This is the first of a two part series on fishing Mexico.
EL SALTO, MEXICO – When Ron Speed first ventured into Mexico to bass fish in the 1970s it was a different country.
So was the United States.
At the time the Kerens native was a high school football coach in Hemphill, having gone there as much to be near the recently opened Toledo Bend Reservoir as to mold 16 year olds into athletes.
In the summers he and several of his coaches spent their time fishing. After hearing reports of 100-fish days some of those outings would include trailering boats to Lake Dominguez in Mexico where they camped alongside the lake and fished.
That is where Speed first had the thought that if he and his friends enjoyed themselves so much why wouldn’t other fishermen, except in comfortable lodges.
On a coach’s salary, however, all he could do was dream about it until he came across someone willing to bankroll boats and rental houses. Unfortunately, the plan almost crashed on the first excursion.
“On their first trip down he was taking a group out of Austin,” said Ron Speed Jr., who took over his father’s operation in 2013 and now operates it as Ron Speed Jr., Adventures. “I think they were flying on a DC3, and the co-pilot comes out and told dad not to tell anyone else, but they had lost an engine. He said the plane could still fly a long way on one.”
But within minutes the passengers heard a loud popping sound as the plane’s other engine failed.
“They were gliding down and the pilot was looking for a place to land. My dad had his old high school coach from Kerens sitting next to him and said he didn’t think this was their day to die,” Speed Jr., said on a recent trip to the Mexican state of Sinaloa to fish El Salto, one of Speed Adventures trophy lakes since the 1990s, and Lake Picachos, a new lake that opened this year.
Speed was right. It wasn’t their time. The pilot found a road to land on, and its passengers were soon rescued by a taxi bus that rambled down the road. After offering $10 a person to anyone willing to give up their seat, the fishermen were once again happily on their way to the lake.
Declining fishing eventually killed the Lake Dominguez operation, but not before Speed found another opportunity and became partners in the first two lodges on Lake Guerrero, El Sargento in 1974 and La Retama in 1975. Both were packed from the beginning.
Even before moving to Guerrero Speed realized Mexico bass fishing was a viable business model. He left coaching in 1973 to devote fulltime to the business.
One of Speed’s philosophies was to always be planning your next move, the business version of don’t put all of your eggs in one basket. It served him well for 42 years in the business.
Between a decline in fish quality and a fallout with his Mexican partner on Guerrero, Speed was already plotting his next move in the 1980s before he left that lake.
“The truth is the lake was already a past thing. In the 1970s no one thought about conservation. They didn’t think you could fish a lake out, but the limit was 100 bass a day and everyone was keeping 100 fish. People said it was commercial fishing, but that was only 50 percent of it. By 1978 you could still catch 100 fish, but the size was gone,” said Speed Jr.
He added the company continues to operate on lakes with commercial fishing, but having moved west into Sinaloa the difference is they are deeper lakes and the nets placed just below the surface to catch tilapia don’t impact bass.
The final straw at Guerrero for Speed was the Texas oil and real estate crash of the 1980s that took away many of the operations biggest clients. However, he was already up and running with another lodge at Lake Palmetto, an older, but decent fishery. That lake turned out to be a poor fit and Speed was on to Don Martine, another good lake, but one that was difficult for the average fishermen.
Speed wasn’t just looking for Mexican hot spots. Over the years he spread his operation to include booking rights for two lodges in Canada and two in Cuba. The Cuban operation became a victim of President Nixon’s embargo of the island nation. Later there would be operations in Venezuela and Brazil for peacock bass and another in Costa Rica for tarpon fishing.
Despite the setbacks, Speed had been successful, but faced burnout from constantly being on the move and the challenges of running an international business for two decades. He decided to retire and enter the cattle business in Texas, but a crash in the cattle prices made him reassess again and temporarily entering retail before heading back to Mexico and the opportunity at more new lakes. That started with a call from Roberto Balderrama, then Secretary of Tourism for the state of Sinaloa, about a new lake on the horizon called Comedero.
Comedero is a 34,000-acre lake about three hours from Mazatlan. It was initially stocked with Northern bass and produced numbers, but an infusion of Florida bass added size. From 1997 to 1999 the lake record jumped from 17 to 19 pounds.
With the addition of another lodge at Lake El Salto, one slightly closer to Mazatlan and Speed’s seventh and last lake to partner in, everything was back on track. At least it was until the mid-2000s when the U.S. news was filled with stories of drug cartels and brutal murders in Mexico. Tourism died and the Speeds mothballed the more-remote Comedero in favor of El Salto. Even there the business declined, but there were still enough adventurous Southern bass fishermen to fill the lodge during the peak winter months.
Speed Jr., recognizes there is the potential for problems, but doesn’t believe it is any greater than being caught in bad parts of Dallas or Houston.
“The problem isn’t the cartels. They have more important things to worry about. If you go with an established outfitter you will be OK. They have a better chance of providing an umbrella of protection,” he said.
In the past that has included hiring local police not so much for protection as for clients’ piece of mind.
Tourism is on the rise again in Mexico and Speed Adventures is now considering reopening Comedero.
In the meantime fishermen continue to go to picturesque El Salto with its 18-pound lake record and starting to arrive at Picachos, which has already produced a 12-7 and has been producing daily catches of 100 fish per boat.
With its year-around growing season, El Salto has been a popular stop for fishermen for years. It has had a problem this month, the last of the commercial fishing season for talapia, with the number of nets doubling or tripling. Speed Jr., called it a temporary issue and added it has no impact on the bass because the lake is so deep the bass simply swim under them. It is more of an aesthetics problem than a sport fishing problem.
A boat of inexperienced fishermen from Chicago caught 80 bass one day last week. Their group’s big bass weighed over 8 pounds.
Salto, like many of the lightly fished Mexican lakes, is ideal for the average fishermen. Heavy, slow-rolled spinners and soft plastics are going to produce numbers and weights most anglers won’t experience in Texas.
For more experienced fishermen capable of reading the water and seeking out spots it can be great.
The Speeds call their lodges fishing camps, comfortable but not over the top, and not resorts because they are geared to fishermen. The three daily meals are the type that would make anyone gain weight, but the Speeds admit the quality is often determined on how good the fishing is. If a fisherman has a great day on the water, Vienna sausages will taste like steak. Conversely on a slow day nothing is going to taste good.
Speed Jr., said the most popular months at Salto are December to March and the lodge is often full with 48 guests.
Full moons in February and March can be especially difficult dates to book because that is the peak of bass spawning in western Mexico.
Because of airline luggage restrictions, the lodge provides heavy weight Temple Fork Outfitter rods, however, fishermen are expected to bring their own reels, lure and terminal tackle.
For more information on fishing Mexico, contact Ron Speed Jr. Adventures at 800-722-0006 or go online to www.ronspeedadventures.com .