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Triple Play

After a decade of drought, it rained bass on three South Texas reservoirs.

By Larry D. Hodge

Until I fished Lakes Amistad, Choke Canyon and Falcon last June, I never knew just how much fun largemouth bass fishing can be.

Trips to Choke Canyon and Falcon reservoirs with guide Debra Hengst showed me it was possible to catch 15 or 20 fish a day.

And then came Amistad.

Oh, my.

On the second day of fishing with guide Ray Hanselman, Jr., the two of us caught and released more than 100 fish in one morning. The 1- to 2-pounders bit topwaters. They bit plastic worms. They bit everything that hit the water. I wimped out when both my thumbs became so raw and sore from lipping fish that it just was not fun anymore.

That was just the beginning.

Three months later, thumbs healed, I rejoined Hanselman to go after big bass on Amistad. The trip resulted in my catching a 7-pounder that had me jumping and yelling but was mildly disappointing to Hanselman. He and a client had caught two 8-plus-pounders out of the same grass bed a few days before.

And the good news? Rains that started in the summer of 2002 have swelled all three lakes to levels not seen in years, and Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has been aggressively stocking (see sidebar, “Taking Stock”). The fishing should keep getting better for several more years — and here’s how to get in on the fun.

Choked with Bass

A week before our trip to Choke Canyon, Debra Hengst e-mails me: “I suppose you heard that Choke is on fire right now?” Indeed I have. A few days earlier, Henry and Carrie Fojtik, fishing a Skeeter Bass Champs tournament, won with a five-fish bag that totaled 35.32 pounds. Think about it. Those five fish averaged more than 7 pounds apiece. Their big bass weighed 9.54. That means the “little” fish in their livewell averaged 6.4 pounds each.

Needless to say, Hengst and I have high hopes as we head out on a cloudy, very windy morning. The wind prevents us from fishing her main-lake honey hole, so she heads for the Four Fingers area. Treetops sticking out of the water mark two submerged points of land. Hengst uses the trolling motor to take us into hydrilla beds in the drain between the points, in 16 to 18 feet of water. “I know this area holds big fish; they didn’t all move out to the main lake,” she says. After trying a couple of lures with no luck, she switches to a crayfish-imitating soft plastic and works it across the top of the hydrilla, resulting in three hits and three missed hooksets in quick succession.

Energized by the vindication of her choice of location, Hengst addresses the water as she reels, “Come on, guys, I know there’s some good fish down there.” She’s right, and we both hook several 3- to 5-pounders. They’re not the 8-pounder Hengst hopes for, but I’m happy. We end the day catching several smaller fish each over hydrilla along the shoreline near the South Shore boat ramp. “Hydrilla is a no-brainer on this lake,” Hengst says.

John Findeisen, TPWD fisheries biologist in charge of Choke Canyon, agrees that hydrilla enhances the fishing. “It’s been here since the mid-1980s, and we now have 3,000 to 4,000 acres of it,” he says. “In the absence of native vegetation, it fills a niche. Anglers feel they catch better fish in hydrilla. This spring I fished grass [hydrilla] beside standing timber, and if you could get a lure down through it, you were going to get hit.”

Findeisen says Possum Creek, Four Fingers and Mason Point are good places to try. The topwater bite can be good the first and last hours of daylight. “Once the sun comes up and the fish move down into the grass, go to the outside edge of the hydrilla and fish lipless crankbaits and spinnerbaits,” he advises. “If you can find a jig heavy enough to punch through the hydrilla, you can do well there. The fish will hit it on the fall, and a lot of times you won’t feel the bite; watch your line.” Use 60- to 80-pound braided line; it cuts through the hydrilla better than monofilament, and you will need its brute strength to horse the fish out of the grass.

Where there are openings in the hydrilla, Findeisen advises using frog- or mouse-imitating, top-running, weedless soft plastics. “Drag it across the top of the hydrilla and pause it in a pocket,” he says. Hang on when you do; Findeisen has caught 7-pounders that way.

Soaring on Falcon

As we pull into the tiny Falcon Heights Motel, it’s obvious the word is out that Falcon is back. Trucks and bass boats cover the parking lot, and more are jockeying to get in. A San Antonio bass club is here for a tournament, and if Choke Canyon was on fire, Falcon is burning to the ground. The Falcon Lake Tackle Web site (www.tackleandrods.com) is replete with photos of bass weighing from 9 pounds all the way up to Jerry Campos’ Budweiser ShareLunker, a 14.28-pound monster that was the largest entry in the program last season. Don’t bother sending photos of your 8-pounder; it takes 9 or better to make the Web.

Yes, Falcon is back.

Fishing Falcon requires using the same braided line and heavy action rods as Choke Canyon, but for a different reason. When this reservoir on the Rio Grande was filled, it inundated hundreds of houses, barns and churches, some of them dating to the 1700s. Fishing structure on Falcon means just that: dropping your lure into a building that years ago was home to people but now houses big bass. You’ll feel your lure bump into walls, windmills and trees that once shaded children at play. Wall-hanger bass hang out along those walls. (The fascinating history of the area is told at www.texasbeyondhistory.net/falcon/index.html.)

Hengst and I don’t catch as many fish as we did on Choke Canyon, but the average size is bigger. Hengst shares information with guide Carlos Olivares, and we spend part of the day fishing the same area. One of Carlos’ clients is the lucky one; fishing a submerged building just a few yards from us, he pulls in an 8-pounder.

Amazed by Amistad

I’d heard stories about 100-fish days, but I doubted they existed — until I experienced two such days back-to-back on Amistad. Guide Ray Hanselman, Jr., a pro who fishes the B.A.S.S. and FLW-affiliated tours, rates Amistad as one of the top two or three bass lakes in the nation. I can’t disagree.

