It was one of those totally humid, hundred-degree, early August Arkansas days, now cooling down in the amber evening. My wife and I were out on our lake, which is more like a Southern swamp. Lake Conway has an average depth of six feet and is full of water moccasins, herons, ducks, turtles, and big old ugly fish. The other day, a talkative guy at the bait store told me he'd been catching catfish at night by just hanging out in the boat lanes which cut through the cypress stumps. So that's where we were at sunset, in the deepest boat lane out there, hovering above a long gone serpentine pond known as Gold Lake, which disappeared in the forties when the Corps of Engineers put up the dam to create the largest game and fish commission lake in the country.
There was a slight breeze, keeping the mosquitoes off. Robin caught a small blue and we threw it back. She was fishing with her girly pink rod, and I had two lines out: a nightcrawler on my medium-weight spincasting rod, and a liver on my heavy-duty catfishing rod.
An occasional fish slapped the surface and the bats were just beginning to flash. It was getting hard to see, so when I couldn't spot my huge-ass bobber, I figured it was just the dusk. Still, my other was visible, so maybe a catfish came along and took it under. Usually, though, when a cat strikes, the float reappears pretty quickly. This float, however, wasn't coming up.
What the hell, I figured, and cranked back, setting the hook. The rod immediately bowed and I felt the weight on the other end. But it wasn't the weight of some casual flathead just nosing along on the bottom—it was the weight of something moving fast. Something that had struck my liver like a missile and was making its getaway.
So I horsed it in and horsed it in, and then we saw it: a big thick silvery gar, which immediately changed its course the moment we saw it and it saw us. It was parallel to the canoe, seven feet away from us, shooting for the bow, and cutting across my other line.
Robin grabbed the net and I cranked back on my rod again. The gar started flapping all over and kicking up a ruckus, but I managed to get it right beneath me. Then leading it back toward the stern, I turned it around and hauled it forward again, right across my other line again—toward the net, which was two feet in diameter. The three-foot gar refused to go in.
I had no choice but to try again. Leading it back to the rear of the boat, it splashed me a good one in the face, but I got it switched around, then led it head-first into the net. Robin scooped it up and dropped it in the boat between us, where it proceeded to smack around like no fish I'd ever caught. It was knocking my gear all over the place, and I practically had to tackle it to keep it in the boat.
After a few minutes, though, I cut away all the lines it was tangled in, then got it unwrapped from the net. But as soon as I got all that stuff out of the way, it went berserk again. Until I grabbed it, pinned it with one hand, and worked the treble hook out of the flesh underneath its jaw.
"It's a spotted gar," I told Robin, "a seven-pounder."
I could tell by imagining its length divided into seven separate one-pound slaps of hamburger. But to make sure, I weaseled a stringer through an armored gill and out its fanged gator-mouth, then hooked that stringer to the hand-held scale. Yep, seven pounds!
"Let's let it go," Robin suggested, because we already had tons of gar meat in the fridge.
I agreed. These days, I only keep those that drown on my droplines. If their eyes are still clear, that is, and they haven't been shredded by the turtles.
Still, we discussed the fact that it could be a state record, which would mean keeping it overnight, then taking it to the Post Office in the morning, where I'd have to wait for a Game & Fish agent to weigh it on a certified scale, then sign the appropriate paperwork. According to the minnow guy at Bate's Baits in Mayflower, the angler who caught the state-record buffalo had to wait five hours for an agent to meet him last summer, and when that agent finally arrived, his fish was dead and weighed less.
I'd just read a week ago that the state record was eleven pounds two ounces—according to a tourist pamphlet we'd picked up while driving through the Arkansas wine country. It was a glossy chamber-of-commerce publication that encouraged consumers to get back to nature via jet skis and ATVs. I should've known better than to trust that stupid thing!
Anyway, we admired the gar twisting in my grip. It was long and proud, more silvery than spotty, but the spots could be made out on its head. It wasn't huge like an alligator gar, but it was pretty dang jumbo for its species.
"Will it be alright?" Robin asked.
"Sure," I said.
Robin took a picture. She thought the flash didn't go off, but I thought it did.
