Early Season Alligator Gar - with Dawson Hefner
Carp may be the focus of CarpPro but we do like abit of rough. We feature smallmouth buffalo almost as much as we focus on carp, but every now and again we get a peak at the wider world of rough fishing. And what could be rougher than the prehistoric Alligator Gar! This much-maligned and criminally under-valued species is a true American gem and down there in Texas, professional Gar guide Dawson Hefner says...There be River Monsters!
By now, many people have heard of the alligator gar, the largest freshwater fish in Texas. Many also desire to capture one of these awesome fish. It is common knowledge that these fish are best caught during the hottest and driest times of the year. I am not here to dispute that but I would like to add some of my experiences to the information available and open up a new window for targeting them.
Before I go into much detail, please allow me to write a little about myself. I have been fishing for alligator gar exclusively during the summer months for the past four years. I have only targeted them with rod and reel, and that is all I will ever target them with. I view them as the ultimate sport fish in Texas, bar none. I am twenty five years old and I have been angling since I was old enough to hold a fishing pole. I have lived in Texas my entire life, and I sound like it. I have a lovely wife of four years named Kayla who loves and supports me in everything I do, even when I come home covered in fish slime and mud. I have spent many hours on the water learning about the habits of alligator gar and I gain greater respect for them over time. I am thankful for each day I am able to get up and go fishing on our rivers; it is like stepping back in time.
Whenever anglers discuss good times of year to fish, pre-spawn always comes up as one of the top periods for angling success. Regardless of the species of fish, it is simply common knowledge that fish feed up before breeding season gets into high gear. It should come as no surprise then that the alligator gar follows this same pattern. Except for spawning season, alligator gar stay in one area that affords close access to both shallow and deep water. One must know where these areas of ideal habitat are during cool weather, or quickly learn to identify them, either by sight or by using electronics.
Whenever I start out on a given day I always look for an area that I think the gar will feed in, usually an eddy in the current or a flat above a deep hole. The hole may be twenty feet deep but above it there will usually be a flat area. The depth can be from six to eight feet tapering into the deeper section. This flat area is where the active fish will be located and this is where I place my baits first. Should this not produce, I begin working towards the deeper water, hoping to intercept fish moving up to feed. I place my deeper baits near current breaks and eddies. During the early part of the year I have always found the fish to be on the flats feeding. Rigs are simple; wire leader attached to a swivel on one end and a treble hook on the other. I do not change rigs or bait from one season to another. I target alligator gar in both the Sabine and the Trinity Rivers here in Texas. Both rivers have good populations of alligator gar although the Trinity River is more popular.
When choosing my rod and reel set up, I like to have at least a seven foot medium heavy or heavy action rod. Casting or spinning gear may be used, both are effective, but with spinning gear it is easier to cast larger baits used to capture alligator gar. A reel with enough capacity to hold two hundred yards of 80 to 150 pound braid is needed. I recently purchased three of the new Penn Fierce 8000 models. I have these reels coupled with Shakespeare Tiger Rods, seven foot in length. Currently I have them spooled with 40 pound monofilament, which does not work as well as braided line for alligator gar angling but, with consideration to cost, I did not want to spool the reels up with braid before I had a chance to field test them and decide if I liked them or not. The first two times I used the reels they performed well and I will be spooling up with 100 or 150 pound braid once alligator gar season gets into full swing.
Terminal tackle is not complicated, consisting of simple components. I use 135 pound, 7-strand wire leader made by American Fishing Wire, 5/0 3X wire 774 treble hooks made by Eagle Claw, #1 mini crane swivels, also by American Fishing Wire, and connector sleeves of appropriate size to match the wire. When constructing rigs I also use a hook file and a pair of swaggers made for crimping and cutting leader wire. Before I start work on a new leader I always lay out my components; four connector sleeves, two hooks, a four to five foot section of wire, a four to eight inch section of wire, my swaggers, and my hook file.
My first step consists of cutting a four to five foot section of leader wire, followed by a four to eight inch piece that will be used to connect the stinger hook. Second, using one of the four sleeves I laid out I connect the swivel to one end of the long wire. Third, I connect one of the 5/0 treble hooks to the free end of the long wire using another sleeve. Fourth, with the third sleeve I connect one end of the short wire to the eye of the hook attached to the long wire. Finally, using the last sleeve, I attach the second hook to the free end of the short wire. This completes my quick strike rig. After completing the rig I will use a hook file and make sure that all of the points are sharp. I test the points on my finger nail; if they do not dig in they are not sharp. After completing the rig I use my swaggers to crimp down the barbs on the hooks. I crimp the barbs because it aids in hook penetration as well as making hooks easier to remove. I will vary the length of my stinger wire depending on the size of bait I plan to use. The rig should be tied to the main line using a Palmer (Palomar) knot. If using braid I recommend the double Palmer knot.
