Get Friendly With Amistad
By Ann Dermody
Last year was a record-breaking year for visitors to National Park Service destinations. As several of these have extensive bodies of navigable waterway, we thought it timely to run a series on five of the best, if not always the best-known, parks for boaters.
Amistad means "friendship" in Spanish, and if you ask any local or returning visitor what makes Amistad National Recreation Area special for boaters, you'll get a smile. Then, they'll likely enthuse about the beautiful scenery, pristine waters, and isolated otherworldly feel of the place. Ask Greg Garetz, Chief of Education and Resource Management however, and you'd better have some time on your hands. If you do, he'll tell you about the 57,292 acres of federal property set aside for recreational enjoyment; the abundant prehistoric rock art; the vibrant cross-border culture; the wide variety of plant and animal life - and of course that great big body of water known as Lake Amistad.
Getting out on the water is really what this place is all about. Formed in 1969 on the Rio Grande along the border of the US and Mexico, Amistad Dam was primarily for flood control. Since then it's had its battles with low water levels, most recently from 1992-2002, but at its current 1115.03 feet, things are great for boaters.
After you've decided on one of the park's 11 boat ramps, you can head for the Rio Grande arm of the reservoir that extends 79-miles upstream from Amistad Dam; the 14-mile Pecos River arm; or the 24-mile Devils River tributary, for your water-based explorations. You can even venture to Mexico (see box) for a true cross-border cruise.
Unlike other areas around the country, as Garetz happily points out, nobody is polluting the lake from upstream; there are no cities or industries upriver, and the fishing? Well, in short, the fishing is spectacular.
Largemouth black bass (the record is 15.56 lbs), striped bass (lake record 45 lbs), white bass, channel catfish, flathead catfish, freshwater drum, and the occasional crappie, all like to call Lake Amistad home. And that's the small stuff. Bow fishermen make the trek to Amistad for Alligator Gar that can run to six feet and weigh more than 180 lbs.
If you're a boat owner who'd rather not reel up, you're still in for a treat with water-skiing, tubing, sail boating, canoeing, kayaking, house boating, and even scuba diving to keep you busy and on the water.
Be warned though, holiday weekends tend to get busy at the boat ramps.
"The reservoir is so large it can absorb a significant number of boats, and the boats tend to spread out on the water, but we do get congestion at some of the boat ramps," says Garetz. That happens primarily during major black bass fishing tournaments that can involve up to 200 boats. ÒRough Canyon boat ramp also gets busy on holiday week-ends with lots of boaters launching here for a shorter boat trip up the Devils River to Indian Springs. On the water the only areas that get somewhat congested are the Castle Canyon and Upper Devils River between Rough Canyon and Indian Springs, because they're good water skiing areas."
All 11 concrete boat ramps maintained by the National Park Service are currently open thanks to the lake's high water level. Personal Water Craft (PWCs) are also allowed at Lake Amistad and parking is available at all of the boat ramps. The National Park Service requires a $4 per day Lake Use Permit to operate a motorboat on the lake and those permits can be purchased at automated machines at the Diablo East, Rough Canyon, and Pecos boat ramps, as well as the Visitor Information Center on Highway 90, eight miles west of Del Rio. Annual permits can be purchased for $40.
One great advantage of Amistad is that boaters can leave their trailers in any of the 11 boat ramp parking lots overnight, meaning you can camp at another location. "We allow back-country camping, where you load your camping gear into your boat, usually up the Pecos or Devils River, or in the Castle Canyon area," says Garetz. "Overnight campers regularly leave their trucks and boat trailers in the parking lot for entire weekends. That's not a problem. We just ask that the campers bring their trash out with them."
To stock up on amenities before a day or overnight boat trip, visitors are best advised to head to Del Rio, 10 miles from the lake with a population of about 38,000. It has full services for groceries, gas, restaurants, and motels. There's also a small store with limited groceries near the Rough Canyon boat ramp.
Thanks to the climate, recreational boating opportunities abound all year-round. Daytime temperatures in winter can reach 65 degrees so sightseeing boat trips are still popular. Winter water temperatures drop to about 54 degrees making it an ideal time to fish striped and white bass as well as catfish.
