A crisp kerplunk reverberates off the surface of Monopoly Marsh in Mingo National Wildlife Refuge.
“Did you hear that?” asks Chris Kennedy, a fisheries biologist with the Conservation Department. “That is the sound of balance being restored, and I’m proud to play a role.”
Until today, the creature making that sound—a young alligator gar—hadn’t set fin in these waters for more than 30 years. This June morning, Kennedy will introduce 300 young kerplunkers to their native dark waters.
Alligator gar were the top predators in Mingo’s swamps until about 1970, when habitat loss and wanton harvest drastically cut their numbers. In 2006, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Conservation Department approved a plan to restore this legendary leviathan to its former habitat.
“My dad used to take me fishing, and when we caught a gar he would snap its beak and throw it up on the bank to die,” Kennedy recalls. “He was told it was the right thing to do, but I remember sitting in the back of his boat, actually feeling sorry for those gar.”
Kennedy slips his hands into a fish tank in the back of the airboat, cradles a 30-inch gar, lifts it out of the tank, swings it over the side of the boat and releases the wriggling 2-pounder. Before the day is over, he will repeat this bare-handed procedure 298 more times.
Alligator gar are among the largest freshwater fish in North America. They can reach 10 feet in length, though 5 to 8 feet long is a more common size for adults. An adult can weigh between 100 to 300 pounds. The largest known Missouri gar mount is located in the Hornersville Duck Club. This 8-foot, 3-inch behemoth weighed 228 pounds.
A thick coat of bony scales make alligator gar better protected than any other fish species. Adult alligator gar can be distinguished from other adult gar species by the double row of teeth they have in their upper jaw.
Commonly known as “gator gar,” these fish occupy slowmoving backwater sloughs and rivers looking for large prey.
While every fish is a potential meal, gar usually eat whatever is most common. Studies show that gar mainly eat shad, buffalo and drum. Surprisingly few sport fish make their way into a gar’s stomach.
Gar hunt by ambush. They float along, still as a log, until a tasty morsel gets close. They then sling their head to one side and slam their jaws down on the prey.
Occasionally, gar surface to gulp air. Fisheries biologists call this breathing behavior “breaking.” It allows gar to survive low oxygen levels in the water.
Seventy-seven-year-old Richard Woods grew up on the Black River in Butler County and remembers seeing gar up to 8 feet long rolling on the surface.
“Alligator gar would move up in the spring and hang around in the river holes,” Woods says. “We watched two of them that moved into our swimming hole. We’d jump off of a leaning tree into that water time after time. It’s a wonder we never hit either of them. And they never attacked.”
Native tribes were first to harvest gar. They worked the tough scales into arrow points and breastplates. They fashioned the ribs into needles.
Early farmers stretched gar skin over their plows. The result was a tool armored like a shield. The skins were also used for covering pictures, making purses and decorating fancy boxes.
Probably the biggest use of alligator gar was for dinner; the meat is tasty.
However, European settlers disdained the big predators. Gator gar tore their nets and were difficult to keep on a line because they were so big. People believed gar ate the same fish they wanted—a misconception that persists to this day.
They even imagined these toothy, gigantic fish ate humans. However, there are no documented cases of alligator gars attacking people in North America.
Responding to pressure, state and federal authorities sought to eliminate gar to protect game fish and prevent human attacks.
In the 1950s, anglers came to Arkansas from all over the country to catch alligator gar. Fishermen would hire guides to help them kill huge numbers of the big fish. One participant noted, “We were catching gar like there was no 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.”
Bootheel folks also fished for gator gar. Catching one was a spectacular event. The ensuing tussle gave any angler the right to be proud, and people seldom let the flesh go to waste.
Market fishermen butchered the fish for meat. Some fish markets would sell gar alongside catfish and other sport fish. But, given the fish’s generally poor reputation, most Missourians were glad to see gator gars nearly disappear from southeast waters, which they did by the late 1960s.
The Mingo National Wildlife Refuge is a 21,000-acre remnant of the 500,000 acres of wetlands that once dominated Southeast Missouri. With its combination of marshes, swampy waters and seasonally flooded woodlands, the area provides the best opportunity to restore alligator gar to southeastern Missouri.
All the gars Kennedy released have tags that researchers can use to track them. Anglers are encouraged to release any alligator gar they catch and to write down and report its tag number and where and when it was caught.
Researchers also will be radio tracking 20 of the released gar. They will mark the particulars of each gar’s travels—what habitats it prefers, how far it moves and at what times. Radio telemetry also allows scientists to pinpoint a gar’s location so it can be recaptured.
Fisheries biologists consider gar to be big-river fish. But gar also need to get in and out of wetlands and floodplains for spawning. This is hard to do these days. Levees may prevent flooding, but they also prevent gar from reaching typical spawning habitat.
Kennedy and other researchers also will be gathering data on the gar’s impact on the overall fish community at Mingo. An increasing number of fisheries biologists believe that not only can sport fishing and alligator gar coexist, but that the presence of gar might improve sport fish communities.
“Some of the best bass fishing in the southern U.S. is in waters where solid populations of alligator gar exist,” Kennedy says.
Kennedy dips the remaining dark-olive gar into the water. He holds it for a few seconds before letting go, and then the last of the lot disappears quickly. The 10-year veteran of the Department wipes his hands and marks a map where the fish was set free.
Events over the last hundred years have changed this landscape dramatically. From a species point of view, many of those events have marked loss. But today a different kind of event took place. A native species was reintroduced, helping to restore balance and resources for future generations to enjoy.
Visit Mingo National Wildlife Refuge to learn about or observe wetland habitats unique to southeastern Missouri. The refuge’s visitor center is open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Five observation overlooks are located on refuge roadways, or visitors can hike the mile-long Boardwalk Nature Trail.
During April and May, take the 19-mile, scenic Auto Tour Route to see spring wildflowers and witness spring songbird migration. Take the same route during October and November to view fall foliage and waterfowl migration.
For more information about Mingo National Wildlife Refuge, visit online, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 573-222-3589.
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