El Salto: Still the land of giant bass

Diving for lunkers

Terry Conroy, a Massachusetts commercial real estate executive in our group, caught a personal-best 6-pounder last spring at Okeechobee, but he traveled to El Salto expecting more. Like all of us, he was quickly rewarded, beating that 6-pounder several times during the trip before ultimately boating a 9-plus trophy.

Perhaps his most memorable fish, though, was a “mere” 7 1/2-pounder that took his spinnerbait through a hardwood tree, under a laydown and then got wrapped up in some underwater brush.

Our guide, Chi Chi, was able to get near the fish, but it remained out of reach, so without hesitation Chi Chi stripped down to his boxers, hopped over the side and followed the line down out of sight. He re-emerged 30 seconds later with a green trophy in his hands. After a few pictures and some high fives, it was released to bite again.

That’s the sort of service you learn to expect after a few hours there. Chapman works hard to groom potential guides to become exceptional on the water. “The original guides who started with me in their 20s are now in their 50s, and most of them are still with me,” he said.

We continued to crush the shallow fish on spinnerbaits for another half hour, until Chi Chi decided it was time to move to the bluffs. Why leave biting fish? Because he suspected we would find more and bigger biting fish elsewhere.

We did. I flipped a meaty jig to a steep wall and halfway to the bottom it started moving to the side. I set the hook on 50-pound braid and it barely budged. A minute later I had another 8-pounder in the boat. On the way back to the ramp for dinner we stopped at a main lake point and Chi Chi had us fling deep diving crankbaits as far as we could with the wind to tick the tops of flooded trees. We didn’t add any big ones there – just a handful of 4-pounders, the type of fish you’d kill for on tournament day at home, but which are almost nuisances at El Salto. You feel like you need to horse them to get your bait back in front of a trophy, but they fight so doggedly that it’s not an easy task.

By the end of the afternoon session, Conroy and I had put together a best five that conservatively weighed 35 plus pounds. At least for the duration of our short ride back to camp, we got to feel like Elite Series pro world-beaters. Then we got back and before we took the first sip of our margaritas we found out that Hawk had matched that figure with a dog-walking topwater, Duncan had caught his 10 and Hanna had learned the magic of the Senko on a seemingly endless string of 5s, 6s and 7s. There was no leading pattern, no one way to get the job done. The key was to keep a bait wet and in the strike zone and to follow the direction of our seemingly prescient guides.

You can’t experience the true superlatives unless you overlook the hyperbolic media hype about the dangers of international travel.

There are no guarantees in bass fishing, no matter how good a fishery may be, so like anywhere good casting and appropriate tackle return substantial dividends at El Salto. It’s not a fishbowl, but there may be no better place on earth to put yourself in position to catch a trophy. Our group of five has already planned a return trip for 2014 — the trip of a lifetime has turned into an addiction.

With higher personal bests established, it may not be quite as easy to top them, but it’s a challenge we’re all willing to take on.