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Texas To Do List: Catch yourself a largemouth bass

Mike Leggett, Commentary

Mike Leggett

With three-eighths ounce of titanium weight on its nose, my watermelon Yum Dinger worm wiggles a rapid descent through 25 feet of cold, gray-green water, clunking against a rock in the middle of an ancient submerged forest haunted by ancient, jut-jawed monsters with bulging eyes and distended bellies.

The space age electronics in Keith Combs' Ranger bass boat show the old trees still standing along a bend in what used to be the Arroyo Salinillas . The trees, which once grew lush green on a ledge above the creek, now appear in the gloom as grainy jagged teeth jutting up from the moonscape belly of Falcon International Reservoir.

We've come to this place along the Mexico border on a painfully cold and rainy, steel-gray day in search of the most prized trophy fish in North America. There are more than 100 major lakes in Texas. At nearly 84,000 acres, this bulge in the Rio Grande is one of the largest.

Largemouth bass live here, often in great numbers, and they flourish, occasionally growing to lunker and trophy sizes of 10, 12, even 15 pounds or more. They are down there among the army of trunks.

After two tiny bumps along the bottom, something hits my lure, the energy runs up the 25-pound line through the tip of the rod and down six and a half feet of graphite to the butt. It translates there to a "tunk" feel that could mean something or nothing and is both thrilling and ominous for the mystery of it.

An involuntary "Unnhh" escapes my lips, and I quickly lower the rod tip to the surface, sweeping a couple of revolutions with the reel handle to remove slack in the line and set the 5/0 hook on a big fish.

I hear young Combs behind me saying he told us so, and Killis LaGrone, my friend of nearly 50 years, adding, "Already? I haven't even cast." The bass does a heavy rollover 40 feet from the boat, then bores toward the forest below.

I've already taken control of the fight and, with a thumb on the spool for drag, keep her coming toward the boat and the net, which Combs slides beneath her.

"Six pounds," Combs reads off the digital scale.

"That's a good start," Combs says, "but we'll catch some a whole lot bigger." He leans over the side and slides her back into the water. She disappears back into the school of fish from which we hope Old Big will come.

Old Big is important because catching a big old Texas largemouth bass is on my Texas To Do List.

We are within site of Nuevo Guerrero on the Mexican side of the reservoir and miles from Falcon State Park where we launched. The dam that creates this reservoir is five miles across.

This is familiar territory. Fifteen years ago, I was fishing here with another friend, Jim Cox, who hooked but was unable to land the largest bass I've ever seen in the water.

When the old sow gave up and allowed herself to be pulled to the surface, Cox, who died from cancer only two years later, laid eyes on the old girl and did something completely out of character. He yanked wildly on the rod, literally ripping the lure out of the fish's mouth.

Only seconds from being netted, the bass flipped a three-inch pectoral fin, righted herself and exploded through the surface. "Legs, I just panicked when I saw how big she was," Cox explained.

Now we are sitting more than a mile out on the lake, watching the Mexican town through fog and mist and pecking rain as the boat see-saws up and down on two-foot waves.

We're here for big fish, mainly because Killis wants to catch one. "Why don't we go to Falcon?" he'd asked a couple of weeks before, shortly after he retired. "I've never caught a 10-pound bass. That's one of my retirement goals, and I think Falcon might be the place to do it."

Catching big bass is difficult and many anglers never get the chance. For assistance, I searched out Keith Combs, a professional angler and guide. Combs is 34, has 18 top 10 finishes in pro fishing tournaments and has won $285,000. I find him living on Amistad Reservoir, upriver near Del Rio. He guides part of the year on Falcon, and he has a day open in February.

"You're going to love this spot I've got," he had said. "We caught two 11-pounders there yesterday, and I've caught 24 over 10 pounds since Thanksgiving."

It sounded like guide hyperbole to me, which is a nice way of saying some guides will blow smoke up your snowsuit.

But within half an hour of the first cast on Falcon, we'd caught half a dozen fish from six to more than eight pounds.

And the count kept climbing — 10 fish and then 12, and then 15 fish, all over five pounds. Our five largest fish weighed an astounding 42 pounds, a spectacular day for anyone and a career day for me in public water.

But no Old Big. Where was Old Big? We focused our efforts on deep holes.

Finally, fishing almost exactly over the spot where Jim Cox had lost that giant bass, LaGrone hooks something heavy. She jumps once 30 feet from the boat and that gets Combs' attention. "That's a 10-pound bass," he says, grabbing a net and scrambling to the rear casting platform.

LaGrone is mumbling to himself, "Come on, big 'un. Come on."

Combs sweeps the net under the big female and puts her on the digital scale. Killis reads it out loud: "Ten-twelve.

"I can't believe I caught a 10-pound fish," he says. And then he releases her as we have done all the others.

I didn't catch a 10-pound fish that day, but I caught two over eight pounds and at least two more over seven. It was worth the trip to see Killis catch that bass, and be able to check off one of the things I think all Texans should do.

mleggett@statesman.com