Every now and then an angler in the South, fishing from one of those lightweight car-top craft that are six or seven feet long, is treated to an extraordinary sight. He glances over the side and sees a fish lazing at the surface which is longer than his boat, and a good deal heavier. In fact, the fish may weigh more than the man, his craft and, if he has one, his anchor. The fish is likely to be an alligator gar, a living relic from ancient times.
This creature has a rudimentary lung which enables it to gulp breaths of air when the water is so muddy that other fish cannot exist in it. Its hide is so tough that an ax blow must be delivered just so, else the blade will glance off. (Farmers sometimes drag gars into fields and chop them open for hog feed.) But it is the head that will finally draw the eyes of the startled fisherman. It is wide, like an alligator's, with long powerful jaws lined with big teeth, a few of which may project casually from the end of the lower jaw for slashing purposes. A large alligator gar in the water appears threatening, like a bulldog on the steps of a home.
Fresh-water fishermen often catch these gars on bait, and many do in Mississippi, Alabama and Arkansas. I happen to prefer lures and with them give the beasts a working over when I get the chance. A gar injured my left hand one day and my attitude toward them has been hostile ever since. Dave Young and I were fishing for tarpon from the Texas bank of the Rio Grande, near its mouth. I had one new plug and three old ones—tarpon had taken the rest.
We had no action for a spell, and I got careless. I began reeling the lure in fast when it reached the little strip of murky water near shore. That was a mistake. If you retrieve slowly a gar will not usually bother your plug, nor is he likely to attack the lure in clear water. But in murky water where he doesn't see so well the gar often strikes.
One about six feet long hit my lure hard. It flailed about on the surface for a moment and then bolted. I settled down to the business of trying to save the plug. A gar will put on an amazing burst of speed when it first feels the hook, and its power in short bursts is terrific. In the air a gar will swing its head like a mace just as it does under water at prey. Sometimes it will leap clear, the picture of slashing fury. But the gar lacks the stamina of the tarpon. A tarpon that size could have run off my 150 yards of 20-pound test line in short order.
I found I was able to check the gar at the end of each series of runs. Fifteen minutes after he struck I worked him in near shore and Dave Young waded out and dragged him onto the sand by the steel leader. Then Young went for a club.
The sensible way to kill a gar is to shoot it between the eyes. If you have to do the job with a club, hit just in front of the eyes and keep at it. Dave did that. He banged away until the armor plate of the snout was shattered and the head flattened. The alligator gar lay quiet, so I got a grip on the plug, intending to cut it out and overhaul it.
But the fish came suddenly to life and drove a hook through the middle finger of my left hand, just above the bone. Then he began to flop. I jerked free, severing some tendons that still haven't grown back right. My war with the alligator started then and it isn't over yet.
The outstanding feature of the gar anatomy is its armor plate. The scales grow together in a solid covering and they in turn are covered with a sort of enamel. Dried out, the thick shell rings like a chunk of iron hit with an ax. I learned about that armor plate during the years I went out for gars at night with a lantern and a harpoon.
The only iron that will hold a big one is a harpoon with a flanged barb that opens as the gar pulls against the rope. Unless I hit the armor exactly center, the single-pointed iron invariably bounced off.