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Fishing Cabo on a budget

Anton Jones - 1/29/2013
My wife and I were on the last day during of our two week fishing vacation in Cabo San Lucas. Our Captain and I decided to stay on the Sea of Cortez side for our 5 hour trip to prevent my wife, Sandy from getting “beat up” in the waves. It was the first day in early December where any appreciable wind blew. We had boated a nice Dorado that would top off our 2 coolers with 100 pounds (less the weight of the coolers) of high quality fish fillets. The last hour or so had been uneventful other than seeing a whale, schools of flying fish and a free jumping dorado that had put on a show for us. We were trolling dead baits at about 6 miles per hour skimming them on the surface forty feet behind the boat. I was reflecting on the fish we had caught and sights we had seen when Victor, our captain, yelled “MARLIN”. I jerked my head up and could clearly see two marlin attacking our baits. Their bills were slashing at the baits. Then the rod to my right started to sing out as a marlin had grabbed the bait and headed for the mainland of Mexico. Victor bounded past me and got the rod out of the holder instructing Sandy to get in the fighting chair. The fish greyhounded a hundred yards back then the line went slack. Victor turned back to us and said he was gone. No sooner had he gotten the words of his mouth when the rod to our left started singing that beautiful tune. He grabbed that one, felt the weight of the fish, set the hook and handed the rod to Sandy. The fish immediately leapt four feet into the air and also headed east at warp speed to set up residence in Mazatlan over two hundred miles away. That first series of leaps took the fish from 50 yards to 100 yards from the boat in the blink of an eye. Victor got Sandy strapped into the fighting belt and the fish went skyward again. This time it was 600 yards away and going fast. Within a few more seconds, the line went slack as the fish had thrown the hook. From the moment we noticed the two marlin working our baits until the second fish came free a total of 2 to 3 minutes had elapsed. That’s fishing isn’t it? Stretches of quiet contemplation interrupted by moments of absolute pandemonium. I believe this world class fishing experience is within the grasp of people even of modest means.

Here we are with a nice Dorado and Rooster!

My day job is being a fishing guide on Lake Chelan. Since my wife retired from her teaching job we have traveled extensively (albeit on a budget) during our off peak months leaving the guiding to our incomparable associate, Jeff Witkowski. Back in another lifetime, Sandy and I had traveled to Cabo for a week’s fishing vacation. I have often looked back at that week as the fishing highlight of my life that has been filled with hundreds and hundreds of great fishing experiences. So we made a plan and headed back down to see if it was as great as we remember.

Our plan consisted of trading some timeshare points to get into a condo there, booking a fishing trip every other day that we were there with a day between fishing for Sandy’s back to rest a bit and see the other sights. We planned on eating in most of the time and reserving restaurant meals for special treats. In looking back, we had another “vacation of a lifetime”. We spent two weeks at the Pueblo Bonito Rose’ and fished 6 times, each a five hour trip. While we were there I tried to get a real sense of what things would cost for a group of 3 guys. Three is the max on the 21 to 23 foot pangas that are most economical way to big game fish in Cabo San Lucas.

As of the second half of 2012 roundtrip airfare from Seattle to San Jose Del Cabo will vary from $425 to about $550 per person. Your best flight prices are usually going to be Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Ground Transportation (Cape Travel) from the airport to Cabo and back is about $45 per person each way.

For lodging, there are so many places to stay it just depends on your taste and budget. The place that I thought would be a nice combination of amenities, price and location for a group of 3 guys was the Cabo Marriott. It’s “retail” price is $105 per night for 2 adults with another $30 for a rollaway to accommodate a 3rd person. However, like most things in Mexico, price can vary a lot depending on when you go and how hard you negotiate. When I walked into their lobby and asked for pricing in February, I was quoted $85 for 2 and a rollaway for a third person would bring the total to right at $100 per night for 3. This is a 10 to 15 minute walk from the near side of the harbor or a 25 to 30 minute walk to the far side of the harbor. A taxi from the hotel to the far side of the harbor would be $8 to $10 each way. That is for the van, not per person. The Marriott was a clean, American style hotel with a nice pool and a free breakfast that you probably wouldn’t be around to take advantage of. There are older hotels just off the main streets that have room rates as low as $45 or $50 per night for 2 and places you could spend over $1,000 per night for all-inclusive luxury laden lodging right on the beach.

