The Return of the Giant Alligator Gar
After decades of overfishing and neglect, the alligator gar is making a comeback
In the 1940s, 1950s and early 1960s, the rivers of Arkansas provided incredible angling for North America’s second-largest freshwater fish, an ancient titan known as the alligator gar. The species, which has a wide maw and rows of sharp teeth like its namesake, sometimes exceeds 8 feet long and 300 pounds.
Bill Apple of Little Rock wrote in one publication: “Deep-sea fishing 400 miles from the nearest saltwater sounds a bit fantastic, but you can get tarpon and tuna thrills on the rivers of southeastern Arkansas ... Gar weighing up to 200 pounds have been taken from the lower White River. In one 12-mile stretch, 600 gars weighing over 100 pounds were taken in one summer season ... The Arkansas’ Game and Fish Commission encourages this sport, which is now spreading into northern Louisiana. It helps rid the streams of one of the most devastating predators.”
An article in the Arkansas Gazette on January 21, 1962, was titled “Alligator Gar’s Image Has Changed From Predator to Glamorous Object of Exciting Sport Fishing.”
“If a fish can be said to have a public image then the biggest switch from a bad one to a good one has occurred in the image of the alligator gar,” wrote Matilda Tuohey. “In the last 20 years or so the picture of the big and ugly gar has changed from that of a dangerous predator which must be eliminated to the glamorous but still ugly object of exciting sport fishing. Instead of encouraging wholesale slaughter, the parts of the state which promote gar fishing are now becoming concerned about the decreasing population of the gar.”
Unfortunately, by this time, says former alligator gar guide John Fox, now of Ocklawaha, Florida, the big fish already had disappeared from some of the state’s rivers.
“In 1954, ‘55, ‘56 and ‘57, I had clients coming in from all over the country for these giant gator gar,” he said. “We were catching them like there was never a tomorrow. When we got one to the boat, we’d shoot it and just let it sink. We thought we were doing a great service. We were told they’d eat their weight in gamefish every 48 hours. So if it was 150-pounder, you could look at 150 pounds of fish going out of the river every two days. We thought we were getting rid of all these predators, but in fact, we were victims of our own greed. The fishing started petering out in 1957 or ‘58, and I just didn’t feel right taking people out any more. I was guiding full time, and by 1959, just five years after I started, I had to quit. We had cleaned the rivers out. The gar were gone.”
In a 1970 article in Arkansas Game & Fish Magazine, writer Charlie Burton said, “Destroying a gar was once comparable to slaying a dragon that was wreaking havoc on the countryside and devouring women and children. No doubt the gar’s physical appearance caused this typecasting. He looks like a torpedo with teeth ... and his dentures seem designed for biting holes in grain barges. As he lies almost motionless, near the surface of a stream on a warm summer day, he appears to be waiting on some unsuspecting fisherman to dip a tasty finger into the water.
“But the gar does not prefer fingers and toes,” Burton continued. “He does not even prefer bass or channel catfish. He prefers shad, minnows and other small roughfish. Some states are actively stocking gar as a fisheries management tool to help keep roughfish and gamefish in proper balance. Yes, this fish, once feared and hated, is proving to be useful and desired in some instances.”
Arkansas wasn’t the only state where people fished for these giants. Viable fisheries existed in Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Texas, Oklahoma and other states as well, although none grew to become the tourist attraction Arkansas’ gator gar fishery was.
Unfortunately, few people wanted to see the big gars restocked or protected, even where these leviathans had completely disappeared. Most viewed these huge fish like man-eating sharks loosed in a public swimming pool—seek and destroy at all costs. As a result, the few stocking efforts were halted, and the species declined to seriously low levels throughout its range. Habitat destruction and unregulated commercial fishing hastened the species’ demise. Only in recent years have state and federal fisheries agencies made a concerted effort to properly manage gator gars so populations might flourish once again.
Even as efforts to rehabilitate threatened populations began, the ability of fish hatcheries to raise gator gar for stocking efforts lingered behind. Young gar are cannibalistic, and unless provided substantial numbers of shad and other forage fish, they pick each other off, reducing substantially the numbers of young gar available for release. It was 2013 before biologists at Oklahoma’s Tishomingo National Fish Hatchery developed techniques that resulted in a 22 percent survival rate of fingerlings (compared to 11 percent using previous methods). This resulted in the availability that year of slightly more than 6,000 7-1/2-inch-long gator gars for release by requesting state agencies.
According to Richard Simmons, the assistant project leader at Tishomingo, this new intensive rearing method “demonstrated the potential to produce gar with significantly better survival, thus allowing hatchery staff to more accurately raise needed numbers of gar, while providing a more reliable source of fish for requesting agencies.”
Developments such as this have prompted a spate of recent news articles suggesting that the reintroduction of alligator gar into some Midwest waterways may help protect the Great Lakes from invasive Asian carp. In the August 14 edition of the Los Angeles Times, for example, is an article that boldly proclaims, “How to combat Asian carp? Get an alligator gar.” In it, Allyse Ferrara, an alligator gar expert at Nicholls State University in Louisiana, is quoted as saying, “What else is going to be able to eat those monster carp? We haven’t found any other way to control them.”
Many similar stories have been popping up on the web and in newspapers recently, but despite all the hype, it’s quite unlikely alligator gars will be useful in the battle to reduce burgeoning populations of Asian carp.
For one thing, alligator gars seldom eat large prey such as carp. They feed primarily on gizzard shad, a plentiful baitfish, which seldom exceeds a pound or two in weight. And one big meal will often tide a gar over for days.
Even if gator gars loved snacking on carp, the small gars (less than a foot long) from federal hatcheries being used in restocking efforts would take years to reach a size where they could eat larger carp. The growth of alligator gars is very slow. It takes about 10 years for an individual to attain a length of 3 feet and 30 or more years to reach a length of 6 feet.
On top of all that, 10 to 14 years must pass before an adult gator gar matures enough to spawn. As a result, restoration efforts may take years unless biologists find ways to produce and stock more hatchery-raised fish than the few thousand fingerlings currently available each year.
Even if they do, another obstacle stands in the way. Many anglers still labor under the mistaken notion that alligator gar will damage sportfish populations. Dozens of studies have confirmed that gator gar have no impact on sportfish because sportfish seldom are eaten. But when fishermen see lots of gar on days when bass or bluegills won’t bite, it’s natural to make a connection, whether it’s justified or not. As a result, fisheries managers face stiff opposition to gator gar restocking efforts in many areas.
It is this last obstacle we should work most to overcome. Whether gator gars are viable tools in the battle against Asian carp or not, these ancient giants have been swimming in our waters since the age of dinosaurs. To let them perish from undue prejudice without doing everything in our power to restore healthy populations would be a tragedy.
Imagine the incredible fisheries we could enjoy if current conservation and restoration efforts are successful. Picture yourself hooked up to a freshwater monster that tail walks across the water like a heavyweight tarpon. What a thrill that would be!
In-Fisherman editor Doug Stange summed up my feelings perfectly in an editorial he once wrote. “This is the second largest fish in North America,” he said. “The stuff of Chamber of Commerce billboards. A monster in appearance and proportion. A fish that jumps higher and fights harder than any muskie.
“Large alligator gar need immediate protection from further overharvest. The objective, as always, is to harvest selectively, to use but not abuse, so generations yet coming can marvel at this monster.”
Let’s hope the actions of those involved in restoring alligator gar populations are successful. Our lives will be greatly enriched if these dinosaurs can thrive without prejudice wherever they swim.