Posted by: 1000fish | April 18, 2022

The Spree of Cortez


I had been giving a lot of thought to the numbers. Yes, it had been a surprisingly good spring, and I had somehow reached 1987 species. But when I thought about where I was going to catch 13 more, 2000 still seemed a long way off. In late-night scribbling sessions on old hotel notepads, where I make ill-fated predictions on what I might catch on what trip, I estimated that Puerto Penasco would be good for four species. I thought the Cortez ray and the longjaw leatherjack were solid, and then, well, I would hope for two random ones. That would put me in the early 1990s, like Cousin Chuck’s wardrobe, and then my upcoming trip to Alabama should be good for maybe six, so I thought I would be setting up for the big one in June – maybe a spearfish. 

Keep in mind that these forecasts are, without exception, wildly wrong.

This would be my third trip to Penasco, the second with Chris and his kids, even if that concedes that The Mucus is human. I decided to drive to Phoenix, because there was one particular fish others had caught – the porthole livebearer – that was sort of on the way. I had already failed on it three times.

It’s 10 hours from Alamo to Phoenix, so stretching my legs at the Salton Sea was a welcome break from endless I-5 traffic, Teslas passing on the right, and a truck driver with an especially dark view of the world.

I was stuck behind him for 40 miles.

As I drove to the traditional spot, where three friends had caught this beast quickly on their first try, I passed several other creeks. I am still not sure what motivated me – call it a hunch, call it inspiration, call it missing a turn – but I decided to stop and investigate one of them. It was a little narrower and faster than the other spot, and I drifted a bait through just for the heck of it.

The creek in question.

I saw dozens of little fish flitting in the current; I assumed they were tilapia. One of them bit. It wasn’t a tilapia. It was a #$&% porthole livebearer. I had done it, and done it quickly. I caught a few more just for giggles and was on my way to Phoenix.

Species 1988. I lived in Columbus, Ohio in 1988, but happily, the big game went Michigan’s way. (Thank you John Kolesar.)

I forget where I saw this cartoon the first time, but it is painfully accurate.

The next morning, we piled into the Moore pickup truck and were off for Mexico. The Mucus took exactly 47 seconds to misuse the word “literally,” and Carson wanted to debate his complex analysis of Bill Laimbeer’s offensive statistics, which just made me smile. The conversation eventually wandered to fishing, which sounded like it was going to be a lot of fun.

Then The Mucus sacked out. At least when he’s old enough for an online dating profile, he has this picture ready.

My previous trips to Puerto Penasco had both been in the month of November. The water temperature in April was going to be a lot warmer, and we expected to see some different species. We would also be fishing the estuary, which was alleged to be full of unusual stuff. 

We checked into the hotel and then headed to Pelican Point. It didn’t take long – the place was loaded with shortjaw mudsuckers, which are like a longjaw mudsucker but have a shorter jaw. 

Species 1990. That’s the year I moved back to California from the midwest.

The place was also full of frillgobies. My pictures still aren’t Ben-level, but sunlight is very helpful.

I also got a much more photogenic Cortez opaleye. In the life-lister world, this is called a “photo upgrade.”

Endless tidepools and no band – what’s not to love? Chris, I should note, did not catch a barred pargo.

While Chris and the kids continued exploring the rocks, I pulled out a spoon and cast into the deeper water. It was a rugged shoreline, but I figured that I would sort out landing something if the necessity arose. On perhaps my fifth toss, I got hit hard and could see a decent-sized silver fish splashing on the surface. If it dove, I would lose it, so I just trusted my braided line and pulled hard. I bounced a fish up onto the rocks, and surprisingly, it was a longjaw leatherjack, one of the species I had hoped for in the estuary.

Species 1991. This was an unexpectedly good start. The internet came online in 1991, or so it says on the internet. We’d have to ask Al Gore to be sure.

We spent the evening at the cruise ship jetty. It’s a maddening spot, because it is obviously very fishy, being the only structure in an otherwise sandy flat, but access is slippery and difficult, and the tides race up and down so fast that a spot is only a spot for 45 minutes or so. There is no room for error because you are casting over a steep ledge of concrete slabs, but we had a lot of fun catching more leatherjacks and a few Spanish mackerel. Chris still did not catch a barred pargo.

Just before we headed out, I added another new species – the common halfbeak. 

