GAR RODEO IN THE CAJUN SWAMP:
JUDGE NOT, LEST Y’ALL BE JUDGED
by Mark Spitzer
“You ain’t a activist, are ya?” the manager asked me on the phone. “Because we don’t need PETA getting all up in our grille.”
“No, no, no,” I replied. “I’m just a gar writer trying to learn as much as I can. I want to come down and check out your garfest, meet the people, see the fish.”
He was worried that I might judge their event harshly and get the animal rights folks all up in a lather. For the twenty-sixth year in a row, the Blind River Bar was holding its annual gar rodeo, a jug-fishing tournament in which self-professed coon-asses from all corners of the Cajun swamp converge on the Diversion Canal of Lake Maurepas, Louisiana, for a weekend of good old fashioned redneck revelry and gar-fishing action. Last year, sixty-five boats entered the competition; they brought in thousands of pounds of alligator gar, then had a major gar-feast.
When I researched gar rodeos (which is what these gar-wrangling contests are usually called), the Blind River Bar’s Web site stuck out. Their rodeo was the most popular one going on in the Deep South or anywhere; that the bar was accessible only by boat made the prospect even more intriguing. The photo gallery promised buxom barmaids based on the Hooters prototype and a Coyote Ugly, spring-break atmosphere designed for hot young binge drinkers. The contest offered prizes for the biggest gar, the heaviest load of up to ten, and the largest trash fish other than a shark. The only rule for gator gar was that they had to be brought in in edible condition. This didn’t mean they had to arrive alive.
There were no limits on alligator gar in the state—for size, for quantity, or time of year for harvesting—and I was concerned about the hit they took from the petro-Pollock that had splattered the Gulf two years ago. So I’d written to Dr. Alysse Ferrara, the gar specialist at Nicholls State in Thibodeaux, asking what she thought. She’d replied:
I don’t think jugline fishing is too big of a problem in coastal Louisiana. Our coastal populations appear to be large and from preliminary analyses of two coastal populations . . . the coastal fish are young and fast growing . . . one of the problems I see with juglines is people from non-coastal areas fishing in areas where coastal residents fish . . . When other anglers from outside of the area come down, they generally fish the most easily accessed waters and fish them hard. I think the biggest jugline hazard may be gear that is not retrieved.
If we continue to lose coastal habitats we will lose critical spawning and juvenile habitats. The oil spill probably impacted a small portion of alligator gar habitat in southeastern LA . . . If another spill happens that impacts a larger area further inland during the spawning and juvenile growth periods we could have a big problem. I would expect adult gar to avoid oiled areas but the transfer of contaminants through prey items may occur. Loss of coastal habitats due to erosion, subsidence, and saltwater intrusion is the biggest danger our coastal populations face. If loss continues or accelerates, a future spill could be devastating.
With that in mind, I rented a condo three miles downstream from the bar, hitched up my 1959 Lümpabout motorboat, and headed on down in the August heat, triple digits everywhere. With my wife Robin riding shotgun, and our friends Sharon and Brian coming over from Baton Rouge, we were fully prepared to submerge ourselves in a backwater bacchanalia of seafood abuse and carnival culture with gator gar at the nucleus.
After making it through a typical torrential afternoon thunderstorm we met Captain Keith rigging up his boat, the Tea-Bag, in the condo parking lot. Pointing his rum and Coke at a ten-foot-tall monster truck across the lot, he told us the guy who owned it was Troy Landers’ “chooter” from the show Swamp People. Like Captain Keith, this local celebrity was getting ready to participate in the rodeo.
I told Captain Keith I’d written a book on gar and tried to get the skinny on his gear. He showed me his stuff. He had a hundred floats labeled with his name, all attached to 750-pound test lines between two and six feet long. On the ends of them he’d attached two-foot stainless steel leaders thick as coat hangers, attached to 10/0 J-hooks. For bait he’d be using frozen “pogeys,” a type of saltwater shad. As we talked Captain Keith replaced his drink with a Coors Light, then told me how his crew would be here in the morning, that they’d register in the afternoon, then gas up and go out, fishing almost all night long.
