Updated: Oct 25, 2022
Alligator Gar expedition from 2013
The 2013 Alligator Gar trip was a resounding success… but it certainly did not come without its challenges. After months of planning and preparation I must say the trip was everything I could have expected and hoped for. The Red is never easy, and really makes you work for your fish. Erin and I hit the road on June 3 at 0430 am for the 16 hour drive to my brother’s home in Oklahoma. Having nothing but time and miles, thoughts of giant fish are as motivational as they are a dragnet to a vehicle that simply can’t move quick enough.
We got into Oklahoma within reasonable time and spent the first day just visiting, consolidating gear, and fine tuning the game plan in terms of setting up camp, harvesting bait, and putting baits in the water ASAP. My brother lives less than 2 hours from the Red River, but the Oklahoma put in point is tedious and requires a long haul, way too long for three people, three people’s worth of gear, and one canoe! We opted for a longer drive for access to a put in point within close proximity to our intended campsite.
I was immediately relieved that the weather this trip was looking a little cooler. The 110-115 degree heat of 2012 was just too much. Because of all of the gear (probably TOO much) Travis had to shuttle our gear from put in point to camp site at 2 and a half round trips. Erin and I chose to walk a steep muddy bank to make more room for gear shuttling, but… thanks to Erin’s poor choice in outdoorsy shoes (umm… crocs) it took us a little longer than it should have thanks to some slips falls and tumbles!
Travis’s hammock tent was really put to the test this trip
The game plan was… Travis and I would dump gear, move to a calm section of river to set up a seine net targeting shad, and let Erin run the “buffalo station” as we have come to call it. For buffalo (and carp) we have pretty much stuck to creep pellets… they handle the current well without much drift or dissolve. We experimented briefly with some basic pack baits but the current moved them, the catfish picked them, and they proved to just require a little too much work.
Erin, who requires no assistance with rigging, baiting… anything, brought in her first buffalo pretty quickly while Travis and I got the Gator Gar equipment set up on the opposite bank. Her first buffalo was a real tank too… and provided us with a great quick source of bait. Travis and I also brought in a couple of nice gizzard shad with a hand tied net a friend of mine Oran Shea provided me with (check out OSnets.com… he does some great work!)
With a good initial source of bait in the cooler, we wasted no time setting our lines. We fished 4 rods at a time all set up on bite alarms. Basically, all 4 alarms are coordinated numerically… from left to right facing the river we went 1-4 and a handheld receiver would alert me to which rod was being played on a screen that indicated which numeric alarm was sounding. If all 4 went off simultaneously… the receiver would let me know that too. The alarms really serve as an essential tool when there is camp site tidying and other chores to be done while baits soak out of eye and ear shot.
The lines hit the water and I don’t think any more than an hour had passed before the first alarm started chirping. Travis and I have already been there… it was Erin’s go. She is no stranger to large fish, but Alligator Gar are simply in a class of their own. Erin allowed the fish to run with a cut shad for about 10 minutes, maybe more… just to ensure the fish would be properly hooked. Unfortunately, just as we were ready to engage the Gar, it dropped the bait… That was a good chunk of time wasted and just another great example of how these good fish toy with your emotions. We set out the scarcely damaged bait once more and no more than another hour passed before the same bait got picked up again. This time Erin decided she was going to dictate when the fish got hooked. I lost track of time but around the 10 minute mark again Erin decided the wait was over… She reeled down, pointing her rod straight at the general area we thought the fish was until the line went taught… and blasted the fish with a great hookset. The battle was on. Her fish headed upstream against the current hard and launched its self clear of the water and all three of us yelled like crazy, the fish was definitely over 100lb!
Erin facing down North America’s mightiest freshwater fish like a champ!
I am so ticked I did not get the best leap on film, but we got good action never the less… our main focus was just bringing in the fish though. Erin banked the fish well, and after a few failed attempts I secured a rope lasso around the fish and it was official! Erin had brought in a great fish, her biggest fish ever (so far!) Travis, who had been on the other side of the river doing basic camp maintenance, SWAM across the river to share in the awe of the fish up close, and to help us get some proper shots of the fish. Her Alligator Gar went unmeasured, but we estimated the fish to be around 6’5 115lb.
We got one or two more runs the first day which was a great sign…. one of which baited ME into a sit and wait game for a dropped bait. Nevertheless, Erin’s fish charged us with optimism as the sun set. Dark ominous clouds closed in on us as we sat around the grill and the camp fire recapping what was a successful first day. As daylight yielded to darkness, it became apparent that we were GOING to experience some weather… we had no clue.
Travis filled our stomachs with hamburgers and the all time classic hotpockets before bed. Warn out, we did not have much trouble falling asleep. At about 0230-0300 I woke up to howling winds and thunder on the horizon. We had a tarp rolled up behind the tent and I went ahead and stepped out to help prepare for a wet night. I wear contact lenses… and even when its NOT pitch black outside im practically blind without them. We had seen a few scorpions around the campsite earlier in the night so tip toeing around the tent barefooted and blind was giving me the creeps… I staked down the tarp and completely encased our tent to shelter us from the oncoming rain. I got back into the tent and promptly fell back asleep. I am not sure how much time passed before Erin and I were both awoken by ground shaking winds… that truly terrifying South Central plains wind… we weren't too far separated from some of the deadliest tornado’s in history and in the pitch black surrounded by trees there is a lot left to the imagination in those circumstances. Wind was soon supplemented and reinforced by torrential rain and I mean we are talking 60mph wind.
