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|The Ultimate Exotic
By Jon Schwartz © 2007 www.bluewaterjon.com
Without a doubt, roosterfish are in a class of their own. Their intricate array of feathered dorsal fins give them an unparalleled exotic look, and their proximity to shore puts the kayak angler in a perfect position target them. At times they roam alone, but just as often they swim in marauding packs with their feathers just above the water’s surface, darting around in waist deep water in search of schools of mullet, their favorite prey. No need to paddle out several hundred yards; these prized fish can be targeted within a stone’s throw of the beach, or less.
Roosters can get over 100 pounds, but are usually seen in the 15-30 pound range. Their meat is dark red, and nearly inedible, so they are uniformly released. At certain times of the year, they herd schools of fleeing baitfish right onto the shore. Let us not be mistaken, though; getting close to roosters is one thing; hooking them is another. Frustration is the name of the game, for above all, the rooster, or Pez Gallo as it’s known in Spanish, is a cunning and wily fish. For every person that has landed one, there must be hundreds that have tossed a bait or lure into their midst, only to watch in disappointment as these cunning predators follow their lure and veer off at the last moment. Even greater in number are those who have watched roosters crash on their baits without ever swallowing them.
My first experience with a roosterfish was an eerie one, and left me with the feeling that the mindset and habits of these fish were unique. I had arrived at noon at my favorite spot in Baja’s East Cape, and had timed it so that I launched my kayak just as the returning boats were letting their unused baits go. I mooched several from the fleet, filled up a Plano bait bucket, and started paddling down the shore. There was a strong current, and the rental kayak that I was paddling didn’t exactly slice through the chop. I grew tired of lugging the bait bucket behind me, and every so often pulled it on deck to make things easier.
By the time I got to my spot, many of the bait were spent. The air temperature was close to 100, the water well above 80, and the bait needed a break, so I paddled out several hundred yards to soak the survivors in cooler water. As I was reaching in my tackle box, I had the strange sensation that I was being watched. Turning to my right, I saw a something dart closer and stop on a dime, and then surface…the telltale dorsal fins of a roosterfish! This one was huge, maybe 60 pounds, and he was just staring at me, almost motionless. This fish had attitude! He had stalked me, and was waiting for my next move. I was intimidated and overcome with excitement at the same time. As I fumbled to pin a bait on, he grew impatient and darted off into the deep.
The next day I vowed to meet my foe on his turf once again. After a fitful night’s sleep, I woke extra early and clambered out of my palapa hut to check the wind and stars- all quiet, and no clouds! Even at this early hour, the heat was so oppressive that by the time I loaded up my yak, I was soaked in sweat. I had to be the first one in line at the bait boat; I’d be paddling miles against the current with Plano bait bucket in tow, and had to get to my spot before the wind came up.
Today I’d try a trick I’d learned the night before- keep two baits already pinned on in the water, and keep them right next to the kayak as I trolled up the beach. This would prevent the pesky needlefish from devouring my precious offerings before I got a chance set them free in the zone. This worked well; I saw several needlefish on the hunt pass without incident. The wind started to pick up and I stayed in clear waist deep water as I made my way up the coast. All of a sudden, I heard a splash. A school of sardinas jumped out of the water in unison, being chased by a trio of roosters! My turn had come! I let a bait out, and soon after, my reel started screaming.
The fish fought intelligently, first running straight away, then down, then changing directions. Just when I thought I had it, it took off for another set of runs. The rooster wasn’t huge, maybe 15 pounds, but I was ecstatic. His plume of dorsal fins was majestic; I snapped some photos of him as I let him regain his strength, and then he kicked off. Yahoo! I kept on my course, staying within 20 feet of shore, and was struck again, this time by what turned out to be a 15 pound jack crevalle. On the way back, I was able to land one more rooster, for a total of three caught and released, and be back at the beach by 11:00! Good thing, too, because the wind grew fierce and it was no time to be on the water.
I returned to my beloved East Cape several months later, with enough money to afford mothership support for a day. This would enable me to go 20 minutes up the coast by boat to the lighthouse that is known as one of the best spots in the world for roosterfish. In addition to reaching spots that are out of paddling range, mothershipping provides the kayaker with a steady supply of healthy bait. As my friend and panguero for the day, Rene Macklish, headed out, I grew nervous with anticipation.
