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Two Incredible Tournaments, One Incredible Bass Lake

PART TWO

It's funny how certain things stick with you. For example, the thing I remember most about my first trip to Mexico's famed El Salto Lake has nothing to do with the spectacular trophy bass fishing I experienced. It has to do with food and drinks.

We'd been riding an hour and a half since leaving the airport in Mazatlan, and as Angler's Inn, our destination, came into view a mile up the road, the shuttle driver started honking the horn. It seemed curious — honking for no apparent reason. But when we drove into the resort, I understood. A friendly little Mexican man, Ramon, was standing there waiting for us with a tray of margaritas in his hand.

"Welcome to Angler's Inn, amigos," he said with a smile as he handed each guest a drink. "Please come and sit. We have food for you as well."

While our bags were whisked away to our rooms, we rested beneath a thatch-roofed palapa overlooking the scenic lake and enjoyed heaping plates of cheesy nachos washed down with icy margaritas. I knew right then I was in love with this place, and when I caught my first El Salto trophy later that day — a 7-1/2-pound, high-jumping largemouth — the relationship was firmly cemented.

I returned to El Salto for my third visit this year, and as always, Ramon was waiting at the gate with a tray of margaritas. "Senor Catfish," he said, smiling. "Welcome back to paradise."

I have a simple method for gauging a location's potential for fun and excitement. If there are palm trees swaying in the breeze and geckos clinging to the walls, it's going to be a good trip. Angler's Inn, on the bank of El Salto Lake in west-central Mexico's Sierra Madre Mountains, has plenty of both and has never failed to live up to its reputation as one of the world's top destinations for trophy-bass fishing. The service and food are incomparable, the accommodations splendid and the fishing must be experienced to be believed.

I enjoyed my own first-hand experience in December 2001, and as a result of that visit, I became a believer. The temperature in Arkansas was 30 degrees when I boarded the plane for Mazatlan. The next morning, my fishing partner and I were in T-shirts and shorts, enjoying balmy 80-degree weather and the serenity of El Salto. The serenity frequently was interrupted by rod-jarring strikes from big south-of-the-border bass, including a 9-pound behemoth (my partner's largest catch ever) and dozens of 5- to 7-pounders.

I returned to El Salto in June 2004, accompanied by my wife Theresa. Until this trip, Theresa never had been bass fishing. She decided to give it a try and quickly was hooked on the excitement. She caught dozens of 5-, 6- and 7-pound largemouths, plus scores of smaller fish. Her largest weighed 8 pounds. I also managed a trophy — a 9-pound, 4-ounce hawg, the biggest I've ever caught.

On our most recent trip this July, Theresa and I once again enjoyed tremendous fishing, catching scores of bass up to 8 pounds. This time, however, we had additional responsibilities. Billy Chapman Jr., the owner of Angler's Inn, and his son Chappy Chapman, tournament director, asked us to be judges for their second Monster Bass Tournament, an event incomparable in the world of tournament bass fishing.

"We started these tournaments for the average guy who always wanted to compete but never had a chance because he can't afford to be on the tournament trail," Billy told me. "The Monster Bass Tournament not only gives him or her a chance to be part of a serious competition, but to maybe catch the biggest bass of a lifetime on the best bass lake in the world."

The first Angler's Inn Monster Bass Tournament was held in October 2005. Four of the best anglers ever to fish here participated: Les Melton of Charleston, W. Va., and Joe Bullock of Hillsboro, Calif., both holders of five-bass records on El Salto, and Terry Crafton of Richmond, Ind., and Katie Watson of Kellyville, Okla., who have caught more 10-pound bass from the lake than any guests. The tourney was a four-day elimination event.

On Day 1, Watson landed the first bass, a 9-pounder, after only 30 minutes of fishing. She followed this lunker with two more 8-pounders, a 7 and a 6, giving her an impressive 38 pounds for the first round of competition. On her heels was Crafton, who deep-cranked 32-pounds, 5-ounces worth of bass, including a 7-1/2, 7 and a trio of 6s. Melton and Bullock stayed in the hunt with 28 and 29 pounds, respectively.

Early on Day 2, Melton's Senko was smashed by an 8-1/2-pounder. This fish anchored a 36-pound, five-fish limit. Bullock enjoyed incredible topwater fishing, landing three fish over 7 pounds on a walking bait for a total of 35 pounds. Crafton's crankbait pattern suffered with the absence of wind, and although he boated two bass over 7 pounds, he couldn't cull a 2-1/2-pounder. His total landed at 26 pounds. Watson's lizard pattern died altogether. Smaller fish pulled up on points she was fishing and left her with only 20-1/2 pounds. However, on the strength of her Day 1 sack, she still had a chance.

Melton tallied 65 pounds in two days, Bullock had 63, Watson had 58-1/2 and, incredibly, Crafton also had 58-1/2. However, because Watson's biggest bass weighed 9 pounds and Crafton's 7-1/2, Crafton became the first fatality of the elimination round.

On Day 3, Bullock quickly scored three bass over 5 pounds on his topwater lure. He then upgraded his limit with a swimbait, bringing that day's total to 28-1/2 pounds. Watson charged the lead by wacky rigging a Senko for five bass weighing 27 pounds, while Melton only produced 24-1/2 pounds for the day. Bullock wound up Day 3 with a total of 91-1/2 pounds of bass, Melton had 89-1/2 pounds and Watson had 85-1/2. Watson was eliminated.

Only 2 pounds separated the two finalists after almost 100 pounds of bass were brought to the scales by each. Along with the Monster Bass title, each angler also was chasing 108-3/4 pounds, which at the time was the all-time BASS record for a four-day tournament.

Melton surged ahead first with an 8-pounder on a Senko. Bullock countered with an 8 of his own on a topwater. Melton swung again with a 7. Bullock's next biggest — a 5-1/2 — came on a swimbait. Each angler filled out an impressive limit, and going into the final elimination, neither knew who would be crowned champ.

Bullock's weight was called first. His four-day total of 120 pounds (28-1/2 for Day 4) easily surpassed the BASS all-time record. But this would be Melton's day, as his 32-1/2 pounds during the final round allowed for a come-from-behind victory, totaling 122 pounds for the tourney and also surpassing the BASS record.

To win the event, Melton averaged 6.1 pounds per fish. This unbelievable average is even more than you would expect from the best bass lake in the world with the best anglers fishing it.

PART TWO

To contact Keith "Catfish" Sutton, send an e-mail to catfishdude@sbcglobal.net. Autographed copies of his books are available at www.catfishsutton.com.