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FISHING- Got Pargo?

Got Pargo?
by Tom Gatch
Southern Californian, Charlie McGee, shows off a sweet pargo
perro (dog snapper) that he caught near Isla Cerralvo, just off
the coast of La Paz. Photo courtesy of Tailhunter International
Springtime marks the beginning of a transitional phase in fishing conditions around the Baja peninsula, particularly in Baja California Sur. As the water begins to warm, anglers are occasionally teased by summer-like flurries of surface game-fish activity that may be abruptly disrupted by windy periods, green water and rough offshore seas.

These are the times when it can be more productive to forget about the highly touted gamesters like striped marlin, yellowfin tuna or dorado and focus on the inshore zone and one of the most notorious tackle-busters in all of Baja . . . the pargo. Pargo are generally caught from Bahia Tortugas on the Pacific side to Bahia de Los Angeles in the Sea of Cortez. In southern Baja, the name “pargo” can be used interchangeably to refer to different fish species, much as Californians might allude to certain members of the Sebastes family as being "red snapper."

In Baja Sur, pargo are members of the true snapper family, Lutjanidae. The most prominent species are mullet snapper (Lutjanus aratus), known as "pargo lisa"; dog snapper (Lutjanus novemfasciatus), called "pargo perro"; the original red snapper (Lutjanus campechanus), affectionately referred to by diners as "huachinango"; and one of the most targeted members of the group, the barred pargo (Hoplopagrus gunther), known to Baja pangeros as "pargo coconaco."

These fish are generally found close to islands, reefs and rocky areas, and can range in size from 5 to well over 40 pounds. Most species of pargo are considered prime table fare, but all of them tend to have the infuriating habit of grabbing a lure or bait and running straight into any nearby structure that happens to be handy, at which point in time they are nearly impossible to extricate.

A standard dropper loop baited with live or dead sardines is an extremely effective pargo set-up, but I personally prefer using a whole squid on a modified trap-rig. If you’ve never made one of these before, tie a large treble hook to the end of a 25- to 35-pound test fluorocarbon leader about 25 to 30 inches long. A single, 2/0 live bait hook is then tied up the leader that corresponds with the size of squid being used. The tag end of the leader is tied to the middle eye of a 3-way swivel. Secure an 8-inch leader on the bottom eye, and attach a 4- to 6-ounce torpedo sinker to the terminal end. Hook one prong from the treble hook between the squid’s eyes, and then pin the single live bait hook through its nose.

As the squid is slowly lowered through the water column, it tends to flow along with the current and almost look as if it's swimming. Once you reach the bottom, give your reel a couple of cranks and hang on!

If you plan to charter a panga to fish specifically for pargo at one of the major resort hubs like Cabo San Lucas or San Jose del Cabo, remember that most panga operations in these areas earn new and repeat business by the level of success that they display in catching species like marlin, tuna, sailfish and dorado. Therefore, don’t be surprised if your captain looks a bit disappointed when he finds out that you want to focus your angling efforts on these bottom dwellers.

I’ll never forget a trip that I took to a prominent East Cape resort well over a decade ago. When the skipper first asked me what I wanted to fish for his smile dropped noticeably when I chirped, “Yo quiero pargo!” He then looked at my tackle set up and raised his eyebrows when he noticed my block of squid and large treble hooks.

On the way to the fishing grounds just north of the Cabo Pulmo reserve, he couldn't help but speak up. "Por favor, señor! Your hooks are much too big!" He continued to suggest that I change my rig, but I simply remained silent.

Less than 30 seconds from the moment I cranked my squid up from the bottom on our first stop, I got slammed by a spirited 13-pound amberjack. Not exactly what I was looking for, but a nice fish and good fight all the same. Other boats that swarmed in on us sat soaking their untouched sardines as I continued to pull in a 6-pound red snapper and then a chunky barred pargo on my squid rig. Needless to say, my skipper made no further observations regarding my tackle or techniques for the remainder of the trip.

If at all possible, it’s a good idea to bring along at least one 5-pound block of frozen squid when you head south of the border in pursuit of pargo. These fish are not particularly picky eaters, however, and they will happily inhale just about anything from cut bait and squid to a wide variety of plugs and iron lures. They also deserve your respect, and should be fished for only with a conventional reel and line having a minimum test strength of 30 pounds. Making the unwise decision to use spinning gear when targeting these stubborn and pugnacious fish could easily end up ruining your fishing trip.

There are, of course, other good techniques for catching pargo. Dennis Spike, a well-known kayak fishing expert, is an experienced light tackle angler who has perfected the art of casting a live, nose-hooked sardine directly over submerged rocks and reefs, then waiting with the reel in gear for the slightest nibble so that he can immediately jerk the hooked fish away from the structure before it is has a chance to wedge itself in.

Another southern California kayak angler, Jon Schwartz, enjoys fishing for pargo from his yak using medium-sized mullet as bait. He often buys them in an Asian fish market near his home and brings them down with him when he visits the East Cape’s Rancho Leonaro Resort.

Schwartz is particularly fond of this particular area for pursuing big pargo and suggests, “The best place to fish is to paddle straight out to where the charter cruisers are anchored and then start paddling south. If you bring a fish finder, you will see that there is a huge drop off just past the boats that goes from about 40 feet deep to nearly three times that depth within about 20 yards, and there are fish lined up all along the ledge.”

No matter how you plan to stalk them, big pargo are a true prize unto themselves, as well as being a wonderful alternative target for spring anglers who may have been kept inshore by unpredictable weather conditions. Release the small ones but, whatever you do, be sure to take advantage of a gourmet dining opportunity by filleting out a 15- to 20-pounder and having a member of the hotel staff grill it for you over mesquite while bathing it in melted butter and crushed garlic.

By the time the first delightful, charbroiled chunk hits your palate, you might even forget all about that elusive striped marlin, which was your originally intended quarry.
Tom Gatch is the author of Hooked on Baja and has built a solid reputation as one of the foremost authors and photographers focusing on outdoor and recreational topics in Southern California and the Baja California peninsula.

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