One visit to Lake Amistad and you will find yourself thinking that there is no reason to travel to Mexico to experience blow-your-mind bass fishing.
It is simply the hottest big bass lake in America.
The Bassmaster Elite Series opened the fishing world's eyes to that fact in March 2006 with a kind of big bass redundancy that was almost shocking — an experience that prompted nearly a dozen pros to buy property before leaving the Del Rio, Texas, area.
Winner Ish Monroe (who is building a home on the lake) posted a four-day total of 104 1/2 pounds. And proving this type of success wasn't a fluke, Elite Series rookie Derek Remitz won this year's event with 111 pounds, 7 ounces. Between the 2006 and 2007 events, 14 five-bass limits weighing over 30 pounds were caught.
Now, there is an undeniable charm and more tropical fun associated with trips south of the border to trophy bass factories such as Lake El Salto. And, in fact, about half of Lake Amistad's 67,000 watery acres spread south into Mexico. Also, this patch of southern Texas is just gearing up to meet the needs of visiting anglers.
One of the new local residents is veteran Western pro Byron Velvick, who now makes his home on the shores of Lake Amistad. He recently purchased the Amistad Lake Resort (formerly Amistad Lodge) overlooking the Diablo East area of the lake off of U.S. Highway 90 and hopes to open a Triton/Mercury dealership there.
"This is an incredible place," the well-traveled pro says. "I had never been inspired to leave Las Vegas before. But I've changed my whole life because of this lake. I came here last year and fell in love with the place.
"It's like Lake Mead on steroids. I loved living on Mead because I liked the temperament. I liked the desert. I liked the clear water. Everything I liked about Lake Mead I have here, but with a lot of really big fish swimming around in it."
Created in 1969 with the impoundment of three rivers — the Rio Grande, Pecos and Devils — Lake Amistad is chock-full of prime bass habitat that includes:
abundant hydrilla, hundreds of points, coves, flooded brush, timber, rocky shorelines, inlets, submerged ledges, boulders and dropoffs that go as deep as 200 feet.
The hydrilla explosion, coupled with the stocking of Florida-strain bass from 1975 to 1980 and a return to normal water levels in recent years, has spawned a lake record largemouth weighing 15.58 pounds and created the new king of bass fisheries in the U.S.
Lake Amistad Trip
Location: Lake Amistad sprawls across the Mexican border 13 miles northwest of Del Rio, Texas. Most of the ramps, lodging and marinas are located in the Diablo East area off of U.S. Highway 90.
Lodging: There are several chain hotels located in Del Rio, but only a few on the lakeshore. One of the best is Amistad Lake Resort (formerly Amistad Lake Lodge): www.amistadlakeresort.com or 830-775-8591. It has a restaurant, plenty of boat parking and guide service. For more information, contact the Del Rio Chamber of Commerce at www.drchamber.com or 830-775-3551.
Local Info: Guide Stan Gerzsenyi, 210-488-6544.
Local Attractions: It begins with the scenery surrounding Lake Amistad – its towering rock walls, caves and pictographs (rock paintings) that date back 11,000 years. The National Park Service has developed two archaeological sites, Parida Cave and Panther Cave, that are accessible by boat for visitors. And the local wildlife is abundant, particularly whitetail deer.
4 — Species of bass: largemouth, smallmouth, white and striped
800 — Miles of shoreline
1994 — Year hydrilla was discovered in the lake
1,347 — Number of bass caught by Elite Series pros; total weight of the bass was more than 5,000 pounds
14 — 30-plus-pound five-bass limits caught during 2006 and 2007 Elite Series events
Ask Byron Velvick to pick the absolute best time to experience Lake Amistad and he will say late March through April.
"I'm a sight fisherman," the transplanted Texan admits. "I've been a sight fisherman since I was 12. I've always been a bed fisherman and made most of my money sight fishing. So I would pick April as the absolute best month on this lake. That is my favorite time to be on this lake."
Velvick's answer matches the consensus of most Lake Amistad anglers. Consider that in the March 2006 visit by Bassmaster Elite Series pros, both Ish Monroe's winning weight of 104 1/2 pounds and runner-up Fred Roumbanis' catch of nearly 102 pounds came sight fishing with frogs and swimbaits in the shallows.
"In March and April, I'm looking at them, following them, chasing them," Velvick explains. "I will sight fish for them from 5 feet to 25 feet.
"I'll be looking on flats, gravel flats with trees, looking for clear spots near the main lake. Those big fish don't like to travel well back up in the stuff. They're going to come into the shallow pockets. I've always found that with desert lakes the fish really like to spawn at the base of the trees. The base of the trees is the deal for big bass in desert lakes."
In this lake, the big females will continue to spawn around the full and new moons in May and June, but Velvick finds them out in 20 to 25 feet of water.
The most underrated time of year is winter, when the fishing can be surprisingly good. During a January visit this year, rain, sleet and 40-degree (air and water) temperatures did not keep the big largemouth from biting. In fact, Elite Series pro Charley Hartley, visiting from Ohio, caught four bass between 8 and 10 pounds (on a variety of lures fished 30 feet deep) that week.
"People don't realize how good this lake is in the dead of winter," Velvick adds. "We just had a tournament where five fish weighing 37 pounds won; we watched a friend of ours weigh five bass that weighed 40. You can do five fish in the high 30s in the dead of winter. We're talking cold north wind, freezing water temperatures — times when the lake should be at its worst is when it's at its best as those fish are congregated and schooled up."
One of the most consistent lures year-round is a plastic stickbait like the Senko. Regardless of the bait, the crystal-clear waters of Amistad dictate using fairly light line instead of braid. But this creates a conundrum because there are entire forests of submerged trees that pose a challenge.
Diablo East and Blackbrush are the most popular areas among Lake Amistad regulars. But there is also some great fishing — and scenery — up in the various canyons that make up the big reservoir. You can even run up the Devils River and catch an occasional smallmouth.
But big, big largemouth are the main attraction in these border waters.
Velvick tries to temper expectations, though, with this advice: "Be prepared to be humbled because as great a lake as it is, Amistad has its good days and bad days. It's not as easy as going to Okeechobee and throwing out a shiner on a balloon. There are days when you go out there and those fish decide to go from 20 feet to 35 or 40 or 50 feet. So you have to be prepared to fish a lot wider area. A lot of those fish that are shallow aren't shallow a lot of the time.
"Guys come here expecting to catch 10-pounders the first day they're here and pretty soon they're hiring guides because they realize they can fish all day long and not catch a lot. It happens. Even though it's a great, great fishery, it's also a challenging fishery. It's not just a wide open, whack-fest every time, even though at certain times of the year it is."