El Salto: Still the world's best bass lake

Courtesy Keith "Catfish" Sutton

When hardcore bass anglers discuss the world's best trophy bass lakes, the conversation inevitably turns to El Salto Lake, a scenic impoundment cradled in west-central Mexico's rugged Sierra Madre Mountains. This 24,000-acre lake 75 miles northeast of Mazatlan has rightfully earned its place among the world's truly great bass fisheries. Consider, for example, these two facts:

The lake-record largemouth caught in September 2000 weighed 18 pounds, 8 ounces. Only three U.S. states — California, Florida and Georgia — have produced records greater in size.

In May 2005, Les Melton of Charleston, W. Va. established a lake record by catching five bass one day that weighed a total of 66.8 pounds. The five largest bass caught during his seven-day trip weighed 71.5 pounds, an average of 14.3 pounds each.

El Salto's abundant largemouths have a year-round growing season and put on an astounding 2 pounds annually. Untold thousands of 7- to 14-pound bass swim here. In recent years, however, some have been saying El Salto has been only a shadow of its former self when it comes to producing trophy bass. I thought the same thing when I fished Salto last summer. I caught lots of bass — including one 9-pound, 4-ounce bucketmouth, my biggest largemouth ever. But the fishing was really tough on a lake long known for producing 50 to 100 bass a day.

The primary reason relates to weather. The lake experienced a downslide in bassing productivity due to changing water levels, hurricanes and other factors in recent years. Recently, however, I heard El Salto once again was churning out trophy largemouths in huge numbers.

I received a note from Les Melton, the lake record holder I mentioned above, who was back on Salto this May. "I have had wonderful outcomes in the past," he said, "but this trip ranks at the very top. I caught the biggest fish of my life this time — a bass that weighed an amazing 15 1/2 pounds, and the very next day I caught one weighing 14-4. In all I caught 510 bass, including 10 over 10 pounds (15-8, 14-4, 12-14, 12-12, 11, 11, 10-12, 10-8, 10-2 and 10), sixteen 8-pounders and three 9-pounders. I can't even estimate the number of 6s and 7s. Unbelievable."

Pardon me for being a skeptic, but I'm one of those people who likes to check things out for himself. So June 16, my wife Theresa and I headed to El Salto for three days of fishing at Anglers Inn. This was my fourth visit over the course of seven years, and the fishing was better than ever — better even than the spawning-season topwater action I enjoyed on my first trip to El Salto in December 2001. Any rumors that El Salto wasn't producing trophy-class bass were dispelled the minute Theresa and I started casting.

My first cast at dawn on Day 1 put a big Zara Spook right by the bank, and before I even had a chance to start walking the dog, one of the biggest bass I've ever seen made a swipe at it, jumping totally clear of the water when it did. When I was state fishing records coordinator for the state of Arkansas, I held in my hands largemouths weighing up to 15 pounds, 12 ounces, and I've been in the boat with anglers who've landed several in the 10- to 12-pound range. This bass definitely was a 10-pounder or better. And the whooping and hollering the high-flying bucketmouth provoked from our guide Herman left no doubt in our minds this was truly a trophy worth having.

Now I'm not trying to make excuses, but I feel it's only fair I should be able to explain why I didn't catch that fish. It was after all the first cast of the day, and to be honest, I've never been much good at walking the dog or hooking fish on topwaters. The real reason I didn't nail that monster, however, had nothing to do with these things. The bass when it struck never touched the lure, and another 30 minutes working the big topwater in that spot failed to produce another hit. It simply wasn't to be — a fact those of you who know me will certainly understand. When it comes to fishing, I'm not very lucky or talented. If a big one can get away, it usually will.

Not to worry, though. A few minutes later, Theresa landed the day's first bass, a chunky, football-shaped 6-pounder that gave her a thrilling triple-jump fight. Her next cast produced a twin of the first, and on 10 consecutive casts she caught four more bass in the 3- to 4-pound range — all on a purple Yum Zellmander plastic lizard, the one and only lure my wife ever fishes on El Salto.

In the meantime, I'm having some fun of my own. Another 6-pounder decided it liked the way my Spook looked, and this fish I hooked and landed. Herman the Guide suggested then that I change to a deep-diving crankbait, and that switch was the ticket to several hours of fishing fun. Every fourth or fifth cast produced a 4- to 6-pound bass and very few of lesser size.

We fished from 6 a.m. to 11 a.m. and from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. every day for three days, and the action continued unabated. On Days 2 and 3, I managed to boat three hawgs weighing between 8 and 9 pounds. Theresa, steadily working her lizard, landed some whoppers, too, including a 7 1/2-pounder that put on a dazzling show of aerobatics and scores of 5- to 6-pounders.

Sadly, the bigger bass continued to give me the slip. I broke off three fish right by the boat that easily would have weighed 10 to 12 pounds. All hit either a Bomber Fat Free Shad deep-diving crankbait, a 10-inch Berkley Power Worm or a Storm WildEye Swim Shad swimbait. I still wonder what might have transpired had I tried jigging around standing timber as Les Melton did during his incredible week of fishing. The bite on the other lures was so good I never changed up and gave Melton's tactic a try.

You, too, might be a skeptic, and knowing that, I figured it would be best to give you a look at some of the nicer fish Theresa and I caught in El Salto. A click on the slideshow below will let you view them. And yes, you will notice once again that Theresa caught more bass than I. It happens every time, so I'm getting used to it, but one of these days I'm going to cast nothing but a purple Zellmander the whole time we're fishing and see if that doesn't even up the score! With my luck and Theresa's skill, however, there's not much chance that will happen.

If you'd like to know more about fishing El Salto, shoot me an email at catfishdude@sbcglobal.net. I'm planning a return trip soon and perhaps you'd like to join me. I'll gladly provide all the info you need to plan a trip on what I believe is the best trophy bass lake in the world.

Don't miss my next post about a day of incredible saltwater action in the sapphire-blue Pacific at Mazatlan.