What makes for a “fish of a lifetime”? One that measures five-and-a-half inches longer than former NBA player Yao Ming is tall.
During a bow fishing tournament Saturday, four East Texans (three from Kilgore) broke the Toledo Bend Lake record for the largest fish shot at the fresh-water lake.
The 7-foot, 11.5 inches long alligator gar weighed in at 258 pounds, smashing the previous record of 248 lbs. The fish also helped the team win the Big 20 competition at the tournament with a total haul of 731 lbs.
“Adrenaline rush,” is how Kilgore native Josh Gibbs described the moment. “It’s something I’ve never experienced before. I’ve never shot a fish that big.”
Hunter Graham, who described the fish as a “fish of a lifetime,” has been bow fishing for as long as he can remember but said he had never seen anything quite that large.
“It could have been anybody, and I was just lucky,” Graham said. The Henderson native was the first to shoot the gar. “Seeing it is the crazy part … The first time you see a fish like that in fresh water, it’s just like a monster coming out of the black lake. It’s crazy. If you haven’t seen it, you need to. It’ll take your breath away.”
Most of the time, he said, people just stare in awe at the fish, but having been bow fishing so many times, he knew what to do.
Once the arrow hits, though, he said, “You’re just praying, ‘Don’t miss, don’t miss, don’t miss.’ You see that line go tight and the fight is on.”
Each of the other three team members shot their arrows at the fish also because, Graham said, “With a fish that big, you’ve got to have insurance,” adding gar get mean when they get angry.
“It’s not like fighting one with a rod and reel,” he continued. “They’ll break your fingers if you wrap your fingers up in the line.” Graham has also caught alligators on a line, and said he would prefer to take on an eight-foot alligator than an eight-foot alligator gar. “Alligators just roll and twist that line, but they don’t run. Alligator gar run for the hills when they get hit. We put four arrows in it by the time it was over.”
Even with the four arrows, it took a 15- to 30-minute fight and five or six shots from a pistol for the four men to get the massive fish into the boat. The first gunshot, Barber noted, ricocheted off the fish.
When Zach Royce, also from Kilgore, first spotted the fish during the nighttime tournament, it initially did not register as a fish.
“We were actually about to leave our cove and go somewhere else, and we’re headed back to the boat ramp and sure enough out of the corner of my eye I see a log, or what I think is a log,” he said. All he could do was point and gasp to get his teammates’ attention.
Laramy Barber, the third Kilgoreite on the team, turned the boat around to go back to their location, and the gar was still there in the same spot in the water.
Graham, who was the first to shoot the fish, had about 30 yards of line between his bow and the fish.
“I can’t let him get too far away because you’re not going to stop him,” he said.
The team almost did not get the monster fish, though, because the group initially thought they would just go to another lake to fish without the stress of a tournament. A friend convinced them to sign up and they arrived with five minutes to spare, Royce said.
“All in all we lucked out in general,” he said. “We just happened to be in the right place at the right time.”
Although another team got a fish one inch longer, it did not have the weight to top 258 pounds.
All four called it a “once in a lifetime” opportunity to get a fish that large.
“We’ll probably never do that again,” Gibbs said. “We got really lucky.”
Graham did not weigh how much meat came off the fish, but he guessed there were about 80 pounds of pure meat that could be eaten, noting none of the fish went to waste.
Although he has heard people call bow fishermen wasteful, he said, they make sure the meat goes to people who need and want it and find a farmer who can use the other parts of the fish for fertilizer.
With this fish, though, the team took the skin and head to a taxidermist for preservation. “There’s not many fish like that that have been harvested in the state,” Graham said.
He noted it will probably hang on the wall of Pure Shot Outdoors in Longview, and Barber added the team is planning to give their winnings from the tournament to their friend Isaac Avery, who owns the Longview store, as he was the one who went to Facebook to broadcast the news Sunday morning.