterfish, which isn’t always the case. Call it luck, prayers answered or whatever you like, but on my very first morning on the Sea of Cortez I caught a rooster.

There are three basic strategies for taking roosterfish on the fly and I was successful at all three. The first is simple: throw chum behind a slowly cruising boat and watch for boils. This is how I hooked my very first rooster. Although simple in theory, in practice it can be difficult. You have to contend with the wind and a rolling panga, while making an accurate cast of 50 feet or more to a fish boiling on the surface. Just as the fly settles into the water, you have to strip like crazy. It’s all magnificently visual, especially when a big rooster with his long comb flying bears down on your fly. Don’t panic, keep stripping and when he bites, strike hard.

There’s an equally effective technique that requires no bait. It’s a team effort. One angler uses a spinning rod to cast and retrieve a plug in a search for hungry roosters. The hookless plug serves only as a teaser. Once a rooster chases the plug, the angler with the fly rod gets ready to make an intercepting cast.

Jeff and I worked this technique on at least a dozen medium-sized roosters in a single morning. When a fish chased the plug to within fly rod range, I would make my cast while Jeff ripped the plug out of the water. The confused rooster would attack the fly if the presentation was true. This approach, which demands fast stripping that mimics a fleeing baitfish, can be effective from a boat or on the beach.

On my last morning at Ranch Leonero I experienced the ultimate sight-fishing experience – method three. My wife and I enjoyed an early breakfast as we were scheduled to leave about 2 p.m. She wanted to soak up the last few hours of Baja ambience and sunshine. For my part, I wanted to hook one last rooster.

I walked the beach, barefoot and alone, the waves pouring across the sand and cooling my feet. A heavy aroma of seawater and wet sand elevated my senses. I felt like catching a fish. Blind-casting to schools of baitfish produced a few needlefish. I wanted more!

I noticed a commotion on the water about 60 feet out where the silvery sides of small fish on the run flickered in the mid-morning sun. I blinked and there it was: a single rooster on the hunt, its tall comb swishing to and fro in the rolling surf. I waded to my knees and closed the distance. Two false-casts enabled me to line up my target, and I dropped my offering about two feet in front of the rooster. One strip and he assaulted my offering with a ferocity that startled me.

I fought my prize in total isolation, no one to share my excitement, and no photographer to capture some permanent memento, only a memory that will last a lifetime.

The battle ended with me on my knees, chest deep in the ocean, with my arms around a very large but battle-weary rooster. I plucked out the hook and held him firmly by the wrist of his tail, my other hand supporting his belly. Once I could feel his vitality returning, I released my grip and he was gone. For me, it had been the ultimate meeting of man and fish.


IF YOU WANT TO GO

The Reel Baja is a year-round, fly-fishing guide service located in the East Cape about one hour north of Caba San Lucas. For more call (888) 287-4076 or visit thereelbaja.com.

Rancho Leonero is an absolutely perfect place to combine fishing with a family holiday. My non-angling spouse loved everything about the place – beach, traditional Mexican food, lounging by the pool. I even twisted her arm into a day of fishing. Actually, I upgraded from a panga to a cruiser to facilitate her need for creature comforts. Nevertheless, she spent a day afloat on the Sea of Cortez and even managed to boat two lovely dorado on conventional gear. Call (800) 646-2252 or visit rancholeonero.com.

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