Land & Conservation

Dreaming of Monster Fish

The powerful pull of the ancient alligator gar draws a North Carolina writer deep into the Texas mud

Photo: Kyle Johnson

Dawson Hefner whipped the tunnel hull around river bends like he was sliding sideways through the hairpins of a dirt track, and as we shot around the first curve, a passel of hogs lit out across a clay bank in a jet-black blur.

This was a landscape unlike any I’d ever seen. An hour and a half southeast of Dallas, the Trinity River digs a steep-banked scar through Texas’s post-oak savanna. Willows crowd the banks all but for a few oaks and sycamores. Sand-colored clay rises sharply to vertical bluffs, the bases scattered with animal tracks where deer and pigs come to dip their noses into the river and drink. There’d been no rain since spring, and now at midfall the river was bottomed out. But the channel carved by floods and years ensured that in time the water would rise.

Here the river eats everything—ground, trees, fences, bridges, roads. A half inch of rain in Dallas and the water might rise five feet; a full inch and it could come up eight. Enough rain and the Trinity will crest its banks, climb the clay to flood pasture and field. Spring floods uproot full-grown trees and stack logjams two stories high. Rusted I beams long snapped and twisted show the bones of washed-out bridges. The place is littered with remnants of civilization, the drainage for a city of more than a million, but there were no houses, no people other than us. The wild had reclaimed what had always belonged to the wild, and as we rode farther upriver that morning, I found myself thinking: This is what the world will look like once humanity has destroyed itself.

Photo: Kyle Johnson

The author admires a young alligator gar, the trip’s smallest.

I had come to the Trinity River in search of alligator gar, a fish that has found little need to evolve for more than a hundred million years. To put that in perspective, humans have existed on this planet for around two hundred thousand years, and some ninety-five million years before our earliest ancestors began to walk upright, the alligator gar was pretty much as it is this minute—reaching lengths of eight feet and three hundred pounds with a face straight out of a nightmare.

Hefner, my guide, grew up just down the road in Winona, Texas. Slack-shouldered and square-jawed, he’s an even-tempered workhorse who saves his breath for words that matter. The first time he ever hooked into an alligator gar, he was in high school, fishing the Sabine River around Winona. All evening he’d watched a big gar pushing seven feet rise midriver. Taking a drum he’d caught on his bass tackle, he cut off a slab of meat to use as bait. With only a root beer bottle for a float, he hurled the bait where the gar had risen, and before long that bottle was gone. He never stood a chance of turning a fish like that with the tackle he’d brought, but just seeing how it could sink a soda bottle like a panfish dunking a pencil float was enough to convince him that this was a fish worth chasing.

“There is intelligence in that face when it looks at you,” Hefner says. It’s been sixteen years since that first gar, and the light has not left his eyes. He now takes clients from March to November, splitting his time between his refinery job, guiding, and family. Much like mine, his heart is rooted to place. But whereas mine belongs to the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, Hefner’s home just happens to be the mecca for the fish that has seemingly consumed him.

Photo: Kyle Johnson

A large alligator gar rests at the bottom of the boat just prior to being released.

Before flying out to Texas, I’d spent the last twelve days twenty feet up a tree in the South Carolina pine flats, where the Piedmont transitions to the Sandhills. It was the start of deer season, and like most years I’d come out of the mountains to put meat in the freezer, or at least that’s what I always say. But when I think about how many hours I’ve sat in the stand without seeing a thing other than birds and squirrels, and how content I always am to be there, more and more I realize that maybe food isn’t the main reason I go to the woods at all. Maybe I’m hiding from headlines and politics and people. Or maybe I’m simply seeking something I can only find surrounded by trees and water, a moment of absolute wonderment.

In the words of the conservationist and wildlife ecologist Aldo Leopold, “There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot.” I have always belonged to the latter group. For me, there is a direct correlation between our abandonment of the natural world and what has become our unrelenting self-centeredness. I had rolled this idea around in my head for years, and that was the real reason I’d come to Texas. I wanted to hold something wild in my hands, something so ancient that it could force me to recognize my own insignificance.

Ten miles upriver from where we launched, Hefner sets rods in a wide bend where the water slows. The Penn Spinfisher reels are spooled with braid as thick as kite string. Heavy wire leaders run to hooks baited with quartered carp. Baits smack the surface then sink, and the cigar floats pull taut as the river sweeps slack line into deep arcs. Hefner places each rod in a stand on the bank, roughly twenty yards from one another, leaving the reels set so that the fish will feel no tension. We anchor into the mud by the last rod where we can watch all five fluorescent floats dancing across the water.

We’ve already boated two fish from similar holes—a young gar just a fuzz under five feet, and one eight inches longer that went seventy-three pounds. My heart is set on breaking the hundred-pound mark. I’ve seen photos of Hefner holding monsters that stretched the tape well past seven feet.

Photo: Kyle Johnson

Guide Dawson Hefner at the wheel.

In a hundred million years the only things to ever threaten the existence of the alligator gar were bad science and dammed rivers. It happened in less than a century.

Alligator gar need spring rains to spawn. They need the river to rise and flood timber. They need for that water to hold two weeks so the fish can mate and the fry can hatch. Even in rivers still capable of producing optimum conditions, it’s not something that happens every year. Everything must be perfect, and the controlled flows of dammed rivers cut those chances to nil.

If choking the rivers wasn’t enough, in the first half of the twentieth century resource management officials, believing wholeheartedly that alligator gar were a detriment to game fish, peddled propaganda to sportsmen to kill every gar they caught. In his 2010 book, Season of the Gar, Mark Spitzer recounts that “various bureaus of research and conservation…publicly called for inventors ‘to devise methods for Gar control, since it is clear that this species is a real menace to many forms of fish and other wild life.’” Heeding this call, a Texan named Col. J. G. Burr outfitted an eight-by-sixteen-foot barge with a two-hundred-volt generator to shock the fish from the rivers in the 1930s. Spitzer notes that on Burr’s first trip, he managed to kill “seventy-five alligator gar and one thousand turtles.” And so it went.

