“Nine yellowfin tuna, four over 150 pounds and the others around 100 pounds, in one day, for two anglers fishing within two miles of the shore. Repeat that for three days and you have a fishery unequaled anywhere.” – Zane Grey, Novelist
That is how Zane Grey, master storyteller and arguably one of the most prolific anglers of all times, described the piscatorial potential of Cabo San Lucas in his bestselling book, ‘Tales of Fishing Virgin Seas’, first published almost a hundred years ago. To anyone lucky enough to have experienced these waters firsthand, it should come as little surprise that the southern tip of Baja California and the Mexican Pacific in general has a longstanding tradition of leaving the visiting fisherfolk breathless, no matter how rich or auspicious their fishing rolodexes up until that point.
Much has changed in the region since the days of Zane Grey’s yellowfin frenzies, when the only way to reach Baja and its coveted spots was by setting sails and venturing south aboard your own vessel. An army of roads, airports and hotels quickly transformed Mexico into one of the hottest vacation spots in the world, and you would be hard-pressed to find many similarities to what the country looked like in the 1920s. However, the peerless veteran sportfishing grounds of Cabo San Lucas remain virtually unaltered, gleefully withstanding not only the test of time but the endless schools of anglers as well, still migrating to its welcoming shores year after year. Nobody does fishing quite like Cabo, and we’re about to show you why.
Fishing Regulations in Cabo
The waters of the Mexican Pacific herd an impressive diversity of both offshore pelagics and bragging-size game fish flaunting in the bays, but before any grander fights or screaming reels, you’re going to need a fishing permit. A valid Mexican Sportfishing License is considered mandatory for any non-resident 16 years or older aboard a vessel, regardless of the type of fishing in question; roosterfishing inshore, deep dropping for snapper or overnight Marlin runs all fall under the same set of rules put forward by the good people at Conapesca (Mexico’s equivalent of Fish and Wildlife Commission).
If you’re booking a fishing charter rather than operating the boat yourself, there’s a solid chance your Captain does cover the licensing for the entire group, and simply integrates the extra cost in his overall package prices. In my personal experience, I’d say about 60% of the Captains operate under that model, with the rule of thumb being that pangas and smaller boats prefer you take care of the permits yourself. This rings true for most quality Mexico fisheries, from Puerto Vallarta to Playa Del Carmen.
To avoid any unpleasant surprises on the day of the trip, make sure you double check with your captain beforehand. If the license is not included, you can easily purchase it online in a matter of minutes, by filling out this form. The permits will set you back about 8$ per day, 21$ per week, 31$ for a full month or 42$ for an annual fishing license.
Fishing from the shore, however, does not require any documentation whatsoever, with the only restriction being that you must practice your cast at a safe distance of at least 250 meters away from any swimmers.
As for other regulations you’re likely to find useful, only a single rod in the water is allowed per person, with no restrictions pertaining to any replacement items. For bottom fishing, you may use as many as four hooks on a solo vertical line.
A daily bag limit in Mexico is ten fish per person, with a few exceptions that make the matters a bit more interesting. Get your calculators out: no more than 5 specimen of a single species can be bagged, and only one Billfish (Marlin, Sailfish, Swordfish) is allowed per angler, which will count as half of your daily limit. In a similar fashion, you can’t boat more than two Mahis, Roosterfish, Tarpon or Shad, which also amount to half of the daily limit.
So basically, although up to 10 fish can hypothetically be landed in a single day (depending on the variety of species caught), you can also limit out by catching a single Marlin and two Dorados, or hooking a Sailfish and a Swordfish.
Of course, no actual limits are set on the practice of catch and release, as long as the fish departs from your boat in a reasonable survival condition. You should also be aware that, regardless of the regulations, most Captains take conservation issues such as this one very seriously, and will insist on releasing any and all Billfish (and often Roosterfish) caught aboard their vessel. The entire Los Cabos area is extremely progressive on the matter, with the overall billfish release rate currently estimated at about 95%.
