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Out There: Trophy catfish south of the border

9/12/2006

My friend Wild Bill Skinner says Lake Dominguez was the first body of water in Mexico to be stocked with Florida-strain largemouth bass.

According to him, it was here in this 20,000-acre impoundment on the Rio Fuerte that trophy bass fishing got its start south of the border.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, U.S. anglers came to Dominguez in droves to catch double-digit bass in these scenic waters in western Mexico's state of Sinaloa.

Skinner, now president of Trophy Bass Lodge on nearby Lake Huites, should know.

More than 40 years ago, before most other American anglers, he was regularly fishing lakes in Mexico. At age 19, he became the first "gringo guide" at Lake Dominguez. He fished this lake near El Fuerte daily, sharing his expertise with American clients.

Unfortunately, in just a few years, unregulated fishing took its toll on the lake's extraordinary bass population. Days when anglers could catch hundreds of largemouths in a few hours soon passed.

And after bass were stocked in other lakes, American anglers started traveling elsewhere to experience the finest in Mexican bass angling.

Despite all this, hefty largemouths still swim the waters of Dominguez.

Today, a savvy visiting angler can expect to catch around 10 to 20 nice bass daily, including, on occasion, trophy largemouths up to 12 pounds. Many anglers still come here to enjoy guided fishing offered by a few local outfitters who cater to U.S. anglers.

Perhaps someday you'll have a chance to visit Lake Dominguez. If you do, here's a fact you won't find publicized anywhere but here: Lake Dominguez is one of the finest trophy channel catfish lakes in North America. That fact is not widely known.

Indeed, until now, Wild Bill Skinner and I may have been the only gringos who ever visited Dominguez exclusively to fish for these whiskered warriors. We were not disappointed.

I met Skinner in November 1999 at a fishing camp on Lake Huites.

"Why do they call you Catfish?" he asked right off the bat.

"Because I love fishing for catfish," I replied.

"So do I," he said. "They're hard fighters and fun to catch, but I haven't fished for them in years."

"Any catfish here?" I asked about Lake Huites.

"Lots of little ones," said Skinner. "But I've never seen one much over a pound."

During my week in camp, I befriended two young Mexicans who worked as guards. While other guests were bass fishing, I sometimes stayed behind with the pair to fish for channel catfish. My newfound amigos soon dubbed me Senor Bagré, bagré being the Spanish word for catfish.

Turns out that Lake Huites was bristling with 1- to 2-pound cats, and I soon heard rumors of 50-pound-plus catfish taken by locals.

My fishing buddies, Ramón and Ramón, were a ready source of information, plying me with tales of the big ones they had hooked and lost on handlines.

They spoke little English; I spoke little Spanish. But hand gestures and repetition bridged the gap, and I listened, enthralled, as they told me of the grandé bagrés that lived in the lake.

We did not catch any trophy-size catfish during my stay, but one day we caught enough small cats to feed all 24 anglers in camp. Skinner was beginning to take notice.

"How would you like to visit a lake where there are cats as long as your leg?" Skinner asked me one night as I was cleaning a mess of catfish.

"I used to guide on Lake Dominguez, which is on the route we'll take back to the airport. At night, while the bass anglers slept, sometimes I'd stay up and fish for catfish. Over the years, I caught some really big ones. You and I could leave early and give it a try."

I quickly agreed, and Skinner made arrangements with two fishermen from El Fuerte — Marcelino and Juan — to take us out in a boat on Dominguez. He also arranged for them to set out a trotline before our arrival.

When we got there, Marcelino showed us shad from a nearby river he had caught for bait.

We cut the fresh fish into chunks and baited the 20-hook trotline. Then, while we waited to see what might bite, we motored to another portion of the lake, where Juan lifted a mesh trap a friend of his had placed to catch catfish.

The trap was stuffed with small channel cats, and a couple of 5-pounders. The larger fish were released; the smaller ones kept.

"People here do not eat big catfish," Marcelino said. "They eat small ones only."

"They don't realize it, but they're creating a trophy catfishery by releasing all the bigger cats," Skinner said excitedly. "Imagine how big some of these fish might be."

We found out when we returned and ran our trotline. Several 4/0 bass hooks, the largest Marcelino could find for making the trotline, had been straightened. But a 20-pound channel cat was still hooked.

"Time to break out the rods and reels," Skinner said as Juan boated the pot-bellied cat. And that we did.

Ten minutes later, Wild Bill was fighting another huge channel cat, the first of several we would catch that day.

As we waited between bites, I noticed an enormous school of small fish pass near the boat.

"What the heck are those?" I asked.

"Tilapia fry," said Skinner.

The little fish swam beside us, and, as I watched them, I saw several big catfish in their midst, mouths opened wide so they could gorge on the bounty. One was easily twice the size of the 20-pound cat landed earlier.

And as the fry passed, I saw something even more incredible. The giant cats were actually breaching as they gobbled up the tilapia, their enormous heads rising out of the water as they fed. Never before have I seen such a sight.

We fished throughout the night. Several large cats got the best of us on our too-light tackle. We caught scores in the 5- to 15-pound range, but the really big specimens straightened hooks and broke line.

I experienced enough to convince me, however, that Lake Dominguez harbors one of the healthiest populations of trophy channel cats on the continent. Blue cats are present in small numbers, as well, and it is likely heavyweight specimens swim in this huge reservoir.

Mexican waters remain relatively unexplored in terms of their catfishing potential. But I have fished for catfish in several other popular bass lakes, as well, and local fishermen have eagerly shared their knowledge of catfishing here.

What I've learned indicates that catfish — channel cats, blues and flatheads — have been widely stocked outside their native range in Mexico and are probably far more abundant than anyone realizes.

I have seen photos of 65- and 80-pound flatheads caught in the Chinipa and Fuerte rivers, watched tilapia fishermen catch and release a 72-pound blue cat caught in a net on Lake Guerrero and thrilled at the power of enormous channel cats in Lake Dominguez.

Someday, perhaps, bass won't be the only fish Americans travel south of the border to catch.

To contact Keith Sutton, email him at catfishdude@sbcglobal.net. His new book, "Out There Fishing" (Stoeger Publishing; $19.95), is available at www.catfishsutton.com.