This article originally appeared in the December 2008 issue of Southwest Fly Fishing.
As I surveyed the gin clear water I could see dozens of trout, but two larger fish caught my eye as they swam from right to left across the large pool. I turned and quickly cast my fly. The fly landed about a foot behind the two fish and I watched as the sound of the hopper pattern splashing down on the surface of the water caused both fish to completely turn around and race to my fly. As is usually the case, the smaller of the two fish took my fly off the surface and bolted towards the vegetation within the stream for protection. The small trout put a nice bend in the light 2-weight rod I was using as I tried to ease it away from the snags and rocks. I stripped the small trout in, removed the barbless hook from its mouth and took a second to admire the beauty of this native trout. It was a perfectly shaped 8-inch trout with a splash of crimson down its side, bold dark purple parr marks and black spots from head to tail. As I released the fish, I marveled at my surroundings. Here I was thigh deep in a cool green spring creek catching native trout, not in Colorado or Montana but in Baja California. I looked upstream to where my friends fly rod was pulsating under the weight of yet another beautiful trout and thought to myself “now this has been an adventure”.
La Adventura Comienza – The Adventure Begins
Having lived my entire life 20 minutes north of the California/Tijuana border, I have always considered Baja as an angling destination for saltwater species. So when a casual dinner discussion turned to stalking native trout south of the border my
On the trail to Rancho San Antonio.
interest was piqued and the idea for an adventure was born. As I listened I was amazed to hear about these native trout as well as the rugged and desolate area they came from. The gentleman who told the story wasn’t even sure they existed any longer, as he hadn’t been there in over 20 years. Once home, a search of the internet turned up an old article from a local weekly fishing newspaper that described the isolated area and the fish that lived there. An email put me in touch with Gregg Shobe, the American representative for Rancho San Antonio as well as Rancho El Coyote Meling. Rancho San Antonio is a working cattle ranch that has a trout stream running through it and Rancho El Coyote Meling is a lodge that serves anglers, hunters and those pre-running for the Baja 1000. Gregg serves as both a quail hunting and fishing guide for the proprietors and has been fishing these creeks for more than 15 years.
I met Gregg for lunch to learn more about the area and to start planning our trip. He told me about the Meling family, who owns Rancho El Coyote and thousands of acres of land in the vicinity. The Melings have hunted and fished in the valley for decades. We spoke of the trout, the appropriate tackle and other supplies. He told me of the rough dirt roads we would be traveling, the recent killing of a large mountain lion that had been preying on Rancho San Antonio’s cattle and of the large number of rattlesnakes that call the canyon home. He suggested looking into some leather hunting gaiters for protection from snakebites since the nearest hospital would be over 4 hours away in Ensenada. And that would just be the drive after the strenuous hour-long hike out of the canyon. When I got home that night and explained all this to my wife, she thought I had finally lost it. Here I was about to head into Mexico to a canyon full of vipers and cougars, with a guy I had just met earlier that day via the internet to catch a few fish. Looking back on it now, it does sound a little ridiculous.
Para Llegar Alli - Getting There
Our trip began with a quick stop for Mexican auto insurance and tourist permits at Discover Baja Travel Club, a small San Diego business. Once the appropriate documentation had been acquired we were officially on our way. We crossed into
Greff Shobe explores a small tailout on Santo Domingo Creek.
Mexico via the San Ysidro Border Crossing and headed south down Highway 1, towards the coastal cities of Rosarito and Ensenada. The toll road took us along the blue Pacific Ocean as we headed for a small city called San Telmo (just north of San Quentin) that would be our turnoff toward the San Pedro Martir National Park. After about five hours, we reached the turnoff and headed east into the mountainous San Telmo Valley on the road to Rancho El Coyote and Mike’s Sky Ranch. About 15 miles from the San Pedro Martir turnoff we headed southeast on a dirt road toward Rancho San Antonio. This is where traveling with a guide paid-off, as there are many places to get lost. Gregg stopped the small Toyota pickup several times to point out the small creeks that wandered through the desert approximately 1000 feet below us. After an hour and half of light four-wheel drive on a dirt road we came to a dead end that would be our jumping off point to hike into Rancho San Antonio. Parked there was another small Toyota truck with a cage built into the back of it for transporting horses to the ranch.