Fishing in Cabo San Lucas
Sitting on the southern tip of the sun-bathed Baja California peninsula, no lengthy introduction is needed for this Mexico tourist heavyweight, world renowned for its pristine beaches, premium scuba diving locations and the beloved front page of endless travel brochures – the El Arco rock formation.
This is where the Sea of Cortez caresses the Pacific Ocean and all hell breaks loose at the other end of your line, but we’ll get to that in just a moment. Because as it became vividly clear during the daunting events of September 2014, the real reason why Cabo became the revered sportfishing giant it is today lies not just in its prolific fishing grounds, but perhaps even more so in the devotion and resilience regularly displayed by the local fishermen, captains and charter owners, intrepidly committed to their home fishery no matter the circumstances.
On September 14th, 2014, Cabo San Lucas was center-punched by the strongest storm to hit Mexico in the last 80 years. Hurricane Odile took no prisoners, pretty much destroying everything in its path and setting Los Cabos on a painful road to recovery, as it seemed it would take years before the city would be able to welcome its tourists with open arms once again. The marinas and local fishing fleets were naturally among the ones hit the hardest, with many vessels suffering irreparable damages, threatening to completely shut down the city’s upcoming angling season.
This utterly depressing state of affairs lasted for about…6 days. A week after Odile, we started receiving word from the local Captains that they were already back on the water running fishing trips, and that the bite has, in fact, never been better! The first fishing reports came only days after the hurricane, while sections of the city were still lying partially in ruins.
The entire town was fully reanimated in record speeds, and as it would later be reported, it was the fishermen who came back to work first, which pretty much sums up all you need to know about the dedication to sportfishing the local crews are famous for.
Species, Seasons, and Techniques
When most people think fishing in Cabo, the first image that comes to mind is usually that of a grander Marlin leaping with your bait, frantically slashing the teaser with its bill and rooting you tightly to that chair, as the next several hours turn into an ultimate showdown of stamina and skill. And no doubt is there a pretty good reason for that; the city is home to the highest-paying Marlin tournament in the world, and countless billfish record books had to be revised thanks to these very waters.
However, just as fishing the Riviera Maya is about much more than just Bonefish and Permit, it would be unjustly shortsighted to limit Cabo’s fishing capacity only to its deep sea potential, without crediting a robust inshore fishery that happily coexists with the city’s billfishing grounds. Read on to find out exactly what makes Cabo San Lucas one of the most well-rounded fishing destinations in the Pacific.
Deep Sea Fishing
You name it, it’s in these waters. The entire Los Cabos area is rife with just about any trophy pelagic, and the bite never so much stops as it merely switches between species depending on the time of year. As you probably already know, Cabo has long been dubbed the ‘Striped Marlin Capital of the World’, and boy has it got numbers to prove it.
Back in 2007, a regular two-day deep sea excursion ended with 330 (yes, that zero is in fact supposed to be there) striped marlin being released by the group. A year later, five casual anglers ended up letting go of 190 stripers over the course of a day of fishing. Now, reports like these are obviously more of an exception than the rule, but on the other hand, how many fisheries do you know where these types of trips are even an exception?
Catching a Striped Marlin is an extraordinary experience in its own regards, as the nimble fish typically gets so excited it starts pulsating with vibrant colors down the sides of its body, something veteran striper anglers refer to as ‘lighting up’ a Marlin. Stripers can be caught virtually all year round, although peak season does run between months of November and March. According to Jack Vitek, IGFA’s World Record Coordinator, he picked Cabo as one of the best Marlin fisheries in the world.
Trolling with live bait is a method of choice, while most captains insist (and if they don’t, you certainly should) on using circle hooks for landing the fish, as it does less damage and allows the creature to live to fight another day. Fly fishing for stripers is becoming an increasingly popular activity, as little can seem to compare to catching a Marlin on the fly. The fish can grow up to 300lbs, with an average-sized Marlin weighing in at about 125lbs.
