May 03, 2020
My earliest childhood memory of the alligator gar dates to a vintage fishing article from the 1940s. It was based on fishing on the White River in Arkansas. The “sport” of the day was for an angler to hook a gar with hook and line while another person waited to shoot it with bow and arrow when it jumped. To culminate the outing, well-dressed men and women were photographed next to a pile of 100-pound gar, labeled “trash fish” and destined for the dump. The story rang hollow to me as a kid, and the dream of catching one of those armor-plated monsters, bigger than a lake sturgeon, and with teeth fiercer than any muskie, stuck with me for life.
There was no need to beg my parents to pack up the camper and head to Arkansas in the mid-1970s to catch a gator gar, as they had already been extirpated from much of the White River. Dam construction in the 1950s turned much of the river into a coldwater fishery and eliminated the floodplains necessary for gar reproduction. Habitat destruction was one of the main reasons for the decline in gator gar throughout much of their range.
Crossing the White River off the list of possible destinations to catch my first gar, it was years later that I learned of a baitshop owner in Texas named Elroy Krueger. He was supposed to be catching gar on Choke Canyon Lake, using casting tackle and lures. In about July of 1990, Paul Bristow and I were enthusiastically casting spinnerbaits for gar under his direction—three days straight in what seemed like 150°F Texas heat—without a bite. We did witness Krueger harvest several 100-pound fish on setlines baited with deadbait and left overnight on the lake.
The talk around Choke Canyon was that gator gar were plentiful and ate anything that passed in front of them (except our lures). The nicest thing we heard about them was that they had firm, white flesh, which had commercial value in Mexico. It’s possible we were Krueger’s first and only gator gar clients. All was quiet on the gar front for a long time. But my lack of success didn’t dampen my determination to catch one of these magnificent fish on hook and line.
As a side note, Bassmaster published an obituary for Elroy Krueger in 2015. Several top BASS anglers described him as one of the pioneers in tournament fishing, the greatest bass angler unknown outside of Texas and the best spinnerbait angler that Rick Clunn ever met. Based on those words of praise, if anyone was going to catch an alligator gar on a spinnerbait, it should have been Krueger.
Fast forward to the early 2000s. Captain Kirk Kirkland had been mentioned as a Texan who was guiding European anglers to 100-pound-plus gar. Shortly thereafter, Dale Rothstein and I had a trip booked with him.
Even before our departure, we noted that the general perception of alligator gar had not changed in the years since my Choke Canyon experience. A call to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to purchase a fishing license was met with glee and dismay by the agent when I advised her that we were traveling from Chicago to Texas to catch an alligator gar. She offered advice on how to catch those nasty beasts: “Just put a piece of bacon on a big hook and toss it in any creek around Dallas.”
Kirkland’s fishing plan was sophisticated and we were rewarded with multiple gar, including a fish in the 140-pound range. My observations from that trip ranged across multiple fronts. First, I was surprised how rugged the river was with its sandbars, rocky shoals, sunken trees, and high clay banks, along with the lack of decent boat ramps that appeared to be a natural protector of these fish. Second, there seemed to be plenty of gar in the river; the challenge was catching select trophy fish that resided in specific areas. Third, I was also surprised that no one except Kirkland was targeting the gar—no one seemed interested in them as a sportfish. The catfish anglers that we met on the river thought we were crazy to be suffering under the summer heat for a bite from such a fish, the more so when they learned that we intended to release them.
Even with the general isolation of these fish and lack of interest by the public in them, there were still causes for concern regarding the long-term survival of these fish. A trophy alligator gar may live to be 50 to 80 years old and yet spawn only a handful of times in its lifetime. Plus, the prevailing negative attitude toward gar had some people shooting them with rifles or bows and leaving them to rot in the river. The widespread killing of big mature gar could do severe damage to their population and leave generations without the joy of experiencing these beautiful relics from the Jurassic period.
A repeat trip with Kirkland in October 2006 was less successful. We caught only a few fish, and nothing over about 60 pounds. A cold front and end-of-season conditions were likely to blame for the results. We noted only marginally more angling pressure on the river during that trip but nothing to indicate a significant decline in the gar population. The following year, Johnny Morris and his son killed a 240-pound gar while bowfishing a private lake adjacent to the Trinity River. The media buzz surrounding that fish was intense and the popularity of killing these fish exploded.
From a thousand miles away, I could only hope that these long-lived fish could survive the onslaught. I wrote several articles advocating them as a sportfish. In-Fisherman also ran a noteworthy article about fishing for gar and the need for gator gar conservation. In-Fisherman also filmed several shows with Kirkland, promoting the need to preserve these national treasures. Texas Parks and Wildlife began tagging studies to better understand the nature of the fish and fishery. Eventually, a one-fish-per-day limit was instituted throughout much of Texas.
A Most Recent Excursion
After more than a decade-long hiatus, I was back on the Trinity River last summer after gator gar with fishing partners Jim Reed and Cole Lundquist. For this trip, we were under the guidance of Captain Bubba Bedre. The trip was an eye-opener in several respects. First and foremost, there were still plenty of big alligator gar around, as evidenced by the 7- to 8-foot fish that we caught and released each day of the trip, including back to back fish topping 7 feet to end the trip.
Recent successful spawns were evident by the number of smaller fish present on the upper Trinity and possibly even greater numbers of gar below Lake Livingston. Here one of Bedre’s guides was routinely landing 15 to 20 fish per day, including enough 100-pound-class fish to keep things interesting. The overall health of the alligator gar population in Texas was further noted after speaking with Dan Daugherty, a research biologist with Texas Parks and Wildlife. He told me about more than a half dozen Texas rivers that supported good populations of big fish, along with the nearshore waters of the Gulf that harbor still untouched stocks of fish.
