US Airways Magazine

Judging solely from the view, I could very well be part of a photo shoot for a Club Med advertisement. I'm floating off Baja California's East Cape, where the Pacific's powerful currents reach around the Cape of San Lucas to mix with the Sea of Cortez. Miles of deserted white-sand beaches link distant hills to the lighthouse visible over my shoulder, and when I look down I can see the bottom clearly through 30 feet of aquamarine water. The cornucopia of nutrients has yielded an explosion of sea life, a veritable paradise for game fish like yellowfin tuna, roosterfish, and even marlin.

But while I'm on vacation, I'm not aboard a luxury cruise ship; instead, I'm in a cherry-red fishing kayak listening to Jim Sammons, my guide on this five-day fishing safari and owner of La Jolla Kayak Fishing. Sammons says this is one of his favorite places in the world. "It's just so lifey," he says, as baitfish roil the glassy water and a squadron of pelicans skims the surface.

Most of Sammons' clients come for the tuna and rooster-fish. But over the last three years, he's helped his kayakers land 15 billfish, both marlin and sailfish. "Billfish are the extreme edge of what we do," he explains. "But hooking one of them can happen to anybody, anytime." It's a thought that rattles me. I'm a passionate whitewater kayaker, but my fishing experience consists primarily of a few childhood afternoons spent hauling bluegills out of a tranquil Missouri farm pond.

My only comfort is that I'm not alone. Kelly Miller hasn't caught a fish, or even tried, in ten years. She's come from Denver with her husband Craig, an avid fisherman who adamantly insists that the spa stay they'd scheduled later in Cabo San Lucas is not a quid pro quo. Now Kelly is the first one of us on a fish, grinding resolutely as Jim coaches from the support boat. She proves an excellent student, pulling with short strokes and reeling down on the dorado, keeping a solid bend in her rod. The fish is a splendid specimen; its odd, bulbous forehead and bright colors are vivid reminders that we're on the edge of the tropics, even if snowy Colorado is just a four-or five-hour flight away.

Cries of "Hook up!" begin to ring out as the others in our group of five kayak anglers land dorado, jack crevalle, and bonito -- then comes my turn. As the clicker on my reel ticks over, indicating some toothy character has taken my bait and started to run, I remember the advice Sammons gave me the previous night. "When you hear the clicker go off," he said, "count slowly to ten. Then slam your reel in gear and wind like hell."

It sounded awfully simple over a cold Pacifico and fresh ceviche, but here on the ocean I forget all about counting and just spin the reel as fast as I can, shouting, "I'm on!" My fish makes a series of acrobatic leaps. He's not big, but he's a fighter. Before long our local fishing guide, Chuy, arrives in a panga boat to witness my triumph.

"What is it?" I ask.

"Ladyfish."

"Do I keep it?"

Chuy is too polite to laugh, but he can't hide how badly he wants to. I lift the 18-inch fish out of the water to let it go, but it saves me the trouble, slipping the hook with one nimble twist.

Kayak fishing has enjoyed exponential growth in recent years, and it's not just because today's fishing kayaks are stable, nearly unsinkable, and are about one-twentieth the price of a small motorboat. Anglers are turning to kayaks because they provide access to places no other boat can reach, like the shallow Gulf Coast salt flats where prized redfish lurk and pristine lakes where motors are prohibited.

Here in Baja, anglers use kayaks to chase game fish on light tackle. While a marlin or big tuna would normally snap a 20-pound line in an instant, the same line won't break if it's attached to a rod being held by someone in a kayak. Instead, the fish pulls the kayak, an unnerving phenomenon dubbed a "Baja sleigh ride."

Though kayak fishing is a far cry from a motorboat charter, we're hardly roughing it at the Hotel Punta Colorada, where we enjoy comfortable suites and ample buffets. The hotel offers other amenities - a swimming pool, ATV rentals, and horseback riding along the miles of empty beaches - but fishing is the big draw here, and Americans are the chief clientele. As freshly sunburnt anglers gather each evening around his open-air bar, Manuel "Manny" Vasquez tells fish tales in English that's nearly as flawless as his pina coladas (which is saying plenty).