Having once swum vast swaths of the Mississippi River Basin as far north as Illinois and Ohio, alligator gar have now been driven to the deepest parts of the South. Some states such as Arkansas are struggling to restore native populations, but it’s yet to be shown whether their efforts will take. The Trinity is one of the few places left where the fish not only survive, they thrive.

Sixty yards upstream, one of the cigar floats sputters a few feet, and I call fish. Hefner pulls the anchor pole from the mud and ferries us toward the rod. We pick it up and follow the fish to midriver. It has swum a slow curve, first easing downstream and then turning sharply into the current.

“Get up some of that slack,” Hefner says, and I take up line, disengaging the reel when I’m tight in case the fish decides to make another run. The float isn’t moving now. Everything has stopped.

“Think he’s dropped it?” All day we’ve had fish pick up baits only to swim them out a ways and spit the hook.

“I don’t know.” Hefner’s eyes don’t budge from the water, watching for the slightest tic.

We hold position, watching and waiting, willing the float to move, and suddenly there it is, a twitch and then another as the float slowly makes its way upstream. By now I’ve learned this is part of the game. Gar take the bait and often swim a slow arc back into the current. Setting the hook on that first run is a surefire way to blank. It’s a matter of letting the fish stop and reposition the bait in its mouth so the hook can find a place to hold.

“When you’re ready, you can set it,” Hefner says.

I lower the rod tip to the water, engage the reel, and when the line tightens, I swing with everything I have. Everything I have doesn’t budge that fish an inch. I stumble forward, and all hell breaks loose. The rod doubles over, and drag locked down to fifteen pounds cranks up like a chain saw as the fish digs for deeper water.

Over the next fifteen minutes, I make up line every chance I get and hold on tight when the fish decides to run. When the gar is almost to the boat, it explodes through the surface, head thrashing wide with teeth. I watch that gar breach three times over the next few minutes—every time making a run, every time taking drag—before finally wearing down enough for Hefner to slip a lasso over its head and lift it over the gunwale onto the deck.

Photo: Kyle Johnson

One of the Trinity River’s many bends.

Seventy-four inches of fish writhes in the bottom of the boat. An olive-green back fades to white along the flanks, its whole length armored in scales the size of half-dollars. A broad tail as round-edged as a paddle glows pale yellow with sunlight. Its head is indeed built like an alligator’s and fanged with needle-point teeth. This is the monster I’ve flown halfway across the country to find. Nearing three
feet in girth, this is a living, breathing dinosaur. The fish chomps its jaws and lets loose, head swinging wildly with 105 pounds of muscle and bone, and there’s nothing we can do but watch.

We have to go downriver to find a bank suitable for us to get out of the boat. Most places the mud is too soft—one step and you’re up to your knees. Still the clay sucks at our boots as Hefner heaves the gar over the side and lays it in the shallows.

“There is a kind of faith with fishing,” wrote the Kentucky author Alex Taylor. “It is the belief that the brevity of all things is not bitter, but a calm moment beside calm water is enough to still the breaking of all hearts everywhere.” Kneeling there in the mud, I am stilled. For a moment, the world is stilled.

Photo: Kyle Johnson

Muddy rods baited with cut carp.

Over the next few minutes, I rock the gar back and forth to push water through its gills, but with prehistoric lungs it’s been gulping air the whole time it’s been out of water, and it takes little to catch its breath. Its head starts to swim, and the motion carries slowly through the rest of its body as it eases away from my fingertips to disappear into muddy water like a train entering a tunnel—foot by foot by foot and gone.

The next day Hefner and I walk a rocky stretch of bank scattered with fossils. I step out of the boat and find a tooth turned to chestnut-brown stone, the worn molar of some mammal most likely long extinct. I’d held a living fossil, a fish that survived the fifth great extinction—the end of the Cretaceous period, the end of dinosaurs, as much as 75 percent of species lost. Thinking about that fish, it’s hard for me to conceive a time when man exists and the gar does not. But I can imagine a time when humans are gone, when the rivers have risen and the dams have fallen and the gar has returned to all the water it once called home. In the end, we will be little more than a blink in the evolutionary eye.

It’s funny the moments that hang in the mind. What harden to stone in memory are often the times absent of self, times when I stared dumbstruck and awed by something much bigger and far greater than I could ever hope to be. Of all I saw during my three days on the Trinity, there’s a single image I can’t seem to shake. It was a thirty-mile run back to the landing my final evening in Texas. We’d managed to land two fish around six feet and spent the rest of the day watching seven-footers roll all around us. The sun was low in the willows, and as Hefner came around a sharp bend, a coyote broke loose down the left bank. We were running thirty miles an hour, and Hefner pushed the throttle forward.

Photo: Kyle Johnson

Beaching the boat along the Trinity’s banks.

Head down and ears back, the coyote sprinted over broken ground rutted with washouts and strewn with fallen trees without ever missing a stride. As fast as we could cover the open water, the coyote gained ground, and I watched in disbelief that an animal could move that fast across a landscape so shattered. In a moment the coyote cut hard into the brush, and I can remember closing my eyes. I can remember the way the wind felt on my skin and the way the river smelled, how the air tasted.

There have been times I bore witness to grace, when I knew nothing outside a moment, when, whether by surrender or providence, all evidence of self vanished and I was held in the palm of an inescapable beauty. I have always been easily lost, but just as easily found. On the banks of the Trinity River, my heart was full. 

Photo: Kyle Johnson

A gar’s massive, paddle-like tail.