River Robber

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Published on: Jan. 2, 2003

Last revision: Nov. 12, 2010

are to be properly conserved, stringent measures will have to be taken against these weeds and wolves among fishes," one author wrote.

Another referred to alligator gars as "pariahs" that "infest many lakes, sloughs, bayous and sluggish rivers in the South and Midwest."

Another concluded that ". . . alligator gar are a menace to modern animal life and will wreak vast destruction unless they themselves are destroyed by game lovers and sportsmen. . . ."

Spurred by such attitudes, alligator gar were for many years killed with reckless abandon wherever and whenever they were encountered. Even when they became popular as sport fish in the 1950s, anglers usually killed their catches.

Habitat destruction has affected the gator gar, as well. Adult gator gar generally live in main-channel habitats in big rivers, but they spawn in sloughs, oxbows and other shallow backwater areas. Channel straightening, dredging and construction of locks, dams and levees have separated the big rivers from their floodplains, and alligator gar have suffered.

Lack of knowledge also creates problems. "It's ironic," said Bob Pitman, of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Fishery Resources Office, "that here we have the second largest freshwater fish in the United States, yet we know so little about it."

Even more ironic is the fact that researchers waited until populations are at all-time lows to begin studies. Nevertheless, research has begun, offering hope of a brighter future for these remarkable fish. Radio-telemetry studies, hatchery propagation work, population assessments and life-history research are now under way in several states.

Conserving these giant fish requires management plans that do not regard alligator gar as nuisances, but as beneficial predators that contribute positively to ecosystem stability and function, and as a valuable resource to recreational anglers.

Pressure to destroy gator gar has come largely from anglers who fear the fish deplete commercial and sport fisheries. However, dozens of studies have confirmed that gator gar seldom eat game fish.

In time, perhaps Missourians will appreciate the biggest fish to swim in our waters. They serve an ecological purpose and, as David Smith can attest, they also provide some unforgettable fishing adventures.

Missouri's Other Gars

The alligator gar is only one of four gar species found in Missouri waters. Longnose, spotted and shortnose gar also live in the Show-Me State.

The most common and widespread of these is the longnose gar. It's abundant in many of the Missouri's large streams and reservoirs and frequently attains a weight of 10 to 15 pounds. The state record, caught in the Black River in 1999, weighed 34 pounds, 7 ounces. This gar's long, slender "needle nose" sets it apart from other species.

The spotted gar prefers the quiet, weedy waters of lowland lakes and is found primarily in the state's southeast corner. Most are small, 2-3 pounds average, but the state record from Lake Wappapello weighed 9 pounds, 3 ounces. Unlike most other species, the spotted gar has distinct spots on its head and body and all its fins.

The shortnose gar is the most common gar outside the Ozarks in Missouri. It tolerates muddy, turbid waters better than most other gars and, as a result, is common in larger rivers in their backwaters. Rarely does it exceed 2 feet in length. Its broad, stubby snout distinguishes it from the longnose. To distinguish it from the spotted gar, count the scales along the lateral line. The spotted gar has 58 or less. The shortnose gar has 60 or more. The Missouri state record shortnose gar came from Pomme de Terre Lake. It weighed 4 pounds, 11 ounces.

Do Gar Attack People?

When one looks at the enormous tooth-studded jaws of an alligator gar, one is almost sure to ask, "Will this fish attack people?"

A gar being dragged into a boat by an angler might injure someone during its struggles.

Accounts from old Mississippi River Valley newspapers recount unsubstantiated attacks, but most of them happened when people were feeding the gars fish offal and held their hands or feet in the water.

In an article published in 1942, E.W. Gudger, an ichthyologist with the American Museum of Natural History wrote;. "All my attempts to verify these (attacks) have resulted in failures."

Gudger concludes his article by saying, "When hungry, (the alligator gar) will undoubtedly grasp a hand or a foot dipped in the water near him. That he will deliberately stalk and attack a human being as a tiger does, I do not believe."

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