I consider myself to be a pretty good bass fisherman and from time to time, I even get lucky enough to win a tournament. But learning to fish in New Mexico left me totally unprepared for the conditions at Amistad Reservoir. As I sit here looking at two feet of snow in my front yard, pondering everything I’ve read about fishing Amistad, catching big Florida strain bass, and dealing with hydrilla, I have concluded that somebody needs to take a shot at a strategy for this awesome fishery. It is possibly the best fishery in the United States and yet the lake can be very intimidating and stubborn for the average fisherman. When a fisherman hits the right pattern, limits that average five pounds or more are common. But looking at tournament results, there are many more limits that average two pounds. So what is the big difference in averages? That is the point of this article. Let me take my best guess at why local experts and top professionals can produce these tremendous stringers while the average weekend fisherman struggle to find a single large bass. If you have a better explanation, I am all ears!
Amistad Reservoir is BIG even by Texas standards. It is almost 100 miles from the upper reaches of the Pecos River (upper left) to the upper reaches of the Devils River (upper right). However, the main portion of the lake is the Rio Grande river impoundment. Even the Rio Grande River from the dam to the Pecos is almost 30 miles and about 10 miles of that are across open water where wind and unmarked underwater humps can make the journey to the “narrows” treacherous any time of the year. Additional information about the lake is available at http://wildtexas.com/texas-parks/amistad-national-recreation-area
Basic Tournament Strategy
The only way to approach this big lake successfully is to eliminate as much water as you can before you get on the water. Then narrow down your search area to balance the time you have to spend searching with the seasonal and weather conditions. If you are going to spend a week or two on the lake and weather will be favorable, you can tackle a whole lot more of the lake than the weekend warrior like me that has one or two days to pre-fish before a tournament. First, familiarize yourself with this lake. Spend some time looking at maps, aerial and satellite photos and topographical maps if you can find them. I’ll give you a big bonus here. Check out this Del Rio weather station website at http://weather.gladstonefamily.net/site/KDRT
The free site gives you quick access to maps and photos with the ability to pinpoint GPS coordinates. Just scroll north on the map until you see the lake and then spend some time looking at the different images. Study the difference between the topo map, aerial photographs taken when the lake was down about 40 feet and the satellite images that vary from full pool level on the east end to twenty feet down on the Mexican side. You will see from images of the lake that it is dominated by the deep river channels and feeder channels called “drains”. There is nothing flat about this lake.
I highly suggest that if you don’t already have a GPS unit, get one. This lake is too big and much of the best structure is too far off shore to use landmarks. Even a cheap handheld unit will work if you are willing to spend the time to enter the waypoints and keep a Park Service map handy with the waypoints marked on the map. Comparison of the National Park Service map, electronic topo maps, and aerial photographs show that the topo maps are adequate, but not complete. There are a lot of small channels, points, roadbeds, and submerged tank dams that don’t show on the maps. However, the maps are adequate for locating prime structure. With a little work, you can add details to the maps and mark your own waypoints for later reference. If you have a Lowrance GPS, they have a free map download that takes all the guesswork out of it. Some of the other electronic maps don’t even show the Mexican waters. Another critical piece of equipment is a good depth finder. A decent flasher on the front is best because you can use it to quickly find and track the grass bed edges.
I you are going down there to fish a major tournament, you need to mentally prepare yourself to fish for the big fish. A five pound average may not even get you in the money at this lake! You must be willing to prepare, commit and take some chances if you are going to win a tournament at Amistad. You have to be willing to give up fishing everything and focus, focus, focus. So what do you focus on? Find the right structure, cover, correct bait and big fish in that order. Then be able and willing to adjust depending on the weather and the fish. So here are some strategies.
1) Think BIG
Tournament anglers that have been programmed to target and catch two-pound fish will have trouble on this lake if they don’t adjust. Most of the year, you can catch a limit every day. On a good day you can catch several limits. But if you want to win a tournament, you have to target the big fish. There are some decent smallmouth and northern strain largemouth bass in the lake and river channels but the Florida strain bass are what this lake is all about. I’m not an expert on the Florida strain, but my early experience is that these bass prefer the main lake structure and the grass. I’ll say more about the grass later. There are plenty of stories from locals of catching hundreds of two-pound fish a day under the high (railroad) bridge up the Pecos river and in Seminole Canyon but my experience is that the number fish over five pounds drops off whenever the river channels narrow to less than about a half mile wide. This happens north of the Devils River Marina, and past mile marker 30 on the Rio Grande. Florida strain bass prefer the clear water, hydrilla and baitfish of the main lake. If you can take this leap of faith, then you can eliminate many miles of river channels. That means you can save a lot of hours and gas without hurting your chances of missing the honey hole and focus on locating big bass structure. Thinking big will also narrow your choices of structure, cover, tackle and bait.
