Convergence: An Alligator Gar Journey
By David Graham: September 30, 2021
It must have been 7-8 years ago I came across the the video of an angler, knees firmly planted on the deck of a muddy kayak doing battle with an unknown beast. Uniquely positioned between the angler and the camera was the grainy, dare I say poor quality glimpse of a sun glared monster thrashing about - teeth agape - before disappearing out of frame.
That video depicted angler Josh Dolin (@haverods_willtravel) engaged in an epic war with an alligator gar. The brief image left enough to the imagination it almost demanded further investigation and 'clicks'. As fleeting as the video was - I recognized those muddied banks, and toothy jaws from anywhere. I had already embarked on several trips for this species myself, but this still occurred during a time where not many anglers were doing so by way of their own effort and expenses... without the service of a guide.
Collision Course - It was some time shortly thereafter that Josh and I struck up conversation online around the subject of alligator gar... asking for, and sharing experiences and tips - during the course of such organic relationship building we found common interest in the pursuit of freshwater oddities and big fish.
Over the last few years Josh and I have met up in the pursuit of various species from Virginia to Florida - eyeing northern snakeheads, bowfin, longnose gar, tarpon, snook, goliath grouper, and the whole spectrum of South Florida's exotics. Still, it was only appropriate that our course as anglers collided on the same muddy banks from which our friendship was spawned. We plotted course and planned a week long adventure chasing the mighty alligator gar on the Trinity River.
The Journey Begins -I headed to the airport with one bazooka tube full of rods and a heavy duty black trunk with roughly 50 pounds of gear... my equipment still baring the red dirt stains from gar trips of old - reminders that I dare not wash off out of the superstitious belief they may bring similar fortune. I flew in to Dallas from Fort Myers - a 3 hour layover gave ample time to ponder on what the week would have in store. If our previous trips together would serve as any indication - I should have packed a first aid kit. My final flight brought me to College Station where upon landing the plane made a quick turn towards the terminal allowing the full effect of the Texas sun to penetrate my window seat, an instant reminder of just how intense the Texas heat can be - the kind that cuts right through you.
No Time To Waste - When Josh pulled up, boat in tow, we skipped any excessive pleasantries or greetings - sharing an immediate singular focus on catching bait for the week. We left the airport and headed directly to the tailwaters of a nearby lake. To be an efficient gar angler demands one to also be a skilled carp or buffalo angler. Bait harvest is the first unavoidable obstacle to be faced at the start of every trip. The two of us deployed our respective methods for catching the carp and buffalo that live below the dam... corn, oats, range cubes, bread and more. We had a plan A, B, C and then some - and given the fact both of us had fished this spot in the past, we had reason to be optimistic about our chances.
Obstacle One - As luck would have it - we hit the water on what was probably the busiest day of the year... there were boats, canoes, kayaks and wade anglers as far as the eye could see. The water was unseasonably low, deprived of oxygen, and the fish with every reason to be afraid. As minutes turned to hours - our confidence waned... we must've fished 6 hours either catching tiny blue catfish, or nothing at all before Josh finally set solid on one nice common carp. Still, with the entire week ahead of us the day drew late and we simply did not have enough bait. We could not afford such infrequent luck. Faced with the tough reality that we might have to burn a second day or more catching bait rather than chasing gar - we decided to gamble on our sole baitfish and head down river... rationing out the carp between the two of us looking to gain back some optimism and energy with an alligator gar.
Gambled Fortune - We set up down river at one of the first sharp bends - a deeper pool just above a shallow shoal where we cut the engine and began scanning the surface for signs of life. Eventually the sound of gar 'rolling' travelled over the heat sheened surface of the river right into our ears - the chance encounter with a monster was at hand.
Wasting no time, we divided out chunks of carp between our respective tackle - that which we had developed through our own experiences - but convergent in their development and efficiency... As long and hard as the day was in collecting bait, our shift in momentum was swift and hard to believe. No sooner did I cast the first line and set the rod in its holder did the electronic bite alarm signal a run with its high pitch tones. The bait set on the bottom no more than 10 seconds before being picked up. After how long and tedious the bait catching process was I must admit the instant gratification here put me in a weird head space - disbelief maybe - after laughing about such fortune, I quickly hopped back onto the bow of Josh's boat and the games had officially begun.
