It was like watching kids turned loose on the last day of the school year. As soon as the juvenile alligator gar being released by Fisheries Biologist Randy Sauer hit the muddy backwaters of the lower Kaskaskia yesterday afternoon they were off like a shot. They popped and rolled in typical gar fashion, the little fish raced around darting in and out of the shadows of the buck brush and downed tree limbs and stumps, already displaying typical gar behavior.
It was a beautiful sight to see and I was filled with hope thinking that while maybe not in my lifetime, but certainly in that of our youngsters; full grown alligator gar might one day again be seen during spawn rolling through the shallows of the lower Kaskaskia sloughs and backwaters.
The juvenile alligator gar, still sporting their juvenile spots looked much like small spotted gar as they explored their new home. After having spent their entire life up to this point confined to fish hatchery rearing ponds and raceways it almost seemed the little fish were happy as they explored what once was home water and habitat for these ancient fishes.
IDNR Site Superintendent Mic Middleton and Fisheries Biologist Randy Sauer prepare the transport tank in the boat before adding the fish
The first step during the sticking process was to prepare the holding tank in the IDNR boat. THere wasn’t a lot of high tech science geek type stuff to this - a large rubber tank like those used for stock water tanks was filled with water from the river old fashion bucket brigade style. The water temperature was checked to prevent any temperature shock when transferring the fish from the large transport truck. A little salt was added to aid in osmosis, and oxygen from a large tank was provided via a length of plastic hose.
Sauer checks water temps in the holding tank
Transferring the fish one net full at a time from the transport vehicle to the boat tank
In they Go!
After all fish were transferred the boat, aerial maps of the area were reviewed and two potential stocking locations were determined. Sauer was looking for just the right areas to release his cargo. He explained that the type of habitat that would be best for the juveniles survival was shallow, somewhat brackish backwater and sloughs with lots of cover and anticipated accompanying populations of forage fish for the little alligator to feed on and seek cover in. While the alligator gar do indeed eat invasive carp - that’s not the primary reason for the stocking efforts.
We discussed river levels, silt conditions, and headed off to the first stocking site. Once we arrived at the slough determined to be a “good looking spot” for the youngsters, Sauer and Middleton worked as team - again one net at time. One net would be taken form the holding tank, and the fish were released by hand by Sauer as Middleton counted each fish.
Sauer and Middleton examine the first batch to be released
Removing the first few for release
Great care is taken during the process to not stress the fish in anyway. When handling the fish during the release, gloves are worn to prevent disturbance of the slime coat, and everyone moves quickly to limit the amount of handling and time out of the water. The fish had been tagged, weighed, measured, and had data collected prior to arrival.
The key to identifying an alligator gar - the second row of teeth in the upper jaw. Other IL gar species (long nose, short nose, and spotted do not have the second row of teeth)
After releasing 175 in the first spot we headed off to the second location to release the remaining fish. A total of 351 were released on the lower Kaskaskia. An additional approximately 350 were released earlier in the day at Horseshoe Lake in Madison County.
In 2010, the IDNR’s Division of Fisheries began an alligator gar reintroduction program. During that time, alligator gar were stocked in a few waterways, including the lower Kaskaskia River.
“We only stocked a few thousand in total at those sites and many of those were small, so survivability was questionable,” said Dan Stephenson, the IDNR’s Chief of Fisheries.
The program had a brief hiatus in 2014 – 2015, but times are changing, and this program is once again becoming active with more research backing up this stocking initiative to help ensure success of survivability.
Many Heartland readers will recall my initial encounter with a Kaskaskia River alligator gar from this post Alligator Gar in the Kaskaskia
Earlier this year a local boating group hosted a a public meeting with IDNR to address their concerns that reintroduction of the native fish could have a negative impact on recreational use of the lower Kaskaskia. IDNR officials and biologists quickly dispelled many rumors and myths that so often surround these toothy fish. There are no documented cases of an alligator gar ever attacking a swimmer, or a person period. People simply don’t look like a prey fish to an alligator gar. They are mostly secretive and docile fish who spend their days hiding in the brackish shallow backwaters.
