In Pursuit of Trinity River Seven-Footers

 

When I lit off for Texas in October, I had no idea what the story was supposed to be. To get the research travel grant from my university, I explained that my investigation on “the changing gar-scape on the Trinity River” would examine the effects of the new state laws for alligator gar. Meaning I intended to evaluate the management plans on this fishery now that commercial fishing and bowhunting had been reduced. But as I told my pal Minnow Bucket―who was just as psyched to catch a big-ass gator gar―my real goal was a seven-footer.

We were in my 1999 Jeep Laredo towing my bat-finned runabout. Everything that could’ve gone wrong already had. That’s why we were winding through a rutted farm road in the middle of roadkill-nowhere, detoured by construction and poorly marked roads. The sun was going down, we still needed to buy fishing licenses and groceries, but worst of all, we were in a dry county.

Alligator gar in tavern

A supposed nine-foot alligator gar at Schindler’s Tavern in New Hamburg, Missouri.
Photo by Mark Spitzer.

At least I had sponsorship, though. My friend the wildlife writer Catfish Sutton had set me up with Penn Rod and Reels, who had sent two brand new heavy-duty combos: a mongo 330GT bait-caster on a seven-foot Ugly Stik, and a golden 750SSm spinfisher on an equally tough Slammer pole designed for hauling deap-sea dino-fish up from the depths of hell. Both of these were equipped with 100-pound woven test. I also had support from Daiichi Hooks and Tackle, who had sent hundreds of bucks worth of gear, mostly gynormous circle hooks.

So it wasn’t just Minnow Bucket and Hollywood gone fishing: it was us plus expectations from my university and two corporate sugar daddies who had invested in the idea of another garbook, which didn’t even have a publisher yet. Whatever the case, the sun was setting, the pressure was on, and there was no booze in sight.

Still, we made it to the Walmart in Athens and got our licenses, two steaks, some cans of chili, potatoes to fry, Gatorade, etc., then shot on over to Caney City. The canned beer there was a huge disappointment, but they had some bottled Dogfish Head IPAs. I bought a six-pack of that and some gin and tonic, and Minnow Bucket got a case of Heinekin and bottle of tequila. We also got five bags of ice.

It was dusk when we hit the river, took off upstream, and made it to the sandbar I’d discovered three years back. It was on a bend of the Trinity and the 25-five-foot hole in front of it was roiling with six- and seven-foot gar. That’s what I’d seen when I came up to fish with Jeremy Wade, then went off on my own. Now, however, nothing was rising, nothing was rolling, and the sandbar I’d been dreaming about camping on was covered by a foot of mudge (a cross betwixt sludge and mud) that sucked our shoes right off our feet, got all over everything, and promised to be the bane of our existence for the next three gar-mucking days.

Nevertheless, we started in on the beer.

 

Before taking off, I had emailed David Buckmeier at Texas Parks and Wildlife asking for his perspective on how the gator gar populations in the Trinity were faring since the new harvesting regulations had been passed in 2009. Buckmeier was in charge of all things gar in Texas, so I figured he’d know―and he did, replying that “the public’s opinion of alligator gar seems to be changing toward conservation.”

He also attached a study titled “Alligator Gar Movement and Macrohabitat Use in the Lower Trinity River, Texas.” Granted, we were on the upper spectrum of that river, but this report by Buckmeier, Nathan G. Smith and Daniel J. Daugherty was highly relevant to where we going and what we were doing.

To break it down, the study explained how the researchers had used acoustic telemetry to study effects of flow on alligator gar. In essence, they had documented what Minnow Bucket and I suspected was the case in Arkansas: that alligator gar “moved into tributaries and inundated floodplains during large flood pulses”―which accounts for why we’d hardly seen any full-grown adults in the Garhole over the last few drought-stricken winters.

Seven-foot alligator gar

A seven-foot alligator gar shot with bow and arrow in a tributary of the Arkansas River.
Photographer unknown.

