They call it “Big Lake,” but that is not really its name. It has no official name. It is not even a lake. It is a trench filled with greenish-brown water in the east Texas forest, set between two prisons near the Trinity River. From the air it looks like an enormous chili pepper, long and thin, slightly crooked and a few hundred yards wide. Its secrets are bound to the Trinity’s flow. When heavy rains fall, the river jumps its banks and swirls through the oak and pine, and fish ride with the rising water, swimming through timber and vine to the quietude of this place.
I had come here to see the converted and the fish that time forgot. It was noon on a Friday in late spring. The temperature had climbed with the sun. Big Lake exhaled the fresh smell of wet earth. Before me stood the converts, Curt Parker and Gary Satterfield, wandering the shore in ball caps, endlessly checking six neatly arranged rods they had baited with chunks of chopped drum and cast into the murk. Now and then something dimpled the surface out in the trench, a disturbance followed by swirls and glimpses of olive-green hide. Sometimes the swirls were as large as the wake left by a canoe.
The Trinity’s fish were here. They had grown very, very big.
After more than an hour of waiting, as the fish oil from the cut bait spread its slick under the surface, one of the reels began to click. Then another. The men lunged for the rods and held them while the line on each reel played out in a long, fast whir. Around them was an odd mix of heavy equipment: a long steel bar, leather gloves, a stretcher-like frame that looked as if it could cradle a beached dolphin, a buck scale that went to 300 pounds. “Here we go,” Satterfield said, readying for the bedlam ahead.
Parker nodded, stepped back, and slammed upward on the rod; Satterfield did the same. Splashing began out in the trench. The men had driven hooks into a pair of fish that are among the largest fish-eating creatures in the United States, alligator gar, a massive and primeval fish, a rough contemporary of the Stegosaurus and the Tyrannosaurus rex.
Near the bank, Parker’s alligator thrashed about. Satterfield’s was running away. He couldn’t stop it. Sweat beaded his brow. The fish bore down in a long, straight run, making his reel wind as if he had hooked something offshore.
“Somebody give me a glove!” he shouted. “I’m burning up my thumb!”
Of all the lesser-known animals in North America, none is more impressive than the alligator gar, a prehistoric predator that seems unbound by the normal constraints on freshwater fish. Built like an armored slab of telephone pole with a rounded tail, a triangular snout, and small, primitive eyes, it is the grandest representative of a family that reaches back to the Cretaceous, having a life span that can exceed 50 years and sometimes growing past 9 feet and 300 pounds. Its mouth is a hinged maw of daggers, with teeth more than an inch long and arranged in double rows. It defies comparison.
Alligator gar occupy a resonant place in the psyche of American fisheries. Creatures that dodged whatever killed off the dinosaurs, savvy masters of the ambush, giants, they do not merely fascinate. They inspire loathing. Among anglers who prefer the familiar lines and habits of trout and bass, alligator gar often fulfill the role of villains. To their name is attributed a rap sheet of dark water crimes: ruining populations of gamefish, tearing apart nets, smashing small craft, preying upon man.
Though legends of attacks by them upon children and swimmers are deeply suspect, and the few studies that have been conducted of their diet suggest they forage far more on unwanted fish than on species sought for game, alligator gar remain among the perennially accused. Their real offense seems to be combining ugliness with great size, and for this they haveeen punished like few fish.
Over the years the species has been shot, snagged, speared, and electrocuted, often to vigorous cheering. Field & Stream was once part of the pile-on, reporting the catch of a 78-inch fish in 1952 by noting that “another net-wrecking fish destroyer was removed from the White River.” The attitude persists. To this day, when fishermen catch alligator gar by accident, they often leave them flopping on the bank or break their snouts and toss them back. Either way the result is the same. The gar die.
Absurdities cling to the alligator gar’s name almost as persistently as scorn, and when it has not been pilloried it has been parodied—nicknamed “Cajun barracuda” or “Arkansas tuna” and described as reaching lengths of 20 feet, which would put it roughly in the weight class of a great white shark. And they are a mystery. For all the attention they have attracted, only a basic sketch of their life and habits is known: They can tolerate brackish water. They spawn in spring. They feed principally on fish but also on crustaceans, waterfowl, amphibians, reptiles, and mammals. Their eggs are said to be poisonous. Their swim bladder is laced with a network of fine blood vessels, which allows it to double as a lung and explains why alligator gar often rise to the surface to gulp air.
