The line burned through my fingers as the thing I had hooked down in the turbid water heaved and surged. I started taking steps back up to the water’s edge to help clear line faster as my eyes darted down to my line, searching for heart-breaking tangles that might catch on a guide and ruin this adventure before it hardly began.
The last of the slack whipped up off the water and came taut with an audible ‘Ting!’, slapping against the arbor of my reel. I could hear my fishing buddy reeling furiously from down the bank as he prepared to come assist and spectate.
My 8wt throbbed with powerful headshakes; I dropped my rodtip to the downstream side to try and lend some side pressure and turn the force of nature I had latched on to. I was still unsure at this point if I had them or if they had me…
My buddy arrived, mud spattered and a little breathless. I grinned at him and he gave me a slap on the back – we knew this was as close as we had gotten to the Goal. After the initial run the creature in the depths had settled down to a steady, inexorable pull. I couldn’t turn it, couldn’t control it, so I applied pressure and settled back to wait. I tried not to think about all the rocks and trees and other debris that the river had swallowed and that might be waiting to part my twenty pound leader.
When you're fighting a big fish there is that niggling worry that grows in the back for your mind - you must master it. The very fear that you might lose the fish can cause it to happen. Hurried netting attempts, horsing the fish, grabbing too quickly for a leader, bringing in a green fish... all can spell disaster for that fish of a lifetime. Slow is smooth, smooth is fast.
Now, I'm not saying baby the fish either. Apply pressure when applicable, and whip that fish's ass with good fighting technique. You will dispel the whispers of doubt in the back of your mind if you know you're fighting the fish as best you can. This is good for your mental state and leaves the fish in better condition to swim away after a picture or two.
In the middle of the river, the fish surged to the surface.
I got a glimpse of it for the first time as it made a huge swirl, pushing back towards the bottom. My rod was bent in a smooth parabolic curve as I grudgingly gave a few feet of line, and then stopped the fish again. Ah, yes - we've got 'er now. Applying brutal side pressure and reeling in a few inches at a time, I worked the fish up from the bottom and ever closer to my feet.
My fishing partner slipped on a glove and got out a camera. After a couple more short runs for the depths, the fish was beached in all her glory.
We quickly applied a tape and got a measurement -
And revived her, watching her swim away powerfully. Goal Accomplished.
Josh Rinehart joins us today with his side of the gar saga - as the fishing buddy along with me for these memorable trips, I asked him to lend his perspective to the best day we had - easily over 40 gar between us, plus his two surprises. Thanks Josh!
I will attempt to convey the awesomeness of a time spent on the water in an endless pursuit of self discovery, being in awe of nature’s beauty, breaking gear and the ever driving force of a personal best.
As we turn off a nameless country road nearing the destination conversation, previously un-interrupted, has gone out the window along with musty smell of what every fishing vehicle should smell like. There is a hint of some food item lost under a seat from some time during the Clinton administration and a salty musk smell emanating upwards from the floorboards.
Ahhh….this is going to be a great day.
Why? Because we know they’re here, not there or there, they are here. Armed with knowledge from previous endeavors, we are ready for a war. To label this ensuing adventure as a battle would be a gross understatement.
Pop the rear hatch and thus begins the rigging process. Rods assembled, lines threaded, new leaders, triple checked knots, it has begun.
It has all been building to this day. Previous R&D trips have filled us with a sense of confidence erring very close to the cocky side, if not perhaps a tad over the line. This sense of certainty does not come blindly. No, it comes from time on the water and tying bench gaining the knowledge and finely honing technique and gear. Off we trudge, battle-sticks in hand. From the fly to the backing, these are finely tuned instruments that will provide personal bests. Today is the day.
Terms such as “finely tuned”, “honing technique” and “a perfectly developed and assembled fly pattern” can make visions of clear mountain streams, dip nets and creels come to mind. None the less all this effort, time, sweat and a little skin and blood are dedicated for the pursuit of THE gar.
What?!? Why!?! Now……wait….WHAT? Are you out of your rabbit a$$ mind? Go ahead, ask someone where you can target alligator gar and carp on the fly. You will instantly have complete strangers caring about your sanity and mental health, all the while giving you a good looking over. You live 5 blocks off the bay and yet you drove over an hour to catch carp and gar. Oh how it makes the “purists” squirm.
