DEL RIO, Texas — At least the drought-stricken farmers in south Texas with the "Pray For Rain" signs on their fences will get to celebrate.
On the eve of the Battle on the Border, the first Bassmaster Elite Series tour event of the 2009 season, Lake Amistad got a much-needed shock of rain thanks to a cold front that will push the mercury into the 30s the night before the tournament begins.
Amistad, a prolific bass fishing reservoir on the Rio Grande, is already up 10 feet from its level a year ago, thanks to a broken dam in Mexico last fall and recent rains upriver. Between the swing in the weather and the usual vicissitudes in the life of a lake, anglers on Wednesday weren't exactly crowing about their practices.
"I don't know how you can have anything dialed in after today," angler Kelly Jordon said. Most of the fish anglers have been finding, he said, were in the 2- to 3-pound range.
"Last year, if you got a bite, it was a 5-plus," he said. "Maybe it's just early and they're just getting their bearings."
How the weather will affect the fish will be anyone's guess until they wet lines on Thursday. With the wind whipping the surface of Amistad into a white-capped meringue, some anglers limited their time on the water.
Reigning Bassmaster Classic champ Skeet Reese said he spent two hours browsing the lake and the rest of the day laughing at boats that stayed out to carom through huge waves.
But if anglers did offer a consensus on how Amistad will fish this week, it was that the lake is unlikely to produce the same bounty of fish it did in 2006 and 2007, when Ish Monroe and Derek Remitz, respectively, won events here with more than 100 pounds.
To win this year, "I'd be surprised if it took 90," Jordon said. "It might take 80."
Todd Faircloth won here last year with a three-day total of 76 pounds, 15 ounces after high winds on the would-be first day.
While the weather doesn't appear to be quite so severe this year, it was one more factor to contend with for anglers already scrambling for fish.
"The front might keep 'em off the beds," angler Dustin Wilks said.
Wilks said he observed fish in pre-, post- and spawning stages but hadn't found the numbers of fish he had expected. "Something weird is definitely going on."
"I've looked quite a bit up," said angler Kevin Short, who finished third here last year. "And there's nothing. Somewhere there's a bunch of pre-spawn fish. Big fish."
James Niggemeyer, the Lake Fork guide coming off a win in last week's Southern Open at Toledo Bend, said the scarcity of bigger fish is a natural effect of the increased fishing pressure of recent years.
"I think we're finally seeing some attrition on Lake Amistad," he said. "Every lake that goes through a boom like this goes through it. It'll be back."
In the meantime, anglers will have a lot of water to cover to find the kinds of fish that have won here in the past. While it's easy to see beds in the gin-clear shallows near the banks, anglers haven't found a great number of spawning fish. The tournament will likely be won, Niggemeyer said, in about 20 to 40 feet of water.
Asked what the temperature swing would affect , Monroe replied, "everything."
"It's a new day of practice tomorrow," he continued. "It's going to be a completely new deal. The fish are changing as we speak. It's not going to be a location deal. It's a true junk-fishing tournament. This is one where the best fisherman will be probably end up winning."
In that regard, this tournament reminded Monroe of last month's Bassmaster Classic, which Skeet Reese won on the Red River.
"Don't put me on your fantasy team," Monroe said. "Get Skeet Reese, Kevin VanDam, Rick Clunn. The legends of the sport."
Monroe's point: Improvisation skills are going to trump luck.
One upshot of the overcast weather is that it could turn on a big-fish bite. Regardless, the parched south Texas scrublands were parched. Del Rio Mayor Efrain Valdez, for one, thanked the anglers for bringing rain with them while addressing the competitors Wednesday night.
"We've been in a drought about 18 months now," said Pat McDonald, a forecaster with the National Weather Service office in New Braunfels, Texas. "We're the worst in the country right now. We're what they call an 'exceptional' drought. We're about 30 inches below normal over the past two years."
That changed somewhat when a cold front moved from the north, sparking rainfall from moisture that had moved in from both the Pacific and the Gulf of Mexico. The system held the high in Del Rio in the mid-40s, about 30 degrees below its seasonal norm. Overnight temperatures are expected to dip into the mid-30s, with showers and winds of 15 to 25 mph.
Rain and chilly temperatures will continue through Saturday. For the 12 anglers who survive the final cut, Sunday ought to be warm, sunny and pleasant.
"All that's gonna do," Short said, "is screw you up from the first three days."