Archive for Sunday, April 29, 2007

Prehistoric fish fascinate Texas bow-hunting duo

Despite close calls with monstrous alligator gar, pair sets sights on world-record catch at Trinity River

April 29, 2007

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— Fueled and muddied by the runoff from recent rains, the Trinity River surged like a tidal wave of chocolate milk as it flushed fallen trees downstream. Sam Lovell tied off the airboat bow to a green tree that waved violently as it fought to maintain its tenuous toehold in the powerful current.

"We're on stand, now," said Lovell, only half-joking. "We need to be as quiet as possible. This is just like deer hunting, which is one reason I enjoy it so much."

Lovell and his partner, Steve Barclay, tiptoed around the wide bottom of the aluminum airboat as they readied their archery gear. Somewhere below the boat swam one of the biggest freshwater fish in Texas.

The Trinity at flood stage is the unholy Trinity. Its unofficial ruler is a fittingly nightmarish fish called the alligator gar.

Alligator gar haven't changed since the prehistoric days they shared with dinosaurs. In fact, these gargantuan throwbacks to a primitive era resemble ancient ocean-going reptiles more than they look like modern fish. Think plesiosaur with a shorter neck and a longer snout.

Despite being one of the oldest fish, alligator gar are one the least understood species. Of little interest to sport fishermen, biologists don't know much about the life cycle of these oversized rough fish. Make no mistake - gator gar are rough customers.

They are covered with large scales as tough as medieval armor. In fact, Native Americans made arrow points from gar scales. Gar have large, articulated eyes that seem to work as well out of water as underwater.

Barclay had a big gar lying on the river bank one day. The fish had been out of the water for two hours. As Barclay walked past the fish, he noticed that its eyes were following him. The gar suddenly twisted, propelling itself toward Barclay with its powerful tail.

The fish had just slightly miscalculated its intended target. The jaws clamped just shy of Barclay's leg - missing by the thickness of his jeans. The fish clamped onto Barclay's front pocket, ripping the pocket from the pants and swallowing it in the same motion.

"A big alligator gar can be dangerous," he said. "That was a close call, and we've got plenty of scars to prove it. I had my truck keys and my pocket knife in my pocket. We had to cut the fish open to get them back."

Truck keys aren't the only thing the duo has found in a gar's stomach. They decided that a gar will eat anything it can catch, including fish, birds, turtles, snakes, and mammals. The most unusual stomach contents they've found in a gar was a full-grown beaver.

A gar's mouth is really a bony beak. It resembles an alligator's snout and gives the fish its name. The gar beak is lined with a double row of formidable teeth. Gar have a primitive form of lungs that allow them to surface and gulp air. Because of this unusual adaptation, gar can survive in stagnant water that would kill any fish that relies strictly on gills for oxygen. Add it up and it's an easy conclusion that alligator gar are the mafia chieftains of the rough fish family.

Lovell and Barclay are much more than friends. The Kennard residents are also brothers-in-law and business associates. They're the Gar Guys, earning a national rep on their Web site, www.garguys.com and for their hot-selling video that focuses on bow fishing for gar.

They're on the hunt for a world record, and they suspect it may come this year. The Trinity River is to big gar what Lake Fork is to big bass. Most years, the Gar Guys bag five or six gar that weigh 200 pounds or more apiece. They've already exceeded that number in 2007, and their prime big fish season has just started.

"We've probably seen 1,000 gar this year that will weigh 200 pounds or more," Barclay said. "The bow-fishing world record is 290 pounds, from the Trinity, and we've seen fish we think are bigger than that. The biggest gar ever reported weighed 305 pounds."

It takes serious gear to handle a fish that size. The Gar Guys bow fish with compound bows and solid aluminum fishing arrows. The fishing arrows are attached to 400-pound braided nylon line, which extrudes from a plastic line-holder mounted to the bow.

"You can't catch a really big gar with a reel attached to your bow," said Lovell. "They're too strong. We've had gar break 200-pound line. We use a plastic float that's attached to the bow. When we shoot a gar, the fish tows the float. We're able to follow, then retrieve the line and fight the fish on the handline."

As Lovell explained how the system works, the target gar rolled briefly on the surface. Within a split second, both the Gar Guys drew their arrows and shot instinctively into the murk. Lovell's arrow glanced off the gar's bony scales. Barclay's arrow penetrated the fish near its tail.

Seconds later, 75 feet of line had spewed from the line holder, and the float popped free, headed downstream. Barclay started the big airboat engine and quickly found the float. A tug of war began as the boat, the gar and the Gar Guys were carried along by the current.

Two more arrows and 30 minutes later, the prehistoric monster was wrestled into the boat. The fight took us two miles down river. The fish measured 71â2 feet long. Four hours later, it weighed 197 pounds. That means it probably weighed about 210 or so when caught.

Unlike some bow fishers who discard all the rough fish they catch, the Gar Guys keep every one. They eat some of the meat themselves and give some away. They have a permit that allows them to sell the gar meat to dealers. They even send the oversized scales to an artist in Louisiana who specializes in gar scale jewelry.

Not only are the Gar Guys on a quest for a world-record fish, but they're likewise on a quest to upgrade the alligator gar's status among trophy fish.

They offer specialized trophy gar packages priced at $2,500 for three days. The idea is to bag a trophy fish weighing at least 100 pounds. Gar Guys clients from as far away as Canada and the Midwest have hunted the prehistoric monsters with a 100-percent success rate on trophies.

"We just figure that alligator gar are top-end fish and that a 100-pounder is a dream fish for most bow fishers," said Barclay, who always starts his fishing trip with a prayer.

"We've been fishing the Trinity for 20 years, and we know every spot where the gar congregate. Alligator gar are territorial. We scouted yesterday and saw this fish rolling in the same spot where we shot it today. Bow fishing for big gar really is similar to deer hunting."

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