Alabama State-Record Alligator Gar Goes 162 Pounds

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Many families maintain various types of holiday traditions. For the Dees Family of Fruitdale, Ala., Thanksgiving morning means fishing.

“For years, we’ve had a tradition of fishing on Thanksgiving morning,” said Keith Dees. “My son and I have been fortunate to have a lot of great experiences in the outdoors with many of them on Thanksgiving morning.”

Early on Thanksgiving morning 2022, Dees and his 15-year-old son Huntley headed to the lower Mobile-Tensaw Delta in south Alabama to fish for bass. They landed 18 bass with some of them approaching 3 pounds and some large redfish.

“In all the years I’ve fished the Delta, I’ve never caught redfish in places where I’ve been catching redfish this year, and they stay there all year long,” Keith said. “The redfish population is in good shape in Alabama.”

The Dees decided to try one more spot on the Raft River before heading home to enjoy their Thanksgiving feast. Soon, an already good day on the water turned into a morning neither will ever forget.

“In the Raft River area, we never know what we might catch,” Keith said. “In the past, we’ve caught big black drum and bull reds in that area.”

Working the shoreline and grass patches with a Jackhammer ChatterBait, Keith’s line simply went slack. Then, it started moving in a different direction.

“I thought another big redfish hit,” Keith said. “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 topped by a Lew’s reel loaded with fresh 15-lb. Seaguar fluorocarbon line. Huntley waited at the bow with a net in hand.

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“For about 30 minutes, we didn’t know what we had,” Keith said. “The fish took out line, but never left about a 200-yard circle. My son was standing on the front of the boat wondering what we hooked while I fought the fish. Finally, the fish came up to the surface and took a gulp of air. We went nuts when we saw the size of the fish on the line, but we still had no idea just how big it was.”

With a broad head, a snout full of sharp teeth and interlocking scales for armor, an alligator garfish looks something like an alligator with no legs. Native Americans made shields out of gar shells.

A garfish can breathe both air and water, allowing them to thrive in places that could never support other fish. During warmer months, anglers frequently see garfish coming up to the surface to gulp air or sun themselves. Garfish can live in either fresh or salty water. They love brackish estuaries like the lower Mobile-Tensaw Delta.

Keith battled the leviathan for a total of 2.5 hours. It would take out about 75 yards of line at a time and then just hover on the surface. The Dees used the trolling motor to catch up with it and take in line. They kept repeating this procedure.

“At about an hour and 45 minutes, the fish looked like it was getting tired,” Keith said. “Then, we could get pretty close to it. Finally, it looked exhausted after 2.5 hours of fighting, and we could almost pull the boat up beside him. He was about ready to give out. Any other day in this area, we would have had 40 boats around us, but it was Thanksgiving morning, and there was nobody around us.”

With no net large enough to handle such a behemoth or a gaff to bring it aboard their 20-foot Triton bass boat, the team tried to lasso the fish with a rope. Making a noose, they attempted to lead the prehistoric predator into it. That didn’t work because the rope floated and the fish simply swam under it.

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“Finally, I thought of using one of my big bass flipping sticks with a big hook on it like a gaff,” Keith said. “With the fish swimming alongside the boat, Huntley takes my $500 custom flipping stick and reels the weight all the way to the tip. He hooks the fish. I figured the rod would break, but the fish flopped sideways and then just hovered there before going back down. Then, it came back up, and we finally got the rope around him. My adrenaline was running, and I just pulled him in.”

The toothy armored torpedo measured 84.5 inches, or slightly more than 7 feet long with a 35.5-inch girth. Dees didn’t know if such a fish was even legal to keep. He called the local conservation officer, who said 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 said. “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 had some deer scales so we went to Citronelle, Ala. to weigh the fish. On the first set of scales, it went to 175 pounds. We weighed it again on another set of scales and it weighed 165 pounds. I looked up the state record, and my fish beat it by more than 10 pounds.”

When Keith found out he had a possible state record, he contacted Tommy Purcell, the state fisheries biologist over South Alabama in Spanish Fort, Ala. To submit a possible state record, a fisheries biologist must identify the species. Then, the angler must weigh the fish on certified scales while two people witness it. After all that, the angler must submit a notarized application. Dees’ gar officially weighed 162 pounds.

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“Tommy Purcell was a wonderful help,” Keith said. “So many things had to go right for us to catch this fish. It’s amazing that we got it anywhere near the boat. As an outdoorsman, it was fun to see the excitement of these fisheries guys to see a new record fish that big. I’ve caught some small garfish before while bass fishing, but never one close to this size. This was the biggest fish I’ve ever caught in my life. This is a memory my son and I will cherish forever. He will be telling that story to his grandchildren.”

In early January 2024, 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-lb. fish he pulled from the Tensaw River in August 2009. Michael Houseknecht landed a 151-lb., 5-oz. 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.

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. Some gar caught in nets or on set lines stretched more than 9 feet long and weighed nearly 400 pounds.

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Ethan Smith is a seasoned marine veteran, professional blogger, witty and edgy writer, and an avid hunter. He spent a great deal of his childhood years around the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona. Watching active hunters practise their craft initiated him into the world of hunting and rubrics of outdoor life. He also honed his writing skills by sharing his outdoor experiences with fellow schoolmates through their high school’s magazine. Further along the way, the US Marine Corps got wind of his excellent combination of skills and sought to put them into good use by employing him as a combat correspondent. He now shares his income from this prestigious job with his wife and one kid. Read more >>