Fishing in Baja
by Peter Kohlsaat

Peter Kohlsaat is a syndicated cartoonist with the LA Times and an avid fisherman and explorer. He can be visited at his own website, Travels with Zelda.

amping on a beach on the Sea of Cortez is like camping next to a giant fish market. And more often than not, the next closest market, of any kind, is a long, hot, dusty, tortuous, bone-crunching drive away. So, should you find yourself on any of Baja’s spectacular beaches, isolated along one of the great fishing waters of the world, there is absolutely no reason not to be fishing. There is nothing better than a fresh batch of ceviche out in the middle of nowhere.

Fishing can be a passive activity or it can be aggressively pursued. It can amount to no more than a line, a hook, and some sort of bait to an almost unlimited array of poles, reels, lures, specialized riggings, and pole holders. Avid fishermen are not known for their restraint.

Hand Line Fishing

Let us begin with the simplest of fishing rigs: a line, a hook, a weight, some bait, and a can or coke bottle. Variations of this arrangement are used all over the world by local fishermen for whom owning a fishing rod and reel would be considered very much a luxury. It works on the same principle as the basic spinning reel. The line is secured to and wrapped around the can or bottle, while the weighted and baited end is swung overhead generating speed, and released toward the water. The line then peels off the bottle or can with as little friction as possible. I am always amazed at what a considerable distance can be achieved by fisherman tossing a hook by hand.

When using this method it is important to use a strong line since one will not have the mechanical advantages a rod and reel afford. I would suggest no less than 35-pound test monofilament line.

The amount of weight one attaches to the line is dependent on how far one wants to toss it and how big the surf is. A one-ounce lead weight is an ideal weight to start with. It affords ample resistance to surf action as well as being manageably flung. With larger surf weights up to two ounces can be considered.

Any kind of hook can be used. Ideally, since we are fishing in salt water, a stainless steel hook would be preferred. It is my experience, and it may just be me, that non-stainless steel hooks are lost to fish or snag long before they rust away.

They exact manner in which the above hook, line, and lead weight are arranged on the line is distinctive to each fisherman. Some use multiple hooks, three-way swivels, and/or special knots. Some secure the weight at the end of the line, some prefer the hook at the end of the line. Some fisherman, in order to increase their casting distance will use a stiff leader — up to 100-pound test monofilament or, in some instances, metal — tied to a lighter line. Below are some of the simpler arrangements.

Fishing Rods and Reels

If one has the luxury of being able to fish with a rod and reel, the possibilities are numerous. Personally, I travel with a variety of rods and reels for special circumstances. For fishing with bait from shore I use a stout, seven-foot rod with a long handle that can easily handle weights up to five ounces. For casting with spoons, plugs, or various other surf lures I indulgently own an extremely high-performance, fast action 11-foot G. Loomis shorecasting rod, specially created for long casts with weights from 1/2 ounce to three ounces. The latter coupled with a sweet Penn 550 spinning reel is a combination I do not think can be improved on. I also carry a stout fresh water “pike” pole with a shorter handle for fishing from rocks or over reefs. I prefer spinning reels for all these rods.

For the novice, the budget-impaired, or the fisherman who prefers to take to Baja a rig that will not cause him to break into tears when it is broken, stolen, or lost to the sea, I have discovered the perfect fishing rod and reel for sale, at least to those on the West Coast. At Big 5 sporting goods stores one can purchase a cheap, stiff, long-handled nine-foot rod with a surprisingly high-quality, heavy-duty Abu Garcia spinning reel for $49.99. The reel, while not fancy, is more than sufficient for a number of different fishing situations. Any reel, if properly maintained, can be made to last a long time, and this reel is no different. I have had mine for four years, and outside of a finicky locking mechanism, it continues to work fine.

