FENTON — It was August of 2005 and Robin Parks knew instantly that what he was staring at, through his polarized sunglasses, was the fish of a lifetime.
Parks and his business partner, Keith Riehn, were on the Sam Rayburn Reservoir during their annual bowfishing trip to Texas. They were taking one final pass before calling it a day, when they spotted the giant alligator gar beneath the surface of the water.
Parks was immediately overcome with a mixture of excitement and anxiety. Parks and Riehn each fired arrows at the fish at the same time. They each connected, which allowed them to wrestle the massive fish into their 19-foot fishing boat.
“The arrows hit at the same time, and it’s really a good thing, because I don’t think that just one arrow would have landed it,” Parks said.
Even with both of the arrows stuck in the fish, it still took them almost half an hour to reel in the fish. Parks never relaxed through the entire nerve-wracking and physically-taxing process. Once they had the fish well secured in the boat, then Parks let the excitement set it.
“Then it was just a big release of adrenaline,” Parks said. “I just looked at Keith and I just said, ‘This is an absolute giant.’”
The alligator gar Parks and Riehn had caught was 8 feet, 2 inches long and weighed 244 pounds, 8 ounces. They would later learn that the fish had earned them the Bowfishing Association of America world record.
Almost three years later on a sunny Wednesday in May, Parks didn’t have any aspirations of making a record catch. To be truthful, he didn’t expect to shoot more than a couple of fish.
It had been raining nearly every day for a couple weeks, and the banks of the Meramec River were flooded. Flooding is a good thing for bowfishing, but the mud that the rain stirred up in the water isn’t.
Because of the mud, Parks was worried he and Riehn wouldn’t see any fish to shoot. But it was their first bowfishing trip of 2008, so they were eager to get on the water.
Parks and Rien have a video production company called Aim Low Productions. The company takes its name from one of the key principles of bowfishing. Because water refracts sunlight, a bowfisherman has to aim below where the fish appears to be.
They started the company four years ago to make videos of the sport they love. They have released two DVDs and last year had a television show on the Sportsman Channel.
After a few unsuccessful moments looking for fish near where they put in, Parks took the boat to a spot where rising water had flooded a patch of trees.
Parks told Riehn it was one of his secret spots he came to when fishing alone. They were surprised at how easily they could see the fish through the muddy water.
It didn’t take long before Parks and Riehn spotted several longnose gar swimming near the trees just inches below the water.
“That’s a pig,” Parks said, spotting a large gar up ahead of the boat. Parks slowly moved the boat nearer to the fish, and when he got within about 10 feet, he fired an arrow. Parks’ shot was on the money, and he quickly set about reeling in the fish.
Once Parks had the fish on his line, he moved to the back of the boat where he brought the fish’s head out of the water. Parks gave the fish two hard knocks to the head with a wooden hammer to kill it.
From the moment he first saw the fish, Parks enthusiastically celebrated its size. Once he had it aboard, Parks estimated the fish might measure 60 inches, which is a benchmark length for a longnose gar.
He said he has only caught three longnose gar of this size in his life, and if it was really 60 inches, he would probably have it mounted.
Gar have long mouths full of razor sharp teeth and their scales are also sharp, making them dangerous to handle. Parks cut his hand open while bringing this fish into the boat.
Parks posed for a photo holding the gar. He held the fish with its tail hanging even with the floor of the boat and the nose of the fish came up above the nose of Parks, who is 5-4. When he measured the fish hours later, Parks found that it was 59 inches, not quite 60 but still the fifth longest longnose gar he has caught.
A trip with low expectations had become one of Parks and Riehn’s best gar bowfishing days.
After a few moments of celebration, they bolted back into action, and before long, Riehn had also landed a sizable longnose gar.
“I don’t think he’s quite 60 inches, but I’ll take him for the first fish of the year,” Riehn said.
There are only a couple of seconds between when they see a fish and when they take their shot. With little time to line up a shot, Parks and Riehn shoot instinctively rather than using scopes. On occasion, they do not even have enough time to draw their bows back entirely before firing.
“You get the hang of putting an arrow where you’re looking,” Parks said.
Parks, who is from Hillsboro, met Riehn, from Pevely, five years ago. Parks had been bowfishing since he was in high school and Riehn had never tried the sport. Once Parks introduced him to bowfishing, Riehn fell in love with the sport. They have been fishing and working together ever since.
Throughout the trip, Parks and Riehn made jokes and poked fun at each other.
At one point, Riehn had a large gar lined up to shoot, but he forgot to press the button on his reel that releases the line, so his arrow fell off the bow when he attempted to draw it back.
“You see what I have to deal with?” Parks said, chuckling at his partner’s blunder.
Moments later, Riehn turned the boat around at Parks’ instruction because Parks said he saw a large gar behind them. Once they reached the spot, the large gar turned out to be a stick.
“You see what I have to deal with?” Riehn said, mimicking Parks.
Later, Parks bragged to Riehn that the fish he shot were bigger. Riehn responded that the smaller fish are smaller targets, so his marksmanship was more impressive. After Riehn shot his first gar of the day and Parks got his second, Riehn missed twice in a row, shooting under a pair of big gar.
“Missing is a huge part of fishing. It really is,” Parks said. “On a good day, its pretty good if we hit two-thirds of what we’re looking at.”
Parks and Riehn bowfish together nearly every weekend of the summer and on quite a few weekdays as well. After spending so much time together over the past several years, Parks and Riehn have formed a strong bond.
“Now we’re just like brothers,” Parks said. “One minute we’re laughing and having a good time and the next minute we’re cussing at each other and pissed off and then the next we’re back to having fun ... When we go somewhere on a trip it is a lot of work, but we absolutely just have a blast.”
Parks capped the day by shooting their fifth longnose gar. Riehn once again marveled at just what a good day they were having.
“We got days in Texas where we don’t shoot these kinds of fish,” Riehn said.
Parks and Riehn have had days when they have shot hundreds of fish, but Parks said, on average, they shoot about 20. But despite only getting five fish, Parks and Riehn view this trip as a success, because of the 59 inch fish that started the day and the other four big gar that followed. The shortest fish of the day was still 53 inches.
“For someone that hasn’t been (bowfishing), it’s hard to explain but this is a once in every few year trip really,” Parks said. “I mean the gar that we saw in that short a time, it’s one of the better days for gar that we’ve ever had.”
It was the constant action and high intensity of the sport that first drew Parks to bowfishing. When Parks was first starting, not many people were competing in the sport, so he and a friend had to figure out much of what Parks now knows about bowfishing based on trial and error.
“It took a lot of error, I can tell you that,” Parks said.