The offshore waters of Cabo San Lucas are prolific with a slew of other Billfish species as well: one of the fastest swimmers in the ocean, the Pacific Sailfish (locally known as Pez Vela) migrates through the area between January and March, with the majority of Sails caught falling in the 80-100lbs bracket. Blue and Black Marlin typically arrive between July and October, and are mainly pursued on the Pacific side of the peninsula, as they congregate around hotspots like the Golden Gate and San Jaime Bank.
Most Blues landed in Cabo San Lucas are males between 250 and 350lbs. Fly fishing for a ‘grander’ Black Marlin (over 1000lbs) is obviously not feasible, however you might want to keep an eye open for ‘rats’ – Blacks in the below-200lbs class. Concentrations of these fly eaters have been spotted around Cabo several times before, so fly enthusiasts – take notice.
Other than Billfish, summertime in Cabo is also a perfect opportunity to catch up on your Tuna and Dorado fishing. Yellowfins average between 8 and 30lbs, but monsters in excess of 200lbs have been boated before. As any seasoned deckhand will tell you, look for the schools of diving birds – it’s the simplest method of finding your Yellowfin party for the day!
Mimicking Cancun‘s seasonality, Dorados are peaking in July and August, although you can only partially classify them as an offshore catch. Hungry Mahis are known to follow baitfish schools right into the shallows, so don’t be too surprised if your inshore trip ends with more than a few of these delicious specimen in the bucket. Everyone’s favorite bycatch, Wahoo are too patrolling the area during the Summer and Autumn months.
If there’s one thing you learn very quickly in the fishing business, it is that trolling for deep sea pelagics is not for everyone. Until something takes your bait, the experience is very much passive and even after the bite is on, the fight can often be too long and too exhausting. For those looking for a more interactive fishing experience or one not nearly as physically demanding, bottom and reef fishing is a perfect alternative.
A preferred option among bigger groups or families with kids, bottom fishing tends to be much more engaging and produce higher quantities of fish. Granted, the catch is likely to be much smaller relative to a Marlin, but kids love it all the same, and this way they get to raise the fish themselves, which is always immeasurably more fun. The rocky outcroppings of Cabo San Lucas are a great place for targeting the likes of Snapper (Cubera, Dogtooth and Red), Hogfish, Pargo, Roosterfish or Grouper, many of which will still not go down without a proper fight, as they’ll struggle to make their way back into the comfort of their lairs.
While deep sea fishing remains very much the norm with travelling anglers visiting Cabo, exploiting the fertile and still under-employed inshore waterways has been picking up steam for a number of years now. By far the most coveted catch – the Pacific Roosterfish, or as the locals call it, Pez Gallo. A member of the Jack family, the Roosterfish is endemic to the temperate waters of the tropical Pacific, and can grow in excess of 100lbs.
The fish is an exemplary predator of the surf, best taken while herding schools of baitfish against the sandy beaches it so often dominates. Although it very well might just be part of the local fishing lore, many say there’s a higher concentration of Pez Gallo in the waters surrounding Cabo San Lucas than any other fishery on the planet, even Costa Rica – its strongest contender. Either way, there’s no denying that the fish is extremely fun to catch whether on the fly or light tackle, their dorsal fins violently erupting from the water at the sight of a well-positioned lure. Just as Cozumel is world-renowned for its perennial Permit fishery, the waters of Cabo are brimming with Roosters virtually regardless of the season. Still, although catches are commonly reported throughout the year, your fat Roosterfish reign in the summertime, with 80lbs+ specimen peaking during the month of July.
Another champion of the shallows, Sierra Mackerel is a schooling fish best known for the explosive splashes it creates on the surface while hunting bait. The commotion draws the attention of various types of birds, which can often be used as natural fishfinders in your hunt for this tasty inshore warrior.
A typical leader is probably not going to last very long next to Sierra’s razor-sharp teeth, so wire is more than recommended. Another reason for the Mackerel’s massive popularity, it is often a main ingredient in ‘ceviche’, a famous seafood dish best served with a side of sweet potatoes, avocados or plantain, and seasoned with chilli pepper and citrus juices. Bon apetit!