Then unstringing it, I lowered it into the lake and held it by the base of its tail. It began to sink, and then it kicked. It didn't have the strength to break away, but I figured that the snap I just witnessed meant it had some life left in it. So I let it go, then watched it spiral straight down. Its tail never moved, the murk consumed it, and I found myself cringing when I felt it settle on the bottom, slack and languid, with no will or strength to get up at all.
(Blurry photo of author with unofficial Arkansas state-record spotted gar.)§
Back at the ranch, I Googled "spotted gar" and "Arkansas" and "state record," only to find out what I suspected. The state record for rod and reel was six pounds twelve ounces. That eleven pounder was taken with a bow and arrow.
"AAAAAAARGH!", of course, was my first reaction. Like an idiot, I'd let it get away.
My second reaction was to email my friend Keith "Catfish" Sutton, who's a local wildlife writer, about what a moron I had been. He emailed me back instantly and advised going back and trying to find it, because back when he had been the record keeper for Arkansas Game & Fish, a guy had called him up after releasing some sort of whopper trout. That guy told Catfish what the trout weighed, and Catfish told the guy that it could've been the state record. So the guy went back to the dock where he'd released it and went poking around with a broomstick. Miraculously, he managed to skewer the injured fish through the gills, and he got it back. Still, there was no category for catching a fish with a broom, but he got a witness to sign an affidavit that he caught it the first time on rod and reel, and then he wasn't shit out of luck.
Catfish also told me about how he and a buddy once went fishing in some pond and his friend caught a two-pound spotted gar. Back then, this fish didn't even merit a listing in the Arkansas record books, so Catfish encouraged the guy to take his in. The guy did, he got the official state record, but it didn't last long.
These stories, however, were little consolation. I had caught the unofficial state record spotted gar, but only two people in the world would ever really know for sure. But even worse, I couldn't get the image out of my mind of its motionless tail sinking in the lake, where the ding-dang turtles had been raping my bait all summer long.
I'd recently seen a show on TV about the pains taken to release a baby great white shark. The doctors and biologists who transferred it from tank to stretcher were scrambling to keep it alive. They shoved oxygen tubes into its gills, because if sharks can't swim, sharks can't breathe. The biggest danger they were facing was that it could've gone into cardiac arrest.
So I couldn't help wondering if I'd given that gar a heart attack. Or maybe it was so old that it might've just pooped out, like that world-record blue cat caught in Illinois a few years back. After being manhandled by its captor to get the trophy shot, then held in a bathtub, then moved to a truck, its delicate organs couldn't take the pressure, since they're basically used to zero gravity deep down in the Mississippi. That 124-pound catfish died en route to the Cabella's in Kansas City, where it'd been destined to amuse customers for the rest of its aquarium life.
At least the guy who caught that cat knew he murdered it. I, on the other hand, would never know what became of my gar. And since there's sixty-three miles of shoreline on Lake Conway, and 67,000 acres of silt and weeds and muck under that, and since the turtles had probably found it by now, I knew that going back with a broom and poking around wasn't gonna do jack.
Inevitably, I made it my mission to re-catch that gar. Or catch one of his pals, since I figured there were others out there close to the same size. I'd recently seen some big ones scattered on the shore, thanks to the "conservation efforts" of local bowhunters who think they're doing the environment a service by killing gar willy-nilly, then leaving their corpses for the flies. Some of these were longnose, but most of them were spotted gar, with a few shortnose thrown into the mix.
My friend the legendary Rex Rose was coming up from Florida, so I figured I'd enlist him in my drama. Robin likes fishing occasionally, but not when I get obsessive and go for gar every day—which is what I'd been doing every night for the last four nights, having launched an all-out Megalomaniac Monsterquest to get my name in the record book. Because Dangnabbit, I already caught that fish, so I deserved it!
What I neglected to remind myself of, though, was that Rex had already broken my other canoe—the Lümpenkraft—twice. Once in Louisiana, in the Atchafalaya Basin, when I found myself hauling it up a shallow stream: Rex was in the bow, all 300 pounds of him, making the stern go up in the air. It was an inefficient way to get things done, especially when we hit a log and I threw my back into it, pulling the canoe over it. The fiberglass hull cracked in three spots and the thwarts snapped in at least two. It's amazing we didn't sink to the bottom on the way back.
