A Texas Kayak Fisherman Nearly Capsized When He Reeled In A Monstrous Seven-Foot Prehistoric Beast

On the outskirts of San Benito, Texas, one fateful day in November 2019, an epic struggle between man and beast took place. Local fisherman Chris Hernandez sat bobbing along the water in his small kayak, when he got a bite on his line that made the vessel lurch violently. Something extremely large was on the end of that line, lurking just beneath the waves.

As Hernandez tried to maintain balance on his kayak, he wrestled valiantly to reel in his huge catch. He would later tell My San Antonio news website that, while he knew he’d hooked something substantial, he had no idea how big it truly was until its head broke the surface of the water. At that point, Hernandez admitted he felt a pang of fear.

Hernandez recalled to the news outlet, “He was dragging me all over the river.” The strength of the creature attached to his fishing pole was incredible, and it struggled with all its might against Hernandez, himself a triathlete in prime physical condition. He added, “For a minute I thought I was going to lose my pole because it was like halfway in the water.”

The beast then used its tail to try and flip Hernandez’s kayak. He admitted, “If my [kayak] would’ve tilted a couple more inches, it would’ve took in water.” But what kind of creature was Hernandez tangling with? Well, interestingly, the freshwater rivers of Texas are home to a few denizens of the deep that are much more ancient in origin than you might expect.

For instance, the paddlefish is safeguarded by the State of Texas, which made it illegal to catch the species or harm it in any way. According to Clearwater Consulting, a lake and fisheries management company in Magnolia, paddlefish, “are the oldest surviving animal species in North America and actually resemble sharks. With a body made of cartilage and a snout one-third the length of their body, paddlefish can weigh as much as 200 pounds; however, they usually weigh around ten to 15 pounds.”

ADVERTISEMENT

There are also several other varieties of fish native to freshwater in Texas. First of all, there’s the smallmouth buffalo, which is found in many of the larger waterways in the state. While it can sometimes be mistaken for a common carp, there are a few ways to differentiate it.

Clearwater Consulting has described the smallmouth buffalo on its website. According to the firm, “This fish has a dark upper body and a pale belly, they have large scales, and a distinctive sucker mouth… Smallmouth buffalo are native to the Mississippi River from Montana to Pennsylvania.” Additionally, another common fish in the area is the Rio Grande cichlid, which has a more unique appearance.

ADVERTISEMENT

The cichlid has, “cream and turquoise colored spots, five to six anal fin spines, and adult males sometimes have a noticeable hump on their head. They are sometimes compared to tilapia and sunfishes but are very different.” They only live in warm, spring-fed waterways, heated to at least 49 °F.

The blue catfish is also important, as it’s the biggest sport fish found in the freshwaters of Texas. It can weigh as much as 100 pounds and mostly resides in sizable rivers. During the summer months, the blue catfish searches for colder water by traveling upstream. Then, it does the opposite in winter, going back down the stream to the warmer parts.

ADVERTISEMENT

As well as this array of fish, Texas is also home to several more varieties of marine life. There are blue crabs, stone crabs and fiddler crabs, as well as a gastropod known as the lightning whelk. Several varieties of turtle also make their home in the waters of Texas, including the hawksbill sea turtle, loggerhead sea turtle and the green sea turtle.

But, of course, no discussion of marine life in Texas would be complete without a mention of alligators. Typically found in warm bayous, swamps and marshes, alligators are big, semi-aquatic reptiles that live in or around water. With their prominent scales, long snout, visibly sharp teeth and a size that ranges anywhere from 6 feet to 14 feet, alligators are an intimidating presence.

ADVERTISEMENT

Speaking of large marine animals, over the years there have been some record-setting catches in the state of Texas. In April 1984 Joe Stooksberry was informed by the National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame that the drum fish he’d caught was the biggest in the world. He was fishing east of San Angelo in the Concho River when he snagged the 16-pound two-ounce fish.

It took Stooksberry 20 long minutes to get the drum into his kayak – and he nearly tipped into the water several times in the process. He told the Standard-Times, “When the fish bit, I thought I had hung my jig on the bottom. I started jerking my pole around to free it and the fish started moving.”