He dropped me off in my kayak about 50 yards offshore, and I began to paddle around, one bait about 40 yards behind, and one bait about ten yards behind. I began circling the area, and noticed what appeared to be an oil slick on the water. This saddened me. How could this happen here in paradise? Rene was now a hundred yards away, and he was watching the slick too, not with a look of disappointment, but of intense interest. By the way Rene acted, I got the feeling that I should give the slick a second look, and when I got within 10 yards of the slick I found that the “slick” was actually a giant school of cubera snapper, swirling in such numbers that the sea had turned a dark reddish-brown! Unfortunately I was unable to entice any of the twenty pounders to strike. I’ve since learned that when a school is this large and packed together this closely, be it jacks, pargos or snappers, the fish are often simply not in eating mode.
I continued paddling around the area, and about ten minutes later, my reel made the sweet high pitched scream that I had been waiting for. I waited till I couldn’t bear the suspense, slowly tightened the drag, my rod doubled over, and my yak spun around immediately towards the fish. Game on!! The fish immediately dove deep, and I was stunned at how much line it took. The water gets very deep right off of the beach, so you sit there, 50 yards off the beach, while your fish peels and peels line and you’re wondering, how deep can it go?
What ensued was one of the most memorable battles I’ve ever enjoyed. I had a Seeker 25 pound rod, and this fish put my equipment to the test. I am still amazed at how the reel held up. I was so worried about losing the fish that I kept grinding on the crank, even though I was gaining no line. Rene followed me around as the fish pulled me all over the place, and I kept looking at him, asking, “What could this possibly be? “Grande Rooster!” he said. “C’mon, how could a rooster do this?” The fish towed me at will and dove for the first 30 minutes, and then surfaced briefly, just long enough for me to see his magnificent body. It was a truly huge rooster. I screamed and my eyes bulged out.
As soon as his eyes met mine he dove again and the battle lasted for another 15 minutes. Finally, he came alongside of my yak, and I hoisted him for a picture. At this point I was within ten yards of the beach. Right after Rene snapped the last shot, he yelled, “Watch out!” and I was swamped by a wave in the shore break. In an instant my yak and gear were floating upside down, and the rooster was floating belly up next to me. It was either revive the fish or get the yak and gear, and I elected to revive the fish. I grabbed his tail, and as I swam behind him, I pushed him in front of me. When I did this, he raised his feathers and started moving slowly. His response encouraged me and I continued to push him along, although I quickly became exhausted from all the kicking necessary to keep a steady pace. As always, I had my PFD on, so I was never in any danger. I kept the rescue effort up as long as I could. Rene would have swooped in to grab the fish and revive him by pulling him alongside his panga as he slowly motored along, but he couldn’t risk getting to close to the shore break, so I was the fish’s only hope.
After awhile I became so exhausted that I couldn’t swim anymore. I had thought that the rooster would now be able to swim independently, but when I let go of him, he went belly up, so I swam him onto the beach and tried to revive him in knee deep water by running him along the shore. The scene played out like one of those war movies where the guy is performing CPR on his buddy who is obviously gone. Wracked with guilt, I couldn’t stop trying. Every time I looked at Rene, he’d run his finger across his throat indicating that the fish was lost, and eventually I had to face reality, too.
At this point my yak was lodged upside down in the sand with one the rods wedged in the sand like the obstacles on the beaches of Normandy.
The other rod was lost. I put the fish in the yak, and since I had lost the paddle long ago, I tried to push the yak through the shore break.
Eventually I had to get in, swim up the face of a wave, and push the yak over top of the wave, and then swim to the yak. Finally I kicked the yak and I out to where Rene was waiting for me. Rene took hold of the kayak, I climbed over the side of the yak, and collapsed, exhausted, in a heap on the floor of the boat.
What I have learned from this experience is that if the fish looks exhausted, it is best not to remove it from the water at all. In addition, I have switched to heavier tackle when targeting larger fish, as it enables me to get them up before they are completely spent. Although I had heard that roosters are almost inedible, I filleted the fish myself and brought every last ounce of the dark purplish meat back to San Diego, where I vowed to eat it all, lest the fish’s death go in vain.
What I had heard was true. The meat is barely edible. It looks like beef heart and has the consistency of shoe leather. Fortunately, my Mexican wife, who grew up dirt poor in the tiny country town of Areo de Rosales, is well versed in the art of making the most out of the least, and we were able to make some worth and meaning out of the wondrous fish’s ultimate sacrifice.