Angler lands new state record toothy predator
For Keith Dees and his 15-year-old son, Huntley, of Fruitdale, Ala., what had already been a good day on the water turned into a morning they will never forget.
They had landed 18 bass with some approaching three pounds and a few large redfish when they decided to try one more spot in the Raft River in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta outside Mobile. Working a ChatterBait near a shoreline, Keith Dees’ 15-pound test line simply went slack. Then, it started moving in a contrary direction.
“I thought another big redfish hit,” Keith says. “I was reeling as fast as I could. As it went by the trolling motor, I could see something big under the water, but I had no idea how big. We followed it with the boat. I just wanted my $20 lure back.”
Keith fought the unseen fish on a 7-foot medium action bass rod. After about 30 minutes, it came to the surface to take a gulp of air. The beast pulled out about 75 yards of line and then stopped. Keith used the trolling motor to catch up with it and take in line. They kept repeating this procedure for a total of 2.5 hours.
“The fish took out line, but never left about a 200-yard circle,” Keith recalled. “When we finally saw the size of the fish on the line, we went nuts, but we still had no idea just how big it was.”
Dating back more than 100 million years, garfish witnessed the extinction of the dinosaurs and still survive unchanged. With a broad head, a snout full of sharp teeth and interlocking scales for armor, an alligator garfish looks something like a legless alligator. A garfish can breathe both air and water. It can live in either fresh or salty water, allowing the species to thrive in places where other fish could not survive.
Keith continued to battle the leviathan. Whenever they could get close to it, the armored predator swam away. Finally, the fish looked exhausted and stayed near the surface. With no net large enough or a gaff to bring the behemoth aboard their 20-foot bass boat, the team tried to lasso it with a rope noose. However, the rope floated so the fish simply swam under it.
“Finally, I thought of using one of my heavy bass rods with a big hook on it like a gaff,” Keith says. “With the fish swimming alongside the boat, Huntley takes my rod and reels the weight all the way to the tip and hooks the fish. I figured my $500 custom rod would break, but the fish flopped sideways and then just hovered there before going back down. When it came back up, we finally got the rope around him. My adrenaline was running and I just pulled him in.”
The toothy torpedo measured 84.5 inches, or slightly more than seven feet long with a 35.5-inch girth. Alabama state law allows each person to keep one alligator garfish per day.
“We brought the fish home and put it in an old swimming pool to keep it alive and preserve the weight,” Keith says. “Where can someone put a 7-foot-long fish? I thought it probably weighed about 100 pounds, but we didn’t have anything to weigh it. I called a friend who has some deer scales. The first set of scales went to 175 pounds. We weighed it again on another set of scales and it weighed 165 pounds. I looked up the state record.”
As listed by the International Game Fish Association, the official all-tackle world record alligator gar weighed 279 pounds. It came out of the Rio Grande River, Texas, in 1951. However, some huge fish caught in nets or trotlines weighed close to 400 pounds and measured more than nine feet long.
When Keith found out he had a possible state record, he contacted Tommy Purcell, the state fisheries biologist over South Alabama, to see how to submit a record. They weighed the giant fish on certified scales and it officially weighed 162 pounds.
In early January 2023, the state certified Keith’s monster fish as the new state record alligator garfish and the largest freshwater fish in the Alabama record book. Previously, Richard Johnson held the Alabama record for alligator gar with a 151.75-pound fish he pulled from the Tensaw River in August 2009. Michael Houseknecht landed a 151-pound, 5-ounce alligator gar in the Tensaw River in August 2004.
The next largest non-gar freshwater fish in the Alabama record book, a blue catfish, weighed 120.25 pounds. It came from Holt Reservoir near Tuscaloosa in 2012.
John N. Felsher is a professional freelance writer who lives in Semmes, Ala. He also hosts an outdoors tips show for WAVH FM Talk 106.5 radio station in Mobile, Ala. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or through Facebook.