Words By Joe Sarmiento
Ensenada is located on the Pacific side of Baja California, with a large bay, Bahia de Todos Santos forming its western border. Indigenous peoples lived in what is now known as Ensenada, but the city was “founded” by the Spanish explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo on September 17, 1542. Ensenada became the most important Mexican port city in the area when San Diego and San Francisco were lost in the Mexican American War of 1848. In 1882, Ensenada’s status in the area was cemented when it was made the regional capital of the Baja California Territory. It grew in population when gold was discovered in the nearby Santa Clara mountains sparking a gold rush 1889. During the Prohibition in the United States of the 1930’s, Ensenada was caught up in a wave of resort development that started in Tijuana, took hold in Rosarito and eventually hit Ensenada. Today, Ensenada is the 3rd largest city in Baja California, behind Tijuana and Mexicali, and is known as a cultural and economic hub in the area.
To travel to Ensenada from the United States, visitors must have a valid passport and may need a visa depending on their country of origin. Visitors from the United States do not currently need a visa for stays of up to 180 days. However, it is recommended to check with the Mexican embassy or consulate to confirm entry requirements before traveling.
Ensenada is about a 2 hour drive from San Diego county. After crossing the border using the 5 or 805 freeways at San Ysidro, it’s about a 70 mile drive along the 1D, a modern toll road that is an easy and picturesque drive along rugged seaside cliffs with sweeping ocean views. Toll booths are located shortly after crossing the border, and again just before you enter the city. The toll is under $3 at each location and is payable in both dollars and pesos. If you’re going down for the weekend, try to get across before 2PM on Friday afternoon as the line to cross can get long with commuting workers and tourists crossing at the same time. Gas is readily available along the way and has been cheaper on the Mexican side as of late.
Ensenada does have a tiny airport but serves only a few locations in Baja California, making it possible to fly to and from Tijuana but typically visitors arrive via car or bus.
Once in Ensenada, walking is the best way to get around the city but it is easy to find taxis or Ubers for longer trips outside the city. Car rentals are also possible to arrange upon arrival in Ensenada for Alamo, Enterprise, and Hertz, along with several other Mexican rental outfits. For visits to Valle de Guadalupe wine region, having a vehicle can be more convenient or using Uber’s special service “uberVALLE” which offers day-long, round trip rides by selecting “valleX”.
Ensenada has a Mediterranean climate, characterized by mild, rainy winters and warm, dry summers. In the winter months, Ensenada experiences a significant amount of rainfall from December through March. While it does rain, heavy downpours are not commonplace, so travelers can still make the most of their trip.
In the summer months, Ensenada is generally warm, with highs in the mid-70s to low 80s. The lack of rainfall during this season also means that visitors can expect clear, blue skies and plenty of sunshine. This is a perfect time to explore the city’s beautiful beaches and enjoy some water sports.
In the winter months you will find the typical bottom fishing opportunities for rockfish, whitefish and lingcod. Around May/June, things start to really heat up when bluefin tuna can be found in nearby offshore waters. As the summer progresses, calico bass, yellowtail, barracuda and bonita are popular near shore gamefish in the areas around Campo Siete, La Bufadora and Todos Santos Island. Summer offshore fishing may still focus on bluefin, but can also include paddy hopping for yellowtail, dorado and yellowfin tuna.
Ensenada was the first spot I fished out of in Baja California (Editorial Note – Cabo and the East Cape are in Baja California Sur). After that first time I was anxious to fish all the various other spots I’d heard of…sometimes overlooking what’s right here in our backyard. Now that I’ve had the opportunity though to enjoy many of the other fishing destinations in Baja California, I appreciate Ensenada so much more. The richness and variety of the experiences available so close to home are remarkable. From the San Diego area, Ensenada is a mere 2 to 2.5 hour drive which is comparable to driving to Los Angeles. As you contemplate fishing below the border, Ensenada is the first destination American anglers should look to as you make your Mexico fishing plans.
What Can You Catch?
