Time Scales and Fish Scales / by Scot McFarlane

    The alligator gar is a prehistoric fish that lives in our modern world.  The biggest gar specimens in the world can be found on the Trinity River.  They depend on flooding to spawn and yet can live for years with low flows and low oxygen levels since they come to the surface to breathe air.  Gar are tough, but their long lifespans means that they are vulnerable to human depredation.  In the early 20th century one can read about various attempts to drive the gar to extinction in Texas through the use of hoop nets or even “gar machines” specially designed for slaughtering gar.  The main reason for this was that the gar were not a desired sport species, the primary one being (and still being) bass.  Gar were seen as an enemy to bass and were eliminated at all costs.  Of course a largemouth bass is not going to thrive in the Trinity anyways, this is habitat more friendly to buffalo or catfish, and now the gar are themselves a highly sought-after game fish.  They have gone from a fish that provided a source of sustenance, to one that was condemned by a large portion of society, to being well, cool.  Thus the gar has survived the Trinity’s nadir, a mere nothing in the scheme of the lifespan of the river and the gar.  Yet even if the Trinity were dramatically cleaned up and sources of toxic pollution removed from the river, the big old gar would remain full of all kinds of dangerous chemicals, giving fishers one more reason not to take and eat a gar.  

    One of the journals I have collected comes from a woman who lived near the Trinity River in the 19th century.  She enjoyed fishing and especially catching buffalo fish.  Often historians like to present the shift in fishing and hunting as dramatic, in which subsistence hunters were pushed off the land and a new “ethical” and elitist type of sport hunting was enforced.  Yet I think this diary is a useful example in presenting a perspective in which fun and subsistence could be tied together.  Catching the buffalo may not have been a do or die kind of experience, but it was nonetheless an important source of protein for this woman.  It reminds me of one of the people I interviewed for my documentary on the Neches River, John Avant, who lived off the land in the Neches bottoms.  While describing how he “grew a garden for a living” and had chickens and fished, he let out a spontaneous laugh.  Perhaps his joy also comes from the fact that he recognized the other options available to him in the 20th century might not have been so joyful, but I think this appreciation existed in the 19th century. 

    Some fish like the sand bass also migrate.  The Trinity is a big river and such migrations might serve to connect distant parts of the river with each other.  There are no salmon on the Trinity and it seems like maybe the fish of the Trinity have the inverse relationship as the salmon do on their rivers.  In places like Alaska salmon are a vital species, not only fattening up a whole array of animals like the grizzly bear, but fertilizing the land and providing nutrients for the landscape.  On the Trinity in contrast, the fish depend on the land.  When the river floods fish like the catfish go on feeding frenzies, engorging themselves on all of the life within the bottom.  The earth does not depend on the fish to enrich it but the fish depend on the land.  That richness comes from the river itself, and I’m still trying to figure out how to frame it: the Trinity is muddy it is made up of both water and dirt, and as many river people have learned, when is it counterproductive to draw too sharp a line between land and water?  What do the fish think?