When Cameron residents and longtime fishing buddies Mark Vorn Kahl and John Williams set off in their boat on the Brazos River near Millican on Sunday morning, they were looking to bring in some catfish. Little did they know they’d end up with something a lot larger than a typical catch.
The pair snagged an alligator gar that clocked in at 7 feet 7 inches and weighed almost 200 pounds.
Vorn Kahl said he and Williams often cast out in search of catfish, using live perch as bait. A friend, Todd Singletary, put the two in touch with his father-in-law, Tommy Lyons. The former Brazos County justice of the peace owns ranch land in Millican with an oxbow lake.
Last weekend, Lyons was happy to let the two use his lake to gain access to the Brazos River. The Sunday morning trip started off as a typical fishing outing, with the two casting out and tying lines to tree limbs with string. After their boat had traveled along the river past Lyons’ Millican ranch, one of Vorn Kahl’s stringed lines on a willow branch began to tug.
At first the men thought they may have caught a large catfish. Met with even more resistance, though, they figured the line had probably snagged on a large tree limb or root under the water. But then, the line began to move on its own. Suddenly, a giant fish surfaced, rolling its belly.
Vorn Kahl said it was like watching someone turn a diamond.
“I told my buddy, ‘Man, this thing is bigger than our boat,’ ” he said.
The men had to loosen the line some and work patiently before pulling the alligator gar into their boat. The fish measured at 7 feet 7 inches and weighed in at 198 pounds.
Vorn Kahl stressed the two always take their catches home to eat. After posing with the gar for a picture, they filleted the meat to be placed in a freezer.
“A couple of years ago I tried gar, and it was actually delicious,” Vorn Kahl said, “But, you’ve got to be able to cook it right.”
The friends had the presence of mind to save the head of their catch for wildlife researchers. They immediately contacted the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department and inquired if they could donate the head. Michael Baird, a fisheries biologist for TPWD out of Waco, was excited to travel to Cameron on Wednesday night and retrieve the head, which weighed 25 pounds.
Baird is one of several biologists from TPWD studying alligator gar populations in Texas. He explained that most alligator gar grow to between 4 and 6 feet in length.
“I wouldn’t say that a 7-foot-long gar is rare,” he said. “We do run across those in our nets. But a fish that is nearly 8 feet — I do suppose that is pretty rare.”
Gar represent an important part of Texas’ natural ecosystem and have a lineage dating back to when dinosaurs roamed the Lone Star State. They also can live to be as old as some humans. In 2017, a man bow fishing near Waco turned in a 190-pound gar that was estimated to be 60 years old, Baird said.
Thanks to Vorn Kahl and Williams preserving their fish’s head, Baird and his colleagues will be able to conduct tests to learn more about the unique animal.
“Inside every fish is the equivalent of inner ear bones called otoliths,” Baird explained. “You can crop and then sand them and count their annuli, just like you’d do with a tree. By counting the annuli, you can age the fish fairly accurately. My colleague Dan Daugherty is doing some amazing things with annuli chemistry, where he can determine what type of water quality the fish is growing in, and how close they’ve been to the coast.”
Alligator gar keep rivers healthy as natural predators who balance out potential overpopulation of smaller species. Though once considered a “trash fish,” Baird said, scientists and fisheries managers today have a much greater appreciation for them. Texas A&M wildlife and fisheries professor Kirk Winemiller, who has used Lyons’ oxbow lake since the early ’90s to conduct aquatic research with his students, agreed
“Alligator gar are like the lions of the Serengeti,” Winemiller said. “... And with alligator gar, we have quite a bit of interest in using them as an indicator species for the health of a river system. Alligator gar have multiple benefits.”
Though a gar’s sharp teeth may look like something out of a horror movie, the fish are of little danger to humans or any other land mammals, Baird said. Gar survive almost solely on other fish, and at most might stray to munch a duck floating on the water’s surface. They would not prey upon a large animal like a human, he said.
Baird said he is grateful for the donation of the head and asks any Texas anglers who snag a large alligator gar to submit their catch to TPWD for scientific study.
Anyone interested may call the fisheries department at 830-866-3356.