“I’m only going to drink a twelve-pack,” he told me, “because I have to drive the boat.” Captain Keith had a special spot already picked out in a canal between I-10 and I-12, where he and some buddies had shot some eight-footers with bow and arrows a week before. He showed me an image on his iPhone of three of them, and they were about as big as alligator gar get. One weighed 175.
Captain Keith warned me to watch out for the law, all up and down the waterway, pulling over the boats. Then he mentioned another creature, which he said we’d see at the Blind River Bar. He referred to this species as “the juiceheads.”
I wished him luck and launched my boat. The condo came with a slip on the canal, so I tied it up and we met our friends at a tiki hut—but the only thing tiki about the place was its sign, declaring it so. When we got inside the empty, dim-lit dive, Robin ordered a whiskey Coke and Sharon and Brian got some Abitas. I had my heart set on some sort of tropical drink in a long-faced cup, so I got the closest thing I could find: a pineapple-flavored Smirnoff Ice. I chose to think of it as a malt liquor instead of a wine cooler.
DJ Whatever took the stage. He was an urban white boy with saggy pants, blasting angry gangsta rap. On stage with him were a half-dozen twenty-year-old buddies. The one hot blonde among them was bootie-dancing. I tried not to stare, but it was too hard not to watch. She shook at 5,000 RPMs, the seams of her butt-hugging shorts threatening to burst. I wondered if this was some sort of prelude to what we’d be seeing tomorrow.
Around noon the next day I saw Captain Keith again, drinking off his hangover, so I went over and asked him how he hooked up his bait. He replied that the method was to run the leader through the length of the fish so that the hook comes out its mouth. Since gar swallow fish headfirst, this logic made sense.
“And how do you get them into the boat?” I asked.
“We choot ‘em in the head with a .22,” he replied. “Can’t have ‘em thrashing around in the boat.” Captain Keith had never entered this contest before, but he’d lived in this area all his life and had received plenty of info on what other juggers do. I explained a more humane way of roping them under the pectoral fins, hoisting them over the rail, then sitting on their backs and clamping their tails between your legs to get them under control. Why kill a good fish? Wouldn’t it make sense to wrap the largest gar in wet towels and let them breathe, then in the end pick the biggest fish and let the others go? But Captain Keith just squinted at me like I might be an activist. Cajuns have their own set of rules: take a gar out before you bring it in.
I looked across the lot. More monster trucks parked next to the guy from Swamp People, some almost a dozen feet high. The sun blazed and it was getting time to get to the bar, so I loaded the boat. The canal was lined with townhomes and condos, boat slips with power lifts, manicured lawns, screened-in gazebos, all types of yachts, golf carts, and statues of pelicans and black boys fishing. Within these gated communities I spotted American flags, private patio bars, and multi-million-dollar McMansions. Jugs floated all over the canal, some slowly moving upstream.
My spray-painted, bat-finned Bondo-buggy was passed by jet skis, party barges, glittering bass boats, and speedboats so long and rocket-shaped that they looked like they’d been designed by NASA, with names like My Toy, or Lucky Me, or We Won the Lottery! We were passed by Bustin’ Fun… in the ass, then heard the bar before we saw it, pounding out a skull-splitting cocktail of classic rock mixed with rap. Boats berthed around it, most of them the inboard types. A few jimmy-rigged flat-bottom boats with clunky old Evinrudes looked as out-of-place as my half-century-old fiberglass craft. These were the fishermen registering for the rodeo.
Out on the covered deck, we ordered some beers and cheeseburgers and sat down near the registration table. Giant fans roared around us, adding to the chaos of Guns ‘n Roses being blasted at full volume. It was impossible to talk to the fishermen, so when they’d wander on back to their boats, I’d stalk them, introduce myself, then ask them questions. They replied with a friendly, amused, “Whatchyoo got?” or “C’mon,” which might translate as “No way,” “You bet,” “Really?”, or “Get out of town!” One guy told me he was out to win it, and would stay out all night long. He was an ex-commercial fisherman and was using mullet, as were most of the others.
