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Since humans first encountered them in the murky depths of American rivers, alligator gar have had a bad reputation. But now, conservationists and anglers are taking a second look at the role these enormous and fierce-looking creatures play in keeping Oklahoma rivers healthy.
By Chad Love
Published May/June 2017
No one knows exactly when or where people first laid eyes upon a fearsome, Cretaceous-looking fish-beast inhabiting certain North American rivers, but it’s safe to assume the occasion was not a joyous one for the humans. This armor-clad leviathan, longer than a man was tall and big around as a good-sized oak—with a gaping maw studded with needle-sharp teeth—would’ve been a terrifying visage rising up from the water. The alligator gar, as it eventually became known, has been the subject of folklore-fueled persecution ever since. But now, it is slowly disappearing from the rivers in which it once thrived, and attitudes are changing about the worth of this unloved—yet vital—species.
Oklahoma is home to four of the seven species of gar: alligator, longnose, shortnose, and spotted. The alligator gar has the smallest range of all four, but it is this species that inhabits the darkest, most fevered corner of humankind’s collective conscious. How unique is it? Consider this: The state record for shortnose gar is around nine pounds, the record for spotted gar is about ten pounds, and the largest longnose gar caught in state waters weighed in at a hefty forty-three pounds. By comparison, the state-record alligator gar, which was pulled from Lake Texoma in April 2015 by Paul Easley of Mead, topped the scales at 254.8 pounds and measured eight feet long.
No one knows how large the gator gar is capable of growing. Legends tell of specimens reaching twenty feet. But like almost everything surrounding the alligator gar, facts rarely are allowed to get in the way of a good story. For sure, they can grow to at least nine feet in length, and the current all-tackle world-record alligator gar—accidentally netted out of a Mississippi lake by a commercial fisherman in 2011—weighed a jaw-dropping 327 pounds.
But despite its massive size, or perhaps because of it, the alligator gar suffers from a colossal case of bad first impression. If you took a six-to-eight-foot length of a telephone pole, covered it in a chain-mail sheath of overlapping scales so strong and sharp that Native Americans allegedly used them to tip small-game arrows, and then attached a massive, tapered head with a grinning mouth containing double rows of the most nightmarishly sharp teeth anywhere this side of an H.P. Lovecraft story, you’d have the alligator gar. It is this appearance—along with the gator gar’s massive size, its alleged voraciousness, and the lack of much real science on the fish itself—that has fueled humanity’s centuries-long war against it. And war it has been: Alligator gar have been shot, electrocuted, blown up, poisoned, arrowed, speared, netted, snagged, and persecuted in every way imaginable.Ralph Simmons, assistant manager at the Tishomingo National Fish Hatchery, holds an alligator gar while it is moved from a nearby pond to a tank at the hatchery to prepare for spawning. PHOTO COURTESY TISHOMINGO NATIONAL FISH HATCHERY
It has worked. Misguided eradication efforts based on folklore, fear, and junk science—or no science at all—have combined with the widespread damming and channelization of many of the gar’s native river systems. The result is a diminishment of its historic range across the Midwest and South. Today, the alligator gar can be found mainly in Texas, Louisiana, and parts of Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, and a few other states. In Oklahoma, the alligator gar historically was found in the Red, Arkansas, and Canadian river systems but these days is found primarily in the Red, a few of its tributaries, and Lake Texoma.
While Oklahoma likely never has had Texas’ or Louisiana’s numbers of gator gar, researchers believe there are far fewer swimming in the state’s waters than there once were. And that’s become a concern for the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, which, like most state wildlife agencies within the alligator gar’s range, has realized this is a species worthy of study and protection.
“This is a fish we historically haven’t known a whole lot about,” says ODWC fisheries research biologist Richard Snow, who is the wildlife department’s chief gar researcher. “The first evidence of gator gar reproduction in Oklahoma wasn’t discovered until the 1980s.”
Until recently, alligator gar had few state protections. There were no extra bag or size limits or restrictions on method of take and seemingly no interest from anyone to change that. Gar were a piscatorial persona non grata. That changed a decade ago.
“In 2007, a video surfaced that showed the carcasses of alligator gar that had been illegally shot at Fobb Bottom Wildlife Management Area at Lake Texoma,” says Kurt Kuklinski, the ODWC’s fisheries research supervisor. “Fobb Bottom is where the Red River comes into the lake, and it’s a key spawning area for alligator gar when it floods in the spring. These big, mature, six- and seven-foot gar were in there spawning—completely oblivious to humans—and they were shot and left on the bank.”