Rod Holders

Of course, with a rod and reel, one needs a rod holder. Various rod holders can be found at salt water fishing store for $5 to $30. For a creative fisherman, a rod holder is also easily made. But remember, the only thing keeping your rod and reel from being dragged out to sea by a medium-sized triggerfish is your rod holder, so whatever you use, have confidence in it. There is no more sinking feeling than going to check your rig to find only an empty holder where your rod use to be. I remember once, while camping behind a sand dune, going out to check my rig, seeing my rod holder uprooted, the rod slowly making its way toward the water. Fortunately, I was able to grab it and still bring in dinner.

A very simple, but effective rod holder can be made from a two-inch (or greater) two-foot long piece of PVC pipe. Cut one end at a long angle and push/pound it into the sand. Another simple rod holder can be made out of a forked stick, pushed into the sand using a large rock, behind, to maintain the position of the rod’s handle. All rod holders should be stuck in the sand at an angle slightly tilted toward the water.


Regardless if one is using a coke bottle or a $2000 rod and reel, bait is bait. Live bait is always best, but is not often available. If one has access to a local tackle shop before he embarks from civilization, frozen squid is usually easily obtained. Otherwise, you will need a fish to catch a fish. And once you start catching fish, bait is no longer a problem. If you can find a fish along the way from, say, another fisherman you meet along the way, great. Most likely, however, you will need to catch a small fish to cut up and use the pieces. A good way to start is to cast floating Rapala-like lures across rocks, careful to keep a taut line to prevent any fish from retreating into holes or under the rocks, where, regardless of how heavy your line is or how much force you can generate, the fish will remain.

With any fish, simply filet the fish from head to tail keeping the skin on. The skin of ocean fish, for the most part, is extremely tough and offers good resistance from being stolen by fish from the hook. Cut the meat into small pieces, say, 2" x 2", put the hook through it a couple times, and toss it out there. With subsequent fish caught, make sure some meat is left on any filleted fish to be used as bait.

Check the bait periodically to make sure it is still there or the line has not tangled, or for no other reason, to see if you have a fish. Sometimes it is not immediately obvious.

If you are a serious shore fisherman you can always use a net to catch baitfish.

When using a rod, make sure the drag is properly set. To test the drag, grab the line directly in front of the reel and pull it. With a tight drag, the line will begrudgingly leave the reel. A light drag and the line is easily pulled from the spool. A rig left unattended should be set with a light drag, as insurance that in your absence your rod will resist being pulled into the ocean by a larger-than-expected fish. If you are monitoring your rig, sitting next to it, sipping a beer, smoking a cigar, pondering life’s little mysteries, set the drag as you feel comfortable with. Personally I like a fish to be able to take a little line off so that I can actually hear it being stripped. But then, I just like the sound of having a fish on.

Surf Casting

There is hardly anything more romantic — well, within this particular context — than a fisherman on a lonely stretch of beach making long lazy casts into the ocean, as the eastern sky is going from one pastel to another. To begin to suggest what should be a part of a surf caster’s repertoire is an exercise in futility. That is between him and his pocketbook. Here is what I suggest as the minimal a surf caster should have in his pocket tackle box:

  • Four or five 1/4 oz. to 1/2 oz. casting spoons with attached swivels. I recommend Krocodile or Clio spoons.
  • Several 3" to 6" sinking Rapala-type lures
  • Several 3" floating Rapala-type lures
  • A dozen swivels/snap swivels.
  • And a couple of whatever the guy at the tackle shop recommends.

Once you find out what works, you can go from there.

I once approached a group of grizzled local fisherman and naively asked them where along the beach I should be fishing. One man, after taking a particularly productive swig from his big Tecate bottle, looked at me and replied, “Where you see fish?” A host of picket-fenced smiles broke out within the group and I, thinking to be the Gringo butt of some joke, moseyed on. Later it occurred to me how right he was. Look for the fish. Look for birds diving into the water. Look for top-water action of baitfish. Learn to read the water. All this comes in time, like most things with fishing.

I am never embarrassed to admit to not catching fish. One is never guaranteed fish. One thing, however, that is guaranteed, is you never will catch fish if you don’t go fishing.


Peter now has fish clocks for sale on his web site. Check 'em out. The perfect stocking stuffer.

Peter"s Clocks