Purist – One who practices or urges strict correctness, especially in the use of words.
Well maybe we're not purists, but hardcore definitely, no matter how misguided or delusional.
We head off down the trail straight for the combat zone. Such walks normally included a pause, pleasant conversation or even a photo opportunity, not today. I say “walk” but what I mean is a pretty quick trot edging on the hint of a lope. As we break through the tree line the silent communication going back and forth between us is screaming.
The anticipation and excitement bring back feelings of a childhood Christmas Eve. Heading down the bank littered with ankle-grabbing wild grapevine is further complicated by trying to keep focused on your footing all while the animalistic part of your brain commands you to look for the roll of a garasaurus.
Gear bags down, everything triple checked and now all focus is on the water. For those of you who have never seen a monster alligator gar roll, well, it will send a man back in evolution about 4 million years. Fitting, as the gar has virtually gone unchanged for about that amount of time. In awe of such a sight grown, educated men are reduced to grunting and pointing. You try to speak but somehow that part of your brain vapor locks. You, the reader, may chuckle to yourself, maybe laugh, either because it has happened to you or it hasn’t and you don’t yet understand.
Thus begins one of the most awesome days I have ever experienced. Missed hook sets, fish in hand, broken line, cut leader... we quickly lost count of it all. The ever-present thought in the back of my mind, did I have enough flies? What how does that even happen to us? Not out of the hot pattern, out of flies?!? Whew, found the second spare fly box in the bottom of the gear bag.
New fly, leader, tippet chug a bottle of water half time is over. Half time, who am I kidding? I am almost slap wore out. With the fishing as hot as the Texas sun beating down, fourth quarter push.
At this point in the game catching is not a cause for concern. The time has come to hunt for the monsters. The recipe includes heavy lead eyes and half of a banty rooster worth of feathers and patience. Casting such a herculean creation with tired arms and a slight crosswind is interesting in itself.
…..strip. You get the picture. The almost time stopping countdown employed hopefully allowing the fly to get down past the small fish. Did I just call 2-4 footers “small”? Why yes I did. About mid-trip you become accustomed to the manner in which the different species of gar take the fly and how they fight.
THUMP!!! Here we go. Stay connected. Stay connected. Stay connected.
The beast on the end is not jumping. Cool, not a long-nose or a spotted gar as they typically do their best tarpon impression once they feel the steel. Could this be the alligator that haunts my dreams? Austin sees the bend in the rod, the slow methodical pulsing of the tip, got an alligator? My mind racing; I have been fortunate enough to hook large fish before, this is a big one.
As I have not yet caught a “big” gar, I am left to believe that at the end of is THE beast. The fish is making short powerful runs as I try to keep the right amount of tension, turn the fish and anticipate the next run. For what seemed like an eternity, no visual, come on show yourself.
A catfish!!! Come on! Where’s the massive gar that I put the steel too?
It is a beautiful blue cat. Well, at least we have something for the freezer. Austin assists in some photos and the catfish is secured for later culinary enjoyment. As I do not regularly target catfish, it felt big and looked big so win – win.
Back at the house I grab an adult beverage of choice as Austin expertly removes four large slabs of tastiness from two blue cats. Yep, I caught another before we left. While the first was considerably larger they will eat well. That’s that and they are in the freezer.
Game plan for tomorrow you ask? Time to replenish the fly inventory, we are heading back tomorrow. Tying and conversation, we both know we can break some records. Ok, let’s look up the numbers for the gar so we can get our names in the book.
WHAT? REALLY? We had destroyed four records that day. That’s ok we will get it done tomorrow. Remember that previous statement about getting cocky?
As I survey the other fly-caught Texas records I am suddenly hit with an odd feeling in my stomach. Following a short session of talking in tongues, did I really do that? The current state record for a blue cat is 8.45 pounds and 27 inches long. As I so cleverly and quickly meat-hawked a beautiful 30.5 inch big-bellied blue cat. Was it my ticket to get in the book? I believe so with all my inner fisherman.
So, there it is. Take it with a grain of salt.
It’s not about getting in the book. I did it, you did it. We know we did it. That’s all that matters. Go ahead and keep telling yourself that, I’ll be staring at the ceiling at 2 a.m. shaking my head.
Well at least we got some meat in the freezer and 9 personal bests between us in one day.
It was hot. The weight of the sunlight was almost a palpable thing, given mass by the humidity of the air.
My buff drank sweat directly from my pores, almost able to keep up with its wicking duties. I was consciously breathing through my mouth instead of my nose so that my glasses wouldn't fog.
None of this bothered me. I was born down here - hot summers are all I know. Hardcore steelheaders rely on the cold to keep the rivers clear of the unworthy; I have the heat.
Down the bank, my fishing buddy was cussing quietly as he missed a strike, and then suddenly came tight with a heavy strip strike. Gar are great training for tarpon - gotta hit ‘em hard. Go google a picture of a gar skull and you’ll understand why. They’re all bone.
The fish leapt from the water, showing itself to be a medium sized longnose. A fun catch, but not what we were after.
We had seen the Kraken, and we had our hearts set on nothing less than her.
So began the game - cast as absolutely far as you can, wherever you thought a ‘gator gar might be lurking. Slowly strip back, feeling for any deviation that might mean a fish has picked up your fly. Smell the river, watch the dragonflies, strip, cast, repeat.
A solid peck telegraphed down my line; a swift strip strike came tight to a fish buried in the murk of the river. It wasn't like hooking a brick wall, so I knew it wasn't the Kraken. A couple minutes later a nice spotted gar appeared from the depths. These are the prettiest of the gar, superbly mottled and camouflaged for their watery environ. I slipped on a glove for the final approach. Thus protected from the coarse armor, it was easy to pop the hook out and slip the fish back into the water.
This time back down towards my buddy. Flicking fly lines immediately split the distance between us. Two lines, one mustard orange and one light blue, drifted together down the lazy, swirling current. The flies sinking down, perhaps even now passing within inches of a gar, THE gar…
Strip, sink…. Strip, sink…
All the way back ‘til the leader connection is just outside the rod tip. Shake out a couple feet of line, roll cast to get everything going and the satisfying acceleration of a couple good double hauls. Then fishing again - the most zen part of fly fishing, in tune with everything and nothing at once. Reaching for the slightest hint… wait… there’s a bit of extra weight… a slight sluggishness… my left hand grips and rips the fly line back past my left hip as my right hand powers the rod back to the right. Or… tried to.
The movement of my right hand is arrested suddenly by a great weight attached to the end of my line. The line thrums with power and starts leaving, burning through the tight grip of my left hand. I had time to turn and look wide-eyed down the bank and succinctly sum up the situation to my fishing partner - “Oh s*^%.”
It was midafternoon. The Texas heat bore down on my shoulders as I stood silently by the riverside, listening to the background drone of katydids and cicadas. My fishing partner readied tippet and selected his fly down the bank a ways. I could smell the heat, and the river; a subtle bouquet of drying plant material and mud. I took note of all this, but my eyes never left the water. I was searching for a sign. As the water warmed its ability to retain oxygen decreased, and as a result a fish that could use it’s air bladder like a lung would have an advantage. A predatory advantage over the sluggish, oxygen-starved minnows and other prey. A gar advantage.
There. A subtle roll, not really a gasp for breathe just kind of a sip. Small gar, that one. Probably a longnose. Another rolled, and another.
Rod in my right hand, leader in my left. My fly hung a few inches below my left hand, swaying gently in the occasional puff of breeze that crawled through the riparian vegetation. My eyes slightly unfocused, looking at nothing and everything. The heat was hot, and the insects droned on.
Down the bank, my fishing partner waded gently out into the water, ripples emanating from his knees as he stopped and started stripping a pile of light blue line into the water.
From the corner of my eye I watched the pile zip up off the water as he flexed the rod through a double haul. I took a deep breath of hot, wet air, and stepped into the water. It was warm, but cool to my legs and the backs of my knees. I stopped and started making my own line pile, still watching.
Tha-wOOSH! Mid-river, a leviathan surfaced for a fleeting moment, gulping air and turning immediately back towards the bottom, throwing water with a caudal fin as big as my head.
I glanced over at my buddy down the bank. He grinned and motioned with his head towards the retreating ring of ripples created by the rolling alligator gar. Go get ‘em, he said without words. I nodded. So it begins…