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 loaded 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 bass that grow larger than 10 feet 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."
A stone's throw from Zapata's municipal boat ramp is a sign with red-and black-lettering proclaiming: "Warning: Crossing into Mexico Could Be Dangerous." Nearby, a smaller sign reminds boaters to report all suspicious activity, this one bearing the seals of the Texas attorney general's office and the U.S. Border Patrol.
Gonzalez erected both signs two months ago. "People can ignore them if they want," he said. "But we could potentially have a situation where someone goes to Mexico to fish and has a problem, and we can't go get them."
Hartley's wife Tiffany said her husband was shot in the head by Mexican pirates after the couple jet-skied past buoys marking the end of U.S. territory to visit a historic Mexican church. His body hasn't been recovered.
In the wake of that shooting, a national fishing tournament scrapped plans to come and two longtime fishing guides quit due to lack of business. Another guide, Jim Edwards, said of the 17 trips he had scheduled for last October, all but five canceled, and three of those only went ahead after he agreed to stay in Texas waters. Things got worse as the year drew to a close.
Paco Mendoza, president of the Zapata County Chamber of Commerce, said that while tourism has yet to fully recover, hotel occupancy rates for weekends, when Falcon Lake attracts the most anglers, are now up 30 to 40 percent since the doldrums following Hartley's shooting.
"A lot of people don't really realize how safe it is here until they actually come and see for themselves," Mendoza said. "We're working toward having our image repaired, but it's a slow process."
Edwards has recently fished within sight of the church the Hartleys were visiting. "The fishing is better than it ever has been," he said. "And that's bringing people back."
The owner of another guide service, Jim Behnken, said that since February, he's only had two days where he wasn't fully booked. He was with visitors from Kansas, fishing in Mexican territory the morning of Hartley's shooting. The outing went so well the group headed back to Mexican waters that same evening — despite what had happened.
"It's a very big lake, and if you don't go looking for trouble, you won't find it," Behnken said.
Speedy Collett is a lodge-owner and guide who had a brush with Mexican pirates even before Hartley's slaying. In April 2010, he was guiding anglers who were approached by armed men after they went ashore on the Mexican side of Falcon Lake to take pictures. The assailants took the memory card from the digital camera of one visitor and checked Collett's phone to ensure he hadn't called anyone running drugs in the area.
"When they figured out we weren't a threat, they let us go," he said. "They told us 'go fish and mind your own business.'"
That's what Collett's been doing ever since, and he said his lodge and guide schedule are full again.
"We're in recovery, but it's fragile," he said. "And if something else happens, we're dead."