It's one thing to think that there's a Boogeyman out there, but it's another thing to actually find it.
— Mark Zona, Trinity River survivor
Mark Zona had no idea what he was getting into. He thought he did — but he didn't.
Neither did his two cameramen.
The only guy who had an idea of what might happen was the guide, Kirk Kirkland, but even he admitted he'd never seen anything like this in 10 years of guiding exclusively for alligator gar.
It all happened so fast, none of them had time to evaluate just how dangerous the situation was. There, on Trinity River in East Texas, were three vicious, angry, 7-foot, 150-pound alligator gar in a 20-foot johnboat along with Zona, Kirkland and both cameramen.
"They are jumping and thrashing and grabbing gunnels — literally beating the hell out of this guy's boat," said Zona, who was filming an episode of ESPN's "World's Greatest Fishing Show." "I look at the cameraman — this was his first fishing shoot ever — and he had a look like, 'Get me out of this thing.'"
Who is Kirk Kirkland?
There are a million bass fishing guides, a million redfishing and saltwater guides. There's one full-time alligator gar guide. And he's one of the best I've ever been with.
— Mark Zona, host of "World's Greatest Fishing Show"
Zona heard about Kirkland three or four years before they ever met. A friend of a friend told him he needed to go fishing with Kirkland. It was long before WGFS existed.
He didn't think much of it until he saw Kirkland guiding someone on a different show. Trophy alligator gar fishing? Really?
By this time, WGFS was off and running, so Zona called him to set up a show, but Kirkland, as he typically is, was booked for the next year and half.
Zona let the idea die a second time until he needed another shoot in October for first quarter 2009 programming. He called Kirkland again, this time pleading.
Kirkland used to guide for both bass and gar all over East Texas, but the constant request for gar made him — as far as he knows — the only full-time alligator gar guide in America. He said while there are trophy gar in both the Trinity River and Sam Rayburn Reservoir, the river is where he spends most his time.
"East Texas is the last great stronghold of alligator gar anywhere in the world," Kirkland said. "Two-thirds of my clients are Europeans. It's a freshwater predator over 100 pounds and they want to add it to their list."
Kirkland didn't have anything booked in October, but that's probably only because he doesn't book the fall: Prime time is in the spring and summer. He did have a few days free in mid-October, though, so he told Zona to come down and that they might get lucky and snag a 100-pound gar.
That was good enough for Zona.
"In my opinion, if we caught one at around 100 pounds, we'd be miles ahead," Zona said. "That would be more than enough for a show."
Kirkland set aside three days for the shoot, just in case things didn't go well. He figured surely they could snag a 100 pounder with three days.
"Turns out, one day was more than enough," Kirkland said.
The day Zona looked fear in the eyes
I've done a lot of fishing shows and basically been on the water since I was 4. I have never, ever, been intimidated by what I was fishing for, but to see that thing break water and jump
— Mark Zona
It was a Monday when Zona, Kirkland and the two cameramen piled into Kirkland's johnboat and started up the Trinity River.
"The river looks like Jurassic Park. It's only 30 feet across with tons of lay-downs and rock jetties," Zona said. "You could tell by listening to [Kirkland] and watching his mannerisms that he had a well-practiced system."
The first gar in the boat came early, was 30 inches long and weighed about 10 pounds. Zona said he started thinking they might "get stumped."
Minutes later, one of the lines took off. Both Kirkland and Zona knew this was the 100 pounder that they had hoped for. Zona dug the butt of the reel into his hip and started the fight.
"There is nothing I can describe to explain what happens when you come back on one of these things," Zona said "Basically, in a nutshell, all hell breaks loose."
Hell must have had a little left over for the gar, because even with Kirkland's saltwater tackle and line coupled with Zona's experience, the gar broke loose.
"He choked," Kirkland said. "He may not admit to that, but that's exactly what happened."
Zona was distraught.
"When you go in the woods and you go hunting this time of year, you get a crack at that beautiful buck maybe once a season," he said. "Certainly there's not going to be two, three, four, or five more that are going to walk under your tree stand the same day.
"But that's exactly what ended up happening."
It wasn't long after Zona blew it that he was given a second chance. In the same fashion as the first, the line took off, Zona secured the rod and went to work.
"It's like a freshwater tarpon," Kirkland said. "They jump and walk and fight hard."
A half hour later, the 158-pound gar was at the boat. Zona sat down to rest as Kirkland wrestled the gar, very much still alive, up into the boat with a nylon rope.
In the middle of that process, another line took off.
Zona jumped up and grabbed the rod, while Kirkland continued to try and keep the first gar from connecting its teeth with anyone's leg.
After 45 minutes of fighting, Zona finally pulled the second gar up beside the boat.
"That second one kicked his butt," Kirkland said.
This one weighed in at 160 pounds and put everyone in a bad situation: The 20-foot johnboat was now holding four full-grown men and two full-grown and very unhappy alligator gar.
"We get the second one in and now they are fighting each other and us," Zona said. "And God as my witness, in a 20-minute span, a third rod starts going out.
"I don't want to set the hook right now. I'm dripping sweat."
Kirkland was thinking along the same lines, more for survival purposes than fatigue, and from the look on the cameraman's face, he also didn't like the thought of a third gar in the boat.
"If they want to be nasty, they can come and get you," Kirkland said.
Nasty might understate it. Its bladder is connected to its throat, giving it the ability to breathe some air above the surface of the water. The Fort Worth Zoo's description of the gar says "they are not shy of chomping down on almost anything."
License plates and coke cans have been pulled out of their stomachs, but still, Zona set the hook on number three.
He spent five minutes trying to reel it in but eventually had to give it to Kirkland. A third gar, this one weighing a measly 118 pounds, was hauled into the boat to join the crew.
"We had three fish in the bottom of this boat, along with four men in there that weigh over 500 pounds," Zona said. "It was tight."
The packed boat eventually made it to shore and the three gar were laid out on a pile of rocks for photos before they were released back into Trinity River alive and well.
"You go bass fishing and hook a bass, he's trying to do something about it but inevitably, you're going to win or he's going to get off," Zona said. "This is a fish that when you hook him, he's trying to do something about it and actually can. He's got a legitimate shot at taking you out.
"To be sitting there, watching your line in front of you and damn well know that what's on the other end of that line is as big as you in fresh water, that's amazing, man."
The WGFS episode, which won't air on ESPN until January, will start with Zona giving the audience something he didn't have — an idea of what they're getting into.
"When I started the show, I told the audience, 'If you have kids sleeping, you need to go get them up, because they're about to see everything that they think is under their bed,'" Zona said. "'Very rarely do you want to look under the bed, but that's what we're going to do today.'"