As for migration, the study noted that “research to date . . . suggests that although alligator gar have the potential for long distance migrations, linear home ranges might be relatively small”―like less than 25 miles. This was what Ed Kluender told me regarding gar he tracked in Arkansas, which never ventured more than 15 miles from their wintering hole.

The fish for Buckmeier’s study “were collected using rod-and-reel, jug lines . . . large-mesh . . . [and] heavy-duty, multifilament gillnets.” A cordless drill was then used to attach ultrasonic transmitters with 14 months of battery life that corresponded to eight submersible underwater receivers (SURs) that detected fish and recorded data. They had some other SUR stations out there, but they got vandalized.

One interesting finding was that “[d]etections of tagged alligator gar at SUR stations near deep pools where fish were observed . . . tended to be highest during the night.” Minnow Bucket and I had been fishing for gator gar all summer, and had noticed an increase in hits an hour after the sun went down. Most previous studies note that alligator gar feed primarily in the morning, so I’d thought it was unusual to experience such vigorous nocturnal activity. This study, however, confirmed that those other studies were wrong. This is exactly what Minnow Bucket and I had speculated was the case, sitting out there, drinking beers. Or, to put it in other terms, researching gar “Toad Suck style.”

 

Imay be obsessed by gar, but there ain’t nobody more gung ho for gar than Minnow Bucket. He’s also a better fisherman than me, which often results with him getting gar and me getting squat. This caused me some consternation at the beginning of the summer (because I’m supposed to be the “gar guy”), but after a few months I made my peace with the fact that he was hooking them and I wasn’t.

Getting to this point involved two major steps. The first was redefining my objective, which was to get an Arkansas gator gar before the summer was over. The main reason I felt the pull to do this was because I felt I owed it to my sponsors to bag one with the gear they supplied. But stuff came up and I wasn’t able to get out on the river as much as I wanted to. Rebuilding my rotted-out transom took weeks, then weeks more finding and sealing the microscopic leaks. It was also the hottest summer on record, with the heat index topping 110 for two months straight. So in August I decided to give myself a break and resign myself to the fact that I caught my dream gar a few years back, so didn’t have to prove anything to anyone.

Besides, there’s no shame in assisting. That’s what I did when Minnow Bucket hooked a 43-incher on a sandbar above Cadron Creek. When he horsed it in, I ran out and blocked its run back into the river. That gar then decided to shoot along the shore in just a few inches of water, but I raced alongside it, and when it turned to try and ditch me, I dove down in front of it, scooped it up, hugged it to my chest, then carried it up onto the beach. It weighed 18 pounds, a beautiful healthy juvenile. Catch and release, of course.

27-pound alligator gar

A 27-pound alligator gar caught by Minnow Bucket in the Arkansas River.
Photo by Ben Damgaard.

My point being: assisting Minnow Bucket with a gator gar for our own research wasn’t much different than assisting the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in sampling and telemetry. Because that’s who I am: I’m an assister, whose assistance comes in many forms. The most important form being typing these words right here, right now, to entertain and educate for the purpose of propagation. And it works. My research got noticed by Animal Planet, NatGeo followed, the book came out, and word got out that gar don’t maim and kill, that they’re vital to ecosystem stability, and the big ones need our help. And because of this increased awareness, gator gar are better off. That’s what I keep telling myself―to the point that I actually believe myself. For the most part.

The second rationale for not getting bummed out at the fact that Minnow Bucket catches more gar than me is that I’ve learned a lot from him. And the main thing I’ve learned is that what works on the Trinity doesn’t work on the Arkansas. For years I tried giant hunks of buffalo and whole drum on heavy-duty rods and reels with shark-sized treble hooks but hardly ever got a bite. Minnow Bucket, on the other hand, would catch sunfish to use as live bait. He’d cast them out on lighter weight catfish rods with smaller semi-circle hooks (i.e., size 6/0 to 12/0 shiner hooks and wide gap octopus hooks), and he got a maddening amount of runs over the summer. Sitting there in our fishing chairs, we’d be just about to give up when suddenly we’d hear a clack-clack-clack arise from a bait-clicker. It was always one of Minnow Bucket’s rods, and nine out of ten times we’d wait it out to the point that the gar would either drop the bait or it’d get off right before he got it to shore. But sometimes he’d bring one in: a longnose, a shortnose, and once in a while, an economy-sized gator gar.