And they are in decline. A century ago alligator gar occurred in much of the central basin of the United States, roaming the Mississippi into the Missouri and Ohio Rivers, reaching Illinois. Today, after decades of persecution and dam building, they are largely restricted to the Deep South. No one knows how many are left, and estimates are grim. “They’ve probably been extirpated from 60 or 70 percent of their range,” says Kerry Graves, manager of the Tishomingo National Fish Hatchery in Oklahoma, which has been trying to cultivate the species in captivity. Like everyone who has spent time around alligator gar, Graves has his stories. One is about what sometimes happens to gar surfacing on the Red River, where Graves caught his brood stock. “People sit on the cliff and shoot them with rifles,” he says. “On sight.”
How then, did two men become devoted to them? What would these men know?
We arrived at Big Lake in the morning, passing by one of the prisons, turning onto a dirt track, driving past a mucky woodlot and a row of deer hunters’ cabins, and at last coming to the shore. There is a small band of dedicated gar fishermen in this country, and during the winter, on a referral from the Gar Anglers’ Sporting Society, one of the groups that celebrate gar on the Internet, I had tracked down Parker and Satterfield. The summer before they had come across the bottled-up population of the big gar and had planned on fishing them in the spring, once the temperature rose and the fish began to move. They were in the rare position of considering whether to start a business guiding for alligator gar.
Now the water was warming, and Parker and Satterfield were unloading gear, producing 6-foot 6-inch saltwater baitcasting rods, all very stout. Satterfield tightened down a big reel spooled with 50-pound mono, passed the line through the guides and then through a 3-ounce egg sinker, and tied it off on a 3-foot leader made from galvanized braided wire. The wire tested at 2,000 pounds. Its end was crimped around a 5/0 treble hook sharpened so fine that when I ran it across my fingernail, it grabbed.
“Like Setting a Hook into a Brick Wall”
The pair worked with the practiced care of the crew on a shark boat, knowing that their tackle had to be just right and their equipment at the ready if they were going to beat big fish in close. As Satterfield prepared the rods, Parker put the rod holders on the bank, then reached into the cooler and lifted the bait-a freshwater drum, which he cut into wallet-size chunks, skin and fins on. He slid a few greasy pieces onto the treble and gave the first rod back to Satterfield, who sampled its weight, inhaled, exhaled, inhaled again, and then abruptly swung his shoulders back as he crow-hopped toward the water. The rod snapped forward, and the bait soared out and fell to the surface with a hearty splash, an experience about like shot-putting with a line attached.
Soon the rest of their methodology emerged. Each rod took its place in a numbered holder. Heavy work gloves were set on the bank nearby. After depositing the baits in a fan-shaped array in front of the boat ramp, Satterfield carefully arranged the large cradle he had designed and built, spreading it in the shallows beneath the spot where he hoped to beach one of Big Lake’s beasts. Beside it he placed a long piece of rebar, bent at its end: the hook punch. He strung the buck scale to a shoreside tree and hung from it a rope. Then he contented himself to wait.
Parker and Satterfield did not start out this way. The two men work together at the nearby Coca-Cola plant and had fished together during the last few years. But it was almost always for bass. And Satterfield, who had lived his entire life in east Texas, already had his outdoor habits: small-game hunting, deer hunting in these same woods, bass, crappies. But fishing for alligator gar? Well, he was busy doing what he already loved.
It all changed on the Fourth of July in 2003, when Parker was visiting a friend in Waco who showed him some heavy tackle and suggested that they drive over to the Brazos River and try for alligator gar. Parker was incredulous. “I thought, ‘Gar fishing? I’m a bass fisherman.’” But as he looked over the heavy tackle his friend offered him, he understood that alligator gar were enormous. Soon he was wading chest-deep in the Brazos, casting a big chunk of dead fish.
An hour or so later something lifted the bait. Parker let the fish run and slammed back. The rod bent hard. The fish didn’t move. “It was like setting the hook into a brick wall,” he recalled. Then it started to run, almost yanking the rod from his hands and stripping off about 80 yards before he could slow it down. Several minutes later, the alligator gar swam through the shallows, glimpsed Parker, and kicked off in an explosion of frothy water. It swam all the way across the river again. After 15 minutes of tug-of-war, Parker slid the big thing up on the bank. It was 6 feet long, green, mottled in a timeless camouflage, and very toothy. Six feet! His conversion had begun.
Back at work Parker’s mind would sometimes drift. Where else can I catch alligator gar? He told the story of the 6-footer to Satterfield, who picked up on the enthusiasm and said he knew of a trench on deer-lease land where his cousin Wayne had shot a huge alligator gar with an arrow a few years ago. The trench had a nickname: Big Lake.
Lessons From Big Lake
A season of experimentation began. They quickly found that Big Lake was crowded with the Trinity’s refugees, big gar that swam in lazy circles and appeared to feed in groups. But at first they were confounded. Big Lake’s alligator gar were willing to pick up cut bait but often dropped it at the hookset. And when they did hook a gar, it invariably shook off. They lost every one. “Twenty-two straight,” Satterfield said, wincing, mouthing the number as if he were repeating his losses in a stock-market crash. He knew the fish could be landed. But how?
