TYLER, Texas (KETK) - Most people remember their first encounter with an alligator gar. In the world of fishes, their appearance is striking.
Alligator gar get big — really big — and they look like something that should be swimming around with dinosaurs, not bass and crappie. But it is not just their looks that are unique. Alligator gar are like few other fishes that swim in our rivers, reservoirs and estuaries. Even among the four species of gar that occur in Texas — longnose, spotted, shortnose and alligator gar — this species is unique.
Alligator gar are often misunderstood and in the past they have gotten an unfounded bad rap.
Here are the facts, according to Texas Parks and Wildlife:
1) They are native to Texas.
It’s often thought that alligator gar can be found in lakes and rivers throughout Texas, and that every gar you see is an alligator gar. In fact, there are four different species of gar in the state and many of the gar people observe in nature aren’t alligator gar at all, but one of the other, more common and widely distributed species like the longnose or spotted gar.
So where can you find alligator gar in Texas? In the north, they can be found in the Red River (including Lake Texoma), the upper Trinity, and the Sulfur River. In southwest Texas, they can be found in the middle and lower Rio Grande, including lakes Falcon and Amistad. In East Texas, they’re found in Cypress Creek, the Sabine, Neches, Angelina and Trinity Rivers, and in mainstem reservoirs including Caddo, Sam Rayburn, Toledo Bend and Livingston. Some remnant populations exist in off-channel reservoirs such as Richland Chambers where they were present prior to impoundment.
Along the Texas coast, alligator gar can be found in nearly every river system draining into the Gulf of Mexico, including the middle and lower Brazos, Nueces (including Lake Corpus Christi), Frio (including Choke Canyon Reservoir), San Antonio, and Guadalupe rivers. Alligator gar, like other gar species, are tolerant of salt water, and can be found in every coastal bay system in Texas, including Galveston, Corpus Christi, Matagorda, San Antonio and Laguna Madre — and within the intercoastal canal system.
There are many anecdotal reports of alligator gar in central Texas reservoirs, from San Angelo and Abilene to Waco and Austin, but Texas Parks and Wildlife Department fisheries biologists have never confirmed one from any of these reservoirs. Most likely, gar observed in these systems are longnose or spotted gar.
2) They are no threat to humans.
The size and toothy appearance of alligator gar both excites anglers and frightens those that play in the waters they inhabit. Unfortunately, stories of alligator gar attacking people and dramatizations in popular television shows have given these gentle giants a bad rap. While there are no confirmed attacks on people, alligator gar continue to be feared by many.
The fact is these large predatory fish can be quite sluggish and docile. For example, the feeding behavior of large adults is well known by avid anglers and makes them a challenge to catch. Alligator gar can be slow or hesitant to swallow a bait. If something is amiss or they feel resistance, the bait is often dropped. The teeth of the alligator gar are designed for holding and subduing prey, not tearing it into bite-sized chunks like sharks. Therefore, alligator gar don’t eat things they can’t swallow.
The only time alligator gar pose danger to people is when anglers try to land and handle these large, powerful fish. In addition to hosting a mouthful of sharp teeth, alligator gar are also covered with sharp, bony scales. If anglers are not careful, they can easily get cut or bruised. While landing, unhooking, and releasing a bass or crappie requires relatively little preparation, doing the same for an alligator gar takes a plan. Fish should be landed using a rope lasso, large net, or cradle. They should be kept on their stomach on the ground or boat deck in an area free and clear of debris or equipment. Anglers should use tools and wear cut-resistant gloves when removing hooks. Never stick your hands in the fish’s mouth and stay clear of the powerful tail. If released, the fish should be sent back head first. Finally, be careful! These fish leave behind a very slippery coating of slime that can cause slips and falls. Be prepared to clean your boat deck after landings, or land fish on the river bank.
3) They do not harm native game fish populations.
