The roosterfish (Nematistius pectoralis) is an exotic and popular gamefish species that spans from Baja California all the way down the coast into Peru and the Galapagos Islands. However, Baja’s famed East Cape is one of the closest venues where anglers have one of the best chances to catch one of these prized, elusive and hard fighting gamesters.
Known as Pez Gallo in Mexico, this formidable cousin of the amberjack, jack crevalle and yellowtail migrates into the Sea of Cortez each spring, and then hunts along the shoreline in small schools while feeding on various forage species, such as sardinas, mackerel and striped mullet, referred to in Baja as ‘Lisa’.
While roosterfish are most often caught from small boats and kayaks, this is one of the larger gamefish that will often situate itself within range of the shore angler as well. The biggest trick is being in the right place at the right time.
The months between May and October are generally the most productive times to pursue this species, although they are sometimes caught in the off months. Whether on a boat or standing on dry land, one of the best ways to locate feeding roosterfish is by watching for surface disturbances and diving birds within 200 yards of the beach. It’s long, comb-like dorsal fin, which inspired its nickname, can usually be seen cutting through the water as it violently strikes and slashes at its prey.
Some of the most reliable areas in the East Cape region to find roosterfish are along the shallow sand beaches and cobblestone shoals that extend south from Punta Arena, Ensenada de los Muertos and the sandy areas on both sides of Punta Pescadero. Other good spots are located near the popular resorts at Rancho Leonaro and Punta Colorada, with the latter being an area so productive for Pez Gallo that it has been dubbed by some as “roosterfish capitol of the world.”
Despite the fact that roosterfish are voracious predators when involved in a feeding frenzy, even then, they can be easily spooked. The fact that they are not easily hooked and landed contributes to their reputation as a worthy adversary for even the most intrepid angler.
Although the majority of roosterfish are caught on live bait, it is not uncommon to hook them on artificials. Shore casters have been successful using surface poppers, plugs and shiny, Krocodile-style spoons. Baiters have the distinct advantage of being able to troll their baits, which is often more effective. The best lures for this purpose are 5 to 7 inch ‘hard baits’ in various mackerel patterns, made by manufacturers like Rapala and YoZuri. Plastic swim baits in the same size can also be very valuable because of their life-like movement through the water. They should not be used, however, if there are a lot of triggerfish in the area, since these fish will literally chew up the pricy, soft plastic lures in a heartbeat.
Try trolling very slowly, between 3 and 4 knots in depths of 10 to 25 feet with your lure running at least 15 yards behind your craft, between 2 to 5 feet from the surface. Once hooked, especially on lighter tackle, a big roosterfish will provide you with the fight of a lifetime. They will often crash through the surface and leap into the air before heading out into deeper water. These fish may also turn and swim directly under your boat, trying to wrap the line around anything that may be available to help them escape.
After successfully bringing a roosterfish the boat or shore, it is important not to injure the fish before returning it to the water. The flesh of the roosterfish tends to be dark and gamey, hence, it is not an attractive candidate to keep as table fare. If the hook or lure happens to be lodged deep in the gullet, it’s better to simply cut the line at a point just outside the fish’s mouth and release it immediately. Often, hooks deteriorate after being continuously submerged in saltwater for a relatively short period of time, and afford a better chance of survival than if you were to try and reach down the fish’s throat and forcibly remove the hook with pliers.
One thing is certain, once you have successfully stalked, hooked and landed a roosterfish, you will quickly understand why they have become one of the favorite targets of the world’s best saltwater anglers.