Dangers can't keep fishermen from lake

ZAPATA, Texas — Coy Callison doesn't believe he's risking his life when he steers his speedboat into crystal-clear waters that straddle the Texas-Mexico border, hoping to hook a few monster bass in an area marred with drug violence.

His marriage might be a different story.

"My wife threw a fit with us coming down here, but the fishing's been so fantastic," said Callison, a Texas Tech University communications professor, as he put his boat into Falcon Lake just after dawn. "I'm almost getting a divorce, basically."

Anglers are again descending in droves on the dammed section of the Rio Grande where American jet-skier David Hartley was presumably chased and gunned down by Mexican pirates last fall — and where shootouts between Mexican soldiers and reputed drug runners have become frighteningly common in the eight months since.

Tourism plummeted after Hartley's Sept. 30 death, devastating Zapata and other shoreline Texas towns. But business has rebounded since January and only gotten stronger as a drought has given visitors access to once hard-to-reach shore areas teeming with bass, tilapia and other fish.

Falcon Lake borders portions of Mexico's Tamaulipas state, which is engulfed by a turf battle between the Gulf Cartel and the Zeta drug gang, both of which are fighting the Mexican military.

On May 8, Mexican marines patrolling their country's side of the lake discovered a staging area for smuggling marijuana into Texas by speedboat on a spit of land that becomes an island when the water is high. A gun battle ensued, killing one marine and 12 alleged Zeta gang members.

Many locals say such incidents are all too common since the Mexican navy recently stepped up patrols on its side of Falcon Lake. Zapata County Sheriff Sigifredo Gonzalez ticked off examples from that same week that weren't widely covered in the media, including a heavy gunfire battle on May 12 and a Mexican helicopter that shot a drug suspect three days later.

Those shootouts and Hartley's slaying were in Mexican waters, and violence so far has been contained to that country's side of bluish-green waters stretching 25 miles long and 3 miles across. But many fishing fanatics are heading to Mexico's part of the lake, anyway, saying the chance to reel in huge bass outweighs fears about a drug war that has killed more than 34,000 people in Mexico since 2006.

"Everyone says, 'Just stay out of Mexico.' But we go over there anyway, and it's no problem," said Levi Messer, a 26-year-old who recently drove 6.5 hours to hit Falcon Lake. "You might see a few less people than before, but there's still lots."