2) Focus first on structure
If you believe the big bass theories by Buck Perry, John Hope, Bill Murphy ( http://www.amazon.com/Pursuit-Giant-Bass-Bill-Murphy/dp/0963312006 ) you will agree that you need to know where the best channels, points, flats and other key structure are and have a way to find then when you are on the water. Murphy makes a clear distinction between structure and cover. Structure is any ground feature under the water such as a channel, point, or flat. Cover is vegetation, rockpiles, brushpiles or trees on the structure. You need to locate areas where you have two or more structures that create a good place for big bass. This will usually be the intersection of two channels or “drains” that create a steep bank that is close to deep water. At Amistad this is often the intersection of feeder drains with the river channel. If you can find places where these create narrow ridges or points, it is even better. However, there is one catch! If the point or ridge is too rocky or the wrong depth to support hydrilla, it isn’t as likely to hold big bass except maybe during the winter before the surface temperature reaches 55 degrees.
3) Find the cover (hydrilla and trees)
Amistad has several types of water vegetation as well as submerged hardwood trees, mesquite and other brush. The dominant feature most of the year is hydrilla. If you haven’t fished hydrilla, get ready for a shock. My experience is that the bigger fish will be in the hydrilla if the water is above 55 degrees and the grass is healthy. This can happen most of the year and the fish can anywhere from 25 feet deep during the summer to right under the mat during the fall. Other vegetation includes milfoil and duckweed but my experience is that these don’t hold the big fish as well as hydrilla. Study the pictures of these plants carefully so you can tell the difference on the water.
Healthy grass is important. If the hydrilla is turning brown, there is a good chance that it is consuming more oxygen than it is producing. Oxygen deficient grass beds will not hold fish for very long. Dredging the grass with a deep diving crankbait is a good way to pull up samples for inspection while you are fishing. Locating the grass beds can be very difficult during the early spring if you haven’t found them before. Locating them in windy, overcast, conditions can be very frustrating. Learn how to “feel” for the grass with a heavy jig. I’ve even gone as far as throwing a snagging (weighted) treble hook just to hook the grass and pull up some for inspection. Another good tool for the exploration is an underwater camera. It is sometimes useful to study a productive area to understand why one part of a hydrilla bed is better than another. Be careful not to get carried away and spend too much time over-analyzing an area. As one local told me “this isn’t rocket science – find the drains with grass nearby and start fishing the right baits”.
There are also a lot of submerged trees and brush in some areas of the lake. Finding both submerged trees and hydrilla together is much better than just one type of cover. Studying the satellite photos of the Devils River area on Google Earth or at the KDRT website you can actually see the submerged trees along the channel. This river channel also has hydrilla growing out to the river channel. Unfortunately, the Google Earth images are not as good for most of the lake so it takes some time on the water to find the other areas where you can find these combinations.
3) Big baits catch big fish
Except during the spawn, when Senkos, tubes and lizards can dominate tournaments, catching big fish in and around hydrilla usually means throwing 1 oz. jigs, deep-diving crankbaits or Carolina-rigged plastics. These baits are local favorites at Amistad both pre-spawn and post-spawn. A split shot or Carolina rigged worm, watermelon superfluke or 6 inch Senko can also be deadly around submerged hardwood from 30 to 50 feet deep just when the water begins to warm in February. Another February tactic is SLOW rolling a 1 oz. spinnerbait or dragging either a wacky-rigged trickworm or Senko across the deep flats and around throw deep trees. When fishing the hydrilla, it seems you should drag the bait when the grass is emerging in pre-spawn and switch to a more vertical presentation from June through September.
CRANKS-The Bill Norman DD-22 crankbaits on 10 pound fluorocarbon line and a 7 foot fiberglass rod is a good choice. Green, brown and bluegill patterns are usually given the credit in tournament reports. There are red-ear sunfish and Tilapia in the lake and they have orange bellies and green backs. Most locals prefer a crankbait that will get down 15 to 20 feet deep with loud, dull rattles. Some anglers modify the baits or use vintage baits like the Berkley Frenzy Magnum Diver because of their loud rattle and ability to dive quickly. One of the bonuses of fishing a crankbait at Amistad is the schooling behavior of the big bass. It is fairly common to hear of a “rake” where several big fish are caught within seconds by keeping several rods rigged and a second bait in the water anytime there is a fish on. As soon as a big fish is hooked, the other person casts in around the hooked fish. When they hook up, the first fish is landed and another rod is picked up and cast into the action. My experience has been that this is most likely to happen early in the morning, but it may be just as effective any time the big fish turn on. One thing about Amistad is that if you catch a good fish, mark the spot and keep fishing it. There is usually more than one big fish when you catch one.
