Thursday, September 16, 2021
Thursday, September 16, 2021
Many saltwater anglers start their journeys in freshwater, fishing close to home, maybe learning to cast on a nearby creek, and possibly catching their first fish on a river just down the road—it’s where their passion for the sport begins. As their interest in fishing grows, they may look toward distant locales and new challenges—places they’ve read about, waters with big, hungry fish. And I’m no exception. For me, and many others, that progression meant getting my feet wet in the salt.
I first fished salt in 2010 when my family decided on a summer holiday in Croatia. Of course I had to bring along my gear. I grabbed a 7-weight rod, a floating line, and some baitfish imitations, and headed out hoping to catch a bonito or grouper hanging around the shoreside rocks. I had no idea that fishing Croatia would afford shots at mahi-mahi and start a new and exciting chapter in my fly-fishing journey. Fortunately, many of the tactics and tricks I learned while fishing my homewaters helped ease that transition to salt.
As you might know, Croatia is a vacation destination for Europeans who want to kick back on the beach and spend a few weeks with family. The country has a lot to offer—the stunning Adriatic coast; hundreds of beaches; historical towns and charming villages that offer a traditional vibe; and, of course, many fantastic restaurants serving classic Mediterranean cuisine. How great does that sound? It sounded even better to me when I discovered that tons of mahi-mahi cruise that country’s shorelines. Mahi-mahi—also called dorado or dolphinfish—are known for their acrobatic fights and striking blue and yellow coloration.
Mahi are a pelagic species that typically live in open, tropical waters near the equator. But in Croatia the story has changed. Over the past 20 years the Adriatic has warmed considerably and mahi, along with other species, have appeared where they were never found before. They are one of the fastest growing fishes in the oceans, they are highly successful predators, and they have caused negative impacts on several species, including Adriatic squid and needlefish. Mahi can grow 1.3-to 2.7 inches a week and up to four feet, and 40 pounds, in a year.
During my time in Croatia I caught mahi up to 2.5 feet long, which was somewhat frustrating because the bigger fish were there. Still, I had a great time chasing mahi, and my experience fishing from the beach surely came in handy when I traveled to Baja California, Mexico in June 2018.
Baja California is the second-longest peninsula on the planet, extending into the Pacific Ocean from the southern end of the U.S. state of California. A visit to Baja provides anglers with some of Mexico’s most dramatic landscapes and ocean vistas. This includes everything from uninhabited deserts, to endless white sand beaches, to untouched islands, and majestic, towering mountains. There are a host of traditional towns to explore, where fish tacos and beautiful sunsets are in ready supply. To top it off, the fishing can be incredible.
Roosterfish, called pez gallo locally, are a member of the jack family. They are indigenous to the eastern Pacific, from Baja California south to Costa Rica and Peru. Most often, anglers catch roosterfish in the 10-to 15-pound range, but these fish grow to a hundred pounds or more. You might also catch a few baby roosterfish which are, in my opinion, the cutest fish in the sea.
Be prepared, however: Chasing roosterfish can be unforgiving and hooking into one of these beautiful creatures from the beach is very much a challenge. But they are worth every bit of effort. Their unique look—spectacular, “mohawkesque” dorsal fins, zebra stripes, and shiny silver bodies—is unlike any other fish. Based on that look and their sultry attitude, they’re surely the punk rockers of the fish world. The first time a rooster chases your fly, you’ll notice that spike-like dorsal fin sticking out of the water as the fish zeros in. If that doesn’t give you a heart attack, it’ll surely leave you shaking.
Shortly after I began fishing for these amazing creatures in Baja, I realized how much the experience resembled fishing for mahi-mahi in Croatia. Certainly, I’m no expert on fishing the surf, but between Croatia and Baja I learned a lot. I’ll share a few tips that attributed to my success. These may assist you on a foray into the surf-fishing world, whether spotting and casting to Croatian mahi, Mexican roosters, or any other challenging fish that cruises the beaches, searching for an unsuspecting meal.
