Baja California has long seen kayak paddles stroking the surface of her waters. Waters where the silence of the kayak and the quietness of the land meld into an ancient experience. One of lonely grandeur, mystery and sublime beauty.
The kayak is a feel - a stealth, nimble craft which lightly treads the surface waters on the landscape. Like a mother's caressing hand, it feels, probes and senses the harmony within the extraordinary beauty of the land and sea. Propelled forward by the individual and leaving behind only alternating swirls and a wispy, quick-fading wake, the kayak travels with little impact. The paddler is seamlessly immersed into the scene rather than thrust upon it.
The qualities that endear these craft to the modern day wilderness traveler served more practical purposes for the ancients. The boats were utilized as hunting and fishing craft, traders and transports.
The Seri Indians, an ancient Baja inhabitant, used a kayak-like reed boat to navigate and trade the many islands on the Sea of Cortez. These small craft were capable of crossing from Bahia de los Angeles to Bahia Kino in Sonora on the mainland. This ancient seafaring route is called "stepping-stone route." It never passes more than seven miles from any point of land.
Beginning in the late 1700s until the 1860s Aleutian kayakers enslaved by Russian traders hunted the Pacific Northwest, California and her many islands, and Northern Baja waters for seals, sea lions and sea otters. These powerful yet stealth Aleutian hunters represented 8000 years of seafaring culture. With great skill, the Native Americans hunted the Siberian Coast and Aleutian Islands in sleek, swift and silent craft. The sea kayaks or baidarkas as the Russians referred to them, were made of seal skins stretched over a whalebone or driftwood frame. The boats ranged from fifteen to twenty-five feet in length and weighed from twenty-five to one hundred pounds. The combination of range, stability and hunting prowess made these boats some of the most ingenious ever designed.
The Russian and European explorers who first visited the Aleutian Islands encountered these crafts for the first time. Russian traders were particularly interested because of the silent bairdarka's effectiveness as a hunting tool. Russian ships flying the Russian American Company flag, soon forced thousands of Aleut hunters into subjugation as sea mammal hunters. Many of these fierce hunters were killed by barbarous traders or died from newly introduced European disease as the Russian traders stretched their hunting operations deep into Baja. Cedros Island off central Baja is thought to be the farthest extent of these dark hunting forays.
In recent years, in the age of the recreational paddler, Baja's Sea of Cortez has seen an increasing number of sea kayakers. Many make multiday coastal excursions. Two of the most popular routes are the "Crossing to Loreto" from Mulege to Loreto and the "Crossing to La Paz" from Puerto Escondido to La Paz.
These paddling routes are favored not only because of the fine scenery, abundant wildlife and lack of civilization but also because they are the right distance for one or two week trips, about 84 and 135 miles respectively. The routes also conveniently start and end at sizeable towns along the transpeninsular highway. This makes it possible, on a one way route, to arrange a ride or take the bus back to pick up vehicles.
On the Pacific side, the many bahias or bays and lagoons have also been very popular with kayakers. They provide excellent paddling protected from the wind and swell swept waters of the eastern Pacific. Prolific marine life, diverse wildlife and miles of desolate beach and mangrove waterways make for unforgettable paddling and fishing.
The gray whale makes an annual migration into several of these bahias to have its young. It is the longest migration of any mammal. The whales travel some six thousand miles from the Chukchi and Bering Seas to the calm, warm lagoons of Central Baja.
For many years, commercial kayak outfitters have rendezvoused with these gentle giants at places like Laguna San Ignacio, Bahia Magdalena and Scammons Lagoon, discovered by Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo in 1542 and rediscovered by the whaler Captain Charles Scammons, who found whaling in the lagoons akin to shooting fish in a barrel. A subsequent rapid decline in the gray whale followed as numbers were reduced to near extinction.
Today through conservation efforts, the gray whale population has returned to healthy numbers. The grays begin to arrive in the lagoons in late November, stragglers arriving as late as February.
In recent years, with the popularity of kayaks as fishing boats, kayak use in Baja has reached a new level. Many resorts now feature a line of kayaks available to their guests for fishing and diving. One of the first resorts to outfit fishing kayaks was John Ireland's Rancho Leonero. Located on Baja's East Cape, "the ranch" can provide guests with a unique kayak angling experience targeting tuna, dorado, amberjack and an assortment of inshore welterweights. Kayak fishermen have just begun to realize the potential of these boats in the more prolific waters of the Baja coastline.
A kayak can also make an excellent dive of spearfishing platform. For the diver, the kayak is an easy way to expand the limits of his experience. A distant reef is accessible with a few paddle strokes.
