Fish of nightmares (continued)

An angler battles a huge gator gar on Arkansas' White River in the late 1940s. 

Accounts from old Mississippi River Valley newspapers often recount gar attacks. In the May 7, 1884 edition of the "Arkansas Gazette," an article states, "While a boy named Perry was fishing in Shoal Creek, Logan county, a gar fish caught his right leg, which was hanging over the side of the boat in the water, and pulled him overboard. His companions rescued him, but not before the leg was terribly lacerated."

The "New Orleans Times-Picayne" on January 22, 1922, carried an article in which the writer tried to prove the alligator gar is more dangerous to humans than is the "Man-Eater Shark." Many instances were given of persons being killed or injured by these fish.

Percy Viosca, Jr., in an account related by Alfred Weed in 1923, explains that most so-called attacks happened when people were feeding offal to the gar, then held their hands or feet in the water.

In those days, most culinary operations — the preparation of fishes and game for the pot, and the washing of kitchen utensils — were carried out on docks due to the lack of running water. Semi-tame alligator gar gathered to eat the offal thrown overboard.

Then the inevitable happened. Persons soiled with blood and fish fragments dipped their hands to wash them, and the gar seized them. A hand caught between a big gar's teeth could not be pulled back without being badly mutilated, and a large fish with a good hold could pull a person overboard, as sometimes happened.

But do these huge gar actually attack swimmers? E.W. Gudger, an ichthyologist with the American Museum of Natural History, said in a 1942 article that he did not believe so.

"All my attempts to verify these (attacks) have resulted in failures," he wrote. He discusses two alleged attacks in Arkansas determined to be caused by the swimmers colliding with underwater objects.

Two colleagues of Gudger "both wrote they have gone swimming in waters inhabited by hundreds of these big fish, without being attacked." One had even seen men swimming waters having both fish offal and gar in abundance, and there were no attacks.

Gudger concluded his article by saying, "When hungry, (the alligator gar) will undoubtedly grasp a hand or a foot dipped in the water near him. That he will deliberately stalk and attack a human being as a tiger does, I do not believe."

Last summer, I saw a gator gar roll while bathing in the Arkansas River during a campout. It was easily six feet long, over 100 pounds. It surfaced briefly, its thick alligator-like snout protruding above the water. For an instant, I thought it looked at me.

My bath ended then and there.

That night, I awoke from a nightmare. Sweat poured off my body. I was shaking. I reached down into my sleeping bag and touched my legs. Thank God. They were intact.

I tried to go back to sleep but I could still see the churlish smile of that giant fish as it pulled me to the bottom to eat me.

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To contact Keith Sutton, email him at catfishdude@sbcglobal.net