As I peered down the muddy, water-filled canyon that stretched out in both directions before me, I was filled with an anticipation and an anxiety that was unusual for me. I’ve caught big sharks and chased pelagic fish seven miles off the Texas coast from my kayak. But the opponent living below that muddy waterline was one that had both eluded me and, to be honest, scared me for well over a year. As I prepared to lower my kayak down the 25-foot cliff between me and the river, I reminded myself to keep my cool for the cameras.
Alligator gar have been terrorizing the inhabitants of central and east Texas rivers for over 100 million years, and they’ve remained relatively unchanged after all those years. To say they are well adapted to their environment is an understatement: they grow to a size of over eight feet in length, can weigh over 300 pounds, have a mouth like an alligator’s and get this: they can breathe out of water. That’s right: they have evolved to grow a lung that can breathe air for survival in situations where the river level drops to dangerous levels. They can survive in low oxygen conditions long enough for the river level to rise again. Let’s get one thing straight: these fish are true river monsters.
Well after seven trips over the past year with nothing but one “baby” gar (about 40 pounds) to show for it, I had all but given up hope on ever landing a sizeable specimen. Even the smaller one I caught 8 months prior to this trip had escaped my grasp before I could show it off to the cameras. These animals are slimy, strong, and are covered in armored scales that act as armor plating. Handle with care.
As luck would have it, I met a guy at ICAST that could help me turn my luck around with these fish. Bubba Bedre is a world-renowned alligator gar guide on the Trinity River in east Texas. Owner of Garzilla Alligator Gar Guide Service, Bubba has put clients from all over the world on monster alligator gar, including Jeremy Wade in an episode of River Monsters. If anybody could help me land one of these dinosaurs, Bubba was my best bet.
I lowered my kayak down the steep drop to my new friend’s boat. The river level was extremely high due to springtime flooding in North Texas, so the current was moving at an unusually high pace. With the water moving up to five or six knots in some areas, Bubba tells me there’s no way I’ll be able to cover the 20 mile stretch of river we need to hit in the kayak alone. Today, I have a river taxi. We load the Hobie Outback into his boat and fire up the Mercury.
As we cruise over miles of the murky waterway, I realize just how alone we are. There are no houses, no bridges, no sounds other than that of insects and birds. We are really off the beaten path now.
We get to the first “hole” as Bubba calls them (with an implied “honey” preceding it), and I drop in the kayak. I realize it’s going to be a long day having to continually drop this kayak in and raise it back out of the river all day. It’s loaded with too much gear: Railblaza camera booms, five GoPros, a Bison Coolers 25QT cooler full of fresh bait, my Accent Paddle Pro Edge Slider, my anchor, and a bilge pump I knew I was going to need (long story).
So after I wear myself out throwing this kayak full of gear all over the place, I’ll have to fight the current to get to my spot, then hopefully fight a 100-, 150-, maybe 300-pound fish while trying to dodge log jams as I get pulled around the swift-moving water. I definitely didn’t feel bad skipping the gym this day – I was about to get a workout.
After a year of waiting, I didn’t have to wait long on this day. Not thirty minutes into the day, one of the rods goes off. Now, these fish require a specialized tactic to set the hook. Because their mouths are made entirely of bone, getting a hook to penetrate their snout is next to impossible. This means you have to wait until the gar begins to swallow the bait. To make this a bit trickier, gar tend to grab a bait and then run with it – sometimes up to 200 yards – before stopping to swallow it. They’ve learned this tactic to prevent other gar from ripping the bait out of their jaws. To top it off, if they feel any pressure while running with the bait, they will drop it every time. This means we have to let these fish run up to 200 yards with the reel in free spool before setting the hook. Patience, in this case, truly is a virtue.
I dropped anchor and began to chase this fish downriver. I was careful to reel in the slack while ensuring not to put tension on the line, which was a challenging proposition while flying down the river at five miles per hour. Finally, after four minutes or so (it felt more like four months), the line stopped moving. This, Bubba told me, means the fish is beginning to swallow the bait. “Wait,” he says. “Wait until you see the line begin to creep back upriver.” Easier said than done. I waited two more grueling minutes while I pedaled against the current to stay in place, all the while telling Bubba the fish must have dropped it. “Just wait,” he reassures me. Sure enough, suddenly I watched the line begin to creep against the current. “NOW!” he yelled, startling me as my body broke from anxiety-induced paralysis. I reeled down until I felt the weight of the fish, then reared back and set the hook with a purpose.
“FISH ON!” I yelled as the fish exploded above the waterline. None of my planning over the past year truly prepared me for what came next.
The fish exploded with a force that was downright frightening. The line came taut again as the fish took off downriver - with the current at its back. My kayak immediately followed. I looked at the bank and was surprised by how fast it was flying past me. Between the current and this big fish pulling me, I estimate I was traveling about eight miles per hour.
I used the Hobie mirage drive and my rudder to navigate the numerous log jams, which I had been told these fish love to swim into when hooked. Before long I had the fish right under my kayak, but I knew it was not done. Pulling up on it, the fish’s back broke the surface and it reminded me of an alien spaceship. Hard, interlocking scales with points on each one covered the fish’s entire body. Pictures do not do these animals justice – this thing was intimidating.
I fought the fish for ten more minutes, constantly aware of where its snapping jaws were facing as it breached out of the water on several occasions. I’d compare the fight of these fish to that of a bass: erratic, strong, and fast. A bass that weighed a hundred pounds with the face of an alligator, that is.
Finally, I felt comfortable that this beast had been subdued. Then I had one of those “Now what?” moments. This fish weighed approximately one hundred pounds, and, in case I haven’t mentioned this yet, had the mouth of an alligator. There’s no way I could safely pull this thing up onto my lap while still flying downriver. I could easily fail to avoid a downed tree and end up in the water. I decided my best bet was to take the fish to the bank and land it there, but the banks were lined by mud that will suck you in like quicksand, often up to your waist. I was beginning to realize this river was just as formidable as this six foot long fish swimming beside my kayak. It seemed to be against me at every turn.
I spotted a section of the bank that wasn’t too steep across the river two hundred yards downriver. Note that I didn’t say “two hundred yards in front of me,” because I was facing backwards and pedaling quickly in an attempt to slow myself down.
I barely made it across the river in time and rammed my kayak onto the beach. I tried to get my arms around the fish, but it slipped out of my grasp and began slithering back into the river. I grabbed the rod and reeled her back in. As I grabbed her a second time, it was evident as she flexed from side-to-side just how powerful this animal was. I now stood in knee-deep mud, unable to move my legs, with her in my arms against my stomach. I realized I still did not truly have the upper hand. Her mouth gaped open, lined with rows of sharp teeth up to an inch long, and I realized if she went now she would likely draw blood.
I struggled to put her into my kayak while I freed my legs and sat down alongside her. As I mentioned, these fish can breathe air, so I didn’t feel as rushed to release her as I do with most fish. Still, after a few photos and some a few quick explanations about the species to the cameraman, I dropped her back into the shallow, muddy waters and waded into the river with her.
After just a few seconds, she made a powerful swipe of her tail (hitting my stomach in the process) and disappeared into the river.
It’s difficult to describe how I felt. Relief, exhaustion, and adrenaline washed over me. I felt victorious.
We would end up catching five more alligator gar ranging from 70 to 100 pounds. I failed to hit the 150-pound goal I had set for myself, but I was still content. These fish are a prehistoric and majestic part of the ecosystem, and after going toe-to-toe with them, I left with the utmost respect for these animals. This was an experience I will not soon forget.