By Pete Robbins
Special to BassFan
Just about every famed bass fishery, from Okeechobee to Guntersville to Falcon, has experienced its ups and downs. When they’re hot, it pays to be there, but when they’re not, it often seems as if you might as well have stayed home.
That’s the case south of the border, too, but to a greater extreme. Bass lakes in Mexico may have a longer growing season and less sport-fishing pressure, but unpredictable politics and the frequent lack of a reliable regulatory scheme mean that lakes may never bounce back from the low points.
Billy Chapman Jr., owner of Anglers Inn International, who with his father Billy Chapman Sr. first stocked famed Lake El Salto almost three decades ago, has seen the fortunes of various Mexican fisheries rise and fall. In some cases, he’s seen the writing on the wall and avoided entering a sure-to-be-doomed opportunity or has exited it at the right time, but in other cases he’s had to leave operations behind.
For example, Lake Mateos was exceptionally scenic and fertile, one of the best topwater lakes on the planet, but it has been allowed to shrink to 4 percent of full pool – far too little water to sustain a fishery, and Chapman has closed down his camp there.
Indeed, the variables affecting the long-term success of a fishery are numerous. The lake has to be accessible and fertile, with adequate forage. You need the buy-in of the locals and assurances that they won’t quickly deplete it. The water can’t be allowed to go down too far.
Even if an outfitter can establish a camp on a given lake, it has to be safe for visiting anglers – and perceived as such. The ability to check off all of these boxes is limited, and when it exists it’s often fleeting.
El Salto the Gold Standard
The one lake that has checked off all of these boxes consistently is El Salto. Chapman, whose efforts earned him induction into the Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame in 2009, continues to operate his flagship Anglers Inn lodge there because of its predictability. While the lake rises and falls each year, it never goes below a 30 percent of full pool.
“In 25 years, we’ve never had to shut it down,” he said. “On other lakes, you never know what the water levels are going to be. You’re throwing the dice.”
Additionally, El Salto supports a sizeable tilapia fishery, which not only leads to big Florida-strain bass, but also provides local commercial fishermen with a livelihood. Through a cooperative, the tilapia nets are regulated in a manner such that recreational fishing can thrive.
“I try to work with the people to tell them about catch and release, and that if you don’t take care of the lake, there won’t be any business,” he said. “I take the president of the co-op and try to explain that if you don’t manage it correctly, it will get killed. If you do manage it right, there will be jobs for your kids and grandkids.”
While El Salto has remained a shining light, continuing to pump out as many double-digit bass as any public lake in the world, many other nearby lakes have gone by the wayside. Chapman has seen operations at Huites, Comedero, Dominguez and Mateos go belly-up for a variety of reasons.
“At Agua Milpa, we had a new lake 70 miles long,” he recalled. “But we couldn’t control the Indians. They could harvest whatever they wanted.
“Generally a lake is good for 3 or 4 years.”
Even if you develop the most productive lake on the planet, business will suffer if you operate in a war zone – or what is perceived as one. Certainly violence in Mexico has weighed heavily on the minds of some would-be visitors. Even the killing of a jet-skier on Falcon Lake in 2010 might’ve played a role in dissuading some Americans from traveling south of the border, despite having occurred more than 600 miles from Mazatlan.
Chapman notes that most of the drug-fueled problems were near the border, which El Salto is not. He doesn’t deny that there are cartel members in the same province as his operations, but noted he’s had no problems and that the country’s most wanted drug lord was captured in Mazatlan this past February.
“We went 5 years through the drug wars and never lost a single angler,” he said. “During that time, anybody who’s anybody was here. We had everyone from Bassmaster, the Outdoor Channel, In-Fisherman. The bottom line is that if you’re not related to the cartel, you don’t have to worry.
"The borders might still be a little dangerous, but you fly over them. The people around here are interior people, country people. The border is like going to Detroit or Chicago. In all of my years here, I can think of one robbery in a boat, and it happened to one of my competitors. Meanwhile, 5,000 anglers fished with me and nothing happened. There are lots of scared people out there. What you don’t know scares you.”
Preparing for Picachos
On the basis of his three decades of experience bringing anglers to western Mexico, Chapman is now most excited about the new Lake Picachos, under an hour from Mazatlan and just about 2 hours from El Salto. The lake, built for agricultural irrigation and as a water supply for the city of Mazatlan, was formed by damming the Baluarte and Presidio rivers in the Sinaloa state just over 5 years ago, and was just opened for fishing in the past year.
Already, visiting anglers including veteran pro Joe Thomas (who filmed a television program there) are raving that it’s a “hundred fish a day” waterway, and despite being young, reports of double-digit class bass have emerged. Thomas spent only a day there, but managed to land a 9-pounder that appeared to be almost as wide as it was long.
The jungle of heavy brush at recently impounded Lake Picachos remains impenetrable in spots, but the edges hold largely untapped schools of fish.
The project was not without some controversy, particularly with respect to the villagers who would be displaced by the impoundment. Having learned from the experiences of other flooded locales, they formed a cooperative to demand more than just relocation expenses. Instead, while each of them was granted not only a sum of cash and a home equal in size and value to what they lost, they also retained the rights to the lakebed itself.
“It’s never been done to the extremes of Picachos,” Chapman said. “They own the lake. On this one, I have 550 partners. We get along and make sure we do what we say we’re going to do. You don’t push them. You make friends. We’ve never had problems with the government. It’s all about paying your taxes and importing correctly.”
Even Chapman’s new lakeside Anglers Inn resort is not, strictly speaking, his own.
“They own the cabins. I did the design and the floor plans, but if they wipe the lake out none of us will have any business.”
He reported that the lake will be catch-and-release only, with only one point of entry and egress for visiting boats so that the rule can and will be strictly enforced. Already one pair of anglers tried to leave with bass in the livewells .
“They threatened to burn their boat,” he said of the locals’ resolve. “They didn’t do it this time, but they locked them behind the gate and held them for a few hours. They won’t stop you from fishing, but you better not take fish.”
You can fish daylight to dark at Lake Picachos, stopping only for meals and a siesta.
His new lodge is ready for business, but even with a historically prolific fishery at his front door, Chapman remains cautiously optimistic about what is to come. He said that without a full year of experience on Picachos, he doesn’t know how and to what extent it will fill and then drain again. Once again, it comes down to management, ensuring that the water level is right to absorb a fall hurricane or that it doesn’t drop down too low. He believes that the regulatory partnerships and understandings are in place to maximize productivity, but the long-term fortunes are slightly out of his hands.
Right now, though, Picachos is very good, perhaps historically ultra-productive, and set to go into a portion of the cycle where numbers of fish reach trophy proportions. Chapman is ready to fire on all cylinders, committing to the project yet remaining flexible as needed.
“If it’s good, you better be there,” he said.
Right now, he’s all in, hoping that Picachos will become what El Salto continues to be.
> To book a trip to El Salto and/or Picachos, call 1-800-GOTA-FISH.
> Chapman also leads trips to the Brazilian Amazon for peacock bass, where he has to deal with a different language, a different government, different locals and water levels that seem even less predictable. Last year he hosted several of the owners of B.A.S.S.
> He describes his operational strategy as “The Anglers Inn Way,” with a motto of “Service is our Focus.” Many of his employees have been with him for over 20 years, once again a nod to the concept that keeping the locals invested is the best assurance of long-term success.
> He said that over 75 percent of his customers are repeat visitors.