Let The Emotional Games Begin - Painstaking is the process of securing an alligator gar. Like no other species, they toy with your emotions... the variables are so vast, that a fish which begins its lifespan scarcely longer than ones fingernail might end it significantly longer than ones entire body. The bite of the gar is subdued - carrying a bait sometimes upwards of 10 minutes they immediately diminish the narrative that they are a voracious killer that will quickly devour anything in its path... mental imagery perhaps consistent with the physical, but I digress. Rather, the alligator gar forces you to wait, when all of our experience as anglers pursuing virtually any other fish has conditioned our mind and bodies through muscle memory to strike at the point of contact. Here, that conditioning must be suppressed, and an angler might find himself alone with his thoughts. When 1 minute feels like a lifetime, 10 minutes is an eternity to ponder and internalize innumerable thoughts and emotions. After all - this fish could be 10 pounds, or 250... "has the fish run too long?" "has she not run long enough?" "is this even a gar at all?" "did I tie the right knot, and is my gear up to the task?".
The process of following an alligator gar is tranquil - but frightening in the realization of its potential... like the deactivating of a bomb - inanimate in its undisturbed form. After the emotional race was run, the fish was still there - and satisfied with the time exhausted I reeled down and engaged the fish. We came tight, solid to the first fish of the trip and a necessary ice breaker. When the gar broke surface it was no monster - but we were officially on the board, and after what we had gone through just to get a baitfish it was a good temporary escape from the reality that we still needed to catch more bait.
Fortune Snapped - That evening I managed to catch a couple more 'small fish'... interesting that in the freshwater realm we can consider a 40 pound fish as small. We ended the evening on a high - heading back to the boat ramp optimistic that our fortunes had turned in our favor. I hopped out of the boat and ran up the tattered and broken ramp to back the truck and trailer. Backing Josh's truck though I immediately noticed a strange 'grinding' noise - something was NOT right. This is not my vehicle, so I immediately hopped out and alerted Josh to the problem. Upon examination of the underside of the truck we observed parts and pieces of his front CV axle lying in the sand, we were in MAJOR trouble.
A severely damaged CV axle meant the vehicle was essentially inoperable... at this point, we were dead in the middle of nowhere, parked in pure sand on a steep slope in the middle of the night. Here, I feel, we had hit the proverbial fork in the road... that climactic point in our story where we'd be faced with the very real prospect of turning back and ending it all right there.
Life Line - Beautiful though is the nature of what we do as outdoorsmen... We share a common bond in the pursuit of 'game' that is deeply woven into our DNA. Inherent interest and instinctive nature to pursue an animal... instinct that at one time was the difference between living and starving. Today - that same interest still breathes and manifests itself, more strongly in some than others. If we exercise our passion for the outdoors selflessly, as stewards and ambassadors of that which we love, we might find ourselves in the company of others at the waters edge with whom we can share such common interest - to forge bonds and community with.
Josh demonstrated that ethos, and "Esprit De Corps" when our outlook was bleak - he called up a fellow angler, Bryan Thornton, who happened to live just 1 hour away. Here was a guy who lived more than halfway across the country that Josh had met by way of nothing more than the common interest in catching fish - agreeing to leave his home in the middle of the night to help a fellow angler in need. The embodiment of what a social community of anglers should be - not a secretive, conniving, self serving game of distrust and jealousy! Bryan was gracious enough to remove us from our grim circumstance that night, transporting Josh and I to a nearby hotel, and towing the boat back to the safety of his home.
Ingenuity in Motion - The next day we returned to the truck to assess the extent of the damage during daylight hours. Admittedly, I am not the most mechanically inclined... The nature of this problem made me virtually useless. The best I could do was not compound an already difficult situation by bitching and whining. Still, hours ticked away and we were no closer to catching bait. Josh and Bryan diagnosed the problem and what was needed for a DIY repair before heading into town to get the necessary tools and parts. I opted to stay with the truck and boat as this was not necessarily the kind of area you want to leave personal belongings. Scattered around the lot were stray animals, broken bottles, and discarded fishing waste. I observed a virtually destroyed cast-net lying mere feet from a dumpster someone had not the decency to carry the extra foot to properly dispose of.
