Giant alligator gar shines light on Vicksburg fisherman

Published 12:30 am Sunday, February 20, 2011

Kenny Williams’ spot in the limelight is just about as big as the record fish he caught last week at Lake Chotard.

“It’s just hasn’t really set in yet. I’ve accepted that I caught this thing, but the reality is hard to fathom,” Williams said Friday, four days after his catch spawned a weeklong whirlwind of TV, radio and newspaper interviews from media outlets across the state. “I never thought that Kenny Williams, from Vicksburg, Mississippi, would be recognized for something like this. It’s just one of those big, wild with exclamation points on it things.”

The fish he caught on Valentine’s Day was a 327-pound alligator gar measuring 8 feet, 5-1/4 inches long and 47.9 inches around while fishing at Chotard. It’s by far the largest such fish ever recorded.

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The previous confirmed record alligator gar was a 279-pounder caught in Texas’ Rio Grande River in 1951, according to the Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame, a museum in Wisconsin that keeps national records on a variety of species. The Mississippi record is a 215-pounder caught near Natchez in 2003.

A 12-footer was caught in Lake Washington in 1933 but no weight was recorded, according to the Mississippi Museum of Natural Sciences. There also was a 302-pounder from Belle Island Lake in Louisiana, reported in 1942, but it was not clear what equipment was used to catch it.

Dennis Riecke, fisheries coordinator for the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks, said the weight and length of Williams’ fish were confirmed by the state agency. Based on its size, the gar was estimated at between 50 and 70 years old.

Although it’s the largest alligator gar officially recorded, it is technically not a record-breaker since Williams caught it in a commercial net instead of a rod and reel.

“Even though he’s not going to get a certificate for it, that’s the biggest that’s been reported in Mississippi,” Riecke said.

Normal alligator gar are about half the size of the one Williams caught. Because of overfishing, they are in decline in Mississippi, said Dr. Matt Roberts, curator of fishes at the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science in Jackson. That this specimen exceeds ones measured in its heyday makes it even more noteworthy.

Alligator gar are found mostly along the Gulf Coast and Mississippi River valley states, but range as far south as Mexico and as far north as Ohio and Illinois.

“The weight is especially significant,” Roberts said. “The largest fish known to science is 302 pounds, so this exceeds that one by quite a bit,” Roberts said.

Williams donated the fish to the Museum of Natural Sciences, which will have it mounted and display it. A museum team picked up the fish from a processing plant where it was stored in a walk-in cooler.

Four men put a canvas sling under the leviathan and hoisted it into the back of a pickup, where it was wrapped in a tarp and surrounded by ice for the journey to Jackson. The gar’s tail overlapped the open tailgate of the Ford F-150, forcing the museum crew to place it diagonally across the bed.

Roberts said the gar will be sent to the taxidermist to make an artificial cast, which will be put on display in the museum by the end of the year. The skeleton will be preserved, and tissue samples taken for genetic research.

“It’s pretty special,” Roberts said.

As is Williams’ tale of landing the fish.

The 42-year-old commercial fisherman was pulling in the last of a bountiful haul of buffalo fish from Lake Chotard in Issaquena County when he realized his net was snagged on something. He cleared away some debris, then saw that the net was still stuck on the bottom of the lake.

“Looking back on it, I realize now that he had buried himself in the mud. I thought it was a log in the water,” Williams said.

As he hauled the net toward the surface, Williams finally realized he had a fish, the one he’d been hunting for nearly a decade, ever since a 6-foot alligator gar escaped his clutches. He was determined not to let it get away.

“I thought, ‘I’m going in the water if I have to,’” he said with a laugh.

Catching the fish and getting it into the boat proved to be two very different tasks, though. With his hands inside the leviathan’s gills, Williams engaged it in a deadly game of tug of war. Although sluggish from the cold water, at any time the gar could spring to life and thrash its way to safety. If that happened, the 5-foot-7, 172-pound Williams would certainly get dragged along for a nightmarish ride by a fish nearly twice his size.

Adding to the danger are the gar’s natural defenses. The large, powerful cylindrical fish has razor-sharp teeth and an alligator-like snout that gives it its name. One false move, and Williams could find himself alone and bleeding on the lake.

“His teeth are so sharp, they’ll gash you wide open. I pushed that out of my mind. I figured if I get cut, I’ll heal,” Williams said.

Determined but tiring, Williams got about 3 feet of the gar’s 8-1/2-foot body over the edge of the boat. After nearly a half-hour of exhausting hand-to-hand battle, the fisherman yanked in one mighty surge.

“I gave it all I had this one last time. When I came in the boat, we both went down,” he said. “I just sat down … astonished, amazed and totally exhausted. After that adrenaline rush is gone, you’re just totally wiped out.”

Even with the fish secured, Williams’ adventure was just beginning. When he got back to land, a cascading series of follies threatened to undo all his hard work.

First, the weight of his catch was causing part of his boat to dip into the water. He rushed to his truck to pull it out, only to realize he had locked his keys inside. On top of that, a cottonmouth sat dangerously close to one of his tires.

Like a superhero, Williams sprang into action. He picked his lock with a pair of wires he keeps handy for just such an occasion, retrieved a gun from the truck and shot the snake. That allowed him to safely lock in his truck’s 4-wheel drive, pull the half-submerged boat out of the water and ride into the sunset — even if it was noon.

Then, the enormity of what he’d done started to set in. He first took the gar to his brother’s house, where it was suggested his catch might be a record. That led him to Keyes Recycling, a scrapyard on U.S. 61 North that has certified scales. When the fish was placed on the scale and the number “327” appeared, everyone in the yard was speechless.

“We had to say it three times — ‘327? 327? 327!?”

From the scrapyard, the gar was taken to the meat processor’s for storage. Williams originally wanted to give the fish to Bass Pro Shops for display in one of its live tanks, but it died shortly after it was caught. So he opted to donate it to the museum.

As word of his catch spread, Williams also began one final, exhausting leg of his journey — the phone calls. He was inundated with well-wishers wanting to hear about the one that didn’t get away.

“My Blackberry usually holds a charge for a couple of days. I had to charge it four times yesterday,” Williams said the day after his catch. “I’m excited, but overwhelmed and stressed over all the phone calls.”

As the week wore on, the calls continued and Williams continued to tell his story. He joked Friday that he’s lost count how many times it’s been retold, only that it’s “more than I’ve got on my fingers and toes. I try to tell the same story every time so nobody gets confused.”

One fact, though, will remain indisputable. When he takes his family and friends to the Museum of Natural Sciences, he’ll be able to once again stare the monster in the eye and reminisce about their incredible duel.

“I told my wife, ‘This is why I fish,’” Williams said.

About Ernest Bowker

Ernest Bowker is The Vicksburg Post's sports editor. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post's sports staff since 1998, making him one of the longest-tenured reporters in the paper's 140-year history. The New Jersey native is a graduate of LSU. In his career, he has won more than 50 awards from the Mississippi Press Association and Associated Press for his coverage of local sports in Vicksburg.

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