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Through the Lens

Alligator gar in Kaskaskia River

Sun, August 09, 2015

It was typical late summer bowfishing outing in the backwater of the lower Kaskaskia.  Big short nose, long nose, and spotted gar were rolling and feasting in the flooded buck brush. Everywhere I looked were schools of baby silvers and bigheads, and the gar were mowing through them. Many of the gar we harvested were full of eggs and scads of tiny little gar in the 6-8 inch range were quite fun to watch as they zoomed around pretending to be big fish.  It was good bowfishing – watch for the boils of juvenile silvers and big heads and around the edges there were plenty of gar.

We keep, clean, and eat the gar we shoot.  It was a shaping up to be a good day for putting fish in the freezer. I spied what appeared to be a nice “eating size” short nose – and let the arrow fly. We love eating gar, and the populations in the lower Kaskaskia are healthy and robust.

As soon as I got the fish to the boat and saw its head I was pretty sure this was no short nose. “Hold the fish for me! “ I told my husband as I pulled it into the boat – “I’ve got to look in it’s mouth!” In those first few frenzied minutes of cautioning him not to drop it, not to let it get back in the water, I was fairly certain I had shot a juvenile alligator gar.

Sure enough – when I pried open its mouth, there were the telltale two rows of teeth in the upper jaw.  I quickly snapped a few quick photos with my phone before taking it off the arrow and then immediately called one of my contacts at IDNR to report the fish.  The fish was placed on ice and transported to the Kaskaskia River State Fish and Wildlife Area site office and placed in the freezer to await confirmation by a fisheries biologist. 

I was concerned about having possibly taken a protected fish, but was assured by several DNR staff that no rules had been broken, there were no regs against it as the alligator gar are still considered extirpated in Illinois.
How exactly did a juvenile alligator gar end up the backwater of the lower Kaskaskia? According to IDNR fisheries biologist Rob Hilsabeck, 37 juvenile alligator gar were stocked in the lower Kaskaskia in 2012, and an additional 242 were stocked in the same area in 2013. Those stocked in 2013 had PIT tags, currently the fish I shot has not yet been scanned to see if it contains a PIT tag, although that is scheduled soon. That will help the biologists determine which stocking it came from.



IDNR biologists Randy Sauer and Rob Hilsabeck with two of 2012 alligator gar immediately before stocking on the Kaskaskia - Photo courtesy of Rob Hilsabeck



Ken Russell and Smitty holding 2013 stocking fish at Logan Hollow before their transport to the Kaskaskia river.  Photo Courtesy of Rob Hilsabeck

Given my love gar and all prehistoric / primitive fish, I have been following the alligator gar reintroduction efforts, and something that did trouble me was the relatively still small size of this particular fish. The 2012 stocked fish were an average of 15 inches long at stocking, and the 2013 fish 19 inches. At not quite 27 inches, this fish was not displaying the rapid growth that has been seen on other stocked alligator gar.

Mr. Hilsabeck and I discussed water conditions, habitat type, and forage food in the area where the fish was taken. All seemed to be just right so the slower growth rate remains a bit of a mystery for now.



shown with a short nose and long nose gar for comparison - the differences between short nose and the young gator gar are subtle, but noticeable if you know what to look for.

I was excited to talk with Mr. Hilsabeck. I knew that alligator gar had been stocked in that area, but also knew that ever seeing or finding was as Mr. Hilsabeck said, akin to “finding a needle in haystack.”  None had been located, found or observed on any of the fisheries surveys in the lower Kaskaskia since they had been stocked.  It was a very exciting to have put that fish in the boat – although I must be honest – I was also a little sad about shooting one of the introduced alligator gar. I am a fan of the reintroduction efforts, and while it’s not likely in my lifetime I will ever see big gator gars rolling in spring flooded timber and fields to spawn – it could be possible for the youngest anglers out there.  I had been watching the gar hoping to see one of the stocked ones – but I thought they would have been bigger at this point, given the good growth rates seen in some of the other areas where they had been stocked. Big enough that I would know it wasn’t just a big short nose, and could pass on taking the shot.

That didn’t turn out to be the case – and likely some gar aficionados will be unhappy that a bowfisher shot the fish. In this case, at least the fish has been provided to DNR to assist them with data collection and research. It could have just as easily been taken by a gar hating pole and line angler that bashes in the heads, and throws them on the rocks. It could have been taken by most any angler who wouldn’t have realized it was an alligator gar.

Our gar species in IL still face a lot of misconceptions and many still relegate them to “trash fish”, and have no idea what great fun they are to catch via pole and line and to target when bowfishing. So many fail to understand they are truly a very delicious fish and can provide quite a bit of meat with very little waste.  Gar simply don’t get the respect they should.

All in all I’m pretty happy that I got to see and hold and photograph this fish in the Kaskaskia backwaters, because I certainly didn’t think that would ever happen in my lifetime. I studied it closely, side by side with a short nose, making note of the various subtle differences. I was thankful to have an opportunity to see a juvenile alligator gar up close and personal – especially in my own back yard. My guess is this might be the first gator gar taken by bow out of the Kaskaskia, maybe even in Illinois, and it’s certainly the first to be seen in the Kaskaskia over 70 years. Yep that little juvie alligator gar is a pretty special fish to me.

Comments

Alligator gar rehab project must be sponsored by the St. Louis Cardinals or all the Illinois DNR fisheries biologist are cardinal fans.

Posted by CyClones on August 09

Cyclones - there is a story to that! Apparently there is a Cards/Cubs rivalry among some of the fisheries staff, and when they were out stocking part of the crew wore Cards shirts and part wore Cubs just for a little fun. Looks like none of the Cubs fans made it into the photos smile But hey I am sure if the Cards wanted to throw some funding towards the gar restocking project it would be welcome!

Posted by G on August 09

For the cubs fans, there is always next year.

Posted by buckbull on August 10

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