I match the size of my bait to the size of alligator gar I believe inhabit an area, and I use a variety of species for bait including carp, drum, and sunfish. In my rigging example I am using a medium sized bluegill. Larger species I cut into smaller chunks, although I use the word “small” loosely; some of the pieces will be a pound or more. I rig the bait so that the points of the treble hooks pointback towards the rod, the closest hook to the swivel will be attached to the head of the bluegill, and the stinger will be attached near the tail. The reason this is necessary is that, many times, an alligator gar will pick up bait and run with it only partially in its mouth. Having a hook in each end of the bait gives the angler the best opportunity at having a hook in the fish’s mouth without having to wait until the fish swallows the bait.
Once an angler gets a run with the quick strike rig it is imperative that the hook be set immediately and with great force. Alligator gar have mouths of solid bone for the most part, and a powerful hook set is needed to ensure a positive hook up. These massive fish will jump clear of the water shaking their heads violently and if the hook is not well set it can easily be thrown. It is not uncommon to see baits flung twenty yards when the fish jumps and tension must be kept on the line at all times to prevent this.
One of the difficulties with springtime alligator gar angling is high water. Spring in Texas is usually accompanied by frequent rainfall resulting in river levels being higher than in late spring and summer. This spreads the fish out and gives them more places to feed. It also creates the conditions that alligator gar need in order to spawn. With the extra areas to forage in, and with reproduction on their mind, the fish can be difficult to target if not impossible when they are spawning. Less commonly known is that alligator gar do not spawn without a specific set of conditions and, in some years, they do not spawn at all. This dependence on special conditions for spawning activity is the main reason the alligator gar inhabits such a reduced range today. Damming the rivers and draining the wetlands has reduced their habitat and/or eliminated the flood conditions they require. The other problem is that these fish don’t spawn before they are twelve to fifteen years of age, a long time in the animal kingdom.
Another difficulty with springtime alligator gar angling is the constantly changing weather. Alligator gar are very sensitive to frontal conditions and as each front passes activity grinds to a halt. The longer the weather holds in a stable pattern the more active the fish become. When looking to make an early season trip I watch the weather forecasts intently and keep an eye on river levels before committing. I know from experience that these two things must line up correctly if success is to be expected early in the year. If I see low water levels and highs in the high 70s to low 80s for a couple days running then I know the fish are going to get into an active early season pattern. One has to be quick to take these opportunities; in case you have not heard, the weather changes every five minutes in Texas, except for June, July, and August when it is always hot.
This year Texas has experienced abnormal conditions for late winter and early spring. Warm temperatures and low rainfall combined have resulted in superb early season angling opportunities which are not usually available until late spring and on into summer. I made two trips this year at times when I am normally more concerned with table fare fish such as channel catfish and various sunfish species.
For my earliest alligator gar trip to date, March 20th, I joined up with my good friend, Lawson Eddy, who has fished with me on several occasions. We headed for the Trinity River and an area that I know holds big fish. In our previous experiences, Lawson has landed a personal best of sixty pounds and five and half feet long as well as numerous four foot fish. Lawson has also faced the frustration that all of us in the angling community have at one time or another: “Big fish not only break your line, they also break your heart.” On one of our outings Lawson hooked an alligator gar that would have went well over one hundred pounds but unfortunately the drag locked up on his reel and he was nearly torn from the boat by the fish on the other end.
On our trip earlier this year we revisited the area where Lawson landed his personal best the previous year. It didn’t take long to discover just how active the fish were. Lawson and I spread our rods out over a 100 yard section of river bank, with the farthest rods being placed on bank sticks with remote alarms. Before we were able to get all of the rods out we started getting runs and shortly after we landed a four foot fish. Not bad, I thought. We had around fifteen runs in three hours at this location, with four fish landed and the biggest being near the size of Lawson’s first. We had a great early season trip and Lawson and I plan to target alligator gar again soon.
This was my first experience with alligator gar in March and I was thoroughly impressed with the fish produced. Of particular interest to me was the lack of surfacing fish. Most information available says to look for surfacing fish, indicating they are active. If we had relied on that information for our trip we would never have stopped to fish.
I have been targeting alligator gar successfully for several years but until this year my wife had never accompanied me despite her desire to land an alligator gar. My wife and I were able to get our schedules together one day early in April, and conditions seemed favorable, so I decided it was time for my wife to experience alligator gar first hand. During the long run up river from our launch point my wife enjoyed seeing birds and other wildlife along the banks while I carefully navigated around the many hazards in the river. River boating here in Texas is not for the faint of heart and despite memorization often times hazards in the rivers change with the seasons. If you have never run a boat on a river I don’t suggest the Trinity or the Sabine for your first experience.
After about a forty five minute trip we arrived at one of my favorite spots on the Trinity River. I set our rods out in short order and we didn’t have long to wait for our first fish. I landed the first one so I could have a chance to demonstrate some of the techniques used in playing large fish to my wife. It was a nice specimen at around four feet in length. I told my wife the next one would be hers and soon after we got another run. I told her it looked to be a decent sized fish based on the bend in the rod and after a nice fight I was happy to land my wife’s first alligator gar, a four and a half foot, forty-five pound specimen. I was proud of my wife. She showed no fear in handling this slimy monster and happily smiled as she posed for pictures with the fish. We landed several more fish in this area, but activity slowed and we moved on to another location.