I love those Dorado!

We were there just after the peak for Dorado (also called dolphin fish or Mahi Mahi). That is what we mainly fished for and caught. In addition to the Dorado, we begged to fish for, and caught Roosterfish, some Needlefish, a Striped Marlin and even a small Amberjack. Our best day was three Dorado and a Striped Marlin. Our worst day was either 1 Dorado or 2 needlefish and one Roosterfish depending on how you define it. The fish that are available to be caught change with the season. Striped Marlin are the constant. I was told limits were five fish total with no more than two Dorado per person and one Billfish per boat.

Sandy with her Roosterfish and Miguel

It is possible to pay thousands of dollars per day to charter a luxury yacht to fish out of the Cabo harbor. My goal was to get the most hours on the water that my wife’s back could handle for the least amount of dollars. Therefore, instead of shopping for cruisers to take us fishing, I exclusively looked at pangas. Pangas are typically from 21 to 23 feet long with a fairly narrow beam of 5 or 6 feet. They are powered by a single outboard from 60 to 150 horsepower. I used personal references and the internet to make my selections.

What I’ve found is that you will see prices quoted from around $165 to over $400 for a panga. I think the average price must be about $225 to $250. That’s for the boat, not per person. Upon the recommendation of an expatriate there, I contacted Sushi Time to find out pricing. He quoted me a 4 trip price that included bait and licenses for $150 per five hour day. Therefore, for 4 trips, live bait and licenses it cost us a total of $600. That is a real bargain. Bait is normally $15 or $20 per trip. License cost $26 per person for a week or $43 per month. If you want to be picky downside is their equipment was rougher and the boat while serviceable was not a thing of beauty. Juan Carlos the owner and our guide Miguel were wonderful to talk to, treated my wife well and everything was as represented. We had a grand time!
I then read a number of reviews and exchanged emails with the owner / operator of Santi Sportfishing, Victor Saiga. He ended up taking us fishing twice for the same $150 per trip price although bait was additional. He was a terrific professional and had top notch equipment that included outriggers and had everything meticulously cared for each day. We had a great time with Victor. Although there were differences between the two services, I would really recommend either. They were both awesome boat handlers to keep you out of trouble with the fish and worked very hard at catching fish.

Victor gaffing another Dorado

Those were the guys that I fished with. There were innumerable pangas available in the harbor. One of things that a lot of gringos do that I think is a mistake is to walk the harbor looking for a deal. The problems with this price-wise is you end up paying a middle man that inflates the amount of money you spend. The other problem is that you have no idea how good a guide they are. With the miracle of the internet, you can read reviews, exchange multiple communications and even ask for references before plunking down your hard earned money if you plan your trip and make the arrangements in advance.
I suggest tipping your guide at least 15% to 20%. We tipped the guide between $30 and $50 for each day.

If you want to release fish you need to let your guide know. These fish are nothing to fool around with indecisively. Most of the guys that have worked in Cabo a long time have a variety of serious scars from fish bills and teeth.

For what it’s worth, I recommend releasing billfish and members of the Jack Family. Depending on the time of the year, there is almost always a great eating fish that is worth the trouble to bring back. When we were there, Dorado was that fish. Some times of the year, tuna is the food fish. During others it is Sierra Mackerel or Cabrilla.
How do you get them from a fish on the gaff to frozen packaged fillets in your freezer at home? What we found out is that if you sweet talk your guide they will fillet them on the boat. Otherwise, you tip a guy to take your whole fish in a barrel to a cleaning table. Then pay the guys $3 to $5 per fish to fillet them. Tip them. Have a guy carry them to your taxi. Tip him. (More on this tipping thing later.) Once we had fish fillets in a bag we took them back to our condo and portioned them out into a sandwich bag to pre-freeze them and put 4 sandwich bags to a 1 gallon zip loc. After freezing them and collecting them in a pile that we would put in the freezer compartment in our refrigerator I carried them to the bellboys at our resort who hard froze them in a big chest freezer. We tipped them. We bought 2 plain white 42 quart plastic coolers at Costco for $38.88 each. You can buy the same cooler at home for about $20, but by the time you pay the airlines $20 for the luggage fee you might as well buy it there. We then filled the coolers with packaged frozen fillets and weighed them in the resort laundry facility to get them as close to the 50 pound limit as possible without going over. Each of these coolers of fillets will cost you $20 as luggage to get home. After we got them home we took them out of the gallon zip-loc’s and vacuum sealed them. Between the coolers, the fish cleaning fees and tips we spent about $180 to get roughly 95 pounds of fish to the airport. A service that will short circuit all this is Gricelda’s Smoked Fish Shop. Have your guide take the whole fish there. They will fillet, trim, portion, vacuum seal, flash freeze and box your fish for shipping for $1.50 per pound. Next time I go, that is what I will do.

