Gator Gar in the Newspaper!

If you have access a copy of the Chicago Sun-Times from Wednesday, Sep. 25, 2013, ignore the front page (mass shooting, corruption trial, food festival) and skip immediately to page 65. (If you happen to be my mom, I’ll send you a copy.)

The headline: “Gator (gar) in the house.” Try not to look at the small mugshot. Focus on the words and the bigger photo.

It’s also online: http://www.suntimes.com/sports/outdoors/22773269-452/brookfield-man-lands-first-alligator-gar-in-illinois-since-1966.html

Who would have guessed that catching an ugly, vicious, evil, worthless trash fish could get coverage in a major newspaper? Chicago is lucky to have a paper with an outdoor columnist whose interests include species at the fringes. (See my post about two state record redhorses: http://moxostoma.com/two-brothers-two-days-two-illinois-state-record-redhorses/)

On behalf of the fish (and anglers) usually found well out of the spotlight: Thanks, Dale Bowman!

Follow Dale on twitter (@BowmanOutside) or facebook (https://www.facebook.com/pages/Outside-with-Dale-Bowman/241327739268720). Listen to “Outside,” his weekly radio show, on 91.1 WKCC (if you’re near Kankakee, IL) or download the podcast from iTunes-U.

Gar fans, take a look at these sites

Two gar- and bowfin-related sites I found a few days ago are worth looking at if you’ve caught that particular sickness. Both are run by Solomon David, currently a postdoctoral research associate at the Daniel P. Haerther Center for Conservation & Research at the John G. Shedd Aquarium and jointly at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Center for Limnology. (I took that text straight from the About page of one of the sites.)

http://primitivefishes.files.wordpress.com/2013/07/shedd-photos-tpg-7112013-ps-3.jpg

Tropical gar at the Shedd Aquarium. Photo by Solomon David.

First, http://primitivefishes.com is about gars, bowfin, sturgeons, paddlefishes, lungfish and other primitive fishes. Some very cool information and photos.

Second, http://lepisosteidae.net is focused on the seven species of gar in the world, David’s research, and news about gar.

Everyone who lives near or finds themselves near the city of Chicago should definitely take a trip to the Shedd Aquarium to see the gar on exhibit (and all the other cool fish and other animals). There are currently no Cuban gar being exhibited, but there are the other 6 species: longnose, shortnose, spotted, alligator, tropical and Florida.

Cool.

Catching gator gar, making history

In 1966, at the very southern tip of Illinois, a 7 foot, 150 pound alligator gar was caught on hook and line. There are no records of any being caught (by any method) in the state after that.

1966. Three  years before I was born. No one had been to  the moon yet. Computers that couldn’t even send offers of cheap Canadian pharmaceuticals or display low-resolution pornography were the size of Econoline vans and required teams of engineers in lab coats. Hardly anyone had heard of Jimi Hendrix. Even in such remote times, however, we can recognize the familiar smell of human progress, because we had managed to eliminate yet another species, an apex predator, from big chunks of its historical range.

The alligator gar remained on Illinois’ endangered species list until 1994, presumably because in the mid-1970s 20 of them were found trapped against the water intake screens of a power plant on the Ohio River in Kentucky (where the Ohio is the border between Illinois and Kentucky).  In 1994, the species was declared extirpated from Illinois.

Efforts to reintroduce the species in Illinois began in 2010 with stocking of gators brought from hatcheries in the south (Mississippi, maybe?). Early indications are that the fish are growing as quickly as they would in those southern states where they have managed to hang on (though numbers are declining) in spite of the human propensity to misunderstand, ignore and  exterminate the oddballs and misfits of the animal  kingdom.

On a 95 degree day at the end of August, 300 miles north of the location of the 1966 catch, Ben, Garman and I set out to reintroduce gator gar to fishermen. We knew it was a needle vs. haystack situation and that needles in haystacks often remain lost, but we also knew that finding one would be an important personal (and historical) milestone.

