The ancient stories about huge Mississippi River alligator gar gained credence a few days ago when a Mississippi commercial fisherman brought in the largest gator gar ever recorded.
It weighed 327 pounds officially. Biologists with the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks measured it at 8 feet, 5 1/8 inches long, and 47 inches around.
Fisherman Kenny Williams lives at Vicksburg, Miss. His catch eclipses the world record of 279 pounds but will not replace it, since Williams caught the gar in a net and not with sport fishing gear.
In comparison, the Arkansas alligator gar record, one of the more impressive state marks, is 215 pounds, made on the Arkansas River in 1964.
Mark Twain wrote about Mississippi River gar big enough to swallow small skiffs. Other authors did likewise, and the word-of-mouth lore surpassed the writings. They also told of 200-pound catfish, but none of these ever made it to scales and in front of cameras.
Williams was by himself when he found the huge gator gar tangled in his net. It was on Chotard Lake, with is an oxbow off the main Mississippi north of Vickburg. It is not far from the Arkansas border. It is also just across the river from Transylvania, La., near where the venerable teddy bear story was born after Theodore Roosevelt’s bear hunt way back when.
Bobby Cleveland, a veteran outdoor writer with the Jackson, Miss., Clarion-Ledger, tells Williams’ story:
"Williams, who said he weighs 172 pounds, was alone in a 16-foot aluminum boat. He did have some help from nature.
"’Thank goodness I caught it in February when the water temperature was in the low 40s,’ he said. ‘This fish was so lethargic. It was not fighting me. It was like dead weight. Had it been, say, 50-degree water or warmer, it would have been a different story.’
"Williams had spent most of Valentine’s Day morning running nets he’d set in Chotard just before sunset on Sunday. ‘I was back on the lake right after sunrise on Monday and was checking my nets,’ he said. ‘I was having a great day. I had already caught about 90 percent of my week’s quota of buffalo fish when I checked this net about 9 a.m. It was tied on the bank and anchored about 75 yards out in the lake.
"’I ran into a spot where the net was hung up. I freed it and took out a few more fish and then it was hung up again. I started pulling on it, slow and steady and it started coming up like dead weight. It was like when you’re rod and reel fishing and you hook a long limb or something. All of a sudden this massive head popped out of the water. I was in shock. It was so huge.’
"’I was looking at this fish tangled in the top string of my net, and the adrenaline kicked in. I pushed the thought of danger to the back of my mind and started concentrating on catching this fish. I told myself you are only going to get one chance at a fish like this in your life. You have to catch it. You have to get this fish in this boat.’
"Williams was in a 16-foot long, 5-foot wide aluminum boat, alone with no tools that could assist in handling such a monster.
"’I tried to pull him in a few times and he kept slipping out of my hands and he almost got away. Then I put on my glove and ran my hand as far up in his gills as I could and grabbed on to something real hard and hung on. I used all the energy and I guess the adrenaline I had left and started pulling. Took about 30 minutes in all, and I was tired.’
"’When he finally was in the boat, laying there, and I could see him all, that’s when I knew what I had done. He was so big, but he just laid there. He was too cold and probably too tired from being in that net so long. But he was just barely in the net. He wasn’t wrapped in the netting itself, just the top cord and it was wrapped around his upper jaw twice. It was so loose that it fell off during the struggle.’
"Williams tried to keep the fish alive, but failed. ‘I wanted to donate it to somebody to keep in a live tank on display but that didn’t work out, but I did donate it to the Museum of Natural Science in Jackson. They promised me they would get it mounted and keep it on permanent display in Mississippi.’"
Fisheries biologists estimated the big gator gar was between 50 and 70 years old.
In Arkansas, alligator gar have declined in numbers but are still found, in addition to the Mississippi River, the Arkansas River, lower White River, lower St. Francis River, Red River in southwest Arkansas and the lower Ouachita River.
Alligator gar are creatures of southern rivers. The largest state record, also the world record, is from the Trinity River in Texas, a 279-pound fish caught in 1951.
Arkansas and Mississippi are tried for the No. 2 spot with 215-pound alligator gar. The Arkansas record came from the Arkansas River near Clarksville, and the Mississippi record came from the Mississippi River near Natchez.
Joe Mosby is the retired news editor of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission and Arkansas’ best known outdoor writer. His work is distributed by the Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock. He can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.