The second time was on the Chariton River in Missouri. Having been re-Bondoed and re-fiberglassed and re-patched for years, plus reinforced with 2 x 4s, that canoe now weighed as much as Rex. And due to the low water level, there were plenty of rocks and sandbars to cross. Again, I found myself dragging my canoe, crunching and cracking over debris, while Rex kicked back in the bow. By the time we made it to the pick-up spot, there was a foot of water in the Lümpenkraft.
Now, however, I had my father's aluminum canoe, so Rex and I headed out.
"We are gonna get that gar!" I told Rex, just like I told Robin the night before, and the night before that. "That gar is going down!"
"You might have to fish for ten years," Rex replied, "before you catch one like that again."
"So be it," I laughed. "There's nothing more important. The whole universe depends on it!"
Like usual, Rex was up front and I was in back, trying my damnedest to balance his girth. In addition to being a healthy hefty American, Rex was also six-foot-four. When he sat an inch to the right, I'd have to lean my mass to the left to counter balance. Sometimes I'd ask him to shift his position, but mostly I'd just try my best to deal with the imbalance.
Basically, Rex was highly unstable in a canoe—which I should've considered a bit more seriously, since he kept telling me he was jinxed. I wanted the company, though, and I was willing to put up with his ridiculous digging super-strokes. Rex paddled with great grunts and thrusts, as if battling the lake to show it who's boss. He also insisted on steering from the bow, when that's the work of the person in the stern. But I didn't argue or try to be a know-it-all by telling him what to do. I figured we'd get to where we were going, and then we'd get back.
But on the way back, after getting skunked for the fourth time trying to re-get that elusive gar, I decided we should check my limb-lines. So we made for the cypresses, where all my goldfish had been snatched by the stinking turtles.
That's when my poles starting brushing the branches. They were propped up behind me, sticking straight up. Then one got caught, so I reached up and grabbed them, to jerk them out of the way. Big Mistake! I suddenly had a treble hook lodged in my palm and Rex was spinning us in circles, trying to keep us away from the trees.
That sucker was sunk in there up past the barb, and I was so dang frazzled I couldn't think straight. While Rex paddled back, I wrassled my rods and got the offending one in front of me. It was my "special gar rod," an antique bamboo-looking job that I'd bought in a pawn shop up in Missouri. It had a World War II-era baitcasting reel, the pole was as thick around as my thumb, and I'd never caught a damn thing on it. It was probably meant for snagging paddlefish, but now it had snagged me.
When we got to the bank I got out my knife and cut the line. Rex pulled us up on the lawn and we went on into the house. Robin was watching reality TV, and since I didn't want to alarm her, I went straight to the sink to check the situation out. That bitch was in there and it wasn't coming out!
Last time I got stuck like this I was fourteen years old. After trying to reroute it with my father, then trying to push it up through my thumbnail, as well as back the way it came, we went to the doctor's office. I had to get three shots of Novocain so the doctor could wrench it out.
So that's what happened again. Robin took me to the emergency room, we waited around with all the drunk college kids sobering up from whatever antics that led to one of their friends getting his wrist slapped in a cast, and then the doctor called me in and asked me the exact same question the admitting nurse did:
"Well, did you catch anything?"
A week later I was ready to try again. That damn gar wasn't gonna get the best of me! Its ass was grass! It was time for me to teach it a lesson! In fact, on the example of my friend Catfish, I was even fixing on changing my name to Garfish. Because garfish were my totem fish! And I was gonna get that gar and claim my rightful state record!
The heat lightning was miles away when Rex and I got out to Gold Lake. When it flashed, we couldn't even hear the thunder. And since I often fish at night and see distant storms that never come near, I figured this one was at least a hundred miles away.
We dropped a couple of jug lines in. Each one had a concrete weight on one end, a plastic laundry detergent jug on the other, and fifteen or twenty feet of line. Between the weights and the jugs, each line had five to ten hooks, each rigged with a trotline minnow.
We also had our poles out. Rex had one up front and I had two in back. I had a plastic bottle full of gin and tonic, and he was drinking water. The sun was going down, some minnows were flipping on the surface, but nothing larger than sunfish were jumping.