At first I was pissed―that Minnow Bucket was getting all this action and I wasn’t. Sometimes I was even secretly glad when a gar dropped his bait and he’d throw his hands over his face and howl his lament to the stars above. It didn’t make me feel the way I wanted to feel, though, to see myself snickering at my buddy’s misfortune, so I knew I had to change my attitude. The way I did this was through the if-you-can’t-beat-‘em-join-‘em approach: I decided to use bream like him. I even bought a similar Abu Garcia Ambassadeur 6600 RCX reel and equipped it with 50-pound braided line. But did I get more hits after that? Not really―but at least I felt like less of a dick.

Minnow Bucket and I often discussed the merits of sunfish vs. big minnows. For one thing, any type of gar would bite on a sunny, which expanded our probabilities of catching something. Minnow Bucket’s theory was that there’s a lot less competition in the Arkansas River, compared to the Trinity. In the Arkansas, the big ones are less concentrated, so therefore less desperate for resources. Plus, there’s a lot more sunfish in the Arkansas, which is pretty murky, but not as muddy as the Trinity. Hence, you get a higher concentration of carp, buffalo, shad, suckers, and drum in Texas, because these fish—unlike sunnies—don’t require gravel beds to spawn. The upshot of his theory being: predators eat what’s most plentiful in their environments.

I had a different theory: that when the main populations of Arkansas gator gar got wiped out in the ‘50s, they were basically overfished out of the rivers—with rough fish as bait. So maybe the holdout-gars that didn’t get caught were those that preferred sunfish over big minnows. And maybe their spawn, and the generations that followed and eventually repopulated the system, had a genetic preference for bream.

Minnow Bucket and gar

Minnow Bucket with an alligator gar caught on the Trinity River.
Photo by Mark Spitzer.

My wife argued that this was ridiculous; that a species can’t just change its traits in a few generations. But I countered that it wasn’t just a few generations. I suggested that millions of years of evolution in the region might’ve developed a taste for sunfish in certain strains of gator gar, especially those in clearer water, where sunfish tend to swim. Like maybe after the big river gar got fished out, the lake-locked gar and those in the deltas of mountain streams got back into the rivers and brought their numbers up.

That’s all speculation, though, and it might be that both Minnow Bucket and I are right. Perhaps both of our theories worked together with other factors to make sunfish preferable for gar in the Arkansas River. But one thing’s for sure: Minnow Bucket caught two good juveniles in a year, and neither of us have caught anything on big old slaps of meat.

Still, there’s another thing I learned from Minnow Bucket: the utility of the Carolina rig―a concept I never knew of before. Basically, there’s a weight that sits on the bottom with a hole going through it, and the fishing line goes through that hole. So when a fish takes line out, it can run for hundreds of yards with no resistance whatsoever.

Anyway, I still feel a bit of competition when it comes to garfishing with Minnow Bucket, but for the most part I feel a kinship in what we quest: prehistoric monster-fish. That’s what we’ve been fishing for, and that’s what we’re on the Trinity for, linked through the Brotherhood of the Gar. And as long as he keeps reeling ‘em in, I’ll be more than glad to assist.

 

Or so I thought.

After setting up camp, we broke out the bait: 75 pounds of carp, buffalo, and drum on ice, compliments of Fishman. Then we were in the dark, kicking back on canvas chairs, digesting two greasy steaks grilled on the campfire. And, of course, we were enjoying a libation or two. Maybe three. Maybe four.

By the time maybe five or maybe six came around, the half-moon had lit up the hole with a ghostly luminescence. The mosquitoes weren’t too bad, and Minnow Bucket had his “Mexican wormline” in the water. I don’t know why we called it that, but it’s a light-weight pole for catching bait, with a one-ounce weight on the end and four small hooks a yard apart. Minnow Bucket sometimes describes this set-up as “a trotline on a stick.”