Species 1992. I started work at Macromedia in 1992 – it was a small software startup that did very well. Best job ever.

We ate dinner at “Wrecked on the Reef,” which is at the base of the pier and has surprisingly good food. I still prefer Capone’s, of course.

The following morning was a big one – we were finally going to the legendary estuary, courtesy of Chris’ friend Eric. Chris met Eric on something called “Instagram,” and it turns out Eric, a Phoenix resident, visits Puerto Penasco quite often and fishes the estuary almost exclusively. The fishing spots are about a mile from parking through soft sand, but Eric has a dune buggy that made the whole thing easy and he was kind enough to give us all a lift. The main idea here is to cast spoons and grubs for flatfish (three different species,) corvina, and leatherjack.

The tides here are gigantic – around 18 feet – so low water leaves giant bare flats that are quickly covered by flood tides at a walking pace. This keeps you on the move and rewards efficient packing. The Mucus lost several rod holders. 

At high tide, that apartment building is right on the water.

Most of the guys went to cast lures on the sand bars, but I was particularly obsessed with the Cortez ray, so I moved over to a channel and set out a couple of baits.

First casts of the day. 

While I waited, I could see that everybody was catching the heck out of flounder. The species are tough to tell apart – we are talking gill raker and fin ray counts – but the gang had diagrams loaded on their phones for easy reference.

Less than five minutes later, one of my baits got slammed. I hooked up, and the fish made a good fight out of it on my light European-style bait rod. (A “winkle-picker” in Jens Koller jargon.) I fully expected a Cortez ray, but what I got instead was a huge bullseye puffer. Not the desired species, perhaps, but it was more than big enough to break Mark Spellman’s record on the species, which made me smile.

World record 212.

I cast again, and again, got hit before I could even think about throwing a jig. I fully expected another puffer, but this time, it was a ray. I was thrilled, as I thought this was a Cortez spotted ray, which would be a new species and a world record. But spoiler alert – months later, when I found some more recent information in this species, it turns out that I caught a regular Haller’s round ray – the same one that infests San Diego Bay. So even though I was overjoyed at the time, no species and no record.

I wanted the fish to be a Cortez ray. The fish wanted to be a Cortez ray. But alas, wishing and hoping can’t overrule biology.

So that I don’t confuse myself with the math too much, I had originally thought the ray was species 1993, but, as we have discussed, it was not. Luckily, there was a split on the longear sunfish that added a species for me and kept the counting straight. We’ll cover that all in a future blog.

Comfortable in my delusion, I began tossing grub/jighead combos. Although I started late, I still caught six leatherjacks and six flounder, one of which turned out to be a Cortez halibut, which was a new one.

Species 1994. Good grief. I got married in 1994. We’re not talking Marta here, which automatically means it was a terrible mistake.

I never know which side of flatfish to show.

We also all caught longnose anchovies – species 1995 for me.

1995 was the year my beloved Red Wings were robbed by the NHL and the New Jersey Devils in the NHL finals, and even four Stanley Cups later, I’m still bitter. 

Once the tide started racing in, we had to move our stuff every few minutes or lose it. We ended up at a high spot next to Eric’s dune buggy, where we cast until midafternoon.

The team with Eric. He’s the normal-looking one in the middle.

We had more targets waiting at Bad Band Beach, so we thanked Eric, grabbed some chips and sodas, and headed out. The Band was living up to their reputation, trashing “Wipeout” and, for some reason, Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl,” before we could get out of earshot.

The tidepools at Bad Band Beach.

I spent at least two hours casting spoons – the leatherjacks and bay bass were thick and it’s always fun catching anything on a lure. As it got dark, I started searching the tidepools. I mostly had clingfish in mind – all the books say there are several species here, but clingfish apparently don’t read those books. I got a few gobies, and then spotted something interesting peering out at me. Whatever it was, I hadn’t caught one, and it was painfully shy. It took 45 minutes to coax it out, but it finally bit. At first, I thought I had caught a reef finspot, but it turns out to be a close relative called a flapscale blenny. 

Species 1996. 1996 was the year my beloved Red Wings were robbed by the NHL and the Colorado Avalanche in the Western Conference finals, and even four Stanley Cups later, I’m still bitter.

