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Grays Best

Treasures of the Sierra Madre

Senko? We don’t need no stinking Senkos!
by James R. Babb

To twist a pivotal passage from a favorite movie, Largemouth bass are a very devilish sort of thing. You start out, you want a 20 pounder. After days of sweating yourself dizzy you finally come down to 15 pounds, then 10. Finally you say, “Lord, just let me land a couple of eight pounders and I’ll never ask for anything more the rest of my life.” 

Which is pretty much the state Jerry and I are in after a week on lake El Salto, down Mexico way in the Sierra Madres of Sinaloa, about two hours’ drive northeast of Mazatlán and not far from where mysterious writer B. Traven set his classic tale about the transformative power of greed, which John Huston made into one of the great adventure movies of all time.

For us, just getting here was an adventure, with a 12-hour snow delay in Maine and an involuntary overnight in Houston. And when we finally arrived the weather was bright and warm with crisp northerly winds, exactly what you’d want for a winter respite and exactly what you don’t want for fishing.

And make no mistake: All 40 guests at Angler’s Inn are here for the fishing. Most have been here before, many are from Texas, all are bass-fishing fanatics as expert as they come. There isn’t a Humphrey Bogart, a Tim Holt or a Walter Huston in the crowd, but several famous bass tournament guys are here along with two Hank Hills, a Boomhauer and for better or worse a Dale Gribble, and everyone is varying degrees of bemused that Jerry and I are fishing one of the world’s best big-bass lakes with fly rods.

It is a bit quixotic, fly-rodding this 24,000-acre reservoir that produces more 10-pound-plus bass than any other lake in the world. For one thing, the bass eat mostly tilapia, and the tilapia run bigger than the biggest billfish flies. For another, we’re competing against some of the best bass fishermen in the world.

Not that we’re competing. Fly fishers tend not to be very competitive— or at least not the ones I voluntarily fish with. But modernday bass fishermen are as competitive as commodities traders and just as intense.

We’d pass them out on the lake and give a friendly wave, and not once did anyone look up from relentlessly chucking Senkos and swim baits and fall baits and wacky worms to acknowledge our presence. Yet every night in the bar those same coldeyed FisherMen were as friendly as puppies, genuinely interested in our day and happy to tell us about theirs’.

I blame big-money bass competitions for this going-for-the-gold perversion of recreation into occupation. Not that how someone else chooses to enjoy fishing is any of my business. Fly fishers often imagine their choice of terminal tackle bestows moral superiority. But it doesn’t. Fly fishing is merely a technological handicap self-imposed purely for pleasure. We are anglers all, treading different paths to the same goal.

Our goal—everyone’s goal at El Salto—is to catch a bass over 10 pounds, and in this climatologically challenging week no one has broken that barrier despite heroic efforts. Yet in this hard-charging crowd, where fly fishing seems a bit like digging for gold with an atomizer and an oyster fork amidst hydraulic miners wielding water cannons and diesel excavators, Jerry and I have very nearly held our own. Like everyone else we’ve averaged around 50 bass a day in the two- to five-pound range with several around six. We haven’t landed any of the nine pounders a fortunate few report, but Jerry caught a freakish-looking tadpole of a bass with the head of a nine pounder and the body of a three-pounder, and I hung an honest nine pounder but couldn’t bulldog him out of the drowned trees that forest this immensely fecund bass factory, impounded on the Rio Elota only 20 years ago and just now coming into its prime.

El Salto reminds me of the 20-year-old TVA lakes I grew up fishing in the East Tennessee hills— not the numbers or size of the fish so much as the amazing array of fish-holding structure left behind when a dam drowns a longinhabited valley. I can imagine the El Salto locals sitting around the marina talking about big bass caught from the ruins of a childhood home just as we talked about big bass caught from the stump of a cousin’s silo. And I’ll long remember the fourpounder that ate my popper in El Salto’s old graveyard, right between the Fleur de Lis and the Virgin of Guadalupe.