More locals came in as the afternoon wore on, including the “juiceheads” Captain Keith had told me about: pumped-up, oiled-up, bare-chested gel-heads strutting around with razor-wire tattoos snaking around their limbs like vines. They were all just above the drinking age and taking full-advantage of that fact, gesturing and flexing, high-fiving and shooting pool. They came by their daddy’s boatloads with coozies in hand and wraparound shades, shouting and wrasslin’ and carrying on. My wife called them “Guidos,” which she can say without being faulted because she’s from some exit in New Jersey where this isn’t considered a derogatory label. Sharon mentioned the reality show Jersey Shore, a spot-on assessment. These guys were definitely kin of the Situation and Pauly-D. They were laughing at “grenades” and looking to “smoosh.” Some were looking for a fight. I made up a word: “Guiddeaux.” Adding that French “eaux” that Cajuns love to play with so much seemed appropriate, whether those juiceheads had Italian roots or not, because whether they realized it or not, that’s who they were imitating.
The gals weren’t any less Jersier. They fell and stumbled and rubbed against each other as they sang to drinking songs and boozed to surpass Snooki and JWoww. Robin called them “bikini gals” and pointed out their skimpy tops and fake breasts with unzipped too-short short shorts revealing a flash of swimsuit bottoms. By 2 p.m. they were puking drunk. After Robin returned from a restroom break, she reported a bunch of them were purging in there in order to continue to eat and drink. I came up with another word: “Bimbeaux.”
I’d tried to restrain myself from passing judgment since the manager had already worried I’d do that, although he was more concerned of the portrait I’d paint of how the Blind River Bar treats fish. Since I had tried to reassure him that I wouldn’t get all environmental on his ass, and since he wasn’t kicking me out on mine for coming over uninvited. The thing is, though, I hadn’t even seen any garfishing yet—I’d only seen the clientele. By three o’clock we’d seen enough, and heard enough brain-bashing music to go deaf in one ear. Winding through the beer-pounding crowd, we made it to the Lümpabout.
Now hundreds of people milled around at the Blind River Bar, pushing out their pecs and breasts, silicone bouncing all around. When my stripy yellow boat pulled out, the Giddeauxs and Bimbeauxs pointed at us. Captain Keith, pulling in to register, was pointing at us. The chooter from Swamp People pointed. So did the cops. Police floated everywhere, just waiting to hand out their quotas of DUIs. Hitting their sirens, they pulled me over. Now I was being judged.
It was stupid of me to assume I could just come on over from Arkansas and drop my boat into the bayou. If I’d been better prepared, I would’ve known that it was a requirement to wear a lifejacket when operating a tiller-driven boat in this state. I also would’ve known that “throwable floatation devices” are not considered “personal flotation devices” in Louisiana. So there I was, not up to snuff and getting busted―but not by the Sheriff. I was getting busted by the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, who carry guns in Louisiana. They forked over two tickets: one for not having a fire extinguisher on board, and one for not having on a life vest. They gave us some lifejackets and instructed us to return them to their truck later on, which was conveniently parked at the Hill Top Inn, where we were heading for dinner that night.
After the fuzz let us go, we headed downstream. I spotted a belly-up alligator by the shore. We’d seen it earlier, just a little sucker with its tail cut off―a four-footer now down to two feet―which I thought would be cool for a photo op.
Motoring over, I picked it up and raised it high, waiting for Robin and Brian to focus in. It was so damn stanky that every molecule in my body was screaming for me to toss it back, but the cameras were still zooming in. Sharon tried not to hurl as they snapped the money shots.
The weigh-in began at 9 a.m. the next morning. Brian and Sharon slept in, but Robin and I arrived shortly after, with borrowed lifejackets and a new fire extinguisher. A few boats had come in, and a pile of skinned gars attracted flies in the sun. Most were between two and four feet long, and all of them had holes in their heads.
The clientele was different than the day before. There were moms and dads and kids galore, and the music had changed to country at a tolerable volume. People could talk, people could laugh—but mostly they cheered whenever a big gar was brought in.
The third boat was loaded with five- and six-footers packed in ice. The guy told me he’d caught over a hundred gator gar, but these were the biggest—and the biggest of his biggest was six-foot-six and weighed 66.3 pounds. They had to weigh this load in two installments, for a total of 517.2 pounds.
