Dateline: June 27, 2014 – Lake Livingston, Texas
There is something intimidating about driving into Texas and seeing the sign that tells you exactly how long you will be in Texas. It was the crack of dawn when we departed Silver City to begin the longest single drive of the trip – 590 miles, which Rex had estimated as “just a few miles.”
We all fell silent at the sight of this sign. That’s a long time to be in one state.
The plan for the day. I didn’t say it was a good plan.
There is something about 12 hours in a car that defines relationships. You really learn what’s inside someone, doubly so after a huge Mexican lunch in El Paso. Note to self – when driving 600 miles, save the Mexican food for dinner.
It became apparent that the scenery wasn’t going to vary. Editorial by Kyle.
Somewhere on this endless rerun of bland highway, the guys introduced me to something called “internet content.” Mind you, I’m not completely lost on the cultural possibilities of the internet – I even found some old Carol Burnett skits on Youtube – but the depth of knowledge these two had was astonishing. There is some hysterical stuff out there – e.g. CollegeHumor.com’s Batman series – and people from my generation just don’t appreciate the breadth of this resource. I was alternately amused, astonished, and horrified – in an order which might surprise you. We’re not talking about anything (too) gross here – get your minds out of the gutter – but when we weren’t talking about the next fishing trip, we were laughing our heads off. Who knew Natalie Portman could rap?
This photo was taken hours later.
Conversation ranged far and wide. Kyle is a senior at Central Florida and an officer in a fraternity. Martini is applying to grad schools in marine biology. (I am hopeful he will get a PhD in marine psychology, so he can tell me how fish think.) We talked about families, girlfriends past, present, and future, jobs, sports, and, of course, Kate Upton.
That’s Penguito, official mascot of the 2014 Road Trip.
When things got dull, we put ice down Martini’s back. And of course, if anyone got a phone call, especially something that required any level of conversation, the rest of us would make animal noises in the background.
It was late at night when we arrived in Junction, Texas. It had everything we needed – a Dairy Queen and some sort of motel which felt like it was not quite completely converted from a 19th century state prison.
After waking up on the 26th and discovering that Taco Bell does indeed have an excellent breakfast offering, we fished the Llano river at a culvert in Junction. Two species came quickly – the Rio Grande Cichlid and the longear sunfish.
The Rio Grande cichlid. It’s cool.
The longear sunfish. Finally. I thought I had caught these a bunch of times but they always turned out to be some other sunfish.
We then moved over to a spillway west of town. Our main target was a local largemouth derivative known as a Guadalupe bass. We caught some nice bass, which I, in my infinite wisdom, judged to be spotted bass and threw back without photos. Martini caught some even nicer ones, making me flash back to his spotted bass on the Cosumnes. (As featured in “A Bridge Too Near.”)
Martini and his beastly Guadalupe bass.
In the meantime, I added two shiner species to the list – the Texas and the blacktail. Four species and counting – already a great day.
Texas shiner. Not much can dignify this photo, so just move on the the next one.
Blacktail shiner. A monster by comparison.
In the early afternoon, we packed it up and drove to Llano, Texas, to fish below a dam on the Llano river.
The dam in question. Another gorgeous location courtesy of Martini’s incredibly thorough research.
Fishing was reasonable – a lot of small bass, but, in my infinite wisdom, they all looked like spotted bass to me. Kyle told me to take a photo of one of them – I declined, but then he snapped the picture below.
You know where this is going.
A few days later, an email came back from Dr. Timothy Bonner of Texas State University confirming that this was in fact a Guadalupe bass – they all were. It hurts to admit it, but I owe this species entirely to Kyle – ironic that the least experienced among us would have the foresight to think of taking the photo. He is forgiven for the Utah sucker … but not for what happened in Mississippi a few days later.
That evening featured the one home-cooked meal we ate on the entire trip. Kyle’s grandparents live in Waco, Texas, and they graciously invited us for dinner. These were good people – salt-of-the-earth Americans – and a large and loving family who were thrilled to see Kyle and welcomed me and Martini as family.
Kyle’s grandparents and other assorted relatives.
We had a big day ahead of us – alligator gar fishing in the Trinity River – but we still stayed around late for extra helpings of pot roast, and for multiple desserts. It was well after midnight when we got to sleep in some iffy motel. (The grandparents would have gladly put us up, but we needed to be close to the water for an early start.)
Well before dawn, we struggled from bed and headed for the Trinity River below Lake Livingston, where we would be spending the day with one of Martini’s all-time favorite guides, Kirk Kirkland. Kirk is an alligator gar specialist who has guided the Arosteguis to dozens and dozens of world records. Look him up at http://www.texasfishingguides.org/kirkland/.
We started up toward the dam, casting small lures for white bass, which were everywhere.
Kyle and some nice white bass. The place was full of them.
When we had gotten our fill of this, we moved just downriver and set up to bait fish for buffalo. Kyle caught one first – ironic that the least experienced among us would get the first one – but then he also got the second.
Kyle and a smallmouth buffalo. (Foreground.)
Then Martini got one. Kirk caught on to this, and instead of being kind and helpful as I have every right to expect, he mock-whispered to Martini “I thought you said this guy knew what he was doing!”
Martini gets a buffalo.
Eventually, Kirk perched behind my right ear and yelled “MISSED ‘EM! WHOOO!!” every time I had a bite. I did not find this constructive. In my own defense, I did eventually catch one half an hour later.