We waited some time for activity, and my wife dozed off. I decided I would take the next run and try to surprise her with a fish thumping around in the boat. Finally around 4pm one of my clickers started going off and I rushed over to the rod. I allowed the fish a few seconds with the bait and then I struck. When I felt the weight of the fish I knew it was larger than the ones previously landed on this trip. One of my favorite things about alligator gar is the fact that they reach sizes in excess of two hundred pounds and will often jump completely free of the water during the course of a fight. This fish cleared the water just off the bank, rousing my wife from her nap. Finally I was able to get the fish subdued and into the boat. After measurements I was able to calculate this sixty six inch fish’s weight at around sixty five pounds. Not a monster by alligator gar standards but not a small fish either. I was happy as this was fish number five on the day for us and there was still plenty of daylight and time left. After photos we released this specimen, as I do with all the alligator gar either I or my companions land. We didn’t get any more fish but we had a great trip together. Nothing beats angling with the family involved.
Last year I made one early season trip, the date was April 13th, and I will always remember that trip for several reasons. First of all, it started out as a solo trip to the Sabine River one afternoon when I got free from work early. This being my first early season outing I was not sure what to expect and resolved myself to patiently wait it out. I baited up with pieces of freshwater drum and cut carp and relaxed. Soon I got a run on one of my rods but failed to hook the fish. After about half an hour another rod got a run and I successfully struck and hooked the fish. After a nice battle I banked a 57 inch alligator gar, my first alligator gar capture in April. This was not my first time to land an alligator gar alone and sometimes difficulties are encountered. In this case the fish rolled down the bank and slithered back into the river before I could get ready for pictures. Mildly annoyed at the premature departure of my guest, I re-baited and sat back down. Before long I got a rather slow run. I picked up the rod and, after assuring myself that this was a fish and not a soft shelled turtle, I struck. To my surprise the fish struck back. As soon as the line was tight the drag began to sing on my reel. This was a big fish! Unfortunately, while trying to get my other rods reeled in to deal with this run, one of them had snagged so I was stuck with an added obstacle in my swim. Little did I know the woe this would later cause. In the mean time I was having a blast fighting this big fish and I decided I was going to need help. I held on with one hand while the drag sang, and with the other I dialed up a buddy of mine who happened to live close by. I quickly explained what was going on and when he asked about my luck I just held the phone up to the side of my reel so he could hear the drag. That was all the explanation he needed and he hurried on his way to my location. Unfortunately it was not quick enough.
Remember where I said I had a snagged line in my swim? Well I was getting the upper hand in the fight with this alligator gar and I could tell she was between six and seven feet long, which would be new personal best. Just when I thought things were going to go my way, she managed to get into my other line and got tangled up. This caused a knot in the line about twenty feet past the tip of my rod and no way to retrieve it any further. I began to panic because my friend had not made it to my location yet, leaving me alone to deal with this new problem--as if landing a one hundred forty pound fish alone was not enough. Controlling my nerves, I attempted to maneuver this fish close enough to the bank to snare it while at the same time dealing with the tangled length of line without the use of my reel. I finally got her close enough to get the snare around her and, just as I believed victory was mine, the fish surged forward with new strength and swam through my landing snare, tangled the snare in the line she was hooked on, tore it from my hands, and then broke the line which was attached to my reel. It was over. I was alone, had just played the biggest fish of my life to the bank, even seen and touched her, but she was gone. No picture, no witness. I was stunned.
No sooner had she left my view than my buddy Richard arrived. I told Richard what had happened while I reset my rods. Since Richard had rushed to my aid, albeit to no avail, I would allow him to have the next run. I think he literally got to sit down for five minutes before one of the three rods went off. As soon as he struck I knew he had hooked a big fish. The drag sang again and Richard hung on for dear life. At one point he lost his balance and was nearly pulled into the river by the gar but luckily for him I was able to grab the back of his belt and stop him from a most undesired swim. Richard and the gar fought back and forth but Richard was able to get the best of the fish and finally pulled her to the bank. I quickly tied a rope around her and pulled her up the bank. We were ecstatic. This was fish was huge! We quickly measured the fish at 79 inches long and 35 inches around, for an estimated weight of around 130 pounds. A new personal best for Richard! After taking pictures we quickly released this worthy opponent back into the river. We did not land any more fish after Richard’s new personal best but we didn’t mind. We were worn out from the epic battles that had taken place that day as well as being covered in mud from head to toe.
While gaining in popularity, alligator gar are still one of the most misunderstood and underappreciated fish in North America. While the majority of information out there says they are best targeted in miserable hot weather during the dog days of summer, I add that for the angler who is on top of his game and watches the conditions there are also superb opportunities to be taken in early spring.
The best time of year for consistent alligator gar angling is just around the corner, beginning in May and running to mid October. If you would like more information about alligator gar angling opportunities please feel free to contact me. Tight lines to all and good angling!
Texas Megafish Adventures