DEL RIO, Texas — Byron Velvick calls it love at first sight, and this time he isn't talking about fiancée Mary Delgado.
The object of this particular affection is Lake Amistad and Del Rio, Texas.
Velvick was smitten when he saw the area for the first time in the fall of 2005. He traveled here to practice for the 2006 Battle on the Border — the Bassmaster Tour's first visit to this bass factory along the Texas-Mexico border — and never left.
Within months of his first visit, Velvick bought a house on the lake. He hosted a party at his home when the Elite Series visited Amistad in March 2006, pitching Del Rio to fellow pros and even convincing a few of them to buy lakefront property. He gushed about the beauty of the lake and surrounding country.
For several months, though, he split his time between Del Rio and Tampa, Fla., the place Delgado called home. With a busy Elite Series schedule and other commitments, Velvick also spent a lot of time on the road. But if at first he wasn't totally dedicated to this place, that changed near the end of 2006, when Velvick bought Amistad Lake Resort.
Besides Delgado and bass fishing, Amistad Lake Resort is Velvick's passion. Situated on U.S. Highway 90 with a panoramic view of the lake, the resort includes a 40-room lodge, full-service restaurant and bar and, probably most importantly, easy access to Amistad's giant largemouth bass.
"I love this place," Velvick says as he stands in the shade of the canopy outside the resort office. "Isn't it beautiful?"
It's hard to argue the point. There's beauty in the surrounding desert's barren landscape, punctuated by the cobalt waters of Lake Amistad. White-tailed deer tiptoe through the scrubby, mesquite-choked hills, and scores of bird species wing through the cerulean sky.
But getting the resort up and running wasn't nearly as attractive.
Formerly known as Amistad Lodge, the place was in various states of disrepair when Velvick and co-owner Michael Bonnee closed the deal on the property in
"Michael and Mary and I were sitting here on New Year's Eve, drinking wine and questioning our sanity," Velvick said. "We were the only ones here, and we were asking ourselves, 'What the hell did we just do?' "
Bonnee, Velvick's best friend since they walked the halls of Huntington Beach High School in Southern California, had experience in the service industry. His background included work with vacation rental properties near Palm Springs, Calif., and executive positions with hotel giants Ritz-Carlton and Hilton.
Just getting Bonnee to consider a partnership was a hard sell for Velvick. In essence, he was asking him to take a leap of faith.
"For somebody who doesn't fish and who'd never even heard of Del Rio, Texas, the whole idea was ludicrous," Bonnee said. "But Byron keeps calling me and saying, 'You've got to see it, you've got to see it.' I finally came out to see what it was all about."
Bonnee liked what he saw. Together, they went to work cleaning up the place and making repairs.
There are so many things you don't think about," Bonnee said. "We got in here and realized our commercial washer and dryer were 35 years old."
Not every problem was something that could be fixed with tools, a coat of paint or elbow grease.
"One of the first hurdles was that we had to figure out how to get rid of the hourly rentals that were coming in," Velvick said. "Apparently, the place had become a sort of clandestine rendezvous for people who didn't need to be seen together in town."
Business took off the following spring, when anglers started piling in to plumb Amistad's waters for big bass. The guests were obviously welcome, but it complicated the process of turning around the ailing facilities.
"It was like taking a 30-year-old jalopy and sticking in on the Autobahn," Velvick said.
A year later, Amistad Lake Resort has turned the corner. Business is booming, and there's a sparkle and shine to the place that wasn't there when Velvick and Bonnee bought it. Clean rooms (available in deluxe, standard and kitchenette units) and fisherman-friendly amenities — every room, for example, is equipped with recharging stations for boat batteries — make it a popular destination among traveling anglers.
Michael's Waypoint Cantina is serving up scrumptious margaritas: Bonnee scoured both sides of the border to come up with his recipes and its tequila selection (53 different varieties) would make Jose Cuervo himself proud.
The cantina features two specialty margaritas: The Waypoint Ultimate sells for $35 and includes the premium tequila Jose Cuervo Reserva de la Familia, 150th anniversary Gran Marnier and fresh-squeezed lime juice; the Byron Bachelor margarita is $30 and features El Tesoro Paradiso, a premium añejo tequila, and 100th anniversary Gran Marnier.
The Southwest Grill's extensive fare includes steaks, fajitas, poultry, baby back ribs and, of course, fish. Many are served with a Tex-Mex or Southwestern accent by executive chef Chris Piccininni, a graduate of Le Chef Culinary Academy up the road in Austin.
And what would any of the food or drink be without ambience? Though Velvick and Bonnee are always in the process of adding more décor, the restaurant and bar are coming together nicely with Mexican arts and crafts as adornments. One particularly eye-catching feature is the row of Triton Boat seats that serve as barstools.
(If you're ever in the area on an Elite Series weekend, be sure to gather around Bonnee's computer in the cantina, where locals come in to watch live streaming weigh-in video on Bassmaster.com.)
This week, the resort has been a hub of activity during the Elite Series Battle on the Border presented by Mahindra Tractors. Of the resort's 40 rooms, 30 are filled by Elite Series pros. And each night after weigh-ins, the cantina has become a perfect place to hear what really happened out on the water.
If you can't find a good fish story in here, you aren't listening.
For Velvick, it's been rewarding to show off the place to his friends and fellow Elite pros.
"I love having all these guys in town and staying here," he said. "When I bought this place, this is exactly what I envisioned."