Why Be A Fishing Guide?
It's a new puzzle to solve every day
Article by Steve Wright
Brian Harris is an experienced bass angler. Gerzsenyi wouldn't need to grab the spincast rigs from his rod locker on this day. (James Overstreet photo)
DEL RIO, Texas — Stan Gerzsenyi has seen the bright lights of big-time bass fishing. He has qualified for the Bassmaster Classic. He has appeared on the cover of Bassmaster magazine. Yet he always carries a couple of Zebco spincasting rigs in his bass boat; they get used, often.
Gerzsenyi, 48, has worked as a fishing guide for 25 years. Every day is a new day when chasing bass. And clients are like the prize inside a Cracker Jack box: You never know what you're going to get.
"When you're with an experienced fisherman, and he gets dialed-in, that's awesome," Gerzsenyi said. "But I've had guys that didn't know you had to push the button on a baitcaster. When you find that out, you don't want them pushing the button. Those guys can be a handful."
That's when the spincasters come out of the rod box. You still have to push a button to make a cast. But it's a really big button, and the calamity of a baitcaster-bird's-nest is eliminated.
Gerzsenyi has won six bass boats in major tournaments and competed at the highest level. In 1996 he finished second in the Bassmaster Mississippi Invitational. In '97 he placed third in the Bassmaster Texas Invitational and placed ninth in the Bassmaster Classic. Why would an accomplished pro willingly tolerate every imaginable level of bass fishing competence on a daily basis?
A fishing guide must be both kindergarten teacher and college professor.
It's hard enough to adapt to the daily dilemma of catching bass. But to solve that problem, then not be fully able to take advantage? It sounds like a nightmare, not a profession.
"Just getting paid and being able to be out on the water," said Gerzsenyi, in summing up his motivation.
It goes a bit deeper than that. After competing on the B.A.S.S. circuit for several years, Gerzsenyi (pronounced "grr-ZEN-ee) started a lure company that almost morphed into a major motion picture. Chasing that dream took him off the water for several years.
"I missed it," he said. "I enjoy people, especially when you can help them catch the biggest bass of their life. And I'm around what I love to do."
To put people near the biggest bass of their lives, Gerzsenyi's guiding career has centered on well-known Texas lunker factories – first, Lake Fork, near Dallas, and for the last 10 years, Lake Amistad on the U.S.-Mexico border near Del Rio.
On a mid-December day, photographer James Overstreet and I followed Gerzsenyi and a client around Lake Amistad to document a day in the life of a fishing guide.
After being around many guides over the years, I've long thought several had an interesting book in their heads, if someone could pull it out, based on all the stories they've accumulated – from comic to tragic.
Gerzsenyi has more stories than most.
The Client, The Day
Brian Harris is a cotton farmer from Lamesa, Texas, about a 4 ½-hour drive north of Del Rio. This was not his first day at Amistad with Gerzsenyi. No need for Zebcos. Harris has some bass fishing experience.
"I came here a year ago with my son-in-law, uh, my wife's son-in-law," said Harris, with a subtle joke, adding, "I heard there was a mediocre guide down here, and I thought that sounded just right."
We launched two bass boats on the steep, wide ramp at the Box Canyon Public Use Area. Box Canyon is about 12 nautical miles west of Amistad Dam.
It was Monday. There were two other vehicles with empty trailers in the parking lot. We would see one other bass boat on the water all day, plus two men boating near their shore-parked camper, which was so isolated it appeared air-dropped.
Gerzsenyi was facing some unusual conditions. Lake Amistad remained full of aquatic vegetation, which normally has been stunted by cold weather in mid-December. Today the water surface temperature was 61.5 degrees.
"This year it's like we didn't have a winter, there's so much grass," Gerzsenyi said. "The deep stuff is usually awesome this time of year, because usually there's no grass. After a day or two of cold weather, the deep stuff lights up.
"Last week, (Bassmaster Elite Series veteran) Gary Klein was here. We ended up catching them on top — (Zara) Spooks in 65-degree water, 60-feet deep.
"It's like summer for these fish. They don't know what's going on."
Gerzsenyi and Harris started fishing deep ledges that dropped from 25-feet into 60. Gerzsenyi will fish alongside a client until a pattern is established, then sit back and watch.
"There's real thick hydrilla on the bank," Gerzsenyi said. "We're going to bounce back and forth between the deep stuff and the grass. If you get a couple of bites at one depth, then you can usually catch 'em that way all day."
We could see the grass line from a quarter-mile away by observing the thousands of coots positioned several yards offshore in a jagged pattern. They were like lines on a topo map. There was shallow vegetation under every bird.