Though we could paddle straight off the hotel beach, Sammons has retained Jesus Andres "Chuy" Canedo and his 25-foot super panga motorboat to whisk our kayaks from one hot spot to another. It means less work for more fishing, but most importantly, it gives us access to the local knowledge of men like Chuy and Alonzo Castro, who have fished these waters for more than 50 years.

The next morning, we drop our kayaks from Chuy's boat into the brawny swell five miles offshore. I slip a live sardine onto the hook, pay out 60 feet of line, and tally my first strike -- and this time I remember to count slowly to ten. Finally, I slam on the drag and feel the weight of the fish far below.

"Are you on?" Jim shouts.

"Yeah, I'm on," I reply, projecting a confidence I don't really feel. The dorado leaps three times in 60 seconds, and then, somehow, I have him in the kayak. He's not big, but I've never seen a more beautiful fish. His flanks shine like gold in the morning sun; his spots flash like blue pearls. I hold my drought-breaker aloft for the camera, thank him sincerely, and give him back to the sea.

More fish follow in rapid succession: two more dorado, a skipjack tuna, an unwanted needlefish. And then, after a brief respite, my reel emits a tortured howl. It's something really big; could it be a marlin?

I take the rod from its holder, grip tightly with both hands, and engage the drag. Instantly, the rod doubles over as the strength and fury of the fish travels through the line and into my hands like an electric shock. The monofilament is a blur, flashing back and forth across the spool as the big fish runs. My reel is loaded with 300 yards of 30-pound mono, and this mystery fish takes two-thirds of it without slowing down. He's running at right angles to the kayak, and if I can't turn the boat in the next 20 seconds, he'll swim away with my line. I bring the rod tip to the front of the kayak with all the strength in my torso. It works; the bow slowly veers behind the fleeing fish, and the kayak begins to build speed. The tone of the clicker drops an octave, slows again, and stops.

"I'm on!" I shout. "I'm on to something really big!"

The fish and I have reached our first stalemate. He's still stronger than the drag, but he's not taking line; he's pulling 250 pounds of man and kayak. We shoot toward the lighthouse, a silvery wake spreading from my bow. Someone yells "Baja sleigh ride!" as the fish turns into the wind, running for deeper water. I feel the rod load up with the extra pressure -- and then the fish slows. He pulls me another quarter-mile before I manage to take three turns of line.

A seesaw battle takes place over the next few minutes, but weight and technology are at work against the powerful fish. At last I see him, 15 feet below in the clear sea. Rows of tiny fins flash golden in the sunlight. "Yellowfin," I cry.

When I finally hoist the 35-pound tuna aloft for a photo, my arms are quivering. Craig paddles by and high-fives me; Chuy leans over the rail of the panga and shakes my hand. He's laughing. Seconds later he's back, holding a sardine in one hand and motioning with the other for my hook, as if to say, "You came here to fish, right? So get going."

KAYAK FISHING IN BAJA
Jim Sammons' La Jolla Kayak Fishing (kayak4fish.com) offers all-inclusive four-day, five-night kayak fishing packages to Baja's East Cape. Packages start at $924, including food and lodging at the Hotel Punta Colorada, panga support, bait and guides, and use of new Ocean Kayak fishing kayaks. Sammons also offers year-round instructional kayak fishing outings in La Jolla, San Diego Bay, and Mission Bay ($175 for one-on-one instruction), as well as mothership excursions to San Clemente Island ($500) and surf kayaking clinics ($65).

Located a little over an hour north of San Jose del Cabo on the Sea of Cortez, the family-owned Hotel Punta Colorada (vanwormerresorts.com) has long been a magnet for North American sport fishermen. The self-contained resort boasts 39 air-conditioned rooms and caters almost exclusively to anglers: The hearty breakfast buffet is ready before the sun rises over the Sea of Cortez. In addition to Sammons' kayak-fishing tours, the Punta Colorada offers a fleet of 28- to 32-foot sport-fishing cruisers, super pangas with English-speaking captains, and saltwater fly-fishing in cooperation with the Baja Fly fishing Co.

Jeff Moag is an outdoorsman and adventure writer who lives in San Clemente, California.