Anyhow, we kicked back and started talking smack. Like usual, I was getting on his case for bringing thrice as many poles as me and taking up space in the boat. I had two rods stuck in the sand (one with a worm, one with a two-pound chunk of fish) and he was maintaining six, so kept running back and forth to reel in and cast out again. Eventually, he caught a small blue cat on the Mexican wormline and threw that out as bait.

Then, sometime around maybe seven or maybe eight drinks, I was down to one pole and he was only using three when we heard a bait-clicker start to click. It wasn’t a long, steady, heading-out-to-deep-water click; it was more like a clickety-clickety-pause-pause click—which meant a catfish.

It didn’t take Minnow Bucket long to haul it in, all eely ribbed and kicking up a fuss. Too lazy to rise from my chair, I watched him pull it up on the sand, then stagger off in search of a stringer.

Hollywood and Minnow Bucket with gar and catfish

Hollywood with a three and a half-foot longnose gar and Minnow Bucket with a 6.6-pound catfish.
Photo by Rob Mauldin.

“Looks like a six-pound flatty,” Minnow Bucket slurred, meaning a flathead cat. The next day, though, we found out it was a 14-pound blue with an ugly white splotch on its head. It was also a cannibal, since he’d caught it on that smaller cat.

After that, Minnow Bucket fell down once or twice (a tradition which, according to him, signals a successful night), then trudged off to his tent. Meanwhile, I passed out in my chair, wrapped up in my sleeping bag, pole extending from my lap.

From that point on, the night was a blur. Every 20 minutes or so one of our clickers began clicking. If I wasn’t jumping up and groggily releasing line, then waiting for a suspected gar to make its second run, Minnow Bucket was lurching from his tent and doing the same. We couldn’t tell if half these runs were the wonky currents of the hole or actual fish messing with us, but they felt like gar—definitely.

Minnow Bucket had a few small pieces of buffalo out and I had half a gou (my preferred word for freshwater drum). Whereas I was betting on the big boys, Minnow Bucket was going for anything from a medium cat on up—so of course he kept getting more hits than me.

It got to the point that I kept waking every time his bait-clicker clicked. But those fish, they just kept dropping the bait. So around three in the morning, I took my pole up to my tent and crashed out. Still, every half-hour, Minnow Bucket would blast from his flaps and battle a phantom fish. And all the while he was doing this, he would narrate what was going on, blow by blow.

For example: “It’s a runner!” he’d yell. “It’s taking it, it’s taking it! Yeah, it’s definitely on! It’s spooling me, it’s spooling me! Guess I better set it. Okay, okay, I’m gonna set it… here goes!” A second would pass, then: “DAMN! That badboy got off! What a rip off! You Mofo! Why you gotta play me like that? I demand my money back!”

So after his eighth or ninth fight of the night, I wasn’t about to haul my sorry ass out of bed. But the thing was, there came a point when he actually had a fish on.

“Hollywood!” he yelled. “Are you sleeping?”

“I’m trying to!” I snapped.

“I could really use some help!”

I decided not to reply. Instead, I just lay there listening to the splashathon going on.

“It’s a big bastard!” Minnow Bucket shouted. “Come to papa!”

But that big bastard didn’t want to come to papa. It kept on slapping and taking out line, his drag screeching urgently.

Finally, I got up—but not to help my pal. I got up to see the fish.

The sandbar was shining with a weird fluorescence when I crawled out of the tent. He had the gar along the sand, parallel to the shore, and I could see it in the moonglow: a serpentine five-footer rolling in a wave of its own creation―like it was wrapped in a skin of water. I even saw it smiling inside that crystalline tube. It was a strange, sudden, eerie sight, and in less than a second—SNAP!

“It Broke The Fuggin’ Hook!” Minnow Bucket cried.

I stood there for a second, no reply, then stumbled back into the tent as the swearing rose into the sky. Something about “Knob-Slobbing!” and “Dob-Gobbling!” but those were just the adjectives. Something about the hugest fish he ever could’ve landed on rod and reel. Something about “Thanks for the help, bro!”

