Gar Accomplished: all 5 US species

Contact with gar fires me up in a way no other group of fish does, and I know I’m not alone in appreciating these fish. The reaction they ignite in me is located somewhere deeper than the feelings touched off by more recently arrived fishes like trout, bass, or even suckers. It’s been said before by others who have found themselves addicted to these fish: they’re dinosaurs, dragons, pure predators, living fossils.

For me it is this: when I interact with a gar—hold it in my hands, feel its armor and muscle flexing and really look at it—I’m in contact with the Earth not as my familiar home, but as it truly is, stripped of maps, knowledge, and all the other baggage we pile up to create our illusion of understanding and control. A gar in hand is time travel, the Earth before names and ideas.

I know I’m probably reading too much into this, but something is definitely different about the gar experience.

Pseudo-poetic BS aside, gar are bad-asses. Muscle, teeth, armor, hunger, tenacity, and confidence add up to a fish that’s a hell of a lot of fun to catch. Small or large, they fight like crazy and no matter how careful you are, they can—and will—cut you. A truly spectacular, beautiful animal.

I have now caught all 5 gar species in the U.S. (and though I’ve caught all 4 that live in Illinois, I have yet to realize my goal of catching all 4 of them in a single day). Only the tropical gar (Atractosteus tropicus) and the Cuban gar (Atractostes tristoechus) remain, and I intend to meet both of them eventually. Until then, there is no chance I’ll lose interest in continuing to fish for the “local” gars at every opportunity.

Remember: compared to gar, all other fish are just bait.

July 12, 2014, Illinois River backwaters: My lifer spotted gar (Lepisosteus oculatus) Spotted gar! Spotted gar would NOT hold still. Luckily I've got shaolin monk speed.


January 6, 2014, Tamiami Trail, FL: Caught a bunch of Florida gar (Lepisosteus platyrhincus) Florida gar Florida gar


August 31, 2013, Illinois River backwaters: My lifer alligator gar (Atractosteus spatula), believed to be the first one caught in Illinois since 1966. (More about this fish here, here and here.)Alligator Gar


June 7, 2012, Mississippi River, WI: My lifer longnose gar (Lepisosteus osseus), 47 inches long and about 17 pounds, caught on a hookless rope lure.

Longnose gar (Lepisosteus osseus), 47" long, Mississippi River, WI, 6/7/2012 (on a hookless rope lure)


July 28, 2011, LaSalle County, IL: One of many shortnose gar (Lepisosteus platostomus) I caught the day I got my first one (8 landed in first 12 casts).

shortnosegar_7-28-2011_garvana

The World of Suckers (1909) and the Growth of Suckerism

Suckerism is not a circumstantial folly but an active emotion.

Lionel Josaphare

All hail the great unacknowledged scholar of suckers and suckerism, Lionel Josaphare (1876–?), whose work belongs on the shelf with your other fish books. It even includes valuable information missing from all those old Jordan & Evermann books and your $250 copy of Becker’s Fishes of Wisconsin. Though they covered a great many species, they apparently ignored quite a few. According to The World of Suckers, published in 1909,  some of the major sucker species are:

  • The Biped with the Coin
  • The Sucker Who Wants To Get Rich Quickly
  • The Voter
  • The Man Who Wants To Go to Heaven
  • The New Thought Sucker
  • The Soldier
  • The Lover
  • The Girl With the Demon Lover
  • The Sucker in Search of Happiness
  • The Optimist and the Pessimist
  • The Sucker Who Fears Public Opinion
  • The Sucker Who Tells the Truth
  • The Idealist and Reader of Fiction
  • The Astonished Sucker
  • and more!

Cover of the World of Suckers by Lionel Josaphare (1909)Josaphare covers everything you could possibly want to know about suckers AND suckerism.

For example, he provides a definition of the word “sucker”

[p. 1] It has been suggested that the word “sucker” arose from the name of a sweet and unsophisticated fish that skips through the waters of the Great Lakes and inflowing streams. Its aptitude for the hook was first the delight and then the ridicule of its captors, who were, perhaps like many good folks, looking for something at once delightful and ridiculous.

[…]

“Sucker,” then, on the face of it, means one who sucks obviously at an idea. Ideas are the milk of the mind, the nourishment of the soul, the food of national greatness. And even as a cow, or any female animal, unless soft hands or mouths take the milk, would corrupt its product, so would great ideas drivel over and dry without suckers.

He explains the Absolute Necessity for Suckers:

[p. 3] In order that civilization progress and partake of poetic grandeur continuously or now and then, there must be, ready and willing at all times, a predominance of joyful and high-spirited fools. These supply the hurrah and sentiment, money and labor: Make no mistake; these are not fools of the brain, but fools of the world. In themselves they are good, law-abiding, tax-paying, intelligent men; virtuous or avaricious, as they are wanted.

He also provides some Remarks on the Growth of Suckerism (p. 6). He settles a question we have long debated by revealing The Greatest Sucker of All (p. 85), and describes An Ordinary Day in the Life of a Sucker  (p. 102).

Continue reading

Bowfin for June Species Contest

I got to draw the button (and t-shirt) again this year for the roughfish.com June species contest. Last year I did a pumpkinseed. This year I made a bowfin. (Last weekend I was fishing with Garman and asked what kind of fish he thought I should draw. He said a bowfin would be cool. I ran with it.)

2014 Roughfish.com button

To enter the contest, get an account at roughfish.com, buy the button and/or t-shirt, wait til 12:01AM on June 1st and go fishing. Stop fishing as little as possible. You’ve got 30 days. Each time you catch a new species of fish, take a picture of it and make sure the button (or t-shirt) is in the shot. Post the photos to the site.

Whoever catches the most species wins. (In 2013, it took 43 species to win, while 50 did it in 2012.) The prize is a custom-built fishing rod. Sweet, eh?

There’s also a kids’ division. So far it’s been won by girls both times and I see no reason that will change. My daughter Iris won it the first year and has pledged to fish hard this year in hopes of another trophy.

Some new fishy hats and shirts

There are still more in progress, but I did add a few designs to the zazzle shop. These are all based on woodcuts from 1833.
All are available on just about any size and color of shirt, including baby onesies and men’s and women’s styles.

Who can forget the iconic sturgeon logo of the famous (imaginary) Sturgeon Mfg. Co., makers of heavy equipment that built this country?

Stugeon logo hats and shirts

 

Everyone loves bullheads. This one’s good to wear or gamble (or play Go Fish) with. In the 1833 book, it’s called the Horn Pout.
bullhead stuff

 

Show that you mean whatever you say: wear a pike or a sculpin.
pike stuff

 

Sculpin: if the word “tough” were incarnated as a fish.
Sculpin on shirts and hats

 

If you like scales or fish faces, wear the rudd.rudd stuff

Illinois Gar Summit I, Feb. 2014

After months of hopeful but vague discussion about getting together to talk gar (and other cool fish), three of the most gar obsessed citizens of Illinois finally managed to meet at the end of February. Solomon David, Postdoctoral Research Associate at the Shedd Aquarium (and see primitivefishes.com), hosted Bill Meyer (founder of garfishing.com and the Gar Angler’s Sporting Society [GASS]) and me for a full day of fish nerding.

We enjoyed a tour behind the scenes at the Shedd that allowed us to see fish the public doesn’t get to see and smell odors the public doesn’t get to smell. The humid air and fishy scent were medicine to me, given how long the world had been frozen and fishless. Thanks also to Kurt Hettiger, Senior Aquarist at the Shedd, for answering my novice questions and showing us various off-exhibit tanks and fishes. One highlight was a South American catfish the size of a large couch, with a mouth big enough to inhale a medium-sized dog. Another was Grandad, the Australian lungfish who holds the title for oldest fish in any aquarium in the world (80 to 100 years, and counting). We were there specifically to do some gar-gazing, so it was very cool to see some of the gars that were off exhibit at the time.

Over lunch we got to talk suckers with Phil Willink, formerly of the Field Museum and now a Senior Research Biologist at the Shedd.

Thanks to everyone at the Shedd for the hospitality and for giving use a glimpse into things far cooler than anyone looking at the exhibits would guess.

