When Joseph Williams of Cleveland went fishing in the Trinity River below Lake Livingston dam April 14, 2011, he was prepared to catch a big fish—a big alligator gar, the biggest freshwater fish in Texas.
“I was out for a big fish,” Williams said. “I caught several and lost several that day. I had some that I couldn’t turn that broke off. I think they were bigger than the one I caught—I have sure seen bigger.”
But Williams did catch a 7-foot, 9-inch monster so big it had to be weighed at a truck stop, where it was officially recorded as an even 200 pounds. “We did weigh the fish on uncertified scales we know to be reliable that showed it to be 230 pounds,” Williams said, “but the truck stop scales only read in 50-pound increments, so that was the weight we had to use for the record.”
Williams hoped to release the fish alive and capture the state catch-and-release record for alligator gar, but it could not be revived when put back into the water. The fish is now the rod-and-reel record for the Trinity.
As big as it was, the fish was not the biggest ever taken from the Trinity or from other Texas rivers and lakes. The state record for rod-and-reel remains Bill Valverde’s 1951 Rio Grande catch weighing 279 pounds. In 2001 Marty McClellan set the state bow-fishing record for alligator gar with a 290-pounder from the Trinity. From the Nueces River in South Texas came the all-tackle record, a 302-pounder T.C. Pierce, Jr., found on his trotline in 1953. And fishing guide Kirk Kirkland reported a 9-foot, 6-inch 365-pounder in 1991 from the Trinity.
With their massive, armor-plated body and mouth bristling with teeth, alligator gar look prehistoric—and they are. Perhaps because of their fierce appearance, alligator gar have been feared and blamed for attacks on humans, though there are no documented cases. Still, they have been largely extirpated from much of their natural range; Texas remains one of their last strongholds.
Alligator gar are opportunistic feeders and consume primarily non-game species such as gizzard shad and freshwater drum.
Alligator gar management has progressed considerably in Texas since the 1930s, when the predecessor of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) actively attempted to exterminate alligator gar by electrocuting them with a hopped-up version of a modern electrofishing boat that temporarily stuns fish.
Currently Texas permits the harvest of one alligator gar per day with no minimum length limit. Bow fishing, rod and reel and trotlines are all legal methods for harvesting the limit of one fish per day.
The current regulation was put in place in 2009 due to the increasing popularity of fishing for the species and its high vulnerability to overharvest. “We are currently studying alligator gar population levels, what level of harvest is currently occurring and what level of exploitation might contribute to a population decline,” said Craig Bonds, a fisheries biologist for TPWD. “If we waited to see an actual decline, it would take decades to rebuild the population.”
“Mathematical models and TPWD research suggest that alligator gar are very sensitive to overharvest,” explains TPWD research biologist Warren Schlechte. “Even low levels of overharvest can have dramatic results. For example, harvesting 9 percent of the population annually instead of the 3 percent to 4 percent currently being harvested can result in a 53 percent reduction in population in 25 years, and it would take 50 years for the population to recover even with no harvest.” [For more information, see Alligator Gar Facts below.]
Alligator gar are long-lived fish that do not reach sexual maturity until the age of 8 to 10 years. Since most anglers prefer to harvest older individuals because they are larger, this can potentially reduce the number of fish able to reproduce and replenish the population. This is complicated by the fact that the damming of rivers throughout Texas has reduced seasonal flooding of lowlands, which alligator gar require for spawning.
It was concern for the future of the species that led Joe Williams to switch from bow fishing for alligator gar to rod-and-reel angling. “I don’t bow fish for alligator gar much anymore,” he said. “It’s more fun to catch and release them and catch them again. As long as you use conservation, and keep a sustainable amount there, either way of fishing for them is fine, but anything can be overdone.”
The big gar was the biggest fish Joe Williams has ever caught. For most anglers, a 100-pound-plus alligator gar will be the fish of a lifetime, and the desire to have a mount of the fish to hang on the wall has motivated many anglers to harvest fish. However, it is possible to have your fish and release it, too, by having a fiberglass replica prepared by a taxidermist.
In general taxidermists will need photographs showing the fish from different angles to show head width, girth and coloration as well as measurements of the total length, girth behind the head and pectoral fins, girth in the middle of the fish in front of the pelvic fins and girth in front of the anal fin.
“While it is legal to harvest one alligator gar a day, catch-and-release fishing with rod and reel is an equally exhilarating and more conservation-minded way to fish for alligator gar,” said Bonds. “Releasing fish after they are caught, measured and photographed will help assure these fish will have the opportunity to perpetuate the species and make it possible for present and future anglers to continue to enjoy the extraordinary recreational experience of bringing one of these incredible fish to hand.”
If anglers intend to release fish, TPWD encourages them to use rod-and-reel methods that result in fish being hooked in the mouth. Examples include circle hooks or small treble hooks that can penetrate bone if set prior to the bait being swallowed. It is illegal to release fish after shooting them with lawful archery equipment.
“The history of wildlife management in the United States and Texas is replete with examples of species that have been saved from significant decline or extirpation by the actions of hunters and anglers who were willing to accept limits on their ability to take game in order to ensure that their cherished outdoor pursuits would persist for the appreciation and enjoyment of future generations,” said Dave Terre, chief of research and management for TPWD’s Inland Fisheries Division. “We hope that anglers will agree with the need to protect and preserve one of Texas’s great iconic recreational treasures, the alligator gar.”