A Stan Story
Stan Gerzsenyi's youth was spent in both Texas and California. He was always obsessed with bass fishing. He began hand-pouring soft-plastic worms as a kid. To better understand the habits of largemouth bass, Gerzsenyi took up scuba diving.
It was in preparation for a Western Outdoor News (WON) tournament on Lake Mohave in the early '90s, when Gerzsenyi surfaced from a scuba dive near the boat of legendary California angler Don Iovino, who was practicing for the event.
"Son, you can look at 'em all day, but you've got to catch 'em when it counts," Iovino remarked, according to Gerzsenyi.
Gerzsenyi admits being a bit of a smart-ass on stage after winning the tournament and his first bass boat prize. He'd looked at 'em all day AND caught 'em when it counted.
Shortly afterward, WON added a pre-tournament no-scuba-diving rule, and most major tournament circuits now have a similar prohibition. Gerzsenyi and current Bassmaster Elite Series pro Byron Velvick were frequent roommates at the time, trying to make it in the pro bass fishing world.
"Byron has always blamed me for the no-scuba-diving rule," Gerzsenyi laughed. "But I learned a lot doing that."
One observation: "I don't think sunlight has anything to do with bass spawning," he said. "I've seen bass on spawning beds in underwater caves."
A Warm December Day
There was no need to start this excursion early. We didn't leave the Box Canyon launch site until 10:30 a.m., after being delayed a half-hour by some battery problems. After a brisk, short boat run, we were quickly shedding clothes. There wasn't a cloud in the sky. A breeze put a ripple and the water, but carried no chill.
Gerzsenyi and Harris started drop-shotting the deep drop-offs with various soft plastics. Several bass were landed, but no monsters – the biggest was about four pounds.
Thin, white gossamer strands suddenly littered the air, wrapping around fishing rods and everything else. The spider silk kites are too fragile to pose problems for an angler, but they're eye-catching.
In addition to the coots, there were enough other species of waterfowl to make a duck-hunter drool. The sounds of mallards, pintails and wigeons provided pleasant background music. The big ducks rose in clouds when disturbed. The coots, however, were so intent on feeding in the shallow grass they were practically unmovable.
Lake Fork to Lake Amistad
It's easy to understand why a bass fishing guide would set up shop at Lake Fork, as Gerzsenyi once did. Since its 27,000 acres were impounded near Dallas in 1980, Fork has produced the Texas state record largemouth of 18.82 pounds, and 12 of the top 15 biggest bass recorded in the state, according to the Texas Parks & Wildlife Service. In the TPWS top 50 largemouth list, 32 are from Lake Fork.
But Gerzsenyi left there almost 10 years ago for Lake Amistad, located about 400 miles southwest.
"Those are two awesome lakes, and they are completely different," Gerzsenyi said. "People know about both lakes. Sometimes I'll get some guys that want to fish both. If they've got a week, I'll set it up where they have two or three days on each one, with a day of driving in between."
At 65,000 acres, Lake Amistad is twice as big as Lake Fork. It resembles a southwestern U.S. impoundment – deep, clear water, with rock bluffs and little vegetation on the land around it. It looks completely different than both Lake Fork and Falcon Lake, which is located about 250 miles downstream on the Rio Grande.
Focus intensified on Amistad after the Bassmaster Elite Series first came here in 2006. Ish Monroe won it with a 20-bass-limit over four days that totaled 104 pounds, 8 ounces. Hitting the century mark in the Elite Series always causes a stir. Derek Remitz topped it with a winning weight of 111-7 the next year. Hello, Lake Amistad.
Stories emerged from those two events about various anglers seeing bass on spawning beds 20 feet deep – largemouths that appeared bigger than anything they'd ever caught.
On the Texas top 50 list, Amistad occupies only two places – No. 33, for the lake-record 15.68-pounder caught Dec. 28, 2005; and No. 43, for a 15.58-pounder caught March 11, 1989. To put that in perspective, Falcon Lake – easily the hottest big-bass lake in the U.S. recently – has only one entry on the top 50 list, a 15.63-pounder caught Jan. 7, 2011.
Who knows what has been caught and released, scaled and eaten, or simply unhooked and slipped back into each lake. The Texas list serves as a guide, not a definitive answer, to the best-big-bass-lake question. And, most importantly, it's a bass-of-a-lifetime list. How many bass anglers have ever caught an 8-pounder, much less a 10-pounder? It takes a 15-pounder (15.38, to be exact) to tie for 50th place on the Texas list.
