Falcon Lake is now 60, and it's pushing fishing tackle into a new frontier.
ZAPATA, Texas — When you first see the landscape surrounding Falcon Lake, dominated by rock, sand and gnarly mesquite, it's only natural to think little has changed here in a long, long time.
In 1954 the U.S. and Mexican governments combined to build a hydropower dam on the Rio Grande River in the middle of nowhere. The 83,000-acre lake didn't force many folks to relocate. Zapata's population was 343 in 1950. It "skyrocketed" almost 500 percent – to 2,031 — by 1960.
Even today there aren't many people in Zapata (pop. 5,173). Maybe that's why the lake level often looks like the gas gauge of a teenager's car — closer to "E" than "F." If no one's around to complain, it's easier to get away with running Falcon on empty.
But there's something happening here, and what it is ain't exactly clear (apologies to "Buffalo Springfield"). In what appears to be the ultimate wrong place, wrong time for anything significant to happen in the world of bass fishing, it's happening in a big way at Falcon Lake. Big, in fact, is the key word.
Falcon Lake Is Changing The Game
When the Bassmaster Elite Series first came here in 2008, some guys were trimming a half-inch off the tops of two fat 7-inch Yamamoto Senkos and gluing them together to make a 13-inch version. One morning before takeoff, Ben Matsubu showed one of these to Aaron Martens, who took it as a joke, saying, "No. Come on, dude."
Matsubu wasn't joking.
"My co-angler had 30 pounds in the boat yesterday before I got tuned-in," Matsubu said. "It's something they haven't seen before.
"I caught an 8-pounder, then a 9, then a 7-pounder on the next cast. I started gluing everything together."
It's an anecdote that illustrates all the big things that have happened at Falcon in the past decade. Big bass like big meals, especially in a lake that has a tilapia population that reproduces year round. And the thick, tough brush — mostly mesquite and huistache trees — requires heavy tackle in order to yank these big, bad-ass bass from the jungle.
"I worked in the tackle business for 46 years," said 66-year-old Dick Berryman. "We never made rods and reels for the extreme fishing that we've got here. It's just a different deal altogether."
That's the main thing you take away from Falcon: It's a different problem to solve, no matter where else on earth you've previously fished. Imagine setting the hook on a tarpon in a flooded rain forest. That's the predicament.
Falcon Rods in Broken Arrow, Okla., didn't get its name from the bird of prey. John Beck with started the specialty rod company after a trip to Falcon Lake in 1990, when he saw the predicament.
"I wanted to make the rods you couldn't buy then," he said. "Everybody had 5-1/2 and 6-foot rods. There were no 6-6s or 6-8s. We got a reputation for making tough rods. That trip to Falcon was a big part of it."
When the Elite Series came back to Falcon Lake in 2013, there were a lot of Falcon Rods on the boat decks of the pros, including the 7-foot, 3-inch El Toro, the stoutest stick in the Falcon lineup. The action of the El Toro rod is categorized XXH — extra, extra heavy.
Approaching its 60th birthday, half-full Falcon Lake is kicking like an old mule that has been drinking from the fountain of youth.
"This is far and away the most bizarre, strange, freaky fishery any of us have ever been to or will ever go to again. It's a freak show out there."
That's how Byron Velvick described Falcon in 2008. Velvick finished third in the four-day, five-bass daily limit event. His 20 bass weighed 131 pounds, 15 ounces — only 9 ounces short of Paul Elias' B.A.S.S. record of 132-8.
Big ol', bulked-up largemouth bass are the reason why Dick Berryman moved here from Arkansas last year. Berryman was searching for bass fishing's heaven on earth, after his wife, Penny — the queen of professional bass fishing, died in September following a long battle with cancer.
"Arkansas is a great place, but I just couldn't get away from the memories," Berryman said of his 33-year marriage to Penny. "I'm an old Texan, so I just came back home."
Berryman is a legend among fishing industry insiders. He worked 36 years for Zebco. His personal relationships in the industry, particularly one with the late Ray Murski of Strike King, led to a retail revolution.
"Ray Murski and I kind of started the Walmart sporting goods departments," Berryman said.
During his career, Berryman had opportunities to fish around the world. In retirement, he had the money to move any place in the world. World-class bass fishing — good enough to keep his mind from wandering into the past — was Berryman's only requirement.
"I'm going to bass fish at Falcon Lake and (Mexico's) Sugar Lake until they bury me — somewhere between the two lakes," Berryman said. "You can't go to a better lake and try to catch the biggest bass of your life. It's totally between Falcon and Sugar Lake."
Berryman attended the weigh-in one day at Falcon in March, when the Elites returned. It wasn't quite the freak show that took place in 2008. The lake was seven feet lower than it was in 2008, and the bass fishing was "off" for Falcon. This time "only" three anglers broke the 100-pound mark after four days, instead of all 12 finalists like in 2008, and the big bass was "only" 10-2, instead of 13-2.
