I have to admit, I cringed a little when I first read this assignment. It centers on a controversial topic where the subject matter sometimes gets so badly twisted or blown out of proportion by the media or misinformed individuals that things sound a whole lot worse than they really are.
Indeed, some bad and unfortunate things have gone down along the Texas/Mexico border over the years. It often happens in “hot” areas located in close proximity to small border towns. In these areas warring drug cartels sometimes square off in heated turf battles that usually end in bloodshed.
Although it doesn’t happen very often, American anglers and hunters have gotten into trouble on Mexican soil or water more than once. I know several of them personally.
Two were victims of on-the-water robberies on the Mexico side of Falcon Lake in 2010. The others were held at gunpoint, beaten and antagonized for several hours by men with guns and knives. This happened in 2005 after they unknowingly walked into trouble at a cantina in small town down the road from Sugar Lake, a bass-rich reservoir just 15 miles across border in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas.
None of these guys were actually looking for trouble when it found them. Instead, some of them admittedly let their guard down and ventured into places they shouldn’t have. Others were simply victims of being in the wrong place at the right time.
I’ve heard it said that the chances of falling into harm’s way in Mexico are no greater than in a big metropolitan city or suburb. Considering the escalating crime rates in this country, coupled with the ongoing threat of folks strapping bombs to themselves, I can’t help but agree. There are places in just about every town in the US where you just don’t go, especially if you’re alone.
I’ve made more than a dozen bass fishing trips to heavy-hitting Mexico lakes like El Salto, Bacarrac, Guerrero, Comedero, Mateos, Huites, Sugar and Oviachic over the years. As a result, I am occasionally asked whether I think it’s safe to make the trip.
The answer is always the same. It’s strictly a personal decision, I never have a problem making provided I am traveling with a group of well-mannered people. It needs to be under the direction of a reputable outfitter who knows the ropes. He also needs to be in good standing with locals and government officials on the other side of the border.
Something else I always take into consideration when heading to border lakes is the “mood” on the opposite side of the line. Would I have taken a rod and reel to a border lake such as Sugar or El Cuchillo during the height of the 2010-11 border wars?—probably not.
Would I go now? —probably yes, if I felt comfortable about the set-up.
Naturally, opinions differ depending on whom you talk to. Plenty of guys have way more experience fishing and hunting in Mexico than I do. I recently caught up with a few of them and asked them to share some thoughts and safety tips on fishing/hunting along the border.
Ray Hanselman is a veteran fishing/hunting guide from Del Rio who guided deer and dove hunters in Mexico for 15 years. He has been guiding on Lake Amistad for 23 years, and he has no problem heading south of the border to fish or hunt.
“Probably 80 percent of my time fishing on Amistad has been spent in Mexico and I’ve never had an issue or heard of anybody else having an issue,” Hanselman said. “Not one time have I seen anything that looked remotely suspicious.”
Hanselman advises researching the area you plan to visit and checking government travel bulletins for any heightened alerts. If you see or hear something that makes you skeptical about going, it might be wise to stay home.
“If you are worried about it all the time,” he said, “you aren’t going to have a good time anyway. If you do go, it’s always best to go with a group of people. Tend to your own business and stay at the lodge. It’s also a good idea to stay out of the bars and leave the night life to somebody else.”
Like Hanselman, Charlie Haralson has lived along the in border his entire life and has crossed over to hunt and fish dozens of times. But not all of those trips have turned out rosy.
During the mid-2000s, Haralson was part of a group who went somewhere they shouldn’t have near Sugar Lake and endured a bad experience that none of them will soon forget. He learned a valuable lesson that day that he always relates to anyone contemplating a trip across the border.
“Go fish and hunt, stay at the lodge and have a big time,” he said. “But whatever you do don’t go to town. I’ve been back to Sugar Lake several times and haven’t had any problems. You should always go in a group with somebody who has a history down there, has a good relationship with the people and knows do’s and don’ts. You should never attempt to go alone and always travel during the daytime—never at night.”
Haralson added that it’s never a good idea to carry large sums of money. You should also make sure you have all the proper paperwork, including a passport and registration papers for your vehicle and boat.
“You also want to make sure your vehicle and boat are ‘clean,’ meaning no old bullets, brass or firearms,” Haralson said. “It’s also a good idea to carry plenty of snacks, potato chips, bottled water and cases of soda to give to the local people or law enforcement officers should you get stopped along the way for some reason. Stuff we take for granted they don’t have over there. Being courteous goes a long way with those folks. If you’ve got a bad feeling about something, chances are you better not do it.”
Falcon Lake Tackle owner James Bendele has never been one to pull any punches when asked for his opinion on any topic. Not surprisingly, he got straight to the point when asked if he thinks it is safe to fish and hunt along the border.
“Do I think is safe for me personally—absolutely,” Bendele said. “Do I think it is safe for a guy traveling from Dallas with two kids who are scared of their own shadow? —maybe not. We’ve got thousands of man hours on Falcon the last few years and have never had a problem. I fish Sugar Lake all the time and I’ve been to El Cuchillo and never had a problem.
“Do I occasionally see things that I don’t like or things that look suspicious, yes without a doubt. But it doesn’t really bother me personally. It’s a different country over there. Going into Mexico isn’t for everybody. If somebody has got reservations about going, it’s probably best that they stay on the Texas side.”
Col. Game Warden Craig Hunter is the director of law enforcement with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. He has extensive experience policing the border and plenty of inside information about what goes on down there.
As a law enforcement veteran of 42 years, Hunter currently sees no problem wetting a hook or hunting along the Texas/Mexico border so long as you stay on the Texas side and stay alert to your surroundings.
“We have no immediate safety concerns over our citizens hunting and fishing along the border,” Hunter said in an April 2016 e-mail. “I am referring to the US side of the border. We recommend using common sense and caution. Do not approach any person suspected of any illegal activity. If boating or fishing on border lakes, let someone know your plans.”
Hunter was more apprehensive about giving his blessing in regard to crossing the border to hunt or fish. “We have had some concerns in the past,” he said.
“Ultimately, it will be up to the individual person to determine if it’s worth the risk. To me personally, it’s not. If a person chooses to go, I would get detailed logistics and specifically ask about personal safety.”
—story by Matt Williams