Still the land of the giants

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.

Why now?

El Salto offers a 10-month fishing season. Lodges like Chapman’s Anglers Inn typically close for the extremely rainy months of August and September when the lake refills, and then reopen for the shallow water bite of October, which persists into spring. Whether that’s your pick, or if you’d rather be there for the drawdown months of May and June, you’ll likely have more of the lake to yourself than ever before.

As horror stories about Mexican drug-fueled violence have proliferated, the result has been a windfall for those fishing El Salto.

While the U.S. State Department has not lifted its travel advisories to much of Mexico, including the region in which El Salto is located, violence has abated significantly since the headline-making shootouts of a few years ago. About 150,000 Americans travel to Mexico every day, and, as one travel writer noted, Mexico is safer for U.S. citizens than some cities in the United States, including Washington, Chicago and Orlando.

“Over the years I’ve had 20,000 anglers and their families here,” Chapman said. “In the past five years, during the drug wars, I’ve had thousands of people come through my place without incident.

“During that time, editors of every major fishing magazine and the hosts of many of the most popular TV shows have been here,” Chapman noted. “If something had happened to any of them, you would have heard about it.” He added that over 75% of his customers are repeat business – an unattainable mark if there’s any danger, regardless of the fishery’s quality.

The drug wars have hurt tourism in Mexico, but they’ve also reduced fishing pressure, which means more opportunities to catch big bass.

When to go

The season starts in October and runs through August. During the year the lake typically fluctuates 40 feet, from a June low to a peak in the winter (if you can call 80 degree temperatures winter). Trophies are always in the mix, but the time of year will determine how you fish.

“I get to fish a lot, so I went with the attitude that I’d sacrifice a few bites to get the biggest bites possible,” Hawk said of his May/June sojourn. “But I would completely understand if someone wanted to go when the numbers are best.”

If it’s numbers you’re after, then October through late January is prime. The water is up, flooding the newly green cover and bringing nutrients and food into the lake. “If you want topwater and easy fishing, and big numbers of fish, fall the time to go,” Chapman said. “The lake comes up 40 feet in about 60 days, starting in August, and everything comes washing down.”

That’s prime time for fly-fishermen to try the lake, and it’s ideal if you’re bringing a less experienced angler who needs constant action to remain excited.

The main spawn occurs in February and March, although Chapman believes that there’s a second spawn in August or September. The springtime ritual keeps the big bass shallow, and this is when they typically weigh the most.

Many El Salto regulars like late spring/early summer, when the lake is at its lowest. That concentrates the bass, and the biggest females tend to concentrate in schools on bluffs and points and in flooded timber.

Oklahoma tournament angler Gary Giudice has fished the lake regularly almost since it opened. According to his notes, most of his biggest bass have come in June.

July ushers in the rainy season, the last segment of the cycle. You might think that midsummer would be unbearable, but the overcast conditions actually make it quite temperate and often produce a nonstop topwater bite. After a midday siesta, you can extend it late into the evening.

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.

El Salto trip notes

Should you decide to go, the internet offers a wealth of information about Lake El Salto trip options, including other outfitters. To book a trip to Anglers Inn, visit www.anglersinn.com or phone 800-GOTA-FISH.

Getting there

Various major airlines fly into Mazatlan through U.S. gateway cities. You’ll be met at the airport by an Anglers Inn courtesy van and driven on major highways an hour and 40 minutes to the lake.

Tackle to take

Forget the finesse stuff. Think medium-heavy to heavy bass gear, with nothing less than 17- to 20-pound mono and fluorocarbon, as well as heavier braids. Extra spools of line and replacement treble hooks are critical.

No matter when you go, be sure to bring 10-inch worms in black/blue and watermelon, stickworms in watermelon, big-bladed spinnerbaits and deep diving crankbaits in citrus shad. “In 24 years it hasn’t changed,” said Billy Chapman. “I don’t care if you have the hottest bait on the market. You need to have those lures. I don’t know how many thousands of 10-plus-pound bass they’ve produced.” Throw in a few chuggers and walking topwaters, plus some swimbaits, and you’ve got the basics covered.

If you’re low on those items, order the El Salto tackle pack when you book your trip. Cost is reasonable, and it will arrive at your home prior to departure.

And if you consider flying with rods and reels to be a hassle, Anglers Inn provides Abu-Garcia rods and matching Revo reels in the right actions and retrieve ratios.

Accommodations

Rooms are double occupancy and feature comfortable beds, air conditioning, color TV and as much bottled water as you need.

Food and drinks

No one goes hungry, whether it’s huge cooked-to-order breakfasts, lunches preceding a brief mid-day siesta, or dinners that include bacon-wrapped filets, ribs, and seafood. While waiting for meals you’ll eat heaping plates of nachos, and if you ever go thirsty it’s your own fault.

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