JIGS-Oldham jigs or similar high quality 1 oz. or heavier jigs with rattles in a watermelon or brown color are the favorites for flipping the hydrilla. These are thrown on 60 to 80 pound spectra braid with a stout flipping rod. Locals prefer using “Stealth” braid that is smoother and doesn’t make as much noise when pulled against the hydrilla. If you haven’t tried braid in hydrilla, you are really missing out. Unlike monofilament, the braid actually cuts the hydrilla instead of balling up on the line. The sensitivity and ability to horse the fish out of the grass is exceptional. It is much better to feel, hook and catch the fish than to let it break off monofilament to die later wrapped up in a bush. The bite is usually a reaction strike so it is important to pay attention to the line. If the bait doesn’t fall right, set the hook. Sometimes the fish will be suspended right under the mat instead of sitting on the bottom. They will hit the bait on the way down and it will never hit the bottom until they spit it out. After a couple of lifts without a bite, move the jig to a new spot. This is not a slow fishing technique! Cover the hydrilla quickly and efficiently, working the areas closest to the structure and deep water first. That is where the big ones should be. Oldham and others suggest fishing the hydrilla beds on the outside, in pockets and near inside edges until the fish tell you where they are located. Then try to refine the location within the grass. Remember to pay attention to where you get bit and learn as much as you can from every bite.
PLASTICS- I intentionally did not say “worms”. Flipping the hydrilla with a plastic is a process of elimination. First eliminate the baits you don’t have confidence fishing. When the fish are active, most plastics baits presented properly will draw a strike but you have to be able to fish it with extreme concentration and confidence. Big is better though and if you are going to fish a worm, you should make it as big as you have confidence fishing. It is not uncommon to use a 12″ worm or lizard, double-wide beaver, or some other magnum creature bait with a 1 oz. tungsten weight and heavy 5/0 or bigger offset hook on braided line. Color isn’t important as long as it is watermelon or some other green base color. Color shouldn’t matter that much, but so many of the tournaments and fishing reports from Amistad prove watermelon red is the fish’s favorite color most of the time. Start there and experiment with lighter colors on sunny days and darker colors on overcast days. I haven’t had anyone show me a crayfish from this hydrilla but my guess is that they have green and red tones most of the year.
One side note on plastics, I have heard from a couple of locals that a backup plan for dead periods and early spring is to have a dropshot or splitshot rig to fish those 30-45 ft. edges and trees during pre-spawn.
When fishing the outside edges of the hydrilla, you can have great success with a 6-inch or bigger Senko or superfluke in a variety of colors. A medium sized swivel or small splitshot about 18 inches above the bait will help maintain contact with the emerging grass. The secret to fishing this way seems to be fishing the bait SLOW. This is a great bait for the person in the back of the boat. I’ve even heard of several big fish being caught this way while the fisherman is having a sandwich.
4) Plan ahead
At Amistad somebody always complains at weigh-in that they couldn’t fish there spots because of the wind. If they had just paid attention to the forecast, they would have prepared a backup strategy that included some protected areas. Amistad gets a lot of wind and a southwest wind over 15 miles per hour can make the main body unsafe. Another factor that I wasn’t prepared for was the spring tournament pressure. Even though the lake is huge, even it can be impacted by the multiple, large tournaments during the spring. This is very important during the spawn as several days of pressure can either remove the bigger fish or pressure them to hold off in deeper water. If you are thinking you are going to save a bedded fish for another day, don’t count on it if you have a hundred other anglers pounding the shorelines.
Always follow the rules
For first timers, get ready for license shock. In addition to a Texas license and National Park fees you will need a Mexican fishing license and boat permit (available two places between the lake and Del Rio) if you are going to fish the south side of the Rio Grande portion of the lake. There is plenty of good fishing on the U.S. side but three of the largest areas (Diablo, Zorro and Caballo) and some of the best fishing is on the Mexican side. You can plan on paying about $50 for each annual license. Don’t even think about fishing Mexico without a license! They play for keeps like keeping your boat and tackle. But I have never had any problems with the authorities or the locals. Just follow the rules.
