Chasing Roosterfish Dreams in Baja


When I drove through Baja in 2019, my mind was focused on places farther south and I didn’t properly dig into the fishing. I walked shorelines and caught new species on my fly rod, but it was a slow month and the big game fish simply weren’t around. In a last-ditch effort, I had tried to hire a guide. He refused to take me for a day because there were no fish. So, I enjoyed the food and camped on the ocean where lowkey days and beautiful sunsets made it easy to settle into a full-time travel routine.

After leaving, the Baja landscape held a place in the back of my mind. I would think about the desert mountains, mangroves and remote beaches while researching the places I hadn’t yet touched. I dreamt about a more focused road trip after finishing my trek through Central and South America, but that dream dissolved into a disastrous year with Covid closures and the abduction of my dog, Shale.

Shale dog was snatched from my campsite on the Blackfoot River on July 5th, and the remainder of the summer morphed into a desperate search. I declined an invite to raft the Grand Canyon afraid that I would miss a chance at finding her. Instead, I planned to park my camper on a piece of BLM somewhere in the southwest where I could have cell service and continue my online search, calls to veterinarians and shelters while staying within easy driving range of the western states where I guessed she was being held.

By December, I found myself burnt out, emotionally empty and in need of a reset. On the brink of lost hope, I started packing for a lucky draw archery hunt in Nevada when my phone rang. Shale’s microchip had been scanned, said the vet on the phone. I drove straight to the airport in Reno while arguing with her captor and intervening law enforcement to return her. A few hours later, I snuggled Shale’s fur at the Minneapolis airport.

Five months of separation had zero impact on the deep bond I share with Shale. We moved forward and enjoyed many moments of relief, but we had lost our rhythm. She had gained 25-pounds and lost serious mobility, to the extent that she struggled to stand on a hardwood floor. We started with short walks and camping in Nevada, spending the nights cuddled in my small camper bed. It was a slow process to normalization.

I was still considering a southwest road trip when a fish picture from Baja caught my attention on Instagram. I reached out to the friend of a friend and he said the land borders and beaches were open. I decided to shotgun a two-week winter fishing trip with Shale dog.

We hit the road, skipping the normal southern stops to see friends and pressed through the border and northern half of Baja, camping for two nights on the Pacific before cutting across the peninsula to Loreto Bay and the Sea of Cortez. We were still out of sync and Shale wasn’t her normal confident self. Unsure of her body and capabilities, she avoided the ocean surf but still managed to take control of her territory around the camper while playing with the local dogs.

Loreto Bay is a special place that feels more like a large lake than an ocean. Mountains and islands surround the bay creating safe harbor for migrating whales while supporting a robust inshore fishery. I’d walked a few beaches on the last trip and caught fish but this time around was different. I was armed with an inflatable kayak that completely changed the game. I could pack it down small and have a stable fishing platform with a few short minutes of setup.

We parked at the end of a beach that only sees minimal local traffic. Jagged desert peaks backed the shoreline and small islands scattered the horizon between the mainland and the giant Isla Carmen that shelters much of the Bahia de Loreto National Park.

Each day began with a sunrise hike, stretching our legs in cooler morning temps. Shale hiked close for the first couple of days, walking directly behind me. Gradually, her gait opened, taking the lead and regaining her senses on mule deer tracks and flushing rabbits. When she was worn out, I’d leave her to rest in the shade while I paddled to a small island where triggerfish, cabrilla, ladyfish and a variety of reef fish kept my 8-weight bent. Pelicans congregated on the rocks and Blue Footed Booby’s darted around the island cliffs.

The roosterfish I’d dreamt of were nowhere to be found but it didn’t matter. I connected with the marine ecosystem, listening to the sounds of exhaling whales and watching pods of dolphins patrol the open waters like wolves on a mountain.

The days blurred together in Loreto and ten days passed before I packed up the kayak with darker skin and a renewed connection with Shale dog. My planned departure had closed in quickly, so I jetted south to La Ventana and Bahia de Los Muertos in search of roosterfish for the final planned days of the trip. We continued our morning hikes, walking long beaches with breaks to sit in the sand and scan for fluttering baitfish and nervous water. When the water went flat, I would snorkel alongside pufferfish, making eye contact with their humanlike gaze.

A few days into Los Muertos and Shale’s big smile returned like she’d been reborn into the world and was exactly where she belonged. I felt a renewed sense of hope and scrapped our departure date. For the next two months, we melted into the timelessness and fluidity of the Sea of Cortez, living on a schedule of tides, walks, swims, long paddling sessions, afternoon naps, taco stands and evening sips of tequila.

