Enduring gar remain challenge for sportsmen

Friday, May 16, 2003

During a fishing trip on the Mississippi, my daughter and I were having a conversation about a movie ("Jurassic Park 3") we watched the night before. My daughter asked me, "Daddy, are there still animals as big as the dinosaurs?"

I started to laugh because I knew she imagined herself running down the street being chased by Godzilla. But I told her that dinosaurs are extinct, but there are some types of fish from the same era that still exist in the Mississippi River.

She wanted to know if she could try to catch one. Disappointed, I had to tell her about the alligator gar, which used to be very common in this area but are now rare this far north.

The alligator gar is one of those species that is around in some of our river systems despite almost a hundred years of persecution and habitat change. Alligator gars are one of the largest freshwater species of fish in North America; several have been captured that weighed more than 300 pounds. Big or small, they are completely enclosed in armor-like bony plates, making them invulnerable to the attacks by most predators.

Living long lives

Gator gars have relatively long lives, and after maturing at age 14 they can live 50 years or more. Spawning usually is from April to June, which coincides with spring flooding. They spawn by laying sticky eggs to attach to vegetation. Few predators will consume the toxic eggs. Larger females produce more eggs than smaller females.

After the first weeks of life, man is the alligator gar's main predator. Primarily inhabitants of sluggish pools and backwaters of large rivers and capable of living in fresh or brackish waters, these leviathans once ranged throughout the Mississippi River watershed, mainly from St. Louis to the Gulf of Mexico. Within Missouri there have been historical accounts of alligator gar in the Mississippi, Missouri, St. Francis, Black, Osage and Little rivers.

This shouldn't be a surprise when you think about the great multitude of spawning habitat that the Southeast Missouri wetlands provided before they were drained. Just think about the changes that this species of fish has seen since primitive times.

Dwindling space

During the settlement, alligator gar had a mile to two-mile-wide river to roam and millions of acres of swamps and wetlands to inhibit. Alligator gar would use these backwater areas to feed, spawn and rest. After settlement, many of our river systems were straightened and our swamps, wetlands and backwater areas were drained. Locks, dams and levees were put in place to control river water flows, actions that cut off valuable habitat and altered river flows.

Yet as other species of fish failed to adapt, the alligator gar have hung on in a vastly changing environment. Many of the gar's main predators (wolves, mountain lions, coyotes and bears) have been dealt with as a threat to humans, and their numbers have been diminished. Alligator gars were no different. Most anglers (probably because of their intimidating teeth) thought they devastated sport fisheries, so from the 1920s to the 1950s anglers went on an alligator gar killing spree. In most cases all gar were killed if the opportunity presented itself. Studies have now shown that adults mainly eat shad, carp and buffalo. Young gar usually consume insects and crustaceans.

Gar will inconsistently eat other species of fish, but not enough to diminish an individual population of sport fish. During the 1960s anglers found that catching a 100-pound alligator gar was a great sport and a lot of fun. Anglers from all over the United States came to the Southern states looking for big game thrills that are rivaled only by salt water fishing. However, by that time alligator gar numbers were already on the decline.

Providing benefits

Not many people have considered the benefits alligator gars provide for our river systems. The fact they could provide world-class sport fishing potential can't be ignored. How many anglers do you know that would mind the thrill of catching a 100- to 200-pound fish?

Even more important it is our job to maintain the diversity of fish species in the river. We should try to preserve and protect all native aquatic organisms within Missouri's river systems. Alligator gars are no exception. Habitat restoration is the key and all species of fish and humans alike will benefit from it.

Perhaps someday my daughter will be able to see for herself how valuable the alligator gar is to a river system. Who knows? Maybe one day she will even be able to catch one.

Chris Kennedy is an agent with the Cape Girardeau office of the Missouri Department of Conservation.

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