El Salto: Still the land of giant bass

Hunter Cole
David Hunter Jones
If fish like Hunter Cole's trophy don't put a smile on your face, you'd better check your pulse.

About the author

Pete Robbins

Pete Robbins

Veteran outdoor writer Pete Robbins provides a fan's perspective of B.A.S.S. complemented by an insider's knowledge of the sport. Follow him on Twitter at @fishywriting.

Our group of five that descended upon Mexico’s Lake El Salto in May (2013) spanned a wide range of angling experience. At one end was Bassmaster Elite Series pro Kevin Hawk, who’s won three-quarters of a million dollars as a pro angler, and along the way has fished most of hallowed big bass fisheries from California to Florida. At the other was my wife Hanna, who has only used a baitcaster for a few years, and has rarely fished anywhere other than the east coast.

Hawk traveled south of the border on something of a working vacation, anxious to use the big bass factory as a testing lab for new products and techniques. Hanna was content just to tie on whatever our guide recommended — actually, she let them tie on the lures, since she’s not 100 percent confident in her knots.

Whether you’re an Elite Series pro or a relative beginner, though, El Salto offers the opportunity for a trip of a lifetime. While just about every other trophy bass fishery has experienced a natural boom and bust cycle — starting off strong, then tapering off or plummeting precipitously as the result of environmental changes or mismanagement — El Salto stands alone as perhaps the world’s only public bass lake that consistently lives up to its hype. It has never suffered a true down year, let alone a free fall. See photos of Mexico's Lake El Salto.

“When you hear stories about places like that, it’s usually way over exaggerated,” Hawk said. “In this case, the fishing exceeded my expectations. I was surprised by the number of big fish, 8 pounds and over.”

The lake record is 18 pounds, and 7-pounders barely get a second look. Our group caught at least 150 fish 7 pounds and up in a week’s fishing. Hawk had a 10-plus that sucked in a deep diving crankbait. My friend Duncan Maccubbin wrestled another 10 that ate a creature bait flipped to a deep hardwood tree on 65-pound braid. The true success was my wife, though. She arrived at the lake with a personal best largemouth of 6 pounds, 12 ounces. On a May Saturday, we left our home in Virginia at 4 a.m. for Mexico. By dinnertime, she had beaten her own record five times. By the end of the week, she’d notched two 9-pounders, one on a Chatterbait, the other on a Fat Free Shad, a lure she’d never thrown before. In fact, she caught bass over 8 pounds on five different lures, those two plus a soft stickworm, a spinnerbait and a jig-and-pig.

Going to school

Do you want to learn something new? El Salto is your place. Would you rather just catch one big bass after another? It’s one-stop shopping.

The lake’s consistency is largely the product of the fertile mind of Freshwater Fishing Hall of Famer Billy Chapman Jr., owner of Anglers Inn, the lake’s preeminent lodge.

“My father, Bill Chapman Sr., and I stocked the lake in 1985, but we didn’t open it up until 1989,” he said. “At that point we had a camp for eight anglers. The fish we stocked were pure Florida-strain bass from Houston. The government put in tilapia. After letting it sit for four years, we had 8-pound bass. That’s what a new lake produces. After five years, we had 10-pound bass – not a lot, but a few. The same thing happened on other Mexican lakes, but they put them in after the native bass, so none of them had the pure Florida strains.”

That’s one reason this impoundment of the Elota River continues to produce the hardest-fighting largemouths on the planet year after year after year, and it’s why most first-timers head home with a new personal best largemouth.