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Answers to whether El Salto is bassin's best

4/29/2003

LA CRUZ, Mexico — Of all the rare commodities in the world, angling exaggerations are not among them.

Those of us who fish, in fact, expect a little piscatorial puffery in the stories we hear, including the ones we tell.

That was on my mind a few weeks ago, when, on the Internet, an item on ESPN.com posed an interesting question:

Is Mexico's El Salto the hottest largemouth bass lake in the world?

Hmmmm.

Seldom is such a question asked about any body of water. Does it follow there might be a semblance of truth to such a bold fishing inquiry?

By coincidence, our Minnesota Bound television crew was scheduled to go to Mazatlan for a story about the flamboyant outdoor lifestyle of Brainerd's Don McFarland.

By further coincidence, El Salto was only an hour's drive away; it was time to discover how hot is hot?

On a cloudless dawn in late February — our first fishing day on El Salto that would rise to 80-degree temperatures — began with jackets and a slight chill.

My guide, Fred Ward, a veteran of bass fishing and tournaments, is a bassin' man's entrepreneur.

Over the years, Ward has invented a number of lures and helped develop the famed Helicopter Lure television campaign a few years back. Ward's eternal search for good bass action two years ago led him to El Salto.

"I caught so many bass between 10 and 14 pounds, I couldn't believe it," he said.

With only two bass-fishing camps on the lake, Ward last year started his own El Salto Pro Bass Adventures, which caters to visiting anglers from roughly December to June.

Ward's bass boat roared to life and away we rushed to see if the world's hottest bass lake was still that way. Past flooded cactus tops and tree brush we zipped, past islands and bays we flew like a shot. Ward had hot spot in mind.

"We'll start with 3/8-ounce or half-ounce spinnerbaits," he announced.

I made my first cast into the world's hot spot. Nothing. A second cast. Nothing.

Over yonder a pair of Mexican fishermen were pulling up their fishing nets to gather the day's catch of tilapia, a commercial food fish abundant in various lakes here.

One of the nets held a monster-size bass. Ward rushed over to see if the fish could be resuscitated and released.The bass weighed 14.4 pounds!

We moved on and began casting again. Not much happened. Ward caught a couple of 2-pounders; I landed a bass even smaller.

"A hot what?" I wondered.

One more cast and … oh, my gosh. The swirl was big enough to mount on the wall.

She had a belly like a football and she had my spinnerbait inhaled in her huge jaws and she was making an equally huge leap into the warming Mexican air. And just as fast, she was off.

"Well, you just lost your first 8- or 10-pounder," Ward quipped.

A few casts later, Ward landed his, a solid 8-pounder, maybe more.

The El Salto bass were actually imported 15 years ago from Florida waters, where a strain of largemouth bass roam that are famed for growing big. As a result, El Salto is now in its prime as a fishing reservoir, having been built 15 years ago.

While Ward and other camp operators are concerned about the commercial netting of tilapia, there is at the moment no shortage of largemouth.

"You should have 30- to 50-bass days and most people will tangle with a 10-pounder, although not everybody will land," Ward said, looking intently at me.

For the next two days, casting spinnerbaits, topwater lures and pitching plastic worms, the bass of El Salto seemed to be everywhere. I caught 1- to 3-pounders; Fred was nailing those, plus a few 7s and 8s and one 10-pounder.

"I hope you catch a big one," Ward said, sincerely.

Well, I'd had my chances. Two huge bass in that 8- to 10-pound range had wrapped around trees below the surface, while a 10-plus-pound pig had smacked my No. 13 floating Rapala and somehow missed three sets of treble hooks. Go figure.

El Salto's bass were hot; it was me who was cold.

The second evening a bassin' fellow from Louisiana arrived at the dock sporting a smile longer than the Mexican border.

"I had the greatest day of bass fishing in my life," he said, sporting numbers. "Lots of 8s, 9s, two 10s, an 11-pounder and my biggest was 13 something."

At that moment, my largest El Salto bragging fish didn't weigh much more than a plate of nachos.

Last day; high noon. I'm crushed. Two hours earlier, a for-sure 10- to 12-pounder had sucked in a Frenzy popper, leaped high to show herself and then plunged into a flooded treetop, wrapped my 30-pound line around an unbreakable branch and spit the hooks.

Fred wasn't happy. With me.

"Ron, you've got to horse those big fish; you can't play 'em for the television camera," he said. "You got to get 'em in or they'll do a job on you."

My sad eyes nodded in agreement.

Strange thing about Mexican largemouth. They love warmth.

"Noon with a high sun sometimes can be the best fishing," Ward said. "Even for topwater."

While we slipped through flooded timber and other bassy haunts, I glanced ahead of the boat in time to see a swirl of bait fish, followed by a larger swish of water made by something on the prowl.

Quickly, I made a long cast with a pig/jig combo (weedless, skirted jig adorned with a frog-shaped chunk of actual pork rind). The pig/jig sunk for a moment and then moved sideways. I reared back on a stout, 7-foot rod. Up, she came.

She rolled on the surface, baring her huge belly and exploded toward an adjoining tree branch. I couldn't stop her and, instantly, she was wrapped. I wanted to swallow my heart.

Then, my luck changed. Suddenly the bass was free of the tree. She did it on her own. I tightened the line. Now she was in open water. Now she was mine.

Fred lifted her into the boat and shouted with joy. Fred knew something I didn't. He'd seen more big bass.

"She's over 10," he exclaimed, reaching for a fish scale.

With the bright sun overhead, we stared at the scale's digital readout. It said, "13.1."

El Salto, the world's hottest bass lake?

Muy caliente, mi amigos.

Ron Schara is at ron@mnbound.com.

January through March 2003, "Backroads with Ron & Raven" airs Sundays at 7:30 a.m. ET on ESPN2. Ron Schara's short feature of the same name airs Saturdays on ESPN2 at 7:55 a.m. ET. Click here to view this week's show descriptions.