The second half of our day was spent in the bowels of the Field Museum of Natural History, where we had the opportunity to examine a wide variety of specimens. 30-gallon jars of preserved gars, suckers, and bowfins; skeletal gars, paddlefish, and sawfish; a 100-year-old alligator gar mount that I’ve seen in old publications (see below); two of the 30 or so harelip sucker specimens in existence (the first fish driven to extinction in North America since Europeans arrived, Lagochila lacera/Moxostoma lacerum is the subject of a very long post—it threatens to become a small book—I’ve been writing for more than a year). It was a fish nerd’s candy store. The overwhelming terror of shattering a shelf full of giant jars and drenching myself in preservative and antique fish parts kept me from grabbing everything in sight for a closer look. Barely. Thanks to Susan Mochel and everyone else at the Field Musem for allowing us into what felt like a holy place, again more interesting (to me, anyway) than the public parts of the museum. The fact that I was less than a foot of discolored, oily liquid away from a couple of gen-u-ine coelacanths is still making me giddy a month later.

This was just the first meeting. I know that dedicated freaks like us will find more excuses to get together and talk about the fishes we love. Once weather and water are conducive to fieldwork, I know we’ll be out there catching gar for science and sport, taking samples and photos, and having fun. Can’t wait. I think we’ll also work on finding more ways to educate the public—anglers and non-anglers, young and old—about the less-loved fish, such as gar, bowfin, suckers, sturgeon, etc.

If anyone’s handing out jobs at the Shedd (how about Roving Photographer and Writer at Large for a job title?), tell me where to line up.

Not wanting to derail the tour, I intentionally left my good camera at home. The photos that follow were taken with my trusty Pentax waterproof point-and-shoot. I take it everywhere with me, as it can take a beating and I won’t cry for weeks if I happen lose or crush it while fishing. That said, its photos are nothing special. I’ll return with a better camera, multiple lenses, and more time in the near future. All those dead fish whisper to me at night, but I can’t quite make out what they’re saying. I have to go back.

Illinois Gar Summit I, 2014: Bill Meyer, Olaf Nelson. Solomon David and a cenury-old (plus) Alligator Gar in the deepest recesses of the Field Museum in Chicago.

Illinois Gar Summit I, 2014: Bill Meyer, Olaf Nelson. Solomon David and a cenury-old (plus) Alligator Gar in the deepest recesses of the Field Museum in Chicago. Hypnotized by the self-timer’s flashing light, I forgot to smile.

This same gar appears in a 1905 photograph of Richard Raddatz, Field Museum staff preparator (some monitors show better than others that the gar’s base and the rope suspending it are blacked out on the negative):

FieldMuseum preparator Richard Radatz, pictured in 1905 with alligator gar

Field Museum preparator Richard Radatz, pictured in 1905 with alligator gar. If I ever get a job at the Field, I’m going to wear a tie and overalls every day. Every single day.

Tropical Gar skull, Field Museum, Chicago

Tropical Gar skull, Field Museum, Chicago

Tropical Gar skull, Field Museum, Chicago

Tropical Gar skull, Field Museum, Chicago

Tropical Gar skull, Field Museum.

Tropical Gar skull, Field Museum.

Gar scales, can't remember which species (dry specimen). Field Museum, Chicago

Gar scales, can’t remember which species (dry specimen). Field Museum, Chicago

A section of skeletal Paddlefish rostrum (the paddle). Basement of Field Museum, Chicago.

A section of skeletal Paddlefish rostrum (the paddle). Basement of Field Museum, Chicago.

Skeletal Paddlefish rostrum, side view. Basement of the Field Museum, Chicago.

Skeletal Paddlefish rostrum, side view. Basement of the Field Museum, Chicago.

Anyone unsure exactly what a paddlefish looks like, see this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_paddlefish or do an image search.

Fossil gar (Lepisosteus simplex) from Fossil Lake, WY. Field Museum, Chicago.

Fossil gar (Lepisosteus simplex) from Fossil Lake, WY. Field Museum, Chicago.

Fossil gar (Masillosteus janei) from Fossil Lake, WY. Field Museum, Chicago.

Fossil gar (Masillosteus janei) from Fossil Lake, WY. Field Museum, Chicago.

Basement of Field Museum, Chicago.

Basement of Field Museum, Chicago. Each of these jars could hold 8-10  chickens, if you had 8-10 chickens in need of pickling.

Bichirs. Shedd Aquarium, Chicago.

Bichirs (pronounced “bikers”). Shedd Aquarium, Chicago.

Lamprey kisser. Shedd Aquarium, Chicago.

Lamprey kisser. Shedd Aquarium, Chicago.

Tucan fish. Shedd Aquarium, Chicago.

Tucan fish. Shedd Aquarium, Chicago.

 

New Work on Species of Western Mountain Suckers (Pantosteus)

A new paper does a lot for our understanding of the several Mountain Sucker species in the genus Pantosteus. It elevates Pantosteus back to genus and elevates some old species. It divides Bluehead Suckers into two species: P. discobolus (in the Colorado Basin) and  P. virescens (in the Bonneville and Snake basins). It divides mountain suckers into P. platyrhynchus (in the Bonneville and Snake basins), P. jordani (in the Missouri Basin), P. lahontan (in the Lahontan basin) and P. bondi (in the Columbia and Lower Snake basins). It also provides diagnostic characters for each species.

Influence of Introgression and Geological Processes on Phylogenetic Relationships of Western North American Mountain Suckers (Pantosteus, Catostomidae) by Peter J. Unmack, Thomas E. Dowling, Nina J. Laitinen, Carol L. Secor, Richard L. Mayden, Dennis K. Shiozawa, Gerald R. Smith

Abstract:
Intense geological activity caused major topographic changes in Western North America over the past 15 million years. Major rivers here are composites of different ancient rivers, resulting in isolation and mixing episodes between river basins over time. This history influenced the diversification of most of the aquatic fauna. The genus Pantosteus is one of several clades centered in this tectonically active region. The eight recognized Pantosteus species are widespread and common across southwestern Canada, western USA and into northern Mexico. They are typically found in medium gradient, middle-elevation reaches of rivers over rocky substrates. This study (1) compares molecular data with morphological and paleontological data for proposed species of Pantosteus, (2) tests hypotheses of their monophyly, (3) uses these data for phylogenetic inferences of sister-group relationships, and (4) estimates timing of divergence events of identified lineages. Using 8055 base pairs from mitochondrial DNA protein coding genes, Pantosteus and Catostomus are reciprocally monophyletic, in contrast with morphological data. The only exception to a monophyletic Pantosteus is P. columbianus whose mtDNA is closely aligned with C. tahoensis because of introgression. Within Pantosteus, several species have deep genetic divergences among allopatric sister lineages, several of which are diagnosed and elevated to species, bringing the total diversity in the group to 11 species. Conflicting molecular and morphological data may be resolved when patterns of divergence are shown to be correlated with sympatry and evidence of introgression.

The article is open access, which means it is freely available:
http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0090061

Unmack, P.J., Dowling, T.E., Laitinen, N.J., Secor, C.L., Mayden, R.L., Shiozawa, D.K. & Smith, G.R. 2014. Influence of introgression and geological processes on phylogenetic relationships of western North American mountain suckers (Pantosteus, Catostomidae). PLoS One, 9(3): e90061.

 

Modoc Sucker no longer endangered?

Modoc Sucker. (USFWS photo, cropped)

Modoc Sucker (see photo information below)

After almost 30 years on the endangered species list, the Modoc sucker (Catostomus microps) is up for delisting, according to an article from the Klamath Falls Herald and News, by Lacey Jarrell (found on the Oregon Public Broadcasting site) (see also this excellent post on the Introduction to Fisheries blog). The species, which lives in a small area of northern California and southern Oregon, was listed by the state of California in 1980, then federally in 1985. Its decline was a side effect of the usual suspects: dams, logging, road-building and grazing practices, and its apparent recovery is due to concerted (and ongoing) efforts to curtail such damages.

modocsuckerspawning-usfws-flickr-creativecommons

Modoc Sucker in spawning colors

It is a small fish (usually only 3-6 inches, but can get up to 11 inches) with a small range (now estimated to include 12 streams, amounting to just over 42 miles of water). The Sacramento sucker (Catostomus occidantalis) inhabits some of the same waters as the Modoc sucker, and there was concern that hybridization could lead to both species’ demise. Fortunately, the two species use different habitats, spawn at different times of year, are much different in size (the Sacramento sucker can reach two feet in length), and very rarely hybridize.

