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.
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.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
And I'm Melissa Block. Now a trip to the country's best bass fishing location. Falcon Lake straddles the Texas-Mexico border. It reaches into both countries and it's ranked number one by ESPN Bass Master. NPR's Wade Goodwyn is always up for a difficult assignment, so he traveled down to Zapata, Texas, where he found the fishing is great, but there's just one catch.
WADE GOODWYN, BYLINE: On the drive down to Falcon Lake, it slowly becomes apparent that one big reason it's the number one bass fishing lake in America is because it's out in the middle of nowhere. It's a four-hour trip from San Antonio, the closest city, so you've got to have some serious want-to, as they say, if you're going to fish here.
JAMES BENDELE: There's the Strike King XD, which has been really good. The Norman DD22 on the next row has been an excellent bait, too.
GOODWYN: This is big bait.
BENDELE: It is big bait. Come on over this way.
GOODWYN: First stop is Falcon Lake Tackle Shop, because whatever you've been using is not going to cut it down here. These fish are big.
BENDELE: This is like hooking onto a Cummings diesel and pulling him out of a junkyard, and those fish know where every bush is.
GOODWYN: James Bendele owns Falcon Lake Tackle Shop with his brother Tom. They've been fishing here since 1961.
BENDELE: This is heavy duty full contact fishing. These are the strongest, most jacked up fish you're ever going to catch.
GOODWYN: The fishing rods feel like broomsticks and the line is 25-pound fluorocarbon. It's not cheap and it's probably not tackle you're going to use anywhere else. Bendele says many first timers balk initially.
BENDELE: They hit the water and after about day one they come in here and say, all right, where's that big damn rod you have? I need something - these fish are kicking my butt.
GOODWYN: There is one problem. It's the Mexican cartel called the Zetas and they like to use Falcon Lake to smuggle drugs. In September of 2010, a young couple, David and Tiffany Hartley, rode their jet skis six miles up the Salado River into Mexico. The Hartleys wanted to take pictures of a beautiful church that rises out of the water when Falcon Lake is low, but Old Guerrero is also a Zeta staging area. When the Hartleys showed up with their cameras, they were chased by men in boats who fired upon them.
Aaron Sanchez is a captain with the Zapata County Sheriff's Department.
AARON SANCHEZ: Mr. Hartley, sadly, didn't make it across like Mrs. Hartley did. He got shot by these individuals.
GOODWYN: David Hartley's jet ski 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. This was too brazen, even by Mexican standards. The government sent in helicopter gunships, which blasted the gang with missiles and 50 caliber machine guns, killing 12.
Texas authorities say the Zetas have since kept a much lower profile. Nevertheless, Captain Sanchez advises...
SANCHEZ: We believe that there's parts of that lake on the other side that are controlled by drug trafficking organizations and it's unsafe for anybody to go in there, even Mexicans, Mexican authorities. It's unsafe for anybody.
GOODWYN: This is scary stuff, scary enough to keep American fishermen away, no matter how good the bass fishing. Right?
PAT HAILSTONES: We're going to put this boat in and go catch a good one. Let's go.
GOODWYN: Cartels shmartels. These bass fishermen have 200, 250, even 300 horsepower outboards, and their boats can go 70 to 75 miles an hour on the water.
(SOUNDBITE OF BOAT)
GOODWYN: At the Zapata boat ramp, the bass boats line up in the morning.
HAILSTONES: Pat Hailstones. I live in Cincinnati, Ohio, and I do drywall for a living.
GOODWYN: Pat comes down here every year and, yes, he fishes in both American and Mexican waters.
HAILSTONES: Way different than last year. Last year we caught them all deep. This year we're catching them mostly shallow. The other day we had 175 from about two to eight, eight and a half pounds. We've been here since Saturday. My buddy caught a ten-five Saturday.
GOODWYN: Did you hear what he said?
HAILSTONES: Yeah. Like I said, the other day we caught 175 in a day, you know, and I don't know, give or take 20. You try to keep tabs, but it's just a jerk fest.
GOODWYN: Well, if Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson can report from the frontlines of the Middle East, I guess I can travel up the Salado River in search of big-mouth bass, or Colonel Kurtz. I know, you can see the headline - Idiot NPR Reporter Murdered by Drug Cartel While Bass Fishing on the Salado River, Where He Knew Not to Go.
On a positive note, I'm traveling with James Bendele from the tackle shop and Texas Parks and Wildlife biologist Randy Meyers.
RANDY MEYERS: Nice cast.
BENDELE: Oh well, thank you, sir. Years of practice.
GOODWYN: We're fishing. 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 will go down 50 feet or more and the Mesquite, Weesatch and Retama grow far down the bank. When the rains come, all that brush becomes the perfect underwater spawning ground for large-mouth bass. Meyers says the fingerlings hide from the predators in there.
MEYERS: We've been stocking this lake for years with a strain of large-mouth bass from Florida. We call them Florida bass. We found that Florida bass have a propensity, because of their genetics, to grow faster and grow larger than our native strain of bass here in Texas.
GOODWYN: And because we're so far south and the water's so warm, the fish grow year round.
Oh, I got another one.
BENDELE: Now he's just showing off. That's another good fish.
GOODWYN: Within minutes of casting a line, I begin to catch bass - big ones. What do you think?
MEYERS: That's a nice fish, Wade.
GOODWYN: Four pounds?
MEYERS: Maybe not quite that much. Maybe three pounds. The bad deal here is that your spinner bait is destroyed. Your lucky spinner bait. Yeah. See, it lost one of the blades.
BENDELE: These fish have been known to tear up some equipment.
GOODWYN: Wow. How 'bout that?
MEYERS: Nice fish.
GOODWYN: You know how sometimes when you catch a fish, it takes a second to know if you've got one or not? That's not how it is at Falcon Lake. When a five pound bass hits your line, a shockwave runs through the pole and into your hands. Although this was my first time bass fishing, in two and a half hours I caught a five pounder, two four pounders, one three, and a half a dozen one and two pounders.
BENDELE: OK. I'm going to cast wherever Wade casts now. He caught the three biggest fish.
GOODWYN: Around us, Mexican fishermen cast nets from their 18-foot skiffs and haul in Tilapia. It's quiet and peaceful and, oh, so remote on the Rio Salado. We stay three miles north of Old Guerrero and its beautiful church, and there are other bass boats out here too. As the minutes tick by, I stop worrying about the Zetas. I want that next fish, an eight pounder or a 10 or a 12. I need a bass boat.
Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Dallas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.