Just before we headed to dinner, The Mucus called me over to a tidepool – he thought he had spotted a Sonora blenny, which they had all gotten and I hadn’t. What a nice kid. I still mean everything I’ve said about him, but I have to admit this was very decent. I caught it quickly, and it was just plain weird to have to thank The Mucus.

1997. We all know that this was the year that justice prevailed and the Red Wings won the Stanley Cup.

Chris insisted on doing the long walks entirely in Crocs, which will have consequences on his foot modeling career.

And yet he never complained.

Sunset at Bad Band Beach.

We had been looking for a boat for Sunday. The guy from last time was booked, so we found Jose Cruz, widely known as “El Jefe.” This guy is the real deal – he knew every species we asked about and a few we hadn’t. The ride out became a game of “name that fish,” which was easy because Jefe speaks better English than The Mucus. 

The boat.

We set up to jig for bait. While the Moores caught a few new ones, I pulled up a sand perch that had a chance. These are hard to ID – it all comes down to the shape of the spines on the opercle – but it turned out to be a Pacific Sand Perch, and I had species 1998.

The Red Wings won the Stanley Cup, for the second time in a row, in 1998. They didn’t lose a game in either final. 

1998. The trip was turning out far better than I could have hoped, and I still had a day to go. Could I do it right here?

Steve and El Jefe celebrate the catch. I highly recommend this guy if you’re in the area – his email is

As masterful as El Jefe was, he could not control the weather, and predicted light winds morphed into 25-30. It got rough. I was fine. Carson was fine. But Chris went full-on rail bunny. He screamed his breakfast into the Sea of Cortez and kept fishing without a word of complaint.

The Mucus looked a bit queasy himself, but I was so busy watching Chris that I hardly noticed when my second favorite teenager on the boat lurched over the transom.

He was actually quiet for 38 seconds.

The mal-de-mer caught The Mucus so completely by surprise that he forgot to pull his mask down. I’ll leave the rest to your imaginations, but the kid was unfazed. I salute you, Mucus.

While they tossed their cookies, I tossed a spoon and caught more leatherjacks and a batch of Sierra mackerel.

There is a second species of mackerel in the Sea of Cortez – the Monterey Sierra mackerel – but we didn’t get any of those.

In the middle of all of this, right before we had to head in, I got a reasonable bite and landed a big lizardfish. It didn’t look quite like a California, and by the time we got to port, I had confirmed it as a lance lizardfish – not only a new species but also a world record. I had species 1999.

And world record 213.

Holy ####. I was at 1999 species. I had gone from the year I got married to the year I got unmarried (again, this was all in the dark, pre-Marta phase of my life) in just 22 hours, and it cost a lot less. 

The group back on dry land. Chris either took the photo or was still laying on the deck, I forget which.

The Mucus just doesn’t seem to get the whole sunblock/sunshield thing.

The back of his legs started to blister, but he would not leave whatever strange fish that kept emerging from under the dock.

Neither would the rest of the family. But they never caught whatever it was.

I kept fishing. If it happened, it happened. The Moores are great friends and it would have been phenomenal to share this moment with them. We spent the rest of the day poking around the harbor, but obscure fishing history would not be made that day.

We headed home the next morning. There is a lot of driving on these trips, and with four guys in a car for hours and hours, there is going to be conversation, some of it deep and meaningful, and some of it ranting that Lebron somehow doesn’t travel every time he goes near the paint.

It always amuses me that the drive from the border to Penasco is a “Hassle Free Zone.” What are we to assume about the rest of the country? No other country even mentions this.

You do see the most amazing items at the roadside stands.

On the way home, we got going on the subject of “rules to live by,” which always brings back David Barkess’ timeless “Park in the shade, don’t take any wooden nickels, and be nice to your Mom.” Both kids actually surprised me with their wisdom, and please note they do not claim to be the original sources of any of these. Carson gave us all something to consider when he said “Everyone’s gangster until the cockroach flies.” I’ve seen that happen, and even the hardest of men run screaming. The Mucus contributed “Never take a laxative and a sleeping pill at the same time.” Accidentally or not, that’s profound and brought back some interesting memories, especially Brazil 2001 when I got on a plane, took a Benadryl, and promptly presented with food poisoning. It’s very important to stay awake when you have food poisoning on an airplane. Luckily, I could buy new socks during the layover in Miami.

That night, I plugged everything into my spreadsheet. The lizard was indeed 1999. I had some serious planning to do.








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