That incident, says Kuklinski, quickly changed ODWC’s perspective on alligator gar.
“It pushed us to ask ourselves what was going on here,” he says. “We realized we didn’t know enough about these fish, and maybe we needed to look at protecting and managing them as a resource.”
The wildlife department did that by implementing new rules including a limit of one alligator gar per day and the closure of critical spawning areas. These and other regulations gave a measure of protection to a fish with specific spawning requirements that are at odds with the modern reality of dams, habitat loss, and flood control.
“One thing we’ve tried to focus on has been what habitat these fish need to reproduce,” says Kuklinski. “Before Denison Dam was built on the Red River, you had regular floods where the Red went over its banks and flooded areas of riverside vegetation. Alligator gar need flooded vegetation at the right time and at the right water temperature for their spawn to be successful. So we came along and started putting dams on these rivers, and it changed the dynamic of that system.”
James Tucker of Ardmore formerly held the state record for a 192-pound gar caught in 2011 at the Red River. PHOTO BY MATT MAUCK / DWC
Now, says Kuklinski, in some reservoir environments, the only places for those fish to spawn are small areas on the very upper end of lakes where the rivers come in. But getting a successful spawn is an iffy proposition under the best of circumstances. The alligator gar’s highly variable reproductive nature is what makes it so vulnerable to population decline.
“In many cases, you get a good spawn to add young fish to the population, so there is a high potential for overharvest,” Kuklinski says. “These fish could all be quickly killed out before they have a chance to reproduce and add to the population in a significant way. We realized we had to do something.”
Snow’s research into what happens after gar are born is driving much of the understanding of the species’ habitat and environmental needs.
“We’re trying to research a fish that lives upwards of seventy, eighty, ninety years, but if we don’t know what’s happening in their first years of life, we’re at a disadvantage,” he says. “If you can get those gar through their first year, their odds of surviving increase dramatically. If you can figure out spawning success, you can better understand the fish.”
A willingness to understand the alligator gar, however, has been an uphill battle against the often ludicrous claims made against it or the fear that inspires much of the mythology surrounding the species. In his book Season of the Gar: Adventures in Pursuit of America's Most Misunderstood Fish, writer Mark Spitzer notes that there never has been a documented, verifiable case of an alligator gar attacking a human.
“They have hard scales, they’re big, they’re prehistoric-looking, and they certainly don’t look nice and cuddly,” Snow says. “But their teeth are not made for ripping or shredding but for holding a fish until they can swallow it. They’re not going to bother you at all in the water.”
It is the gar’s alleged appetite for “good” fish that drives most of the hatred directed at it. Almost everyone who has grown up fishing in Oklahoma has heard some variation on these myths: “Gar eat twice their body weight in game fish every day,” or “Gar will take over whatever lake or river they’re in.” Myths like these are what make some otherwise compassionate, caring people toss every gar they catch up on the bank to die. In fact, virtually every study conducted on gar eating habits shows the same thing: Gar mostly eat the non-game fish that need to be eaten in order for game fish to thrive.
“Gar are going to keep the system in equilibrium,” says Snow. “Without them, we have nothing to control those other fish, because there are few predators that can eat a sixteen-inch shad or a twenty-inch buffalo. They are opportunitistic and will simply eat the desired size of prey that is most available.”
To that end, the wildlife department now is attempting to reintroduce the alligator gar into some waters where it has disappeared, stocking juvenile gar into a few older lakes that have, over time, become suitable habitats.
“Lakes are built on a roughly hundred-year cycle,” says Snow. “When they’re first built, they’re highly channelized, which is bad for gar’s spawning success, but over the years, as these lakes age, they become silted in, and that allows vegetation to grow. We think this will give us an opportunity to expand the gar’s range a little more.”
The threat of invasive species like the Asian carp is causing many people to take a second, more appreciative look at the alligator gar. Putting gar back into lakes ultimately will help the very anglers who have grown up loathing these supposed monster fish.
“The popular image of gar among anglers is that they’re bad news, they eat all the bass and all that, but think about this: We already have Asian carp below the dam at Hugo Lake,” says Snow. “It could be a matter of time before we see them in the lake. So with the gator gar, we’re setting ourselves up to have a predator in there to be able to help remove those fish.”
Oklahoma’s juvenile gar come from the Tishomingo National Fish Hatchery, which in turn gets some of its fish from another national fish hatchery in Tupelo, Mississippi. But the majority of the fish raised at Tishomingo don’t go to Oklahoma. In fact, they go to Missouri, which is trying to re-establish its own alligator gar population. The leftover fish from that program are being stocked in Hugo Lake, but the Tishomingo hatchery is trying to start an on-site breeding program with native Red River gar in addition to the Mississippi River strain it’s now using. According to assistant hatchery manager Ralph Simmons, finding breeding-sized female gar in the Red River has been a slow process.
