(Note: A version of this story apears on the GrindTv.com Outdoor channel)
But the region also is special because of an exotic-looking type of game fish that thrives along its shores: roosterfish, or pez gallo. This is the "Roosterfish Capital of the World," and during a recent visit it became apparent that Gary Barnes-Webb, a former professional hunter from South Africa, is the undisputed roosterfish king.
Barnes-Webb is general manager at Rancho Leonero, a secluded bluff-top resort named after the late wildlife cinematographer Gil Powell, or "the one who knows lions." The "Ranch," as it's referred to by regulars, is reachable from the highway via a long dirt road that traverses a desert in which horses and cattle range among towering cactus.
Roosterfish are like lions only in that they generally prowl in small groups. They're often visible from shore, their comb-like dorsal fins slicing through the water as they herd sardines and mullet. They sometimes chase these fish onto the sand. John Ireland, Rancho Leonero's owner, bought the spread decades ago after witnessing this unique spectacle.
Visitors are mostly Baja adventurers and fishermen. Anglers typically target marlin, tuna, and dorado offshore, but set aside a day or two to fish for roosterfish and jack crevalle, their close relatives, from aboard skiffs or cruisers.
(Roosterfish are caught only for sport, as their flesh is dark and oily, and because almost all of them are released, the fishery remains robust.)
Barnes-Webb prefers to "hunt" roosters from the beach, in his ATV. Like the roosters, the hunter first seeks schooling bait fish, which he catches with a cast net and places in a bucket, then he looks for the roosters in the emerald-green water in which they teem.
"There are two ways to fish," he says. "You either let the fish come to you, which is what you do in a boat, or you go after them, which is what I do from the beach."
Barnes-Webb had recently hosted pro golfer Nick Price, during a brief period when large roosters seemed to be everywhere, and were being caught at up to about 80 pounds by anglers aboard boats (the world record is a 114-pound specimen caught north of the East Cape in 1960).
Price landed and released a 65-pound rooster (pictured in second image).
During this expedition finding bait and, thus, finding roosterfish, was more challenging, but Barnes-Webb is persistent. He and two guests (including this reporter) roamed the coastline for parts of three days, finding enough bait to catch two or three fish per day.
We encountered ospreys, horses, cows, and pelicans, but the only people were sporadic groups of locals on the beach, and fly fishermen on ATVs, being guided by Jeff DeBrown. DeBrown said his clients can handle fish up to about 60 pounds, but larger fish are too powerful to be caught from a stationary position on the beach.
Fly anglers do surprisingly well, Barnes-Webb says, but not nearly as well as someone possessing live bait.
"Why try to fake them out with something artificial when you can give them what they want?" the roosterfish hunter explained.
Among the catches were a 29-pound jack crevalle, a couple of smaller jacks, and five or six roosterfish, all of which made for entertaining bar chat back at the Ranch.
-- Pete Thomas
Photos (top to bottom): Gary Barnes-Webb with roosterfish, Nick Price, Gary and Scott Thomas cruising in ATV, Scott with giant jack crevalle. Credit: Pete Thomas