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Travelling Warming up at Lake Mateos

MEXICO 52

BassMan™ | Spring 2008


for Bass Simon Crawford

I

spend much of the summer fishing with my eight and six-year-old sons at our cottage on Beaver Lake, along the Magnetewan River, on the edge of Algonquin Park. Twice a day we go out, each a mini tournament, to pull out smallmouth bass. More often than not, the boys return to the dock with the championship and I spend dinner listening to the two of them spin that fish into something legendary. This year, in early April, with six-foot snow banks at the cottage and bass season not yet starting for months, we started getting that itch. The boys were waking up early to watch the fishing shows or to play a Rapala virtual fishing game on their new Wii; I found myself rearranging my tackle and re-stringing reels, all in a premature ritual as we waited for summer. You know the itch. And then I got a call. It’s Nik Antropov. Going largemouth bass fishing. Fishing. Mexico. Eight, nine, ten-pounders. Hundred fish a day. In a week or so. Can I make it. Of course I can make it.

A bass fishing trip is to me what a beach vacation is to my wife. For each trip, she needs new bikinis, new sandals, new sundresses, new whatever. I needed “new whatever” as well, but the kind of whatever that only my friends at the Bass Pro Shop carried. So I dropped a note to Dave Jessop, the manager of the Vaughan store on the Friday before we left. The note was simple: “Mexico Bass Fishing. Load me up.” And they did. For three days, resident bass expert Mike Rossi and fishing manager Jackie Chan

undertook a personal shopping exercise for me. They checked out the lodge recommendations, called friends who had fished Mexico bass, and arranged a bass-fishing arsenal that meant failure in Mexico could only be attributable to the angler, not the tackle. We were three. Nik Antropov and me, and buddy and bass fanatic (not always in that order) Basile Malamis. By all accounts we went the long way, via Mexico City. Nine hours after take-off in Toronto, we landed in Culiacan. Normally, I would expect to be on the other side of the planet after nine hours. Basile’s a better angler than he is a travel arranger. Fortunately for him, all was forgotten (or at least forgiven) on the first cast. Mexico has a collection of big-name bass lakes, not the least of which are the famed El Salto and Baccarac. And quickly emerging among them is the Presa Adolfo Lopez Mateos Reservoir, a reservoir 50 miles long and of some 55,000 surface acres, with towering cliffs, tropical mountains and far-reaching flats. The lake is about an hour from Culiacan, in the heart of the Sierra Madre Mountains. The reservoir is an exercise in resurrection. Once a dominant bass lake in Mexico, it was all but drained for agriculture in 1994. It has since enjoyed higher water levels over a sustained period of time and is now at the stage where there is a mature bass population. The lake itself is used by the local camps for “catch-and-release” bass fishing only. Talapia are harvested by local commercial fishermen using submersed stationary nets throughout the lake. Given the size of the lake, you can often fish an entire afternoon without seeing more than a boat or two on your travels.

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Travelling for Bass We were there in the dry season, which at times had us fishing in the cross winds of mountainside brush fires. But in October following the rains, the lake geography is reportedly jurassic, green and lush. Even in the dry season, however, the lake boasts diverse geomorphology and local colour. At one spot, cattle will be grazing across cliffs; in another, hundreds of birds weigh down the trees. One afternoon, we cast around the points of a small coned island, with a donkey standing sentinel on the peak and watching over a tilapia fishing boat. Flocks of Pelicans and nestled inlets of water hyacinth provide wondrous local variety. These are all complimentary visuals to the task at hand of landing the big one. On the recommendation of friends, we booked in at the Lake Mateos Bass Lodge, a simple camp on the Humaya River, neighbouring the village of Varejonal, and a fourminute drive to the lake. The camp is on the spartan side of rustic. Nothing is meant to keep you in your room: no phone, television or internet. As I am writing this, there is a refrain from the Gilligan’s Island theme song that comes to mind, but to be fair, there were both lights and motor cars at this lodge. But you get the picture. You are there to fish, not to drink pina coladas. The routine is simple. 5:30 a.m. knock on the door for breakfast. First cast at 6:15 a.m. (which I would have made earlier if we could have) and fishing until noon. Lunch back at camp and a siesta until 2 p.m. Fishing from 2:15 until you can’t see the tip of your rod at 8 pm. Twelve hours of fishing a day, give or take.