“We had one ninety-pound female we caught from the Red, but she may have been a spotted gar,” says Simmons. “We tried for two years and then released her into Lake Texoma. Since then, all the fish we’ve captured have been males. That’s a red flag for us from a conservation standpoint.”
According to Simmons, the problem is that females live twice as long as males, get nearly twice as big, and are considered trophy fish.
“A six-foot female produces a lot of mature, robust eggs,” says Simmons. “So unfortunately, too much trophy fishing will take out those big females, and that may be what’s going on in Oklahoma. We’ve been out two to three years and haven’t found a single big female. That’s concerning.”
There is encouraging news, however: Through sonar and netting, the ODWC recently has discovered a healthy population in the Red River system. The Tishomingo hatchery raises as many as two thousand gar fry every year, and all the fish raised at the hatchery are electronically tagged. Those tagged fish are used to further the research, make informed management decisions, and educate the public.
“We produce alligator gar, but we also try to do a lot of outreach and education about the fish,” says Simmons. “We believe the more people understand about this fish, the more they’ll appreciate it. This is the aquatic version of the lion on the savanna—the top predator in its environment—and you can’t take that predator out and expect things to not go wrong. They have merit and worth. When you see one in a river, that’s where they belong. They’re not trash fish.”
There are three primary ways to fish for alligator gar. Anglers can catch them on conventional tackle using bait, snag them during certain times of the year when they’re concentrated in specific areas, or bowfish them, in which they cruise the water hunting gar with specialized bows and arrows. But fishermen like Greg Henagar, a lifelong Oklahoma bowhunter from Atoka County, doesn’t see fishing as being a particularly serious threat to alligator gar populations.
“I’m certainly not going to try to church it up and make it seem like something it’s not,” says Henagar. “Tournament fishing is a blood sport, and I don’t make any apologies for it. But bowfishing is not the reason gar are in decline.”
After bowfishing the Red River with Henagar and his fishing partner Jimmy Rogers, it’s easy to see why anglers say gator gar are not easy targets. In a day prowling the shallow water of the Red, Henegar and Rogers take hundreds of shots, netting a total of five longnose gar but not one alligator gar. According to Henagar, that’s about normal.
“Sometimes you see one, and sometimes you don’t,” he says. “The biggest gator gar I’ve caught in Oklahoma was about a six-pound fish in an oxbow off the Red River. The odds of getting one are slim. I’ve been going down there seventeen years, and I’ve only harvested two. The majority of the people I know are the same way.”
The key to reconciling gar conservation and fishing, says Snow, is proper management.
“We never want to take any opportunities or methods of harvest away from anglers,” he says. “Gar can be vulnerable to overharvest during certain times like the spawn, which is why we have regulations addressing that. It all depends on where the science takes us.”
And where the science seems to be taking the alligator gar now and into the future is a far cry from the spot it long has occupied as a creature described more by myth than fact. There is a noticeably growing appreciation from anglers, scientists, and the general public for the role this ancient and fascinating fish plays in its environment; in fact, the ODWC has asked the public to report any harvests of alligator gar in Oklahoma lakes and rivers.
“These fish have tremendous value, and we want people to realize that,” says Kuklinski. “There might be a fish in the Red River system that has been there for seventy, eighty years—or even longer. That fish has lived through the time before that river was dammed, when it was a free-flowing prairie river, to being a reservoir with virtually no spawning habitat, to now coming back around to the time when the age of that reservoir is now providing spawning habitat for a fish that may have been there before the lake. It really shows the resilience of the species. That’s crazy and cool to think about, isn’t it?”
To reach the Fobb Bottom Wildlife Management Area, drive sixteen miles south of Madill on U.S. Highway 377, and then drive 1.5 miles west on Fobb Bottom Road. (405) 823-8383 or wildlifedepartment.com. The Tishomingo National Fish Hatchery is open by appointment. 5501 West State Highway 7 near Tishomingo, (580) 384-5463 or fws.gov/southwest/fisheries/tishomingo. Lake Texoma State Park, 11500 Park Office Road near Kingston, (580) 564-2566 or TravelOK.com/parks. See a live alligator gar at the Oklahoma Aquarium, 300 Aquarium Drive in Jenks, (918) 296-3474 or okaquarium.org.