By Greg Niemann
The Loreto panguero who took us fishing that day was as old as dirt. Turns out he was a couple of months younger than me – well, that’s still as old as dirt. But it seems he should have turned the fishing over to a younger person.
About two dozen small pangas were bobbing in the smooth strawberry reflection of an awakening sun just outside the Loreto harbor. They were dropping and retrieving their bait rigs, pulling up feisty mackerel, two, three and four at a time. The serious fishing day ahead began to look good.
When our white-haired old skipper passed them and headed in the other direction, I pointed back. He shook his head indicating he had a better place to make bait. He didn’t. He didn’t have a better place to fish either. We spent three hours in the unremitting sun yielding only a few bait mackerel – and that was before we started fishing!
Our skipper also chose to ignore the hot yellowtail action north of Isla Carmen taking us elsewhere. Meanwhile my colleagues in other boats later reported pulling in yellowtail until their arms were sore, big ones too – in the 20-50 pound range.
Betsy Crowfoot, my fishing partner for the day, is a very fine outdoor writer/photographer/sailor, and no stranger to fishing from a panga. However, we were out of live bait shortly after I finally pulled in one smaller yellowtail (8-10 pounds). Chagrined, we headed in to be regaled by the outstanding fishing exploits of the others.
It was 2013 and we were attending an Outdoor Writers Association of California (OWAC) conference, held for the first time in Loreto, Baja California Sur, the 315-year-old birthplace of California.
The mission city of about 10,000 friendly citizens rolled out the red carpet for our small group which included outdoor magazine and newspaper writers along with some radio and TV hosts.
I tried fishing again later that week and a helpful skipper with a toothy grin and an upbeat attitude took me to Isla Carmen, where amidst other anglers and pangas – I caught fish, including a nice 25-30 pounder. The yellowtail action that May was overall excellent. A couple of my colleagues even had to buy more ice chests to spirit their booty home.
Another day about a dozen of us went on an Isla Coronado adventure. We circumnavigated the small island where scores of barking seals and sea lions welcomed us and hundreds of brown pelicans guarded their cliffside nests. We also marveled at those anomalies of nature – the blue-footed boobies, their powder blue webbed feet contrasted against the guano-covered rocks.
We then kayaked from one white-sand island beach to another where we snorkeled in the crystal clear water with incredible visibility. I spotted several varieties of the area’s 3,000 species of maritime animals which include 800 different fish.
Our conferences are full of adventures and some attendees went into the mountains to the remarkably well preserved San Javier Mission (1699). The second (after Loreto) mission sits in a mountain valley surrounded by trees and orchards originally planted by the padres.
Jeaninne Perez, owner of El Caballo Blanco bookstore, had invited me to do a book signing and it was great meeting many of my Baja book supporters from the Loreto area.
It’s not all play and among presentations we were treated to an outstanding slide show by Loreto-based wildlife photographer Richard Jackson.
The evening meals mostly offered local seafood, from the clam chowder, squid and scallops at Domingo’s to the fire-baked chocolate clams at the Hotel Oasis. We also enjoyed The Palapa’s seafood buffet and the Hotel Tripui in nearby Puerto Escondido.
Various hotels provided lodging, including The Oasis, Posada del Cortez, La Damiana, Hacienda Suites, Santa Fe, and Angra. The El Palmar Casas, owned by the Vagabundos Del Mar travel club, hosted a nice wine reception.Arturo’s Fleet provided most of the fishing and our kayaking adventure was through Sea Kayak Baja Mexico
Loreto, established in 1697, bears the distinction of being the birthplace of all of California. Once the capital of both the Mexican and U.S. states of California, the only 17th century town in the Californias came into being on October 25, 1697. The Loreto mission “Nuestra Senora de Loreto” became the first of a system that colonized Baja and all the way up to Northern California. When the town was wiped out by a hurricane in 1829, the capital of Baja California was moved to La Paz and Loreto dwindled in importance.
For years, Loreto remained a sleepy gulf-side oasis where summer’s heat forced a slow, easy pace for locals and visitors alike. Loreto had changed very little until the 1960s when fishermen discovered the place, catching dorado (mahi mahi), yellowtail, marlin, sailfish, grouper, red snapper, roosterfish, yellowfin tuna, and other species.
As mentioned there’s plenty to do in Loreto, especially for those interested in the outdoors and mini-adventures. Along with fishing, diving, snorkeling, and kayaking, there’s sailing, whale watching, mountain biking, mule riding, shopping, and golf. If you don’t drive the 700 miles from the border at Tijuana, you can also rent a car to find that secluded beach or head into the Sierra Giganta mountains that perform a dazzling backdrop to Loreto. There are several locations in the area where you can visit ancient cave art and paintings.
On earlier visits to Loreto I usually headed straight for the Hotel Oasis, founded in 1962 by now 83-year-old Bill Benzinger (2013) www.hoteloasis.com.). Featured in my book Baja Legends, it is a charming hotel on the water and a short walk from everything. They have catered to fishermen for years. Today the Hotel Oasis is run by his daughter Ana Gloria Benzinger Davis. She was instrumental in getting our group to town, and lining up the incredible itinerary.
The final dinner, held in the Hotel Oasis patio, was memorable: we watched chocolate clams get baked in rocks, listened to Mayor Jorge Alberto Avilés Pérez’s brief welcome, heard an outstanding vocalist, and enjoyed some spirited dancers twirling and spinning in their colorful skirts.
Ana Gloria commented on our conference: “We’re pleased that you chose to come to Loreto and that you had a good time. Now you can see all that Loreto has to offer its visitors.”
Well, along with everything else, I caught some nice fish – and I met a fisherman older than dirt.
Greg Niemann is the author of Baja Fever, Baja Legends, Palm Springs Legends, Las Vegas Legends, and Big Brown: The Untold Story of UPS. Visit Greg's website.