Out of the gate, I blew three shots. We rose and fell in and out of 8-foot troughs as the mate idled the boat parallel to the shore. We were about 200 yards outside the breaking surf off the coast of Todos Santos, Mexico. The captain had just cast a hookless caballito rig off the transom with a conventional rod, and it was already bent deep by a rooster fish before I could strip 40 feet of line off my fly reel.
Todos Santos is a sleepy community on the southwest coast of the Baja California Peninsula, a two-hour drive north of Cabo San Lucas. This coast is famous for its rooster fishing. It’s an inland warm-water species that can grow to over 100 pounds and is known for its voracious appetite, unyielding fight, and of course, its namesake dorsal fin that flares from the fish’s back like the comb on a rooster’s head.
In addition to Mexico, the best places to find roosters are Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Panama. They can be chased on foot from the beach or in a boat with conventional or fly fishing gear. Between logistics and access, it’s easy to see why roosters are a bucket list fish for anglers.
My cast that day near Todos Santos started and finished in a pile 30 feet downwind of the teaser and roosters. “Dios mio,” the mate mumbled as the captain just shook his head.
The captain hucked another caballito rig off the transom to tease up more fish.
Seconds later, he had another group trying to broadside the bait, and I made the cast. The largest rooster in the pack flared its gills, inhaled the big-eyed, green, gray, and tinsel fly, then turned into a strip-set that stuck. Hundreds of yards of backing simply disappeared from my reel.
The drag was already ratcheted down, but the captain leaned around me, got a couple more clicks out of it, smiled, and gave me a thumbs-up shrug. When the rooster settled into the net, I wanted to say, “¡Gracias, amigos! ¡Qué pelea! ¡Qué pez!”—but could barely muster broken English. Finally, I managed a slimy fist bump and muttered, “Mas, por favor.”
More About Rooster Fish
Roosterfish are a species — like permit, tarpon, and giant trevally — that invade the psyche and settle into that part of the angler’s brain responsible for vivid daydreams, addictive behavior, and poor life choices.
They are exotic-looking badasses whose fight rivals that of any other game fish, fresh- or saltwater. Taxonomically, their closest relative would be jacks, including crevalle, amberjack, pompano, and permit.
Their Latin name, Nematistius pectoralis, is tough to decipher, but piecing together the etymology of its parts offers a possible translation. “Nema” means thread-like or possessing a filiform structure, and “tistius” translates to being remarkable or having remarkable traits. “Pectoralis” is Latin for the chest muscles that lower the wings of a bird.
So a fish with a remarkable, more or less uniform finger-like structure on its back that looks and moves like a wing — sounds pretty accurate to me. I’d imagine the “rooster” designation came along once Mexican and South American anglers started catching them.
Roosterfish can be found in the warm Eastern Pacific inshore waters from Baja California to Peru, and they can live to be 25 to 30 years old. They sport a comb of seven or eight dorsal spines that they flare when feeding or trying to flex their profile to deter larger predators. Otherwise, the spines retract into a “sheath” along their back.
Even though their lateral stripes look prominent, along with the pattern that extends up into their comb, they are able to almost disappear with their underlying iridescent silversides and mocha-colored back.
Through a unique physiological structure in their heads, roosterfish are able to use their swim bladders to amplify sounds, which makes them hypersensitive to any movement or sound that has even a hint of prey-species panic.
And roosters, especially big roosters, will eat anything they can fit in their mouth, from sardines and mullet to larger jacks and bonito.
Their skeletal and musculature systems are built for speed and agility, so roosters are absolute freight trains when hooked. Their meat is dark because it’s filled with dark-pigmented myoglobin, which helps bring the muscle more oxygen, so it operates more efficiently.
That also takes them out of the good-eating fish category. There are ways you can cook the shit right out of a rooster (like smoking it or wrapping it in a lot of bacon), but honestly, roosters are far better for a quick grip-and-grin, and full send back to the deep.
Rooster Fishing Destinations & Guides
Mexico – Baja California
The warm eastern Pacific waters around Mexico’s Baja California Peninsula are some of the most fruitful for big roosters. The current International Game Fish Association (IGFA) all-tackle record is a 114-pound giant caught in 1960 off the coast of La Paz.
Summer months bring the warmest water and big fish for many species, but June and July are the best months for a “grande” — a fish in the 30-to-60-pound range. Don’t rule out the fall months for great fishing, however, since roosters are around all year.
Ease of travel and a seemingly bottomless well of guides and hotels make this area an easy and relatively affordable destination for rookie and veteran anglers alike. If you’re more adventurous, rent a car, consult OnX or Google Maps, and find those dirt roads to the coast for some DIY fishing. If you want to catch roosterfish, Mexico is an easy option.
You can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a rooster fishing guide around Cabo, and you can always find lower rates from one local guy to the next. But some outfits are simply more dialed-in than others when it comes to reliable equipment, crew, and boats. Here are a few:
- Baja Anglers — Cabo and Southern Baja
- Fly Fish Mex — East Cape of Baja
- East Cape Guides — Sea of Cortez
Guatemala in Summer
Heading south down the Pacific coast, Guatemala is another prime roosterfish destination. Like Mexico, the best fishing is when the water is warmest in June, July, and August, when opposing currents from Mexico and El Salvador form an eddy full of baitfish and predatory species. Things slow down from September to January, but that doesn’t mean they’re not biting.
Traveling to fish in Guatemala is very straightforward, especially if you book with a lodge. Reputable outfits will pick you up from the airport and shuttle you back when it’s time to head home. A DIY trip is possible, but guides and lodges ease the logistics.