When fishing from the beach, no matter the species, but especially so for roosterfish and Croatian mahi, success is all about finding fish. Once you do just that, you need to make targeted casts that place your fly in front of a fish. You can’t simply blind-cast and hope for a hookup. I’ve found that drop-offs are especially good places to wait for pelagic fish to move into an area. Also, if you encounter a ball of sardines or some other mass of baitfish, it sometimes pays to follow that ball, because sooner or later the predatory fish will find it.
In any event, patience is key. It’s only a matter of time before you’ll come across some fish. Just keep looking and be ready to cast when the opportunity arrises. It’s worth the wait: Nothing is more exciting than watching the magnificent colors of mahi-mahi flash underwater while you try to make the perfect cast. Or seeing a rooster’s dorsal comb slashing through the surf while you present a fly in the perfect way.
You can wait in one spot, such as those drop-offs I mentioned, but I prefer to walk and wade. Constantly moving means you’ll likely cross paths with the fish you’re searching for, and the only limitations are how far your feet take you. However, Croatia and Baja offer huge differences when it comes to moving around.
In Baja, you may drive along endless sandy beaches on an ATV while looking for roosters. Yes, it is that amazing. You literally drive an ATV while trying to spot fish. In Croatia, this technique doesn’t work, thanks to all those tourists and their tents that infiltrate beaches during summer. There, it’s better to find your own spot, far from families that may be swimming near shore, right where you want to cast. And the last thing you want is a hoard of people crowding around as soon as you finally get a fish on your line. Find a nice quiet spot, and walk a few kilometers up and down the area until you find fish and hook up.
Roosters in Baja and mahi-mahi in Croatia usually feed on similar baitfish that inhabit shallow water. Stock your fly box with sardine and mullet imitations. White and grey, white and blue, white and green and tan colors typically fish best. The only major difference between rooster and mahi flies is hook size. For mahi I used flies tied on 1/0 hooks, compared to the 3/0 hooks I used for roosters in Mexico. One thing is the same in both locations—baitfish vary in size. It’s best to bring a range of sizes from one-to four inches long, so you can accurately match what the fish are feeding on.
For either species, poppers sometimes work. They can be difficult to cast, but when a mahi or a rooster hits a popper, it’s truly exhilarating. The key to casting these larger, less aerodynamic flies is to really watch your backcast. You’ll want enough energy in your backcast to properly load the rod for your forward cast. If a fish takes your popper, wait until the fish and the fly dip below the surface before setting the hook. When you feel tension, pull back to set. Classic NYAP or Mylar poppers raise your game in either locale. Give them a try.
June, July and August are the best months to chase mahi in Croatia and roosterfish in Baja California.
During these months large roosters cruise the shorelines and push baitfish into the shallows, sometimes literally chasing sardines or mullets right under your feet. In Croatia, the Adriatic Sea is at its highest temperature during these months, making mahi especially active and eager to search for food in shallow water.
Time of day makes a big difference in your efforts, too. For wet wading in Croatia it’s important to start quite early and avoid the daily tourist “hatch.” Fish from 7-to 10 a,m., and you should avoid the crowds. Then it’s time for some cold Karlovačko—a popular beer often served in one of the many beach bars.
Head back out in the afternoon, around 3 p.m., and fish until sunset. If you’re lucky, you’ll find some mahi and you could also be rewarded with some bluefish smashing your fly right before nightfall. In Baja, roosters often feed the entire day. However, the best time we found was between 10 a.m. and noon.
Mahi and roosters are challenging fish. In Croatia you can sometimes fish for hours, or days, without any strikes. If you’re patient, it’s only a matter of time before these fish show up in a school and make for one amazing fly-fishing experience.
In Baja, a good day is around 10-to 15 shots on solo roosters cruising the beach. I found these fish to be very finicky and they often stuck their noses up at my flies. Roosters are truly a test of one’s patience. You have to keep trying, and not give up when they turn away. It’s well worth the effort, however, to hold just one roosterfish.
If you’re looking for a truly life-changing experience, fish the salt, and more specifically try and make your way to fish roosters in Baja or mahi in Croatia. These beautiful, unique looking fish are so fun to chase on a fly, and extremely rewarding to hold after a fight. Most importantly, do not give up in your pursuit to catch these fish. Always remain focused, casting with intention and energy. If you have success, it will make a lifetime memory—you’ll never forget having fished and caught such spectacular species in such magnificent places.