Instead it is hoped that a breeding population will result from this reintroduction effort that will actually benefit local economies as anglers both pole and line and bowfishers visit the area specifically for an opportunity to harvest an alligator gar.
It’s important to understand that fish stocked were mostly in the 12-14 inch range and while they do grow somewhat quickly in the early years, it takes at least 11 years for a female to reach maturity and start reproducing. For the alligator gar to truly reach trophy fish size it’s long term process - there aren’t going to be trophy gator gar in the Kaskaskia for many years to come.
According Fisheries Chief Dan Stephenson, ” According to Stephenson:
“We now raise the fish to at least 12 inches before stocking so that their survival is vastly improved.” However, he cautions, more research still needs to be done to evaluate the survivability of this species and what needs to be done for successful reestablishment, which he predicts will be a challenge and take some time to net results. For instance, we know that female gar do not become sexually mature until the age of 11, and even then they may not necessarily spawn every year.
The reasons for reintroducing the alligator gar are twofold: Bringing back an extirpated species to Illinois waters is one of the goals. In addition, the alligator gar is becoming a popular trophy quarry for sportsmen in the southern part of their range, Louisiana and Texas. Bowfishing enthusiasts in particular enjoy pursuing the huge fish.
For those of you worried that alligator gar would be detrimental to popular sportfish species, biologists say the alligator gar is an opportunistic predator that mostly targets shad and rough fish, such as carp. However, IDNR biologists warn that controlling Asian carp is not the reason for this reintroduction. Though alligator gar are an apex predator that will take Asian carp, nothing can control the their population right now. In the long-term, creating commercial markets for Asian carp will be the best hope of reducing their numbers.
To answer another note of concern to some, there is no documented evidence suggesting that Alligator Gar will bite a swimmer. That has been a concern posed to the Department. Swimmers simply don’t look like a prey species to an Alligator Gar.”
Currently there are four types of Gar found in Illinois: Spotted, Shortnose, Longnose and now the alligator gar. Alligator gar were not traditionally found in large numbers in Illinois, and though they do grow quickly, it remains to be seen how successful the program will ultimately be as females mature and reproduce in 11+ years. IDNR in cooperaton with USFWS and INHS will monitor this program closely and will implement creel and size limits if necessary as this population becomes established.
Until then we can read old accounts of huge gator gar rolling through the flooded trees and fields near the confluence of the Kaskaskia and Mississippi, and hope that this program is successful and one day the giant toothy primitive fish will once roam the lower Kaskaskia.
To effectively manage these prehistoric fish, the IDNR is working closely with University of Illinois researchers to study how Alligator Gar, in addition to the three other Gar species, grow, mature, reproduce and migrate to make certain these species continue to troll Illinois’ waterways.
It’s that time of year – not only are my eyes watching the sky for the early migrating waterfowl, but most recently I have been fully entranced by the large number of dragonflies that are buzzing around every little piece of wetland, every little moist pothole on the prairie, and all the ponds, streams, and bodies of water I have visited lately.
Indiana Public Media gives us this great tidbit about dragonfly migration -
“Did you that some species of dragon flies migrate?
Of the 400 or so species in North America, scientists believe only about a dozen migrate from the northern United States and southern Canada to the southern United States and Mexico. In fact, even in species that have been shown to migrate, like the green darner, not all populations make the journey.
Dragonfly migration remains quite a mystery altogether. Scientists have wondered why they migrate, how they know where to go, and where precisely they go when they fly south. That could be changing though. In the last year and a half, scientists have begun fitting dragonflies with tiny radio transmitters in order to track their migration. They actually glue the transmitters, along with tiny batteries, onto the undersides of the dragonflies’ abdomens. Scientists can then track the insects by plane since it is almost impossible to follow them on the ground.
So far, their research has revealed that dragonfly migration seems to be remarkably similar to bird migration. Like birds, the southbound dragonflies seem to use the tailwinds generated by northerly cold fronts to aid in their southbound flights. Other similarities to birds were that they refrained from migrating on windy days, and they followed visual landmarks such as coastlines and lake shores. Still, there are plenty of unanswered questions, like why some species are on the move, while others stay put.”
