Sea of Cortez, Sargasso, Bait Fish, Dorados, and the musing of a seasoned fly angler.
By Mark Bachmann
Loreto, Mexico is in the southern third of the Sea of Cortez, and from our perspective is one of the best bluewater fly fishing ports in North America. No other port offers the ease of access, varieties of fish species, well trained fleet, and great accommodations that Loreto has. Loreto is about five easy hours south of Portland, Oregon. One plane change in LAX and Alaska flies directly into Loreto. From LTO a taxi ride of less than ten minutes will put you at the front door of any of dozens of hotels or B&Bs that are within walking distance of the marina. Be sure to make reservations for fly fishing guides and rooms in advance of your trip. If you want the best rooms and best guides, start several months in advance.
What makes Loreto such a spectacular fly fishing destination are the near-shore and off-shore species of fish that are available. California Yelllowtail, Pargo, Cabrilla and Roosterfish are the main near shore targets. Sailfish, Striped Marlin, Black Marlin and Blue Marlin are often found within ten easy miles from Loreto. But the biggest draw for fly fishers are Dorado, which can be had from just outside the surf to miles off-shore, and are available from mid-June through mid-November.
Dorados average six to nearly sixty pounds and feed near the surface of the water most of their lives where fly fishers have a chance at them. Dorados are spectacular sportfish. They are one of the most efficient animals on the planet for converting food into body mass. A one year old dorado is around six pounds. Two year old dorados average twenty pounds, at which time they mate for life and spawn almost continually. Three year old dorados are from thirty to forty pounds. Few dorados reach four years old, but those that do are around sixty pounds. The current fly rod world record dorado is 57 pounds 8 ounces, and was caught near Loreto, MX in 1997. This author caught a 58" dorado in 2014 that might have been a contender but was released without being weighed.
There are a lot of different flies that work in the Sea of Cortez, but realistically all you need are flies that look like Sardinas, which is a flatiron herring that reaches maturity at around five to six inches long. Many giant fish will feed mostly on Sardinas through their entire life cycle. We have found Olive and White Clouser Minnows extremely useful from 1 1/2" to 4" long. In what is currently available, the Dabloon fly is the best adult Sardina fly pattern.
Obviously, any heavy duty fly rod will catch many saltwater fish under most circumstances. Our favorite rods are 11/12 weights with moderately fast actions. Since there isn't a clear line between moderate and fast actions, we will make our own choices in the kinds of rods that work best for us. Every rod is part lever and part spring. Most saltwarer fly rods are nine feet long. Fast action rods have a longer percentage being the lever with short percentage being the spring portion near the tip. Moderate action rods of the same length have shorter levers and longer springs than faster action ones. Theoretically faster action rods recover quicker than moderate action ones. They can also lift heavy flies from the water and build more line speed for longer casts. but they also take more strength and control than moderate ones because the longer fulcrum works against the caster. Building fly line speed for casting distance is only part of what a fly rod does. Saltwater rods also need to help an angler lift heavy, powerful fish and if the angler is seeking tippet class records, the rod action should aid in protecting the class tippet from breakage. Shock contributes a lot to tippet breakage. Moderate action rods can absorb more shock than fast ones. Since they bend more under the heavy loads of playing large athletic fish, they become shorter than fast action rods and give a fly fisher more advantage than a stiffer faster rod. Patty and I have enjoyed testing ourselves against fish that might take as long as two hours to land. In that kind of game an angler would like to have every advantage. Often rods that throw long in tournaments or on parking lots aren't the best under actual combat. Companies that preached super-fast action big game rods in the past are getting the word and rods intended for use in the salt are becoming more moderate. As important as being easy to use, durability is very important. More fly rods are broke when heavy fish are close to the boat than any other time. The good thing is that now you don't have to pay big money for a rod that will get the job done.