With hours of potential downtime ahead of us - I gathered up the tattered cast-net, and some of the ample fishing line that was lying around the lot. The net was severely damaged - with about 80% of its circumference torn where the mesh connects with the weighted rope - and two main support cables snapped. I went to work diligently stitching the net back together and fusing the broken cables. After about an hour and a half of working on the net I finally had it done. With Josh and Bryan still knee deep in oil, grease, and sand - I headed to the shallows in search of carp and buffalo.
Back in Business - Walking the shallows I found schools of buffalo and carp stacked up behind nearly every downed tree, boulder, or other current break. I waded around looking for calm pockets holding fish - where the net could land fish efficiently out of the faster current that would just sweep it away. I made direct sight casts careful to avoid the same snags that claimed it from its original owner. After about another hour I had gathered nearly a weeks worth of buffalo - sometimes up to 4 buffalo in a single cast! I walked back up to the ramp with a stringer (which I also found lying around) of bait victoriously hoisted over my shoulder. I crested the hill just as Josh and Bryan were tightening the final nuts and bolts and wiping their hands clean, we were back in business!
This was a major victory during the most climactic point of our trip, where our success and failure dramatically hinged on whether we fixed the vehicle, and captured bait... we had completed both simultaneously. We shook hands with Bryan and he headed home - Josh and I decided to make one more run down that stretch of river with our new found bait. We set up on the same bend, where the night before Josh had emptied a large can of corn in hopes it would attract prospective bait. While waiting on a gar to bite, we rigged up a rod to catch bait. Josh, who had strung up a rig with corn, instantly hooked into something BIG. After a brief battle, he captured a grass carp at roughly 15 pounds, this was an entire day's worth of bait alone! We landed one more gar that night, and a second big grass carp to boot - securing the bait for the remainder of the week.
Subtle treats - The next day we headed north - away from the disastrous stretch of river where our trip was nearly derailed. We put in at a much more remote stretch of river, far from civilization. With a cooler full of bait we headed up river where a short distance later I observed real confirmation we were truly 'out there'. A big Texas whitetail buck was laid up on the river bank. The 10 pointer stuck around just long enough for us to take a few photos before it leapt up the steep embankment and disappeared into the woodline. The encounter served as a reminder that sometimes you need to decompress... take your eyes OFF the prize, and simply enjoy that which is around you. Had we been so consumed with the fishing - we may have missed such an unplanned treat.
Giant On Deck - We set up on a 90 degree bend in the river - just above a deep hole where we had observed several decent fish rolling. With lines in the water and a renewed sense of confidence - the distant tones of a bite alarm signaled the run of a gar. At this stage of the trip Josh had not caught a gar yet. It did not matter 'whos rod' it was on, it was his turn.
We positioned the boat closely behind the float, watching the characteristic pattern of a running gar. The fish headed down river, settled in a calm spot briefly before heading back against the current. At the point we were satisfied the fish had committed to the bait, Josh reeled down - connecting solid before hitting her hard with the hookset. We were on! The fish dug hard, refusing to give leeway at the torque of the rod, indicative of a quality sized fish. Eventually the gar rose to the surface, violently revealing the serpentine profile of a triple digit fish. We were tied to our first one over the hundred pound mark!
We worked the fish over to the muddy shallows where we got her subdued. There is unfortunately no opportune area to really 'bank' a gar on the Trinity river... but the danger is all part of the allure. Wading in to waste deep mud, Josh gambled on his luck to physically restrain a fish that, if she so decided to thrash, he would have zero mobility to avoid. Still, she remained compliant enough for us to get some really awesome photos and video. I think the two of us share a similar interest and vision in really capturing a moment via photos and video. As traveling anglers, we just don't know how often we will be able to do this again, and would want to leave little room for regret when looking upon the photos down the road.
