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September 30, 2023 st johns river Fishing Report
May Luna-Sea Bendo at the Ranch
Afire with neon blue, the marlin shimmied and snaked its way into the wake and the spread, coming in dead off the starboard side. Everyone saw it at once and made noisy note.
"He's gonna eat it!" hollered Ben, holding the rod with the drop back bait, a small jack. It was already 30 feet back.
"He's eatin' it, he's eatin' it!" Ben swung on the fish, winding on the little silver reel, and the black rod bent hard. The marlin headed off right into the sun, back the way he'd come into the spread of trolled baits and lures.
Things got interesting in a hurry, with three men trying to use cameras, two men trying to get the rest of the trolled rigging out of the way before the fish fouled itself, and Ben, who was braced with one leg up on the rail, alternately pulling and winding on the fish.
It was a big cockpit, but at the moment there were traffic jams on both sides of the unused fighting chair. The marlin had disappeared off up past the deckhouse, but the skipper and John Ireland were shouting on the bridge that it had jumped.
When we got the invitation from Jack Nilsen of Accurate to join him at John Ireland's Rancho Leonero to do a product shoot, Paul Sweeney and I packed our cameras and our bags. We traveled light, with little fishing equipment, since I knew Jack would have plenty of reels. I brought a couple of my new Super Seeker rods and a bag of jigs and Mustad hooks for light tackle fishing May 20 to 22.
We taxied from Los Cabos airport, arriving at the beginning of a sweet tropical Sea of Cortez evening to enjoy three days of first-class style angling aboard Ireland's 50-foot Mikelson sportfisher Luna-Sea.
Rejoicing in the warm, light sea breeze, we saw the Ranch was lovely as ever, with improvements since our last visit a year ago. Ireland has renovated much, notably the bar/dining room, which has been opened up to be even more spacious and airy. For the first time, a wide-screen TV hangs on the wall at the far end of the bar, showing off a high-def satellite picture for those who want to keep up with things like the NBA conference finals.
Bartender Jorge and the rest of the staff were still there, so the place felt as homey as ever. A hurricane last year took out a couple of the wall-mounted fish hanging in the dining room, and I noticed the old lion skin was gone. But there was a new covering for part of the dining patio outside, and all the beds had been replaced with fancy new big pillow-top models, making for comfortable, healthy sleeping in the air-conditioned rooms and stone walled thatched bungalows.
There are several resorts at East Cape, and each has its own flavor and style, but I keep coming back to the Ranch because the place is smaller and more relaxed than most (Ireland calls it intimate), and it's set away from the rest of the resorts, up on a small headland that gets sea breeze from two sides. If you've got shade, the breeze keeps you cool at the Ranch, and the view flat out cannot be beat.
Food is good, and varied daily here. Wells tap plenty of cool, clean water, enough to keep the grounds so green the resort looks like a little paradise, where mountains and Baja desert meet miles of white beach and the deep blue waters of the Cortez.
Fishing begins about ten yards from the beach, and you seldom have to ride more than a very few miles before you can find something biting, like marlin, tuna, sailfish, dorado, snapper, roosterfish or two dozen other sporting species.
Jack Nilsen and Ben Secrest, Accurate vice president of sales and marketing, wanted Paul Sweeney and I to get video and stills of some new gear. They had three spinning reels: named 30, 20 and 12, and two-speed Boss conventional reels with them, from the tiny 197 up to the 665 series. They also had a new line of Accurate rods to match the reels, made from light, slender but strong high-modulus graphite. Accurate makes two-speed, (with and without the pre-set drag mechanism) twin-drag reels all the way up to the 130 International size, but for this event the gear was small, light and easy to handle.
Small doesn't mean little in terms of line strength, however. Most of the reels were loaded with 50 to 80-pound Spectra, with a short topshot of mono or fluorocarbon, a leader that could be easily changed to match the targeted species. Our first morning of fishing was spent catching snapper and cabrilla, which were plentiful just a quarter mile from the portable loading pier where anglers board their pangas and cruisers each day around seven a.m.
Several types of snappers are available here, and some get so large they can be a serious challenge on heavy tackle. Snapper are about the only game fish I've caught that are even better at getting into the rocks as yellowtail. On this morning I got a couple on my new 665 F Super Seeker with an 870 N two-speed Accurate and two with the light version of Jack's new spinning outfit.
Fish were thick on this rockpile. We found plenty of Pargo Amarillo, or yellowtail snapper of two to six pounds. They bit best on 20 to 30-pound mono and a 1/0 hook. I like to use a ringed Mustad circle hook for this type of fishing, and with a larger bait, I'd size up the hook. The local guides make their own ringed hooks by tying a loop or perfection knot, which gives the bait a similar mobility.
Pargo and their cabrilla buddies bit well on sardinas. These baitfish look very much like western herring or eastern pilchard, with a single dark spot aft center of the gill plate like the row of spots that run down the sides of sardines. The guides suggest stunning the bait, to make it easier for the snappers to run down. I tried baits both ways, stunned and not stunned, and found the guides knew what they were talking about, though I also caught a couple of snapper on speedy, unimpeded baits.
