Alligator gar are the largest gar in the world and the largest freshwater fish in North America. They can grow to more than 300 pounds. By Erin Kelley Steve Barclay didn't know what his client had just shot. All he knew was that it was huge. Barclay, along with his partner Sam Lovell (The Gar Guys), had been guiding novice bowfisherman Brian Gouliquer on the Trinity River near Crocket, Texas last April when Gouliquer shot at a fin beneath the surface of the murky water. It took all three men, Gouliquer, Barclay, and Lovell, to haul the massive fish onto the boat. When it was over they were looking at a 7-foot 7-inch long, 250-pound alligator gar.
The Gar Guys use AMS FishHawk Bows, Slided Retriever Reels, and an 18-foot Silver Dollar airboat. “It’s one of the biggest we’ve ever taken,” Barclay said. “And definitely the biggest our clients have shot.” In their first year of guiding, Barclay and Lovell have had several memorable moments with clients, but Gouliquer was the topper. While on their way to the taxidermist with the giant gar, Gouliquer told them that he was happy with his trophy — considering that this was his very first bowfishing trip. “That was when I realized that this was his first time,” Barclay said. “I knew he was an experienced bowhunter, and I just presumed that he had been bowfishing for carp or buffalo before.”
Gar Guy guide Sam Lovell tries to hoop a 7-foot gar. The hoop, or catch loop, is a noose made from metal cable extending from a length of pipe. The guide slides the noose over the animal’s head and cinches it tight behind the gills before attempting to bring the gar into the boat. Barclay thinks it’s neat that his client was able to not only take a trophy fish, but to do it on his first trip. Most clients are happy with gars that range between 130 and 150 pounds, but Gouliquer wanted more. “He had his heart set on taking a true monster,” Barclay said. After the first shot, Lovell didn’t think that Gouliquer had found a big fish. All he could see was the sinking arrow sticking up. But when the gar surfaced and Gouliquer shot it a second time, the fish took off. That’s when the guys realized they had a struggle ahead.
“Alligator gar have a whole bunch of teeth,” said Sam Lovell. Gar have two rows of teeth on their upper jaw, one on their lower. They don’t attack people, but they are territorial, especially when being hauled into a boat. The fish dragged the boat through the river’s swift current in sweeping circles. When it resurfaced, the guides noticed that both arrows were loosening. Gouliquer was able to stick a third into the beast just as the second fell out. Then the fish dove again. After many more minutes of pulling, the fish surfaced again and Gouliquer was able to get a fourth arrow in it. With three lines on the fish, the men could now work it to the side of the boat. Lovell and Gouliquer then pulled a massive cable hoop around the fish’s gills and the three hoisted the gar out of the water. “I was flabbergasted when I realized just how big the fish really was,” Gouliquer said. “I just stood there and stared at the head that laid at one end of the boat and the tail at the other. I get excited all over again just picturing it.”
It took Gouliquer and his guides three hours to bring this fish to the boat. It’s no wonder he’s taking it to the taxidermist to be mounted. Gouliquer had spent four full days of fishing before he shot this fish. He compared bowfishing for gar to hunting for big game. The sport was a lot more physically challenging than he expected. “It seemed like just when you turned your back to the water to get a drink or take a bite of a sandwich, you hear a big splash, and you would turn around most times not quick enough to see the fish at all,” he said. “This fishing can be described as 90 percent boredom, 10 percent controlled panic.”
The best time to hunt for alligator gar is during the spring spawn, but shooting is still good in the summer. The Gar Guys book guided trips from the first week of March until the end of July. So far this year, Barclay and Lovell have taken out 20 clients for trophy fish with 100 percent success; the smallest gar they’ve taken weighed 125 pounds. Seven have been over 200. The men offer tours with the promise of one trophy gar per client. “We don’t want to deplete our resources,” Barclay said. “So we guide for a trophy fish. I don’t know any other company that does that. It is a very unique circumstance.”