River of Tradition...Bass Fishing on the Rio Grande

The Rio Grande winds thru South Texas and northern Mexico on its final leg of a journey that began high in the mountains of Colorado and deep in the interior of our neighbor to the south. The Rio Bravo, as it is known in Mexico, forms the boundary between two countries, but it is also the life source that unites two cultures.

Nestled on a bluff overlooking the river, the residents of Rio Grande City have fished the waters for generations. The flag of Spain was planted along the banks some five centuries ago and long before that the river sustained the regions native inhabitants.

It's a breezy spring day as Rio Grande City residents Martin Garcia, Virgil Lopez and his son Olegario board a small aluminum skiff and head upstream from Chapeno toward Falcon Dam. The river is lined with lush vegetation. Towering hackberry and Rio Grande ash form a canopy along the banks. Scores of blooming huisache adorn the rivers edges with yellow-gold blooms permeating the air with sweet aroma.

"I've been fishing since I was little," says Lopez, "I've been on the river since my dad took me fishing, and then we started coming by ourselves here, fishing for bass and gar and all the things here in the river."

The little skiff is powered by a small outboard. With a full load of passengers and a strong headwind the going is slow. But the anglers are in no hurry, as it is only midday, and they have many hours to fish.

"My dad was blind, and he used to do a lot of gar fishing. We would go out to the river with my mom and all the cousins fishing for gar. He was a very good fisherman, he could just feel when they were on the line, and he used to catch some big gar."

It is a beautiful but treacherous stretch of river between Chapeno and Falcon Dam. The Rio Grande downstream from the dam is littered with boulders, some protruding just above the surface and others jumbled barely below.

Martin sits alertly on the bow, studying the choppy water. Without turning his back or averting his gaze from the river, he motions left or right for Virgil to steer away from the dangerous rocks.

"You need to know the river so you can go around rocks and not damage your boat," Martin explains. "You need a small boat, not a big boat."

With the spillway in sight, Martin motions for Virgil to stop, and soon their lures are splashing the water. Martin gets the action started with a spirited bass. The largemouth has struck hard, but Martin doesn't waste anytime boating the fish. "It's exciting. They pull hard, and the adrenalin gets going. They go under logs, rocks and get tangled up and break off," Martin says with a laugh.

Virgil makes a perfect cast just beneath overhanging branches along the shore, and a nice bass rises to the lure. Next, Olegario has one on. It might not be a lunker, but it doesn't take a big fish to put a big smile on the 10 year olds face. "My first fish! Whoo! Whoo," he says with a grin. "I just got excited when I felt that tug. It tugged real hard, even for a little fish. It was pretty strong."

Virgil helps his son carefully unhook the fish, and Olegario gently places the bass back in the river. For a moment, the fish doesn't move, and suddenly with a mighty splash belying its size, the bass disappears. Olegario looks up laughing with water glistening on his face. He has as much fun releasing fish as catching them. "Man, I think I am going to have some luck catching bigger fish now!"

"He likes to come fishing here, he wants to keep the tradition of the Lopez fishermen," Virgil says proudly. "He has the name of his grandpa, and he will probably be a good fisherman like his grandpa."

From its headwaters in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado to the Gulf of Mexico near Brownsville, the Rio Grande stretches for some 1,865 miles. It is the nation's third longest river and the 23 rd longest in the world. More than two million acres of farmland in Mexico and the United States are irrigated with water taken from the river, and millions of people on both sides depend on the life giving flow.

The World Wildlife Fund, the world's largest conservation group, recently listed the Rio Grande as one of its "Top 10 Rivers at Risk." Reports of the rivers overuse, pollution and other degradations are legion, but along the peaceful two or three mile reach between Chapeno and Falcon Dam the Rio Grande appears much like it was generations ago.

It is probably one of the cleanest stretches in the rivers Texas span. Much of the pollutants and sediments have settled out behind the dam, and the river has yet to run the gauntlet of towns lining its banks below the impoundment. The water being released is a gentle flow, and the rocks aerate it freshening the river even more.

"There is a lot of netting that goes on here, but we still catch big bass," Virgil says. The use of gill net is not allowed on the Texas side of the river, but netting is commonplace along the Mexican side, and commercial fishermen don't always limit their sets to Mexico's half of the river.

"You can't imagine how many fish are in the river," Garcia says. "Not even the guys from Mexico that put gill nets out can take all the fish."

As if to prove his point, Garcia tosses his lure into a favorite spot near the spillway and promptly reels in a trophy bass. "That's what we are talking about right there, big lunker!" Virgil says excitedly. The largemouth tops nine pounds, and while Martin weighs the fish, Virgil has his rod bent double by another perhaps even larger. These guys have caught ten pound plus ones here amidst the jumble of logs and rocks.

After several minutes of anxious rod bending, the fish breaks off and Virgil just smiles and readies his line for another cast. Changing locations, they being moving along the shadowy bank and boat several more bass. "I just like being on the river, and I bring my son every chance I get," Virgil says.

Young Olegario is kept busy releasing those that are undersized, which he accomplishes with a smile. "I mostly like fishing because I get to spend time with my dad and catch some fish to eat," he says. "My dad is a great cook!"

And if asked what it takes to be a good fisherman, he won't hesitate to tell you. "To be a good fisherman you have to have patience and be quiet and never give up."

And who knows, Olegario might just grow up to be as good a fisherman as his grandfather was.

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Copyright 2007 Richard Moore