Hollywood and Minnow Bucket wrangle a gar

Hollywood and Minnow Bucket wrangle a three and a half-foot alligator gar near Toad Suck, Arkansas.
Photo by Tim Thornes.

Right before breakfast, though, Minnow Bucket got another hit, and we didn’t even hear it make a run. I simply looked over from the fire, saw Minnow Bucket bringing it in, and a minute later a small silver gator gar came splashing in.

This time I jumped up for the assist, leapt into the Trinity, pinned its head to the sand, got both hands around its girth and carried it up on shore. It was a three-footer, weighing 13 pounds. And even though I was glad for my friend, the score was clear to both of us: Minnow Bucket 3, Hollywood 0.

All morning long, they were out in that hole—six-footers, seven-footers, maybe even eight-footers, rolling up a storm. All morning long, they just kept porpoising, as Buckmeier’s words replayed in my head: “the public’s opinion of alligator gar seems to be changing toward conservation.”

This made me think of Bubba, the guide Jeremy Wade had hired for the “Alligator Gar” episode of River Monsters. When I first met Bubba, he actually threatened me, telling me he’d throw me out of his truck if I got all PETA on his ass. Or something like that.

Bubba ran this bowhunting outfit called Garzilla, in which he’d take trophy bowhunters out on his airboat to shoot the big ones. Bubba had claimed there were enough mongo gar in the system to spare, and he let his disdain be known for the less-than-masculine practice of fishing with rod and reel. Still, he condescended to try it out and actually tossed some bait in the water. And when Jeremy hooked that six-foot-eight lunker that they didn’t even show on the show, then landed it, then let it go, Bubba wasn’t so skeptical.

A year later, Bubba changed the focus of his business. He no longer took bowhunters out, he only fished with rod and reel, and he always practiced catch and release. Why? Because he knew the supply wasn’t as plentiful as he had claimed, and that if he planned to continue making a living off gar, then he had to do his part to preserve them.

A year after that, I saw an article on GoFishn.com titled “Texas Drought on Alligator Gar,” with a photo of what looked like the cracked terrain of the Sahara Desert with a mudhole in it. And in that mudhole, there were forty or fifty log-looking gator gars waiting to die in the sludgy soup. That picture had been taken by Bubba, and he’d written the caption under it.

To paraphrase, he explained that this place used to be a lake, but because of a month of 110-degree weather, it had shrunken into a shallow swillhole. He also wrote about how that water was so dang mucky that the gar couldn’t even breathe it, so kept raising their heads for swigs of air. Bubba, however, contacted Texas Parks and Wildlife, and they went and rescued those fish.

Good for you, Bubba! But better yet, good for the gar.

 

By one o’clock, it was ninety degrees and we knew they wouldn’t be biting till after dark. Still, that didn’t stop us. We went upstream and tried some spots, getting roasted by the sun. I had two beers and Minnow Bucket had ten or twelve. When late-afternoon rolled around, we were both back at camp, baked by the heat index, which was somewhere around 100 degrees.

Both of us then took a swim with alligator gars as large as us, chilling out in the cool of the hole. After that, I tooled on over to the other side and crashed out in the shade, fishing poles propped in my lap. Minnow Bucket did the same in a camp chair on the sandbar.

I napped out for 20 minutes but awoke when Minnow Bucket yelled, “Hey Hollywood, check out the snake!”

Mark Spitzer with gar

Mark Spitzer and a six and a half-foot alligator gar caught on the Trinity River, Texas.
Photo by Eric Tumminia.

It was swimming right between us, downstream, with no concern for the apex predators hunkering right under it. Probably because it was a rattlesnake: bright gold, four feet long, with a checkery pattern on its back. That snake rode high, more out of the water than your standard copperhead or moccasin, just winding along like it didn’t have a care in the world.

In fact, it made a B-line for Minnow Bucket, then pulled up on the shore ten yards downstream from him.

“It’s a timber rattler!” Minnow Bucket shouted.

