Kayak Fishing for Big Game in Baja
as printed in Pacific Coast Sportfishing - August 2004 issue
By Jim Sammons, owner, La Jolla Kayak Fishing

Adrenaline Fishing at Its Best

In August of 1998 while fishing for yellowtail off the coast of La Jolla, I had the thrill of hooking and fighting, for over two hours, a Striped Marlin. It was an El Nino year and the water was a warm 74 degrees, because of this water phenomenon we were seeing species not normally seen off our local coast. Since that time I have been fascinated the possibility of catching one these beautiful game fish once again. Knowing that the possibility of doing it again off my home coast was slim, I set my sights on Baja's East Cape. I already run group trips to Hotel Punta Colorada and have one of the best Pangeros, Alonzo, in Baja to help me on my quest, so I knew that when the opportunity presented itself I had to give it another try. 

On May 18 2004, I got my chance to target my dream fish once again; I had been fishing with clients all week from the kayaks at hotel Punta Colorada catching roosters, jack crevaille and other assorted inshore fish. On the last full day of the trip my clients decided to get on a cruiser to target some offshore species, this gave me my chance to go out solo, placing my kayak on the panga and running offshore for our best shot at the big fish. Our first order of business was to pick up some live bait, the bait panga had some very fresh live mullet so we picked up half a dozen and headed out. On the run out Alonzo and I discussed our strategy, should we get lucky enough to see a tailing fish.

The plan was simple, once in the fishing grounds we would just motor around until we saw a fish, then stop the boat, toss the kayak in the water and paddle, trolling a mullet on an intercept course with the fish.

Alonzo had driven the boat between fifteen and twenty miles out when we got out first shot at our prize, a fish was spotted tailing so we shut down about fifty yards from the fish. We quickly got the kayak in the water, I jumped in and Alonzo handed me my baited rod. I grabbed my paddle and got some distance from the panga before I let out the line, to troll the bait about sixty feet behind my kayak. I located the fish off my bow and set my course to cross his nose with the bait. With adrenalin coursing through my veins I paddle with all my strength to get in front of the fish, the plan worked to perfection and the fish was quickly behind me, trailing my bait, not picking it up, but slashing at it with its three-foot bill, the mullet jumping for its life.

To say I was excited would be a gross understatement, looking behind my kayak and seeing a fish of this size attacking my bait had me really pumped. My line finally starts peeling off my reel and in a sequence that seemed to last an hour but was actually seconds, I grabbed my rod, let the fish run, then set the hook. The marlin jumped twice then was gone; my heart sank, thinking I may have missed my only shot at my prey. As I paddled back to the panga Alonzo told me that because we were using mullet, which jump when being attacked, it is likely, the line was merely wrapped around the Marlins bill and the hook was never in the fish's mouth. Just as I reached the panga to resume our hunt I looked down and saw another marlin under my kayak, likely the same fish that had just robbed me of my bait.

Seeing the fish under my kayak, I yelled for Alonzo to give me another rod with fresh bait, this time a custom Seeker with a Shimano Tld15 loaded with 20lb test Ande and a Seagar fluorocarbon 80lb leader. Tied to the end of the leader was my secret weapon a 6/0 Emperor tackle gold hook. I had been using these hooks all week with very good luck, and was convinced they were the reason for more hookups than the others on the trip.

Assuming it was the splashing of my paddle in the water that had attracted the fish to my kayak, I changed my normally stealthy paddle stroke to a noisy, splashy style. I paddled for several minutes and began to think we were out of luck on this one. Just about the time I was ready to give up, the Marlin popped up behind my bait. This time there was no slashing at the bait he just jumped on it, not wanting to make the same mistake, I vowed not to set the hook too soon, and let the fish peel off half of my line before deciding to set the hook. Just as I grabbed my rod, the line stopped peeling off my reel. My first thought was that I waited to long and the fish had spit the bait. Just as my dejection starts to set in Alonzo yells from the panga "Set the Hook" I turned to see the fish coming straight up my line with my bait in its mouth. I grabbed my rod and reeled as fast as I could to take up slack and drive the hook home. By the time I had the hook set the fish was a mere ten feet from my kayak, and exploded out of the water, jumping close to twenty times all within feet of me.

My first thought was "Oh $*%!, I left my PFD on the beach", I am generally very safety conscious and wear a PFD most of the time, but in the excitement of this adventure, as I got my gear together, I forgot this very important piece of safety equipment. This is my second marlin, and I have caught dozens of big thresher sharks from my kayak, but this was far and away the spookiest thing I have done. A fish with a three-foot spear jumping all around you when you are sitting at water level is quite an experience. At one point, the fish started jumping towards my kayak so I buried my rod tip into the water and the fish swam right under me.

After the initial excitement of the hookup, with Alonzo broadcasting via his VHF to the entire fishing fleet what we had just done, the fight came down to a long tug of war. Alonzo would pull the panga up to my kayak to take a photo, to relieve me of my paddle, or to bring me some water, each time the fish would spook and make a hard run. This scenario went on for over two hours, with the fish taking line and me and me taking it back. One of the funniest things that happened during the fight was me, trying to teach Alonzo how to use my digital camera. Alonzo speaks decent fishing English, but electronics are another story, and my Spanish is pretty limited. Anyone in the area would have died laughing at the conversation going on between us. After all of or confused instruction he came up with some of the best photos I have seen.