Generally speaking dragonfly migration takes place through Illinois in August. There’s a wealth of great information, as well as an opportunity to be a citizen scientist and help track and record dragonflies at the Migratory Dragonfly Partnership web site. Check it out! Consider too, becoming a citizen scientist and sign up to participate in the Pond Watch program. Be forewarned, these flying jewels will steal your attention, and like me you may find yourself spending a great deal of time just watching and wondering about these flying jewels.
I spent almost the whole morning yesterday neck deep in reeds, grass, and that devil of all devils phragmites, watching the busy as could be hordes of dragonflies that are currently inhabiting Pyramid State Park. It was nearly at swarm level in several spots. The multitude of dragon flies were constantly whizzing around my head, landing on my camera, on me, on most any stationary object. Each year I am reminded of how fantastic these prehistoric creatures, these flying jewels truly are.
How can YOU not be fascinated by these unique looking creatures too? Get outside this weekend Heartland friends – go find some dragonflies! Let us know what the dragonfly numbers and species are like in your neck of the woods right now!
I’ve spent the last week like many in southern Illinois, out roaming chasing the brushy tailed tree rats. My success rate has been exactly - well NONE. I had one of those AHA Moments yesterday and figured out why I have such poor success with the very early season squirrels. I don’t look up enough -
The first weeks of squirrel season is usually a really bang up time for late summer mushrooms, and I seem to find myself trudging through the woods, waving my spider web stick like some half crazed shaman trying to clear away the spirits, while being distracted by the bright orange and yellow of summer’s tasty treats chanterelles and chicken of the woods. I also realized yesterday that my eyes are most often on the ground; not gazing around the tree tops and branches for our fuzzy tailed friends. Dare I admit that on more than one occasion I’ve leaned the gun against the tree to look at or photograph some mushrooms only to remember it after a short walk following the mushroom flush trail?
Enough about my disastrous luck with squirrels thus far and on to the shrooms!
This is rapidly developing into a banner year for late summer mushrooms, especially here in southern Illinois. I am also getting good reports further north as well, including a report from Pike county that told me they found “hordes” of yellow chanterelles over the weekend. For once Mother Nature is on the shroomers’ side this year!
The yellow chanterelles – mostly smooth chanterelles in my neighborhood are flushing like crazy – it’s been several years since I have seen this big of flush, the smaller orange cinnabar chanterelles are also going like gangbusters, and best of all – so are the highly sought after black trumpets.
Looking at a black trumpet, one is likely to be put off a bit by their rather bland and somewhat ugly appearance. They honestly don’t look like something that would be very tasty!
The black trumpet (Craterellus cornucopioides) is an often overlooked or ignored treat in the forest. Conversely, they are highly sought after culinary mushroom, given their smoky, delicious flavor and because they are very difficult to cultivate and grow commercially.
It’s easy to see in this photo, why it’s sometimes a little tough to readily see them on the forest floor.
Black trumpets are notoriously hard to spot on a casual walk through the woods, they are smallish and blend in extremely well with the leaf litter. They also prefer deep shade, adding low light to the mix. Traditionally look for black trumpets in hardwood forests especially in areas with lots of oak and beech, along hillsides, in large mossy areas and along washes or areas where water runs or washes down the hillside and along creek edges. If you start finding them in wash or water runoff area, it’s not unusual to find them all the way along the wash from top down.
Black trumpets generally start in mid-July and run through the end of September depending on weather conditions. Lots of rain, warm days and nights will really bring them out. This year, I am seeing bigger flushes than usual, but we’ve also had more rain events than usual in my neighborhood.
Black trumpets are funnel shaped and gray, brown, or black often growing in small bunches or singly and range in height from 1-6 inches. The stem is hollow the entire length of the mushroom. The flesh is very thin and delicate.
