Bow fishers across Texas and beyond are reeling over a series of proposed Texas Parks and Wildlife Department regulation changes that some say would place needless restrictions on their ability to target big alligator gar on the Trinity River and other waters across the state.
It stirs the pot knowing TPWD fisheries managers were instructed to make the proposals without solid research data to back them up — a move that goes against the sound science policy the inland fisheries division has hung its hat on for decades.
Meanwhile, staunch supporters of the proposals, including the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission led by chairman Ralph Duggins, theorize the long-lived fish could be vulnerable to over harvest under current regulations and are in need of additional protection.
Following are proposals introduced by TPWD inland fisheries staff during a Jan. 23 TPW Commission meeting:
• Placing a statewide ban on the take of alligator gar at night using a bow and arrow.
• Placing a four-foot maximum length limit on alligator gar on the section of Trinity River from the I-30 bridge in Dallas to the I-10 bridge in Chambers County while leaving the current one-fish daily bag limit in place.
• Create a mandatory reporting requirement for alligator gar harvested on all Texas waters, excluding Lake Falcon. Mandatory reporting would require anglers to report each harvest within 24 hours online via a mobile app.
• Creating a limited draw for tags that permit a party to take one alligator gar per year in the Trinity River in excess of four feet in length.
A little history
There was a time when alligator gar were perceived as the ugly ducklings of the Texas freshwater scene — a lowly trash fish with no sporting value, no harvest limits and a history of over exploitation by commercial operations and careless anglers in other states.
While their pre-historic appearance has remained still in time, the long-lived fish known to top 300 pounds and live beyond 60 years have seen a spike in popularity among recreational anglers in Texas during the last 10-15 years, and a surge in the number of guides who target them using rod and reel and archery gear.
Realizing the fish's budding popularity and condition-sensitive spawning cycles, TPWD scientists in 2009 implemented a statewide one fish per day limit, excluding Lake Falcon, which remains at five per day.
More protection came in 2014 when TPWD's Executive Director was authorized to close waters for alligator gar fishing for up to 30 days during spawning.
Texas is considered one of the nation's last alligator gar strongholds — and the Trinity is believed to have one of the most robust populations in the world.
Biologists have been monitoring the river since 2009. The most recent research data from 2011 suggests the population is healthy enough to sustain itself and continue offering opportunities to take large fish under the current regulation, provided annual exploitation does not exceed five percent for an extended period.
The current harvest rate is estimated at 2-4 percent.
Last spring, the TPW Commission ordered TPWD to fashion a proposal to eliminate the take of big alligator gar on the Trinity. What started with a proposed four-foot maximum and mandatory reporting has blossomed to include the statewide nighttime bowfishing ban on alligator gar and creating a limited permit system for big fish.
Duggins, a Ft. Worth attorney, said he is motivated to preserve the resource for future generations. He acknowledges the TPWD's research data but referenced it as a "snapshot estimate made in 2011— nearly eight years ago."
"Data and populations estimates are certainly relevant but not the only factors to be considered, Duggins said. "The commission seeks to promote stewardship on both public and private lands and waters including the promotion of a conservation ethic, fair chase sportsmanship, and preventing waste of natural resources."
Duggins also believes angler interest has grown since 2011 and claims "the rapid evolution of technology and equipment available to kill large alligator gar has made it much easier to take these fish when on the surface, in shallow water, or at night. So, the Commission has been interested in proposed rules that would reduce the number of big gar killed and in getting more reporting of gar taken."
Duggins also pointed out a Texas Department of State Health Services consumption advisory for alligator gar in most of Trinity River and questioned why someone might kill one for food. He added that the proposed regulation changes would not hamper catch and release fishing using rod and reel.
The proposals also have drawn support from the newly formed Texas Gar Fishing Association.
"Based on current scientific research, responsible conservation practices, and in the interests of securing sustainable alligator gar populations for use by all interested parties, we support the newly-proposed regulations from TPWD," said TGFA vice president, Dr. Solomon David.
According to TPWD estimates, Texas has about 46,000 bow fishers who could be impacted should the proposals pass. Catch and release isn't an option in bow fishing.
The regs also could mean a financial hit to full-time guides like Mark Malfa of Houston and Marshall Bryant of Corsicana, both of which offer bow fishing and rod-and-reel services.
Malfa says close to 30 percent of his bow fishing trips are at night, although he never visits Trinity after dark due to the poor water clarity.
"These regulations are wrong," Malfa said. "If I thought the fish were in trouble, I wouldn't have a problem with it, but they aren't. I fish the Trinity and other rivers and lakes all around the state. They are all full of big alligator gar. I can show them to you."
Bryant says he isn't opposed to more regs, including a permitting system, so long as it does not give rod and reelers free rein to catch and release all they want. He believes a percentage of released fish die from stress and gut hooking using treble hooks.
"I've seen it — it's a bare minimum of 20 percent mortality, sometimes higher depending on the conditions," Bryant said. "With 10 rod/reel guides on the river catching 10-12 fish per day…. do the math. It's not fair to impose these rules on bow fishermen when the biologists say the population is good. This whole deal is part on an agenda (against bow fishing). It's just not right. Everybody should be held to the same standard."
Trinity River guide Bubba Bedre, whose service is based in rural Elkhart, is a veteran bow fisher who switched exclusively to rod and reel fishing in 2010.
He says pinpointing the hooking mortality rate on alligator gar is difficult because they are released back into the river. However, he thinks the chances of survival are way better using a smaller 3/0 bronze treble hook over a big 8/0 or 9/0.
Circle hooks are even better, but hook-up percentages are halved, Bedre said.
Bedre, a member of the Texas Freshwater Fishing Advisory Committee, said he thinks the proposals are too strict. However, he does believe the Trinity's big fish would benefit from some sort of permitting system.
"I don't think the Trinity population is in trouble now, but I think it could be if the popularity of targeting these big fish continues to grow," he said. "I think it's a good idea to get a handle on it before that happens. I'm definitely not for taking the bow fishing completely away, though."
The guide said he opposes the nighttime ban. "
That's crazy," he said. "That was the icing on the cake for the bow fishermen. It's got a bunch of people mad. The state brought that all on themselves."
Public hearing dates, times and locations have not yet been decided, but should be available on TPWD’s website soon.
Editor's Note: Matt Williams is a freelance writer based in Nacogdoches. Email, firstname.lastname@example.org.