Because kayaks move through the water so easily, when the fish start to run the kayak is pulled behind in a kind of kayak sleigh ride, my first Marlin dragging me over seven miles. In both instances that I have fought marlin from my kayak I have been able to use light line and the fish never got more than half way into my spool, most of the fight taking place within twenty feet of the kayak. Both of the Marlin I caught took over two hours to get to the kayak and I would say that 80% of that time the fish was within this range. In this type of a fight you just keep as much pressure on the fish as possible and let him tow you around until it tires. You never want to bring one of these or any big fish to the kayak to soon, a hot fish next to your kayak can be very dangerous.

As the fight wore on the conversation turned to what to do with the fish, my plan all along had been to release the fish after getting it to the kayak. When I told Alonzo what I wanted to do, he asked me if he could keep the fish. I get the opportunity to fish the East Cape several times a year and fish with Alonzo on each trip. I rarely keep any fish and this was one of the few times Alonzo had asked me to keep one. He told me that this one fish would feed his family and many of his friends. Although I was reluctant to keep the fish I told Alonzo that he could have it. At the two and a half hour point the fish and I were both very tired but I managed to bring it alongside of my kayak. I reached down and grabbed the tail and Alonzo swung in on the Panga and grabbed the leader pulling the fishes head enough so that I could gaff it and pull it over my lap.

We had the chance to try for two more fish later in the day, one ignored us the other, a sailfish, picked up the bait and jumped then tossed the hook. I was so tired at this point, it was probably a good thing I did not hook either of these fish.

Once back on shore Alonzo made quick work of filleting the Marlin and distributing it to his friends and other workers from the hotel. My trepidation about keeping the fish was relieved when I saw how happy these very poor people were to get the fish. By the time he was done handing out the fish little remained but guts and bones.

Since this story happened I have been involved in two more Marlin catches from the kayaks. A week after getting home from the first trip I returned to Punta Colorada with a group of kayak fishing experts, Mark Olson, from Ocean Kayak, Jeff Rhyno Krieger, and Matt Moyer in an attempt to repeat this feat, This time hoping to capture the event on tape with Inside Sportfishing television show.

Although on this trip I came up empty, it was great to be part of our adventures as both Jeff and Mark each landed striped Marlin up to 150 lbs. The later catch by Olson captured in its entirety by Michael Folkes of Inside Sportfishing and his very daring cameraman in the water. Who on several occasions would dive down and touch the big fish with the camera. At one point in the fight we attached all four kayaks together and with the diver holding onto the back of one of the kayaks and the big fish pulled us all around like we were not even there. The power of these fish is incredible!

While sitting and swapping stories in the bar after catching our fish it really sank in what is was we were doing.  We would listen to other fishermen tell of their catches of Marlin lasting a total of fifteen minutes, pulling on one hundred pound test with the power of the boat setting the hook then using the power of the boat to chase down the fish.

Kayak fishing really is more about you against the fish and for big game; it is really adrenalin fishing at its best.

Some lessons learned from my four Marlin experiences off kayaks are these.

  1. Marlin or other big game fishing from a kayak is not for the novice, in Baja start by cutting your teeth with Roosters, Tuna or Jack Crevalle. It is best if you have other experienced kayak fishermen with you to assist if needed and to help if something goes wrong.
  2. You do not need heavy equipment but you do need quality equipment. All of these fish were landed on Shimano reels with good drags and Seeker or Shimano rods. You are in for a long fight so you want gear that is up for the task.
  3. Fresh line on your reels is a must, these are extended fights that can last several hours, you want to have good fresh line on your reels. You do not need heavy line, all of these fish were landed on twenty-pound test Ande, but you do need a leader, the bills of these fish are very abrasive. We were all using Seagar fluorocarbon 80-100 pound leaders.
  4. An expert guide on the water is worth the investment. The Local Pangeros fish these waters every day and will give you your best shot at finding the fish, having a boat on the water with you is also a great safety asset.
  5. If new to kayak fishing, join a group trip to fish the East Cape. You will have a better chance of getting fish and you can learn a lot from your guide and the others on your trip. In addition, it is a lot of fun to fish with like-minded anglers.
  6. Keep the proper safety equipment with you at all times. A PFD is necessary when big game fishing as you never know what can go wrong. Keep a knife or cut away tool attached to your PFD or on your person just in case a line is wrapped around you and you go into the water.
  7. Keep a pair of landing gloves where you can get to them, grabbing the bill of a Marlin with bare hands will tear them up.
  8. Keep water with you: the sun in Baja can really beat down on you. While you are fighting one of these fish for an extended time or just paddling, you can become overheated and dehydrated. You should carry lots of water with you while fishing in Baja, a camel pack or other hydration system works great.
  9. Practice catch and release, although I did keep one of my fish I still think it is best to catch and release these fish when you can.
If you would like more information about kayak fishing adventures in Baja or California you can check out our web site Kayak4Fish.com or feel free to call the La Jolla Kayak Fishing office at (619) 461-7172