Pursuit has storied history, uncertain fate

By Keith Sutton Originally Published March 24, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated March 22, 2013 at 10:32 a.m.
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In a historic photograph, archer L.E. Piper, left, is about to release an arrow into a big alligator gar hooked by Dr. Sherod Drennen.

Alligator gars grow to enormous sizes. They are the largest fish in The Natural State. One of the biggest documented here was a 356-pounder caught in Horseshoe Lake in 1931. A 215-pound Arkansas River fish landed in 1964 set a state rod-and-reel record. A 240-pound White River gator gar caught in a hoop net in 2004 is the unrestricted tackle record. Some of these fish grow more than 8 feet long.

Hunting gator gars is an activity with roots deep in history. Native Americans in the Southeastern U.S. ate these giants of freshwater and used their scales for arrow points. Each hard, enamel-covered scale is shaped like a small arrowhead, with a “cut-in” base that fits nicely into cane arrow shafts. The two anterior edges are keenly sharp, one bearing conspicuous saw-like serrations. The Indians must have found each gar a welcome treasure trove of ready-to-use arrow points.

Sherod Drennen, a physician from Stuttgart, was one of the first to realize the enormous sporting potential of alligator gars in the 1930s. He spent decades fishing for these brutes on the big rivers of eastern Arkansas and learned that gator gars are dangerous and hard to kill.

“For a long time, Dr. Drennen used a high-powered .22 rifle to fire hollow-point bullets into the heads of the vicious brutes as they were being hauled toward the boat,” proclaimed a 1941 article in Spot magazine. “But only an excellent shot planted directly between the eyes could kill them. Sometimes, too, an apparently dead fish would suddenly come to life after it had been landed. One, which had been lying on land for 10 minutes, rose on its tail and struck a dock man with its snout, cutting a deep, 3-inch gash in his forehead.”

The problem of how to kill the gars was solved when Drennen teamed up with L.E. Piper, an archer who worked for the Ben Pearson archery company in Pine Bluff. Piper demonstrated to Drennen that the steel-pointed arrows he used were more lethal than bullets.

“Dad told me that each alligator gar has two diamond-shaped scales on top of its head,” Piper’s son Lew told me in an interview several years ago. “Unless the arrow hit one of those two small targets, it wouldn’t penetrate the gar’s thick hide; it would just bounce off. I imagine it was quite a feat, even for a crack archer like my dad, to hit such a small target while standing in a rocking boat. But he did it time and time again while accompanying Dr. Drennen.

“When I was 10 or 12 years old,” Piper continued, “I’d go with my dad to fish out of a commercial dock at Clarendon. I remember when they’d hook one of those fish, it would come up and tailwalk across the surface. Dad said it wasn’t unusual for one to jump completely over the boat.”

To hunt the gar, Dr. Drennen designed a flat-bottomed scow topped by a sturdy overhead platform from which he could cast. Attached to his heavy rod was 90-pound-test line, a 4-foot piano-wire leader wire and an 8/0 iron treble hook.

“When the fish strikes, it dives and heads downstream,” the Spot article noted. “From there on, it’s a fight with man and fish pitched in a battle destined to go on for half an hour and sometimes as long as an hour. Inevitably, however, the fish tires, and the fisherman slowly and watchfully brings it to gaff. The archer takes careful aim and pierces the tough rhombic hide with one or two of his arrows as the gar breaks water. But sometimes, the gar breaks when right at the gaff, slaps out viciously with powerful sweeps of its huge tail and tries to sink its sharp conical teeth into the arms of its captors.”

By the 1950s, several individuals were perfecting techniques for taking big gars with bowfishing equipment alone. One was another Stuttgart resident, Dr. Rex Hancock. Little Rock writer John Heuston accompanied Hancock on one of his White River expeditions in the 1960s, an experience Heuston has never forgotten.

“You didn’t dare catch a big gator gar on ordinary bowfishing tackle because it might jerk you right out in the water,” Heuston said. “But Rex devised a way of getting them. He used an open reel you wound the cord around by hand. He had a small white cork tied to the end of his bowfishing line, and when a gar was hit, the line peeled off, and this cork floated in the water. Attached to the cork was a metal ring. If he hit a really big gar and it took off, he’d pull that line loose, and before it got gone, he’d hook a 55-gallon drum to the ring on the cork and pitch it overboard. Then the gar would drag this big drum around until it wore itself out and we were able to get it.”

Heuston managed to kill a 6-foot, 8-inch gator gar on his trip with Hancock.

“I decided to keep it and have it mounted,” he said. “When I told one of the guys who was with us I was going to keep that fish, he thought I was crazy. But he told me years later, ‘I wish I had saved one. Of all of them I caught, I didn’t mount a single one.’ He caught some, I think, that went up close to 8 feet.”

In recent decades, it’s become increasingly difficult to find big alligator gars. Regulated sportfishing and bowfishing are not threats, but habitat destruction has wrought havoc on the species in many areas. These Herculean titans, fish that swam with the dinosaurs, are at risk throughout most of their range.

Fortunately, biologists are working hard to learn more about these amazing creatures. New management strategies have been devised that may help increase populations and ensure the species’ well-being.

Imagine the fantastic sport we could enjoy if we foster the resurgence of these magnificent giants. In the Columbia River of Oregon and Washington, another giant, the white sturgeon, has made a comeback after being pushed to the brink of extinction. Today, visiting anglers spend millions of dollars fishing for them there.

Could we not do the same for alligator gars in some waters? Certainly it is possible, but only with the support and encouragement of anglers and bowfishing enthusiasts.

Let us hope enough people realize this before it is too late. If North America’s second-largest freshwater fish disappeared without a protest, what a tragedy that would be.

None Keith Sutton can be reached at .

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