Travis… always seeking a challenge, had decided this trip would be a prime time to test out his new “hammock tent”… bad idea. Travis was all but thrown from the tent before submitting to the elements and forced to dive into our small ground tent. Our tarp had been torn from the ground and tossed somewhere into the woods and we simply had to endure. I could not help but envision some unseen tornado just on the other side of the woodline, or some sort of flash flood at the river not far below… and the idea was not far from reality, the Red river can be extremely violent and dangerous. We still had gear down there, including the canoe which was not tethered far from the waterline.
The lightening crashed frighteningly close to where we slept… and I am not a fan of lightening. Erin of course slept like a baby, Travis oooh’d and aaahhh’d over the spectacle… and I just plugged my ears. We woke up to a scene of chaos…
Erin left on the 2nd morning of the trip, she had only planned to stay for one day… it was not because of the weather or anything. Travis and I fueled up early with a good breakfast (Bacon/Hamburger sandwiches!). After that…. we re-assorted what was moved or damaged by the storms and started trying to catch bait. The river level had risen by several feet but thankfully the canoe had not been disturbed. There was an obvious obstacle to be faced, however. A great deal of timber had flooded into the river and we ran into issues with it early. Limbs, logs, and sticks of all sizes obstructed our trolling motor, and made using the net practically impossible. The current flow had increased and the debris gliding along the surface was a hazard to any line sitting in it. For hours we watched the water while we worked but the big roll of an Alligator Gar never seem to come. The fish had clearly been disturbed by the weather… but it was hard to tell if they had actually migrated elsewhere or were simply stationing themselves to the bottom.
The Smallmouth Buffalo seemed to LOVE the activity though… there were buffalo rolling absolutely everywhere and we could scarcely walk the shoreline without disturbing fish within mere feet of the bank.
The buffalo were happy.. and that made us happy. We harvested a few buffs for bait, and got atleast two solid runs on the bite alarms with Alligator Gar on day two that resulted in drops due to the lead line getting swallowed by debris. We also tried our hand at catching Longnose Gar on small chunks of buffalo too… we saw a few enormous longnose gar rolling, easily over 60 inches and probably over 40lb. We simply could not catch those either but Travis did manage to bring in a decent little Blue Catfish while we tried for the longnose.
By the end of Day 2 we were pretty discouraged and I really feared that the whole area had been shot by the storm. I had mapped out a plan B area prior to the trip some 6 miles down river that looked really promising… a sharp bend with a deep 20 foot hole, the sandbars on one side or the other would ideally be prime location to drop a few baits for big gar.
The second night in the tents was far more pleasant than the first. Skies as clear as they could possibly be and the remote stretches of Red River we love are so far separated from city lights you can really gaze upon the night sky and fully enjoy just how deep the stars reach.
On the third and final day Travis and I woke up, ate, and started packing. It was really a do or die situation because since day 1 we just hadn’t had the luck and neither of us had caught an Alligator Gar. We headed out risking a lot to try an area we simply knew nothing about… didn’t even know if it was truly accessible beyond posted signs. An hour drive later winding down old ranches, unmarked dirt roads, and through deep muddy water rutted up roads we reached the bend. The area looked great, but there was practically zero standing space along the banks… it was like a steep drop off from bank to water and that would have made access by canoe nearly impossible and banking a big fish no easier. We scanned the surface for nearly 20 minutes but only longnose came up. It was hard to feel like we may have tossed away our best chance at a trophy fish on a gamble… torn between some desire to fight it out and work a foreign area and the option to head all the way back to where we started only burned the last hours we had for the rest of the year to encounter one of these magnificent creatures. We ultimately decided to track all the way back to where we were.
We must’ve made it back to square one twice as fast as we left… this time we chose our gear sparingly. We grabbed our 4 rods, bite alarms, landing gear, bait, and cameras and made a quick run over to the bank we had been posted up on all along. We ignored buffalo today but I did drift some bait chunks in the meantime for longnose… they are just too big in this river to ignore. This trip they were stubborn but I did manage a nice 48 inch fish early.
It was already late afternoon and the sun was dropping. Baits soaked for an hour or two before one of the alarms started singing. This time, there was no debris in the water and we were practically on top of the rod as soon as the fish took line. I let the fish carry for about 10 minutes before engaging and everything felt right. The hookset was sturdy and the fish felt BIG. The fight went on for about 15 seconds before the line kicked back my way and went limp… another lost fish. With all we had endured leading up to this moment I couldn’t help but think that this was probably our last shot and all I had to show for it was a cheap ass bent treble hook.
We had no time to sit and mope… a new hook was attached to the leader and bait casted back out. Another hour passed and the exact same rod started singing as the sun had started to submerge below the tree line. This HAD to be it… there was no other option. I followed this fish for another 10 minutes before I put three days worth of frustration into a heaving hookset and again things felt sturdy… big fish!
I immediately loosened my drag upon a taught hookset to relieve pressure from what may have been another week hook and let the fish take drag. She was going nowhere this time… despite the headshakes, some exciting jumps and thrashes, we got the fish into the shallows and she just didn’t have it in her to fight back to the deeper water before Travis got the snare pole on around its head. As the cable synched tightly behind the fish’s massive pectoral fins I knew it was official and couldn’t believe that ONCE AGAIN we had our best luck in the last hours of the last day. It was dramatic, it was the story book ending to a fantastic trip. We snapped some great photos and video and sent the behemoth back on her way.