The water starts to warm up in June, and eventually reaches a pleasant 84 degrees for swimming, water skiing, jet-skiing, and inner-tubing enthusiasts.
Garetz advises that canoeing and kayaking down the Pecos River is usually most favorable in March and April. Backcountry camping by boat on the Pecos River and Devils River is usually best March through May, when the cactus are in full bloom against the limestone cliffs.
What To Do?
Lake Amistad is famous for its pictographs, large Indian paintings dating back 4000 years. Launch your boat at the Pecos River boat ramp and head seven miles down the Rio Grande to the pictographs at Panther Cave. The National Park Service provides a public boat dock and metal steps to get up to the archeological site.
Take your boat up the Devils River to a popular destination spot with locals known as Indian Springs. Cool down under the spring that flows from the hillside.
Camp Like A Cowboy:
Swap the horse for horsepower and load up your boat with camping gear. Head up the Devils or Pecos Rivers, beach your boat and set up camp on the shoreline. If you camp on the Pecos River, you'll have 150-foot limestone cliffs on both sides.
Those who'd rather get physical can canoe or kayak for 55- miles down the Pecos River, an especially popular activity in spring that takes 4-5 days to complete. Bear in mind this is a wilderness trip and not for the faint-hearted.
Deer Hunting By Boat:
Well almost. You can bow hunt white-tailed deer and javelina at five different hunting areas. The National Park Service Hunting Permit costs $20 for the entire hunting season, and all of the hunt areas are easily accessible by boat.
Ray Hanselman of Reel-N-Ray, a local fishing guide service, has been a full-time guide on Lake Amistad for the past 16 years, but he's been living and fishing here since he was just four years old.
"My best friend's father was a guide and the lifestyle was intriguing to me," he says. "I also wanted to become a professional tournament angler, and becoming a guide kept me in tune."
As a man in the know, Hanselman says the abundance of aquatic vegetation especially hydrilla, make Amistad a top-notch place to fish with lots of variety. Shallow flats, deep canyons, many miles of shoreline, and even several acres of submerged structure, make it a world-renowned destination in angling circles.
"The amount and variety of fish per acre in this lake is way off the charts, and Lake Amistad is known worldwide for the non-stop year round largemouth bass action." Other species are seasonal; striper and white bass in the cold months; catfish in early spring through early summer.
Another thing that makes Amistad unique for fishing is that it borders with Mexico. For fishing in Mexican waters anglers are required to have a Mexican fishing license.
"It's not any hassle to get one. I probably do 80% of my fishing on the Mexican side of Amistad," says Hanselman.
If, however, you intend on disembarking on Mexican soil, you must make contact with U.S. Customs before leaving the water, will be required to have a passport, and may be searched. If you intend on fishing on the Texas side of the lake you need a current Texas fishing license at all times.
"There are limits on the fish in Amistad," says Hanselman. "I mainly target largemouth bass and you can keep five bass per person at a minimum of 14-inches in length. The other species I target is striper. You can keep five per person at a minimum of 18 inches for those."
Flaming Gorge Reservoir offers dramatic canyon walls and rock buttes, similar to Lake Powell
A boat trailer that is properly matched with and secured to your vehicle assures a trouble-free trip
Some factors to keep in mind when trailering on the interstate highways
License & Permit Requirements
All boats using the United States portion of Amistad Reservoir are required to have State registration and must have an Amistad National Recreation Area (NRA) Lake Use Permit. These permits are required regardless of where the boat is launched. Daily or annual permits are available. Texas fishing license requirements apply when fishing on the U.S. side of Amistad Reservoir.
Note: Mexican fishing regulations differ considerably from Texas State Regulations. Numbered buoys running along the main channel of the Rio Grande indicate the border with Mexico.
On the Texas side you can fish from shore anywhere outside of harbors and designated swim areas. Courtesy fishing docks are located at Blackbrush Point, Rough Canyon, 277 South, and Box Canyon.