San Felipe, Baja, Mexico


One of San Felipe's most recognizable patriarchs died last night (Dec. 18, 2009). Tony Reyes was a fishing legend in these parts and familiar to anyone in the last few generations who have sport fished in the area.

Always amiable, with an elfin sense of humor, Tony was well-loved by everyone and will be missed. He had been suffering from kidney problems for some time.

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This profile of Tony Reyes was written by Chuck Garrison and appeared in the December 2005 edition of Western Outdoors:

Barely pushing five feet tall and weighing-in at plus-or-minus 150 pounds, Tony Reyes nevertheless represents a towering giant of south-of-the-border sportfishing.

Tony Reyes and Friends
Tony Reyes (left), Gorgonio "Papa" Fernandez (center), and Chi Chi Fernandez with gigantic totuava nearing 300 pounds in weight, Bahía Gonzaga, c. 1954.

While his physical stature is diminutive, his reputation among anglers on both sides of an international border is colossal. Antonio Reyes Vaca, Sr. or simply "Tony" Reyes, has most likely, more than any man alive, introduced generations of saltwater anglers to a span of fish-laden Mexican waters stretching a couple of hundred miles from San Felipe, a fishing port on Baja's eastern coast in the extreme northern reaches of the Sea of Cortez, south to Baja's rock-and-cacti-strewn Midriff Islands region.

And speaking of longevity, the ever-affable, always smiling Reyes, born June 13, 1923, knows a lot about staying alive; he's been living large now for 82 years. If he experiences the same protracted lifespan as his mother - a stalwart woman whose physical stamina and mental makeup met the task of raising13 children alone - well, Señor Tony Reyes has a lot more living to do. His mother died at 113.

These days a physically limited Reyes, hands and fingers gnarled by arthritis, serves as his own goodwill ambassador for a boat that's his namesake, the 107-foot, steel-hulled Tony Reyes. The vessel represents a multi-day, ruggedly formatted sportfishing business based out of San Felipe's small commercial harbor. Her trips seek - and most often find - a variety of game fish inhabiting the Midriff Islands region of Baja's Gulf of California. Among sites visited are las Islas de Encantado, Isla de la Guardia, Isla Partida, Raza, Salsipuedes, Las Animas, San Lorenzo and Bahia de San Francisquito. Among catches scored are yellowtail, a catch-all classification of cabrilla, spotted bass, white seabass, big-as-a-bathtub giant sea bass, several types of grouper, aggressive jumbo squid and, in warmwater water cycles, yellowfin tuna and dorado.

Today, it's Reyes' son Tony Jr. who now skippers the converted-shrimpboat Tony Reyes, while the elder Reyes routinely remains ashore in San Felipe, overseeing the business and bookings through The Longfin tackle store in Orange, California; greeting legions of annually returning fishing friends, coordinating boat maintenance and supplies. Yet each spring he still manages to attend the popular Southern California Fred Hall fishing tackle shows where he's the patriarchal star, swapping fish tales in The Longfin-Tony Reyes Fishing Tours exhibit booth.

And if such fish tales were regulated by number, Tony Reyes would surely have overlimits. He's seen huge predatory fish herd and bulldoze baitfish right up on a sudsy, damp beach, sending water and sand into the air; watched as a skiff angler was pulled overboard when a surging grouper took advantage of a rolling boat and a hammered-down drag; seen a tiger shark so huge brought ashore off San Francisquito Bay that the gill-netters who snared it could only guess its weight at more than four tons. The tiger - a documented, aggressive man-eater - measured nearly 20 feet long and had a set of nightmarish, teeth-infested jaws that could easily have swallowed a man past his shoulders.

Many anglers would agree that Tony is best known for all the many years he guided, promoted and became the bandana-browed icon of six-day Midriff Islands trips aboard a pudgy, bowed, shrimper-turned-rudimentary sportfisher: the Santa Monica. Serving as a mother ship and piggybacking several skiffs or pangas aboard, the Santa Monica's accommodations, were (and still are) lacking many of the luxuries of San Diego's modem multi-day fishing fleet. Still, the Midriff excursions of the 1950s caught on rapidly with an emerging Baja angler-adventurer persona which would unflinchingly swap minimal comforts for maximum rod bending. In short, Midriff trips nurtured a sort of John Wayne angling machismo, a Robinson Crusoe lifestyle and a Bogart African Queen cruising experience.
Yet even before Antonio Reyes Vaca was emerging as a true northern Baja fishing pioneer - and long before the celebrated Hollywoodite Ray Caimon scribed accolades about Baja's raw beauty and boundless angling in his best-selling Sunset Book, The Sea of Cortez - Tony Reyes arrived in San Felipe and was drawn himself into a love affair with la mar.