He decided to videotape their fishing trips and then study the tape at home. Soon he had suggestions. Lesson One was patience—let the gar mouth the bait for a long time before setting the hook. Lesson Two was also patience-once you hook a big gar, don’t try to horse it. Give it some line, keep pressure on it, and let it tire. Then the fish is less likely to thrash free. On the next trip, when the gar picked up the bait, Parker and Satterfield waited. And this time the hooks stuck. They gave the fish more line as it ran. And the hooks held. They caught an 80-pounder, and then a 110. The second fish leapt like a tarpon, shaking its head and walking across the surface on its tail.
When the first two alligator gar struck at the same time, we all went to work. Parker and Satterfield tried to keep their fish apart and untangled; I reeled in the other four rods. Even heavy tackle could not immediately stop these fish. The thick monofilament lines were so taut that it seemed they might sing. Satterfield had hooked the bigger of the two. Sweat rolled down his neck. His fish was far from shore and headed away.
Parker fought his lighter fish inside the wide runs Satterfield’s made. In a few minutes it rose near the shore. Parker gasped-it was almost solid black, and when it worked its jaw it exposed a large white mouth. He slid it up near the bank. “It’s beautiful,” he said. He handed the rod to me to hold the fish in place. The gar was perhaps 4 1/2 feet long.
He went to help Satterfield, and when the second fish showed, a problem became obvious: an adult alligator gar is not much smaller than an adult alligator, but with fewer handholds. Satterfield had his fish almost bested, but now it was flailing in knee-deep water, a huge stick of swinging teeth. What to do? The use of the fish frame became clear. Satterfield let the alligator tire a bit more, and then led it into the submerged cradle. It was caught.
Parker waded into the water with gloves and, like an alligator wrestler, lifted open the mouth for Satterfield, who quickly inserted the rebar and punched out the hook. A tape gave the length: 70 inches. The snout alone was 18 inches long. The two men lifted the cradle with the fish inside, carried it up the bank, and hung it on the scale: 125 pounds, after deducting the weight of the frame. They hustled back into the water, pointed the big snout out, and backed away. The gar swept its green tail and glided off.
After releasing the black gar, Satterfield and Parker set up again. A double! Parker was almost sentimental. “We’re talking about something very rare and special,” he said. “The alligator gar is like a 12-or 15-pound largemouth bass.”
Wayne Satterfield, who had shot the huge alligator gar, pulled up in his red pickup truck. Earlier he had passed around a picture of the dead fish suspended from a tree. It weighed more than 200 pounds and looked like a duckbilled tiger shark. Now he walked the bank, alert. He sensed mischief. In his first pass he had argued playfully with his cousin, reminding him that he was still the prime suspect for turning loose a cottonmouth in his deer cabin a few years back. It had made for quite a scare.
“I know you did it, Gary,” he said. “It was you.” Satterfield had denied it, but maybe a little too emphatically. Now Wayne scanned the shoreline. “Gar fishing,” he said, saying the words as if they tasted bad. “Gar fishing.” He took a seat.
“Getting any?” he asked. “We caught two,” Satterfield said. “So where are they?” Then he realized it. Parker and Satterfield had released them. His voice jumped a pitch. “Aw, Gary, don’t be putting them gar back. They eat everything, bass, catfish, crappie.”
He settled back in his chair. I asked him what became of the alligator gar he had shot. “We had him hanging on the tree for a bit,” he said. “And then I laid him out in the pasture and he rotted.”
He sat silently for a while and then pointed at his cousin. “Everybody around here is trying to get rid of them,” he said. “And he’s putting them back in the lake.”
Alligator gar struck throughout the day. When it was my turn, the fish bolted at the hookset, and I could feel it thrumming through the thick fiberglass rod. This fish had weight, like something from saltwater. As I worked it to shore it swung right and swam under a tethered barge. I felt it thumping against the barge’s bottom. Then it ran clear. It tried to turn and run again, but it was tired, and soon it glided into Satterfield’s frame.
It was 72 inches long. It had fought like an impossibly large pike, with long straight runs, but as it ended its resistance it provided a moment of magnetism, emerging with mouth flared, broad-backed, thickly scaled, ancienta thing from another time. When we stood astride it and pried open its huge mouth, we found a rusted hook hanging from its jaw and a circular white scar on its shoulder.
This fish was a veteran. Once it had stopped an arrow, perhaps an arrow fired from Wayne’s bow. But Wayne had left already. Parker and Satterfield were a new kind of alligator gar fishermen and didn’t care what everyone else thought. We turned the big fish around, pointed it toward open water, and watched it sweep its wide, spoon-shaped tail back out into Big Lake.