Out There: Surfing for roosters

Seven long, spellbinding dorsal spines that resemble a cockscomb give the roosterfish its common name. 

Seated comfortably on the stern of the white-and-gray panga, a traditional Mexican fishing boat, my wife, Theresa, and I absorb the beauty that is Mazatlán, Mexico. It is easy to see why this 500-year-old city has come to be known as the "Pearl of the Pacific."

The clear water below us gleams like sapphires. The azure sky above teems with frigate birds and pelicans.

Just west of us are three peaceful islands — Isla de Pájaros (Bird Island), Isla de Venados (Deer Island) and Isla de Chivos (Goat Island).

To the east, we watch the waves of the Pacific break over the sugar-sand beaches of La Zona Dorada — the Golden Zone. The islands, protected from development, provide homes for thousands of nesting birds.

The Golden Zone with its high-rise hotels provides a home-away-from-home for most of the million tourists who visit Mazatlán each year.

On this June morning, however, the tourists are rare and the birds abundant — a combination Theresa and I find most pleasant. Mazatlán seems strangely peaceful for a vacationer's paradise, but that is why we have come here this month — that … and the roosterfish.

I don't know when I first saw a photograph of the roosterfish. I do know that when I did, the roosterfish was immediately given an upper berth on my list of "must-catch" fish, for I have never seen a more uniquely beautiful creature of the sea.

A Navajo silversmith might have been its creator, for this member of the jack family appears crafted with the artistic symmetry and lustrous elegance of Indian jewelry.

Scales of silver and turquoise are inlaid with bands of obsidian that score the glistening flanks. The eyes are citrine gemstones. And all this is set off by a magnificent crown of ebony scimitars that distinguishes the roosterfish from all other fish in its realm.

From this crown of seven dorsal spines, which vaguely resembles a cockscomb, the roosterfish derives its common name — pez gallo or papagallo.

And if you decide one day to pursue the sovereign sportfish of Mexico's inshore waters, it is this crown you first will see.

"Look!" our guide, Chalio, shouts, pointing behind the panga. "The roosters have found us. Get ready!"

The crowns are everywhere. A school of roosterfish has seen the live mullets we are trolling.

"My bait is going crazy!" Theresa says excitedly.

"Mine, too," says our friend Chappy Chapman.

It is Chappy who invited us to Mazatlán to experience the excitement of fishing for the pez gallo.

"I started fishing for roosters just a few years ago," he told me as we visited on Mexico's Lake El Salto several years earlier. "They quickly became my favorite sportfish.

"The fishing typically is best from May through July and usually peaks around mid-June when huge schools of mullet move inshore along local beaches and attract the roosters. If you really want to try for them, come back in June and I'll take you."

And so I did. On June 15, Theresa and I arrived in Mazatlán. And as the sun rises over the Pacific on June 16, I watch as the roosters show their crowns and Chappy and Theresa prepare for the strikes that are sure to follow.

Forty-five-old year-old Chalio, who has been guiding for roosterfish since he was 12, coaches Theresa.

"When the roosterfish takes the bait, the reel must be in freespool," he says. "Keep your thumb on the line to keep it from backlashing. And when you feel the fish strike, release the line so the roosterfish feels no resistance. When the fish starts running hard with the bait, prepare to engage the spool and set the hook. I will tell you when."

Theresa's mullet jumps into the air as a crown begins to crowd it. Then suddenly the crown disappears and line spins from her reel.

"Wait," says Chalio. "Wait. Let it run … let it run.

"Now! Now! Set the hook!"

Hooking your first roosterfish is like taking a bite of your first habenero pepper. Nothing can prepare you for its fiery constitution. Most first-time roosterfish anglers liken it to a runaway freight train that is quite capable of spooling your reel, cooking the drag washers or snapping your rod.

My equally fiery wife, however, is more than a match for this fish. The rooster makes a run for the beach, then abruptly turns and surges toward the open Pacific. But its efforts are in vain. Theresa soon has the 12-pound fish close enough for Chalio to net.

We all admire the beauty of the roosterfish, and I shoot photos as Theresa proudly poses with her catch. The photo session is short, however. Chalio has spotted more roosters.

Roosterfish (Nematistius pectoralis) are endemic to the eastern Pacific, occurring from San Clemente in southern California all the way to Peru. They are rare north of Mexico's Baja California, but 10- to 40-pounders often are caught along the beaches of Mazatlán. The 114-pound, all-tackle world record was caught off Baja California in 1960.

When the mullet move inshore in spring, the roosters aren't far behind. Most are found around sandy beaches that include nearby rocky structure, typically within 100 to 200 yards of the shore.

The roosters Chalio has spotted are in just such a place. The panga almost scrapes a big rock as we make our way toward the surface-feeding school at the edge of the surf.

Looking at the scores of high fins amidst the leaping mullet, I am reminded of a quote I found attributed to a Costa Rican guide: "When the roosterfish puts his hat up, God help anything that swims in front of him."

The fact that the roosterfish is aggressive, however, does not mean it is easy to hook, as I am about to find out.

I know a roosterfish is about to strike. I can feel my bait struggling. I can see the predator's high fin rushing toward my rig.

Then, suddenly, my arm is yanked from its socket, or so it seems. My rod goes down, and so does Chappy's. But we both fail to connect.

"Release your line again," Chalio shouts. "They are still there."

Once again, we watch as the fins race forward and the roosters strike. And once again, Chappy and I fail to hook a rooster.

"On most trips, we hook maybe two or three fish for every ten strikes," Chappy says, consolingly. "Roosterfish are tough to catch. You have to do everything just right and, even then, you'll miss many of those that hit."

During our two days of roosterfishing, however, Theresa laid waste to Chappy's Law of Averages. Four roosters struck her bait. She hooked and landed all four, including a magnificent 20-pounder, the biggest of the trip.

As for me and Chappy … well, we had fun trying. The roosters would smash our mullets, then they'd flip their dorsal fins in our faces and snub us. They were tarts that teased and tantalized, but never came across.
When finally I hooked one and brought it to the boat, Chalio netted it, then looked up at me and apologized.

"I'm sorry, Senor Catfish," he said smiling. "This is not a rooster; it's only a chick."

Everyone burst out laughing.

Size notwithstanding, however, that little "chick" represented another "must-catch" fish that could be checked off my list.

I just couldn't resist letting out a big, "Cock-a-doodle-doooo!"

To contact Keith Sutton, email him at catfishdude@sbcglobal.net.