We left the truck here and packed most of our gear into our backpacks for the one and half hour decent to the ranch. As we headed down the trail, literally carved into the granite hillsides, Gregg explained that this trail had been used for hundreds of years to reach the now ruined Mission San Pedro Martir. At one particularly steep section of hillside he also pointed out the skeleton of a horse that had fallen off the trail the season before. The trail zigzagged down the mountainside and as we rounded a corner we could see two creeks in the valley below us, La Zanja Creek and Santo Domingo Creek, which were easily identified by the green riparian foliage standing out among the brown parched desert landscape. Once at the bottom of the canyon the vegetation turned from brown desert scrub to the more familiar creek-side vegetation consisting of Cottonwoods, Willows and Oaks. We reached La Zanja Creek first and filled our water bottles from the fast running clear creek. We also spotted a few trout scurrying from banks as our shadows stretched over the water.
We continued on to Santo Domingo Creek, another 10 minutes or so down the trail. As the trail crossed the creek we surveyed a big pool and were delighted to find that it was loaded with hundreds of active fish as well as a few Western Pond Turtles. As
On the trail to Rancho San Antonio.
we walked toward the ranches small two-bedroom adobe Indalesio Salazar, the boyfriend of Rancho San Antonio owner Noemi Barrera, greeted us. He took a break from watering the pastures by redirecting water from the creek, to walk with us to the adobe. He told us that he had seen many trout rising that morning and that we should have a great day of fishing. He also offered to take his horses to where we had parked and pack down any additional equipment that we might need. Since it was Cinco de Mayo, Gregg had promised him a steak dinner, and the steaks were waiting in a cooler in the back of his truck at the trailhead. We hurried to unload our gear and set up our tents and then took a few minutes to string up our rods. Indalesio readied two horses and left for the truck.
Locals will tell you that native trout have swam in Santo Domingo Creek since the early 1800s and that due to their isolated location few have actually fished for them. They believe that the fish are steelhead descendants that entered the creek from the Pacific Ocean during high water years when the creek flowed to the ocean. The fish were eventually landlocked and adapted to the warmer water temperatures that occur inland, especially in the summer. According to Robert Behnke’s book Trout and Salmon of North America the trout of Santo Domingo Creek are the southernmost natural distribution of the Coastal Rainbow Trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss irideus). From 1939 to 1945 a gentleman by the name of C.E. Utt, an Orange County conservationist who had fished the area quite often, came up with the idea of capturing Santo Domingo Creek trout and transplanting the fish above the creeks waterfall (approximately 5 miles upstream from Rancho San Antonio) and to the other spring creeks in the area: La Zanja; Portrero; San Rafael, and; Mission Creek. He enlisted the help of Andrew Meling to transport the fish with 5-gallon buckets on the backs of mules, stopping frequently to aerate the buckets with a bicycle pump. The transplants were successful and several of the creeks still hold fish today.
Los Cala – The Creeks
These Baja creeks are formed by springs that run off the mountains of the San Pedro Martir National Park some 10 miles away. The cool clean water that runs from these springs helps to maintain a reasonable water temperature throughout the hot summers. With outside temperatures easily exceeding 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer, water temperatures can reach up to 80 degrees Fahrenheit. However the fish remain active, having apparently adapted to the warmer water and fishing can be quite good in the morning and at sunset.