California has long been a cradle in the development of watersports. California's mild climate, unique geography and abundant water resources have enamored the best in divers, spearfishermen, surfers, board sailors, fishermen and kayakers.
Islands such as Catalina, San Clemente and the Channel Islands along with miles of flourishing shoreline have provided endless possibilities for the California waterman. Many of the greatest advances in watersport equipment and technique have been developed in California waters.
Beginning in the early 1900s along with other watersports, kayaking found a following along the California coast. Most boats were handcrafted in small cottage industries. The boats, early on, were fashioned from wood. In the late 1960s and early 1970s kayaking in the Pacific Northwest experienced a renewed popularity and kayak development took big strides. The material of choice became fiberglass, and boat designs were influenced heavily by traditional Native American craft.
As the popularity of the kayaks expanded south, California saw the sport reach mainstream. Since the 1980s, the craft have become extremely popular in the state. Although many boats are still constructed of fiberglass and newer composites, the development of rotomolded polyethylene boats has made the kayak affordable, ushering in a boom in their recreational use.
With the popularity of fishing in California and the new interest in kayaking, it was just a matter of time before the two activities were combined. With excellent coastal fishing, an abundance of fish in small bays and harbors and access to nearby offshore islands, fishing from the kayak in California has reached a golden age. Fishing kayaks are now a permanent fixture in any waterfront scene.
As the sport of kayak fishing has developed, so have the tactics and techniques of the kayak angler. Early kayak anglers just brought along a rod for the paddle and fished artificial lures. But today, in addition to fishing rods, boats are rigged with fishfinders, live bait tanks, anchors, sea anchors, and rod and paddle holders. Most of these developments have served to fine tune the kayak's role as a fishing vessel and allowed the kayak angler to employ more sophisticated fishing techniques.
A meter or fishfinder is obviously a valuable tool for any angler. It is indispensable for the for the kayak fisherman. It allows the angler to find reefs, rocks, pipes, kelp stringers and other structure that is not visible to the eye. Even the inexpensive models will mark bait and often, game fish. Some kayak anglers use portable models, others mount the finder bracket permanently to the deck of the boat. As your skills improve the meter will become one of your most important tools.
Live bait tanks are also becoming more common with kayak fishers. Some use bait sleds that can be dragged through the water. Sleds are designed to provide a natural flow of water. The downside is that sleds can be a little tough to tow over long distances. In recent years, onboard bait systems have become more popular. Some are plumbed with small battery powered pumps, others with foot pumps. These systems add weight to the craft but are much easier to paddle with.
Anchors and sea anchors serve important roles in boat positioning. Small folding anchors will hold the boat stationary and sea anchors will control the speed of the drift. (many kayaks tend to drift very quickly). A sea anchor will keep a rod in your hand instead of a paddle.
Many of the boats today are rigged with rod holders for trolling and hands free fishing. Paddle holders or clips are also convenient for keeping the paddle handy. Additionally, some boats are rigged with GPS, plier sheaths or clips for nets and gaffs.
With the boat rigged, an angler can concentrate on tackle and tactics. Obviously, each angler has his own idea of how to catch a fish and his tackle needs will vary accordingly. The species of fish targeted, the time of year, the availability of bait, the location, whether local or exotic, will all dictate the fishing tactic employed. Live bait may be the key or maybe casting artificials. Trolling live or artificial bait may also be an excellent tactic. Often, the very best way to prepare is to bring rods and tackle that will give you versatility in the many tactics you may employ to catch the particular fish you are angling for or to fish a specific place or body of water.
Rancho Leonero or "The Ranch" is one of Baja's jewels. Situated on Baja California's East Cape, an area known since Ray Cannon's day as one of the best fishing holes in the world, "the ranch" recalls the feel of an old Mexican rancho and traditional East Cape fishing lodge. Wood and stone architecture with palapa roof, airy bungalows, verdant grounds and splendid views distinguish the resort. the 100 fathom curve bends tight to the beach and Baja's great game fish feed near its canyons as they migrate into the Sea of Cortez.
Since 1995, Rancho Leonero has maintained a fleet of kayaks for both fishing and recreational use. The boats are easy to paddle, stable and rigged with rod and paddle holders for anglers. They are excellent fishing platforms tailored for the phenomenal fishing found among the many reefs scattered in front of the resort. Dorado, tuna, amberjack, pargo, snapper and even sailfish have tested the limits of kayak anglers fishing the reef and adjoining blue water in front of "the ranch"