Here are a few outfitters and lodges to check out as you start planning:
Costa Rica for the DIY Angler
Costa Rica is a tropical paradise that enjoys rooster fishing year-round, but the action is best from December to April. While the average size is 10 to 15 pounds, 40-to-60-pound grandes are definitely around.
There is no shortage of outfitters and lodges to book with, but Costa Rica is a place for those who would rather figure it out themselves. Petty theft is the most prevalent crime, but beware that heavier-duty shit is always possible. Like the State Department says, pay attention to your surroundings, keep your bling to a minimum, and don’t be a hero if you’re getting robbed.
If you want some DIY intel, Into Fly Fishing has comprehensive information for you to check out.
If a lodge and guide is more your speed, here are some options:
Panama in the Rainy Season
The best time to chase big roosterfish in Panama is in May, June, and October, during the country’s rainy season, when more green jacks, which attract more big fish, abound. The IGFA record for the 8-pound line class came from Panama and weighed in at 54 pounds, 9 ounces.
Unfortunately, Panama has a problem with crime in some areas and COVID everywhere, so it’s not advisable to plan a trip there at the present time.
Rooster Fishing Tactics
Every captain or guide has their finger on the pulse of exactly what you should be fishing with, where you should be casting it, and when. They know what bait or lures catch fish because their livelihood depends on it.
That being said, whether you’re on a panga or running down cruising roosters in the surf from the beach, live bait reigns supreme, and bigger bait catches bigger roosters.
Baitfish vary from one fishery to the next — bonitos in Costa Rica, mullet or caballito in Mexico, Panama uses cojinua or green jacks, and ballyhoo is the choice in Guatemala — but the tactics are tried, true, and deadly.
Bait is bridled with either heavy-duty monofilament or string by running the line through the eye sockets and tying it tight on the crown of the head. A circle hook is run underneath. The rig can be slow-trolled without weight or sent down 30 or 40 feet.
Baitfish-colored stickbaits or poppers in the 6-to-7-inch range are deadly on the surface when fish are looking up, and slow-jigging lures work down deep when they’re not.
Fly fishing is the least effective method of catching roosters, but it’s arguably the most fun. Flies resemble whatever bait is in the water and are generally 3 to 6 inches in length.
Fishing from a boat requires a little bait and switch, where the fish are teased up to the surface within the range of a 30-to-50-foot fly cast. Casting flies to cruising roosters from the beach usually calls for a bat-outta-hell sprint to get into position when you spot one and then sniping a well-placed cast within eyeshot of the fish.
Rooster Fish Gear
If you’re going to fish for roosters, 99.9% of the time, you’re going to book a guide or outfitter. That’s just the reality of chasing a destination-based tropical sportfish.
If you’re one of the fanatics that make up the 0.1%, you’re going to want your own gear. Here are some general recommendations to get you started.
As far as rods and reels go, yes, they will hook some smaller fish, but it’s best to plan for the one you don’t want to get away. Plus, whatever rod-and-reel combo you choose, it will have to withstand the salt and sand that will inevitably cover you and your gear. You don’t have to go completely high-end, but you definitely don’t want cheap shit when you’re fishing salt.
In other words, if you’re gonna go after roosters, bring a damn gun to the gunfight.
Saltwater Spinning Rod and Reel for Versatility
A spinning rod and reel gives you the versatility to cast either live bait, deeper diving lures, or poppers and stickbaits if they start getting feisty at the surface. If you’re fishing from shore, you’re going to want a rig that can punch your lure or bait out into the surf or cover a lot of water if you’re in a boat.
Your reel needs a supermax-strong drag to slow the freight train, and a gear ratio that’ll pick up line quickly when you need to — and 350 yards of 30-pound mono should keep you from getting spooled by a monster.
Penn Spinfisher VI 9500 Spinning Reel — $279.95
Saltwater Fly Rod, Reel, and Line Recommendations
A 10-weight, fast-action fly rod is the absolute minimum size for roosters, with an 11-weight probably being the best all-around size. A 10- or 11-weight has enough ass to fight a hard-charging fish, but it’s also light enough that casting all day isn’t a chore.
If the fly reel doesn’t have a sealed, armageddon-proof drag system, the fish is likely to take every last inch of your line and backing, then pop it right off the spool.
Speaking of line and backing, you’ll want an untextured tropical-specific fly line (trust me, you don’t want that texture ripping skin off your fingers when the beast sprints with line) and a 20-pound tippet to avoid spooking the fish.
Enrico Puglisi (EP) Rooster Fish Mullet, size 3/0 and 4/0 — $9.75
EP Rooster Fish Sardina, standard and tan size 3/0 — $8.75
EP Tinker Mackerel, size 3/0 — $8.75
Before You Go
As you get your plans together for a trip to rooster nirvana, there are a few things to keep in mind that will help keep headaches to a minimum.
Make sure your passport hasn’t expired, nor is it set to expire within six months of your scheduled return from your trip. US Customs and Border Patrol have some guidelines for travel in general as well.
You may be able to leave the US with your fishing rods in a case as a carry-on, but you may not be allowed to carry them on your return flight. This is a matter of space, so just be aware of how you pack for the trip home.
Speaking of packing, don’t skimp on sun protection and UPF clothing. If you haven’t been south of the border or to South America, it gets fucking hot, and the sun will kick your ass. Skin cancer is not something you want as a souvenir from your trip.
Lastly, ask for advice from someone who has experience fishing for roosters or even just traveling to the destination you’re headed. Not only will you get insights into on-the-water tactics, but you’ll also pick up tips about the culture, how to get around, great places to eat, and even places to avoid.