What can’t you catch? In Ensenada I’ve caught spotted bay bass, calico bass, sand bass, halibut, rockfish, bonito, sculpin, corvina, corbina, surf perch, sargo – and that has all happened without leaving the shoreline. Add in panga trips, and I’ve caught lingcod, sheepshead, whitefish, bluefin tuna, dorado, and yellowtail fishing out of Ensenada. The potential for yellowfin tuna and white seabass is in play as well; it’s just a matter of timing, knowing the right people to connect with, and a little luck to make your fishing dreams come to life in Ensenada.
Packing for Your Trip?
Whether talking about what clothes to pack or what gear to bring, versatility is the key, as you will most likely be fishing in a panga or similar style small skiff. Storage space is at a premium on the pangas, so bringing too much gear can be problematic.
Clothing-wise, layers that you can easily put on or take off depending on the temperature or intensity of the sun is the right way to go. In the summer, I typically wear a t-shirt and shorts, some kind of long sleeve coverup, hat and sunglasses. I prefer to wear a face cover, although it is always a good idea to have plenty of sunscreen handy. A light jacket or windbreaker is good to have for crisp early mornings when you launch, for the ride out, or if it gets windy. If there’s a chance at all it may be overcast offshore, I’ll wear long pants. In the Fall and Winter months, just level up with a hoodie and heavier jacket. I usually wear my deck boots hot or cold so I’m not thinking too much about catching an edge on flip flops if we’re in the middle of a hot bite.
Typically, you won’t get to eat before you head out, so you’ll want to bring food and drinks for the day. A small cooler is good for that purpose. It’s also a good idea to bring a dry bag for your camera/phone/wallet etc.
You’ll use this setup for making bait, so don’t forget to bring sabikis, as well as throwing small irons, stickbaits or plastics for calico bass and yellowtail. Additionally this can be used as a light flyline setup to fish bait, or to throw Colt Snipers or similar small metal baits at shoolie-sized tuna or bonito. I use the 9-foot Fishing Syndicate FSG SW 900L rated 15-30 pounds, paired with a Penn Fathom 400 Low Profile baitcaster style reel for this purpose.
Yo-Yo / Jigging Setup:
You’ll use this setup for fishing yo-yo irons. Don’t forget those heavy knife jigs that you use for bluefin. A couple in the 300-gram size are good to have if you’re fishing deeper and/or the current is strong. This rod would also double as your rockfishing setup. I use the Fishing Syndicate FSC 760H rated 30-60 pounds to fill this role. For yo-yo iron, I pair it with a Trinidad 20A with 40-pound monofilament line. The reel needs to be somewhere between say 5:1 to 6.2:1 gear ratio. I feel like that speed strikes the right balance to get your jig moving fast enough, without sacrificing the necessary torque to win the fight. For jigging or rockfishing, I pair it with a Tranx 500 PG reel spooled with 65-pound braid to short topshot.
Don’t leave home without it! I use the Fishing Syndicate S-Glass 90J rated 30-60 pounds, paired with a Tranx 500 HG spooled with about 150 yards of 50 pound braid, then filled to the top with 40 pound monofilament. If the need arises for a heavier flyline setup or popper, both of which have been popular for smaller bluefin, this setup fills that need also.
A lot of times the game plan is to troll for yellows or tuna, and then try to follow up a jig strike with a flylined bait, stickbait, or surface iron. I like to use the Fishing Syndicate FSC-OS 760XH rated 40-80 pounds paired with a Daiwa Saltiga 40 2-speed lever drag to troll a Rapala X-Rap or Nomad DTX Minnow (can’t go wrong with a 140 size green mackerel – right). I’ll level up to the 2XH rated 50-100 pounds and Okuma Makaira 30 combo if it’s a bluefin trip to pull the 200 size MadMac or similar style high-speed trolling lure.
The inshore fishing around Ensenada can be pretty good. At worst, you’ll catch some dink bass. At its best, halibut and corvina can be plentiful and biting really well. The Fishing Syndicate FSG Bass SP 800MH rated 10-20 pounds, paired with a Penn Battle 3000 is my go-to setup. Bring some stickbaits (Lucky Craft Flash Minnow 110 is a favorite), smaller plastics, and dropshot stuff to target these fish from the shore. Small sinking minnow lures like the IMA Heavy Surfer 90, and mini-jigs 15-30 grams from Reaper Slow Pitch and Major Craft can be extremely productive as well.
