In memory of my father
We didn’t know we were going for gar when we pulled the canoe from atop the 4Runner, dragging it over the guardrail and down the hidden trail which runs two-hundred yards to the water through thick, Texas scrub. We didn’t know we were going for gar when we launched the canoe amid flooded hardwood trunks and low-hanging, long-thorned vines, watching as a Carolina wolf spider the size of our faces scampered up and away, disappearing into the canopy above our heads. In front of us, crossing open water, a dark, heavy-bodied snake sine-waved over the surface, seemingly defining physics.
“Is that a moccasin?” Tom asked.
“Looks like it. Too far to tell for sure.”
“Yup. They’re here.”
“What do we do if a water moccasin tries to get in our canoe?”
“But what if one does?”
“Hit him with your paddle.”
Tom whistled under his breath.
“If you say so.”
For several years I’d been eyeing the backwater. At the far upper end of the big lake, it’s an intimate and wild place of bays between flooded oak groves. I’d even gone so far as to find the trail, but I hadn’t fished it. Never had the right partner, until Tom came down. It’d been eleven days since my Dad’s funeral. Tom’s trip down to Texas was less vacation than the sort of last-minute, drop-everything kind of trip that only a well-seasoned fishing partner knows how to make.
“Let’s go all the way to the back, on the far side, beyond that finger of trees,” I said. “See if we can find the creek mouth. Looks like there’s lily pads and shit to check out.”
It took twenty minutes to reach our destination, but it was a pleasant enough paddle. Warm, not too hot. Blue skies with just a touch of wind out of the south. The mozzies, for once, left us alone. The water was high and stained by recent thunderstorms. Cattle egret and blue heron roosted in the oak limbs, hunting frogs and minnows. There was a primordial lifey-ness to the place, to the moment.
We’d rigged four and five-weight single-hand rods with a small version of my favorite streamer pattern (the Bead Belly Baitfish—check out the tying video here,) intent on demo-ing the new OPST Commando Smooth intermediate lines and maybe bumping into some bass, crappie, or hybrid stripers. I was excited to practice on my Skagit casting from a seated position in the canoe.
When we’d paddled a satisfactory distance into the back bay, we began fishing—working the edges of the flooded timber and lily pads.
“What is that!?” Tom asked, pointing to a three-foot-long torpedo shape hovering just under the surface.
“It’s a gar.”
“Yeah, alligator gar by the looks of it.”
“That’s a twenty-pound fish!”
“They get a whole lot bigger. Look there’s another one.”
Another gar rolled in the middle of the bay. Then another. Suddenly, there seemed to be gar everywhere we looked—rising up out of the mirk as if they were coming to have a look at us, then sinking down, disappearing as quickly as they appeared.
In front of the canoe, at the edge of some flooded scrub, we saw the flank of a fish glowing neon blue-green in the tannic water. Despite being armed only with a four-weight Tom did not hesitate. He cast to the fish, as I knew he would. Tom was the type of fisherman who would hook a great white on a crappie cane pole just to see what would happen.
“I’m on!” Tom cried, hurried clearing his line as his rod doubled and the fish bolted away.
“No,” I said, in disbelief. “Are you solid?”
“Seems like I’ve stuck him!” Tom said with a laugh, line peeling from his reel.
“And he’s not fouled? You didn’t stick him in the tail or something?”
“No way dude! I saw it eat the fly. Then I got the head shakes. Definitely in the mouth.”
Well, this won’t last long, I thought. Alligator Gar come equipped with a set of chompers that rival velociraptors’ and no matter how good our OPST fluorocarbon tippet was, at 1x I had little doubt it was about to be sliced through.
Tom swung the rod low and increased the pressure, testing to see if he could move the fish. The leader held and the fish rolled at the surface, in more lazy annoyance than any kind of panic.
“Holy shit! That things got to go thirty-five or forty pounds. Can you move it at all?”
“Not really. But we still got a solid connection.”
The back end of Tom’s fly line left the reel, the fish was headed steadily towards the heavy timber.
“You better lock down and make him tow the canoe,” I said, giggling now. “I can’t believe you’ve done this!”
Tom palmed the reel, the canoe swung around, and we were off, the leader holding strong. The tactic worked and after towing the canoe for fifty yards, the fish tired. Tom applied side pressure and was able to turn the fish away from the trees.
“This is crazy” I said. “We just might land this thing.”
The gar swam slowly for open water, I paddled after him and Tom reeled in. We were back on the fly line. I had visions of the hero photo we might get featuring this four-plus-foot monster draped across the beam of the canoe, my Bead Belly Baitfish hanging from its toothy jaw.
“How we gonna do this?” Tom asked, as he reeled in within thirty feet.
` “I don’t know a lot about these things,” I replied. “But I’m certain not going to try to lip it like a bass. People say big gar scales will cut you bad, too. So, grabbing it by the tail is a no go.”
“Well what then?”
“I think we need to get a lasso around its tail or behind the pec fins. We might could use the old stringer rope in the cooler.”
“Hope you’ve been practicing your trick roping.”
Tom eased the gar canoe-side and I grabbed the leader. As I started to lift, the tippet gave way.
“Well, that’s that,” I said, holding up the severed fluorocarbon. “I barely pulled. Sliced it clean.”
“Go try and lose another one, I guess.”
We fished into the evening until the light was too low, chasing gar around the backwater. We got several more shots and had two more fish eat the fly (including a fish that was fifty pounds or more) but we didn’t stick them.
On the car ride home, we talked excitedly about the fishing—Were the gar always there? How might we increase our chances of landing them? What were the flyrod world records? Could we land a truly big one? As I drove Tom researched alligator gar on his phone.
“Man, these things are weird,” he said. “Did you know they can breathe air?”
“I’ve got to call my dad. He’ll love hearing about this.”
Dad will love this too, I thought before the realization set in: I couldn’t ever tell my father—my first and best fishing partner—about going for gar, or any other fishing trips, for that matter. People often talk about the loss of a love one in terms of a ‘large and sudden hole in the soul’ or some other similar metaphor. Dad’s death wasn’t like that for me. The emotional awareness that he was gone came on much slower, building in an amalgam of small moments like this one.
“Gar date all the way back to the late Jurassic,” Tom continued. “One-hundred-and-forty million years before humans.”
“Can you imagine that backwater if there were T-Rexs?” I said. “Them gar, just swimming around the ankles of wading brontosaurs? And we’re out here just trying to survive the Anthropocene.”
“Really puts things in perspective, doesn’t it?”
“Yes, it does,” I said. “Yes, it does.”