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In Cabo San Lucas, fishing for marlin reels in the soul of Baja

Perseverance, appreciation for nature key to popular tourist destination


Highlights

Cabo was a commercial fishing and cannery village before it became a destination.

We’ve been offshore for a few hours now. I’ve stomached an interminably choppy ride up the Pacific coastline from the southern tip of Baja California. I’ve watched deckhand Abraham expertly rig up multiple rods, securing them with a rope and pulley system that makes our 31-foot cruiser, the Tiburon, resemble a floating praying mantis. Our brassy reels, whose thick lines are slowly dragging squid-shaped lures the size of a forearm just below the cobalt water, glint in the morning light.

We’re trolling. We’re hoping to hook The Big One. We wait.

The noisy crowds of Cabo San Lucas seem a universe away. And that’s the reason I’m here — with Abraham and our man-of-few-words captain, Rosendo; with more than half a dozen fishing rods; with a fighting chair and live baitfish swimming in a well at the boat’s stern, unaware they may wind up marlin feed; with eight hours to experience the pastime on which the booming touristy town was built, and on which it still stands today.

Cabo was a commercial fishing and cannery village before it became a destination. Sportfishing didn’t really begin to catch fire till the late ’60s. The current yacht-filled harbor at the mouth of the Sea of Cortez back then was an airstrip surrounded by small fishing lodges and homes. Word started to spread about the bounty in local waters. Eventually, resorts multiplied and visiting anglers — many from Texas — arrived with money to spend. A recent study shows Cabo sportfishing generates more than $1 billion in economic activity.

I learn some of these things from Marco Ehrenberg, founder of Pisces Group Cabo, a real-estate firm and fishing charter company that’s been in operation for nearly 40 years. Over breakfast at Captain Tony’s, a marina-fronting restaurant/bar also owned by Pisces, he offers the aftermath of Hurricane Odile two years ago as an example of sportfishing’s enduring impact.

The strong Category 3 storm decimated Cabo’s touristic infrastructure, with damages amounting to more than $1.2 billion. Yet Marco says Odile was a blessing in disguise, a sentiment echoed by several others I’d meet over the course of my long-weekend stay. The recovery period became a long-game opportunity for hotels and resorts to double down by making new additions and improvements. And, says Marco, among residents “there was incredible solidarity. For the first time neighbors were meeting neighbors.”

Captain Tony’s reopened the day after the storm and became a community gathering place where people dropped off clothes and water, and stranded tourists left luggage. It wasn’t long until Pisces began to field inquiries from international anglers about fishing possibilities. Most hotels were out of commission, and Los Cabos International Airport would be closed for nearly a month. Pisces told customers they’d pick them up from the airport in La Paz, two hours away.

“We said, ‘Come and take pictures, and let everyone know the roots and the seed of Cabo are still here,” Marco says, pouring green salsa over his chilaquiles. “You can build golf courses and tourist destinations based on commercial resorts, but nature is why people continue to visit.”

Later that afternoon, I’m standing at the marina next to a mammoth weighing station with Wayne Bisbee. He and his sister, Tricia, run Bisbee’s fishing tournaments in Cabo, which, as luck would have it, take place in October while I’m in town.

“Blue marlin coming in!” someone shouts.

It’s the first day of “Little Bisbee’s,” or Los Cabos Offshore, during which more than 100 teams of anglers spend the weekend trying to catch 300-plus-pound billfish — marlin, mainly — as well as tuna, dorado and a few other species. Los Cabos Offshore is a preview of sorts to the famous Bisbee’s Black & Blue tournament a few days later. Both involve daily jackpots and multiple categories, nearly all based on fish weight. (Wayne likens Bisbee’s payout system to a slot machine: “You can put one quarter in, or you can put five.”)

Wayne’s father, Bob, started Bisbee’s in 1982. Six people showed up, competing for $10,000 in prize money. Wayne and Tricia took over in the early ’90s; these days, Black & Blue is the highest paying offshore tournament in the world, a bucket-list to-do for many. This year, 121 boats would compete for an overall purse of $3.5 million. (“Little Bisbee’s” is no slouch at nearly $800,000.)

Even if you’re not participating in the tournament — buy-ins can stretch from $5,000 per team up to $100,000 — the festivities are a lot of fun. As each boat pulls in to unload its catch at the bustling restaurant- and shop-lined marina, a crowd gathers near the weighing station, where the fish is hoisted up by its fins and Wayne, emcee, announces its weight.