Monsters In The Dark - At this stage, the mission was essentially complete - the two of us had successfully teamed up to catch a trophy sized alligator gar, and yet.. there was the unspoken acknowledgement looming that I had not yet eclipsed the 100 pound mark. After capturing another 50-60 pound class fish the sun began to set. Daylight slowly yielded to darkness. Soon darkness consumed us and there is a deep black to the remote Texas sky so far removed from the interference of city lights. Our stubborn resistance to the stillness of the night was disrupted suddenly once again by the echos of a triggered bite alarm somewhere unseen.
We rolled up to the rod, live line still slowly creeping out under tow by the unknown fish. As uncertain as the experience can be facing the zero visibility surface of the water under direct sunlight... it is especially nerve racking under the veil of night. We followed the fish, virtually blind, for the better part of 10 minutes. When the time was right I engaged the fish - h0okset immediately met with equal resistance. We were tied to another big fish... after a brief dig, the fish rose - we directed our headlamps towards the rising line where the dark surface of the water erupted with the visual of jaws agape, thrashing about violently. Such a sight illuminated and isolated in the dark is hard to describe - the kind of visual that triggers a primal fear equally terrifying and exciting... like the paid anxiety of a horror movie.
We brought the fish in and again we eclipsed the 100 pound mark. We were BOTH on the board with more days left to fish! Here we had shared elation in one another's accomplishments, this was all done in the spirit of teamwork where no victory was had single handedly. We cranked up the motor amped up to head back to the ramp on a high note.
'Plagued' With Misfortune - There was though, a progressive issue of decreased speed and throttle throughout the day. Josh's 60hp outboard was struggling to reach more than 15 mph and it became clear we were facing yet another mechanical issue. To make matters worse - we limped back to the ramp through what may have been the most intense fly hatch I have ever seen. What started as small groups of white flies, turned into thick clouds, and eventually an overwhelming storm of insects. So bad were the bugs that breathing through an open mouth - or even opening one's eyes was nearly impossible. There were bugs flying into every opening they could possibly find, down shirts, into pantlegs and entangled in our beards. The thousands of carcasses coagulated with our muddied clothes - blanketing all surfaces like a medieval tar and feathering. Between the new mechanical issue and the condition of the boat, it was clear we wouldn't be able to start the next day early.
At this point there was a very clear pattern to our trip - dramatic highs and lows, and we had to be very resolute to remain as optimistic as possible with such extreme swings in fortune. It appeared no good fish would come without 'payment'. We spent the next day clearing the intake of Josh's outboard of fishing line we had sucked up somewhere along the way, and cleaning out the bugs and mud from the boat at a local carwash.
Snagging New Luck - Day 4 we had cleared the bugs, and gotten the outboard in to optimum condition. With the increased speed and thrust we could now expand our search - traveling deeper into the more remote stretches of the Trinity River. We settled on a very sharp bend in the river adjacent to a deep hole. There is something awe inspiring about the potential for destruction possessed by the Trinity River. Its embankments are scarred with reminders of just how powerful it can become - with steep muddy bluffs showing where land was literally ripped away, effortlessly uprooting entire trees during flood stages. The deeper bends in the rivers are the depository for debris.. leaving the fishable bottom a virtual bone yard of old trees and snags. The bites were coming slow - with a lot of pick ups and drops. We managed one decent fish within the first few hours of the day until finally a solid pickup. As Josh shifted the boat into forward to head towards the rod, the shift linkage in the outboard snapped. Yet another mechanical setback, right as we needed to retrieve a running line. By the time we made it to the rod, the fish had already made its way deep into the submerged limbs of a downed tree.
Realizing there was no way we were getting the fish free of the snag, we cut the line to allow it to pull through on the other side. This would allow us to find the float as it resurfaced, and retie. Unfortunately, the float never came up. We spent the better part of the next 2 hours running up and down river searching for the float to no avail. An awful feeling to lose a fish in the worst imaginable way... leaving it at the peril of becoming entangled and killed by the trailing line.
Realizing the area we were in was simply too littered with underwater debris - we headed far down river to a new stretch. We settled on a promising looking 90 degree bend in the river late in the evening. After setting out all lines we patiently waited for the tranquility of what was around us to be broken by the tones of a bite alarm. The silence was broken momentarily by the ringing of my cell phone - my wife. "wouldn't now be the time to get a bite" I joked... But the thought became reality, and mid conversation our words were interrupted by a very determined run. The fish was moving hard and fast, enough so that it pulled the rod out of the holder and was sliding across the mud! I quickly thanked my wife for her good luck and we rushed to the rod.