The fourth boat came in with a smaller load, with a few blue cats to boot, which qualified as “trash fish.” The fifth boat, however, had a bigger blue cat: 21.6 pounds. That guy had nine alligator gar, of which three were sixty-pounders with monofilament leaders emerging from their jaws. The sixth boat wasn’t that remarkable, but the seventh boat had 365.6 pounds of gar packed into tarps covered in ice. Then came the seventh boat with 258.6 pounds and a thirty-pound blue upping the trashfish ante.
After that, a family brought in the world’s hugest Ziploc bag, dry-iced with ten big gar—but not enough to place for a prize. A few of those fish were sixty-pounders, which seemed to be the going rate for big ones in this area. I mentioned this to a ZZ Top-looking old timer. He was a contest participant, and he just shook his head. “Used to be a lot more a lot bigger,” he told me, “but they been fished too much.”
Robin was also talking to the locals. At one point I looked over and saw her speaking with a toothless old dude with a thick Cajun accent: “Doz gar dare, dey eat twice dare weight in gamefish evwy day, dey do!”
She replied, “Actually, that’s not true.” He walked away without saying another word.
The tenth boat came in and unloaded a bunch of six-footers. The first basket held 235.4 pounds of gar and the second held 214.1 for a grand total of 449.5 pounds. Their biggest fish weighed 77.2 pounds.
But then the mother lode came in, with no gator gar less than six feet long. They were lined up like jumbo sardines, packed into the hull. This load topped out at 571.8 pounds. There was whistling all around and the kids went nuts.
All these gar had a blue sheen. They didn’t get red in their bellies like Arkansas gar. Most had perfect tails. One had a freaky forky deformity, but that was it.
The twelfth boat only came in with three fish, but they were three fish that really counted. They had a big fat blue that weighed in at 45.7 pounds, and two seven-foot gator gars, the largest weighing 114.5.
The next boat was also a contender. Beneath their pile of five-foot gars, I saw a tail so girthy that I figured it was a 200-pounder. But when they finally pulled that fish out, I saw it was the opposite of a big cat. Whereas catfish tend to have mongo heads that taper toward their tails, this gar had a little head and a lot of junk in its trunk. It weighed in at 107.2, and the whole load weighed 463.1.
After that, a flat-bottom boat pulled up with no ice or refrigeration and unloaded 233.3 pounds of alligator gar and three big cats. The Weighmaster directed those fish to be hauled directly to the ever-growing gar-garbage pile.
“Those fish stink,” he told me. “All those other gar brought in, you couldn’t smell a dang thing. But these guys, they don’t care.”
I hadn’t thought about waste. It wasn’t bothering me that I’d already seen more than five hundred gator gar with bullets through their brains, probably because Dr. Ferrara had assured me that this population wasn’t at risk. What did bug me, though, was wondering what had happened to the rest of the fish—the fish we didn’t see, like the ninety gar the third boat reported catching. The fishermen said they brought their biggest ones in and saved the remainder for the commercial market. But those stinky gar, they were wasted. Two hundred and thirty-three pounds, wasted.
The fifteenth boat then sidled up and unloaded a 29.7-pound cat. I watched another boat unload, and then Robin said it was time to go. Brian and Sharon were waiting for us. So I checked out the four or five boats left in line, saw a few more big-ass gar waiting to get weighed, and also noted an alligator snapping turtle the circumference of a trashcan lid, which would provide some competition in the trash fish category.
On the way back to the condo, Robin asked what the deal was with the other boats. Sixty-six had registered and had paid sixty bucks each, but only a third of those had come in to weigh their fish. I’d asked the Weighmaster about this as well, and he had replied that some people must’ve got skunked, and that some just knew that what they caught wasn’t enough―so that’s what I told her.
But then we got another answer to that question when we saw the SS Tea-Bag being towed. It was heading downstream, so I pulled up alongside. Captain Keith waved his beer at me and told us that the gators had shredded his lines, and that after spending $200 on fuel, he’d run out of gas.
