Gar Peril! Iowa, 1912

Browsing old newspapers for interesting fish stories, I uncovered a very brief item of massive importance and interest. That this has remained hidden so long may be evidence of a cover-up (though there is, as yet, no way to know how high this goes).

garfish-bites-eyeball-Iowa-1912

There are, in this single sentence, more stories than young Edward himself might have wanted us to find.

If you have ever seen Jeremy Wade get so worked up over the potential implications of a few sentences of rumored fish-driven carnage that he can spin an entire episode of River Monsters from it before (usually) deciding either that the damage was done by something other than a fish or that it never happened at all, then you know how quickly a story can grow.

This troubling news item is the same.

Was he really swimming? Did he fall in, or was he pushed? Was it really a gar? Could it have been a submerged stick?

What was Edward McKittrick hiding? Who has worked so hard to keep it hidden until now?

Much is missing from this story, but most unfortunate is the absence of an illustration. I tried to find a photo of Mr. McKittrick, hoping for a grizzled river rat with an eye patch, but found nothing. If it’s the same man, I did come up with a birthdate in November 1892, making him 19 when the incident occurred. A prime age for doing dumb things and getting hurt, and a prime age for telling stories to cover your tracks.*

As a public service, I present an artist’s rendering of Edward McKittrick at 19, shortly after his encounter with a vicious Mississippi River gar, and later, when he was a respected pillar of the Fort Madison community. You’re welcome.

A man with a fish stuck in his eye.

Artist’s rendering of young Mr. McKittrick (age 19) and a respected leader of the community.

I am surprised I have to say this, but messages and comments about the severity and/or impossibility of the injury indicate it’s necessary: I made this illustration. Yesterday. 104 years after the news item was printed. There are no illustrations of the real guy or the real gar. I thought it would be obvious. I mean, who wears a live gar in his eyebrow for 30-40 years?

(To be perfectly clear, the news item is 100% real. Don’t know how true it is, but it is real.)

* I did a little research and found out more about Mr. McKittrick. He registered for the draft for both World War I (when he was 24 and already in the ROTC) and World War II (when he was 49). His WWI draft registration card specifically says he has all his limbs, eyes, etc., but does not mention the gar. He may have been in the infantry during WWI, but appears not to have been deployed outside the US. He was stationed at Ft. Snelling (MN) after he enlisted in 1917, and rose from the rank of Private to 2nd Lieutenant at the time of his discharge in 1919. He died in California in 1966.

Halloween Fish Geekery

A few years ago, I created (in photoshop, not pumpkin flesh) a Norther Hog Sucker jack-o-lantern. I’ve felt like a bad person ever since, knowing that a real fish geek would have carved a real fish pumpkin. No longer! This year I bought a pumpkin with the right shape, I kept it inside so squirrels wouldn’t damage it, and I studied gar anatomy. Last night, I hooked up the electrodes to the lightning rods atop the castle and unsheathed the rusty scalpel.

I present the skeletally semi-accurate Jack-gar-lantern! (click for larger version)

Jack-gar-lantern 2015

 

For the curious, here is 2009’s faked Northern Hog Sucker:

Halloween Hogsucker

(I even made a stencil template for it all those years ago. If you’re weird, download the pdf: hogsuckerpumpkinstencil.pdf (367 downloads) )

And, for added geekery, a gen-u-ine Halloween fish: Percina crypta, the Halloween Darter. It lives in the Apalachicola River drainage in Georgia and
Alabama. It is listed as threatened in Georgia and you can’t mess with it in Alabama (see links below). With a name like that, it should be listed as threatening.

Halloween Darter (Percina crypta). Photo by Nate Tessler. http://tinyurl.com/p786nr9

Halloween Darter (Percina crypta). Photo by Nate Tessler. http://tinyurl.com/p786nr9

More info: http://www.fishbase.se/summary/Percina-crypta.html, http://fishesofgeorgia.uga.edu/index.php?page=speciespages/species_page&key=perccryp, http://www.outdooralabama.com/nongame-vertebrates-protected-alabama-regulations

Shortnose Gar Bonanza! (includes underwater video)

 Shortnose Gar

The Spot

There’s this spot. It’s on a river. Tough to get to: a long hike in wet grass, a rocky downhill, slipping in mud and stumbling and rolling on loose stones. Poison ivy everywhere. Trail barely visible unless you know where to look. Then you get to the river, where you slip and trip some more, and lots more poison ivy.

Most of that is not exaggerated much. You won’t like it, even if I tell you how to get there (and you’ll hate the climb back up at the end of the day).

Unless you look at the water, because at any given moment several shortnose gar are surfacing exactly where you’re looking, no matter where you’re looking. They like to bite. Especially spinners. A guy I know caught over 50 of them the other day. (I only caught 30.)

You might see Smallmouth Buffalo and Grass Carp, too. Less visible but catchable are Bowfin, Freshwater Drum, Channel Catfish, Flathead Catfish, Walleye, Sauger, Smallmouth Bass, Largemouth Bass, Mooneye and Goldeye. And the White Bass: as aggressive and tenacious as the Shortnoses, and everywhere. I know a guy who caught over 50 of them in 5 hours the other day. I only caught about 20.