Earlier that day, the temperature had been 105, and the heat index had been 113. It was in the upper eighties now, and all my flesh was sweltering. Plus, the mosquitoes were giving us hell—so we broke out the bug spray to ward them off. But since there was no wind at all, we kept sweating off the Off, and the mosquitoes kept dive-bombing us.
"Come on you state record gar!" I called out to the lake. "I know you're down there! I know you're hungry!"
"I thought you said it might be dead," Rex reminded me.
"He's gotta be out there," I shot back. "Or else I'm a fool, chasing nothing."
Rex laughed, and challenged me again:
"How do you know it's a he?"
"You're right," I replied. "It's probably a she, since the big ones are always female."
Then, as soon as the sun went down, the wind came up. Man, it came blowing in out of nowhere, straight up from Little Rock—a direction it never comes. Suddenly there were whitecaps all around us and the anchor was dragging behind the canoe.
"Screw the jugs," I told Rex, hauling up the bricks, "let's get the heck outta here!"
Instantly, it was like somebody turned out the lights. Everything went pitch black. Still, we could see the waves breaking around us, foaming and frothing two feet tall, lifting us up and slapping us down.
"Put your headlamp on!" I called to Rex, turning on my own.
We needed to see the stumps. We couldn't see the stumps. The wind was howling all around us, blowing in at 40 mph. There'd been no warning whatsoever. It was upon us.
"YEEEE-HAWWW!" I yowled, waves breaking over the bow. I was trying to make things seem less urgent as we paddled like lunatics, making for the shore.
Then we had to make a turn, and in doing so, we had to let the waves broadside us for a few minutes—which was okay, because they'd just lift us up and then we'd roll down the other side. Sometimes, though, they'd splash over the side. Big deal, we could take some water on.
Until, that is, we got T-boned by a freak three-footer, which bore us straight into a stump. I didn't even see it until we were on it. I figured we'd just roll with it.
But as the canoe listed to the left, Rex leapt to the right. I saw his mammoth silhouette rise, trying to compensate. All my instincts shrieked HUNKER DOWN! as the boat swung back to the right, Rex lurched the other way, and I couldn't believe it! In thirty-something years of canoeing, I have never capsized once, but now the canoe was rolling over and gallons of water were pouring in. Rex flopped into the drink, I followed, the boat turtled, and everything turned to Pure Chaos.
We were hanging on to the overturned canoe, thrashing in the water snakes, the alligator snapping turtles, the legion leeches, and all the lancelike logs sticking up around us. I managed to turn the boat over, though, and most of our gear was in it. Still, it was swamped.
"Let's swim!" Rex howled, his headlight bobbing up and down. "Forget this stuff!"
"No way!" I cried. "Let's make for those trees."
There was a stand of three or four cypresses twenty or thirty feet away. We started kicking, pushing the canoe. The waves were with us. We made it.
My most pressing concern was getting my tackle into a tree. I also wanted to tie up the canoe, so it wouldn't get away. The lake, however, was beating the crap out of me. It was slamming me into the canoe, and slamming the canoe into me, and getting rougher and rougher. I grabbed the tackle box, and then it opened. Tackle was spilling everywhere, but I got it shut and up on a limb, then pulled my way over to Rex.
He was having no luck lashing the bow-line to the trees and was hanging on while the waves kept bitchslapping him. In the meantime, the canoe had become a deadly weapon. With all that water in it, it was like a half-ton bucking bronco, leaping and lurching all over the place. Rex was struggling to hold it in place, and it kept jumping up and smashing down on us.
I got a hold of the rope, though, and managed to gather enough of it to haul around a tree. This took about five minutes, because the waves kept knocking me out of the lower branches, which I had to climb a bit to tie onto.
Eventually, I whooped up a knot and made my way down the canoe. The lifejackets were floating away. I saw a paddle in the distance.
"Come on," Rex said, as a giant eely bottom feeder suddenly surfaced, surging over his arm, "let's get out of here!"
He was probably right, but I felt a sense of security in the trees.
"Just a second!" I yelled, then grabbed a paddle and put it in the limbs. I had to check on the rods, but there was a rope tangled around my foot. I couldn't tell if it was from my canoe or just some rope, but I managed to free myself. I also felt a trotline or two, abandoned by fishermen years ago. If either of us got caught in one of those, we could flounder and drown. But I didn't, and he didn't, and I saw that the rods were tangled in the net and that the net was tangled in a rope—so they'd probably stay there.
