Captain Catan

It was mid morning on a Wednesday when the phone rang, and the caller id read Charlie Buchen. I was staring at the computer screen and wishing I was out in the brush country or fishing on the bay, so I was glad to hear from a kindred spirit. "What's up Catfish Charlie?" I said with a chuckle. "Oh, we are just out here in the slough catching gar, and we aren't even trying," he replied.

Last time I went fishing with Captain Charlie Buchen, we had taken his airboat up the slough south of Port Mansfield, and for a change of pace from bay fishing channel catfish had been our target. There are a maze of shallow inlets and seasonal freshwater inflows south of Mansfield, but the locals refer to the main drainage system for the Rio Grande Valley's floodway system as the slough.

It was spring, and we caught a fine stringer of tasty catfish. Karen and Steve Andrews were my fishing companions, and we somehow got to calling Captain Buchen, Catfish Charlie. Charlie is an excellent lure fisherman and specializes in trout and redfish, but he good naturedly accepted our nickname.

Charlie had promised me when the gar fishing picked up later in the summer he would call. "We just had a pretty good sized gar right up to the boat, and we have had a couple of others break off. They are rolling everywhere. Do you want to go try and catch one?"

I was thinking this sounded pretty good, but I might have to change Charlie's nickname from Catfish Charlie to Captain "Catan," that being the Spanish word for gar. "So when are we going "Captain Catan?"

"What are you doing tomorrow?" Charlie asked, slyly ignoring his new nickname.

"Going gar fishing, I replied."

When I arrived at the dock, Catfish Charlie aka Captain Catan and Captain Terry Neal awaited me. All three of us spent our boyhood in the Valley fishing for gar in the Rio Grande, the Arroyo and local resacas so it was only fitting we should once again find ourselves in pursuit of alligator gar.

Alligator gar are truly the leviathans of North American freshwater fish as they can reach lengths of eight feet or more and weigh in excess of 300 pounds. Living specimens of this primitive fish closely resemble gar recorded in fossils 75 million years ago. They are the largest of all gar species and have a massive head full of sharp teeth resembling an alligator. Their distinctive double row of teeth in the upper jaw is unique among gars.

The toothy creatures thrive in freshwater from Florida south to Veracruz, Mexico. Their range extends north of the Mississippi River basin in Missouri and Ohio. Floating like a chunk of driftwood in the current, they will suddenly snatch unsuspecting fish, turtles, waterfowl or even mammals. Their fearsome jaws make escape virtually impossible. Despite their size and imposing jaws, attacks on human are extremely rare.

Their long cylindrical bodies are sheathed in armor-like bony plates so tough that their hides were once used by native people as body armor. The have a habit of basking near the surface, and this is when bow fishermen have their best opportunity for a shot, but we are attempting to tackle them with light fishing gear.

After skimming across the flats in Charlie's airboat, we glided to a stop near the mouth of the estuary. Turning the controls over to Terry, Charlie grabbed his cast net and took up a position on the bow. Several tosses later, we had all the mullet we needed and headed up into the slough.

Passing across the broad swath of shallow water leading into the slough, we entered a gradually more defined channel which narrows to a passage lined with mangroves and cane not much wider than the airboat. The waterway cuts thru ranch property and state owned land as it winds westward for several miles. If the waterway did not become chocked with overhanging brush you could eventually run all the way to the bridge that crosses Highway 1420 between Rio Hondo and Port Mansfield. We stopped several miles in and scooted the boat up against the grassy shore.

The lines were not out long before the first gar was on, but as gar often do, the fish managed to slip the hook. Actually, the first three or four avoided being hooked before Terry's light rod bent double with the weight of a heavy fish. "Okay, I think we have one on now," Terry said with a grin.

Suddenly, the gar leaped out of the water in an attempt to throw the hook. "Wow! Did you see that?" exclaimed Terry. "That was awesome. He came out of the water like a tarpon."

Several minutes later, Terry had the four foot plus gar to the boat and Charlie reached out to gaff it. However, the gar had other plans and with a mighty swish of its powerful tail shot back out into the channel. "I guess he was still a little green," Charlie said with a laugh as he wiped the water from his face.

Terry worked the gar to the boat again, and this time Charlie expertly buried the gaff. With a mighty heave he hoisted the gar into the boat, careful to sidestep the thrashing fish and sharp teeth. The gar measured 50 inches and probably weighed 40 plus pounds. Charlie has a friend back at Port that was planning on making "chicharrones" and this gar was the perfect eating size.

"The gar are in this waterway and they are swimming back and forth, so you just sit here until one of them swims by and eats your bait, and then you hang on," said Terry with a laugh. "We are not fishing with real heavy tackle, so we can't set the hook real hard on them, so we just almost let them set the hook for us."

Charlie was next up and his gar made a pretty fine leap too, but not quite as impressive as the first one. This time Terry handled the gaff, but once again, the seemingly exhausted fish avoided the initial attempt to land it. However, the second effort was successful and soon Charlie had a 30 pound plus gar to go with Terry's. There will be plenty of chicharrones to go around in Port this evening.

While these are sizeable fish and perfect for table fare, alligator gar can attain much larger size. The state and apparent world record gar was taken in 1953 by trotline from the Nueces River and weighed 302 pounds. The record catan measured seven feet six inches.

The Rio Grande produced the heaviest gar taken on rod and reel. The 279 pound fish was caught by Bill Valverde in January of 1951, but no measurement was recorded. The heaviest gar taken by a bow fisherman in the state was a 290 pound fish. The gar came from the Trinity River in July of 2001 and measured eight feet. Last summer, Juan Hernandez and his friend Fernando Torres arrowed a gar from a resaca near San Benito that weighed 225 pounds and measured seven feet nine inches.

Meanwhile, Charlie has landed a couple of tasty channel cats to go with the gar, and so I guess it's still appropriate to call him Catfish Charlie, although Captain Catan sure has a nice ring to it. If you are interested in booking a trip with Captain Charlie Buchen on his airboat or on a conventional bay boat the number to call is 605-6409.

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Copyright 2007 Richard Moore