ADVERTISEMENT

Though he knew his catch was big, Stooksberry had no idea that it was in the realm of “world record” size. He confessed, “I didn’t realize at the time that the drum would be a world record, or I would have had him mounted. I’m afraid we ate him for dinner the day after I caught him.” Whoops.

Then, in 1991 another San Angelo angler named Wayne Peck landed himself a 63-and-a-half-pound catfish at the O.C. Fisher Reservoir. At the time, he was competing in the San Angelo Bass Club’s Open Tournament. Even if he’d only caught a bass that weighed a tenth of the huge catfish he actually did catch, he still would’ve won the first prize of $1,000. Instead, he reeled in a world record-setting catfish.

ADVERTISEMENT

Fast forward to November 5, 2019, and Chris Hernandez had finished reeling in his catch. He posted some photographs and a video on his Facebook page that shocked his friends and family. The pictures showed the keen angler standing and then lying next to an absolutely huge creature of the deep. He exclaimed, “Fought this sucker for 40 minutes.”

The exhausted and exhilarated triathlete then felt he needed to explain why he was off-screen for a short period in the video. Hernandez wrote, “In the video I was out of it for a second. Had to rest but I remembered my kayak was still in the water. So, I had to go get it.” All in all, he felt the experience was awesome.

ADVERTISEMENT

Hernandez thanked a Facebook friend named Luis Manuel Trevino for helping him wrangle the creature. He wrote, “Thank you… for following me on top of the bank and breaking way through all the Monte (trees and branches) to get to where I was to help me get this monster out of the water and onto land. Man, the heart was really pumping.”

Subsequently, during an appearance on NPR’s Weekend Edition Saturday, host Scott Simon welcomed Hernandez to talk about his encounter with the enormous beast. Hernandez revealed that, from the moment he pulled on his rod, he knew that whatever he had on his line was large. But he did joke, “Little did I know that it was that big.”

ADVERTISEMENT

“How big?” asked Simon, before answering himself with, “Seven feet long. Tall enough to play in the NBA, 200 pounds…” The aforementioned 40-minute battle then ensued, Hernandez struggling with a gargantuan fish in a small kayak only big enough for one person. As Simon confirmed about Hernandez, though, “Fortunately, the 44-year-old barber and father of six is also a triathlete.”

Hernandez found it hard to explain exactly how he was able to muster the endurance and strength to overpower the fish without capsizing his boat. He said, “You have to keep it balanced out. It just comes to you when you’re doing it – you know, the adrenaline and everything. It’s just like if you know how to do it, you know? I don’t know. I don’t know how to explain it.”

ADVERTISEMENT

Finally, Simon asked, “What was this beast?” He then revealed that it had been, “An alligator gar, so named because it actually does resemble an alligator, with teeth and scales so sharp and fearsome it’s said they make good arrowheads, which you don’t want to dig out of your leg.” Hernandez had reeled in a legitimate prehistoric fish, one whose species has existed beneath the waves since the time of the dinosaurs.

Hernandez explained how he frantically tried to raise the attention of Trevino on the shore, revealing that the man is his cousin. He told NPR, “Well, I get to the side, and I’m holding on to it with the gaff. And I’m like, hurry up, cous! Hurry up. Come get – come help me.” With the aid of his cousin, the two men were able to hoist the beast up the levee to the shore.

ADVERTISEMENT

Hernandez went on, “And, like, man, it was so heavy. So, then once we got it to the top, I just threw myself to the floor.” He then thanked God for helping him get through the battle and for blessing him with such a huge catch. The exhausted fisherman knew he’d been in a war, though. He admitted, “My body was just so tired, man.”

For Hernandez, the reward for his incredible catch was a delicious meal and the status as a local celebrity. He told NPR, “As far as an alligator gar, the meat is really, really good. It doesn’t taste like fish. And it does not have the texture of fish. It’s like a chicken nugget. It’s very, very delicious, brother.”

ADVERTISEMENT

In his native San Benito, Texas, Hernandez has become the talk of the town, especially at his workplace King Kuts. He revealed, “Everybody comes up here. It’s a barber shop. So, it’s a big ol’ topic, you know? And then like across the barber shop they’ll be like, ‘Hey Chris, I heard about the gar you caught. Man, that was big, bro.’”

