91° San Marcos
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The University Star




The Student News Site of Texas State University

The University Star

The Student News Site of Texas State University

The University Star

Local kill for a cause

Photo+by+Austin+Hall.
Photo by Austin Hall.

By: Austin Hall
How did I end up swimming in the river at night during an ice storm for five hours? I asked myself this as my body stiffened with cramps while the river’s current drug me across rocks.
Twice a year Atlas Environmental holds a spear fishing tournament where 50 participants can sign up to compete. To celebrate the hunt, contestants gather at Buzzmill for the invasive species cook out. I experienced the first ever Invasive Species Cookout in December where I decided I wanted to win the spring 2018 tournament.
The San Marcos River is a unique habitat for several endangered plant and animal species. Invasive species like Tilapia and Plecostomus, pleco for short, are overpopulating the river and taking habitat away from endangered species. Nick Menchaca, founding owner of Atlas Environmental, started the tournament back in 2013 to get the community involved in conservation efforts. Since then, he and volunteers have removed over 8,000 pounds of invasive biomass from Spring Lake and the San Marcos River.
“The idea of these tournaments is to generate a big pool of volunteers. Guys who enjoy doing this… who want to get out there and protect the river,” Menchaca said.
Menchaca served tacos made with tilapia and pleco caught from the San Marcos River during the tournament. Last year’s third place winner Peter Smit sat in front of a plate of grilled pleco tail with his girlfriend.
“It actually tastes really good. It’s kind of scary… It almost tastes like crabmeat,” Smit said.
He gave me a bite of the pleco tail. I disagreed with his assessment, it tasted like old pond water, but to each his own.
Smit only recently began spear fishing. He said the experience is like no other.
“It’s just a great time to really connect with the river in a way that most other people don’t get to experience it,” Smit said.
Smit pointed out veteran spear fisher, Tom Pope, sitting at a table eating a tilapia taco. Pope is known for winning the most tournaments of any participants. He is commonly referred to as The Pleco King. He has an intense love for the San Marcos river and is dedicated to protecting it from invasive species. He estimates that he has caught over 300 pleco in the tournaments. I have seen Pope swim through the chutes at Rio Vista Park head first while wearing a backpack and carrying a spear and flashlight at the ready. Pope, in his sixties, puts us young guys to shame.
“I’ve been snorkeling in the river since 1984,” Pope said. “I love the river. I started getting upset back in the 90’s when I started seeing all the plecos. I used to not see many of them until the 90’s… I was like man I want to get rid of those. They eat up the banks of the river, and dig up big holes in the river, and muck it up.”
The tournaments are not all fun and games. The fishermen face freezing temperatures, and risk hypothermia and drowning. Pleco are nocturnal, so often the tournament participants are hunting in the dark of night.
“You have to be real comfortable in the water,” Pope said. “You have to be able to hold your breath for a long time.”
After experiencing the cookout, I was stoked. Normally, it is illegal to spearfish the San Marcos River, so this tournament is the only legal opportunity for spearfishing on the San Marcos River. I wanted to be the next winner of the tournament, so immediately I began preparing for the spring 2018 tournament. Based on warnings from The Pleco King, I knew that winning the tournament would be difficult, but experience would show me just how difficult.
Nick met with me for a practice run at Rio Vista Park. Reggae music played from a speaker placed on a float that carried a bag of about 10 speared pleco, snorkel gear and an Atlas Environmental flag. Nick greeted me as he placed a few more pleco in his float. Handing over a spear he instructed me not to spear if people where near and that if caught by the current to be sure to hold the spear forward to avoid impaling myself.
At first spearing pleco seemed impossible; the current is strong, the rocks are sharp, and the water is cold. Pleco camouflage seamlessly with rocks. They love the protection of strong currents and the concealment of rocks and tunnels. Confusion and dizziness from a lack of oxygen set in as the current tossed me into rocks.
