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Gearing Up For Alligator Gar
by Craig Springer, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Craig_Springer at fws_gov
Besides reaching 10 feet long and tipping the scale at 300 pounds, little else is known about alligator gar. The mammoth big river fish with a brutish disposition has been the subject of rumor, legend, and unfortunately few facts.
"It's just ironic," says Bob Pitman of the U S Fish and Wildlife Service's Oklahoma Fishery Resources Office.
Here we have the second largest freshwater fish in the US, and yet we know so little about it."
The body of knowledge on alligator gar is indeed very limited. Life history studies are lacking. To date, studies on alligator gar have been confined to diet, with some cursory inquiries on the fish's distribution in a few of the states. Those studies show their distribution is shrinking. Alligator gar once ranged up the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, but now they rarely can be found north of St. Louis. In Oklahoma, the Red and Arkansas rivers hold alligator gar but are hard to come by, except in a few locations known to certain anglers.
Aside from rarity, the fish is difficult to study because of its foreboding size.
"A 100-pound alligator gar tangled in a trammel net won't stay tangled for long," Pitman says. "Live fish are hard to capture, which partly explains the huge gap in our knowledge about this fish."
But teamed with Tishomingo National Fish Hatchery and local anglers, Pitman hopes to close that gap.
The Oklahoma Fishery Resources Office, assisted by the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, searched high and low for alligator gar using a variety of methods. Their search turned up very little. But luck turned when a local angler guided biologists to the fish. In one afternoon, the angler brought five adult alligator gar to the boat, one fish weighing nearly 180 pounds.
Using that source, alligator gar are coming to Tishomingo this spring. Staff from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Pinetop Fish Health Center will do a disease assessment, then biologists will begin learning more about the fish.
Nearly anything we learn will be new information, says Kerry Graves, of Tishomingo NFH. "Some gars are spring spawners, but we're not entirely sure gator gar is too."
Graves plans on trying a variety of hormonal injections at various times of the year to induce spawning, building upon the experience with alligator gar at Private John Allen NFH in Mississippi. Uvalde NFH in Texas conducts experimental culture techniques on spotted gar as a surrogate to alligator gar.
While the fish are held in captivity, the Oklahoma Fishery Resources Office will experiment with radio transmitters. Biologists will carefully attach radio transmitters to alligator gar so the transmitter does not interfere with the fish's normal activities, yet will be worn for long periods of time. Following radio-tagged fish in the wild could yield a wealth of information on habits and habitat -- not to mention seasonal migration patterns.
Current piecemeal data from biologists, commercial fishermen, and recreational anglers suggests alligator gar are on a downward trend.
"We should be concerned about this fish's well-being, Pitman says. "They've survived since the Eocene epoch and I want to ensure it survives the next million years."