September 13, 2023
As the saying goes, everything is bigger and better in Texas, right?
While that might be chamber-of-commerce hype, it was very much on the mark when it comes to one of the biggest fish to swim anywhere in North American freshwater venues—the ancient-looking alligator gar.
For 72 years, Texas has held the International Game Fish Association all-tackle world record for the species. And if a fish caught during the Labor Day weekend at Sam Rayburn Reservoir is approved, Texas would not only keep the all-tackle record, but also seize the 6-pound line-class world record too, thanks to a huge alligator gar caught by Kentucky angler Art Weston. That fish is an incredible 283-pound alligator gar caught on Sept. 2, 2023, as Weston fished aboard Capt. Kirk Kirland's boat, the "Garship Enterprise."
Estimated to be at least 80 years old by the guide (meaning it was likely alive 72 years ago when the current IGFA world record was caught), the huge specimen measured 100 inches in length and 48 inches in girth. Kirkland, who learned to fish for the prehistoric-looking fish as a young man after his dad opened up a fish market near the Trinity River, has been a full-time guide for alligator gar in southeast Texas since the late 1990s after a European client contacted him and wanted to catch the fish on rod and reel in the famed river system. Since then, Kirkland has gone on to become one of the world's most renowned specialists for the species, running as many as 250 trips a year on the Trinity River, Sam Rayburn, Lake Livingston, Choke Canyon Reservoir and even Falcon International Reservoir on the U.S./Mexico border.
After Weston's monster catch at Big Sam the other day, Kirkland posted the news on his Facebook page: "What an unbelievable fish, the new pending IGFA ALL TACKLE WORLD RECORD ALLIGATOR GAR the holy grail of the fishing world and we did it on 6 lb line," said the post. "What an accomplishment, lots of blood ,sweat and tears (and broken line) went into this achievement. Angler and world-record chaser Art Weston and I did what no other alligator gar angler has been able to accomplish in 72 years ... catch a fish bigger than the all-tackle world record set so many years ago on the bank of the Rio Grande River. Thanks for all my sponsors and clients who have become friends, for without your support and continued belief in me this wouldn't have been possible. 283 lb alligator gar, 100 inches long by 48 inch girth. God is great."
Earlier this week, the IGFA put out its own social-media post, confirming the pending world-record status: "Art was able to land the gar following an incredible 2-hour and 45-minute battle," said the IGFA post. "After recording the weight on a certified scale, Art was able to release the fish safely. This record is currently pending and under review."
If Weston's catch is approved, it will break the state record and eclipse the world record by four pounds. That 279-pound alligator gar was caught on Dec. 2, 1951, as angler Vill Valverde fished along the banks of the Rio Grande River.
What's more, Weston's alligator gar is also likely the second-largest freshwater fish ever confirmed as a rod-and-reel record catch in the U.S., falling only behind the 468-pound white sturgeon, the all-tackle record for the species in the IGFA record books. That behemoth, which had a length of nine feet and a girth of five feet, was landed by Joey Pallotta III in San Pablo Bay, Calif., on July 9, 1983 in a battle that lasted a reported five hours for a fish that was estimated to be 100 years old.
Capt. Kirkland has seen a crazy amount of media attention the past several days with news sites all over North America and the world reporting on the catch. "I think that some of that interest is because it's a huge fish that not a lot of people target (or know much about)," he said. "It's kind of an unknown, not the golden species largemouth bass that many anglers like to target. These big world-class alligator gar are just so rare, and to catch that record fish, it's been 72 years now since the last world record was caught. It's pretty spectacular, especially to do it on 6-pound line, and just a crazy experience."
The East Texas guide is getting used to having such moments with Weston, a tremendous angler who fishes with Kirkland a couple of times a year. Weston, a Union, Ky., resident, is no stranger to the IGFA record books either, holding 23 current world-record catches, along with a career total of 55 IGFA record catches over the years.
That includes three current line-class IGFA alligator gar records in the 2023 IGFA World Record Game Fishes record book, and another one pending from a 251-pound catch earlier this year with Kirkland as the pair fished in the Trinity River that flows between Dallas and Houston.
