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This past April, I took a fly fishing trip to Topolobampo, a small fishing village on the east coast of the Gulf of California at the edge of one of Mexico’s most beautiful and productive agricultural regions. Topo, as locals call the village, serves as headquarters for a fleet of pangas and shrimp boats that roam over an expanse of flats, deep lagoons, mangrove estuaries and barrier islands. The area has recently been explored by a handful of fly fishermen, including Howard McKinney and Kay Mitsuyoshi of Fishabout (please see contact details below). Conversations with McKinney persuaded me to try my luck there. I stayed in Topo at the Yacht Hotel (*), owned by Aloy Bolton, who was very hospitable. McKinney warned me that the fishing would be exploratory, which suited me just fine.
There are a number of opportunities for fly fishing the waters surrounding Topo. To start with, there is a maze of channels lined with mangroves containing pargo (snapper), corvina and mostly small snook. Out along the shore I caught a number of bichi, a small relative of the pompano. There are also many rocky points and cliffs which one can work. Beginning in May, one can also catch offshore species such as dorado, yellowfin tuna, yellowtail and billfish. Locals say roosterfish roam the outer beaches in the warmer months. There are even rumors of bonefish in Topo, although no one I talked to there seemed to know what a bonefish was.
The exploratory nature of the fishing here is both rewarding and frustrating. I encountered differing and sometimes conflicting opinions on where and when to fish. One local fisherman told us the mangroves were best at high tide and that 1:00 p.m. the following day would be perfect. When we showed up the next day at 1:00 p.m., the tide was so low we couldn’t make it into the mangrove estuary. There did seem to be a consensus on some things, such as avoiding neap tides in the mangroves and avoiding the two months (March and April) following the shrimping season. While I was in Topo the fishing was very slow; even the local fishermen working the channels with hand lines and bait weren’t doing well.
After some trial and error, we settled into a pattern of trolling the shoreline to locate pockets of fish and then anchoring and casting once we located the fish. Class IV or V sinking lines and short leaders are a must here and a fast, steady retrieve seems to work best. A kind of sardina/Clouser fly proved most successful – namely, a Clouser Minnow tied with dark blue evergreen over white bucktail and fairly heavy lead eyes. All the fish we caught were small, the largest weighing about a pound.
If you speak no Spanish (I know only a few phrases), it pays to memorize a few key phrases, such as "Mantenga la panga paralela la costa, por favor" ("Please keep the boat parallel to the shore") and "Esta distancia esta correcta" ("This distance is correct"). It may take some time on the water before the local skippers understand exactly what fly fishermen are trying to do. Hardware anglers are at a distinct advantage here. The skippers seem puzzled that someone would attempt to catch one fish on a fly when they can catch three on a baited hand line, but they also seem to be taken with the beauty and grace of the sport.
Though suffering under the weight of their depressed economy, the people of Topo are very polite and friendly. I never felt threatened by the dangers which visitors to western Mexico occasionally report. In fact, I had to rely on the citizens of Topo to get me some medical assistance after an accident in my panga. While crossing one of the bays at high speed, we suddenly slammed into some big waves, which sent me flying backwards into the edge of a rear seat, opening a gash on the back of my head. After the bleeding continued for an hour, the hotel owner, Aloy Bolton, who was out with us that day, took me ashore and found two friends who offered to drive us into town in a beat-up sedan.
Halfway to Topo the engine quit and the driver pulled over. "Don’t worry," said Bolton. "He’s a mechanic." A look under the hood and the driver had the engine running. We soon found an infirmary where I was led into a cool room by two pretty nurses and examined by a doctor who declared that my skull was not fractured. Six stitches later we were on our way back to the boat. "Don’t we have to pay the doctor anything?" I asked. "No," said Bolton. "He’s a friend of mine and I told him he could bring his family over to the Yacht Hotel for some beer on the patio next weekend. Besides, medicine is socialized here – everything is free." When we got back to the boat, I noticed the skipper had walked down the beach to fish, leaving my Thomas & Thomas 8-weight and Billy Pate reel lying in the boat near a crowd of teenagers. The rod and reel were still there, which would probably not have been the case in my neck of the woods.
In conclusion, I would recommend Topo to anyone who likes the adventure of fishing a new area, who does not mind rustic accommodations in exchange for budget prices, who enjoys good seafood and who is prepared to experiment in order to catch fish. The fish are certainly there; I was just a long way from uncovering their secrets. The summer and early fall months would be my first choice due to the availability of offshore action. An attraction for the winter months would be the availability of largemouth bass fishing in some nearby lakes.
The cost of the trip is $175 per person per day, which includes a spacious room at the Yacht Hotel, three meals a day and the services of a local panga skipper. Getting to Topo is not difficult. You can fly into the nearby city of Los Mochis from Tucson or Tijuana and take a $12 taxi to the Yacht Hotel. It is also possible to stay in Los Mochis and get back and forth via rental car. The advantages of staying at the Yacht Hotel include the mesmerizing views of the mountains and lagunas of Bahia de Ohuira, the delicious shrimp and fish preparations and Bolton’s ebullient hospitality. No, there is no hot water in the shower and yes, light bulbs are missing in half of the lights, but the place still feels comfortable and friendly. The usual precautions apply: Avoid drinking the tap water and walking about barefooted (there are a few scorpions). For more information on booking a trip, contact Fishabout (*). – Larry Pratt.