Load up on first-ice pan­fish

Outdoor Life - - CONTENTS -

“Ever hear of bailer bass?” I asked An­glers Inn (an­glersinn.com) fish­ing guide Juan Ro­driguez. “We’re not catch­ing din­ner, but that’s what this is— the cra­zi­est large­mouth fish­ing I’ve ever had. They’re bona fide gaffers.”

Although I’m cer­tain that much was lost in trans­la­tion, Ro­driguez laughed along with me any­way.

“I love my job,” he shouted. “Cast over there. Big fish—he just jump.”

The 32-year-old Ro­driguez has loved his pro­fes­sion as a fish­ing guide on Mex­ico’s leg­endary Lake El Salto for a dozen years. He, along with his brother, Chichi, and un­cle, Chago, con­tinue the fam­ily tra­di­tion be­gun by Juan and Chichi’s now-re­tired fa­ther, Fer­min, who was one of the orig­i­nal An­glers Inn guides on Mex­ico’s El Salto. Fer­min taught them well. We were on our way to a 100-fish day.


The 25,000-acre Lake El

Salto (14,000 acres in the dry sea­son) has been a bucket-list tro­phy-bass-fish­ing lo­ca­tion since 1986. Cre­ated by the damming of the Elota River, the reser­voir is lo­cated 800 miles from the U.S. border, at the foothills of the Sierra Madres—a 90-minute ride from Mazatlán.

“Af­ter it was dammed, I got this crazy idea to stock El Salto with Florida-strain large­mouths,” says An­glers Inn owner Billy Chap­man Jr. “It was sort of the Wild West back in ’85, so we just packed cool­ers with 200,000 fry from a hatch­ery in Hous­ton and dumped them in. The Mex­i­can gov­ern­ment then stocked tilapia to help pro­vide a com­mer­cial-fish­ing rev­enue source for vil­lagers, who were dis­placed by the im­pound­ment. And the rest, as they say, is his­tory. The tilapia are net­ted and sold once a year, but they pro­vide the main for­age for the bass. There’s also threadfin and giz­zard shad and craw­fish.”

El Salto fea­tures about 45 miles of rocky shore­line and vast amounts of drowned tim­ber—mostly mesquite, which re­mains oddly pre­served in ar­eas through­out the lake. With great cover and for­age, the bass pop­u­la­tion has flour­ished. The lake record bass weighed 18.8 pounds—only Cal­i­for­nia, Florida, Ge­or­gia, and Ja­pan have pro­duced big­ger fish. The most fish caught in a day is an al­most unimag­in­able 607.

While other des­ti­na­tions may yield big­ger fish and pos­si­bly a higher catch rate, few are as con­sis­tently good.

“Hey, I’m bi­ased,” says Chap­man. “But El Salto makes ev­ery­one’s bucket list, and that in­cludes KVD. The fish­ery is top­notch, but we’ve got some pretty good guides here, too, which helps. Most of my guys have been with me a long, long time. They know the lake, but they also know how to catch fish even on slow days. Thank­fully, there aren’t too many of those, but it’s fish­ing— it hap­pens. And if a guy doesn’t catch on fast enough, they’ll help him out.”


Chap­man may well have been re­fer­ring to me—at least in my ini­tial ef­forts.

“Jeez, dude, I think I’ve got you beat 21 to 1,” my fish­ing part­ner, Chris El­lis, of HUK Per­for­mance Ap­parel, told me last sum­mer on our first even­ing fish­ing ses­sion. “What’s

up with that?”

“Faster,” Ro­driguez said, as if on cue. “Watch.”

His tow­er­ing, long cast sailed out like an Aaron Judge home run in Yan­kee Sta­dium, com­plete with the whistling exit velocity. Ro­driguez’s big crankbait crashed the sur­face hard just inches from a rocky point. It barely touched down be­fore he be­gan his fre­netic re­trieve. Five cranks in, and he was on. “Grande!” he shouted.

In­deed, it was. We didn’t weigh it, but the bass would have eas­ily topped 7 pounds.

Though I’ve fished crankbaits all my life, I was be­ing soundly drubbed. Whether it was my sheer stub­born­ness, mus­cle mem­ory, or the sight of newly ex­posed crankbait car­casses strewn along the ebbing shore­line, I’m not sure. I was just bad at burn­ing the long-billed, big-bod­ied Bombers. My slow, un­even re­trieve meant fewer hang-ups and lost lures, and less frus­tra­tion. But it also meant fewer fish. At slow speed, the deep-diver was in­ca­pable of reach­ing the de­sired depth. Ef­fec­tive­ness de­pended upon the lure’s get­ting to the fish and then smash­ing and bump­ing into rocks, boul­ders, and tim­ber once it was there.

“This is a su­per-fast deal,” said El­lis, who ob­vi­ously un­der­stood guide-speak better than I did. “It’s like burn-your-fore­arms-off fast to get the bait down—six or seven hard cranks—and then you start to slowly roll it.”

El­lis and Ro­driguez had it ex­actly right. Once I be­gan burn­ing the Bomber, I be­gan catch­ing bass. I couldn’t match El­lis’ suc­cess—nor could I top his 8-pound gi­ant—but bump­ing and bash­ing worked, made eas­ier with a Quan­tum high­speed Smoke reel com­bined with a St. Croix medi­umheavy crankbait rod. No hype in­volved—the rod-and-reel combo made the burn­ing-quick re­trieve far sim­pler.


When­ever the bass bite slowed, we switched to soft­plas­tics. Whether we were throw­ing crea­ture baits, swim­baits, worms, or top­wa­ters, Ro­driguez con­tin­ued to school us—of­fer­ing sub­tle tips that brought in­stant re­sults.

Although each mem­ber of our squad of 10 had a fa­vorite soft-plas­tic—crea­ture, worm, or fluke—8-inch, green­pump­kin Texas-rigged Zoom lizards seemed to out­per­form ev­ery­thing. Un­til they didn’t.

“Wow! Why’s it smell like Papa John’s all of a sud­den,”

El­lis asked. “Now, don’t get me wrong. I ain’t com­plain­ing— not in the least—but I’m just won­der­ing.”

Ro­driguez’s wry smile told the tale as he dipped the lizard’s tail into a jar of Spike-it, a gar­lic-scented dip-and-glow bait en­hancer. “Me gusta!” he shouted. We liked it as well. The bite turned on as sud­denly as it had quit, with the scented-and-dyed lizards out­per­form­ing the stan­dard soft-plas­tics 5 to 1.

“I re­ally wasn’t a big be­liever in scents be­fore,” El­lis said. “Thing is, you can’t re­ally deny that it’s worked, right?”

Just 100 or so yards from us, out­door writer Brian Ruzzo had also run into a lull. His fish had in­ex­pli­ca­bly shut down. “I was fish­ing a swim­bait in 10 to 15 feet of wa­ter quite a bit,” said Ruzzo. “My guide was adamant about two things: First, that I let the swim­bait sink for sev­eral sec­onds to reach the fish. But the real tip was that he wanted me to feed line to the bait as soon as it hit the wa­ter, so that it would sink ver­ti­cally to the fish rather than swing back to the boat. That short­ened my re­trieve in the strike zone. And he was right. When we fished wacky-rigged Senkos, he had me dou­ble hook them so that they were weed­less. It worked, too. Even in a place like El Salto, you need a few tricks.”

El Salto guide Juan Ro­driguez with a 6-pound bass that fell for a char­treuse-and-gar­lic-dipped, soft-plas­tic lizard im­i­ta­tion.

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