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Lake Lures Fishermen ... And Drug Traffickers

James Bendele runs the Falcon Lake Tackle Shop in Zapata, Texas. Bass fishermen flock to the lake, despite the presence of a Mexican drug cartel.
Wade Goodwyn

On the long drive to Falcon Lake, it slowly becomes apparent why it's ranked the No. 1 bass fishing lake in America: It's in the middle of nowhere.

The lake straddles the Texas-Mexico border, and San Antonio, the closest city, is a four-hour drive away.

A fisherman has to have some serious "want to" to take on Falcon Lake, as they say around here.

But plenty of anglers do. And the trek pays off, because the bass here are big. Very big.

Catching one "is like hooking onto a Cummins Diesel and pulling him out of a junkyard," says James Bendele, co-owner of Falcon Lake Tackle Shop in Zapata, Texas. "This is heavy-duty, full-contact fishing. These are the strongest, most jacked up fish you're ever gonna catch."

Whatever tackle a fisherman's accustomed to using, it's probably not going to cut it down here. The fishing rods feel like broomsticks and the line is 25-pound fluorocarbon.

This is heavy-duty, full-contact fishing. These are the strongest, most jacked up fish you're ever gonna catch.

The gear isn't cheap, and it probably doesn't have much use anywhere else.

Bendele, who runs Falcon Lake Tackle with his brother, Tom, says many first timers balk initially — until they go out with more standard tackle.

"They hit the water, and after about Day 1 they come back in here and [say], 'OK, where's that big damn rod you have? These fish are kicking my butt,' " Bendele says.

Lots Of Fish — But Some Risk, Too

While the fishing's great on Falcon, there is a catch: Mexico's Zeta cartel likes to use the lake to smuggle drugs.

In September 2010, a young couple, David and Tiffany Hartley, rode their water scooters six miles up the Salado River into Mexico. The Hartleys wanted to take pictures of a beautiful church that emerges from the water when Falcon Lake is low.

But the Old Guerrero church is also a Zeta staging area. When the Hartleys showed up with their cameras, men in boats gave chase and fired on them.

"Mr. Hartley, sadly, didn't make it across like Mrs. Hartley did," says Aaron Sanchez, a captain with the Zapata County Sheriff's Department. "He got shot by these individuals."

David Hartley's water scooter and body were never found. A Mexican state police investigator assigned to the case was himself decapitated, his head mailed in a suitcase to a nearby army post.

But the situation began to change last fall, after the Zetas seized a small Mexican island in the middle of Falcon Lake. The government sent in helicopter gunships and blasted the gang with missiles and .50-caliber machine guns. Twelve people were killed.

Texas authorities say the Zetas have since kept a much lower profile.

Nevertheless, Sanchez says the police "believe there are parts of that lake on the other side that are controlled by drug trafficking organizations, and its unsafe for anybody to go in there — even Mexicans and Mexican authorities. It's unsafe for anybody."

While this is scary stuff, it's not enough to keep American fishermen and women away.

One Day, Two Men, 175 Bass

These bass anglers boast outboard motors with 200 and even 300 horsepower, and their boats and can go up to 75 miles an hour on the water.

Each morning, the boats are lined up at the Zapata boat ramp, ready for a day of fishing.

Pat Hailstones, a drywaller from Cincinnati, comes to Falcon Lake every year. And, yes, he fishes in both American and Mexican waters.

"Last year we caught [the bass] all deep. This year we're catching them all shallow," Hailstones says. He and a friend have been hauling in 2- to 8-pound bass this year — and lots of them.

"The other day, we caught 175 in a day — give or take 20," Hailstones says.

Wildlife biologist Randy Meyers says the reason the fishing is so good at Falcon has to do with the lake's massive fluctuations. For five to 10 years, the water level will go down 50 feet or more.

Mesquite, weesatch (sweet acacia) and retama trees grow far down the bank. When the rains come, all that brush becomes the perfect underwater spawning ground for largemouth bass. The fingerlings find all kinds of nooks and crannies where they can hid hide from predators.

"We've been stocking this lake for years with a strain of largemouth bass from Florida," Meyers says. That's because, he explains, the Florida fish "grow faster and larger than our local bass here in Texas."

And because the water is so warm this far south, the fish grow year round.

Any angler call tell you it sometimes takes a second or two to be really sure you've caught something. Not at Falcon Lake. When a 5-pound bass hits your line, a shock wave runs through the pole and into your hands.

On a recent afternoon, Mexican fishermen cast nets from their skiffs and haul in tilapia, while bass fisherman reel in their latest catch.

It's quiet and peaceful — peaceful enough for a reporter to stop worrying about the Zetas and start thinking about buying a fishing boat.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Wade Goodwyn is an NPR National Desk Correspondent covering Texas and the surrounding states.
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