Although we crossed several of the small creeks on our way to the trailhead, Santo Domingo Creek was our destination and where we would camp for the night. The water was cool, green and very clear with a sand and rock bottom. The creek was not
Santo Domingo Creek's trout are typically small, but aggressive.
more that a few feet wide or deep in most places with dense vegetation lining its banks, making casting difficult in many places. Waders are not necessary, but wading boots and heavy pants or gaiters are recommended due to the aforementioned rattlesnakes as well as the sharp plants surrounding the water. Moving around the stream was difficult as there were no trails, sometimes requiring you to walk up or down stream within the creek. As we walked upstream an occasional pool opened up and allowed longer casts to cruising fish. We found that if we quietly snuck up on pools we could typically spot a few fish and develop a plan of attack. Sight fishing to these fish proved rewarding and after catching two or three fish in a pool we would move on upstream.
With the tight casting quarters and the average fish being 6 to 12-inches, 2 to 4-weight fly rods are ideal for these waters. My rod of choice was a two-weight Scott G2 rod that was 7-foot, 7-inches in length. I paired that with a Ross San Miguel One reel and a weight forward floating 2-weight line. We used tapered 6X leaders that were 9 feet in length, but these fish are not line shy and 5X leaders could also be used. While any number of flies seemed to catch fish, Gregg was extremely fond of size 14 Dave’s Hoppers. I had success with size 14 and 16 Elk Hair Caddis, Royal Wulffs, Stimulators and Adams soaked with floatant and dried with Frog’s Fanny to keep it floating high. Feeling that these fish were not very discriminatory with regard to flies, I even caught a few on a size 8 extended body damsel fly that I had brought back from Montana. Nymph fishing can be productive as well, especially through the deeper runs and pools. By tying a small beadhead dropper off of the lead dry fly, you can dredge these deeper areas. But with the clear water, sight fishing and aggressive visual takes we did not find it necessary to fish sub-surface on this trip.
One particular pool, under what Shobe thought was the northern most Cardon Cactus in Baja California, proved very successful. The dark pool was lined with pickup sized boulders followed by a thin winding tail-out that rushed over a large granite slab. Both the pool and the tail-out produced fish that were more golden in color than those that we had caught downstream. After fishing this area we headed back to the adobe for lunch.
After lunch and an impromptu siesta, it was decided that we would fish the big pool nearest the adobe to end the day. When we arrived at the pool we were greeted by dozens of aggressive trout eager to attack just about anything that hit the water. Gregg started at the head of the pool and was quickly into a fish as I headed down stream to where more fish were rising. With the clear water you could see fish everywhere, which allowed you to pick a target and cast to it. Oftentimes several fish would race for your offering as soon as it landed on the water. If you did not loose your fly to one of the streamside willows, you would typically find yourself guiding another trout away from the aquatic vegetation and into your hand for a close up inspection. It seemed that every time I looked upstream Gregg was releasing another fish. The upper portion of the pool proved too enticing and I joined Gregg there for the last few casts of the day. We took turns spotting and casting towards the far bank hooking and releasing the last few fish as darkness fell.
As we approached the adobe I heard something coming from inside the house that I had not expected. Indalesio had lit a fire to cook dinner on and was listening to a Los Angeles Dodger game being broadcast on an AM station from Los Angeles. When I
Indalesio returns from the truck with the Cinco de Mayo steak dinner..
asked him about it he said that his blood ran Dodger Azul and that as a kid growing up on the ranch that was what they listened to on most nights. Although he spoke little English he started naming his favorites “Fernando Valenzuela, Ron Cey, Steve Garvey, Davey Lopes” and the list went on and on. He cooked us steaks over freshly cut olive wood and made biscuits over the fire as well. Cinco de Mayo never tasted so good. Over dinner he told us that he and his girlfriend were trying to sell Rancho San Antonio and that they had some interested buyers. He said the potential buyers wanted to grade a road all of the way to the bank of Santo Domingo Creek which could spell the death of this area as he had known it his whole life. At the end of the meal we discussed the importance of conserving this little trout stream and its native inhabitants.