All in all, Hernandez isn’t sure how long he’ll be in the public eye, but he’s only too happy to talk about the gar if people ask. He confessed, “So there’s no telling how long it’s going to be going around, man – people who will be coming around and asking me. And I’ll be more than glad to tell them.”

ADVERTISEMENT

At this point, it would be surprising if Hernandez hadn’t taken it upon himself to read into the history of the alligator gar, if only to add some color to his tale of victory. Fossil records have been able to show that the fish – also known as Atractosteus spatula – has been a presence on Earth from as far back as the Early Cretaceous Period. That makes it more than 100 million years old.

The alligator gar is one of the biggest freshwater fish in the world, although some have also been found in saltwater conditions as well. The record for biggest alligator gar ever caught was set in 1951, when father and son duo Trinidad and Guillermo Valverde snagged one in the Rio Grande River. It weighed a mind-boggling 279 pounds.

ADVERTISEMENT

To this day, the Valverdes’ alligator gar record has never been bested. His family refer to it as “the holy fish,” due to the fact that Methodist minister Josue Gonzalez was with the pair on that special day. Speaking about her father in 2019, Guillermo’s proud daughter Jeanne Valverde Martinez told Houston Chronicle, “He was a quiet force. And he absolutely loved fishing.”

Alligator gar catches are still happening today. Almost a year after Hernandez caught his seven-foot, 200-pounder, a pair of fishermen in San Antonio landed their own beast. This one was six foot and five inches and weighed an estimated 125 pounds. As one of the anglers Daniel Uriegas said to My San Antonio, “We ended up landing ourselves a river monster.”

ADVERTISEMENT

Uriegas, who runs a fishing business, was with his buddy Mark Sanmiguel when they encountered the gar. The pair wrestled with the huge fish for 13 minutes before they safely got it on their boat. While it wasn’t quite the 40-minute battle that Hernandez endured, it was still no small task.

Uriegas explained, “They are really big fish and have a lot of power, and they will fight until they can’t anymore.” In the end, the friends estimated they were able to get 40 to 50 pounds of meat from the fish. Interestingly, though, it wasn’t the biggest gar Uriegas had ever caught. He claimed that he once caught one measuring six foot and eight inches.

ADVERTISEMENT

The most common area to find the alligator gar is in the lower Mississippi River Valley. It swims in the waters of Arkansas, Oklahoma, Florida, parts of Mexico and Texas. There are, in fact, four varieties of gar in Texas alone. These are the shortnose gar, longnose gar, spotted gar and the alligator gar.

What separates an alligator gar from one of the other kinds, though? Well, there are a few tell-tale signs. All gars have elongated snouts, but the alligator gar’s is wider and shorter than the others. The fish is covered in glistening scales that are generally colored a sort of olive brown.

ADVERTISEMENT

The alligator gar has an advantage over most other fish, as well. As with all other species, it has gills that allow it to breath underwater. But it’s also equipped with what’s called a “swim bladder,” which is attached to the gut. This gives the creature the ability to breath air on the surface or live in areas where the water has a low oxygen count.

Luckily for Hernandez – and for any other person who encounters an alligator gar – the species isn’t known to be aggressive toward humans. Its prey consists of turtles, blue crabs, birds, fish, and some smaller mammals. In terms of threats, though, real alligators have been known to occasionally eat alligator gar. Which, we think you’ll find, is pretty ironic.

ADVERTISEMENT

Alligator gars usually breed in April and May, although they’re notoriously slow to do so. Sometimes there are no eggs spawned for years at a time. But when they do spawn, the eggs hatch quickly – within a matter of days, in fact – and proceed to eat insects and fish larvae. As a defense mechanism against marine predators, the alligator gars’ eggs are toxic if eaten.

The public perception of the alligator gar has changed a lot over the years. Perhaps due to its frightening appearance, rumors persisted that it would attack fisherman’s nets and also eat the fish that were seen as prize catches. Therefore, as recently as the 1950s, it was dubbed a “trash fish” and the extermination of the species was a real possibility.

ADVERTISEMENT

But in recent years the perception has changed, mainly due to studies being conducted that revealed the alligator gar’s long history on Earth and its role in the underwater ecosystem. It’s also taken on a reputation as a delicacy, with restaurants in the American South serving fried gar filets and balls. The alligator gar is now very much a prized catch, then, and one that Hernandez should feel proud to have landed.

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT