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.

Juvenile quillback carpsuckers on hook and line

Multi-species angler Ben Cantrell managed to catch a couple of juvenile quillbacks (Carpiodes cyprinus) recently (late March, 2013), and since I have never seen any this young—in person or in photos this clear—I asked if he would let me post them here.

(Edit: Ben has since written up this story on his own blog, along with other fishing successes. Check it out for some great fish and photos: http://bencantrellfish.blogspot.com/)

These were caught in an area of no visible flow in a side channel or small creek connected to the Wisconsin River. Ben estimates the water was 18 inches deep with a temperature of about 40°F.

Ben’s description of his tactics:

There was a massive school of shiners in the channel, so thick it was difficult to see the bottom.  Every now and then I saw a flash of silver as slightly larger fish on the bottom turned on their sides, which I assumed was feeding behavior.  I was fishing with a Tanago new half moon hook and a tiny bit of nightcrawler.  The shiners would attack the bait before it could reach the bottom, so I put a bigger piece of crawler on (a piece smaller than a pencil eraser).  This allowed the bait to get past the shiners and reach the bottom.  I left the line slack and every 5 seconds gave it a pop to see if a fish was on.  This produced 2 of those juvenile quillbacks in about 15 minutes.  They were both definitely fair hooked in the mouth.  I checked the lower lip for a nipple and did not see one in order to rule out highfin or river carpsuckers.  I suppose it’s possible that juveniles of those species do not have the nipple on their lips.  However, quillback strongly outnumber the other 2 species in the lower WI River, so I’m sticking with quillback.

In fact it is possible for the nipple to be absent from juveniles of the other two species: Etnier and Starnes (The Fishes of Tennessee, 1993, pp. 264-265, full text available online) say of the quillback “This is the only carpsucker that lacks the tiny, nipple-like projection on the lower jaw, but young carpsuckers of other species may have this process absent or weakly developed, and are very difficult to identify.” These are quillbacks, however, based on scale counts. According to Becker (The Fishes of Wisconsin, p. 630, full text available online) the quillback has 36-40 lateral line scales, while the highfin (p. 638) has 33-35 and the river (p. 634) has 34-36. There are about 39 on both of Ben’s fish. There is always the possibility that young specimens of Carpiodes can be confused with young specimens of Ictiobus. Anal fin ray counts can help distinguish the two, but are not available in these photos. Based on their bright silver coloration and general appearance, and on the shape of the suboperculum (symmetrical in Ictiobus, assymetrical in Carpiodes and Ben’s fish), I don’t think there is any need to worry about these being young buffalo.

Ben estimates (based on a measurement of his hand) that these fish were about 5.8 inches long. Given the vagaries of measurement in photos, I’m arbitrarily considering them somewhere between 5.25 and 6 inches (roughly 130 to 150 mm). Becker’s growth chart shows southern Wisconsin young-of-year quillbacks, hatched in May or June, reaching an average total length of 41 mm by the middle of July and 100-110 mm by the middle of September. He writes that “in the lower Wisconsin River, age-I quillbacks are 144 (134-155) mm TL by mid-July; age-II fish average 202 mm.” (p. 632) If Ben’s fish were 130-150 mm long, and if I’m reading the data correctly, they would be products of 2012’s spawn.

Now, let me get to the point. I love fish and fish science, but I am first and foremost a fisherman. Even worse, I’m a fisherman who chooses to pursue suckers. I have to point out the most remarkable thing about Ben’s story:

“This produced 2 of those juvenile quillbacks in about 15 minutes.”

Those who do not target quillbacks may not know that they are generally very difficult to catch fairly because of their extreme skittishness, their preference for small foods (see below), and their ability to suck in and spit out a bait faster than the vibration can travel up the line to the angler’s hand. By the time the signal has traveled from the fish to the hand, then from the hand to the brain and back to the hand as an order to react, the quillback has already expelled the bait. Because of this, quillbacks are frequently snagged outside the mouth when the angler attempts to set the hook. I know fishermen of undisputed skill and expertise who have tried for years, without success, to fair hook a single quillback despite snagging many. That Ben managed two of them in 15 minutes is both remarkable and probably annoying to some others.*

On the subject of quillbacks’ culinary habits Becker writes (p. 632):

The quillback feeds freely on debris in the bottom ooze, on plant materials, and on insect larvae. According to Harrison (1950), only small amounts of indentifiable material are found in the visceral contents: 86% undeterminable debris, 12% algae, and 2% insect remains, with a trace of other invertebrates. Very small tendipedids, sometimes occurring by the thousands, were the only insects found intact in the digestive systems examined. Other insects were represented by larvae cases, detached legs, and wings. In southeastern Wisconsin (Cahn 1927), the quillback’s food consisted of fragments of aquatic vegetation and algae, occasional Chironomus larvae, and a variety of snails (Planorbis, Physa), and small clams.

Thanks to Ben for the photos and information, and for making the rest of us feel like chumps.

The following video shows a feeding quillback (starting at about 2:40, after lots of gar, cats and others) in an aquarium at the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium in Dubuque, IA. I keep meaning to go back and get some better quality footage. (http://youtu.be/iuVh2BWmUoQ)

*(Due entirely to dumb luck, and not at all to skill or knowledge, the first sucker I ever caught was a quillback. That was several years ago and despite seeing thousands of them since, and trying every trick in my arsenal, I have never hooked another one.)

 

December Redhorse Dorsal

a dorsal fin

Got out fishing in a favorite creek today, and though it’s December 2nd, for a while a long-sleeved t-shirt was too warm. For the first time in months, a sucker was caught. I’d really hoped to get one more before snow, ice and holidays derailed my fishing.

The rock bass were on fire, including one that missed becoming the new Illinois state record (1 pound, 10 ounces) by only a few ounces. Largest rock bass I’ve ever seen.

Caught: rock bass (at least a dozen), several bluegills, two green sunfish, many largemouth and smallmouth bass, a yellow bullhead and A REDHORSE! It was a golden (m. erythrurum) but with every golden there’s always the hope that it will turn out to be a black (m. duquesnei). Lateral line scale count (43) indicates golden, dorsal ray count (15) is high for a golden and at the top end for a black. Mouth could go either way, depending on how wishfully I’m thinking. But the caudal peduncle isn’t particularly skinny (if you’ll pardon the scientific jargon), and the pelvic fin ray count, as near as I can tell from the photos that show that fin, is not 10.

Spotted but not caught: several very large hogsuckers and one tiny one, two buffalo (not sure which species), quillbacks, many redhorses (of at least 2 species), several fairly large common carp, and innumerable minnows.

Largescale Suckers on the Fly, Montana, January

The lucky SOBs highly skilled anglers over at False Casts and Flat Tires got a surprise gift from the Bitterroot River recently, and I’m jealous: a bunch of 20″ largescale suckers (Catostomus macrocheilus) and some trout to keep them busy while waiting for another sucker to bite. I can’t go home to Montana and catch fish like these now, so I’m grateful they chose to post excellent photos (and give me permission to post them here). I wonder how many fishing bloggers catch and photograph suckers and other cool fish but don’t bother to post them.

Click these to see them a little larger, but for full effect follow the links below and view them in much higher quality.

Their report: http://falsecastsflattires.com/2012/01/15/fly-fishing-is-for-suckers/

The follow-up with more sucker shots: http://falsecastsflattires.com/2012/01/19/as-requested.

There’s also a video of the day’s fishing, with a little sucker action, at Yukon Goes Fishing: http://www.yukongoesfishing.com/2012/01/cutties-are-for-suckers.html

Jealous. So jealous…

More on C. macrocheilus at fishbase and the Montana Field Guide.

Cowardly pike, sportless walleye, evil gar, holy trout & virtuous whitefish

Looking for Insults

I tend to get pretty angry when I find anti-sucker (and other roughfish) sentiment on the web or in current publications. By now, shouldn’t everyone know better? In older sources, however, I make a point of looking for insults, dismissals, diatribes and condemnations of the fish I like. It’s fun to read. While I wouldn’t expect old books aimed at a popular audience (how-to-fish manuals, fishing guidebooks, memoirs of fishermen) to cover fishing for suckers, the problem is that very few of them ever mention suckers at all, even in passing. (See this post on suckers as vermin for one exception.)

In addition to suckers, I always look to see what—if anything—these authors had to say about some of my other favorites, such as gar and bowfin. As toothy predators from the time before trout, gar and bowfin are easy targets for insults. Like suckers, they are almost never mentioned at all—except in scientific books. I think I’ve found mention of bowfin in only one or two old collections of fishing stories, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen any mention of gar in any old book about fishing.

The scientific books are more fertile ground. Any half decent scientific work of any age that covers the fishes of North America has to include the undesirables I’m looking for, if only briefly, and they usually do it without much entertainment value. The most entertaining prose, unsurprisingly, tends to be in the non-scientific works (see below).

When an author—popular or scientific—feels the need to go beyond simply ridiculing a fish for not being a trout or bass, the usual course is to blame them for harming other, more desirable, species (and it doesn’t matter whether the accusations have merit). Suckers are maligned as mud-eaters lacking esthetic or commercial value, but are also be blamed for eating the eggs of trout and walleye. Gar, bowfin and other predatory fish (other than trout) are blamed for gorging on whatever species are most profitable in a given body of water, be it trout or walleye.

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The Boy’s Own Guide to (sucker) Fishing (1894)

Here’s a first: A book that doesn’t malign suckers and doesn’t just mention them in passing or as bait but

  • has an entire chapter about sucker fishing
  • gives suckers pride of place with the first chapter
  • recommends fishing for suckers
  • recommends eating suckers and says they’re as good as trout
  • instructs the reader on proper methods of worm cleaning

There are some slights against suckers, but nothing major and far outweighed by the positives.

Plus, it teaches the proper method of fishing with an unbent sewing needle.

Less important chapters include: Pickerel Trolling in Spring • Bait-fishing for Trout • Fishing for the Sun-fish and other “Boys’ Fishes” • Fly-fishing for Trout and Fly-making • Fly-fishing for Bass, Perch, Sun-fish, etc. • Minnow-fishing for Trout • Bass Fishing with the Minnow, etc. • Fishing through the Ice • Breeding Trout, etc., in Winter

The boy's own guide to fishing, tackle-making and fish-breeding (cover)

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Suckers, eels and other vermin

From page 217 of The Book of Fish and Fishing by Louis Rhead, 1917:

For big trout, lying low in deep pools, more particularly the brown trout, the worm should be sunk to the bottom; it is sure to be taken quick, if the worm is actively alive. Of course, suckers, eels, and other vermin are liable to take it, if left in one position for any length of time. To prevent such annoyance, keep it moving, a yard or so every few seconds, not so violently as to scare the fish.

Later (p. 300) he accuses suckers and other disreputable fish of interfering with the stocking of trout:

Fry, unless bred in enormous quantities, are very little use in rivers which already contain feeders on fish, like eels, catfish, suckers, carp, pickerel, and perch.