El Salto Showdown

I'VE NEVER FISHEDIN A GRAVEYARD BEFORE, BUT... ... I HAD REACHED THE POINT WHERE I would tryanything to catch a bass over 10 pounds on fly tackle at El Salto, even if itmeant fishing a flooded cemetery. I suppose I should already have beensatisfied. On a prior visit to the Mexican lake I caught an 11½-poundlargemouth on conventional tackle. But I lost a bigger one on that same trip.The fish that get away are always bigger, aren't they? This one really was,though, and that's what made me want a rematch. The bass was heavy enough toslip drag like an amberjack and I was jittery for a while afterward.

So I hoped toreturn to El Salto some day, and when Chappy Chapman stirred the pot bychallenging me to go back to old Mexico with a fly rod, what else could I do?"The guys who know how to flyfish really do well here," said Chappy,the owner of Angler's Inn on the shore of El Salto. "You just never hearmuch about it."

Now you're goingto hear about it.

FLYFISHING TAKESHOLD

There was a timewhen Chappy's father, Billy Chapman Jr., was so desperate to attract flyfishingcustomers to his new lodge that he offered $5,000 to the first angler who couldcatch a 10-pound bigmouth on fly tackle. The late Gus Hansch won the purse witha fish weighing 12 pounds 4 ounces--still the lake's fly tackle record. Thefolks who work at Angler's Inn call Gus "el Tigre," and memorializedhim with a marble plaque. The Californian did more to popularize flyfishing atEl Salto than anyone.

"In the earlydays before the lodge, Billy just had a trailer to stay in," recallsHansch's son Tom. "My dad and I made dozens of trips to the lake fromCalifornia hauling a seventeen-foot Boston Whaler Montauk. We had as many asfive guys sometimes, and we'd tow everybody out in float tubes and pick them uplater. The fishing was just wonderful.

"I go backevery year. Just this last trip I stopped on the high hill island near thelodge, where one of our buds, Big Tony Encinas, put up a cross for my father. Istopped there to pay my respects, and then I made a cast and caught a goodbass. So Dad's still helping me catch fish."

There's also thematter of Gus's record. Whoever breaks it will be cloaked in glory to be sure,but there's a sweetener. "The first paying flyfisherman guest who beatsGus's record wins ten grand. I'll cover it," says Billy.

I figured thatwould get your attention.

There were dayswhen Gus Hansch caught more than 100 bass on the long rod, but despite suchearly successes at El Salto, flyfishing was inevitably overshadowed by thecranking and winding methods that rely on beefier tackle. Regardless of therods and reels employed, El Salto continues to be the top choice for anyonelusting after a largemouth 10 pounds or heavier.

Flyfishing-wise,there has been some attitude adjustment of late. Advancements in flytackle--better drags and stouter rods--and the extremes to which innovativeanglers unfettered by tradition are gleefully pushing gear performance haveheralded a new day. And El Salto is the perfect place to experiment.

BELOW THESURFACE

Not that manyyears ago, flyfishing for bass in any body of water meant tying on a popper orhair bug and casting away. At Angler's Inn, Chappy and Billy catered to thebugging crowd from October into December and again in April, when topwaterpresentations early and late in the day can always be counted on to get a risefrom a largemouth bass.

The other monthsof the year are no longer going to waste, however. Flyfishers who are willingto experiment and who are keen on coaxing muy grandes from deeper structure andtransitional cover with fast-sinking lines and big flies stand to do very well.Perhaps if he'd known about such tactics and tackle more thoroughly, BillyChapman wouldn't have been so fast to put up the money for the flyfishing lakerecord.

The money pot is anice warm something to keep in the back of your mind, but the point offlyfishing in El Salto Lake is to catch lunker bass--maybe lots of them.

DESERT BASSMECCA

Mazatlan is thegateway to El Salto for most air travelers, and the hour-and-a-half drive alongthe Sea of Cortez and then up through the scenic Sierra Madre foothills is abonus that whets your appetite for things to come.

You pass neatfields of agave cactus, the raw material for tequila, and learn that a plastichazard cone in the road--one into which a branch has been stuck--means that overthe next rise there's likely to be a truck broken down in the middle of thehighway. Along the drive you see the Elota River, dammed in 1986, swellgradually into the 24,000-surface acre El Salto reservoir.

A year before thedam was completed, Billy Chapman Jr. and his father convinced the Mexicangovernment to stock Florida-strain bass in the Elota along with Africantilapia. Chapman expanded the payload by adding 2,000 more bass fingerlingshimself. Five years later the lake opened.

Tilapia, and tosome extent shad, support a hierarchy of wildlife both above and in the water.Ducks, curlews, herons, egrets, ospreys and oyster catchers are constantlybabbling, soaring, hunting or feeding. Beneath the surface, the tilapia and thebass below them engage in an explosive eating orgy.

After our arrival,my fishing buddy Jim Babb and I began our own frenzy of unpacking so we couldget at the bass. Jim ultimately fled from our room, his eyes rollingheavenward, as I rummaged through the mounds of tackle I must have with me onsuch excursions. I later found him down at the boat-loading area, muttering andmaking clucking sounds as he hung over the gunwale of an aluminum fishingskiff, looking at the water.

The shallows werealive with a pulsating food chain. Several tilapia year-classes noshed onzooplankton or bugs appropriate to their size. Near the bank smaller tilapiacould be seen rolling sideways occasionally and flashing their silvery flanks.From time to time a bass darted into the melee, picked off a juvenile andswirled away. All this action was happening 20 inches from shore, whileslightly farther from the bank larger tilapia patrolled and played theeat-or-be-eaten game with more bugs and larger bass.