Lightly seal your boxes or coolers. It was amazingly smooth at the airport. They did a cursory check and ensured that we hadn’t included ice or dry ice in the coolers, taped them tightly shut and off to their own luggage vacation they went. Remember to label your coolers as you would luggage with your name, address and contact phone number.

Sandy & I at Missiones de Kino with our meal (yum)!

There are a wide variety of eating options from fairly inexpensive open air cantina’s to high end specialty fine dining venues. Additionally, there is a Wal Mart, Costco and other supermarkets in the Cabo area if you want to buy groceries. When we were there, that is what we did. We found the price of groceries there to be comparable to the price of groceries here. Some fresh fruits and vegetables were cheaper and some durable goods were more expensive, but we found prices very similar. The other eating option there that is pretty cool is the places that will cook your catch. Prices vary from $5 to $10 per person for this service. We went to Missiones de Kino around the corner from the Hotel Mar Cortez for the best of these experiences. They prepared our fish in four different ways for $7.50 per person. By the time we had drinks, sides and dessert it cost us about $40 plus tip for two. There are a bunch of these places right on the harbor. We stopped at a couple other restaurants on our trek back to our resort for lunch and a cold beer. They weren’t cheap, but they weren’t exorbitant either. I think having them preparing our catch a few different ways, a cold beer or two and a couple of side dishes cost about $25 for two. You can buy a prepared box lunch for $9 to $12 as part of your package. At first we prepared lunches, but during our later trips we just took snacks and water. Our guides also brought water for us. We knew that we would be eating lunch at the harbor after getting off the boat.

Cabs are all vans and charge by the van load, not per person. Most cab rides around Cabo cost $6 to $10. We generally took a cab to the harbor in the morning and walked back with a break for lunch on the way. Our resort was between 25 and 30 minutes to walk from the dock where our boat was parked.

As you probably know, the wage structure in Mexico is far below ours. In late 2012, minimum wage was around 8 pesos an hour which at the 12.5 peso per dollar exchange rate puts minimum wage at about $.64 per hour. Our bellboy at the resort made $.80 per hour. Our guide charging us $150 for a trip probably makes between $30 to $40 after paying for fuel, moorage and other overhead. I want to illustrate this to explain the pressure for tips. During the first part of our trip my wife was uncomfortable with all the vendors and everyone offering to “help” with their hands out. As we came to understand how dependent they were on tips to live, we tried to be what we considered “reasonable”. If you want to forego some of this keep the following things in mind.

1. At the airport, the people meeting you inside the terminal to “guide you” to your transportation are actually there to steer you to time share sales people. Just decline all assistance and look outside the terminal for your ride.

2. As I got a sense of the typical cost of cab rides, I did not tip if the cabby charged me at the high end of the scale. If he charged me below that, I tipped half the difference. The simplest was the cab ride from our resort to the harbor near our boat. Ten dollars was the high end for this trip. I didn’t tip when they charged me $10. A couple of times they charged me $8 and I tipped them a dollar.

3. Once you know where your boat is, decline assistance “showing you to the dock”. They expect a few dollar tip for escorting you a couple of hundred yards from the drop-off to the dock.

4. To quickly get rid of the vendors just firmly say “no thank you” or continue on your way. Remember the vendors selling fishing trips have to get paid in addition to everyone else.

