Juan Hernandez and Fernando Torres knew they were pursuing an extremely large gar in a resaca near San Benito, they just didn't realize how big it really was until they put a fishing arrow into the massive "catan".
"We had been hunting this gar since very early in the morning," said Hernandez. "We hunted him for about three or four hours, and after that I took off home for lunch. We came back again and hunted for another couple of hours, and that's when I got him."
Hernandez, 41, is from Los Indios and has been fishing for gar since he was a youngster, but since taking up the bow approximately five years ago he hasn't picked up another rod and reel. "I used to fish, but a friend of mine introduced me to bow fishing, and I like it best. It is more exciting."
Fernando Torres, 60, is a life long friend of Hernandez and was best buddies with Juan's older brothers. He too is a veteran gar fisherman with rod and reel, but for the past couple of months has signed on as crewman aboard Juan's skiff. The technique employed by most bow fishermen is to have one man at the stern manning the trolling motor and guiding the boat quietly along while the archer stands in the bow with arrow notched, waiting for a gar to roll.
"We were fixing to go home, because we thought we were never going to see him again," Torres said. "We didn't know he was going to come up and all of a sudden there he was!"
Alligator gar are truly the leviathans of North American freshwater fish as they can reach lengths of eight feet or more and weigh in excess of 300 pounds. Living specimens of this primitive fish closely resemble gar recorded in fossils 75 million years ago. They are the largest of all gar species and have a massive head resembling an alligator. Their distinctive double row of teeth in the upper jaw is unique among gars.
Floating like a piece of driftwood in the current, they will suddenly snatch unsuspecting fish, turtles, waterfowl or even mammals. Their fearsome jaws make escape virtually impossible. Despite their size and imposing jaws, attacks on humans are extremely rare.
Their long, cylindrical bodies are sheathed in armor-like bony plates so tough that their hides were once used by native people as body armor. They have a habit of basking near the surface, and this is when bow fishermen have their best opportunity for a shot.
"We tried to stay as quiet as we could, and were just hoping he would come up close," Hernandez said. "Then we saw him coming up, and that's the time we took a shot at him. I had a good shot, and luckily I hit him on the head. We didn't know it was that big. We knew it was big but not that big."
The seven foot, nine inch, two hundred and twenty-five pound catan pulled their little boat around for an hour before they finally got a gaff into the brute. Hernandez had two-hundred pound test line stretched taut for the duration, and he needed every fiber of it.
"It is kind of hard to describe, because you get such a rush when you see the gar." Hernandez said. "When a gar comes up you have only got about three or four seconds to get your shot off. You have to be pretty quick; there is no time to think. Once you hit him, you have to sit on your little boat, because if not he will throw you down in the water. You can't hold him."
Hernandez pulled out a sturdy stick a couple of inches in diameter from his hip pocket and held it up. "This stick is for whenever you get them so you won't have to drag them with your hands and get your hands cut off. You wrap your line around this stick, and you can put more pressure on them without getting cut."
The fish was too big to wrestle into the boat, so they dragged it alongside until they reached the bank. "It was the biggest gar I have ever seen," Torres said.
The men initially strung the massive fish up on a nearby mesquite, but couldn't quite manage to get the lengthy gar to clear the ground. They decided to take it into town and look for a scale to weigh it, but the fish was so big they couldn't get both their boat and the gar in the pickup bed, so they left the boat on the bank and headed into San Benito.
With the loan of a hanging scale from the friendly folks at the Blue Marlin, and with the help of a few amigos, they swung the gar from a gnarled mesquite behind the restaurant and discovered the fish weighed a solid 225 pounds. That was with its tail still barely scrapping the scattered mesquite beans littering the ground.
The state and apparent world record alligator gar was taken in 1953 by trotline from the Nueces River and weighed 302 pounds. The record catan measured seven feet six inches, three inches shorter than Juan Hernandez's gar. It must have had quite a girth to surpass the weight of the San Benito fish.
The Rio Grande produced the heaviest gar taken on rod and reel. The 279 pound fish was caught by Bill Valverde in January of 1951, but no measurement was recorded. The heaviest gar taken by a bow fisherman in the state was a 290 pound fish harvested from the Trinity River. The gar was killed by Marty McClellan on July 8, 2001 and measured eight feet.
Alligator gar thrive in freshwaters form Florida south to Veracruz, Mexico. Their range extends north of the Mississippi River basin in Missouri and Ohio. Isolated populations also occur in Nicaraguan and Costa Rica. This species is able to tolerate greater salinities than other freshwater fish, and they can sometimes be found in the Lower Laguna Madre.
The alligator gars swim bladder serves double duty as not only the standard piscine organ aiding in flotation but also as a lung. It is wrapped in tiny blood vessels that are directly connected to the throat. This allows alligator gar to gulp air from above the waters surface when oxygen in the water is depleted.
Much remains to be learned about these primitive and fascinating fish, but it is thought that gar achieving record lengths of seven feet plus or likely more than 50 years of age. It would not be surprising if that new state record is lurking in a remote Valley resaca, and the team of Juan Hernandez and Fernando Torres just might catch up with it.
"I have seen them, nothing less than eight or nine feet," Hernandez said. "We are going to try and break the record this summer."
Copyright 2007 Richard Moore