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Major League Lake: Fishing at Amistad

by Lynn Burkhead

Texas is a state blessed with exceptional bass fishing waters.

So much so that a number of the Major League Fishing pros call the Lone Star State their home.

And while one could argue for days about which Texas bass water is best - Falcon, Fork, Toledo Bend, Sam Rayburn, O.H. Ivie, etc. - there can be little doubt that Lake Amistad is right up there with the state's best of the best.

You remember Amistad, don't you? It's the stunning aquatic desert jewel near Del Rio, Texas, where the first ever Jack Link's Major League Fishing Challenge Cup was contested last fall, an event eventually won by Brent Ehrler.

It's such a compellingly beautiful lake that it is now home to Major League Fishing pro Byron Velvick (he moved there and bought Amistad Lake Resort (www.amistadlakeresort.com, 1-800-775-8591) after fishing a B.A.S.S. event at the reservoir several years ago) along with being the winter home of Major League Fishing pro Denny Brauer.

Why?

Because it's deep, it's clear, it's filled with aquatic vegetation, it has ample flooded shrubs and timber, it has countless deep structural features, and it's filled with an abundance of rocky cover.

Not to mention the fact that Amistad is drop-dead gorgeous and literally chock full of huge numbers of bass and plenty of trophy-sized bass to boot.

In short, Amistad is a literal bass fishing paradise.

Which explains why I literally jumped at the chance a few months ago to sample Amistad's largemouth bass riches with guide James Burkeen, owner of Amistad Bassin' Adventures (830-734-9652).

The first thing I noticed when we hit the water is that Amistad is big.

As in really big. Ten-gallon hat size big. Texas size big.

You also can see that simply by looking at a lake map of the 65,000-acre water body straddling the Rio Grande River and the international border between Texas and Mexico.

But actually get on the water and Amistad seems impossibly big with endless bass attracting rocks, points, humps, ledges, submerged trees and grass.

How do you fish this southwest Texas liquid behemoth?

First, by breaking down the huge expanse of water into smaller, more manageable pieces. In essence, you're reducing the lake to a series of lakes, or zones, just like the Major League Fishing pros fished Amistad last fall.

A look at a good map - the AID Amistad Reservoir map is available at most Del Rio area sporting good merchants - reveals that the lake can be broken down into the following sections: The upper Devil's River; San Pedro Canyon; the mouth of the Devil's River; Evan's Creek/Castle Canyon; Diablo East/Diablo West/Steamplant; the main lake/Rio Grande (U.S. side); the main lake/Rio Grande (Mexico side); Box Canyon; the Mexican canyons of Burro, Zorro, Tule and Caballo; and the upper Rio Grande River/Zuberbueler Bend.

After an angler has broken Amistad down into more manageable chunks, it then becomes a process of breaking down each section of water and identifying the locations that bass are utilizing due to the various seasonal patterns that dictate their movements.

Visiting anglers need to keep in mind that due to Amistad's southern latitude and its high desert nature, the seasonal patterns are a little different here versus those on other southern waters.

Meaning that the shallow water spawn (which is a relative term at deep Lake Amistad where bass may spawn in 10-20 feet of water) occurs earlier, the fall feeding frenzy occurs later, and the offshore summertime patterns occur longer.

“Basically, the best way to find the fish is to determine what kind of structure they are on – flats, drop-offs, creek channels, or humps," Burkeen told me. "Once you determine what type of structure they are on, then the type of cover available on that structure will determine where those fish are positioned.”

For Burkeen, a lifetime resident of the Del Rio area and an avid tournament angler, that often means starting deep and working shallow on the Big A.

"I'm a pretty no-nonsense fisherman," said Burkeen. "I'll start on points and work my way in. And I'll start paying attention to (a variety of) things (as I do that).

"If I happen to catch a fish or two that's not on a point, I'll start looking at that to see what it is that fish is relating to," he added.

"Is it a rock? Is it a tree? Is it a patch of grass? Is my screen showing a school of baitfish hanging around there? It could be a number of things so I'm trying to analyze every little aspect to see what is going on."

In other words, on any given day, why are the bass where they are, why are they doing what they are doing, what lures do they want, and is it a repeatable pattern?

One key for Burkeen in locating Amistad bass is to focus on the subtle and not so subtle irregularities that tend to hold fish.

"Like I said, I'll always start on a point but a lot of times you'll catch them in a little ditch or a draw or anywhere where there is an abundance of grass or hydrilla and trees that are going to hold some bait fish going through there looking for protection," he said.

What baits does Burkeen like to throw? While that can change with the seasonal patterns, he has his favorites that work at almost any time of the year.

"I love throwing crankbaits and jerkbaits, looking for reaction bites but that doesn't always work," said Burkeen. "So what I'll do is if I go through a few hours where I haven't gotten any bites, I may go hit the same areas and work them over with finesse baits or something like a Texas-rig. In fact, a Texas-rig is a great bait on this lake."

Especially for anglers willing to go big on the T-rig.

"A lot of people like throwing real large worms on this lake looking for big fish," said Burkeen about a reservoir where the lake record largemouth bass tipped the scales at 15.68 pounds.

Incidentally, that wasn't a one- time wonder fish either. Amistad has 12 official ShareLunkers to its credit (bass weighing 13-pounds or better that are donated to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department for spawning purposes) along with hundreds and hundreds of fish in the eight-, nine-, and 10-pound range.

While Burkeen loves putting clients on big fish - and loves catching those behemoths himself - he does admit that as a full-time guide, he is often looking for numbers of bass instead of that one big bite.

"Guiding like I do, I'm most often looking for numbers of fish for my customers so I love throwing a Zoom Trick Worm or a Zoom U-Tail worm," said the longtime Amistad guide. "On this lake here, watermelon magic, pumpkin magic, motor oil, and light colors really do well a majority of the year. But there are also many fish caught here on red shad and blue-fleck (colors too)."

Given his druthers, Burkeen likes tossing crankbaits at Amistad, a bait that can be particularly effective during the summer months and winter months when fish are holding in deeper water.

"I love throwing the Strike King Series 5 in a greenback gizzard trying to catch those bass that are (hanging) off shelves here," he said. "We've got trees that are hanging right off the shelf line, so I like to look around those for a reaction strike."

In the last few years, such strikes have been increasing in both frequency and quality.

Thanks to a Texas size dry spell a number of years ago, something that breathed new life into the 65,000-acre reservoir impounded in 1969.

"Back in the early 90s, we went through a (really bad) drought and our water level really dropped," said Burkeen. "At the time, a lot of us were thinking gosh, look at our water."

Then came rising water which inundated the lake again and brought a "new lake effect" to Amistad.

"It was actually a blessing in disguise since we had a lot of vegetation that grew in the lake bed (during the drought)," said Burkeen. "And we started seeing hydrilla (for the first time) and the fishing just took off from there."

Took off indeed.

"It seems like for a few years now, we (are) really catching large numbers of fish," said Burkeen. "From April through mid-June, it's not unlikely that you can catch 80 to 100 fish a day. It happens quite often here."

But over the last few years, Burkeen and others are also noticing that they are catching better numbers of bigger fish too.

"(Now), an angler has a real shot at catching an 8.5- to 10-pound fish here," said Burkeen.

A shot at double-digit big bass glory is more than enough reason to visit beautiful Lake Amistad, home to some of the best bass fishing that the state of Texas has to offer.

And in a state full of good bass fishing action, that's saying something.