Three hours into the expedition, Garman had landed a silver carp snagged on a crankbait, Ben had caught a shortnose gar,  and we had all cursed a few missed hooksets on spinners, cut shad and bluegills. It was hot, there was no shade, and the lack of gators was starting to make the reality of the expedition’s odds sink in. Ben headed to an adjacent lake to take a shot at  spotted gar (which he quickly succeeded in catching), and Garman followed shortly thereafter. I elected to keep trying for the gators. I had a whole bluegill (alive when I first chucked it out, but deceased the first time I checked it) with treble hooks embedded in it, no float or weight, 100 feet from shore. As Garman drove off, promising to come get me  later, I decided to check the bait again. I reeled up a pile of slack line and felt solid, unmoving resistance. A snag. I pulled and felt it dislodge. Then it pulled back!

The fight was not particularly epic, but there was a fair amount of buzzing drag as the fish took line and I resisted the urge to tighten up and crank it in. Given the stakes, I  was nervous as hell. If I had a gator on the end of my  line this was no time to rush. If I somehow lost it, it might be months before I could stop beating myself up. Still, I assumed I had a catfish or shortnose gar on until I got it to the shore and saw the wide, short snout. Adrenaline kicked in. Heart rate doubled. With Ben and Garman absent, no net, and a sudden rush of memories of fish I’d lost at the last moment, I was well  aware of how quickly things could go wrong.

It was not a large fish. It did not freak out, run or jump when it bumped against the rocks at the shore. I was able to grab it without any particular difficulty. Holding it tightly, I took it far from the water, snapped a few emergency pictures in case it somehow  got back into the water before I could call for assistance, then tried to work my phone one-handed without coating it in gar slime and without being able to see the screen in the bright sun. Garman and Ben returned, took some photos of my fish and quickly resumed fishing with patience and optimism fortified. I mostly wandered around mumbling and smiling, casting a spinner and trying not to start singing or dancing. For weeks I had been working to keep my expectations low, and against all presumed odds I had managed to make a little history. Plus, I’d beat Garman to it and he’s called Garman.

I didn’t know it at the time, but the northernmost record of an alligator gar in Illinois is one that was caught (sometime before 1923, method unknown) in the Illinois River, 50-100 miles south of our spot. Garman suggested that my fish might be the northernmost catch in history, then promptly set up his rods 25 yards further north. He landed a slightly larger gator an hour or so later, breaking my record. He mostly refrained from gloating.

After that, we landed a few channel cats, a few shortnose gar, and all had many strong runs that ended with nothing. Ben, unfortunately, did not connect with a gator that day, but since he lives not far from the spot I have no doubt he’ll fix that very soon.

I had hoped to follow the gator with a spotted gar (also a species I have yet to catch), and then get a shortnose and a longnose to complete the Illinois gar grand slam. I managed the shortnose, but the spotteds eluded me and by the time we left I was too tired and sun-baked to go in search of a longnose.

Thanks to Ben for providing the bluegill and location, to Garman for rigging suggestions, to Garman’s boat for not almost sinking until after I hopped out, and to two young alligator gar for cooperating.

It’s just a baby, as alligator gar go, but it’s fine for now.

Here are a few shots of Garman’s norhernmost gator gar ever caught:

Information on the history of alligator gar in Illinois from “Distribution of the Alligator Gar, Atractosteus spatula (Lacépède, 1803), in Illinois” by William J. Poly, in Transactions of the Illinois State Academy of Sciences, vol. 94, no. 3 (2001), pp. 185-190.

New World Record Buffalo (and maybe a World Record Gar) in Texas

Lots of amazing fish being caught in TX recently. David G. and his brother got into some monster fish, including big alligator gar, huge smallmouth buffalo and what might have been a world record longnose gar at 61 inches and an estimated weight (based on length and girth) of 49.6 pounds. The world record, which some say is probably a hybrid longnose/alligator, is 50 pounds and change. The brothers G didn’t have a scale, so they released it to keep growing. Full report with amazing photos is here.

Just as impressive, if not as toothy, is the new junior world record smallmouth buffalo caught this spring by Austin Anderson. Not satisfied with regularly catching buffalo in the 30-40 pound range (as well as hefty carp and other species—see his spring 2012 synopsis here), Austin went out and got a 50 pound, 6 ounce fish from Lake Fork, TX, during the Lake Fork Carp and Buffalo Challenge in late February.

For more of Austin’s incredible catches, check out his blog: Pondbass.

Cool that David G’s longnose gar and Austin’s smallmouth buffalo have almost identical weights but such different ways of distributing it for maximum food-finding efficiency.

I may have to visit Texas soon.