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Baja By Boat
A rag tag band of hired guns ventures into Baja in search of waves, fish, and fun.
Like a lot of great adventures, this one began on a barstool. I'd gotten word that an old friend, Cary Dodson of Success Sportfishing, was taking his 58-foot boat, the Success, from its mooring in San Diego to their winter fishing grounds near Magdalena Bay—a 600 mile journey south. Instantly I thought of the amazing surf and spearfishing you could discover along the way. I brought the idea of surf/dive trip up to Cary and he was pumped. "I've always wanted to do something like that," he said over a happy hour beer. "The potential is limitless." Over the course of a the next few months we'd meet at the same bar and check out nautical charts and plot a course that would, in theory, put us into some decent surf and really good spearfishing.
After months of planning, we were on our way, motoring out of San Diego on a glorious and sun-bathed fall day. On board was big-wave hellman and North Shore lifeguard Dave Wassel; Hank Gaskell from Hana, Maui; my dive partner in SoCal Cheyne Magnusson; TWS photographer Brian Bielmann; and surfer/skydiver/hellman Brandon Lillard. Our first stop was to be famed big wave spot Isla Todos Santos.
Baja in October is finicky. You can either have an early northwest swell, a late season New Zealander, or a chubasco (hurricane) to provide swell. Over the course of one week, we had all three. Chalk it up to dumb luck.
"Is Wassel gonna make me paddle out at 25-foot Todos?" asked Hank on our way out. I told him not to worry, and despite the fact that Mavericks was showing signs of life up north, we'd be lucky if Killers was overhead. I was pretty pickled and the sun was getting low by the time we got there, but nevertheless barked at Cheyne and Hank to suit up and "get to work." To their credit, they were ready to go, but the waves looked all over the place and it was getting dark. Then the questions began, "Where we going next Justin?" "When are we gonna dive?" "Are you as clueless as you are drunk?" This reluctant co-captain had no idea what to do except head south to warmer water and bigger fish. "South we go you scalawags!"
With beers popping open at an alarming rate, we motored south. Hank was the exception—dude was all business, "I'm not drinking 'til I get a fish," he claimed. Hank was also the guy who sat in silence making paper roses as we told jokes that would make George Carlin blush. The term, "nicest guy ever" is used loosely nowadays but applies to Gaskell perfectly.
We motored all night and woke up just offshore of San Martin Island. Thick fog and dozens of knotheads (fisherman slang for seals) made for ominous diving conditions but we swam out anyway for a quick look. Diving in a kelp forest for his first time, Hank shot the biggest sheepshead I'd ever seen and lugged it back to the boat with an even bigger grin. "Nice shithead," was Captain Cary's way of patting him on the back. The crew filleted the "shithead" and by lunch we were motoring to a nearby surf spot and grinding as-fresh-as-you-can-get ceviche.
Before you get all PETA on us, listen up; spearfishing is the most sustainable form of fishing there is—there's no by catch. As well, under the power of your own breath and body, it's a fantastic way to stay in shape for surfing. How do you think guys like Wassel and Mark Healey handle two-wave hold-downs and 20-foot plus outer reef bombs? Give it a shot—you'll be more confident in big surf and have a chance to feed your family something healthy.
Our first surf was at a spot that's compared to the Superbank on a good day. Unfortunately, there wasn't enough swell to be making any kind of comparisons to the Gold Coast legend. That didn't deter Hank and Cheyne though. The two spotted a section on the wave that they thought looked surfable and lo and behold, ripped it up. "Big deal," you say. "They're supposed to rip." True. But, "supposed to" and actually doing so are completely different and only through the wizardry of Brian Bielmann and Cheyne Mags did we get a useable surf shot. Like any decent guest on a boat, those not surfing hammered away at the beer supply.
The next morning we awoke on the east side of Cedros Island, eager to shoot some yellowtail and praying for a surf on nearby Isla Natividad later in the day. Despite a boiling ball of bait, the dive was uneventful and nobody got a fish. As organizer of the trip, I could feel the pressure mounting. We had one surf shot and a shithead to show for all the money and time spent.