We missed the fried gator gar and gar boulette extravaganza, but returned in the afternoon with Sharon and Brian. The music was mega-thumping like usual, and the crowd was a mix of juiceheads, bikini gals, what Brian referred to as “the job creators,” and fishermen.
Around four o’clock the garmaids were led out to the deck to pose with the trophies and champs. The MC made a speech about how there should be an award for the drunkest fisherman, and a couple Guiddeauxs pumped their fists in the air and shouted, “That’s What I’m Talkin’ About!”
Looking around, I noticed that everyone was white: no Hispanics, no African Americans. When I mentioned this to Sharon, she replied that we were on the edge of Livingston Parish, which is still known for the occasional cross-burning. But again, I wasn’t here to judge.
The third-place winners for the biggest load of gar were then announced. David Hunt and Jason Thompson had brought in 463 pounds, so they stepped up and received a giant check for $500. The waitresses grinned and flashed some cleavage and pictures were taken.
Jerod Galloway was awarded $500 for the largest trash fish, that forty-six-pound cat. He posed with the eye candy, and then Derek Pasternod and his crew did the same for winning second place in overall gar mass: 517 pounds.
Then came the award for most gargantuan gar of all. It was a thousand-dollar check, which Jerod Galloway also won for his 114-pounder. He stepped up with a big ol’ smile, the gar gals stuck out their boobs, and jpegs happened.
Jason Snyder and his company were then awarded the grand prize of $1500 for their 572-pound garload, because each of those six-footers weighed an average of fifty-seven pounds. More flashes, more flesh, more whoops from the crowd.
Then it was over, just like that. The fishermen began pulling out, leaving the Guiddeauxs and Bimbeauxs to return to their rutting rituals in their natural habitat. The cops kept watch, the music got cranked up, and I cornered Jerod Galloway before he could get away.
“Did that 114-pounder give you any trouble?” I asked.
“Besides staying awake since nine o’clock last night?” he asked. “C’mon!”
I went back to my friends, suddenly feeling exhausted and empty. Whatever the moral of the story was, whatever the overall message was, there were no clear answers in sight. And with the anti-climactic after-effect kicking in, there was only one thing left to do: pay our tab and go back to the condo.
We motored along and took it in: the oyster mushrooms along the shore, which we hadn’t noticed before (so stopped and gathered a few), the lily pads, the alligator grass. And then there was something else.
We saw the first one from forty yards away, floating bloated, a rigor-mortised pectoral fin waving to us in the wind. It was only three and a half feet long, with a bullet hole through its head. Then it spoke to me. It said, Where you from, cher, every gator gar counts. But down here, we got beaucoup to spare!
Again I looked around. We’d traveled this stretch at least eight times over the last two days, but never saw one dead fish in it. But now, there were alligator gars bobbing under docks and washed up in the weeds like random cans of Bud Light: the excess, the dregs, the casualties of rodeo.
We pulled up to another gar, this one a five-footer. It was a beautiful fish, but after baking in the sun all afternoon, it stunk just as much as that chopped-in-half gator. This one also had a bullet through its skull. Robin asked me how I felt.
I didn’t feel anything. Maybe because I was still digesting the whole enchilada. Maybe because I didn’t know. Or maybe I felt I still didn’t know enough to know. Maybe there’s something about this “sport” which justifies what’s left behind.
One thing I knew for sure, though, was that I wasn’t passing judgment at that moment. No opinions, no emotion, no bias whatsoever.
Now, however, my attitude is obvious: I’ve been playing with stereotypes, so any fool can see you can’t trust me. All you can do is take what you’ve got and make of it what you will, which puts you in the same boat as me. You might be an “activist,” you might not. It’s your call.
Anyway, as they say, “I’m just saying”―and that’s the gar-damned truth.
Mark Spitzer is the author of 18 books, a creative writing professor at the University of Central Arkansas, and the Editor in Chief of the national, award-winning literary journal Toad Suck Review (toadsuckreview.org). As the world expert on the poetry of Jean Genet, he is also recognized as a leading authority on a primitive fish known as gar, and can be seen featured on reruns of the “Alligator Gar”episode of the Animal Planet series RiverMonsters). He has hundreds of publications in creative nonfiction, fiction, poetry and literary translation.