The cap (pileus) is 3/4 - 3 inches across with very thin flesh with a gray, brown or black flower-like appearance. They often have very strong perfume-like aroma.
Gills are not present in black trumpets. The surface will be smooth or have just the slightest hint of ridges and be black, brown, or rust color. Spores range from white to rust color.
One of the most common questions about black trumpets is how to cook them – please, please, I implore you – do not bread, batter and deep fry these mushrooms! Just don’t! Simple preparation is best for these delicately flavored mushrooms. It’s also good when pairing them with other mushrooms to be a bit cautious as some of the stronger flavored mushrooms will quickly overpower their more delicate flavors. They do work well with chicken of the woods and other varieties of chanterelles, which you are likely to find during the same time period.
Preserving black trumpets is best done by drying. Additionally, the dried mushrooms can be ground into a powder that will make for excellent flavoring to this coming autumn’s sauces, soups, stews, and butters.
Here two of my favorite black trumpet recipes, although I have to say just simply sautéing in a bit of olive oil and butter with a few herbs remains a standout favorite.
This recipe came from Health Starts in the Kitchen blog.
Wild Foraged Black Trumpet Mushroom Spread
1 tablespoon ghee or butter
2 tablespoons finely chopped garlic scapes or shallots
1/2cup coarsely chopped Black Trumpet Mushrooms(cleaned)
8 ounce cultured cream-cheese
1 pinch sea salt (real salt) to taste
1 pinch white pepper to taste
In a skillet over medium/low heat, sauté garlic scapes in ghee until soft.
Add in black trumpet mushrooms continue sautéing until mushrooms are cooked through and any liquid is evaporated.
Reduce heat to low, add cream cheese (cut or scooped into roughly 1 tablespoon sized chunks). Stirring constantly until the cream cheese is melted and mixed thoroughly.
Transfer to an air tight jar or container and chill in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours prior to allow the flavors to come together.
Remove dip from at the refrigerator roughly 30 minutes prior to serving to allow it to warm to room temperature. Serve with crackers, toasted bread or raw vegetables.
Use 1 ounce dried black trumpets that have been reconstituted in warm water in place of the fresh.
Another favorite at our house is this delicious wild mushroom tart recipe from our friends at Whole Foods
Olive oil cooking spray
1 (9-inch) frozen piecrust, thawed for about 10 to 15 minutes
1 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese, divided
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup thinly sliced shallots
3/4 pound mixed wild mushrooms (such as chanterelles, hedgehogs and creminis), roughly chopped
Salt and pepper to taste
1/4 cup dry sherry or white wine
1/2 cup vegetable or low-sodium chicken broth
1/2 cup crème fraîche
Preheat oven to 450°F. Spray a 9-inch tart pan with cooking spray. Remove pie crust from aluminum tin and press into bottom and sides of tart pan. Prick the bottom of the crust all over with a fork then line crust with parchment paper and fill with pie weights or dried beans. Transfer pan to a rimmed baking sheet and bake for 10 minutes. Gently remove paper and beans, then sprinkle 1/2 cup of the cheese evenly over the bottom of the crust and set aside. Reduce oven temperature to 350°F.
Heat butter and oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add shallots and cook until golden, about 5 minutes. Stir in mushrooms, salt and pepper and cook until soft, 6 to 8 minutes. Add sherry and broth and simmer, stirring often, until liquid has almost evaporated, 6 to 8 minutes more. Stir in crème fraîche and simmer again until liquid has almost evaporated, about 10 minutes.
Transfer contents of skillet to tart pan and spread out evenly. Sprinkle remaining 1 cup cheese over mushroom mixture, arrange pan on a baking sheet and bake until crust is golden and tart is bubbly, 35 to 45 minutes. Set aside to let rest for 10 minutes then cut into slices and serve.
Per Serving: 290 calories (190 from fat), 22g total fat, 10g saturated fat, 35mg cholesterol, 570mg sodium, 15g carbohydrates, (1 g dietary fiber, 2g sugar), 9g protein.
Head outside Heartland friends, it’s a mushroom hunters paradise out there right now!