Although the boat launch sites have not gotten any better on the Trinity, the amount of pressure on the river has skyrocketed. Both Bedre and Kirkland have additional guides working on the river. More than a dozen guides now operate on the Trinity. We saw multiple bowhunters and recreational catch-and-release gar anglers each day of the trip. Many anglers knew Bedre and were asking for his advice or assistance on a number of gar topics. One was even looking to start exploring Choke Canyon Lake as a possible fishery to guide on for gar—how things come full circle.
With the added pressure, the fish seemed to act differently from my prior visits to the Trinity. Big fish didn’t spend much time rolling on the surface. When they did come up, it was for a quick gulp of air with only their head breaking the surface. They seemed to want to disappear as quietly as possible. Fish also did not hold on to baits as long or swim off as aggressively. They seemed to be reacting to the added pressure.
Setting Baits & Setting the Hook
When setting deadbaits for alligator gar, the approach is much different from catfishing. Baits usually are positioned away from current for gar. Accordingly, no additional weight is needed to hold baits on the bottom. A free-sliding pole float is added to the mainline and acts only as an indicator of the movement of gar after they pick up a bait. Reels are left in freespool and hooks are not set on the initial take.
With the boat pulled up on an inside river bend, multiple rods are used to cover the area throughout slack water or along current edges. Typically, when a fish takes one of the baits, the other lines are reeled in and the boat pushed off the bank to follow the fish.
Alligator gar can be “picky” eaters. They frequently pick up a bait and swim off prior to eating or dropping it. With the fish given extra time to eat the bait, the boat can be positioned over the fish to get a solid hook-set, much as is done for fishing suckers under floats for muskies.
During our most recent trip, we had success downsizing baits and setting hooks on fish during their initial run without ever moving the boat off the bank. So, no technique renders a 100-percent hookup rate, but setting the hook quicker guards better against gut-hooked fish.
We also discovered the joys of fighting these fish on muskie gear consisting of an Abu Garcia Revo Beast 60 reel spooled with 80-pound braid and paired with an Abu Garcia muskie rod. Coming from the Midwest and having a background in muskie and pike fishing, it was exciting to fight 50- to 250-pound gar with familiar lighter gear.
Indeed, during our first trip to the Trinity, we had packed oversized Shimano Thunnas 16000 baitrunner reels, spooled with 150-pound PowerPro line on 10-foot 6-inch Lamiglas surf rods. That was great gear but overkill for a fish that doesn’t take long runs and tires relatively quickly. With the Abu muskie setup, we were able to get better leverage on fish and cast lures more effectively to surfacing gar.
For anglers more comfortable battling these fish on spinning setups, Bedre has topnotch Eagle Claw Flats Blue Rods, paired with Penn Torque 7500 reels and 100-pound Spiderwire braid. With this gear, alligator gar can be fought aggressively without totally exhausting them. This allows fish to be released in top shape. The heavy line also helps to land giant gar that tangle through sunken trees in an attempt to escape.
Lure Fishing & More
Fishing with fresh cutbait is still the norm on the Trinity, but Bedre advised us how good lure fishing can be early in the season when the river is flooded and big gar move up into the flooded fields. Using slow, steady retrieves, Rat-L-Traps with upgraded hooks are top producers—but massive gar also lash out at Whopper Ploppers. The thought of a 200-pound gar blowing up on a topwater in 4 feet of water has me planning another trip.
Another positive note during this most recent trip was that recreational anglers are trying to improve their deadbait rigs to reduce harm to fish that they intended to release. Anglers are using smaller hooks that pose less of a risk to gar when swallowed. By bridling baits with a separate piece of line, smaller hooks are left totally exposed with none of the hook gap impeded by the bait.
Experimenting with bait sizes also seems important on these pressured fish. Since the Trinity River currently has an abundance of fish under 48 inches, upsizing to a whole carp head discourages small fish from stealing baits. If a large bait is being pestered without a solid take, it’s taken away from fish and repositioned in hopes of appealing to larger fish. When small fish weren’t being pests, we downsized baits, allowing big fish to take the bait more deliberately and enabling us to set the hook on the gar’s first run. This means a better hookup ratio and fewer gar taking the bait deep.
The use of Bedre’s Garmin LiveScope sonar was another game changer. With LiveScope, each likely fishing spot on the river was scanned prior to setting out a line. The size and location of gar detected on the sonar dictated the size and placement of each bait. Just as importantly, we could rotate the sonar when a fish started to mess with a bait within about 80 feet of the boat and gauge the fish’s size. If it was small, we took the bait away from the fish to avoid disturbing the entire bait spread. With a big fish on LiveScope, the boat got quieter and the concentration level increased. This sonar was so sensitive that we could see the swivel and bait on most of the rigs and often watched as a fish swam off with the bait.
During the last day of our trip, proof of the slow growth rates of mature gar and the need to preserve them was bolstered by catching a tagged fish that measured 79 inches. The tag was blackened with algae and difficult to read but the data it revealed were enlightening. The fish was tagged in 2009, at 72 inches. Over the course of a decade, it had grown only 7 inches.
A final bit of good news: special regulations have gone into effect as of September 1, 2019 to help protect mature alligator gar on the upper portion of the Trinity River. Under these regulations, no gar over 48 inches can be harvested without holding a special harvest permit, which Texas Parks and Wildlife offers by random draw to license holders. In addition, all alligator gar harvested from public waters must be reported within 24 hours to assist the state in gathering information on the distribution, size, and number of gar harvested throughout the state. A one-fish-per-day harvest limit remains in effect for most fisheries throughout Texas. Hopefully, this remarkable sportfish will survive into the future.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Steve Ryan, Chicago-area, Illinois, is a fantastic multipsecies angler, who also travels the world in search of sportfishing adventures.