Nik’s 51/2 pound largemouth: a top water catch

Basile’s five-pounder caught on a spinner bait

There were eight guests there that weekend and so there was an intimate feel to the place. We had two anglers plus a guide to a boat (small, stable fiberglass bass boats with 60 hp on the back) and a trolling motor, the batteries for which they recharge back at the shore with a solar panel. J.C., the new owner of Aztec, fished with our threesome to round out two boats. J.C. is the consummate camp owner/ operator and an experienced bass man. He has top-water fishing figured out. J.C. has taken over the camp and is clearly going to put his own stamp on the place. While this is a new venture for him, the camp itself continues to be under the constant watch of long-time camp boss, Benny. Benny is the “it” guy. You need it, Benny gets it. Lake Mateos itself was a little less accommodating than J.C. and Benny, however. That is to say, the booming numbers of Florida strain largemouth bass that are reportedly caught on the lake evaded us. Boats were catching half (or less) than the 100+ bass per day that are so often cited for the lake. Some mornings produced as few as 10 fish for a boat. Our average daily catch in three days was 50 or so per boat. That said, most days produced a fivepounder and a few fours and although we three didn’t make it into the elite 10-pounder club, J.C. and another angler (who was a regular at the camp and fishing guide in his own right), hauled in double-digit monsters. And in support of the ever-enduring male truism that size isn’t everything, I must admit that of all the bass I boated in the three days, those in the 31/2 – 4-pound range were by far the most sporting, with disproportionate speed and

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“...on the last evening, at twilight, a seven-pounder dolphins out of the water at your buzzer bait, grabs it mid air, and plunges back down with it into the black water...”

strength to the larger fish. Of course, had I caught a 10pounder, this article would have waxed poetic about my Hemmingway-esque struggle with the leviathan, and in the resulting picture I would have held it inches from the camera. To what do I attribute our uninspiring numbers? Firstly, inexperience with the lake. According to the guides, not longer than six weeks prior, the water levels had been close to 18 feet higher (as evidenced by the water lines on the cliffs). Reservoir fishing is a tricky business and when water levels change drastically, the landscape changes entirely. Islands and submarine trees emerge. Holes shallow. Flats extend. It was evident that the mature guide I had on my first day had figured out the reservoir and the consequences of the water level changes and our other two guides had not. Note to self…always pick the oldest guide. Also, we were there at a time of warmer waters (80 degrees on average), which, I am told, is less conducive to big numbers than when the lake is cooler in October and November. Anything other than my own angling prowess is to blame, frankly. That said, it is hard to complain when you lift five and a half pounds of gaping largemouth that you have caught with a Pop-R in 106 feet of water. Or when, on the last evening, at twilight, a seven-pounder dolphins out of the water at your buzzer bait, grabs it mid air, and plunges back down with it into the black water, doubling the rod and startling everyone on board. Or when, on a hunch, Nik tells the guide to take a detour to a patch of hyacinth (saying to himself, “if I were a bass...”), and the second the lure hits the surface, it is crushed by a monster largemouth (making you wonder how it is we came to think like bass). These are the moments you came for. To retreat for a moment, I should note that I failed to set the hook in the beast and that “seven pounds” is a generously estimated weight based on loose confirmation by Nik, my partner that day, the theory being that if your fishing partner supports the guess, it must be accurate. Everything went out on 20-30-pound braided line. Our best top-water performers were Heddon Zara Spook and Rebel Pop-Rs. Spinner Baits (white and chartreuse) and Rat-L-Traps hauled in consistently as did buzz baits (my black buzz bait being crushed by the alleged seven-pounder). The Rapalas lived up to their reputations, evidencing that they speak to Mexican largemouth just as fluently as they do to Ontarian. At midday we found some great spots for plastic worms, lizards and salamanders, both on flats and when the bass had retreated to deeper waters. But my lure of the trip (l’attrait du voyage for our bilingual readers ) was one I didn’t even bring with me. Lee Bohner of

My 51/2 pound bass pulled in on the infamous white balsa plug “Basile.” Over my shoulder to the right, if you look carefully, you can make out the seven-pounder I lost.

Sporting Adventures, an international hunting and fishing tour operator out of San Francisco, brought with him a case of pristine, vintage balsa crank baits that he had owned for going on 20 years and on which he had never caught a fish. The case boasted a rainbow of carefully arranged lures, and on the recommendation of Lee’s wife, Sheila (which frankly, I am humbled to admit, involved some degree of feminine intuition), we each accepted the gift of a plain white plug. As it turns out, the white balsa plug, on its first outing in 20 years, yielded my single biggest catch (5 1/2 pouds), my largest number of catches (nine) on a single lure in one session, and dare I say it, J.C.’s 10-pounder. Not bad for an old plug. Not one article I read on Lake Mateos ever suggested that I bring a white balsa crank bait, so I would suggest (a bit tongue-in-cheek, perhaps) that the inventory of Lake Mateos fishing arsenal has been forever changed. I should note that, as is my custom with all lucky lures, I have named the infamous crank bait, in this case, “Basile” after my fishing partner (and former travel planner). It would have been a “Nik,” but I already have a favourite plug called Nik. And that’s another story. ■

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