Photo of Cliff Crochet weighing in at Bassmaster Elite SeriesCliff Crochet weighed a five-fish limit of 35 pounds, 3 ounces in the Bassmaster Elite Series event. (B.A.S.S. photo)
Obviously, the definition of Falcon Lake bass fishing being off and that for every other lake in the U.S. is decidedly different. Only a half dozen U.S. lakes might be able to produce 20 bass over four days that top 100 pounds.
Time To Change Your Tackle
The biggest story out of Falcon this year was how fishing tackle has changed, even since 2008, as in, "Don't bring a knife to a gun fight."
And many of the pros still felt under-gunned.
"These fish are so big and so mean, they will just flat out kick your butt," said Elite Series rookie Josh Bertrand, who finished fourth this year at Falcon with 99 pounds, 2 ounces.
"You forget how mean these fish are," said Falcon Lake veteran Alton Jones. "The 7-pounder I caught, I would have sworn was a 10-pounder the way it bit."
Kelly Jordon told a story about a big one that got away. In retrospect, he should have been using 65-pound test braided line instead of 25-pound test fluorocarbon.
"Here you're kind of walking a razor's edge if you don't have braid on," Jordon said. "I set the hook and I couldn't ever turn it. It just took off and broke everything I had.
"The cover is so tough, and the fish are so big and so strong. It's just a roll of the dice.
"I'm from Lake Fork (Texas) where we have a lot of big fish. I'm comfortable fishing for big fish. I know what they are capable of doing. Here, they still school you on a regular basis."
So why are Falcon Lake's bass so big and mean? And why is this suddenly one of the best bass fishing lakes in the U.S.? Bass fishing in old lakes like Falcon Lake usually goes down, not up. Falcon was good before, but it wasn't this incredible for most of those years.
The answers to those questions are complex. The short version: Right time, right place.
Few Falcon Entries In Texas Top 50
You might wonder if this is just a bunch of Texas-size bass fishing baloney coming from Falcon. When you look at the list of the 50 biggest largemouth bass caught in the state on the Texas Parks & Wildlife website, Falcon has only one entry — No. 37 — the 15.63-pound lake record that local resident and fishing guide Tommy Law caught on January 7, 2011.
Lake Fork dominates the Texas big bass list, with both the state record of 18.18 pounds (caught in 1992) and the remainder of the top six, plus 13 of the top 20 and 33 of the top 50. The 28,000-acre Dallas water supply lake, impounded in 1980, definitely has the numbers to back up its reputation as the best trophy bass fishery in the U.S.
As far as the science to back up Falcon's reputation, Texas Parks & Wildlife district fisheries biologist Randy Myers might be the best source.
"The bass in Falcon are heftier, when you look at weight-to-length ratios," Myers said. "They're just a chunkier fish than those in other places. And they're in a tough environment to pull a fish out of. So you're dealing with strong fish in heavy cover."
If you want to hear some strong opinions backed up by experience on the lake, you need to visit with James Bendele at Lake Falcon Tackle in Zapata. Well, you need to visit with Bendele no matter what you're seeking, fishing related or not. He's a gold mine of good stories and strong opinions.
"Last year Fish Scale Taxidermy (in Waco) did 61 mounts over 11 pounds from Falcon," Bendele said. "Granted, they're one of the best, but that's still only one taxidermy shop."
Bendele grew up in LaCoste, Texas, west of San Antonio. He first came to Falcon with his father and an uncle when Bendele was six years old, in 1961.
"I just fell in love with this area," he said. "I'm old enough to remember when you could fill up your old pickup with $20 worth of gas, grab a case of beer and go fishing for the weekend. The fishing here has been absolutely fabulous."
It takes only a quick glance around Falcon Lake Tackle, owned by Bendele and his brother, Tom, to get an idea of how much big baits and heavy tackle have become the norm at Falcon.
"Big baits have always been in demand here," Bendele said. "I think it's because of the size of the bass in Falcon. I don't stock any spinnerbaits smaller than a half-ounce. And we have spinnerbaits up to 1-1/2 ounces.
"We sell (plastic) worms up to 14 inches long. I've got a buddy that makes a bait (like a Senko) that's 10 inches long and as thick as your thumb."
There are even a few 18-inch worms in the store. Need some 1-1/2 ounce Rat-L-Traps? Bendele has them.
Big, deep-diving crankbaits, like Strike King's 6XD, have considerable presence here. And Bendele claims to stock the largest selection anywhere of Norman DD22s. There's also a special rack of Falcon rods, and a wide selection of winch-rope-strong braided line.
Bendele prefers 65-pound test braid over 80-pound because of the feel. But he knows it's not always the answer when pulling bad-ass bass from the Falcon Lake jungle.
