The glaring November sun was overhead when two fish hit our slow-trolled scads at once. Our South African white hunter - turned guide Gary Barnes-Webb hung the first fish in the stern corner. The deckhand swung on the other biter several times, but the 12/0 hook wired to the head of the mackerel failed to stick.
Gary looked at me while he held on to the 6/0 rig, "You want this fish?"
I looked at the seven foot rod, the red Penn reel loaded with 60-pound mono. There was no explosion at the swirled surface behind the boat, like you'd expect from a striper or a sailfish, and no line peeling off the reel. It could have been a big tuna, staying down like that, but our skipper David shouted, "Marlin!" when the double strike came.
"No thanks, I'll just shoot you instead," I answered, reaching for my pocket digital video camera. Cameraman Dan Walsh had already climbed down from the fly bridge and trained his camcorder on Gary's bent rod. Whatever it was, it was big.
It was big, and unconcerned about being hooked. It sounded to 20 fathoms or so and headed off on a northeasterly course. We chased it, so Gary wouldn't get spooled on the 6/0. We spun and ran several times.
Some 20 minutes later, the fish angered and came up making a half-circle around the boat, with long, frothy gray-hounding lunges. You could tell from the heavy body and the wide splashes the fish had a displacement hull; maybe it was too big to clear the water at a shallow angle. The blue reversed direction, then came around again and sounded, back at the same depth, headed in the same direction. It was the biggest marlin I'd ever seen.
Gary struck that blue marlin at 10:30 in the morning. I gave him my gimbaled fighting belt. We saw the marlin close to the boat several times, close enough to see it was a blue, but it didn't come up until 11:16. This is exact, because the video camera records the time whenever it's running. The marlin came up and displayed a string of crashing half-jumps and then sounded, back on its northeasterly course, into the wind.
"Five hundred pounds," announced skipper David, 21-years-old and an 11-year guide.
At noon, Gary, guide on a hundred dangerous big-game safaris, could still joke about who had a hold of whom. He had his shirt off by 12:30, though, and the camera found him resting his arms, one at a time, while he kept the rod bent. David teased Gary.
"Looks like you have a nice dorado."
The pattern of running upwind to get ahead of the fish and then winding down on it to bring it boatside continued, under a brutal sun. Gary put the same line on the reel over and over again.
"I just want to look him in the eye," he said.
"He's showing you his other end," I noted.
About one o'clock Gary put his shirt back on, because of the fierce sun. Skipper David and I were sitting on the shaded fly bridge, singing with the Mexican radio, partly to tease Gary and partly to keep his spirits up. David was entertained to see the Ranch manager bent over and overmatched. As a tuna fisherman, I had to feel much the same. Leaning back in the fighting chair, his left arm dangling, Gary looked up at us on the bridge with one eye from under his Digger hat.
Shortly after one, Gary went back to his old leather belt and began to fight standing up. The radio played Jimmy Buffet's Margaritaville, to David's delight. We all sang along.
"Do you sing at funerals as well?" Gary was back to a two-handed crank.
A bull dorado showed nearby, and the deckhand cast a mackerel on my short 50-pound outfit to it. The mahi ate the bait, cavorting with a series of flipping leaps as the final cheery marimba note of the song died.
Possibly inspired, the marlin came up again. It made another series of rushing, frothy, horizontal leaps, causing David to spin the boat. The fish sounded and resumed its six-knot northeasterly course. This pulled all the line off Gary's reel again. David chased after the blue, dragging the hapless dorado, nearly spooling that rig.
We got ahead of the marlin, stopped, and the deckhand landed the dorado. It came up spinning like a sand bass after being trolled behind the cruiser for several hundred yards. It looked to be a bit over 30 pounds, a prize some other time, but a distraction now.
During the last half-hour, I fretted about being late to the airport and missing my plane. I wasn't even packed yet, and we were five miles off the beach. For the last 15 minutes, we could see the marlin, swimming along off the starboard bow, still upright, unconcerned. When we could wait no longer, Gary made a last effort to bring it to leader, to claim a fair catch. His 6/0 drag washers were fried and hammered. He pulled as hard as he could. The leader parted, just aft of the swivel.
"I'm happier than anyone," he grinned, showing me the break. It was 2:06 p.m.
"We were going to release it anyway," I said. "Let's go home."
"How big was that thing?" I asked our young skipper David, as we motored at 20 knots for the beach.
