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El Salto Adventure: Day One

6/25/2009

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I know what you think. A guy with a nickname like Catfish can't be a bass angler. But you're wrong. I started bass fishing when I was 12, and for four decades now, I've been chasing that elusive 10-pounder. It's no longer just a goal. It's a quest.

My first real hawg, caught in 1980, was an Arkansas largemouth just an ounce shy of 9 pounds — a big bass for sure, but not big enough. The search parameters expanded.

I fished lunker lakes in Louisiana, Texas, Florida, Georgia and elsewhere. Caught lots of 6s, 7s and even 8s. But that 9-pound hump was like a mountain. I couldn't get over it, and my 10-pound target loomed even bigger — an Everest on the horizon.

I needed a new perspective, so I headed south to Mexico's storied bass waters.

From here, the mountain looked scalable. On Lake Guerrero, I weighed bass caught by friends that exceeded 10, 11, 12 pounds. Surely I could catch one. But no. It didn't happen.

Mexico's Lake Dominguez was hot then, and Huites was a rising star. So onward. Five years. Five trips. More than 50 bass over 8 pounds. But I couldn't buy a 9. And a 10…well, it seemed unattainable.

Then I heard about Lake El Salto, a scenic south-of-the-border impoundment 75 miles northeast of the coastal resort city of Mazatlan. The stories were astonishing but true. In September 2000, Texas angler Kevin Butler caught a lake-record largemouth weighing 18 pounds, 8 ounces. Then California tournament pro Mike Folkestead set a five-fish lake record with 53 pounds, 5 ounces. His 10 best bass that day broke the 100-pound mark.

Surely, even old Catfish could luck into a 10 on El Salto. So in December 2001, I finagled an invite to Anglers Inn, a resort highly recommended by several angling buddies. The accommodations, food and service were five-star quality. And the fishing was incredible. In three days, I caught more than 100 4- to 8-pound bass. Make a cast, catch a fish. Make another cast, catch another. Anglers Inn records showed a whopping 38 percent of visitors caught a 12-pound-plus largemouth that season. But not Senor Catfish.

My wife Theresa joined me for my next trip to El Salto in June 2004. Until this trip, she never had fished for bass. She decided, nevertheless, to give it a try, and quickly was hooked on the excitement. She caught dozens of 5-, 6- and 7-pound largemouths, plus scores of smaller fish, during three days of fishing. Her largest weighed just shy of 8 pounds. I also managed a trophy — a 9-pound, 4-ounce hawg that was the heaviest I'd caught during a lifetime of bass fishing. And my 10-pounder eluded me by the narrowest of margins.

While shooting a photo of Theresa with a nice bass one morning, I laid down my rod. I had just cast a topwater plug, which was still on the water's surface. Suddenly a heron appeared. It swooped and grabbed the lure, or so I thought. I shouted for our guide Carlos to grab the rod before the big bird flew off with it. He seized it and, astonishingly, set the hook.

Carlos shoved the pole at me.

"Big bass," he said excitedly. "Really big."

I thought it was a joke. Carlos would get a big laugh at me reeling in the heron. I refused the rod.

"Please, Senor Catfish," Carlos pleaded. "Is a big bass. Really."

I wasn't about to fall for it. I refused the pole again, and Carlos, shaking his head in amazement, reeled in a 10-pound, 9-ounce hawg.

During the 12-month 2004-2005 season at Anglers Inn, clients reported landing 737 largemouths weighing 10 pounds or more. Included were 437 bass between 10 and 11 pounds; 189 between 11 and 12 pounds; 83 between 12 and 13 pounds; 15 between 13 and 14 pounds; seven between 14 and 15 pounds; five between 15 and 16 pounds; and one over 16 pounds. In May 2005, West Virginia's Les Melton established a new 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!

Theresa and I returned to El Salto in July 2007 and again in June 2008. On the first trip, Theresa stood at the front of the boat and caught 26 bass on 26 casts, including two 5-pounders, a 6 and an 8. She caught hundreds during our three-day visit. I continued trying for a double-digit hawg and managed a couple bucketmouths over 9. The 2008 trip was even more productive, but still no 10-pounder.

Call me hard-headed, but today, I am back again on El Salto. I'm still hoping for a 10-pounder, but not for me. This trip is special, you see. My son Zachary is with me, and today, he celebrated his 18th birthday. He graduated with honors from high school last month, and Theresa stayed home so he could join me for my adventure. We hope it will be a graduation gift he will never forget, one where he, perhaps, will catch that elusive 10-pounder. Watching that, for me, would be the ultimate joy.

We left our Arkansas home at 4:30 a.m. this morning, and when we arrived at Anglers Inn in late afternoon, Zach, who worked late last night, was exhausted. He decided to rest and start his trip refreshed in the morning. I went fishing.

My guide Luis had motored only a short distance up the lake when I spotted a huge bass on the surface. I grabbed it as he swung near. The bass had tried to swallow a huge tilapia it couldn't get down and had apparently just expired. It weighed 11 pounds, 4 ounces.

Luis and I fished two hours, and as I knew it would, El Salto blessed us with its bounty. On my first cast, I caught an 8-pounder, and later landed several 4- to 5-pounders. On three consecutive casts, Luis caught a 6, a 7-1/2 and an 8.

They say the fish don't bite as well here when it's cloudy. The sky was overcast, however, and Luis and I landed 18 bass in just two hours. The smallest weighed 4 pounds.

As we headed back for supper, the sun broke through the clouds for a minute, illuminating the sky above the Sierra Madre Mountains. It was a scene of incomparable beauty. I felt wonderful knowing I'll be able to share unforgettable sights like this with my son in the days ahead.

To Zach's surprise, Chef Giovanni prepared him a beautiful birthday cake tonight. The staff and guests sang Happy Birthday. Zach smiled.

Tomorrow I'm hoping he receives an even better surprise — a 10-pound bass.

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To contact Keith Sutton, email him at catfishdude@sbcglobal.net. His book, "Out There Fishing," is available at www.catfishsutton.com.