Finally, Jack Crevalle, locally known as Toro (the bull) is perhaps one of the most overlooked inshore game fish in the area, putting up quite a battle when taken on the fly. December through July is primetime for Toro fishing, which usually averages between 7 and 20 pounds, although 30-pounders are commonly bagged on a good day. Much like offshore fishing, there’s no off-season for fishing the shallows either, as resident population of Black Skipjacks, Bonito and Rainbow Runners are bound to keep you busy on any day of the year.
Cabo Fishing Grounds
Cabo San Lucas offers an amazing blend of contrasting fishing opportunities, perhaps best described by a deceptively complex dilemma every boat is faced with when leaving the city’s shores in the morning: left, or right?
Yes, as the city lies perched on the very end of a 700-mile long Baja peninsula, a unique tactical decision needs to be made each day as to the actual physical direction of your fishing trip. Turn left, and you will be fishing in the prolific Sea of Cortez or the California Gulf, an enormous body of water rightly considered one of the most diverse and bustling marine ecosystems in the world. Home to over 5000 species of micro-intervertrebrates and countless schools of alluring baitfish (including shrimp, squid, herring, sardines and mackerel), the Sea features some of the most nefarious fishing banks this side of the continent, teeming with everything from Roosterfish, Pargo, Snapper and Amberjack to everyone’s offshore favorites such as Wahoo, Dorado, Tuna, Sailfish and Marlin.
Turn right, and you’ll quickly find yourself in the middle of an open ocean, where the inviting Pacific currents host many of the largest big game pelagics you will ever have a remote chance of boating, as undeniably proven by over 70 world records set and broken in these very waters.
To further illustrate the point, here’s a rundown of all the major hotspots located on both sides of the Cabo San Lucas marina, complete with the likeliest catch and game fish seasonality for each.
Turning left (Sea of Cortez)
Often referred to as the ‘World’s Greatest Fish Trap’, the Sea of Cortez is said to contain more than 850 species of fish as well as a healthy, resident population of some of the most coveted game species on the planet. There’s a wide range of hotspots in the gulf visited daily by fishing vessels from all parts of Baja, some of which remain a well-kept secret only known among the seasoned deckhands. Here’s the look at the most prominent fishing grounds off the east coast of Cabo San Lucas:
Appropriately dubbed the ‘Wahoo Banks’, this has traditionally been one of the most popular fisheries in all of Baja California. Doubling as a terrific snorkeling site and located as close as 5 miles from the coastline, this offshore gem can be divided into the Inner and Outer Gordo Banks, the former lying within easy reach of local pangas – sturdy (and cheap) open skiffs ranging in size between 20 and 28 feet, usually powered by outboard engines.
The Outer Gordo Banks (about 10 miles out) are renowned for some of the most productive seasons in the area, brimming with Wahoo, Yellowtail, Jacks, Pargo, Grouper, as well as Mahi Mahi, Tuna, Marlin and Sailfish. Peak migration times usually occur between April and November, but due to the area often being sheltered from the winds year-round (courtesy of the nearby Sierra Madre mountain), there’s pretty good fishing to be done during the off-season as well.
Santa Maria Canyon
A common gathering place for heaps of Dorado, Tuna, Billfish and more, the canyon of Santa Maria is located approximately nine miles off the coast, in between the 1150 Bank and the aforementioned Gordo Banks. Due to its proximity to Cabo San Lucas as well as the neighboring San Jose Del Cabo, the Canyon has long been a favored alternative for whenever the Gordo bite begins to dwindle, or the other banks get a bit too overcrowded with tourists.
For those of you dead set on not coming home from Cabo without that grander story, the 1150 Bank lies 20 to 25 miles offshore, and sports a unique combo of marine features of both the California Gulf and the Pacific. A celebrated spot for both Marlin and Tuna fishing, the 1150 is regularly frequented by several species of Sharks as well, particularly the elusive Mako.
