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The Species

Species: The roosterfish is the only species in the genus Nematistius and the family Nematistiidae. For years the roosterfish was considered as a member of the jack family and distantly related to the jack crevalle, amberjack, and many others. However, with the unique attachment of the swim bladder penetrating through the brain and making contact with the inner ear, makes it unique in its species. The swim bladder is then used to amplify sounds.

Many anglers consider the rooster to be the King of the inshore species for the Eastern Pacific Ocean.

The namesake comb, seven long spines making up the dorsal fin, rise to the vertical position when the Gallo is excited or chasing bait. With the comb raised to the vertical, the incredible speed and how they maneuver their heavily muscled body, by slashing back and forth, makes the strike on a surface lure or fly one of the most memorable and incredible experiences of all the game fish.  

Names: Being the roosterfish only exists in predominately Spanish speaking countries, the Spanish word for roosterfish is Pez Gallo (pronounced  Guy-yo), or just simply Gallo.

Migration: Here is the dilemma. Most research and writing today has the roosterfish migrating about 500 miles (maximum); however Captain Adolfo Espinoza, of the panga Dos Hermanos fame of Zihuatanejo, MX, caught a roosterfish which had been tagged with a bill fish tag in Guatemala. That would be a straight line minimum of 800 miles.
    Plus, being they are also found on the offshore islands, it does appear they also use the open ocean for their migrations, and are not necessarily restricted to the mainland shoreline.
    Migration appears to be triggered by cold water pushing down from the north, and back again after the warm water returns, rather than spawning or other instinctive drives. However, many people in the Central American countries believe they are a territorial fish, and do not migrate. And, this may be true with the year round warm water they have. But, how will we truly know if a tagging program is not in place? 
And, it always seems there are small roosters (2-6 pounds) found year round in most locations, and even a few larger “home guard fish”.

    a)   At what age do the roosters start migrating?

    b)   Do some fish just go down into deeper water and stay there until the shoreline warms up again, never really migrating much at all?

    c) If the migrate, do they return to the same locations (or nearby) each year?

    d) Do they only migrate in the northern and southern portions of their territory, pushed by cold water to the warmer year round waters of Central America?

    e) Do roosterfish "school up" when they migrate?

I ask this last question because in November and December here in Zihuatanejo, when fish from up north are being pushed down by the cold water, I have encountered schools of voracious roosters. A few years back, in November, Cheva and I were fishing the back side of the waves and brought over 80 huge roosters to the boat for the fly fishing client in less than two hours time. The entire scenario was only along a small ½ mile section of beach.

And, then this last December (2012), with another fly fishing client, I encountered 3 separate huge schools of roosters more than a half mile off the beach. The angler, Don Wolcott, just cast his fly into the melee and was instantly hooked up on all three occasions. I had never seen that before.

We had been having a very tough morning of locating just a few roosters on the teaser. We had hit several top locations and were getting very discouraged. I was just scratching my head, because just a few days earlier, with the same client, we had brought 20 roosters to the boat. About noon, we spotted some birds a half mile off shore, thinking it would be black skipjack tuna. Then the ocean erupted with 100% roosters. It was incredible from noon to 2:00. Don Wolcott got three nice roosters and didn’t even need a teaser. He just made free casts from the bow of the panga into the melee. It also solved the mystery as to why they were not on the beaches.

 Habitat and Best Locations to Find Them: Roosterfish are generally caught within ¼ of a mile of the shoreline, along sandy beaches, rocky points and outcroppings, and near river estuaries. However, they are also taken crashing on bait, mixed in with schools of jack crevalle, more than a mile off the beach.

Roosterfish prefer water of 80º F or warmer in the southern regions, but are very active in 76° water in the northern reaches.

It must be emphasized when roosters are in shallow water, they are actively feeding, and when they get their fill, they return to the safety of deeper water. This is the main reason casting a surface popper to the back side of the waves is effective.