Unfortunately, Silver Carp and Bighead Carp have moved in over the last few years, and sometimes they’re everywhere. In my experience, when the carp are numerous, the gar are not easy to find and catch. Partly it’s the fact that every cast hits and bounces off multiple carp on the retrieve, often spooking an entire school to jump out of the water (you’ve seen the Silver Carp footage, right?) making it difficult to maintain a winning presentation, but it does seem like the Shortnose population (or at least the number seen and willing to bite) decreases when the carp are there in force.

But the Other Day

The other day, though, I fished for 5 hours and didn’t see a single carp of any kind. This guy I know said he saw a few Grass Carp, but I didn’t. The gar (and White Bass) were biting like crazy. Getting hits on 5 or more consecutive casts wasn’t even notable. Hooking and landing fish several casts in a row was common. I take a photo of every fish I land so I can get an accurate count at the end of the day, and as I scanned through them later I noticed several series of shots separated by only a minute or two.

White Bass

White Bass

I had blisters on my hand from setting the hook (or trying), my pants were coated in gar slime and as inflexible as armor when it dried. Hooks that started the day extremely sharp were dull by the end of the day thanks to gar bone and rocks.

Two guys fishing, well over 150 fish caught. At least twice that many bites missed or fish lost during the fight. I realized too late that I was using too light a rod, so next time I’ll use something less flexible in order to more immediately communicate my hookset to the hook itself.

Video

Since I had the GoPro with me, but not the extension pole or underwater weighted mount, I clamped it to a submerged root and weighted it down with a rock. The water was late-summer dirty and visibility was poor, but I managed to steer a few gar close enough to the camera to be visible.

Hey Jerky

Several gar came home with me to be cleaned, cured with salt and spices, then smoked long and low. The intent was to make jerky, but the result is excellent, spicy smoked fish, crisp on the outside and smooth inside. Some say that gar meat gets rubbery when cooked, but that must be due to cooking methods as both times I’ve eaten it the result has been delicious.

Shortnose Gar. Tin snips are necessary for getting through the armor.

Shortnose Gar. Tin snips are necessary for getting through the armor.

Each gar has 2 long fillets down its back. No need to mess with bones or internal organs.

Each gar has 2 long fillets down its back. No need to mess with bones or internal organs.

Gar fillets on bed of spices, before being covered by more spices and further layers of meat.

Gar fillets on bed of spices, before being covered by more spices and further layers of meat.

Improvised gar rub: salt, crushed peppercorns, crushed mustard seed, salt, various red pepper powders, garlic and onion powders, etc.

Improvised gar rub: salt, crushed peppercorns, crushed mustard seed, salt, various red pepper powders, garlic and onion powders, smoked paprika, etc.

Fully spice-covered gar fillets before 36 hours curing in the fridge.

Fully spice-covered gar fillets before 36 hours curing in the fridge.

Spicy smoked Shortnose Gar "jerky"

Spicy smoked Shortnose Gar “jerky”

Shortnose Gar "jerky" after several hours in the smoker. Spice rub and smoke made a great crust.

Shortnose Gar “jerky” after several hours in the smoker. Spice rub and smoke made a great crust.

 

Garz! (In hoc signo…)

Passed this sign the other day on the way to a river with a good population of Shortnose Gar (I still can’t get used to the idea that it’s now the accepted practice to capitalize common names, but I’m trying). The plan was to catch some. The sign seemed to promise me success. (In hoc signo vinces, right?) The obvious promise was broken.

A neon sign that says "GARZ."

In hoc signo vinces? Not this time. (Oglesby, IL)

 

As long as I’m posting signs of the coming of The Gar, here’s another one from a couple years ago.

Neon sign saying GAR.

Brookfield, IL

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

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.

 

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 (328 downloads)

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.

 

Gar and suckers (and me) on the radio (and iTunes) today

As if the newspaper article about my deviant fishing tastes and the alligator gar I caught wasn’t enough, today a radio show is being broadcast on the same subjects. I was actually allowed to sit in a recording studio and talk for half an hour about my thoughts on fish, fishing, and more. After a week of imagining all the stupid things I might have said and strange sounds I might have made, I’m relieved to be able to say that I didn’t curse, belch, forget the names of my children, or otherwise completely screw it up. I’m still waiting for a scientist to correct my pronunciation of moxostoma, since I’ve only heard one or two people say it out loud. So chime in, scientists. There’s still time for me to be embarrassed.

Download:

It’s available through iTunes, or right here: Talking gar, suckers, fishing, family and more on "Outside" radio/podcast (266 downloads)

(Thanks to Dale Bowman and WKCC for permission to host the file on this site.)

iTunes users can find it here: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/olaf-nelson-loves-native-fishes/id424644694?i=168720244&mt=2

While you’re at it:

Previous episodes of “Outside” with a focus on gar and roughfish include:
An interview with Solomon David of the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago (iTunes link)
An interview with Nathan Grider about the reintroducation of alligator gar in Illinois (iTunes link)
An interview with Nick Doumel, the (another) Brookfield Angler (iTunes link)

I’m sure there are more that I’m forgetting. I’m grateful to Dale for hosting a show in which mentions of gar, redhorse and other rough fish are common enough that I can’t remember them all. Anyone interested in fish and nature more generally will probably find episodes of his show worth downloading, particularly those who live in IL, IN, WI and MI.

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.