"Okay," I said, "let's stick together."
We struck out, my T-shirt and sneakers weighing me down. Rex had already shed his shoes. He was starting to pull ahead of me. I was exhausted, he wasn't. While I'd been swimming around and tying things up, he'd been conserving his strength by letting the canoe smack him upside the head.
I changed my course, making for another stand of cypresses. Rex called to me, but I couldn't answer. I couldn't waste my breath. Had to make it to those trees. Swallowing water, hitting logs—
I'd always been an excellent swimmer, but I'd never swam for my life. I'd also never had so much time to consider if this was finally it. For me, such thoughts usually occur in traffic, when accidents happen in a flash—which is comforting, almost, to never have time for terror to set in. But now it was definitely setting in.
I was wondering if I'd go down in my own lake, just a few blocks from home. Or if some vicious wave would hurl me into a log for the knockout. Or if I'd pass out, get sucked under, or end up as turtle food. Or would I have a heart attack? A stroke? Trying to survive—
Anyway, I made it to two trees forming a V and reached up and grabbed a limb. The waves were tossing me around like styrofoam, but I held on and saw Rex's light bobbing toward shore. It looked like half a mile, but I knew it couldn't be that far. He was gonna make it.
Wedging myself between the trees, I breathed hard, getting the air back into my lungs, trying to slow my heart rate down. The storm was still roaring in at a brutal speed, but I was safe in the cypresses, and no rain or lightning was coming down. It was all wind.
Then I saw Rex's light on the shore.
"Stay There!" he yelled. "I'm Going For Help!"
Still trying to recover, I didn't answer. I was trying to regain my wits. Besides, if I tried to answer, I'd be screaming into the tempest and I doubted my voice could even reach him.
So I clung, envisioning Rex bursting through the door sopping wet, telling Robin I'm clinging to a tree. Then I saw Robin in my mind, bolting up from the couch, not knowing what to do. Feeling helpless, feeling confused—almost as confused as me.
Because every minute I clung there gasping was a minute she'd be rushing around in turmoil, calling the cops, rousting the neighbors. Or maybe she'd try to launch the Lümpenkraft—which was beached on the lawn with giant cracks, completely unseaworthy and full of furious biting ants.
It would be totally stupid to swim for it, though, when I could just hold to that tree all night long. And as I clung and clung to that tree, trying to decide whether to go for it or hold out till the storm was over, I started to consider the most important existential stuff. Like whether I should change my ways in certain areas, which hardly matter now that I'm not clinging to that tree. But at the time, I was thinking this could very well be it. Because basically, I was looking Death straight in the face, practically begging for a second chance.
Until I saw a ridiculous image: our cats, just sitting there. Yep, our tubby needy tuxedo cat Flossy with her patchy allergic fur, and our good golden tabby Gordon, the hardboiled hunter of mice and rabbits and lizards and things. They were just looking at me with their heads cocked, so I laughed.
I laughed because I wasn't seeing Robin, or my mother, or my father, or any human. I was only seeing two silly pets looking at me with funny expressions. So I figured this meant that maybe the situation wasn't as deadly as I was making it out to be—because if I really believed I was in danger, I wouldn't be seeing two goofy cats.
By now I'd been clinging for about ten minutes, and the storm wasn't getting any tamer. And since my breathing had evened out, and since it was obvious that I was gonna go for it, I took off a shoe. There was a knot in my other one, though, and I couldn't get it untied. Fuck that! With a surge of superhuman strength, I ripped that lace right out of it, then put my sneakers up in the tree.
All those swimming lessons as a kid, all those decades of swimming in lakes and rivers and pools—I'd been trained for this, I could do it. I'd swam this distance many times before.
But never in a maelstrom of limbs and logs and violent spray. But what else was I gonna do? Wait for the Sheriff to come out and get me? Boats, copters, EMTs? They'd probably gather a possé, then just wait for the storm to abate and come on out in a flat-bottomed boat. Then I'd be on the cover of the morning paper. The headline would read "Gar-Nut Rescued from Shallow Lake Less Than A Hundred Yards From Shore!" Or "Alcohol Involved in Foolish Boating Accident Raises Concerns About Local Professor!" Or "Some Scaredy Guy Whose Name Is Only Two Letters Away From Olympic World Champ Swimmer Too Afraid to Swim Like Rex Did!"