After we were done with the snapper and cabrilla we moved southward, and Ben and Jack made some deep drops in 200 to 300 feet with knife jigs, which produced whitefish and a bright orange-red popeye catalufa. It could have been a glasseye, but I can't tell the difference. They had outfits set up for the purpose.
We tried slow-trolling mullet for roosterfish next, off the lighthouse at Punta Area. We got one looker but no takers. Two anglers in a skiff showed us a 30-pound yellowfin they said they had caught right there, but we saw no tuna sign. This is a great place to find jack crevalle, but on our days here those fish didn't show. Many shore anglers love this place for its proximity to deep water. A determined beach fisherman might manage to hook a marlin or a tuna here because of the drop-off and the currents circulating up to the sandy spit.
We spent the rest of our time fishing for marlin, so we could document the use of the new light Accurate gear on larger, more powerful fish. That first afternoon, we drew a blank.
The next day, we could sense a change coming, as the breeze picked up a bit earlier, from the east-southeast. It died and then went to the south. We trolled live mullet, rigged dead ballyhoo, and skirted jigs. During the afternoon, we raised two marlin. Both came into the spread, but refused. Just shopping.
On our last day there was a big change. The breeze came up shortly after dawn, and reached 15 or 20 knots, out of the south. The palms around the pool pointed their fronds downwind, and whitecaps danced over a sloshy chop.
"It's going to lay down," predicted both owner John Ireland and foreman Gary Barnes-Webb. We boarded Ireland's Luna-Sea again. Not knowing what to expect, we moved off toward the waters a few miles out from the lighthouse, where we'd come close to billfish the day before.
As predicted, the breeze lay down. But that didn't help the fishing. The water smoothed off, but we couldn't see a fish anywhere, not even the jumpers we'd been watching and chasing the past two days.
Before lunch, the wind suddenly picked up again. Within an hour, the cobalt Cortez was capped with white as far as you could see. The chop got up to three or four feet in a jiffy. If we'd been in a panga it would have been dangerous to fish. In a small cruiser it would have been uncomfortable. On the 50-foot Luna-Sea we weren't much affected, although we sometimes lurched a bit in a head sea. I enjoyed my lunch of a dried beef burrito and a ham and cheese sandwich, with chips, an apple and a diet cola.
The breezy, choppy, sloppy conditions made a marlin miracle. We started seeing tailers, jumpers, even feeders in the white-capped blue waves. It wasn't long before that first one took that dropped-back bait. Ben Secrest worked the fish over while our skipper Gaspar ran the boat to his best advantage. The new Accurate outfit Ben fished with worked just like it should, putting pressure on the striper, picking up any slack with its high-speed gear ratio, while Ben shifted to make the most of any situation.
Paul kept the Sony HD camcorder winding, recording on tape while Ben was winding line, and three cameramen worked around each other on the deck as Jack shot his photos from the bridge. It was only 10 or 12 minutes before Secrest had the marlin whipped enough to get it boatside for a release. We all celebrated, and began to relax; our mission was at least partly accomplished.
We kept seeing marlin tailing and we sidled up to many to show them the goods, but the wind slacked off and they seemed to lose interest accordingly. Then there was a long period, maybe an hour without a sighting. I napped in Ireland's leather-lined salon, on a long sofa-seat at the table.
I awoke to shouting. Another fish had come in for a nibble, but we missed him. I went out on the after deck to see the wind had picked up again. We began to see more marlin, some jumping in the distance, a few feeding and slashing at the choppy surface, and more tailing downwind. We were about out of time, said Ireland, who needed to host at home that evening.
Then we hung another fish. Secrest had it on a lighter outfit, and this one looked to be a bit bigger. It gave us little aerial show, and like the other fish, seemed to want to sidle off up toward the bow, across the wind and chop. Backing into the chop brought water splashes up over the transom, and soon Ben was soaked on his front side, but in control of the fish. A couple of turns by the skipper and Ben's hard pulling had the marlin up to the boat, where all the shooters tried to get a shot before it was released. It was over before I could get in there.
Moments later we got one more bite, and LA County fireman-engineer Wayne Shimabukuro played the fish for a moment before it freed itself. We had what we needed, and it was late in the afternoon. We saw more than 40 marlin. We tried to present to at least eight of them. We had some good looks, a couple of whacks, and Ben got a brace of beaks to the boat. It was a satisfaction.
The ice chest produced cold bottles of Pacifico beer and limes. We toasted our good fortune as skipper Gaspar pointed the big Mikelson downwind and north toward The Ranch. The ride flattened out and the wake wave rose nearly to the height of the transom.
The shadow of the big bridge kept us in the shade as we kicked back to enjoy a smooth ride, thanks to Jack Nilsen and John Ireland, and the end of a good adventure.