I figured it was attracted to the deadfall behind the sandbar, which was no doubt filled with mice and voles and random rodii. And that rattlesnake, it didn’t give a crap about Minnow Bucket being there. It just flicked its tongue and stared at him while he broke out his camera. Then, when Minnow Bucket went running toward the snake, it didn’t just stand its ground, it charged straight toward Minnow Bucket, letting him know whose turf this was.

Minnow Bucket stopped short, and so did the snake. They faced off, just a few yards from each other, and that rattler didn’t even coil up or shake its tail when Minnow Bucket got all up in its grille. He shot a bunch of pictures of it, and then it slithered on.

Later that night, we had another wildlife encounter, this time with wild pigs. We heard them in the dark, splashing and squealing and snorting up a storm, but we couldn’t see a thing. They came clamoring right over to our camp, so Minnow Bucket grabbed his gun. I didn’t know he’d brought one along, but there he was waving it in the air: a chromy, blunt .45.

I was shining my spotlight on the bank, where I saw what looked like the silhouette of an oval-shaped basketball scurrying toward a pile of brush. I figured it was a piglet, but couldn’t tell for sure.

As for fishing, we didn’t catch jack that night. There were a couple runs, but that was it. I passed out in the camp chair again, and Minnow Bucket repeated the antics of the night before—jumping up and battling gar, in and out of his tent all night. I even fought a few myself. Still, there were a lot less hits.

By morning, it was overcast and colder out. At one point, something large pulled down a Gator Ade bottle I was using as a bobber to suspend a chunk of drum. Then three minutes later, it popped up fifty yards away in the eddy, exploding with a plasticy “KRACK!” But overall, the gar were less active, and we had to put on our jackets.

Minnow Bucket broke out his smart phone and saw a storm heading in. Then he went to weather.com.

“It’s going to be thirty degrees tonight,” he told me, which neither of us were prepared for. When we left Arkansas, the weather report said it would be sunny and bright for three days straight, never dipping below fifty degrees.

We were therefore forced to skedaddle.

After breaking camp, we headed downstream, me wondering, Is this it? Is this all we get? No more gar, no more nothing?

It didn’t make sense. Where was the story? I mean, my university paid for our travel, and Penn and Daiichi had thrown down as well. And what did I have to show for it? A tale of two drunken brochachos dicking around in the mud? Sure, we caught one small gar, but other than that we were coming back with nothing more than a close encounter with a snake and some razorbacks.

Stuffed alligator gar

The alligator gar found by Mark Spitzer that he just got back from the taxidermist and hung on his wall.
Photo by Mark Spitzer.

Then, as we approached the launch, we heard the country music twanging from above. There were two tents under the bridge, a generator was chugging away, and some stereotypes on four-wheelers were giving my boat the thumbs up. It looked like a camp for homeless people, but they weren’t.

They were just some beer-swigging rednecks fishing from the concrete rubble. And when we pulled up, we saw what they’d left on display: a freshly dead gator gar, only two feet long.

“I can’t believe it,” I told Minnow Bucket. “I just don’t understand it—why people are so proud to kill these fish, then let them stink up the launch for everyone else! I mean, what’s the deal with this stupid-ass tradition?”

Minnow Bucket just shook his head, and we got out and tied up.

Heading to my Jeep, I considered going over to those yahoos and telling them what the deal was. But that, of course, wasn’t the story. The story—and the story that found me—was that I grabbed that beautiful baby gar and packed it in ice, drove it on home, and took it to the taxidermist—to skin and stuff and mount for my wall. Because ultimately, I wasn’t about to let it go to waste.

So that’s what I brought back. And in a few months, I’ll have it above my TV set, frozen in mid-leap, gills flaring, fangs agleam—a symbol of what could’ve been, and what is still possible, in Texas and beyond.

 

 

Mark Spitzer is a gar-activist and environmental writer. He has published 18 books, including Season of the Gar (University of Arkansas Press, 2010), and is a professor of creative writing at the University of Central Arkansas. See sptzr.net for more info.

Alligator gar header image courtesy Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources.

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