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With swirling winds and no idea what the swell was doing, we motored to Isla Natividad. As the vessel rounded the eastern tip of the island, plumes of spray flew off the back of what looked to be head-high plus barrels. We quickly dropped anchor and got the skiff ready for what figured to be the best session of the trip. We were not let down. While it wasn't all-time Natividad, we'd lucked into a late season south swell that was being crossed up with fading northwest energy. Long rights that bent out to sea and short, rampy lefts were being groomed by strong offshore winds. A few curious locals came by to say hi, and then charged us five dollars a head for the pleasure of standing on their wind-blown piece of dirt. Bielmann laughed as he said, "I've been here four times on so-called 'strike missions' and never got it this good." Dumb luck and alcohol-fueled intuition prevail again.
Content with our surf sessions (all two of them) we set our sights further south with hopes of gin-clear water and curious pelagic fish. Now that the surfing element of the trip was taken care of, we put our faith in the real captain, Cary Dodson. He didn't let us down. Hundreds of miles south of San Diego and more than 40 miles offshore, we came to a high point in the middle of the mighty Pacific Ocean where you could see the bottom. Land was nowhere to be seen, but 70 feet below the surface was an underwater ridge that was home to every kind of fish you could imagine. On the surface there were wahoo and yellowtail, while on the bottom lurked 100-pound gulf grouper.
The more experienced divers in our group (everyone but myself) effortlessly dropped down to the bottom in hopes of shooting the fish of their life. Soon after we entered the water, captain Cary (all six-foot-four and 230 pounds of him) yelled, "I'm on!" and started getting towed through the water as if a boat was dragging him. After a few laps around the perimeter of the Success, the fish tired and Cary was able to "brain it" with his knife and get it under control.
With that, the bloodbath began.
Wassel was up next with an ono (Hawaiian for wahoo) that rivaled the captain's in both size and ferocity. It was the biggest ono he'd ever shot and stretched from the deck to the top of his shoulders when he held it up. Hank and Cheyne were hammering good-sized yellowtail and Lillard got another wahoo. I, on the other hand, was having a shocker and whiffed on shot after shot. I'd later learn that you have to wait for pelagic fish to swim up to you, not the other way around.
It was wide-open spearfishing for two days and we nearly filled the fish hold on the Success. I was the lone diver who hadn't shot a grouper or wahoo and was feeling down until a bull dorado swam right up to me like he was sacrificing himself. I got a good shot behind the gill plate and he took off on a short-lived run. Finally! I kept a firm grip on it until the crew had it on a gaff and it was safely (not so safe if you were the fish) on the boat.
Covered in fish blood and feeling like scurvy-ridden pirates, we made a heading for our port of exit, and motored into Magdalena Bay with a wild night in La Paz on our minds. Unfortunately the details of La Paz can never be repeated. Just trust me when I tell you the nightlife there rivals that of Cabo San Lucas.
Haggard, hungover, and wobbly from being on the ocean for a week, we made it to the tiny airport in La Paz only to be greeted with a 2,700-dollar extra weight fee. We were several hundred kilos over and it was going to cost a lot of pesos to get our gear and fish home. Instead of giving in, we started chucking fish to every airport worker there and soon enough, our overweight fee had been whittled down to a much more manageable number. But the fun wasn't over; we were flying in to the most violent city in the northern hemisphere—Tijuana.
Despite the horror stories you hear about the city, the airport in TJ is quite nice and located right on the border. After a five-dollar taxi ride we dragged our mountain of shit across the border and into America. After months of planning and a week at sea, the ultimate way to do Baja had come to an end and all that was left to do was reap, or in this case eat, the rewards.—Justin Coté
Above: As usual, nobody wanted to video too much but we did get a few GoPro clips beginning at the SD bait dock and ending with a few shots on wahoo and a dorado.
How To Hold Your Breath Longer And Dive Deeper With Dave Wassel
-Hold your breath while doing cardiovascular exercises like running or riding a stationary bike.
-Repeated dives in your environment, lakes or ocean, will make you more comfortable with your surroundings and therefore slow down your heart rate.
-Take a freediving or breath holding class—the results are (ahem) breathtaking.
-When descending, dive straight down, not at an angle.