John Merwin

What makes one bass lake better than another can be argued in a lot of ways: Scenery, access, or good food at the dock may all be part of the equation. But the clincher is always big fish–lots of them. By that token, the best bass lake in North America isn’t in Florida, Texas, or California. It’s in Mexico. In 50 years of fishing all over the continent, I’ve never seen or heard of anything that can top Mexico’s Lake El Salto as a consistent producer of lunker bass. While fishing there last spring, I found that two anglers in one boat can generally count on catching 40 to 60 bass a day that will average 4 to 5 pounds–with a 10-pounder (or bigger) always possible.

Ready-Made for Bass

Lake El Salto is a 24,000-acre irrigation reservoir just north of Mazatlan. During construction on the dam at El Salto in the mid 1980s, the Mexican government stocked the partially formed lake with tilapia to provide a small commercial fishery for local residents. At about the same time, seeing a big lake with a newly made forage base, an American outfitter named Billy Chapman stocked the lake with ­Florida-strain largemouths. With lots of food, a long growing season, and few predators, the bass prospered along with the fishing. After the dam was finished in 1989, Billy Chapman Jr. opened Anglers Inn ­(anglers​ on El Salto’s shoreline, where I was a guest. Chapman wisely made catch-and-release fishing a lodge rule to keep the bass growing and the fishermen coming back. As I learned while fishing with Chapman’s guides, just about all the bass lures–particularly large plastic worms and jigs–that are common on bass lakes farther north also catch these lunkers. But it was one guide, Martin, who pulled a soft-plastic swimbait from my bag and said, “Big fish. This is the best.”

Señor Swimbait

Martin’s choice was a 5-inch Yum Money Minnow, a relatively new style with a paddle tail that “swims” and wiggles even at slow speeds. Swimbaits are enormously popular among U.S. anglers, and the rigging and tactics of these Mexican guides will work just about everywhere.

A 5/0 or 6/0 weighted hook such as the new Gama­katsu Weighted Superline Spring Lock hook makes it easy to rig a swimbait straight. Screw the corkscrew-shaped wire at the hook eye into the swimbait’s nose. Then insert the hook point up through the body from bottom to top in the same way you’d Texas-rig a plastic worm.

More often than not, we were casting these lures with heavy (40- to 60-pound) superlines around submerged trees and other shoreline cover. Let the lure sink for 10 or 15 seconds to gain depth, then crank it back slowly. Big bass loved these things. The low-stretch sensitivity of superlines made it easy to tell the difference between a strike and the bait’s bumping a submerged log.

If you get the chance to fish swimbaits in El Salto, the season at Anglers Inn runs from early fall through late spring. A four-night, three-day package costs $2,015. This includes lodging, meals, guided fishing, and your bar tab. Having now found a bass fishing nirvana where the margaritas are as cold as the fishing is hot, I’ll be doing the only sensible thing: getting back there as soon as I possibly can.