Searching for Swamp Monsters

There are some species of animals whose appearance is so incredible that many people don’t believe they are real when they first see them: the cassowary certainly qualifies, so do blob fish, platypus, star-nosed moles, and so does the alligator gar. The alligator gar lives in the rivers and swamps of the southern United States, where it is relatively well known, but outside of this region essentially no one has heard of it, and when they find out what they look like, they wonder how on earth an animal like this isn’t more world famous!

In our minds, swamps are home to all kinds of scary animals (and people), and this is one case where the reality is not far away from the imagined situation! The bayous of Louisiana are home to a wonderful diversity of prehistoric looking creatures, three of which have the word ‘alligator’ in their name: there’s the alligator gar, the alligator snapping turtle, and of course alligators themselves. All of these animals are true monsters of the swamp, with reputations that go before them. In addition to those a few other species stand out in my mind: the paddlefish, the soft-shelled turtle and the wonderful Nephila spiders, with webs that look big enough to snag a deer! All of these animals seem to belong to a time forgotten, yet here in the swamps they are all relatively abundant.

I was in Northern Louisiana looking for all of these animals and more, but the real reason I was there was to try to catch, measure and release a huge alligator gar. I’d teamed up with two expert local fisherman – Brad and Sherman – who were more than happy to help, though they were a little bit unsure about the release part of our deal! Brad and Sherman know more about alligator gar fishing than almost anyone else on earth, and they knew that we’d need to be smart to catch one: alligator gar are very shy and nervously respond to intruders on their stretch of bayou by disappearing, to who-knows-where, and not reappearing again until the disturbance has gone.

We hunted by day, we hunted by night, we used nets and baited hooks, we tried well-known spots and secret spots. We caught dozens and dozens of needle-nose garfish, of buffalo carp and of Asian jumping carp – many of which jumped into our boat at night. We caught a couple of smaller alligator gar, which hadn’t been around for long enough to develop the same wariness that the big individuals have, but a giant alligator gar remained elusive.

Days passed and still nothing, despite our best efforts. Normally I might be despondent but we had encountered so many other incredible animals that I was still very happy: my first ever black widow spider, which somehow got into our boat and needed rescuing and returning to land; my first ever copperhead, one of the most beautiful snakes in all of the Americas; and best of all for me we’d found an alligator snapping turtle, one of my all-time favorite animals! In addition to the incredible wildlife was the incredible hospitality, though I’d come to expect nothing less from the people of Louisiana. I was on a high, but I had to remember that we were there for a reason: we needed a big gator gar.

With one day to spare before we had to leave we returned to a quiet backwater of the bayou, which Brad had been scoping out for a few weeks. He had been very careful not to let anyone see him go there so as not to attract other fishermen who might scare away the gar. We’d set some baited hooks – attached to floating jugs – and left them there over night. The water was dead calm, there was not a breath of wind as we quietly motored around the final corner into the wide open backwater. We scanned the water with our binoculars, looking for each of the jugs we’d left over night. I counted them all; all were dead still, except one, which was bobbing very slightly. Something must be on the line, but we knew that it couldn’t be a big gar, it just wasn’t moving enough. Sherman revved the engine a bit and we started to head over. The second that Sherman upped the revs we all stopped and stared: the jug took off: we had a gator gar on the line!

Join biologist Niall McCann as he heads to Louisiana in search of these prehistoric monsters of the swamp this Friday at 8/7c on Biggest & Baddest: Swamp Monsters only on Nat Geo WILD!