These are rods you can trust (We have used them extensively.):
TFO Axiom II
G. Loomiis NRX
Loop Cross SW
Sage Salt HD
Fly reels have major differences from fly rods. You can usually tell if you are going to like a rod within four dozen casts in a fishing environment. You really don't know if a reel is totally reliable until after a half dozen trips. Glitz and glamor does nothing for a reel. All a reel must do is deliver total smoothness and reliability. You can break a rod part way through the fight and still land a trophy fish, but if a reel malfunctions, there is nothing a rod can do to help you. There are a good many reels that will take the abuse of saltwater big game fishing. Some are just a lot smoother and proven more reliable than others. Patty and I have a set of Abel Super big game reels that have made dozens of trips to the salt and back. A little cleaning, oil and grease is all that has been needed. Our Hatch Finatic reels (Gen-1) have proven to be as reliable without the oil or grease. American made Hatch reels are nearly as expensive as Abels but require less maintenance. I am going to get my 9+ upgraded to Gen-2, not because it needs it, but because I can. Hatch lacks the goofiness that some reel makers are inflicted with, in that they don't offer new models that make their previous reels obsolete. You got to love a company that builds reels like that.
Another no-maintenance reel that has impressed us in the Hardy Ultralite SDSL, which is much like the Hatch in that they have stacked drag discs enclose in a waterproof capsule. I got my Ultalite SDSL reel for use as a salmon/steelhead Spey reel, then decided to take it south to Loreto. Patty and I both caught several fish with it, and it performed perfectly. The Hardy is a little more than half the price of a Hatch. In five years of repeated use it will be as proven as my Hatch. The Hardy looks like a good bet if you are on a budget.
To fish for most species of fish in the Sea of Cortez it is hard to beat a RIO Outbound Short F/I slow sinking fly line. We fish everything from surface poppers to weighted Clouser Minnows with these lines. To get deeper a fast sinking shooting head is a good bet on your second rod. Having a second rod rigged to get your fly from five to thirty feet deep will make many more fish available to you.
We make our own leaders from Frog Hair Fluorocarbon FC. Leaders longer than eight feet give no advantage, and shorter leader will turn over larger flies easier, especially in the wind. You can fish a leader made from straight forty pound test, but a lower breaking point might be desirable if very large fish are hooked. There are fish in the Sea of Cortez that might take your rod/reel away from you if you couldn’t break the leader. Conversely, there are fish that might chew through your 20-pound tippet. We have had world record class dorados, jacks, and roosterfish that have done so.
Our leader formula:
2’ - .024 = 44 pound test
2’ - .019 = 35 pound test
2’ - .015 = 22 pound test
1’ - .019 = 35 pound test
This leader is seven feet long, and is tied with double surgeon’s knots treated with Loon UV Knot Sense.
Boats and Captains
The Loreto Marina attracts sardinas, which are the basic baitfish for every fishery in the area. Every boat that fishes out of the Loreto Marina uses bait for chum, even the fly fishing boats. Getting chum each morning is part of the ritual of going fishing. To cut down on the calamity of getting bait the captains agreed that it would be easier to allow several individuals to specialize in netting bait fish and organized a coop to do so. This year bait has been abundant everywhere, every day, except for last Friday. Friday there were very few sardinas in the marina. Suddenly there thirty boats waiting for bait in the small marina, and dozens of anglers waiting on the docks. My tackle bag and rods were safely stashed against the railing that I was leaning on as I observed the melee of boats jockeying for position. Yet every captain remained quietly patient and composed. It took nearly an extra hour for everyone to get bait, yet at no time did anyone raise their voice. If that had been an Oregon salmon marina with the congestion and chaos, it would have been a much less civilize scene. Mexican captains are much more prone to work together than American ones.
Health of the Sea of Cortez
We started fishing around Loreto in July of 2002. We caught a few larger dorado and a striped marlin. We didn’t know much about how to fly fish in the Sea of Cortez and most of the guides we met didn’t know any more than we did. But we kept going back every summer. Each year the guides got more experience in fly fishing and the fishery improved as well. The period from 2005 to 2012 were our glory years. By 2014 it became hard to find fish. This 2019 trip like many other had its ups and downs. We fished six days and five of those days our catch was 4-8 small dorados a day. Day six was more like the glory days as we landed about two dozen dorados with the largest being thirty pounds. We did catch a lot of cabrilla, and one day we caught a lot of small roosterfish. It looks like the good fishing is coming back. The best indicator is that there are now a lot of bait fish in the Sea of Cortez. We will go back again, and again. We love it.