Note: Bobby Cleveland covered the Mississippi Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo as a reporter for nearly 25 years. This is the second in a series of his favorite stories as the 66th annual event approaches July 3-6.
Rain fell so hard on the Gulfport Small Craft Harbor that day in 1979.
It was ankle-deep in 10 minutes, mid-shin in 15 and at the knee within 20. The power had failed before the rising water had covered the toes of the men and women sitting around the scales at the original Rice Pavilion.
It happened so fast that a huge alligator gar, over six feet in length, had been left hanging on the scales where it was about to be weighed at the 31st Mississippi Deep Sea Rodeo. A rope had been looped around its tail and hooked to the scale, but because it had never been fully hoisted, the gar’s head was still resting on the ground.
Its tooth-filled jaws were held shut by strips of an old inner tube, wrapped around it in an act of self-preservation by the fisherman who’d caught it earlier that day. The man had even shot it once or twice in the head with a .38 pistol, just to play it safe.
Six hours had passed since it had been removed from its home in the Biloxi River.
At nearly 100 pounds, this huge fish was a challenger in the gar division and a popular attraction for the thousands of spectators who were crowded under the pavilion seeking shelter from the squall.
For sure, the alligator gar is a most curious creature. It gets big, and the bigger it gets the more ferocious it becomes. Anything that appears half-gator, half-T-Rex can be pretty darned intimidating.
Biologists say it is prehistoric, a link between the great sharks and the boney fishes. It is a survivor that, because of its odd biology, can breathe underwater through gills or out of the water through its mouth using its air bladder as a lung.
That rainy day was a perfect example of just how resilient and ferocious an alligator gar can be, and how interesting the Rodeo can become.
The squall lasted more than an hour, dumping at least seven inches of rain on the Rodeo, which at that time was staged on the low end of the harbor. There was simply nowhere for the water to go.
When the rain stopped, at least a foot of water was standing where the scales were located. The nearby staging area became a perfect playground for children who ran and slid and splashed in their new water park.
I grabbed a chair next to the weigh-in table on the only dry ground, right across the narrow walkway from the fish bins, the scales and the gar.
Slowly, the water began ebbing. Inch by inch, it receded from knee deep to mid shin, then from mid shin to ankle and finally to toe level. Power was restored to the pavilion about 5 o’clock, a good three hours after it had been lost. Weighmaster John Cook said it wasn’t safe to turn any of the equipment back on because the water was still a few inches deep, so the kids kept playing, the adults kept watching and the alligator gar kept hanging around.
At high water, the gar’s head had been a foot under the surface. I took serious interest in the gar about an hour later when the water had dropped about nine inches and the top of the gar’s head was emerging.
Its eyes were moving, or was it an illusion, like the eyes in a painting that seem to follow you around the room?
Or, was it beer, the ones I’d been sipping during the rain delay on a day when I wasn’t scheduled to write?
Just in case, I tossed my half-full can into the garbage and settled into my gar vigil.
When the water receded completely, Cook made an attempt to return normalcy to the weigh-in area. Parents began rounding up the hooligans, finally resorting to pointing out a still-flooded area in the nearby parking lot where the kids could continue to play.
The clean up began. Debris had been scattered by the winds in the squall. The leaderboard had been erased by one really big gust, and all the names had to be rewritten on slips of poster board to be placed back in the grooved positions.
I just sat there staring down at the gar, and at one point I was almost sure I saw an air bubble pop out from a crease in its mouth, which was still bound by the inner tube.
As the pace grew hectic around me, with workers hurrying to repair the damage, I maintained my vigil. My trance was finally broken when the weighmaster announced it was time to resume weighing fish, which would require my getting out of the way so official folk could settle back in at the desk.
Just as I started to get up, a kid ran by me, passing just inches from the head of the beast. Suddenly, the fish lunged, swinging its huge head at and barely nudging the little boy’s leg.
Stunned and halfway standing, I fell backwards over the chair, landing on my big butt in the mud.
The kid screamed and jumped about 10 feet, landing on his much smaller derriere in the mud. People turned in the direction of the commotion to see a bleary-eyed man sitting in mud and an 11-year-old also in mud 10 feet away screaming in hysterics, pointing back at the gar, which meant he was also pointing at me.
Off course, the gar was just hanging around, acting all innocent.
Nobody else had seen what had happened, nor, I figured, would they accept my explanation of why the hysterical child was pointing in my general direction. I looked at the kid, then at the people and then at the gar, and then offered my defense.
“It was the gar, I swear it was. It lunged at that boy.”
Nobody said it, but I could tell what they were thinking.
“Oh yeah, sure!”
Parents had retrieved the kid, who was still too frightened to speak coherently. He was screaming and pointing, and when the dad picked him up and started walking back toward the scales, and toward the gar and me, the child’s hysterics increased because he didn’t want to go near the gar.
People were still giving me the evil eye, and I just kept pointing at the fish and saying over and over that it was the gar. Finally, the youngster nodded in agreement.
The father put his son down and told him that there was no way that the gar had done any such thing. It’s been dead for hours, he said, which the kid and I knew for sure just was not so.
“Watch, I’ll show you,” the man finally said, turning to approach the gar.
He walked over, grabbed the rope and spun the fish around. Then he gave the gar a light kick upside its head, which apparently didn’t sit too well with the fish.
When the gar lunged in retaliation, everybody screamed, but none louder than the man himself.
“I told you,” was all I could say, and boy did I enjoy saying it.
Cook, who had been using a hammer to repair the scoreboard, had had enough of the whole situation. He walked over and nailed the gar on its head, right next to the bullet wound, giving it six or seven good whacks.
That was that.