"I was born into poverty in Mexico City and by the time I came to San Felipe in 1951, I'd already worked different jobs as a peasant child: making toilet seats, bricks, candles, sweaters, furniture, propane and sugar cane containers, you name it," Reyes told this writer last year during a trip to San Felipe. "I even went to Vera Cruz for a while and helped build a banana boat.

"Then, in 1945 there was a manpower shortage in the US because of the [World] War, so I went north and worked as a bracero in the fields. I went wherever the work called - Minnesota, North Dakota, Wyoming - ending up in the farmlands of Fresno, San Jose, Azusa and Covina in California."

In 1950, Reyes' undocumented worker-status rendered him deported by INS officials, landing him in Tijuana, where he slept on the beach, begged money for food and desperately sought work. Then a friend who'd crewed aboard San Diego's then-bustling commercial tuna boat fleet told Tony that a few Americans were "just starting to find out about the great sportfishing out of San Felipe, especially for a particularly large fish, a cousin to the white seabass, called the totoaba."

So Reyes moved to San Felipe and quickly took a job as a deckhand on a commercial shrimper, the dubiously-named Dopey, and began to learn about fishing and the sea.

Tony Reyes"I didn't make much money," he recalled. "I was paid mostly in seafood - fish and shrimp, and a few pesos."

During the off-season for shrimping, Tony worked across the Baja peninsula in the emerging Ensenada sportfishing fleet. In 1951, his first off-season in Ensenada, he helped repair and paint the party boat Gaviota I. By the next year he was a deckhand among the Ensenada party boat fleet.

Yet his roots drew him back to San Felipe where in 1953 he started taking angler-tourists out locally to catch corvina, white seabass, Sierra (cero mackerel), yellowfin croaker and those monstrous totoaba (sometimes called totuava).

"I started out buying an old, used, 12-foot skiff that would barely hold two anglers, and me," Reyes reflected. "I didn't have an outboard motor, so I rowed four miles each way."

One of Tony’s early clients, so impressed with Reyes’ work ethic and prowess as a fishing guide, bought a small outboard motor in the states, delivered it to San Felipe and allowed Tony to make monthly payments.

Sometimes the totoaba caught were so large that the 150-pound-plus fish wouldn't fit in the little boat; they would have to be secured by rope and towed back to shore. (It's interesting to note that several sources - both personally related accounts and printed references - vary greatly in describing sizes the eventually nearly fished-out totoaba attained. Reyes said he's seen catches up to about 180 pounds, while a book source claimed an enthusiastically estimated 440-pounder as the largest ever taken. Further, an old Los Angeles newspaper fishing column reported "250pounders being not uncommon." Yet a check with the International Game Fish Association revealed not a single line-class, world record listed for either "totoaba" or "totuava." Apparently, anglers in the 1940-50s totoaba heydays never submitted world-record applicatlons for any catches.)

Slowly but steadily, Tony Reyes built up his own fleet of small pangas and guides, established a base camp at Okie's Landing near Isla Lobos (said to have been named after anglers who hooked and lost big fish, because they kiddingly "fished like Oklahoma farmers") and advanced his reputation as a rise-early, fish-hard, return-late guide who made his first priorities equal: fish catches and customer service.

Reyes' big break came in the late 1950s when one of his fishing clients, Dave Fink, then owner of Davey's Locker Sportfishing in Newport Harbor, Southern California, suggested to Tony that he start running three and five-day trips southward to fish the little-pressured Baja coast and some of the upper Midriff Islands. The idea was intriguing to Reyes, who first rented local shrimpboats to make the trips, before eventually buying one himself and making basic vessel conversions for sportfshing.

The timing for the longer trips couldn't have been better. While totoaba catches skyrocketed in the early 1940s, as commercial fishermen set gill nets and even detonated dynamite across the totoaba's Colorado River spawning routes as a robust wholesale market developed for the fish, the bonanza was short-lived. In 1942, commercial catches hit 2261 tons, but by 1975, the last year before the nearly extinct totoaba were protected by a fishing ban, catches had plummeted to a paltry 58 tons.

Fortunately, Tony Reyes wasn't affected by the demise of the San Felipe totoaba sportfishery, because he had long before established himself as the pioneer of the Midriff's multi-day fishing fleet.