Violence Rises - Positioning ourselves over the top of the fish we slowly followed her, line vertically so as to give us a greater chance at avoiding underwater snags. When I set the hook it was difficult to tell the size of the fish - either she was running towards us, or not yet aware of the danger. Our uncertainty was short lived though, as the fish rapidly ascended to the surface and rocketed out of the water with a violent headshake. The most iconic characteristic of the alligator gar's fight is its propensity to leave the water in battle.. even fish over 7 feet will take to the air and most are good for atleast 1 or 2 dramatic tailwalks. This fish was exploding out of the water time and time again! At some point though, the fished just.... changed. She suddenly dug deep into the hole we were fishing in - maybe some 25 feet down and simply would not budge. The line went 100% taut, straight below the boat and my stomach dropped... was I the victim of a submerged tree AGAIN!? The question spun in my head as self doubt and negativity crept in. Bubbles began rising to the surface and I thought for sure this was the result of the sunken tree disturbing the silty bottom... but these weren't those tiny gassy trapped bubbles. They were big, deep bubbles. It occurred to me that the fish was 'emptying the tanks'!
Bag of Tricks - The Alligator gar is a bimodal breather, meaning it is equipped with a unique swim bladder that can serve as a primitive lung. A survival adaptation that allows the fish to 'gulp' air from the surface in conditions of depleted oxygen.. giving the gar an edge over other fish that may become slow and lethargic under similar conditions. This feature is also how they regulate their buoyancy, almost like a scaly submarine. In this case, the fish had emptied all of its stored oxygen and was now at virtually zero buoyancy… I was trying to lift 100% of its bodyweight from the bottom. Josh got into position with the lasso - and I went lockdown drag at the risk of breaking my line or bent hooks I heaved the fish as hard as I could to the surface. Josh, risking it all, stared down the gun barrel at the risk of a possible jump as the fish rose to the surface vertically, tooth and mouth first.
We finally got the fish secured with the lasso and worked her over to the muddied banks, another man sized giant - my biggest of the trip!
While we were excited to get yet another huge gar, by this point I think the emotional ups and downs had really taken a toll... it was hard to really FEEL anything. There had been such dramatic shifts from potential trip ending issues, to the conquering of lifetime fish. We entered the final day satisfied, but eager to use our final hours productively. Most of the day was spent just enjoying that which was around us - filming and photographing the subtleties of the Texas wildlife around.
Redemption and Victory - By this stage, our bait was getting older - and despite misconception, alligator gar do NOT like stinky bait. As we headed up river on the final day Josh caught a glimpse of something bobbing along the surface of the water, it was our lost float from the day before! We had miraculously come across the fish we had to cut off the day before, and it was still tied up. We quickly, and clumsily, secured the line to a rod with a uni-knot, having nearly dropped the rod overboard in the process and once again we were buttoned up. The fish was quickly subdued, maybe in the 80 pound range, but it was a big win to get retribution, and save the fish.
For the rest of the day the bites came very slow, with a lot of drops. The alarms seldom ringing for more than 10 seconds. Eventually though we got what would become the final strong run of our trip - as Josh took the lead and manned the rod. We came tight on the fish - this one being less eager to jump and more inclined to put its shoulders down and dig the entire fight. Eventually breaking surface Josh had landed yet another trophy alligator gar over triple digits. A fine specimen to end the trip on!
Let these be my final thoughts - a rallying call to the American angler. Now is the time that we rally behind that which is our heavyweight champion. The largest freshwater fish unique only to our country - an animal that has predated colonialism by some 150 million years. We need to stop, and wrap our minds around the reality of that number - the true scope of a fish that has held established residency in our waters long before today's most popular game animals ever hit the first rung of the evolutionary ladder. We are so fortunate that such creatures still roam the earth. So where are you, adventurous anglers? The time is now to channel the same enthusiasm had at lesser species towards the mightiest predator in our waters.