FISHING IN AGRAVEYARD

This display ofeating behavior informed our initial topwater tactics: Bass bust tilapiaagainst banks, so anglers cast tight to banks and catch bass...but not always.I came upon Jim in another boat at the mouth of a narrow cove, fighting it outwith a bass he hooked in open water. The fish looked to be at least 6 pounds;it led Jim on a tour of the cove before it wrapped around a snag and made itsgetaway. The outcome was especially upsetting because the bass had taken asilver slider that, based on its productivity, had become Jim's favorite. Whenthe leader broke, I could almost see the pall of gloom hovering over Jim'shead.

In the hours ofhigh sun we fished shadow lines along vertical bluffs. Mark Emery, a cameramanfor bass pro Shaw Grigsby, who was shooting a segment for his TV show at ElSalto, gave me a gaudy salmon fly to try. The bass liked this sinker and I lostcount of how many fish I hooked during the hour before lunch one day. Finally,though, after catching and releasing a stocky 5-pounder and immediately sendingthe fly down again, it was slammed much harder and then the line went slack.Was it another 10-pound-plus bigmouth? I didn't have it on long enough to makeany such judgments. I scolded myself for not retying after the 5-pounder.

Following hisdeath, Gus Hansch's ashes came to rest in El Salto. He is not alone. The lakecovers two villages and three ancient cemeteries. Depending on water levels,mausoleums, grave markers, monuments and shrines emerge above the surface,making a rather eerie backdrop and bizarre cover for fish. One morning weentered the ruins of a graveyard, our guide Pepe nonchalantly running theelectric trolling motor. When asked whether remains of the dead had beenexhumed from the cemetery, Pepe replied, "Some." At that moment I castbetween the emerging statuary of the angel of death and the Virgin of Guadalupeand stuck a bass. But I didn't feel quite right about fishing there and we soonleft.

One morning thebass went after the tilapia big time. Showers of the forage fish exploded alongthe banks and skittered across the surface of a small creek channel with basson their tails. Jim later showed us an 8-pound-plus bass he had caught with a2-pound tilapia jammed in its throat.

PEPE GETSSTOKED

The fact that thefish were going bonkers on our flies during the spree seemed not to excitePepe, whom we had taken to calling Pepe the Phlegmatic. He moved on stoicallyduring the feeding frenzy--even when the largest fish I'd seen on the trip rosein a bay mouth to meet my sinking saltwater streamer, engulfed it and thendove. Two things stimulated Pepe the Phlegmatic. First, when my line tangledand I'd have to stop to work on it, Pepe would leap from the tiller and come tomy aid, muttering, "Twist, twist." He loved to untangle. They saypsychiatrists do, too.

Iguanas also gotPepe stoked. When he spotted the big lizards where they perched in high treebranches over the water, he'd point and say, "Otro, otro, otro!"Another, another...

It was our lastevening when Pepe caught fire, figuratively speaking. Dark was coming on fast,and fishing that had slowed was now quickly picking up. In Pepe's boat, Jim andI were alternating casting sessions in the bow as we eased toward a long,tapering point. Justin, our photographer, was in the other boat. Then Pepeshouted something we couldn't understand, yanked the outboard alive and nearlytossed Jim over. Pepe had a mission. "Snake!" he shouted, pointing."Photo! Photo! Camera! Camera!" Pepe was pulling up English we didn'tknow he had. We warily circled the swimming snake, a rattler that was 5 feetlong. Pepe's eyes looked mighty big, and I knew the rattler had displaced theiguanas in his inventory of interesting things.

The snake madeshore without further incident, Jim caught another bass or two, and then wemotored back to the lodge as the stars started twinkling on. Somewhere a donkeyhonked. Cowbells clanked. Everything was pretty fine. It was so good that Ididn't even feel bad about not catching a 10-pounder. Next time, for sure. On afly.

"SNAKE...PHOTO! PHOTO! CAMERA! CAMERA!" PEPE WAS PULLING UP ENGLISH WE DIDN'T KNOWHE HAD.

FAST FACTS

⿪ Fall through midwinter is the best time to cast a flyat El Salto. Poppers rule in low-light hours, sliders and streamers aroundmidday.

⿪ Average temperatures during prime flyfishing seasonrange into the 70s. Rain isn't likely.

⿪ The price of $1,945 is all-inclusive: 4 nights, 3days of fishing; guides, boats, all meals and open bar, plus groundtransportation to and from Mazatlan.

⿪ A special rate is available for flyfishing pairs.Oct. 1--C Dec. 31, one fisherman pays full rate and the second pays halfprice.

⿪ Most major airlines fly to Mazatlan Airport.

⿪ For more information: Angler's Inn, 800-468-2347,anglersinn.com

TACKLE & TACTICS FOR SUCCESS

⿪ Flies and Poppers Jim Babb's much-appreciated slider suggested El Salto bass go for quieterpresentations. Well, yes, but not as a general rule. Poppers worked too, as didstreamers of various sorts. Dan Blanton's Sar-Mul-Mac brought in 5-pound fishregularly--on a floating line and a fast-sink 350-grain striper line (whose usedepended on the location and time of day). As a lark, I fished anorange-and-grizzly tarpon fly and caught bass. Hair floater/divers (I like theones with long tails) nodding down and up were hard to beat over shallow coveror near the banks early and late in the day. In many cases bass followed a longway, hitting not far from the boat.

⿪ Rods and Lines Eight-weight rods with floating, intermediate and fast-sinking lines are thego-to outfits. If you can spare the room in your luggage, take along a 9- oreven 10-weight rod to handle the bulkiest saltwater streamers. Bruce Chardfloating saltwater lines (Pro Series) by Jim Teeny are half a weight heavierper designation and make all-day casting easier.