I hope the other anglers have found time this week to look up from the serious business of accumulating poundage to drink in their surroundings—the soaring mountains; the flooded villages built before Plymouth Rock ever saw an English boot; the grebes and coots and redfooted ducks that pepper the shallows and darken the skies; the overfed ospreys preening in every tree; the white egrets mincing along the banks and the blue herons presiding over the shallows; the clanking copper bells of zebus and burros cropping sparse grass amidst cacti and thornbush and gnarled sprawling oaks where Mesozoic iguanas toast in the sun.

One thing no one has missed— has found impossible to miss—is the lake’s unbelievable wealth of biomass. The shoreline is a virtual spectrum of life. Tight against the bank, a thick stew of larvae and fry swirls against a grazing ribbon of thumb-size tilapia, flashing in the sun like new dimes. Farther out, a mixed band of hand-size tilapia and bass dart in for spare change, and then the occasional behemoth pushing a tugboat’s bow wave explodes through the rainbow like a baleen whale seining krill, and the lake holds one less fat tilapia.

But not for long, because tilapia go forth and multiply beyond belief. It’s no accident that this native of the Nile is the fish that famously fed the multitudes. It’s doing that here on El Salto, feeding the bass and feeding the locals, for there is an intense commercial gillnet fishery here for tilapia.

“It bungs up the fishing,” grumble some guests. And while it’s difficult to imagine that all those gillnets spider- webbing everywhere don’t in some way impact the bass fishing, government biologists and lodge owner Billy Chapman maintain that gillnetting, restricted to certain periods, certain areas and tilapia only, is the bass’s salvation. For every egg the Florida-strain largemouth extrude, 10 tilapia hover nearby waiting to eat it. Even though bass grow two pounds per year in this hothouse tropical environment, they simply cannot reproduce quickly enough to keep up with the competition without help from a two-legged predator.

And the tilapia have other ways of evening the score. One day we found a nine-pound bass floating on its back with a two-pound tilapia jammed down its throat, its stiff fins flared like punji stakes. The day after, superstar bassman Shaw Grigsby found an eight-pounder in the same condition. In both cases the bass died but the tilapia swam away—a ju-jitsu warrior exploiting the greed of its oppressor to bring about its downfall.

The downfall for the truly big bass here—an 18.8 pounder is the biggest so far—tends to be giant swimbaits, Senkos or Carolina-rigged worms fished deep against the abundant structure. Although a properly rigged fly rod can plumb the depths, it’s much happier fishing shallow water and so am I.

Fortunately, the bouillabaisse of life that bands the El Salto shoreline brings enough big bass inshore early mornings and late afternoons so that topwater fans and fly fishers self-handicap only in theory, and then mostly at midday when sane Sinaloans are enjoying a siesta. Once I found the right fly—a big Dahlberg Diver, grizzly over yellow, which swam very tilapia-like stripped slowly from the bank—I was happy to abandon the 350-grain sinking lines and midday doldrums and perhaps a chance at the ultimate fly-rod bass in favor of a reliable stream of largemouths exploding on top.

And on this, my last day here, having bargained myself down from 20 pounds to 10 and having muffed my chance at a nine, I find it impossible to be anything but happy as a six pounder blasts my burbling Diver and powers for the lily pads, the line thrumming like a bowstring and my nine weight flexing into the corks. I release him into the shallows and nod to the guide: it’s time to go.

The greed for more and ever more was the undoing of Midas, and of Bogart’s Fred C. Dobbs. Only Walter Huston learned to be satisfied with what riches he’d been given. In his honor I turn toward the purpling mountains and, as Carlos guns the Yamaha, I pay homage to Huston’s knee-slapping, elbow-pumping dance, cackling merrily away into the dusk, knowing I’m surrounded by gold.


James R. Babb is the author of Crosscurrents, River Music, and Fly-Fishing Fool, all of which which are available from

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