There are a few locals that win or place high in most of the big tournaments on Amistad. Most of the time, you will find them throwing a heavy jig, deep-diving crankbait or a pegged, Texas rigged creature bait in the grass. At the end of the day, you can count on them coming in with big fish. Some of the local guides that don’t fish many tournaments also have a good handle on the lake. For those that can afford it, a guided fishing trip with a reputable guide can save a lot of frustration and instantly improve productivity. If you decide to hire a guide, check out their references to make sure they know the lake. They should be able to show you lots of photos of the big bass they and their clients have caught lately. Make the most of the trip by asking them to teach you how to fish the grass and explain what makes the spots better than other places. They will probably take you to community holes but learning what makes these spots good will help you locate other places when you are back looking at maps and exploring new areas.
I hope this provides at least a starting point for someone headed to Amistad and I hope those that have had success on the lake will either report back on whether this was any help or harm. I’d sure hate to be providing bad advice. Thanks to those that have already provided feedback and suggestions. Good Fishing!
Take this with a grain of salt. The following patterns are based on basic information from other lakes that have hydrilla and comparison to my experience and Amistad tournament and posted fishing reports. Feel free to critique or correct me.
Spring – Pre-spawn Late January-February (50F-60F)
The bass are in pre-spawn and spawning conditions. Main lake ridges and humps will be producing best before the fish move in to spawn. Northwest pockets will warm quicker and fish will move into these warmer pockets first. Carolina rigs, jigs & pig, and deep crankbaits will all be productive. On cloudy days use darker colors, on clear days use brighter colors. If you locate one fish, there will probably be more around.
Spawn -Late February – April (60F-70F)
The bass spawn at Amistad from the first full moon after mid-February if the water warms to 60 degrees. The fish here spawn as deep as 20 feet because of the clear water. Main lake ridges and humps will also be producing big fish as the fish move in to spawn. The males will move into the shallows first making the beds and the females will come in later. Once the female drops her eggs the male will move back onto the bed and guard the nest. The female bass will hold in these areas to regain their strength before they move into deeper water and emerging hydrilla (10-20ft.) during the spawn, typical sight-fishing baits and techniques will produce but some of the larger fish will bed in the bottom of drains amongst bushes and scattered grass beds. Stealth is very important to catch the larger fish. Long cast to light-colored spots (beds) with a Senko can be deadly for big bass. Northwest pockets will warm quicker and fish will move into these areas such as Evans Creek and the north end of Castle Creek.
Summer – Post Spawn and Summer Pattern (70F-85F)
The first part of this quarter, the bass will be in a post spawn pattern and will be coming off the beds. The bite will be slow and the bass will be lethargic immediately after the spawn. Start in 10-15 ft of water along the channel points closets to the spawning areas. When the grass starts showing up, jigs, Senkos and large worms will work best. Early morning and late evening throw buzz baits and top water plugs over and next to the grass close to deep water. Deep diving crankbaits and soft plastics worked slowly will produce on the outside edges of emerging grass. As water continues to warm the bass will move into their deeper (20-25ft.) holes along the river channel, drains, creeks and staying in or close to hydrilla grass beds. Deep diving crank baits (DD-22) in shad or bream colors, Carolina or Texas rigged soft plastics in green and reds will be producing. However, heavy jigs and Texas rigged plastics fished in hydrilla near deep water may work best.
Fall – September – Early December (75F-60F)
As the water temperature starts to drop and the days become shorter the baitfish will start moving into the coves and pockets. The bass will start moving from their summer haunts following the shad, feeding heavy in anticipation of winter. Work the points and bends in the creek channels with crank baits and soft plastics. Any brush along these areas will usually hold some fish. Look for schooling bass. Traps, shallow diving crank baits, top water plugs (especially Spooks and other walking baits) and buzzbaits will all be productive. Also fish the edges of grass that drop off into deep water with jigs and large plastics. Pay attention to the health of the grass as unhealthy grass will not produce as well. If you are lucky enough to find matted hydrilla, throw the grass frog and hang on!
Winter – Late December – Early February (60F-50F)
Early winter the bass will be holding along the river channel, on long main lake points and bends in deep- water drains and creeks. 3/4 to 1 oz. Pig and jig or 3/4 to 1 oz spinner baits slow rolled near breaks will be most productive. You need to fish very slowly. The bass will be holding close to cover. Towards the end of January and into February (55F) , the larger bass will start going into a pre-spawn pattern. They will start staging off the points of the creeks leading into the spawning flats or start moving into the trees and brush. Spinner baits, traps, deep cranks and jigs worked in the creek points will be most productive.