“Three-fiddy,” Wayne guesses, eyeing the blue marlin rolling past us. Caught by a team named Go Naked, it’s actually 391 pounds. Not bad, he says, not bad at all. Team members and spectators snap photos before the billfish is lowered and hauled off to a charity that will use it in lunches for needy school children. Word soon comes that another blue marlin is on its way and that the angler had battled it for hours — a tantalizing thought. (Go Naked would wind up winning the day.)

Eager to get on the water myself, the next morning I ride out on the tournament’s center-console starting boat with Wayne and a few others. The teams are waiting for our cue, idling just beyond the marina in open water. A flare fires into the sky at 8 a.m. on the dot. Within seconds, dozens of boats, many more than 60, 70 feet long, are barreling past our small, now-violently rocking vessel.

Later, when the sea calms, I ask Wayne how billfishing here stacks up against other places around the world. “For year-round marlin,” he says, “it’s Cabo.”

In 2014, Bisbee’s was scheduled to take place a month after Hurricane Odile made landfall. Wayne and Co. managed to pull it off, but it wasn’t all tight lines and rainbows. The airport was still a work in progress, the marina was half ready and many hotels were still closed.

Two years later, hotels here are more impressive than ever. Chef-driven restaurants and private villas have been added, rooms have fresh looks, and windows have been reinforced to withstand future disasters. Entirely new resorts are joining the party, too, further filling out the 20-mile coastal corridor from Cabo San Lucas to San José del Cabo, near the airport. The next two years will deliver properties from luxury brands including Ritz-Carlton, Four Seasons, Nobu and Montage.

The Cape was the first high-profile newcomer to debut post-storm, so I’ve booked a room there. I’m greeted in the 161-room Thompson Hotel’s sleek, open-air lobby by a large sculpture made of driftwood collected after the hurricane. In my room, a bellboy delivers a complimentary bottle of tequila as I take in the view of Cabo’s iconic rock-formation arch from a floating bed on the balcony. That night I chase inventive seafood dishes with a bottle of Grüner wine at Manta, the Cape’s fine-dining restaurant as envisioned by celebrated Mexico City chef Enrique Olvera and his lieutenant, Alex Branch.

The dining scene thrives in Cabo beyond resorts and in-town taco joints. In the mountains near San Jose del Cabo, a pair of worth-the-drive organic farms with on-site restaurants — Acre and Flora Farms — continue to develop. At the latter’s Flora’s Field Kitchen, artisanal cocktails hit the spot on a hot afternoon paired with homegrown salad and a pristinely seared slab of fresh-caught tuna.

Back on the Tiburon, we’re still waiting for a bite. The drowsiness-inducing anti-nausea meds I took earlier have taken hold. Abraham and captain Rosendo are up on the boat’s flying bridge, scanning the water with determination. Below them, on a padded deck cushion, my eyelids droop as I stare at the glinting rods, willing them to life.

An hour later, it happens. After spotting a dorsal fin, Abraham has instantly leapt from bridge to stern, reorganized trolling rods and cast live bait in the fish’s direction. We — well, technically he — hooked it.

Heart racing, I climb into the fighting chair as Abraham hands me the heavy rod.

“Slowly lift up,” he advises, “and when you feel the tension release start reeling in as fast as you can, rápido, rápido!”

It takes me a few minutes to get into the rhythm, but once I do it feels strangely like dancing. The striped marlin is my partner, acrobatically splashing in and out of the water as he tries to break free.

It’s no use. In about 15 minutes Abraham has hauled the stunning, 100-pound beast onto my lap for a quick picture, before releasing it back to swim freely with a perky “off you go, muchacho!” Exhilarated, I collapse back in the chair. Again, we wait.

Pisces Group owner, Marco, who arranged the charter, had told me a few days prior that the best season for fishing is “when you’re on a boat.” I could hardly disagree — especially in Cabo, whose soul is intertwined with these creatures of the sea.

Of note: Both Pisces Sportfishing and Bisbee’s are advocates for fish conservation, a hot-button topic in the region. Pisces touts a self-imposed release process, according to Marco Ehrenberg, allowing anglers to keep only one marlin per boat, instead of one per license that local law dictates. Pisces has been honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award for Conservation, given by the International Game Fish Association. Meanwhile, Bisbee’s operates the nonprofit Bisbee’s Fish & Wildlife Conservation Fund. During tournaments, anglers should only bring in marlin that weigh more than 300 pounds. If the fish weighs less, teams are penalized.



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