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Out There: Gars and arrows

4/25/2006

Editor's note: Watch for Keith "Catfish" Sutton appearing on "The Casting Couch," a one-minute commentary on the wild world of fishing that airs on Saturdays during "BassCenter" on ESPN2.


It's Aug. 4, 2005, and Robin Parks and Keith Riehn of Hillsboro, Mo., are bowfishing on Texas' Sam Rayburn Lake, something they do every summer.

They are hunting gar at one of their favorite spots, when a big fish rolls behind their boat. They turn the boat and cruise back through the area.

Suddenly, a huge fish breaches. Both archers see it at the same time. They shoot simultaneously, and both arrows strike the fish right behind its gills.

"The arrow placement was perfect," Parks later told Dallas outdoor writer Ray Sasser. "That really takes the fight out of a big fish. I still followed the fish with my electric motor for three different runs.

"It came to the surface, and Keith grabbed a third bow that we had rigged with a retriever reel and put another arrow in the fish."

Fifteen minutes passed before the men could gaff the 224½-pound alligator gar. The monstrous fish measured 8 feet, 2 inches long and had a 44-inch girth.

It is the pending Bowfishing Association of America world record and is one of the largest freshwater fish landed in the United States this year.

Old reports of 12- to 20-foot alligator gars probably are exaggerations, but the fish's true size is nonetheless amazing.

One of the heaviest on record is an 8-foot-5, 356-pound specimen caught in Arkansas's Horseshoe Lake in 1931. A denizen from Vermilion Parish in Louisiana was documented at 9 feet, 8.5 inches and 302 pounds. The world rod-and-reel record, a 279-pounder, came from Texas' Rio Grande River in 1951.

The alligator gar's historical range included the Mississippi River and its tributaries from the lower reaches of the Ohio and Missouri Rivers southward to the Gulf of Mexico.

Today, however, these fish are primarily restricted to coastal rivers, with inland populations persisting in Arkansas, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas and Missouri.

Hunting gator gars is an activity with roots deep in history.

American Indians in the Southeast ate these giants of freshwater, and, ironically, used their scales for arrow points.

Each hard, enamel-covered scale is shaped like a small arrowhead, with a "cut-in" base that fit nicely into cane arrow shafts. The two anterior edges are keenly sharp, one bearing conspicuous saw-like serrations.

The Indians must have found each gar a welcome treasure trove of ready-to-use arrow points.

Sherod A. Drennen, a sportsman and physician from Stuttgart, Ark., was one of the first to realize the enormous sporting potential of alligator gars in the 1930s. He spent decades fishing for these brutes on the big rivers of eastern Arkansas and quickly learned that gator gars were dangerous and hard to kill.

"For a long time, Dr. Drennen used a high-powered .22 rifle to fire hollow-point bullets into the heads of the vicious brutes as they were being hauled toward the boat," proclaimed a 1941 article in "Spot" magazine.

"But only an excellent shot planted directly between the eyes could kill them. Sometimes, too, an apparently dead fish would suddenly come to life after it had been landed.

"One, which had been lying on land for 10 minutes, rose on its tail and struck a dock man with its snout, cutting a deep, three-inch gash in his forehead."

The problem of how to kill the gars was solved when Drennen teamed up with L.E. Piper, an archer who worked for the Ben Pearson archery company. Piper demonstrated to Drennen that the steel-pointed arrows he used were more lethal than bullets.

"Dad told me that each alligator gar has two diamond-shaped scales on top of its head," Piper's son Lew told me in a recent interview. "And unless the arrow hit one of those two small targets, it wouldn't penetrate the gar's thick hide; it would just bounce off.

"I imagine it was quite a feat, even for a crack archer like my dad, to hit such a small target while standing in a rocking boat. But he did it time and time again while accompanying Dr. Drennen."

"When I was 10 or 12 years old," Lew Piper continued, "I'd go with my dad to fish out of a commercial dock at Clarendon (on the White River). I remember when they'd hook one of those fish, it would come up and tailwalk across the surface. Dad said it wasn't unusual for one to jump completely over the boat."

To hunt the gar, Dr. Drennen designed a flat-bottomed scow topped by a sturdy overhead platform from which he could cast. Attached to his heavy rod were 90-pound line, a 4-foot leader of piano wire and an 8/0 iron treble hook.

"When the fish strikes, it dives and heads down stream," the Spot article noted. "From there on it's a fight with man and fish pitched in a battle destined to go on for half an hour and sometimes as long as an hour. Inevitably, however, the fish tires, and the fisherman slowly and watchfully brings it to gaff.

"The archer takes careful aim, pierces the tough rhombic hide with one or two of his arrows as the gar breaks water. But sometimes, the gar breaks when right at the gaff, slaps out viciously with powerful sweeps of its huge tail, and tries to sink its sharp conical teeth into the arms of its captors."

By the 1950s and '60s, several individuals were perfecting techniques for taking big gar with bowfishing equipment alone. One was another Stuttgart resident, Dr. Rex Hancock. Little Rock sportswriter John Heuston accompanied Hancock on one of his White River expeditions in the 1960s; it was an experience he says he's never forgotten.

"You didn't dare catch a big gator gar on ordinary bowfishing tackle because it might jerk you right out in the water," Heuston told me. "But Rex devised a way of getting them.

"He used an open reel that you wound the cord around by hand. He had a small white cork tied to the end of his bowfishing line, and when a gar was hit, the line peeled off and this cork floated in the water.

"Attached to the cork was a metal ring. If he hit a really big gar and it took off, he'll pull that line loose and before it got gone, he'd hook a 55-gallon drum to the ring on the cork and pitch it overboard.

"Then the gar would drag this big drum around until it wore itself out and we were able to get it."

Heuston managed to kill a 6-foot-8 gator gar on his trip with Hancock.

"I decided to keep it and have it mounted," he said. "When I told one of the guys who was with us I was going to keep that fish, he thought I was crazy.

"But he told me years later, 'I wish I had saved one. Of all of them I caught, I didn't mount a single one.' He caught some I think that went up close to 8 feet."

In recent decades, it's become increasingly difficult to find a big gator gar. Regulated sport-fishing and bowfishing are not threats, but habitat destruction and commercial fishing have nearly wiped out the species in many areas.

These Herculean titans, fish that swam with the dinosaurs, are at risk throughout most, if not all of their range.

Fortunately, biologists are working hard to learn more about these amazing creatures. New management strategies have been devised that may help increase populations and ensure the well-being of the species.

Imagine the fantastic sport we could enjoy if we foster the resurgence of these magnificent giants.

In the Columbia River of Oregon and Washington, another giant, the white sturgeon, has made a comeback after being pushed to the brink of extinction. Today, visiting anglers spend millions of dollars fishing for them there.

Could we not do the same for alligator gars in some waters?

Certainly it is possible, but only with the support and encouragement of anglers and bowfishing enthusiasts.

Let us hope enough people realize this before it is too late. If the second-largest freshwater fish on our continent disappeared without a protest, what a tragedy that would be.

To contact Keith Sutton, email him at catfishdude@sbcglobal.net. His new book, "Out There Fishing" (Stoeger Publishing; $19.95), is available at www.catfishsutton.com.