Lake Yojoa, the Lost Jewel of Honduras

Before El Salto and Guererro there was Yojoa Lake, Honduras.

Before El Salto and Guererro there was Yojoa Lake, Honduras.

I’m a sucker for adventure travel and a sucker for big bass, so when I came across this advertisement for Walker’s Bass Tours in the January 1985 issue of Bassmaster, I was intrigued by its promises about Lake Yojoa in Honduras. At the time, I was a Bassmaster magazine subscriber, and I vaguely remember Don Wirth’s stories of Harry and Charlie venturing to Central America, but at 15 years old I did not have the means to travel out of state to fish, let alone out of the country.

Walker’s Bass Tours, incorporated in the state of Texas in 1979, no longer exists, but they weren’t the only enterprise promising world record or near world record bass from Yojoa’s waters. The January 1976 issue of Field & Stream included an ad from Amer-Mex Hunting and Fishing Club of Fort Walton Beach, Florida, asking do you “Wanna catch a World Record Bass” from Yojoa’s “50 square miles of fabulous bass water”? Actually the natural volcanic lake is closer to 30 square miles, but despite the exaggeration it is still the largest lake in Honduras. In 1976, four days of fishing, departing from New Orleans, could be had for the price of $450. Apparently demand must’ve been high, because the following January, outdoor writer E.L. “Buck” Rodgers of Missouri featured the same deal in his article entitled “Where to Go Fishing This Winter,” and the price had crept up to $595.

Lake Yojoa, Honduras.

Lake Yojoa, Honduras.

“I stumbled on a mountain lake in Honduras around ten years ago and in two days fishing I caught a large number of nice bass,” Rodgers wrote. “In the process, though, I saw a native catch a bass that would’ve scaled at least 12 pounds. Lake Yojoa was a good bass fishing lake then and it remains so today, despite the fishing pressure it has received recently.”

Indeed, the coverage of Yojoa in F&S extended back even further to 1967, when the publication offered an article entitled “Fishing in the Banana Republics,” which detailed catches of bass of up to 15 pounds. As noted in a 2011 article by John Soluri in a magazine published by the Organization of American Historians, the article did not reveal the fact that Yojoa’s bass population was jump-started by employees of the United Fruit Company.

“The history of Lake Yojoa’s bass began one evening in United Fruit’s social club, where, over drinks, a group of North American employees took up a collection to stock the lake. In 1954–55, they introduced some 1,800 largemouth bass from Florida. The bass population, feasting on native fish, grew tremendously over the next ten years before declining abruptly in the early 1970s.”

Students of American and Central American history know that the United Fruit Company was integral to the development of the term “banana republic,” one that is considered by many to be derogatory. The company worked covertly with the American government (use your imagination), to influence politics in foreign countries.

Over time, the bass fishery became exceptional, and while one outfitter’s promises that “the bass bite every 45 seconds on average, and the average fish caught weighs 13 pounds,” were no doubt exaggerated, anglers flocked to Central America and groups like Walker’s Bass Tours sought to capitalize on them.

Yojoa fish sales. Photo Southboundtravel.com.

Yojoa fish sales. Photo Southboundtravel.com.

Politically, Honduras was less tumultuous than several of its Central American neighbors, with the U.S. maintaining a military presence in the country, but there were some anti-U.S. demonstrations in the 1980s. The general unrest in the region, coupled with those demonstrations, may have decreased the tourist traffic, but it doesn’t necessarily explain the lake’s decreased productivity.

Several things may have contributed to the lake’s demise. The first, of course, is the failure to regulate the fishery. While the area is known for exceptional coffee beans as well as bountiful produce, many locals made their living by selling fish taken directly from the lake.

A second reason that many scientists and commentators offered for the worsening bass fishing is the tilapia farming that goes on around the lake. That may seem counter-intuitive. After all, lakes like El Salto and Falcon have historically been thought to benefit from their tilapia populations. However, as explained in a May 2011 New York Times article entitled “Another Side of Tilapia, the Perfect Factory Fish,” the unregulated farming of these fertile food fish can have harmful effects.

“Environmentalists argue that intensive and unregulated tilapia farming is damaging ecosystems in poor countries with practices generally prohibited in the United States — like breeding huge numbers of fish in cages in natural lakes, where fish waste pollutes the water. ‘We wouldn’t allow tilapia to be farmed in the United States the way they are farmed here, so why are we willing to eat them?’ said Dr. Jeffrey McCrary, an American fish biologist who works in Nicaragua. ‘We are exporting the environmental damage caused by our appetites.’”

Tilapia farming on Yojoa. Photo NY Times April 2, 2011.

Tilapia farming on Yojoa. Photo NY Times April 2, 2011.

While the lake’s fishery has clearly worsened, Yojoa, just 60 or so miles south of the city of San Pedro Sula and accessible by highway, remains a major destination for birdwatching and eco-tourism, with one outfitter promising a “conservative” estimate that you’ll see 250 species during a trip. There may be hope for the fishery yet, though. A recent edition of Frommer’s Travel Guide promises that “[B]ass fishing which once attracted fishermen here from around the world until stocks were severely depleted, is slowly making a comeback in the lake.”

Note to readers: If you went to Yojoa or any other Central American lake during the 1960s-70s-80s, we’d love to hear your stories and possibly memorialize them on this website. Please contact us at terry@bassfishingarchives.com.