Reeling In Old Mexico

Reeling In Old Mexico
Joe Thomas thought El Salto couldn't be topped but fish like this has him high on Picachos. (Jim Kramer photo)

Joe Thomas finds rival to bass mecca El Salto in nearby Lake Picachos

If you’re a serious bass angler, you may lament that you never got to experience the “good old days” of Mexican bass fishing.

In fact, you may think that the supposed good old days never actually occurred. You may be a Doubting Thomas when it comes to the legendary tales of tying up your boat to a single tree and getting a bite on every cast, until you grew bored (unlikely) or hungry (semi-likely) or darkness set in (most likely).

Joe Thomas, host of “Stihl’s Reel in the Outdoors,” is here to tell you that the good old days of Mexican bass fishing are here now, they live up to their top billing in every regard, and may in fact exceed the stories the old-timers spun around campfires, from bar stools, and perched atop the flipping decks of their bass boats.

Click image to see the photo gallery
You don’t have to be a pro like Joe Thomas to catch a 9-pounder on Picachos. This lady angler from Virginia notched a 9-12 – on the same day she caught a 9-5 on El Salto. (Pete Robbins photo)

He’s a veteran of many trips to the famed Anglers Inn El Salto, one of the few south of the border lakes that hasn’t cycled upon hard times. He’s filmed seven television programs there, and just about every one has produced a 10-pound class bass, or something very near that mark, often in numbers. It’s downright hard to make Joe Thomas fly into Mazatlan and go anywhere else. Now, though, he’ll have to think twice about which lake to fish.

“They’re going to sell a lot of combo trips,” he said. “El Salto is still the mama, and I still think it’s the best lake in the world, but Picachos is so new and coming on so fast. It’s exciting simply because it’s so young and very few people have fished it.”

The lake, less than an hour from Mazatlan, was impounded just five years ago, damming the Baluarte and Presidio Rivers in order to provide water for the agricultural needs of the western state of Sinaloa. While it looks very much like El Salto from a distance, with the fertile Sierra Madres in the background and a rolling landscape around the shorelines, up close, its newness is apparent.

The fields of standing timber lay untouched and unbroken, shielding past and future spawning classes. Under the political surface is where the real difference lies, however. Learning from past experiences that did not go the locals’ way, this time the villagers who were to be displaced banded together to preserve their property rights and in doing so took actions that will ensure the health of the fishery.

Specifically, rather than taking a government buyout, moving elsewhere and starting over, they took a limited payment to move, but retained the property rights to the lake. There’s only one way in and one way out. You pay them to launch your boat and the fishing is catch and release only. If you try to pass the checkpoint with a few bass, the consequences will be swift and severe. Like El Salto, there will be commercial fishing for tilapia on the lake under a cooperative agreement, but it will be strictly regulated and will provide the rapidly growing bass with a buffet of eating options all day long.

When Joe Thomas arrived at Picachos, he was awed by the unaltered ruggedness of the lake, but at best cautiously optimistic about the fishing. He figured that the supposed “hundreds” of “two- to four-pounders” would turn out to be “dozens” of 12-inch bank runners. Then, on his second cast, he felt something pick up his green pumpkin Tightlines UV-Hog and take off for Puerta Vallarta. After a prolonged fight – after all, these Florida-strain fish pull like hot sauce swilling tuna – he lipped a nine-pounder.

Think about it. That nine-pounder was barely five years old. Forget for a second that it would be a trophy anywhere and marvel at the fact that these fish are growing almost two pounds a year.

The beer-bellied bass in Joe’s hands was limited not by its environment or any sort of competition for forage, but rather by the fact that it hadn’t yet grown long enough to pack on any more weight. If he’d decided to get a replica of it made, the taxidermist likely would’ve had to walk past the bass molds and create one more in the shape of a gargantuan bluegill.

Fishing with friend Tony Encinas, a veteran guide and tournament angler operating out of Anglers Inn’s El Salto outpost, Thomas stayed on that one spot and caught one bass after another until his hands bled. Quickly running out of what he thought would be more than enough plastics to last his trip, they switched to one-ounce Hildebrandt Tin Roller spinnerbaits and slow rolled them through the same gnarly cover, adding a slew of fives and sixes to their catch for the day.

Against their better judgment, and with only a limited window to fish (and film), they went to some main river bluff banks and continued doing damage with a jig. “It was bass fishing 101,” Thomas recalled. “I threw a black and blue Arkie jig on 65 pound braid, and everything that looked good had a bass on it.”

While Thomas was particular about his chosen soft plastics, jigs and spinnerbaits, one of the lures of heading to a new lake is the chance to fish for bass that have never seen any artificial bait.

Do you think they care if your watermelon lizard has red flakes or black flakes? Or if your spinnerbait skirt has 20 strands of chartreuse amongst the white ones versus 15 strands? On occasion, they might, but more often than not once you’ve located the key structural elements that hold the schools, they’re not likely to be picky.

As the water rises and falls, the cover and structure will inevitably change and new patterns will emerge. Thomas opined that while a crankbait should be deadly, it might not be worth the trouble to fish it on Picachos, since the timber remains so incredibly thick. Unless you’re prepared to lose a bunch, and spend a lot of time hung up, the single-hooked lures may be your most efficient fish extractors.

Obviously, few touted trophy lakes have remained as strong as El Salto over the years. Stateside, we’ve seen contenders like Fork and Falcon rise, fall, and in some cases rise again. The jury’s still out on whether Picachos will land in the former category or the latter one, but for now it’s lights-out fishing. If you’re still not convinced, check out Joe’s episode of “Stihl’s Reel in the Outdoors” airing July 12 at 3:30 p.m. ET on Outdoor Channel.

If that whets your appetite and you’d like to among the first groups of American anglers to fish Lake Picachos, contact Anglers Inn at 1-800-GOTA-FISH or

Stihl’s Reel in the Outdoors show page

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