There’s much more than heavy-duty trolling for Billfish in the California Gulf waters, and nowhere is that more evident that places like the Vinorama Canyon. Situated northeast relative to the Gordo Banks, this canyon does require somewhat of a longer boat ride from the Cabo San Lucas marina, but it more than makes up for it in its prolific light tackle playground. Schools of Yellowtail mark the beginning of the year at Vinorama, with Dorado and Tuna taking over in the postseason. Reef fishing for the likes of Snapper and Grouper is a possibility pretty much all year round.
Turning right (Pacific Ocean)
It is exceedingly rare to find two distinctly unique yet equally productive fisheries, not just brushing each other but also breaching and conspiring, all in an effort to bring you the best of both of its worlds. Although you are unlikely to ever find a line clearly separating the Sea of Cortez and the Pacific side of the Baja peninsula, the disparities between the two are more than clear. Unlike the relative uniformity of fisheries along the Yucatan Peninsula, these bodies of water differ by a variety of climate and topological factors, including contrasting currents, mixed seasonalities, underwater structures and surface temperatures. Still, if there’s one thing they both have in common, it would have to be the never-ending sportfishing madness, evenly distributed on either side of Cabo. The best fishing grounds of the Baja’s Pacific side are as follows:
San Jaime Bank
The Tinaje Trough is a 3500 feet deep underwater canyon anchored between San Jaime and Golden Gate bank (next one on our list), creating a nourishing pathway between the two. San Jaime sits right next to the deepest portion of the Trough, featuring 3 seamounts which rise to within 150 feet. As any seasoned angler will attest, seamounts are really just another word for game fish bonanza, as these underwater mountains provide food and shelter for baitfish, attracting in turn all of the craving pelagics scavenging the area. Tuna (Skipjack, Bonito, Yellowfin) and Marlin aplenty.
Golden Gate Bank
Stationed north of San Jaime on the other end of the Tinaje Trough, Golden Gate Bank is often considered one of the best Striped Marlin hotspots in all of Mexico, with the striper bite traditionally red hot during winter and the early spring months. Fly fishing for stripers is becoming an increasingly popular technique in the area, so don’t forget to bring your favorite flies! Still, if it’s diversity that you’re aiming for, the temperate waterways of Golden Gate are just as profuse with Mahi Mahi, Skipjack and Yellowfin Tuna, as well as several other Billfish species.
Built all the way back in 1890, the abandoned Cabo Falso lighthouse was once thought to be the southernmost point of the peninsula, nowadays mostly being used as a reference point for the copious fishing grounds located nearby, ranging anywhere between 2 and 20 miles south from the historic landmark. Easily reachable from the Cabo marina, stocks of Dorado and stripers await just off the coastline, with Blue Marlin well over 500lbs reported as close as 13 miles offshore.
45 Spot and the Cardonal Canyon
6 miles west of the famous El Arco, the 45 Spot is positioned at the tail of a 600ft ledge of the Cardonal Canyon, accounting for some prolific seasonal fishing. The Cardonal Canyon’s sweet spots are in close proximity to the west themselves, where the ocean floor swiftly plunges to depths of more than 3000 feet.
If you’re the type of person that finds the prospect of double-digits billfish action particularly appealing, you might want to check out the notorious Finger Bank. Although located upwards of 50 miles from the Cabo San Lucas marina, this bank is a quintessential Marlin fishery, often lighting up with hoards of stripers and blues during the winter-spring season. Still, given its relative remoteness and many angler’s natural desire to spend as much of their day fishing rather than reaching the grounds, many Captains find the trip to the bank unnecessary, thanks in part to the number of viable alternatives situated much closer to the shore (see:any of the above).
Got questions about fishing in Cabo San Lucas?
Don’t know which rod to bring, where to buy the best inshore lures in Cabo, or wondering about the best time to go after that Grander Marlin? Don’t hesitate to ask! We’re always just a phone call away from a few local captains that are more than happy to help you out.