Modoc Sucker

Modoc Sucker

The delisting process takes a year. There is a 60 day public comment period, so if you know something that needs to be said, you have until April 14, 2014 to say it. There will also be independent scientific evaluations of the species’ status. At the end of the year, the species can be delisted entirely, downgraded to threatened, or left on the endangered list.

[EDIT: I may have misread, or been misled by others' misreading of, the process. The 12 month period referred to in articles about this story could end with the 2 month comment period. I have to read the USFWS documents more carefully to clarify this, but don't have time to do that today. Any ESA experts care to comment?]

This is apparently only the second fish species to be considered for federal delisting, after the proposal only a week or two earlier to remove the Oregon chub from the Endangered Species List. As Jarrell’s article points out, fish are not usually delisted for reasons other than extinction. Biologists involved are justifiably excited at the prospect.

Could this move have been spurred by pressure from some entity with clout and a desire for the freedom to damage a watershed for short term gain? I’ve watched enough good environmental news turn bad over the years that I can’t help but be cynical. Though I’ve seen no hard evidence that this delisting is anything other than a consequence of policies and practices that accomplished their goal, I worry that this move is based on factors other than the species’ actual recovery.

The petitioner that started this process is The Pacific Legal Foundation, which calls itself “the first and oldest conservative/libertarian public interest law firm in the United States” and says it “was established for the purpose of defending and promoting individual and economic freedom in the courts.” When someone touting the recovery of a species has economic or philosophical, rather than scientific and biological, motives, I am suspicious.   If delisting occurs, regulations that have protected the species’ habitat (by making ranchers water their cattle away from streams and erect fences to keep cattle from grazing too close the water, for example) will be removed. If such oversight is relaxed, it will not be surprising if the same factors that almost eliminated the Modoc sucker before push it right back to the edge. Or over it.

It is important to note that two other federally listed (i.e., endangered) sucker species exist in the same area. The Lost River Sucker (Deltistes luxatus) and the Shortnose Sucker (Chasmistes brevirostris) (mistakenly called “snortnosed” in virtually all the news articles about the Modoc’s delisting, showing rampant plagiarism and ineffective editing) are found in the same counties and face the same threats as the Modoc Sucker. Both were listed in 1988. Though critical habitat designations were proposed in 1994, no action was taken. A second attempt was not made until 2011 (after a lawsuit that forced the issue), and this time the effort was successful. Regulations went into effect in January, 2013. According to Oregon Wild, however, major portions of the fishes’ ranges were left out of the designation, to the detriment of their recovery. They report that the area included in the new ruling is 75% smaller than what was proposed in 1994. Ironically, the Lost River is not included.

It is easy to believe but hard to stomach that for almost two decades after being recognized as endangered, nothing was done to actively protect these fish. Perhaps, given the apparent success of critical habitat regulations in the case of the Modoc Sucker, there may be hope for these other species. On the other hand, my initial reading of numerous federal documents and news articles seems to indicate that the protections now in effect fall into the “least we can do” category, and populations are apparently continuing to shrink. (See below for links.) In 2009 a petition was filed to delist both the Lost River and Shortnose, apparently by agricultural/irrigation interests. The feds determined there was not sufficient cause to delist. I would not be surprised to see more such petitions, since the battle over water and endangered species in Oregon (and California, probably) is still going strong.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service Modoc sucker species profile includes the 1985 listing and the new delisting proposal, among other documents: http://ecos.fws.gov/speciesProfile/profile/speciesProfile.action?spcode=E053

Modoc Sucker by Joseph Tomelleri

Modoc Sucker by Joseph Tomelleri

For more information about the Lost River Sucker and Shortnose Sucker, see:
Oregon Wild’s Klamath suckers page (Oregon Wild sued the federal government to force the designation of critical habitat). For an article about the shortcomings of the critical habitat designation, see this article on the Oregon Wild site.
For more info, see the USFWS species fact sheet for the Lost River Sucker and the species fact sheet for the Shortnose Sucker. For all the official documents, see the USFWS species profile for the Lost River Sucker and the species profile for the Shortnose Sucker.

