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.