River Robber

By Keith Sutton | January 2, 2003
From Missouri Conservationist: Jan 2003

When bow fisherman David Smith was trying to land Missouri's first state record alligator gar last year, he probably felt like he was fighting an alligator. Like members of the crocodile family, the long, "slinky" fish was covered with an armor of thick, hard scales, and a meshwork of sharp teeth protruded from its broad snout.

Smith and Eric Abbott were bow fishing on the Headwater Diversion Channel in Cape Girardeau County when they spied the big gar basking near the surface. Smith loosed an arrow that pierced the fish's bony hide. Then he and Abbott enjoyed the Show-Me State equivalent of a Nantucket sleigh ride. For 20 minutes, the gar towed Smith's 16-foot aluminum bass boat like a harpooned whale dragging a dinghy.

Wrestling the 6-foot, 4-inch gar into the boat wasn't easy, but Abbott finally lassoed it with a wire noose he used to land the smaller longnose gar the pair usually encountered. "I finally got it in, and I've got the scars to prove it," said Abbott. "He was still snapping."

The gar weighed 115 pounds, 2 ounces. That's a huge fish even for many saltwater anglers, let alone for the Missouri Bootheel!

Gator Gar Facts

Alligator gar are larger than all North American fishes except for white sturgeon. Old reports of 12- to 20-foot-long specimens were probably exaggerated, but the fish's true size is amazing enough. One of the heaviest alligator gars on record measured 8-feet, 5-inches. It weighed 356 pounds and was caught in Arkansas' Horseshoe Lake in 1931. A specimen from Vermilion Parish, Louisiana, was documented at 9 feet, 8.5 inches and 302 pounds. The world rod-and-reel record weighed 279 pounds. It was caught in Texas' Rio Grande River in 1951.

The largest gator gar mount in Missouri may be the 8-foot, 3-inch 228-pound monster on display at the Hornersville Duck Club. The wall of Schindler's Tavern in New Hamburg sports a mounted alligator gar said to be 9 feet long. When caught in 1916, it weighed 180 pounds.

The alligator gar's historical range included the Mississippi River and its tributaries from the lower reaches of the Ohio and Missouri rivers southward to the Gulf of Mexico. Today, the fish are primarily restricted to coastal rivers, with inland populations persisting in Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee, Texas and, as evidenced by Smith's record catch, Missouri.

Apparently, alligator gar were never common in Missouri. They once inhabited the Missouri and Osage rivers, but this was the northern edge of their range. They were never as abundant here as in the lower Mississippi Valley and coastal rivers along the Gulf. Therefore, alligator gar haven't been formally classified as rare or endangered in the Show-Me State.

In The Fishes of Missouri, William Pflieger reports the species formerly inhabited the Mississippi River at least as far upstream as the mouth of the Illinois River.

"The only recent records to come to my attention," he wrote, "were two large specimens caught by fishermen in 1965. One, weighing 110 pounds, was taken near Chester, Illinois. The other, weighing 130 pounds, was taken near Cairo, Illinois." A 6-foot, 6-inch, 126-pound alligator gar was also reportedly caught in the 1980s. The fish currently is displayed in the Dunklin County Museum"

"The paucity of recent reports for the alligator gar suggests that it may be declining in abundance," Pflieger continued.

A few additional specimens are documented in back issues of the Missouri Conservationist. The July 1943 edition contains a note that "Two Sikeston boys recently displayed an alligator gar that measured a little over six feet length and weighed 130 pounds, according to Agent W.S. Wickham. The boys gigged the gar in back water and worked three hours to land it."

"Notes from the Field" in the October 1943 issue contained this interesting tidbit: "B.N. Jones, Doniphan merchant, acquired a nice trophy when he speared a 47-pound alligator gar while gigging in the Current River. He was dragged from the boat into 10 feet of water but managed to recover and land the fish. This was the first gar of such dimensions to be taken from the Current in several years."

In the April 1952 issue, fisheries biologist Gilbert Weiss reported, "The alligator gar is not found in large numbers in Missouri." Perhaps they were never common, as some researchers suggest. Yet, man has undoubtedly affected their abundance and distribution. Gator gars, which many people believe harm game fish populations, have been the focus of eradication efforts for more than a century, including a poorly documented effort by the state of Missouri that began sometime in the 1920s.

Gar Wars

By the 1920s, nearly every state in the gator gar's range was waging all-out war on these "monsters." Fisheries reports and fishing books from the era describe gars in vindictive terms. "Certainly if our commercial fisheries 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."

This Issue's Staff

Editor - Tom Cwynar
Managing Editor - Bryan Hendricks
Art Editor - Dickson Stauffer
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Circulation - Laura Scheuler