Hanselman wastes no time in positioning us over hydrilla beds in 16 to 18 feet of water in San Pedro Canyon. Soon he’s teaching me drop-shotting. Hanselman uses a swivel at the end of his line, to which he attaches about 18 inches of leader with a 1-ounce weight at the end. About a foot above the weight, he ties on a straight hook using a Palomar knot started on the hook point side so the hook stands at a right angle to the line, and threads on a 5-inch plastic worm.

“The water around the grass [hydrilla] is full of oxygen, and the hydrilla is saturated with bluegill and crawdads,” Hanselman says. “It’s ideal habitat for bass.”

Dropping our baits straight down into hydrilla and gently raising and lowering the rod tip drives bass crazy as the worm undulates. Strikes are not subtle; fish gobble the worms. We’re fishing with lure maker Dave Nichols and outdoor writer Ron Henry Strait, and it’s not uncommon for all of us to have a fish on at the same time.

The second day we fish on Lake Amistad is overcast and windy. At mid-morning, we see a flock of birds working a patch of water over hydrilla where feeding bass are pushing tiny silversides to the surface. Hanselman hands me a rod rigged with a popping lure while he continues drop-shotting. The action is so fast we often both have a fish on at the same time. Strait keeps count and tells us we catch and release 27 fish in 30 minutes. Meanwhile he and Nichols are catching fish, too. By noon we’ve caught some 200 fish among the four of us, and we decide to call it a day.

As summer fades into fall, Hanselman goes after big bass in the grass using heavy rods and baitcasting reels spooled with 80-pound braided line. The key to this kind of fishing is getting the bait through the grass. “Pitch the lure to the edge of the grass and keep the rod tip low, so the wind doesn’t catch the line and keep the lure from sinking,” Hanselman advises. “If it hangs up in the grass, push the reel button so it can free spool and bounce the rod tip a couple of times to let out more line.”

Hanselman uses a 1 1/4-ounce bullet weight, Texas-rigging a crayfish-imitating soft plastic lure held against the hook eye by a small plastic disk sold under the name Hold-Onz. The bait keeper prevents the lure from sliding down the hook when it is pulled through heavy grass or grabbed by a fish. He holds the weight in place with a rubber peg. You spend more time fishing and less time fiddling with your bait.

Correction: You spend more time catching.

There’s going to be a lot of that happening on Choke Canyon, Falcon, and Amistad for years to come.

Taking Stock

What’s the secret to great bass fishing in South Texas? Just add water.

Choke Canyon — TPWD stocked 384,236 Florida largemouth bass fingerlings into Choke Canyon Reservoir a couple of weeks before the rains of July 2002, a fortuitous happenstance. Another 180,014 were stocked in 2003. More than 300,000 northern largemouth bass were stocked from 2003 through 2005. “And that’s a drop in the bucket compared to what nature put in because of the better habitat for spawning that resulted from the higher water levels,” says John Findeisen. Rains swelled the surface area of the lake from 13,000 acres to 26,000 and tripled its volume.

Prognosis: “My expectation is the next three years will be incredible, with more double-digit fish being caught than ever before,” says Findeisen. “This is the longest period of time Choke Canyon has stayed at conservation level. That means good spawns, and growth rates are tremendous — there are shad everywhere, and schools of sunfish.”

Falcon — Long known as one of the best bass lakes in the nation, Falcon suffered a decade-long drought from the early 1990s until the fall of 2003. Abundant rains and repayment of its water debt by Mexico brought the lake from 45 feet low to nearly full by the spring of 2005. Rising water flooded tens of thousands of acres of brush, providing ideal habitat for young fish. Nature responded with tremendous spawns, and TPWD stocked about 1 million Florida largemouth bass and nearly 300,000 northern strain.

Electrofishing in April 2005 showed an abundance of 7- to 12-inch largemouth bass in Falcon, says district biologist Randy Myers. Rapid growth due to the lush habitat means fish spawned in 2004 should reach the 14-inch legal minimum by the time you read this.

Prognosis: “Falcon is absolutely chock-full of young fish as a result of the increased water level and the newly created habitat,” says Myers. “As long as water stays over the top of some of that brush, the habitat will be there to produce quality fish in the future — the very near future. Because this lake is so far south, the growing season lasts almost the entire year, and fish grow very fast.”

Amistad — Amistad plunged to its lowest level in decades in August 1998, when it was 59 feet below conservation pool. Since mid-2002, the trend has been upward, with sharp increases coming in 2004 and the first half of 2005. By September 2005 the lake was only 6 feet low, and there seemed to be a bass or three or 10 in every bush — and there are a lot of bushes on 65,000 acres. The number of one- and two-year-old fish is phenomenal; those fish will fuel a bass-fishing explosion that should last for years.

Prognosis: It takes 8 to 10 years for a largemouth bass to reach double-digit size, and from 1992 to 1997 TPWD stocked more than 1.1 million largemouth bass fingerlings into Amistad. Stocking and natural reproduction resulted in the highest electrofishing catch rate in recent years in the fall of 2005. If ever you dreamed of catching a trophy bass from Amistad, the time is now. “Amistad will rival any lake in the country the next year or two,” says Myers. “It’s definitely worth the drive down there.”

Vamos.

Fishing Across the Border

A Mexican boat permit and fishing license are required to fish Mexican waters on Falcon and Amistad. Everyone in the boat in Mexican waters, whether fishing or not, must have a license. Permits and licenses are available at local tackle shops.

Debra Hengst (www.debrahengst.com), (210) 241-1959

Ray Hanselman, Jr., (830) 774-1857

Carlos Olivares, (956) 848-5229

Hold-Onz, (210) 473-5679

For current information on lake levels and fishing reports, see <www.tpwd.state.tx.us/fishboat/fish/recreational/lakes/>.

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