If you’ve been on a fishing trip out of San Diego to fish Punta Colonet or the Coronado Islands, you’re probably already familiar with getting a Mexican Fishing License. There was a time when you could obtain one at your local tackle shop, but the only way to do it now, is to do it now is online here. You can buy fishing permits in one day/week/month/year increments. If you plan to fish 4 times in Mexico over the course of a year, the annual pass is your best bet (about $56 under current exchange rates).
Also the same as fishing in Mexico on a US-based boat, you need either a current passport book or card.
The last documentation requirement is a tourist card/visa or FMM (Forma Migratoria Multiple). Tourist visas aren’t required for visits to the Border Zone (defined as within 21 kilometers, or roughly 13 miles from the border) under 72 hours, but Ensenada and other Baja California fishing destinations are beyond the border zone. You can obtain one at the SAT office (where you would declare large import items) to the right of the crossing lines at the San Ysidro crossing. You can also obtain one online, but you need to get it stamped at the SAT office when you cross.
A wide range of accommodations can be found in Ensenada. Options range from RV campgrounds (south of the main city toward Punta Banda) to luxury hotels along the waterfront.
Ensenada is home to an exploding “foodie” scene with a wide range of high-end restaurants, scenic seafood (mariscos) spots and traditional local fare. El Trailero is a very popular taqueria that many visiting anglers make a point of stopping at before entering the city proper.
Nearby Valle de Guadalupe is nicknamed the Napa of Baja with numerous wineries, restaurants and summer concerts that offer enough experiences to fill several weekends. Ensenada is also home to a growing artisanal beer scene with many of the cervecerias offering excellent dining opportunities as well. Transpeninsular and Agua Mala are a couple of my favorite cervecerias. The mexi-fries appetizer at Transpeninsular is a great option to share with your travel companions.
A popular tourist attraction in Ensenada is La Bufadora, located about 45 minutes south of the downtown area. Legend has it that a whale was trapped in the rocky cliffside, creating the waterspout that is a popular, Instagram-worthy picture opportunity.
If you’re staying in town, a stroll along the Malecon beach boardwalk is a must. The Black Market is a seafood market where you can buy fresh fish or simply dine on fresh seafood. If you are feeling more adventurous, find Tacos Floresta a few blocks off the Malecon for the best fried fish and shrimp tacos in town.
Leave the San Diego area by noon on Friday, so you don’t run into all the commuter traffic; rush hour generally starts around 2pm. Once you cross the border, stay to your right and follow the signs to the toll road, Mexico 1D, to Ensenada. Once you pass the toll booth in Ensenada, look for El Trailero Taqueria on your left. No Ensenada trip is complete without a visit!
I like to fish with either Mara’s Sportfishing or Blackfin Sportfishing in Punta Banda which is further south than the Ensenada downtown area. Because they’re located away from town, I like to stay at Estero Beach Resort.
Once you check in, pull out the shore setup. I like to try for halibut on the bay-facing beach at low tide. Closer to high tide, I like to work the wall spots for bass, corvina and halibut. If you get lucky, bring your catch into the Las Terrazas restaurant on the property to cook your fresh fish and enjoy some drinks.
If you’ve done your homework and booked ahead, May/June is generally the primetime to fish for bluefin in this area. You’ll show up at the pangero’s lot at 6am, load up the panga and head out. If bluefin is going to be the focus of the day, they may want to stop and make bait, but I think it’s better to just head straight out. Hopefully you get lucky and get one on the MadMac and then fill out your limit on the casting gear!
Ideally, all of this happens early, and you have time to fish Todos Santos Island or around the Bufadora for calico bass before calling it a day. Since we’re talking about a perfect day, while fishing for bass you might see some yellows pop up and hang one on surface iron!
After you head in, if they invite you to stay and eat, do it!
Take a nap when you get back to the hotel and indulge in some more shore fishing if you get up in time for a couple hours of daylight. Celebrate your great day at the restaurant with dinner and drinks. Sunday morning, the hotel puts on a fantastic Sunday brunch. After brunch, enjoy a little more shore fishing before packing up and heading home.