Finally, after struggling through the current, a pleco appeared. As I took aim with the spear, the undeniable urge to breathe took over and I had to jump to the surface. By the time I fought my way back through the current, it disappeared deep into a rock crevice. My hands and feet were numb. I could hardly hold onto the spear. I dove down and squeezed my head and arms into the dark rocky den. There was the fish suctioned onto the den’s wall. I took aim while resisting the urge to breath. I released the spear, impaling the fish. I pulled it out of the hole and brought it to the surface.
The practice run with Nick was quite the learning experience. Three fish speared in a two-hour time span seemed good, but Nick speared 26. It was encouraging to hear from Nick that on his first spearfishing trip he did not spear one fish. This experience showed me that winning the spear fishing tournament is an extremely difficult task that requires its winners to be tough as nails. Participant’s like Tom ” The Pleco King” Pope can spear up to 30 fish in one session. I still had hope that I could at least place in the tournament.
The night of the first tournament session, sleet fell from the sky. Despite the freezing conditions, I was pumped to be on the hunt. Equipped With a spear, snorkel and mask I jumped in to the water. Steam rolled off the rapids of the 72-degree water that reflected and scattered the moonlight. My flashlight revealed schools of cichlids swimming among the wild rice at Sewell Park.
The first fish speared was stuck onto the concrete wall. I pulled it off the spear, threw it onto the bank, and swam farther down the river. The next wall was covered in pleco. The beam from the flashlight made them scatter like cockroaches into the deep crevices of the wall. The rest of the night not another pleco appeared. They had all retreated to the safety of their underwater tunnels. Unfortunately, due to the icy weather, I did not go searching for better hunting grounds. I only got two; I hoped next week would be better.
I got to know some great people while participating in the tournament. One them was Smit, he was generous enough to lend me and others all his equipment. Smit loves the sport and is happy to help others to get involved in preserving the river. While most people target pleco, Smit’s goal is to spear the elusive tilapia. Anybody able to spear tilapia deserves major bragging rights. Even the best fisher men consider spearing just two tilapias during the whole tournament an impressive feat. Even though he enjoys the glory, his favorite thing about spearing tilapia is taking them home to fry and share with friends. If he cannot find any tilapia, Smit collects hooks and lures that could potentially injure people swimming in the river. Without his help I and others would have never been able to participate in the tournament.
The next weekend, I went out during the day to avoid the colder night-time temperatures that took their toll on me last session. Nick posted photos of the other competitors with bucket loads of pleco earlier that week. This session I really had to step up If I was going to place.
I did not have much luck back at Sewell. Some of the caves under the spillway yielded a couple more pleco. In the process, a lot of them got scared away, so I looked for a new spot. After walking up to a boulder filled spill way, a pool the size of a bathroom appeared. Inside the pool, bass the size of footballs swam next to rock walls crawling with fresh water prawns the size of lobsters. They were not the only thing in there! Dozens of plecos clung to boulders in the pool. I dove in there and speared about five off those suckers. Thanks to my new “secret spot” fifteen pleco filled the bag deposited at Nick’s house for record keeping that night.
The following week, Nick put on the Spring 2018 Invasive Fish Fry. The “Spearos” gathered at Buzzmill to tell stories and trade spearing tips and advice. Others came to enjoy fresh fried tilapia caught from the San Marcos River. The Spearos age from their sixties to their twenties and come from all different backgrounds, but they shared one thing in common; a deep connection with the river. Love for the river motivated us to brave freezing conditions, fight strong currents and search dark caves. We see ourselves as protectors of the river that makes San Marcos such a special place.
At the tournament awards ceremony, placards for most trash removed, biggest pleco, most pleco and others were received by the winners. As usual, Tom “The Pleco King” Pope won the award for most pleco removed. Peter won most tilapia removed. I got eighth place.
Although I didn’t win the tournament, I gained an experience that has changed my life. The other contestants I met are no longer competition, but friends. I feel a stronger bond with the river and the community of people that seek to protect it. It is as though the river now flows through me.
Information about volunteering can be found at atlasenvironmentaltx.com or at facebook.com/ATLASEnvironmentalHCP/

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