Luke Hentges moved to Aberdeen a little over a year ago, and one of his passions is fishing for large catfish.
“It’s all about the fight,” said Hentges, who regularly patrols stretches of the James River for giant cats. “I’ve landed a 30-incher on the Jim and had some really good days with lots of big fish. But it’s also about being alone on the river. I prefer river fishing because you can go a day without seeing another person or another boat.”
Hentges grew up in Park Rapids, Minn., and went to school at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks, where he started fishing the Red River for catfish. He now fishes in up to four catfish tournaments in North Dakota and Minnesota throughout the year.
Although Hentges admits hauling in a heavy catfish never gets old, like many fishermen, he has a bucket list of bigger fish to fry. And, after a recent trip to Texas with two of his friends — Jakob Hals of Rogers, Minn., and Charles Tarnasky of Bismarck, N.D., — he can now cross the elusive alligator gar off his list.
One of the gar the men caught was seven and a half feet long and weighed more than 200 pounds, Hentges said.
Alligator gar are a prehistoric-looking rough fish typically found in the warm waters of the southern United States. According to National Geographic’s website, “of the seven known gar species, the alligator is the largest, reaching up to 10 feet long and tipping the scales at up to 300 pounds.”
“We were all talking about alligator gar one day and how cool it would be to catch one,” Hentges said. “I’ve caught some big catfish and some big lake sturgeon, but never a gar. It was just the next fish on the list. None of us had fished in Texas before, so we just decided to do it and live life on the edge.”
The trio didn’t decide until this summer to make the trip, leaving them with only a couple months to do their homework.
“We did a lot of research,” Hentges said, “and ended up spending 11 days from the end of September through the first part of October fishing the Trinity River in Texas.”
Fishing for gar isn’t like trolling for walleyes or flipping jigs for panfish. However, it does employ one of the oldest methods of fishing there is — a bobber.
“Basically, you take a 1-to-2-pound slab of carp, put it on the hook and lay it out there in a pool in the river and wait for the bobber to take off,” he said. “Gar are built so they can breathe air, and they actually surface a lot. You can see them surface while you’re just sitting there. We saw over 100 gar come up for air in one of the pools, and some of the fish we saw come up were a lot bigger than the ones we caught.”
Hentges said the group would fish for its own bait, using throw nets to catch carp.
“That was actually one of the toughest parts of the trip, probably because it wasn’t as much fun,” he said.
According to Hentges, alligator gar eat their food whole and can swallow a 12-inch carp in one bite. They grab hold of the bait, chomp on it with their sizable teeth to kill it and then swallow it.
“They prefer to eat alone and move to another part of the river where there aren’t any other gar,” he said. “So they grab and chomp on the bait, run with it and then stop, which is when we could finally set the hook. You chase the bobber with the boat and wait for it to stop. We had one gar take out 440 yards of line out before it stopped.”
Hooking the fish was one thing, but landing the fish after it was hooked was another.
“They’ll literally pull you around, and we hit so many trees and rock dams with the boat it was insane,” he said. “The bigger ones we’d drag to shore. When you lasso one and it touches the boat, you don’t want to be around because they go nuts.
“But that’s it. After that, they’re a really docile fish. Plus, they’re not dangerous to humans. Most people don’t get hurt by their teeth, which are really big and mean-looking, but their scales can really cut you.”
Hentges said handling the fish and not being used to the sheer weight meant the gars’ scales left some additional memories in the form of cuts and scars on fingers, hands and arms.
“It’s all worth it, though,” he said. “I’m hopefully heading back to Texas next September to do it again.”