Many times while fishing backwaters in Texas, and also a few other southern states, I wished I had brought my bow along. Sometimes it could have provided dinner when a rabbit wandered by, or, in season of course, sometimes a deer. But mostly I wanted it for a particular fish known as an alligator gar.
The gar is an ancient fish, a holdover from the age of dinosaurs. It comes in several sizes and types, but the one that I would regularly see had a double row of sharp teeth and was somewhat reminiscent of an alligator. And many times it would take my bait as though I was there just to feed it.
When I first started asking about bow fishing at the local hardware store, the owner just looked at me as though I was crazy. He was equipped to sell me anything for bow hunting or pole fishing—but bow fishing? I inquired at several hardware stores before I found one that knew what I was asking for.
Stud’s Hardware was one of the local fishing and hunting supply stores in Fort Worth. They sold a few screws, nails, and hammers, I think, but mostly they existed for the local hunters and fishermen. One of the employees, Eddie, was a bow hunter like me, and he had recently begun to bow fish. He had managed to talk the owner into special ordering a bow reel and fishing arrows from an archery company, and he had been using it almost every time he wrangled a day off work.
He had his setup in his truck and ran out to get it for me. When I looked at it I could see the simplicity of the concept, and I thought I could make it work for me. When I left the store that afternoon, I had left behind down payments for the same equipment. I could expect it to arrive in six to eight weeks.
Summer was almost over when the reel and arrows arrived, but all was not lost. Eddie offered to take me to one of the rivers for a few lessons, but first he wanted to see for himself my skills on a stationary target. I assured him I was quite proficient, and I had been a successful bow hunter for several years. But he wanted to see for himself, so we went to my place where I had a number of permanent targets set up at varying distances.
I was quite used to the targets and their distances, so for me a center shot was normal, but Eddie had no idea of the distances. I took the first release at a fifty-five yard target and was about two inches from center. Eddie placed his arrow about the same. Next was a target at about thirty-two or thirty-three yards. I centered my shot, and Eddie’s arrow tip was touching mine. We played this game for dozen or so shots before Eddie decided I could hold my own with the bow. Now we would try this in the river.
The Trinity River holds some strange wildlife, and among the strangest are the snapping turtles. These provided my first water dwelling targets, but they were as safe as could be. I couldn’t hit one if I had to. Eddie tried to explain the light angles to me, but I just couldn’t get it. It wasn’t until he took a shot that I could see the difference of angle where the arrow entered the river compared to the location of the turtle. Then I watched as he reeled in the turtle. It was a fight. Man versus turtle. But I learned how it was done, and I learned that day how to dispatch a turtle and prepare it for the stew pot. (For the record, snapping turtle isn’t very tasty.)
For the next seven or eight months I practiced bow fishing in an attempt to learn the angles. When I could, I traveled to a nearby stock tank where I could shoot at various things growing just under the water’s surface. Weeds, lily pads, and other ‘stuff’ became targets for my arrows, and slowly I began to understand. Eddie and I got together a few times; however, he soon moved up to Oklahoma leaving me on my own. But I got there.
Texas fishing regulations allowed for bow hunting, and that surprised me considering I had never before seen anyone attempt it; however, it was legal. There were a few restrictions, and game fish such as bass were not allowed, although gar, carp, catfish, certain turtles and others were fair game any time of the year. I knew that I would be prepared for a gar the next time I encountered one.
Mid-summer had arrived before I saw another alligator gar. It was broiling hot, crystal clear skies, and the humidity was approaching 100 percent. And I was sitting in the tail waters below the dam at Eagle Mountain Lake. These waters held some big fish. Really big fish. A four-foot catfish was not uncommon. And the ‘gator gar could easily double that.
I was soaking a worm under a red and white float and thinking I needed to drop it another 10 feet toward the bottom of the hole I was fishing in. My bow was on the ground beside me gathering dust, and I wasn’t paying much attention to the churning taking place about 40 feet away. I knew it was a gar rolling just under the surface, but it was just a little too far for me to take a shot. Not that it was very far, but I still wasn’t too certain about the angles.
I dropped the line under my float another 10 feet or so and within five minutes a catfish was hooked. It wasn’t a big one, maybe two feet long, and I brought it up to the top rather quickly. When it reached the surface, the catfish began to thrash around a bit, and this must have gotten the attention of some gar, because they began to surface within fifteen feet of the bank I was sitting on. I unhooked the catfish, tossed it over onto some grass and grabbed my bow.
There were two large ‘gator gars on top of the water close enough to me that I decided to take one. I carefully aimed just behind the head of one and released the barbed arrow with the line attached. It was a solid hit, but I saw the most unusual thing—I saw sparks fly when the arrow struck the gar. I had to think about that for a moment, but only a moment, because the gar was quite unhappy about the arrow in its neck. It began to thrash and churn the water. It ran deep, then out before surfacing and turning back. And I was just trying to hang on to my bow.
A reel on a bow is little more than a line holder designed to peel off line quickly as an arrow pulls against it in flight. As a retrieving mechanism, it is almost worthless. I grabbed the line with my hands and started pulling the big fish in manually. Slowly I gained mastery over the gar, and eventually I pulled it up onto the bank where it thrashed around for more than an hour.
I tried to kill it more than once, but it refused to die. I carried a small club for dispatching fish, and I whacked that gar’s head until the club broke. Several men nearby were watching me, and one tried to help out by dropping a large rock on its head. I think the big rock just revived the thing into more thrashing. Finally, I dragged it about twenty-five feet back from the water and let it be. Eventually it stopped thrashing, and I put a tape measure to it.
My tape was only six feet long, and the fish was a bit longer. My two-piece measurement put the gar at seven feet ten inches long. I removed my thrash broken arrow from the gar, and now I was faced with what to do with the fish. I hadn’t thought far enough ahead to figure out what to do if I actually harvested a gar.
The man who dropped the rock on its head asked if I would give him part of the fish, and I told him if he wanted it, I would keep a small portion, and he could have the rest. Problem solved. We cleaned the gar, cut it up, and packed it into his car. I put about a pound of it into my ice chest, and remembered my catfish. By now it had been out of the water a little too long.
Well, a dog beat me to my catfish. The last I saw of it, the fish was in the jaws of a big black lab trotting back to its owner who was fishing nearby. Problem solved. I hate to waste anything I kill.
I took the portion of gar home and cooked it up with a bit of lemon and pepper. I can’t say it was good, but it wasn’t bad either. It was just okay. Over the next year or two before I quit bow hunting, I tried my hand at bow fishing a number of times. Several times I had good shots at gar, but I passed them up. I brought in a few catfish, and on one occasion a huge carp (tasty but bony). When I sold my bow a few years later, the reel and fishing arrows went with it. The man who bought it was anxious to try it out. I hope he still enjoys it.