Happy Hour in the Estero

By Dave Zoby

Campo Rene sits adjacent to a red-headed heron rookery. The adult birds come and go all day, joined by ibis, and various shorebirds, egrets, pelicans, and terns. Huge tidal swings expose sandbars where fly fishers can wade out and cast Clouser minnow patterns into the dark green water of the channels and cuts where if you can make the throw to the mangroves, you might hook into something you can’t stop. There are grouper, halibut, croakers, spotted bay bass, and corvina. But the prized fish, the one talked about in hushed tones, is the corbina. 

A newcomer such as myself is immediately confused by corbina and corvina. The two names sound so much alike that it’s hard to tell when someone shouts in the wind that they have hooked a corbina. Or did he say corvina? They are each sleek fish, longish in the dorsum, broad, powerful tails.  They take the same flies. It’s easy to get confused. But corvina travel in packs and are more common. They have vampire teeth and appear to be cousins of the speckled trout I caught as a boy. There are so many of them that catching one, even one over 24-inches, becomes routine. Corbina, a drum-like, streamlined fish which suggests the redfish of Louisiana marshes are fewer, and because you can go a week without landing one, are the prize. 

Corbina are shy fish that travel in singles, or the occasional pairs, or five or six if the tide is ripping and they have found an ambush point along some drop-off. They drift in with the incoming tide and ghost along the sandy shelves that define the channels and pools hunting crabs, baitfish, and shellfish. Like flats fishing, anglers try to spot these fish, recognizable by their huge, dark pectoral fins and the way they glide along the bottom. Anglers try to calculate their routes and intercept them with a fly. Corbina snap out of view if your cast is poor. 

As the tide swings and the ridges and humps of sandbars begin to emerge, the campsite stirs with activity. Gurgling and pipping, the estuary changes its personality at low tide. High tide seems optimistic. Low tide is brooding and moody.  Where hours ago it was chest deep, now the whole system becomes walkable, though gnarled with exposed mangrove roots. Rods are rigged, leaders are replaced. Serious discussions about fly patterns are interrupted by someone pointing out how far the water has dropped in just the last thirty minutes. Fly fishermen like to pick things over. They talk too much about the benefits of a sinking line versus a floating. They discuss strategies. And then they go back to the subject of the flies themselves. 

“All colors work,” says Tim Huckaby, the president of the San Diego Fly Fishers, kicking off his flip-flops and slipping into his wading booties. Some anglers go barefooted, but the Californians have seen enough stingrays that many shuffle their feet, or, in my case, send a waterdog out in front to spook the rays. No one I know has ever been stung, but still…

Huckaby and his group have become regular visitors to this remote section of Baja. Every spring, they make the 12-hour journey from San Diego to the Pacific village of Punta Abreojos.  Abreojos is the kind of town where the commercial fishermen go to sea every morning no matter the weather. Nearly every telephone pole hosts an osprey nest. There are no bars, and only one restaurant, Juanita’s, which may or may not be open. 

The San Diegans have made inroads with members of the local fishing cooperative. When the club arrives, the town changes. Their arrival is noticed in this quiet village: their big rigs and campers, their frequent runs to the tienda for ice, their ball caps and kayaks. For me, it’s camping in the back of my truck with my 85-pound black Lab, Henderson. I like to think I’m flying under the radar, but that may be a bit of a stretch. 

The first year I came to the estero I failed to catch a corbina on the fly. The Californians caught them though. Most of them had studied Al Quattrocchi’s The Corbina Diaries, the most comprehensive book about DIY sight casting to this elusive fish. John Ashley, a former surfer who has been fly fishing this part of Baja for over a decade, described the joys of stalking corbina in the shallows.  

“It’s hunting,” he said. “They are so spooky you have to be real sneaky to catch one. And the cast has to be right.” 

Out on the sandbars with Tim Huckaby, I watched that transition zone between the drop-offs and the sand flats for the strange, ghosting shape of corbina. The mullet flooded by, and then the Mexican sardinas in their silver multitudes. Corbina move differently. We didn’t find them. We found halibut and bay bass instead. And then the tide swung and we had to split or else it would get too deep and we’d have to swim back to camp. 

Happy hour commenced as I slogged back to camp. Stan Perry, a club member, had towed a teardrop trailer wholly dedicated to gourmet food and craft cocktails to Baja. Stan made smash burgers on a well-seasoned grill while I wondered what the nearby nesting ospreys made of the smell of grilled onions. We cracked open a special bottle of whiskey and made toasts. I wanted to say one for corbina, but I held off. 

On my last afternoon I set off in a kayak, following Huckaby and Ashley across the main channel and into an arm of the estero that I had never explored. There were bottlenose dolphin herding schools of mullet up onto the shoreline and stunning them with their great powerful tails in violent outbursts that made you question the “harmony” of nature. There were huge green sea turtles that surfaced nearby and looked at me and my dog in a manner that suggested curiosity. 

I found a flat where the flood tide was just enough to float the kayak. I stood and casted to corbina while Henderson dozed in the stern. The fish came in threes and fours. And then a single that rushed my Clouser but didn’t take. The whole afternoon dissolved this way, hours slipping by, me resetting the kayak for yet another drift over the flat, the corbina following my fly but not committing. When I finally got one, it was only because the fish were in a large school, and they competed for the fly. Henderson nearly tipped the kayak over trying to get a look at the iron-colored fish. And Huckaby and Ashley were too far away for me to show them my prize. There was no one to take a photo. I let it slip back into the estuary. 

Back in camp, top-shelf Manhattans came into the world via a chrome shaker and orange peels the size of your thumb. I found Ashley in the circle of canvas camp chairs and told him about the hours I spent chasing corbina. He congratulated me on the single fish. He and Huckaby had racked up staggering numbers of corvina, groupers, and spotted bay bass. But he understood how a guy could dedicate a whole tide to one fish. He warned me about the spell of corbina. 

“Zobes, it’s addicting. It can take over your whole life.”

About the Author
Dave Zoby has been writing stories about the outdoors for over twenty years. A regular voice in publications such as Gray's Sporting Journal, The Drake, Wyoming Wildlife, and others, Dave is an avid fly fisherman and upland hunter. His essays have won awards and been anthologized. Dave lives and teaches in Casper, WY.