As I crawled into my tent, exhausted from the days adventures, I kept returning to the idea of a paved road coming all of the way down to the creek and wondered what that would do to this place. I slept heavily under the Baja stars and awoke to the smell of coffee and cinnamon rolls being cooked over the open fire. After eating we said our goodbyes and started our 1 ½ hour hike back to the truck. On the dirt road out we were stopped by the Mexican Army in the middle of nowhere. They had set up camp overnight and were stopping every vehicle that passed. They asked us what we were doing out here, if we had any water to spare, and when satisfied that we were not smuggling drugs, waved us on our way with quizzical looks. Gringos locos.
We stopped at Rancho El Coyote Meling on our way out and were treated to a freshly cooked breakfast by the matron of the ranch Jovita Meling. She entertained us with photographs of the area that dated back many decades and said the trout had been in the creeks for as long as she could remember. She said only a handful of people visited each year to fish for the trout. Most of her visitors come here to hunt for quail and ride motorcycles. For a small fee, her sons, Alfredo and Esteban, will take anglers, either on horseback or in one of the ranches vehicles, to a variety of areas to catch the trout. We thanked her for the meal and started our journey home.
Although I had not seen even a single rattlesnake, or cougar for that matter, Gregg assured me that normally he sees quite a few snakes and thought that this might have been the first trip that he hadn’t. We discussed the bewilderment that my wife had expressed about this trip and we both laughed and agreed that Baja is a special place with many hidden treasures. As we crossed the border back into the United States we agreed to fish this area together again next year. I cannot wait, but I sincerely hope there is not a paved road all of the way to the creek.
Baja Trout Notebook
Bienvenidos says it all.
When: Year-round, but weather can be very hot in the summer. Typically March though June provides the most comfortable weather for this area.
Where: Baja California Norte, Mexico. The creeks start in the San Pedro Martir National Park and can be accessed at many points. The closest large city is San Quintin, which is approximately two hours away.
Headquarters: Rancho El Coyote Meling. Contact Gregg Shobe, Rancho Coyote’s American Representative at 619.390.0905 or by email at email@example.com for information about fishing the area and lodging accommodations.
Appropriate gear: Two to five weight rods with floating lines, 6X leaders and tippets. Heavier leaders and tippets can also be used, as the fish are not typically shy.
Useful fly patterns: Shobe swears by a size 14 Dave’s Hopper, but small size 14 to 18 Elk Hare Caddis, Adams, Stimulators, Humpies and Royal Wulffs can be equally effective. This is primarily a dry fly fishery, but small size 16 to 20 standard nymphs (Hares Ears, Pheasant Tails, etc.) trailed behind a buoyant dry fly can also be effective in the deeper runs and pools.
Necessary accessories: All wading can be done in wading or hiking boots. Waders are not necessary. Rattlesnakes can be a problem and using snake guards (like those used for Quail hunting) are recommended. Essential tourist permits can be obtained at the border or in advance at Discover Baja Travel Club http://www.discoverbaja.com (800) 727-2252 in San Diego, CA. Also, remember to verify the current requirements for entry back into the U.S.
Nonresident licenses: Fishing licenses are not required for fishing from the shore in Baja. However, this is private property and minimal fees are required to enter and fish on the property. Contact Rancho El Coyote lodge or Gregg Shobe as listed above for current pricing.
Fly shops/guides: There are not fly shops in the area, and you will need to bring everything including food. Gregg is available to lead anglers to Rancho San Antonio via hiking trail and assist them with fishing as necessary. Rancho San Antonio charges $20/day per person for camping and fishing on their property. Multi-day pack trips can be set-up through Rancho El Coyote Meling employee Presila Meling, who can be reached at 011-52-646-177-1269 from the United States. Rancho El Coyote Meling can also setup horseback rides to Santo Domingo Creek, La Zanja Creek and others in the area.
Books/maps: Baja California Almanac, Baja Almanac Publishers (ISBN 0-9658663-2-7). An unparalleled topographic map book of Baja that is out of print and hard to find. The publisher is currently updating this classic and it should be available in by the time this is published. The Automobile Club of America (AAA) also has a very handy Baja California map that is free to members.