Page last updated at 11:00 GMT, Saturday, 19 September 2009 12:00 UK

Fishing for prehistoric quarry

Alligator gar
The alligator gar gets its name from the two rows of large teeth in its upper jaws

North America's largest freshwater fish, the predatory alligator gar, is now protected to preserve its numbers, as Kevin Connolly discovered on a fishing trip in Texas.

We are at the top of the food chain - the most dangerous predators on the lazy Navidad River, where it crawls stealthily around the town of Lolita, Texas, as though hoping to amble on unnoticed to the Gulf of Mexico.

By local standards, I must admit we did not really look the part.

The alligators that slumbered in the quiet creeks and pools around us bristled with a quiet sense of menace, and even the buzzards wheeling and gliding into the pale, bright September skies looked well organised by comparison.

It was mainly my fault.

Told that we were going fishing for the alligator gar, I had assumed we would be using rod and line and had, therefore, dressed in business clothes so that I could head on to an appointment with a politician in a nearby town afterwards.

Fish-eat-fish world

It turns out that the alligator gar - ugly but effective champion predator of freshwater Texas - is hunted not with the simple rod, which I used the last time I went fishing 40 years ago, but with a bow and arrow.

For a creature which is essentially the aquatic version of an overweight skin-head, the alligator gar has a surprising turn of speed.

My suit looks ridiculous on a wobbling, flat-bottomed boat in mid-river.

Attempting to cock a high-pressure bow there, is like trying to lift a sack of potatoes with a piece of piano wire while balanced on a trampoline.

The gar is no ordinary fish. It combines the head of a Tyrannosaurus Rex with the body of a medium-sized shark.

In the fish-eat-fish world of Texan evolution, it has nothing to fear but man.

Feeling my own leather-soled brogues slipping beneath me on the deck of the boat, and struggling to pull back the drawstring on the bow, I could see no reason why it should not follow its last 100 million years or so of evolution with another 100 million.

If the alligator gar has an evolutionary weakness (apart from a pleasant taste and a tiny brain, of course) it is the fact that it needs to come to the surface of the water to breathe.

It achieves this with a sinuous manoeuvre that recalls the elegance of an Olympic swimmer's tumble turn.

If you are an outsider to this kind of thing, like me, the moment when they break the surface before diving back into the darkness in a silvery rush, is a moment to contemplate the complexity of the vast eternal plan which holds us in delicate balance on our fragile planet.

'Hunting mad'

If you are Mike and Mark, our guides, it is the moment to loose off the arrows.

Now our purpose in joining the river hunt was to explain how hunting-mad Texas has introduced restrictions on the numbers of alligator gar that can be taken from the state's waters.

Map of Texas

Essentially each hunter will in future be restricted to catching one a day, which is an important limit when you consider it can take years for a gar to reach maturity.

I had been concerned that having come to explain the importance of the new measure, I would find myself reluctantly skewering some magnificent beast which had been cruising the Navidad's opaque depths for longer that I have been walking the earth.

I need not have worried.

For a creature that is essentially the aquatic version of an overweight skinhead, the alligator gar has a surprising turn of speed.

Even if I had been trying to hit it, it might have been good for several million years more of Darwinian development.

Indeed - in evolutionary terms - I would be lucky to hit one before it learned to walk upright and develop the power of speech.

Hapless attempts

Mike and Mark were puzzled.

We had driven for hours to meet them on a stretch of water known to be rich in gar and, indeed, we had not been disappointed.

We drifted on... untroubled by the thought that somewhere in the dark waters beneath us the alligator gar were chuckling at our marksmanship

Apart from our own prehistoric quarry, the Navidad was blessed with jolly little groups of mullet skipping along the surface on their tails like a scaly chorus line.

Overhead, pelicans flew rigid patrol patterns, as slow and steady as air-sea-rescue planes.

We had a few more hapless attempts at hitting something and then finally explained to our Texan companions that our story just required us to hunt, not necessarily to hunt successfully.

It was enough simply to be on the river and to explain how the hunters of Texas were broadly pleased to see conservation restrictions placed on the gar, if only to preserve them for future generations to pursue.

They were amazed, as Americans often are, at the idea that all hunting, more or less, is now banned in Britain. To them it simply expresses a love of the outdoors and a sense of man's place in the natural order of things.

Their incredulity at the idea that Britain is essentially an unarmed society was stronger still.

I struggled to explain that anyone running for parliament on a platform of widespread gun ownership would not be guaranteed to win.

We drifted on, enjoying the river rather than the fishing and untroubled by the thought that, somewhere in the dark waters beneath us, the alligator gar were chuckling at our marksmanship, as they stretched into another tumble turn or two.

And when we parted, it was with the knowledge that - as hunters happy to miss everything and catch nothing - we would be harder for Mike and Mark to explain to their friends than any tall tale of the ones that got away.

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