Alligator gar are an important part of Texas fisheries. Their ancestors have been found in Permian deposits as fossils from 215 million years ago, making them not only one of the most ancient fishes, but also truly native Texans. They are the largest and longest-lived freshwater species in our state, with recent catches of fish more than 8 feet long and 60 years old. Their size and long life span, coupled with their primitive characteristics and ancient history, make the alligator gar not only a cornerstone of Texas’ natural biodiversity, but also a prized catch among recreational anglers.
Many populations support popular fisheries, drawing anglers from all over the world to fish in Texas. The Trinity River, arguably the world’s best fishing destination for the largest alligator gar, supports guide services that specialize in the species, with clientele from the United States, Canada, Europe, and Asia.
The alligator gar also plays an important role in keeping Texas’ aquatic ecosystems healthy. Like sharks in marine systems, this fish helps maintain healthy numbers of many other species. Alligator gar primarily feed on fishes such as buffao, carp, and shad. Although they will eat game fishes such as bass and crappie, consumption of these species is relatively uncommon. Just think: some of the most well-known bass fisheries in Texas, including Sam Rayburn, Toledo Bend, Falcon, Amistad, Choke Canyon, and Livingston reservoirs, also contain healthy populations of alligator gar.
4) They reproduce infrequently - only a few times each decade in most Texas rivers.
Most freshwater fish live less than 10 years, start reproducing at one or two years old, and produce offspring almost every year. Alligator gar are different. Female alligator gar can live more than 50 years, are capable of reproducing at five to 10 years, and reproduce only a few times each decade in most Texas rivers. To successfully reproduce, alligator gar require large, overbank floods during the spring and early summer. Near the peak of these floods, congregations of five to 20 adults leave the river and seek shallow, grassy areas on the floodplain to spawn. Eggs are deposited over the vegetation, and after about 48 hours they hatch. The newly hatched young remain attached to flooded vegetation for another two to four days, after which they drift with receding flood waters. If flood waters recede too quickly, the eggs and larvae may die.
Young alligator gar grow very quickly. They can exceed 5 inches in length after just one month, and up to 30 inches by their first winter. However, this rapid growth only lasts the first few years. It can take many, many years for fish to reach larger sizes. A six-foot alligator gar is usually between 10 and 30 years old and can weigh about 100 pounds. To become a seven-footer can take 20 to 50 years. Most individuals over 6' in length are females, as males rarely reach this length. The current world record alligator gar, captured in Mississippi in 2011, was 8'5" long and weighed 327 pounds! Its age was estimated at 95 years. Although most fish won't reach that age, several large specimens recently collected in Texas have been estimated to exceed 60-years-old.
Compared with other sportfish, alligator gar are few in number because they are near the top of the food chain. Recent research indicates that populations of alligator gar contain between 5,000 and 10,000 adults. In contrast, there can be 100,000 to 500,000 bass and crappie in the same waters. Because they are long-lived and reproduce infrequently, alligator gar can only sustain harvest rates of about 5 percent each year. That means anglers can only harvest 250 to 500 each year from most populations. If too many fish are taken, populations can quickly decline and only young, small fish will remain. Once an alligator gar population declines, it can take decades to restore. In contrast, sustainable harvest for bass or crappie can be 25 percent or more per year, which means anglers can harvest 25,000 to 125,000 fish from most populations. Bass and crappie populations can rebound much more quickly than alligator gar because they reach adulthood in one to two years and successfully reproduce nearly every year.
Texans are fortunate to have many healthy populations of alligator gar where fish in excess of 200 pounds can be found. Unfortunately, in much of the rest of their native range, alligator gar populations have suffered significant declines due to overharvest and because dams and levees have limited access to floodplain spawning habitats. To maintain this unique resource for future generations of Texans, effective management and habitat conservation are needed. Current management aims to limit harvest so that enough mature females remain to reproduce and so there are plenty of large, recreationally valuable fish for anglers to catch. Maintaining current populations also requires working with landowners and with agencies that control water levels in rivers and reservoirs to ensure that fish have access to floodplain spawning habitats.