PALESTINE, Texas— It was Christmas Eve, and as my brother Jake and my mom cooked our annual Christmas Eve feast, I sat in the other room, useless. I was on standby to help out the master chefs whenever they called upon me — if they called upon me — so I read a book.
Though I’d listened to a record 77 audiobooks already that year, this was the first paper book I’d sat and read the old-fashioned way: a novel by my friend, Matthew L. Miller titled “Fishing Through the Apocalypse: An Angler’s Adventures in the 21st Century.”
The book was quite relatable, and I enjoyed it in its entirety, but one chapter was particularly fascinating, the chapter in which the author joined his friend, Dr. Solomon David, arguably the world’s foremost expert on gar, to chase alligator gar in east Texas.
Matt’s descriptions of North America’s largest entirely freshwater fish (sturgeon spend a major portion of their lives in saltwater), left me rapt as I devoured every detail. Though the men spent some time fishing with live baits, it was the fish they caught on lures that became No. 1 on my Christmas list. A fish this big and toothy on a jerkbait?
In uncharacteristic Millennial fashion, I was forced to delay gratification and wait. I would get my chance to fulfill my holiday wish, with Christmas in July.
The alligator gar once ranged across most of the eastern United States, but a number of factors worked against it to shrink its range dramatically. It is relatively difficult to process gar for human consumption. It is easily snagged and bowfished virtually without regulation. Pair these factors with a rampant misinformation campaign about its propensity for eating gamefish (regardless of the fact that most gamefish eat other gamefish). and the gar has few allies.
Fortunately, efforts to preserve North America’s largest river monster are finally making headway, and in some places, gar not only survive but thrive. One such place is the Trinity River system in east Texas, a place I found myself this week.
Matt sent me to a wildlife management area popular with hunters and told me to look for canals. Unfortunately, most of the roads were gated, so I never found the canals. I stopped and fished a gap in the thick foliage along a parking lot littered with carcasses that bore a sign reading “The Boneyard”, but never saw the telltale gulps of the air-breathing superpredators. I moved on.
It wasn’t until the only paved road crossed a tailwater that I decided to take my chances. Thunderstorms raged all around me, and I’d found a pocket of absurdly humid reprieve from the storm here in the pocket of sovereignty that the king of all American fish still held. Though I was sweating in minutes, that’s all the time it took for a gar to come up for air.
That air was almost as wet as the water, mind you, but as the fish gulped, so did I, flicking my lure just in front of its nose…
Unlike trout and salmon, gar are durable.
Unlike bass and walleye, gar fight hard.
Unlike carp and trout, gar have moderate table value.
Unlike catfish, gar can be reliably caught a number of ways, something I was out to prove that sticky summer day. I grabbed the river trout rod I’ve used to catch everything from sunfish to small sharks, tied on a hard-bodied articulated bluegill swimbait and waited. Once that gar surfaced for air, I delivered a perfect cast a foot past it and swam the bait into its headspace. With a thunderous crash, it crushed it, and I battled the 20-pound fish for a few moments before it spit the hook. Gar have bony mouths and a propensity for headshakes and tailwalks that make hooksets difficult, but I persisted.
I’d wait until I spotted a gar (an alligator gar, though I did spot spotted gar, too), cast near it and swim the lure within a foot of its snout. Boom!
Hookup after hookup but none landed.
I almost landed a fish around 10 pounds, but the steep, muddy brush-choked banks made landing the large fish by myself and without a net difficult.
Finally, I opted to just cast blindly into the muddy water. Though I hadn’t seen the fish, it blew up on the lure. Half a dozen violent headshakes later, and my unbelieving eyes watched dumbly as I tried to grab the fish. Gar’s only failing as a gamefish is the difficulty in holding them. You can’t tail them like most fish. They’re too broad to grab like a broom handle. You can lip them, but you’ll regret it. Some trial and error and swearing joined a lot of mud and sweat before I finally unhooked my fish, photographed it and let it go. The fish looked a lot better than me.
Wanting to test their prowess as game fish, I threw out a live bluegill and let it sit while I threw a large, articulated streamer with the fly rod. Both yielded strikes, but I failed to hook up on the fly rod. I did, however, hook one on the live bait, which I reeled in just as rain began to fall.
My Christmas wish was just one gar, and I’d landed two and hooked up on more than dozen.
While everyone else was dreaming of sugar plums, I’d dreamt of gar. And now, half a year later, I had finally caught one.
Santa had granted me my wish after checking his list twice, to make sure he hadn’t misread it.
Luke Ovgard — gar.
I can only imagine him thinking how funny it was that I’d finally gotten to put the “gar” in Ovgard.
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