Finally, a smallmouth buffalo.
If you are whatsoever sensitive, liberal, or really anything to the left of Benito Mussolini, Kirk’s conversation isn’t going to be to your liking. That being said, the guy is hilarious and completely merciless, and every attempt I made to give him a hard time was met with a torrent of howlingly funny abuse. But even months later, I can’t think of many examples suitable for a G-rated blog, so I’ll leave it to your fertile little imaginations. His “Welcome to a Texas Prison” monologue alone was worth the price of admission.
That’s Captain Kirk at the helm of the Garship Enterprise.
We moved from the main river to a back bay and set out baits for spotted gar, another species I hadn’t caught. Again, Kyle got one first. Ironic that the least experienced among us would get the first one, and again, I couldn’t seem to get bites.
Here we go again.
Was this to be another spearfish? Of course, I blamed Kirk, and of course, in good humor, Kirk blamed me. We’ll call it a draw, but we eventually had to leave and go look for alligator gar. My one consolation is that I got a red shiner, a small if new species.
Red shiner. It’s in my hand. Look closely.
We then set up to take a shot at alligator gar. These prehistoric leviathans grow to the size of defensemen and have a lot more teeth, so fishing for them is a complex business. We put out four rods with huge baits, each about 100 yards apart. Kirk set these with European-style strike alarms tied to a remote beeper, and we sat back to wait. We had agreed up front that Kyle would take the first fish – both Martini and I had caught them previously. This might have been instinctive to Martini, but I felt awfully darn generous.
Kyle and Kirk wait for an alligator gar bite. They’re probably smiling because they said something mean about me.
We relaxed on a hot, pleasant Texas afternoon, and Kirk led a less-than-helpful discussion on his theories why I hadn’t caught a spotted gar. Most of these had to do with the influences of living in California, and none of them can be published here. Of course, Martini and Kyle sold me out and sided with Kirk, and after an hour of this unfair and likely Jaime-influenced abuse, we were mercifully interrupted by a bite.
Hooking an alligator gar is a complex business. We chased the float downstream about a quarter mile, waiting for the fish to eat the bait. When the fish finally came to a stop, Kirk told Kyle to set the hook, and the gar took off downstream like an annoyed submarine. From the fight, it was obvious that we had hooked something very, very big. Kyle is a very large and very strong person – think lineman – and he was pulling very hard, but the fish was pulling back harder. This went on for about half an hour, with Kyle slowly gaining, until the beast finally surfaced. Even though we all expected something big, we still all released involuntary bad words at the size of the thing. “Gee whiz!” I recall myself saying.
We then needed to invite the fish on board for photos. Even with an expert like Kirk in one corner, a wrestling match with a large alligator gar is an uncomfortably even proposition. He adroitly snared it, and lifted it in one impressive motion over the gunwale. The gar fully intended to kill him, but Kirk had it by the back of the head and didn’t let go. I have to imagine that the scene on Cousin Chuck’s wedding night was not dissimilar.
Kirk does the gar dance. He’s amazingly agile, and because of this, he hasn’t lost any important limbs over the years.
The fish was well over a hundred pounds – much larger, indeed, than any alligator gar I have caught. Ironic that the least experienced one of us would get the biggest fish of the trip.
Clearly, Kyle can lift heavy things.
Don’t they understand that there are alligator gar in the water?
Still, this was a big moment for the whole team – we had gotten a truly memorable beast, so there would be at least one photo in the whole trip where people wouldn’t have to squint to see the fish. Kyle had done us all proud, and had landed the fish of a lifetime.
The fish was safely released moments later.
That’s Penguito, official mascot of the 2014 Road Trip.
Perhaps because he had felt sorry for me, Kirk took one more shot at the spotted gar. I put out every possible rod, and managed to tangle several of them. (Conventional wisdom says fish one rod and concentrate on it, and there’s a reason that it’s called conventional wisdom. I ignore this frequently and it drives guides crazy.) It was getting late – if the client had been anyone but Martini, Kirk would have been back at the dock, but he stuck it out, and just a few minutes before our third revised stop time, I got a bite. Kirk helpfully yelled “Don’t screw this one up, boy! I’ve gotta go home! Whooo!!” Mercifully, the fish stayed on the hook. Martini, normally world-class with the net, added a bit of drama when he forgot to slack the mesh before he lifted the fish, volleying the gar into the boat and just missing Kirk’s face. (Kirk blamed me.) It was in fact a spotted gar – my third species of the day and my 8th in Texas. It was a gigantic relief.
Kyle seems to thing my gar was smaller than his.
Reluctantly, I had to thank Kirk. He smiled. He was a simply tremendous guide, and more than a match for any of us. It had been a load of fun.
Steve and Kirk. Do not adjust your screens – he really is that tall.
We got back to the dock late in the afternoon, said our goodbyes with Kirk, and cleaned up and stored our gear. We boarded the Escape and headed east, finally exiting Texas early in the evening. We had driven over a thousand miles since entering the state just three days before, and we were exhausted. Our first task in Louisiana was to find a decent shrimp “po boy” sandwich, accomplished outside Baton Rouge, and then to get to get some sleep.
Our next day would be easy – The Big Easy – and while the day would be wonderful, the evening would turn out to be a minor catastrophe … for two of the three of us.