Photo credits:
All images from the USFWS Pacific Southwest Region on flickr. All 3 photos cropped by Olaf as permitted by their Creative Commons License.
Fish on hand original: http://www.flickr.com/photos/usfws_pacificsw/12468673524/
Spawning original: http://www.flickr.com/photos/usfws_pacificsw/12468166405.
Ruler original: http://www.flickr.com/photos/usfws_pacificsw/12468175215

Tomelleri image: http://www.flickr.com/photos/usfws_pacificsw/7310626968/ (shared under the same Creative Commons License as the photos).

Redhorse Army, show your allegiance!

There is a new redhorse design for sale in the zazzle store, created in response to a few people who told me that they like the pyramid of redhorse lips, but don’t want to have to explain it all the time.

This time the word REDHORSE is prominently featured (along with an unblinking redhorse eye). I don’t know how much it will help, since I’m asked all the time what “redhorse” means.

A fancier take on the pyramid of lips. Available on shirts, cups, phone cases, etc. at the zazzle store.

Wear the insignia of that most selective branch of the Forces of Truth and Fishing: The Redhorse Army!

Show your allegiance with shirts, water bottles, phone cases, hat, etc.: http://www.zazzle.com/chinookdesign. (True roughfishers start young, so there are baby and kid sizes.)

Another Gar and Roughfish podcast to download (not me this time!)

Want to hear what it means to talk without ambiguity about something you really love?

Doing his part in our ongoing effort to storm the halls of fishing power and supplant the trout and bass overlords, Garman appeared recently on the same public radio outdoors show I was on a couple weeks ago. He is much more entertaining than I was. I promise.

Download it here: Garman on "Outside" radio

Thanks again to Dale Bowman for the coverage and permission to share the podcast.

Check out my previous podcast post for a link to my episode of the show and links to several other episodes with related content.

Contact our agents to inquire about optioning our stories for movies or television.

And please spend some time at garfishing.com and roughfish.com. You’ll be glad you did.

Garman shows how it’s done

Here’s the man in action, with a longnose from one of the spots he talks about in the show.

1: Bringing in a rope lured longnose. This gar was between 40" and 50" (don't recall exact length) and leaped repeatedly completely out of the water. Despite that, it had no chance of coming loose from the rope lure.1: Bringing in a rope lured longnose. This gar was between 40″ and 50″ (don’t recall exact length) and leaped repeatedly completely out of the water. Despite that, it had no chance of coming loose from the rope lure. As Garman mentions in the show, sometimes longnose gar have spots on their heads that lead people to mistake them for spotted gar. With a beak that long, though, it’s clear what this fish is.

Note that the rope lure is so well tangled in the gar's teeth that it can support the fish's weight.2: Wear gloves and be quick. Note that the rope lure is so well tangled in the gar’s teeth that it can support the fish’s weight.

3: Grab the beak with Bruce Lee speed and confidence. The fish will thrash around and if your grip is not solid, you'll drop it. A gar is a lever and has the advantage.3: Grab the beak with Bruce Lee speed and confidence. The fish will thrash around and if your grip is not solid, you’ll drop it. A gar is a lever and has the advantage.

Any fibers left in the gar's mouth could lock it shut and make feeding impossible. As long as you've got a glove on the hand that's holding the fish, you'll be fine. Take your time and do it right.4: Use needlenose pliers to get ALL the rope out of the teeth. Any fibers left in the gar’s mouth could lock it shut and make feeding impossible. As long as you’ve got a glove on the hand that’s holding the fish, you’ll be fine. Take your time and do it right.

Painting lines at known distances on your boat makes measuring a 4-5 ft. fish a lot simpler than trying to hold it still while using a tape measure.5: Measure the fish. Painting lines at known distances on your boat makes measuring a 4-5 ft. fish a lot simpler than trying to hold it still while using a tape measure, especially if you’re fishing alone or in a small boat.

Seriously. What could be more fun than that? Now catch another one.6: Smile! You have a dinosaur in your hands. Seriously. What could be more fun than that? Only one thing: catching another one.

longnose gar close-upClose up with 100,000,000 years of predatory efficiency.