I blindly caught a few small roosterfish in Los Muertos on Clouser minnows, leaving me with just enough of an experience to envision the power behind the Grandes (big roosterfish). We bounced between campsites from La Ventana all the way to Cabo, scouring the beaches in search of the bigger roosters that had not yet arrived. I paddled out just north of Cabo Pulmo National Park hoping to connect with a big predator in the open water. Several large bait balls had formed two hundred yards offshore, untouched by anything except the occasional needlefish found corralling and firing into the periphery.

I chased the bait with my kayak, paddling hard and waiting for an opportunity to arrive. Suddenly, a large shadow crossed beneath and the dorsal fin of a bull shark crested the water’s surface. The bait vanished as another shark arrived. I backed off, watching the two sharks circle each other before making a nervous paddle to shore. A few minutes later, a shark appeared on the shoreline, grazing the sand with half its back and tail out of the water. Another followed. Then another. Then a school, fifty or more sharks circling and swimming right against the sandy shore.

The group made a few laps before returning to deeper waters. Later, several larger bull sharks arrived, swimming the same circular pattern incessantly, like males who caught the scent of females. Shale watched from a safe distance, pacing back and forth as she studied and failed to process the entire scene.

Human interactions were minimal in Baja, but casual conversations with other fishermen made it clear that the roosterfish were late this year. The water was colder than normal and there was no way to force the hand. I should have brought a gear rod to chase Jacks and other fish I’d witnessed beyond fly casting range, but I was stubbornly attached to the fly rod. The failures only drove me to fish harder in an effort to understand how this ecosystem functions.

I spent hours casting at empty water, searching and experimenting with flies, sink rates and retrieves. I caught fish most days, just not the one that occupied my daydreams. So it goes, I don’t think you can truly love a place until it’s beat you down. I swam the ocean currents, felt the water temperature changes, studied the bait and interacted deeply with the elements in an effort to empathize with the fish I pursued. Ultimately, I became a much better saltwater angler.

My two-week road trip had morphed into two months and it was time to look north. I made a quick trip to the Pacific side and spent several days fishing mangroves and dining on fresh filets from corvina, cabrilla and a variety of other species. The kayak opened access to miles of remote networks of mangrove channels. Each channel yielded a new view of more channels that I just had to fish, and they were all productive.

I left the cold Pacific and headed back north to Loreto. I decided to stay for two days, before grinding out the long drive along Highway 5 to the border. I vowed to stick with my two-day pit-stop. I hadn’t checked my mail in five months and had a work list of to-do’s that was growing uncomfortably long.

We returned to the same idyllic campsite, wedged between the mountains and Loreto Bay. I paddled out on the first day and caught several triggerfish, cabrilla and a big ladyfish. A group of locals barbecued nearby, and Shale spent the evening playing with their dogs. I woke up the following day with an uneasy feeling in my stomach. After several months, the last paddle out was an unwelcome thought.

The morning went much like the last with more triggerfish and a beautiful barred pargo. A pod of dolphins circled the small island, spurting air and rolling through the calm surface. I started my final paddle back to shore, stopping for a few minutes to fish the last cliffside before camp. A skipjack surprised me and nailed my fly, taking me for a hard ride before coming to the kayak.

I released the fish and caught another odd roll from the corner of my eye. It wasn’t a dolphin but had serious mass. Suddenly, a pair of roosterfish combs appeared, reflecting their iridescent blues and silvers like oceanic jewelry. They were tracking just out of casting range, so I paddled into position and fired off a cast. One fish turned and chased the fly right up to my rod tip before dropping out of sight.

I sat on the water, bobbing around and looking for another fish but not expecting them to stick around for long. They reappeared even farther away. I paddled to catch up, but they were gone again. The water behind me exploded suddenly and chaos ensued. Pelicans were dive bombing baitfish and the water boiled unlike anything I’d ever encountered. I paddled with everything I had and arrived just in time to realize it was a school of roosterfish. Fifty, maybe a hundred fish in this single group blasted through the water with incredible speed.

I was late with my cast, but the group erupted again in a different area. They were roaming as a pack and crushing bait in a feeding frenzy. I chased again and managed to get one good cast to the edge of the boiling water. Two fish chased this time, swarming the fly without ever touching it. Like the last, they chased all the way to the kayak without striking.

I waited, hoping for another chance but the next eruption was too far off and it would be the last. The roosterfish had finally arrived. I paddled back and spent the last hours of daylight asking myself how I could possibly leave now. I looked at Shale and knew she was ready for cold water, Montana mountain hikes and the next chapter. I loaded the truck and we set off for home.

We stopped for a short break from the road on the way north and found ourselves walking in hot sand. Shale chased the heavy surf out and ran away when it came back in, cooling her paws but nothing more. I picked her up and carried her into the water, letting the waves wash over us as she licked my face in a moment of mutual trust and gratitude. We had found our rhythm.