To hell with that! I was rested enough to take off my shirt and shoot out into the black. A log jammed me in the gut, but I kept on stroking blindly through the roiling night, waves smacking me in the face. I swam until I started hacking, then flipped onto my back.
The waves were body-checking me, body-slamming me, giving me the atomic drop. There were rusty hooks all around me, fishing lines, shrapnel, traps. At any time I could be thrown into some twisted tangle of chicken wire and bicycle spokes and barbecue grills with a thousand tentacles of tetanus reaching for my flesh. Not only that, but according to my exterminator, there were alligators in these waters over by Shit Creek.
"Ha," I actually laughed, "Shit Creek!"
Then suddenly there were stars above and I was swimming with the gars. Until, that is, I felt muck beneath my feet.
Standing up, I could see the shore only thirty feet away. I waded there, got up on the bank, made my way into the neighbor's field. My feet were bare and I was stepping on thistles—
Fuck It! More thistles, more sharp grasses. It was like stumbling on broken glass, coughing and wheezing as I went. Then I made it to the mounds. There were ant hills all around! Biting ants! Biting the crap out of me! But I kept on going and going and going—toward the street light beaconing my house.
Where a car was pulling out. It was Rex's Volvo station wagon. He was driving down the gravel road. Probably off to get a firetruck full of cops who'd be all pissed at me when they returned to find me on the couch tweezering thorns out of the bottom of my feet. So I blinked my headlamp at him, tried to signal him. But Rex couldn't see me in the field.
There was a wall of brambles in front of me. Blackberries, nettles, hornet nests. I could try to find a trail around it, or I could burst right through it. I don't know if I even stopped to think. The next thing I knew, I was a quarterback leaping a tide of linebackers, leading with his back.
I landed on the road, rolling in front of Rex's headlights. He stopped and stuck his head out the window.
"Hey," he asked, "want a ride back?"
We were forty feet from my front door.
"No," I said, trying to catch my breath, "I'll walk."
"Robin's at the neighbors," he said.
Woozy and fighting to stay upright, I couldn't see myself chasing after her, trying to find the exact neighbors she was collecting to rescue me.
"Honk three times," I told Rex. He did, and I heard Robin calling back.
But I didn't wait around. I thought I might collapse. Lungs heaving, heart hammering, I made for the door.
When I opened it up, the cats were there. Flossy was just looking at me with an oblivious expression, but Gordon knew something was up. He started meowing, and he kept on meowing as I went up the stairs, shedding soggy layers as I went.
I ended up in the shower, turning on the cold water. I didn't even touch the handle for the warm. I just sat down in the tub and let it rain down on all the lake crud and ant bites burning on me, while Gordon rushed back and forth, still crying in feline empathy.
I looked at my feet. They were scratched all to hell and starting to swell, but my pounding heart was settling down. It was like one of those times when you wonder if you should really be alive, because it could've gone the other way just as easily.
Last time I felt this way was in the middle of a Wyoming blizzard. I had crawled out of a wicked interstate wreck, concussions pounding all over my head, and for the next few days I couldn't help marveling at how lucky I was not to be dead meat. During that time, I never took one breath for granted.
Then I heard footsteps marching up the stairs.
"You're Never Going Fishing With Rex Again!" Robin yelled in a voice like I'm gonna get it. "I Forbid It!"
My mind, however, was on my state record gar—which I suddenly realized I didn't have to catch, not if trying like this can land me in situations like this. Because I don't have to prove anything to anyone! I had caught it, I had met it, and I knew this, and Robin knew this, and so does the fish—who I won't try to romanticize as being just as alive as me, just trashed and beat and trying to pull itself together. Nope, nobody knows what happened to that gar, and nobody will ever know.
Gordon, meanwhile, was stretched out on the linoleum—no longer wailing, no longer pacing, a strangely content look on his orange and white stripy face.
Author Mark Spitzer with his 105-lb. six-foot-five alligator gar (© Eric Tumminia)