River estuaries build up a sand bar in the dry season, which gets blown out in the summer rain season, but fresh water still leaks through the pervious sand in the other months. Fresh water runoff is loaded with nutrients and creates its own micro eco-system, attracting bait fish, and on up the food chain for game fish…Including roosters. This is true along most coast lines of the roosterfish habitat, with the desert areas of Baja being the exception (because they have few rivers or water in those rivers year round). River estuary mouths, along the coast of 90% of the rooster’s habitat are an excellent place to start looking for them.

Plus, when the rain season is in full force, the heavy outflows from the rivers can discolor the water. Even though it is difficult, we have saved the day a few times by working a teaser along the well defined break of the discolored water and the clean water, which can be as much as ¼ mile off the beach. The discolored fresh water may only be 3 or 4 feet thick, and the roosters hide under it ambushing bait swimming along the edge.

When the muddy water is so widespread and just makes it almost impossible to fly fish for roosters, you can still catch them with conventional gear. The muddy water is 3 or 4 feet thick, so by rigging a live bait with a circle hook, or a dead bait with a chin weight and a circle hook, you troll the bait down in the clear water. Using a surface popper helps to attract fish to your trolled bait by the vibrations and racket it makes on the surface. The rooster can’t see the popper, yet will get agitated and goes into the feed mode. Your trolled bait will soon be inhaled.

Often when we “run and gun” trying to find the concentrations of fish, we only hit the river mouths, unless we see birds first, and then we work that area. Birds do not have be diving either. It just takes a few of them sitting on the water, or standing on the shoreline. Either something had happened there earlier, or they know something we don’t, and are just waiting for it to happen. It can pay off big time to work these areas also.

The open beaches often produce an incredible amount of roosters, with nothing on them to justify for structure. There are no bait fish you can see, or birds, but the roosters can be there. Sometimes the beach areas show swirls of sand and darker colored water in a small area, indicative of a submerged tree or maybe some rock structure below. But, usually it is just an open beach with small concentrations of roosters in a stretch of a couple of hundred yards. This is where time on the water and using a method to quickly cover a lot of water pays off.

Rocky points will have roosters also, especially if there are sand beaches on either side. Structure holds bait and they are there to pin the bait up against the rock walls, when the bait escape, they move to the sandy beach alongside the point. And, the roosters follow.

 Offshore islands with vertical walls have a lot of roosters, but they are waiting in the 50 to 100 foot deeper water below for a school of bait fish to come along, in order to pin against the rocks, taking away a couple of dimensions of escape. These fish are usually best left to the conventional angler slow trolling a live bait on a down rigger or diving plane. It is very difficult to tease up a rooster from deep water. However, if the birds are crashing, you have to at least give it a try to see what species have driven the bait to the surface. And, if it is not roosters or roosters mixed in with a school of jacks, it can still be a lot of fun on light gear.

Rooster country. This stretch of beach culminates with a rocky point on the left.

Table Fare: Contrary to most current writing and beliefs, the majority of the roosterfish caught are eaten. Most north of the Mexican border anglers feel the roosterfish is not a good eating fish and are released. However, as with billfish, and dozens of other species, the decline in the roosterfish fishery will not be caused by sport fishermen, rather commercial interests.

Like the Pacific sailfish, also caught mostly in Mexican and Central American waters, the roosterfish are eaten. You are dealing with local residents who are primarily poor. They have developed methods for cooking, salsas, and condiments which make for a tasty and nourishing meal. For poor people,in areas of poverty, the roosterfish is considered to be very good table fare, providing an inexpensive, tasty, and nutritious meal. And, these are the areas the roosterfish abides.

The majority of roosterfish caught are not caught by sportsmen, rather they are taken by gill nets, long lines anchored to the bottom in shallow water areas, and local residents hand lining for them with live bait. Whether the roosterfish is the actual targeted species or not does not matter, as they will end up being used for food. The demand is high.