5. Time share presentation sales people are the most ubiquitous and persistent of them all. They will be offering you all kinds of “discounts” to go to a presentation. There are fishing trips, quad tours, booze cruises and all kinds of other activities. It’s a cut throat business among them. If you want to take precious time out of your vacation to do that, I’d recommend negotiating. One sales guy that I discussed the process with said the resort gave him a $300 budget for every presentation that he got for them. His pay was the difference between the $300 and the cost of the discounts and / or cash that he had to give the time share presentee to convince them to go to the presentation. They make you promise to listen for 90 minutes to 2 hours, but will run much longer squeezing you to buy if you are polite and let them. Set your phone timer and cut it off at the minimum time limit if you’re really not interested.

6. Flag your own taxi coming out of Wal Mart if you want to avoid a dollar tip. It just depends on how conservative you are.
I would ask that you refrain from being rude or threatening to these people. It does not help and ruins our reputation among the locals. A bit of understanding and humor goes a long way.

Let’s finish this with a bit of discussion about technique and gear. The primary ways that we fished were trolling ultra-fast(15mph!) with resin head or squid style lures, fast (6mph)with lures or dead baits and slow(1-2mph) with live baits. For me, the most fun was slow trolling a live bait in close to shore. Feeling that fish grab the livey while thumbing the reel on free spool was an incomparable thrill for me. With everything being so visual, it was all fun. Most of what we used was conventional gear without level winds and was pretty heavy. You can bring your own lighter steelhead/salmon weight gear but you’ll have to pay luggage fees both ways to check it through.

The fleet heading out of the harbor at first light

So let’s break down the estimated costs per person for a 7 night vacation assuming you are flying in and out on a Tuesday for a group of 3 guys. You will fish 6 five hour trips. I will round up a bit to not be overly optimistic.

Flight - $500 per person
Ground Transportation (Round Trip) $90 per person
7 nights lodging ($110/n divided 3 ways $260 per person
6 five hour panga trips @ $200 per trip /3 $400 per person
Fishing license per person $26
Bait ($20 per trip for 6 trips/3) $40
Food ($250 per person – a bit of a guess) $250
12 - $10 cab rides / 3 $40
Tips ($120 per person – a bit of a guess) $120
Fish processing/transpo (1 $50 lb box pp) $95
Total All Inclusive $1,821

You might be able to get as much as $250 or so per person under that by hitting the flights just right as well as negotiating hard and successfully on your hotel and fishing trips. $1,550 would be rock bottom for the items listed above as of early 2013. Alternatively, you could easily spend a lot more on food if you want to eat out a lot. Basically, my food guess is based on mostly eating Wal Mart bought groceries with some lunches and a dinner or 2 at moderately priced restaurants. While not chump change, this is far less than a week’s fishing including flights, rooms and food that you could get at any exotic top notch location in the world. You’ll come back tired, sunbeaten with a grin a mile wide.

Good luck and don’t forget the sunscreen… If you can’t put a group of 3 together, here it is for 2:

For 2
Flight - $500 per person
Ground Transportation (Round Trip) $90 per person
7 nights lodging ($85/n divided 2 ways $300 per person
6 five hour panga trips @ $200 per trip /2 $600 per person
Fishing license per person $26
Bait ($20 per trip for 6 trips/2) $60
Food ($250 per person – a bit of a guess) $250
12 - $10 cab rides / 2 $60
Tips ($120 per person – a bit of a guess) $120
Fish processing/transpo (1 $50 lb bx pp) $95
Total All Inclusive $2,101 per person

Travel Tip for Clearing Customs: There was awkwardness for some of the people when we cleared customs in Seattle. This only applies if you are connecting out of Seattle to somewhere else. In our case we were connecting in Seattle to go to Wenatchee. When you get to Seattle, the airline has your luggage meet you when you deplane. Then you have to go through the customs process, reload your checked baggage onto a conveyor and go back through security before proceeding to the gate for your connecting flight. The issue that we saw arises for folks that bought duty free liquor in the secure portion of the Cabo Airport then needed to connect from Seattle to somewhere else. They could carry the booze on, but after you clear customs with it, you must stow it in your checked through luggage. To clear security again the 3 oz limit on fluids applies, so you can’t carry the liquor through the check point.

On our "off" mornings we breafasted at The Office

Anton Jones, Jan 2013
Darrell and Dads Family Guide Service