Last year, Kirkland actually guided Weston to the 2-pound line class record in the IGFA record book, thanks to a 110-pound specimen caught at Choke Canyon Reservoir near Corpus Christi.
While the Trinity River is ground zero for big alligator gar in the Lone Star State—of the 41 categories in the IGFA's line-class, tippet-class (fly fishing) and junior-class records, 28 entries came from the Trinity River—it isn't the only place where they can be caught in Texas' vast landscape of 254 counties.
In addition to the long-standing Rio Grande River all-tackle world record, Weston's recent catches on Choke Canyon and Sam Rayburn prove that big alligator gar swim all across South Texas. And even up north on Lake Texoma, which lies on the Red River boundary between Texas and Oklahoma, anglers can get into the giant gar act, with Texoma producing a 254-pound, 12-ounce alligator gar in 2015.
Kirkland has alligator gar dialed in like few others and he, for one, isn't surprised at where Weston's recent catch came from. "Rayburn has some really big fish," he said. "Art comes twice a year, in April and the fall, and we discussed it not long ago that Sam Rayburn has some big fish, although not a lot of bites."
That intrigued Weston and he was soon fishing with Kirkland on one of the most famous largemouth-bass waters in the country. As it turned out, the day was stellar and he wouldn't have to wait long to hear the reel sing.
"We first fished on 12-pound test, and we got a 169-pound fish, which is a record," said Kirkland. "After that, the next record we didn't hold was the 6-pound mark. While I was rigging up, we caught another one that we turned loose. As I got rigged up on six, Art saw it [the pending world record] roll. He saw it roll, and even though I didn't, he said it was really big."
Kirkland knew to trust Weston's judgment since he calls him one of the "best fisherman I've ever fished with, one who studies the fish, lines, reels, etc., to get a fish like that."
After the fish bit in an area featuring minimal snags and a mostly sandy bottom, the fight was on. And for that, Kirkland was grateful. "The one we caught earlier on 12-pound test, it just laid on the bottom for an hour," he said. "The big one didn't do that, or we would have never gotten it in."
While the pair knew that Weston's fish was big, they still didn't know just how big as the fight drug on and they couldn't see the fish. "About two hours and fifteen minutes into the fight, Art got the fish closer to the surface," Kirkland said of his first real look at the fish. "Towards the end of the 2 hour, 45 minute battle, it came up, I saw her up in front of the boat, and I was able to rope her and get her in."
After getting the rope behind the gar's front fins—something that is necessary since the gar's tail is smaller than its body—the guide and angler were finally able to get the huge fish into the boat. That's when it slowly began to sink in what they might have accomplished on Sam Rayburn's storied waters.
"When I first looked at her (after we landed her), I said she is big, (although I was not sure that she was world-record big)," said Kirkland. "Art said 'I think she's bigger than the one in April,' but we still didn't know until we measured her."
With so many big alligator gar to his credit, Kirkland is an expert on how to fish for these fish under IGFA rules, how to land them, how to measure them, how to weigh them on a tripod sling scale and how to get them released quickly back into the water. As he was going through the process, it suddenly became apparent what he and Weston had done.
"When I saw that it was 100 inches long and some 48 inches in girth, I knew this was a pretty special fish," he said. "As for the weight, we knew that the world record was 278 as we got her into the sling and on the tripod. As the scale started registering the weight, it just kept going higher and higher and higher. When the number went past 278 and this fish's tail was still on ground, I think I blurted out 'Oh my gosh, this one is bigger than the 278!' We got her up off the ground, recorded the weight, hugged a couple of times, took a couple of photos and then started working to get her back into the water."
As cool as Kirkland and Weston's effort was in getting the fish into the boat, it's even more so for the care, dedication and hurry that they employed to get the big fish back into the water for the release, which was videoed.
"This is truly a once in a lifetime catch," said Kirkland. "It's something that all guides, all record-chasers, all anglers, are looking for."
Deep in the heart of Texas, home to the world's biggest alligator gar.