"Two hundred and fifty kilos," he replied. I've never been so thankful not to pull on a fish.
Our East Cape sojourn brought some hot dorado fishing and a roosterfish on wire leader (some sort of first for me). In fact, after our first day of fishing, as we unwound at the bar, I met another angler who'd just come in.
"How'd you do?" I asked him.
"Lousy," he said. "All we could get were three sailfish. We looked for dorado all day. How'd you do?"
"We had a tough day, too," I told him. "We were looking to tape some sailfish, and all we could find were dorado. We had to drive away from 'em three times."
Our blue marlin encounter was painful for general manager Gary Barnes-Webb, a tough and rangy guy, well clear of six feet. Gary brought his family to Baja in the spring of '99, and has become Ireland's right hand man.
When I saw Gary next it was March, at the Long Beach fishing show.
"God, wasn't that an awful fish?" he said. "I've still got a bad arm from pulling on it. I've got an appointment to see the doctor."
Driving down to the beach from Mexico One, you get the idea these sloping plains are a 20-mile alluvial fan, spread out from prehistoric floods coming out of the hovering mountains. You're rolling over fossilized catastrophe. The dirt road winds through a jungle of short, brushy trees, cardon cactus, climbing vines, spiky plants and some of the world's toughest grass. It's pretty, this desert jungle, especially in slanted sunlight with the blue sea beyond. Like so much of Baja, it's pretty and it's weird. Fishing here is so much fun it could get dangerous.
Soft-spoken John Ireland operates his Rancho Leonero (The Lions Den) to suit American anglers and their families, but divers, board sailors, beachcombers and vacationing families who want to enjoy their precious Mexican hours in comfort also find the spot irresistible.
Date and coconut palms wave green fronds over thatched, stone-walled bungalows. The grassy, flowered grounds feel secure, overlooking the beach north and south from atop a hard rock shelf. The rooms have huge tiled bathrooms with showers supplied by 50-gallon water heaters. There's a blue pool below the curved bay adjacent the dining hall, built with lashed open beams and festooned with locally-caught mounted billfish, tuna, roosterfish and wahoo all trophies.
"Most of the fishermen come here after marlin," says Ireland. "We have figures to indicate about a 76% success rate on striped marlin annually. That's per boat. In fact, we have about a 74% rate on all billfish.
"It peaks at 1.4 fish per trip in March," he adds. "You seem surprised. Of course, these numbers would be typical of the whole region. Everybody fishes the same areas."
The last two weeks in March is when we have the absolute highest success rate for marlin. Most fishermen know it's good in summer and fall.
Ireland's fleet is large, and well maintained. All the 22 and 25-foot pangas have shade, and the larger versions have bait tanks as well. These serve as ideal casting platforms for an ever-increasing number of fly fishermen who come here to try their salt water luck. The cruisers are 28 and 32-foot Luhrs, functional and equipped for tourists with no tackle. They have heads, and can make 15 to 20 knots when needed. Ireland charters his personal boat, a larger and more sumptuous sport fisher, and also keeps a tournament boat with a cigarette-style hull.
A Fishing Paradise
John Ireland bought his property in 1981. He opened the ranch with five rooms in 1985.
"There wasn't much here when I first came," he says. "It's been a long haul. There weren't any palm trees at all on this point when I came. I planted them all myself.
I just stumbled on this place. I was with some buddies from Cabo San Lucas. They were looking for property and I just tagged along. I saw it, and it was all over from there on. This is where I belong.
"We have pretty much every blue water species, the widest variety of fish of any destination in the world, maybe, with all the marlin species. We get about one marlin per year over 1,000 pounds. Most of the blues average over 300 pounds. But the inshore fishing is good because it's calm inside.
"We've been running into a hybrid, a combination striped-blue marlin. We sent samples up to Scripps and they analyzed them. Plateos, they call them here, or silver marlin. They're tough little guys; they go to about 250 pounds, something like that.
"This is probably the best rooster fishing anywhere. This last year, I'd say the average roosterfish was 25 pounds. The largest was 87 pounds, but it wasn't uncommon to see 50, 60-pounders. And pargo, cabrilla, a lot of jacks working inside. And snorkeling right in front of the hotel here is awesome.
"The dropoff outside is very abrupt, and that brings the pelagics inside, too. The bait changes seasonally, with early bait being green mackerel and sardines, just like up in San Diego. After the water warms we get caballito and lisa, which is a mullet.