"I hooked one that broke brand new 65-pound braid on a straight pull," Bendele said. "I saw her twice. She was as big around as a trash can. She could have eaten the current lake record."
Falcon has become the ultimate test for bass fishing tackle – simple as that.
"Some of the hooks we'd like to use are bigger than the baits we have," said Kelly Jordon. "About a 7/0 is the biggest that's practical. I wish we had baits we could stick a 9/0 hook in the whole time out here.
"If you are truly targeting the big fish at Falcon, you can't go too big. It's almost like you have to re-gear."
Yep, re-gear, that's what Falcon Lake is all about now. To understand why, and to explain why Falcon Lake has only that single, 15.63-pound entry on the Texas Top 50 list, you must dig a little deeper into Texas bass fishing history.
Texas Bass History
In the 1950s Texas was in the midst of a 10-year drought and didn't have much water in reserve. The state has only one big natural lake — 25,000-acre Caddo Lake on the Texas-Louisiana border — and a bunch of smaller ones that were mostly old river channel bends that have been cut off over time.
Fueled by the need for water to supply both a growing population and increasing agricultural needs, several big impoundments were built after the drought. Falcon was one of the first with its completion in 1954. Sam Rayburn Reservoir was finished in 1965, followed by Toledo Bend (1967), Ray Hubbard (1968), Livingston (1969) and Amistad (1969). Later came Conroe (1973), Fork (1980), Choke Canyon (1982) and Ray Roberts (1987).
You can dam all the water you want, but that doesn't mean big bass will grow there — even in Texas. Without an assist from Florida, Texas bass fishing wouldn't be nearly as good as it is today.
Northern strain largemouth bass that are native to the state are genetically adapted to streams and don't grow very quickly. The first acknowledged state record largemouth of 13.5 pounds stood for 37 years before it was topped, according to TP&W records.
Florida strain largemouth were put in Texas waters beginning in 1972, and the state record has gradually increased to the current mark of 18.18. It's that combination of more lakes and Florida bass — two relatively recent developments — that has built the state's reputation as a big bass haven. Texas has always had a climate conducive to growing big bass. But only in the past 50 years has that combo of habitat and genetics been present to take advantage of the weather.
There's another factor at work in Falcon Lake's resurgence: a fluctuating water level in this arid environment. Zapata averages less than 20 inches of rainfall per year. Falcon Lake, also known as Falcon International Reservoir, is co-operatively managed by the U.S. and Mexican governments. Water demands have increased exponentially since the lake was built.
With the availability of water, native vegetation thrived around the lake shore. Mesquite thickets, huisache trees and other hardy desert species flourished, then followed the shoreline as it receded and receded and receded. By 2002, when Falcon reached a historic low of 54 feet below the 301.2-foot normal level, the vegetation had followed – unchecked — for over a decade.
Falcon Lake and Lake Amistad, located upstream on the Rio Grande, don't rely on local rainfall. With a good shower in the mountains bordering Mexico's Chihuahuan Desert to the west, the Rio Grande River can fill both lakes practically overnight. That's what happened in early July 2010, when Falcon rose to a record high of 309.31 feet above sea level.
"It was like the new lake syndrome," Bendele said. "We had three tremendous year-classes of fish after that. And the lake became a jungle. A lot of the creeks were just impenetrable."
The fish grew like never before in the suddenly perfect conditions: warm weather, flooded terrestrial habitat and abundant forage. Falcon Lake bass have an all-you-can-eat buffet that includes threadfin and gizzard shad, sunfish, crawfish and tilapia — lots and lots of tilapia, from popcorn-size to jumbo.
"When (TP&W biologists) do their electro-shocking, they'll get lots of 5- to 6-pound tilapia," Bendele said.
So, essentially, what you've got at Falcon Lake is Florida-strain largemouth bass living with iron bars protecting their doors and windows and no need to leave the house because home delivery of food is available 24/7/365. No wonder they don't take kindly to the idea of leaving.
"I don't know why, but these are the hardest-pulling fish you'll ever catch," Bendele said. "You stick a three-pounder in the trees, and you'll swear it was an eight-pounder.
"When you set the hook on a 13- or 14-pounder, you've got no control at all over that fish. Everything has to go right for you to get it in the boat."
Bendele's Other Passion
Right next to his love for bass fishing is James Bendele's passionate for preserving it. Nothing pisses him off more than hearing about a skin-mount, rather than a replica, being made from a Falcon Lake trophy bass.
He says there's simply no reason now, other than ignorance, for killing a big bass to have a skin mount made from it, when a photo, a tape measure and a replica will result in a better-looking, longer-lasting trophy, plus it will leave a big bass still swimming in Falcon, with a chance to grow bigger.
"Turn it loose, so your grandkids can get some of this," Bendele said.