Just a few weeks ago, I was contacted by a family visiting friends in Waxahachie, Texas, and who claimed to have seen in the Trinity River what they described as a "dinosaur in the river." Well, that's certainly not the kind of thing you hear every day - to say the least! Before I get to the story, however, here's a bit of information on the Trinity River itself. As the Texas State Historical Association says: " The Trinity flows 423 miles from the confluence of the Elm and West forks to the coast, making it the longest river having its entire course in Texas. The river rises on the North Central Plains, but most of its course is in the Coastal Plains area. The total drainage basin area is 17,969 square miles and includes all or part of thirty-seven counties. The population of the Trinity River Basin in 1980 was 3.2 million. Of these, 75 percent live in Dallas and Tarrant counties."
Not surprisingly, I didn't waste any time replying to the family's Facebook message. The creature, they estimated, was around fifteen-feet to eighteen-feet in length and looked as if it was "covered with armor." And, it slowly moved along the waters of the Trinity River paying no attention at all to the shocked family. Having heard the story, it quickly became clear to me that what the family had seen was actually not a dinosaur (of course!), but was an Alligator gar. The Texas Parks and Wildlife are well acquainted with these creatures. They provide an excellent background on these massive fish: "Alligator gar get big - really big - and they look like something that should be swimming around with dinosaurs, not bass and crappie. But it is not just their looks that are unique. Alligator gar are like few other fishes that swim in our rivers, reservoirs and estuaries. Even among the four species of gar that occur in Texas — longnose, spotted, shortnose and alligator gar — this species is unique."
The TP&W continue: "Gars are easily distinguished from other freshwater species by their long, slender, cylindrical bodies, long snouts, and diamond-shaped interlocking (ganoid) scales. The tail fin is rounded. Dorsal and anal fins are placed well back on the body and nearly opposite each other. Alligator gar is the largest of the gar species. It can grow up to 8 feet long and weigh more than 300 pounds. Adults have two rows of large teeth on either side of the upper jaw. Coloration is generally brown or olive above and lighter underneath. The species name spatula is Latin for 'spoon,' referring to the creature's broad snout. Alligator gar can live for many decades. They grow very fast when young, but growth slows with age. In general, for every additional foot the fish grows, its age doubles. A 3-foot gar is typically about 2.5 years old; a 4-foot gar about 5, and a 7-foot trophy catch might be 40 years old. The world record, caught in Mississippi in 2011, weighed 327 pounds and was probably at least 95."
On the matter of that ancient 327 pound creature that the TP&W referenced, Outdoor Life was highly enthused by the story: "A 327-pound alligator gar caught by rod-and-reel angler Kenny Williams from Chotard Lake in Issaquena County, MS [in February 2011] may surpass the standing IGFA record for the species - by nearly 50 pounds! Williams' fish measured 8-feet, 5.25 inches, with a 47.95-inch girth. According to the International Game Fish Association web site, the current all-tackle world record alligator gar weighed 279 pounds and was caught from the Rio Grande River in Texas in 1951. ‘At first I didn't think he was that big. But as I was getting him into the boat, it was like, 'How big is this thing?' It was a lot of effort just to get him into the boat,' Williams told WAPT-TV in Jackson, Miss. ‘I don't even know how to describe it. It was just huge and hard to get into the boat.'"
So, a mystery was quickly cleared up, and the family was satisfied. That is, except for one thing: the size of the alligator gar. The family was absolutely adamant that, at the very least, the mighty fish was fifteen feet in length. I know for sure that, on occasion, people are prone to exaggerate when they see something large and (at the time) unknown. Albeit not deliberately, I should stress. And particularly so when, in this case, the creature was seen at a distance of around sixty feet: they were sitting on a stretch of bank and the fish briefly broke the surface further down the river. I have never seen - or heard of - an alligator gar of such incredible dimensions. The family remains adamant it was a true giant. And I have to admit they were there and I wasn't. I can only take them at the word. If there is such an alligator gar in the Trinity River it would be a discovery of profound proportions.