Candice Davis is the Media Specialist for the Missouri Department of Conservation's Southeast and Ozark regions. Though raised to appreciate the Missouri outdoors, Candice is discovering nature on a new and exciting level as she gets up close and personal with snakes, insects, and Southeast Missouri's diverse landscape. Her goal is to share her learning experiences and show Southeast Missourians how they're directly connected to their land.
Missouri Conservation Department biologist, Chris Kennedy, and Mingo National Wildlife Refuge assistant manager, Jason Lewis, release young alligator gar into the waters of Mingo National Wildlife Refuge near Puxico.
Have you ever spent a day in the Missouri outdoors witnessing something so cool that you disregarded the summer heat and humidity, even the sweat running down your back, because you knew you might never witness such a sight again? I'm proud to say I'm enjoying such days much more frequently than in past summers.
Most recently, I had the opportunity to take part in stocking young alligator gar at the Mingo National Wildlife Refuge with a Missouri Department of Conservation fisheries biologist, Chris Kennedy, and the refuge assistant manager, Jason Lewis.
The refuge is part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). According to the USFWS website at www.fws.gov, Mingo National Wildlife Refuge has 21,592 acres and is the largest remnant of bottomland hardwoods remaining out of an original 2 ½ million acres in the Missouri bootheel. Nestled between the town of Puxico and the Duck Creek Conservation Area, the refuge is known for its fishing, hunting, and nature photography opportunities.
The alligator gar stocking program, coordinated jointly between the MDC and the USFWS, is an effort to restore biodiversity to the area through the restoration of a species that has declined in our state in recent years.
According to a MDC text, The Fishes of Missouri, by William L. Pflieger, the alligator gar is by far the largest of the gars and is one of the largest freshwater fishes in North America. The text says alligator gar have been reported at 10 feet long, weighing up to 300 pounds. But the fish we stocked at Mingo that day were nowhere near that size -- they fit in the palms of our hands.
Kennedy said much thought and planning has gone into the plan to stock these fish on the refuge. He said the fish can be territorial and cannibalistic if placed too close together, so the plan was to stock them while they're young and be methodical in placing the individuals where they're not crowded. So, Kennedy, Lewis and other MDC and USFWS employees met the MDC fisheries truck at the refuge and carefully unloaded the 275 young alligator gar with nets into transportable tanks.
Then I watched and photographed as the two biologists placed the delicate young gar in the waters of the Mingo refuge.
According to Kennedy, part of the prior planning included tracking of adult alligator gar. He said years ago, because of the alligator gar's large teeth and rough appearance, people wanted to get rid of them for fear they were hurting sport fish populations.
"We found that's really not true," Kennedy said. He said when biologists pumped the stomachs of tracked alligator gar they found the fish were feeding mostly as scavengers, which helps to clean water communities.
"They were eating invertebrates [insects and worms], but they were also eating dead things," he said.
Kennedy said this is the key to the most important aspect of restocking the alligator gar, which is the restoration of the intended biodiversity. As a native to Missouri waters, these alligator gar have an intended role to help provide the balance required to maintain a clean and healthy water system, he said.
He also said for him, restoring alligator gar to the Mingo refuge gives him hope that the area might someday become a trophy fishery.
"It is my dream to come out here one day and catch one of these full grown, huge alligator gar," he said.
Additionally, he said alligator gar meat is considered a delicacy in southern areas of the United States, and that the young gar we stocked will take seven to ten years to mature.
So keep your eyes open when you fish out at the Mingo refuge in the coming years. The project to restore alligator gar to our area continues and what once was a common sight in the waters of Southeast Missouri may be again.