It was the meanest looking animal I've ever seen. Sharp, inch-long teeth studded its broad alligator-like jaws. Its mouth was twisted into a malevolent smirk. Dark eyes big as half dollars turned in their sockets, following my movements.
"Come closer so I can eat you, boy," it seemed to be thinking.
It was perhaps eight feet long. Rope bound its snout, but I still didn't feel safe. Two bullet holes punctuated the top of its massive head, yet still the brute lived.
I had not touched the fish, but I knew the scales armoring its body were hard as stone.
A man was chopping at the monster's back with a hatchet, and with each blow he struck, sparks flew.
"He'll go 200 pounds, easy," said Garfield Stacy, the commercial fisherman who had captured the giant in east Arkansas' St. Francis River.
"Used to be a lot of big ones, but them days are gone. Gator gar this size are scarce as 5-pound crappie."
The alligator gar lay atop a board between two sawhorses, and Garfield was cutting the ivory-like scales from a narrow strip down its back.
"Don't reckon we'll see another one this size for a long time," he said, working the thick shell away from the meat. "And as far as I'm concerned, good riddance."
Days of Yore
I never did see another gar that big. I fished the St. Francis River for many years after that day in the mid-1960s, but the big gator gar seem to have disappeared.
I used to be glad they were gone. When I'd swim the river with my teenage buddies, the wicked eyes of Garfield's monster followed me.
Many nights I've dreamed of that beast. I've felt its teeth sinking into my leg, and I've looked into those dark eyes as it pulled me to the bottom to eat me.
In size, alligator gar surpass all North American fishes except white sturgeon. I have a 1931 photograph of a supposed 356-pounder, 8 feet, 5 inches long, taken from Arkansas's Horseshoe Lake.
A specimen from Vermilion Parish, Louisiana, was documented at 9 feet, 8.5 inches and 302 pounds. The world rod-and-reel record, a 279-pounder, came from the Rio Grande River, Texas, in 1951.
In the 1950s, sport fishermen flocked to east Arkansas' big rivers to pursue alligator gar.
"We usually caught six to 12 each day, all over 100 pounds," says John Fox of Ocklawaha, Florida, who guided gator gar anglers on the L'Anguille, St. Francis, White and Mississippi rivers from 1954 through 1958. "The biggest I caught weighed 220 pounds."
Fox witnessed several dangerous encounters with these leviathans.
"We used wooden boats in those days," he says. "And these fish often jumped 8 to 10 feet straight up when hooked. I always told clients to be careful one didn't jump in the boat, because it could knock the sides out with its thrashing tail.
"You could get seriously injured, too. A game warden fishing with us one day let one jump in the boat. It tore the side of the boat out, and it broke his leg!"
To contact Keith Sutton, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org