DEL RIO, Texas — We've heard it all week. The comparisons and praise started early and then kicked into high gear once the weigh ins started in the CITGO Bassmaster Elite Series event on Lake Amistad.
"This place is like Lake Mead on steroids."
"This is one of the best lakes in the country."
"It's better than the fishing heyday of the 70's."
"It's like Rayburn and Guntersville when they were hot in the early 80's."
This week Lake Amistad is the belle of the ball and like Scarlett O'Hara, she loves no one but wants them all.
As the CITGO Bassmaster Elite Series descended upon Del Rio, Texas, for the "Battle on the Border," there has been no lack of superlatives to describe this lake whose name means "Friendship." After the first day of competition it became apparent that the pre-game excitement over the quality of the fishing was not hype.
A total 1,932 pounds were caught by 106 pros on the first day of competition, with five limits of over 30 pounds. On Day Two, the overall weight was heavier at 1,938 pounds. On Day One, only nine pros weighed in less than 10 pounds. Add to that, the big fish of the day was a 10 pound, 5 ounce beauty brought to the scales by Pete Ponds of Madison, Miss. Gary Klein would follow that up on Day Two with an identical 10-5.
Compare that to the season opener on Lake Toho in 2005, which is no slouch of a lake by any comparison. The total weight caught then by 158 anglers was 824 pounds and only 36 limits were brought in. That is the lake that broke catch records just a few weeks ago.
How did it get so hot?
Of course timing is everything in fishing. Not only the timing of the season when a tournament takes place, but in this case, also the timing involved with the life cycle of the lake itself.
A 10-year drought that ended in 2003 caused the lake to drop in elevation about 50 feet. A series of tropical storms in 2003 and 2004 brought a lot of rain to southwest Texas and now the lake is almost recovered in terms of water levels.
According to Alan Cox with the National Park Service, who manages the lake, Amistad first reached conservation level, or "optimum pool elevation level," in 1972 after being dammed in 1969.
"Four years ago, the water was down 58 feet. Then it came up to within 2 feet of conservation level last year after three years of good rains," Cox said.
Pro angler Ken Cook remembers that period in the life of the lake.
"I was here in the early 70's and we just caught them like crazy. Around 1977, the lake started experiencing a decline. The fish looked like they got real skinny."
"Then the drought came along. But there was an awful lot of benefit to that drought. All of this shoreline vegetation grew up and essentially pulled nutrients out of the soil. When the water levels came back up, those nutrients are released back into the water."
Everything old is new again
"Amistad is fishing like a brand new lake," said Greg Hackney. "The water was so low for so long. There is probably 50 percent more water in it than there was three years ago. You can tell how low it got by looking at the trees under water. They go about 25 feet out from the shore. Past that, the bottom is clean again."
Skeet Reese agrees. As a pro who cut his teeth on prolific western fisheries, he sees a lot of similarities between Lake Amistad and some of his old stomping grounds.
"It's like Lake Mead on steroids. With that much shoreline vegetation, it doesn't take long for a lake like this to get good," Reese said.
Plus, there's hydrilla here — the holy grail of bass habitat.
"Like they say in science class, nature abhors a vacuum," says Ken Cook a biologist turned pro angler who is considered an expert in bass biology. "What happened is that now you had all this new habitat under water, but not many fish. In nature, if a population is not dense, reproduction goes up throughout the food chain."
In other words, nature went into overdrive.
Randy Myers of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department is the district biologist in charge of managing the fish populations in Lake Amistad.
"Today, there are 25,000 more acres of 'new lake' or additional water in the lake." Myers said. "There are 65,000 surface acres right now. If it were completely full there would be 70,000."
Paul Elias says Amistad is in a league of its own.
"It's a lot like Rayburn and Guntersville when they were really hot in the early 1980's. The difference is that you can catch big fish consistently here."
Those big fish can credit their heft to nature's grand slam — the above mentioned habitat, a long growing season and abundant forage. All three elements contribute to growing big bass.
Since the lake is situated on the border of Texas and Mexico, the fish don't experience a lot of cold weather, considering that the average temperatures from December through February are only in the mid sixties. That gives the fish plenty of time to eat and grow.
"A 5-pound fish here is probably three years old," said Myers. "Of course, that's an average. They can grow 2 pounds per year as well, so a 10 pound fish could be five years old."
Myers says Amistad is full of shad — both gizzard shad and threadfin. The lake is not managed for tilapia, but there is an abundant crawfish population as well.
"The forage here has a very high nutritional value for the bass," says Myers.
It's Like yesterday all over again
For a younger generation of anglers and fishing fans, this lake may represent an opportunity to witness or experience the kind of bass fishing that has been spoken of for years when some of the country's best impoundments were new and huge stringers were the norm.
From a rookie's perspective, Amistad is a dream lake.
"It's got more fish per acre than any lake I've ever fished," said Jeremy Starks. "It actually makes it kind of hard for us rookies who have never fished a lake like this."
"Everything you throw will catch a fish. So it's hard to judge what you should go with. It's hard to figure out how to pattern the bigger fish. If you're not talking to some of the more seasoned pros, it's also hard to figure out where to set your goals in terms of weight."
Rick Clunn says it's hard to compare Amistad to the storied lakes of the golden age of bass fisheries like Rayburn and Eufaula.
"Most lakes, when they were in their heyday, the angler's skill levels weren't what they are today so you didn't see the full potential. To have a lake at its highest level, and to have anglers fishing it at this skill level is simply phenomenal."
Like Scarlett O'Hara, Lake Amistad is not going home early from the party.
"It hasn't seen its peak yet," said Myers. "The quality of fishing should continue to improve as long as the water levels stay high."
Simply, it will be along time before Lake Amistad is gone with the wind.