Lake Amistad blends big-bass potential, uncommon water clarity, eye-popping natural beauty and ancient history. Rock paintings, still visible above the lake, document human activity here 4,000 years ago. People have been attracted to the area for a long, long time.
Fishing Dies With the Wind
Although it hadn't been spectacular on this day, the bass fishing had been steady until dead calm settled over Lake Amistad around 1 p.m. It was time to adjust and adapt.
Gerzsenyi started digging in his tackle boxes. Everything from topwater lures, to swimbaits, to deep-running crankbaits was employed over the remainder of the day, most to no avail. It became one bass here, one bass there. No matter how many times Gerzsenyi changed locations, lures and depths, a discernible pattern couldn't be found.
It was reminiscent of watching the three-day-leader in an Elite Series event suddenly become bass-less on Day Four. It happens, and more often than many realize.
"It's why it's called 'fishing,' not 'catching,'" according to the old adage.
Gerzsenyi and Harris kept fishing until the sun got low in the still-cloudless sky. Their luck didn't change.
This day proved why fishing guides can't help but cringe when watching televised fishing shows, where just about any day, anywhere can be edited down to a fish-catch on every cast. Inevitably, some of Gerzsenyi's clients arrive with only the experience of watching TV fishing shows and expectations of such.
Brian Harris wasn't one of those people. The day marked easily the low-point of his experiences with Gerzsenyi, in terms of catching fish, but Harris had done this enough to know the possibilities.
You can image the awkwardness of the moment, at the end of the day, when a first-timer has to pay his guide after a skunking. It's no easier on the guide than it is the client. Gerzsenyi charges $400 for a full day (8 to 9 hours) and $250 for a half-day (4 to 5 hours) on Lake Amistad.
Paying that bill becomes less of a problem if your guide has taught you a few things and told some good stories along the way. Gerzsenyi can guarantee that.
"Nine out of 10 people are happy, and they'll give you a tip," Gerzsenyi said.
No matter how many bass were put in the boat that day.
A Final Stan Story
Gerzsenyi almost walked into a Hollywood animated movie deal that would have made him a wealthy man. It came out of the blue several years ago. Gerzsenyi and a financial partner started Wave Worms, a soft-plastic bait manufacturing company, which is still around, though Gerzsenyi hasn't been involved in a decade.
One "sleepless night at 2 a.m. in my garage" he came up with the idea for Tiki Man – a cartoon logo for the packaging on some new Wave Worm baits. Tiki Man quickly morphed into a powerful force.
"It took on a life of its own," Gerzsenyi recalled. "We had a $100,000 clothing order to Walmart, and it wasn't fishing-related at all. It was crazy."
Tiki Man, according to Gerzsenyi, was going to be the next "Shrek!" – the animated movie that created an industry unto itself. Tiki Man, the movie idea, drew enough attention that an accomplished screenwriter produced a script.
But after a year of negotiations and meetings, "It all blew up one day in Dallas," said Gerzsenyi, adding, "I've still got the script."
To paraphrase a country song: You might have a few less scars, but fishing guides have better stories.
The Velvick Touch
DEL RIO, Texas — Pro angler Byron Velvick fell in love with Lake Amistad in 2006. That's when he first visited for what stretched into a couple of months, prior to the practice cut-off period of the first Bassmaster Elite Series event here.
He was sold on the area before the fireworks of that early March '06 tournament. Velvick immediately started buying property around the lake, which has relatively no one living on it and is protected from over-development by a huge national park.
Several other Elite Series pros bought property here after the tournament. The most telling statement today is that Denny Brauer and his wife, Shirley, have moved to Lake Amistad from Camdenton, Mo., to enjoy their retirement years.
Since relocating, Brauer has caught the biggest bass of his life. It might have topped the Lake Amistad record of 15.68 pounds. Brauer didn't need the attention, so he released it, un-weighed.
Without special water, no matter what kind of beauty surrounds it, there's no attraction for lifelong bass anglers. They compete on "good lakes" all the time, but few good enough to lure a property investment.
"It's so pristine," said the 48-year-old Velvick. "There's nobody here. I hated to leave once I got here. After that Bassmaster event, everybody wanted to come here."
What's extraordinary about this particular impoundment?
"There's a world of life in 100 feet of water," Velvick said. "There's life where most lakes have none. Grass grows in 30- to 35-feet here."
Velvick also bought Amistad Lake Resort shortly after the 2006 tournament. He and Stan Gerzsenyi are the same age and have a history of friendship dating back to their early 20s. Part of Velvick's ability to leave resort customers coming back for more is pairing them with accomplished fishing guides.
Gerzsenyi ranks at the top of his list.
– Steve Wright