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Art Lander’s Outdoors: Kentucky’s Alligator Gar restoration program celebrates 13th year

Alligator Gar (Image from KDFWR)

Now in its 13th year, Kentucky’s Alligator Gar (Atractosteus spathula) restoration program continues with its long-term goal of restoring self-sustaining populations of this ancient fish back into suitable habitat in the state.

In Fishes of Kentucky (1975), author William M. Clay wrote that the Alligator Gar is “rare, but evidently still present in the Ohio River and some of its tributaries.” He cited personal communication with fishery biologists and historical records of naturalists, noting confirmed sightings in the Ohio River basin in Kentucky as far upstream as Bracken County.

But indiscriminate harvest, persecution with firearms and nets, and a loss of wetland habitat brought this native species to the brink of extirpation in Kentucky. The Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR) reported on their website that sightings were sporadic between 1925 and 1977.

Art Lander Jr. is outdoors editor for the Northern Kentucky Tribune. He is a native Kentuckian, a graduate of Western Kentucky University and a life-long hunter, angler, gardener and nature enthusiast. He has worked as a newspaper columnist, magazine journalist and author and is a former staff writer for Kentucky Afield Magazine, editor of the annual Kentucky Hunting & Trapping Guide and Kentucky Spring Hunting Guide, and co-writer of the Kentucky Afield Outdoors newspaper column.

Confirmed sightings during that timeframe included: 1) Cumberland River, three miles below Dycusburg, in Crittenden County (1925); 2) Ohio River at Shawnee Steam Plant, in McCracken County (1975); 3) mouth of the Ohio River, on the Ballard/Carlisle County line (1966); 4) mouth of Bayou de Chien, Fulton County (1974); and 5) Kentucky Lake at Cypress Creek embayment, in Calloway County (1976).

The range of the Alligator Gar once spread across the Florida panhandle west into the Gulf Coastal Plain to Veracruz, Mexico and throughout the Mississippi River basin, as far north as the lower Ohio, Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers in Kentucky. The fish’s preferred habitat includes large, slow moving rivers, reservoirs, oxbow lakes, and bayous.

Recent surveys suggest populations are far below historic levels and may be declining in some states. Because of the drop in the population in Kentucky in the past century and its almost complete absence is recent decades, the Alligator Gar was listed as a “species of greatest conservation need” in the KDFWR’s wildlife action plan.

In 2009 a long-term restoration program was started in partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS).

Adult fish captured in the wild from populations in southern waters are spawned off at the Private John Allen National Fish Hatchery in Tupelo, Mississippi. Then their fry are shipped to the Pfeiffer Fish Hatchery and Minor Clark Fish Hatchery in Kentucky, where they are reared up to stocking size, before being released into waters in western Kentucky where suitable habitat remains. In recent years Alligator Gar have been stocked in McCracken, Ballard, Livingston, Crittenden, Union, Carlisle, Fulton and Hickman counties.

Additionally, the Alligator Gar stocked are tagged so it can be determined in the future if captured fish were stocked or were the result of natural reproduction.

Since Alligator Gar are a long-lived and slow to mature species, restoration and research is likely to continue for decades. It takes a female Alligator Gar 11 years to reach sexual maturity, six years for a male.

View a video of radio tagging Alligator Gar that are going to be released in Kentucky waters at fw.ky.gov.

Living fossil

The gar is a “living fossil,” one of Kentucky’s remarkable ancient fish. Scientists can trace the Alligator Gar back 100 million years in fossil records.

The gar family, Lepisostidae, dates back to the Cretaceous geologic period, which began about 145 million years ago.

Alligator Gar (Photo from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

It was a time when the Earth had a relatively warm climate, and high sea levels resulted in numerous, shallow inland seas that were populated by now-extinct marine reptiles.
This family of ancient fish includes seven living species found in fresh, brackish, and occasionally marine environments.

Gars are elongated and their slender bodies are armored with diamond-shaped (ganoid) scales. Their beak-like jaws are filled with long, sharp teeth.

They are ambush predators and their long body shape allows for quick movements to catch prey. While gars are generally avoided by both commercial and sport fishermen, they play an important role as a predator of rough fish species — carp, buffalo fish and suckers. Gar has a mild flavor and its flesh is firm and white, but gar eggs are toxic to humans.

In Kentucky, gar are considered rough fish so there are no creel limits or minimum size limits.

The exception is the Alligator Gar, which may not be harvested by any means, either by bow fishermen or by hook and line.

If caught on hook and line, they must be released immediately. If you see an Alligator Gar or catch one, report the catch or sighting to KDFWR ichthyologist Matt Thomas at 502-892-4463.

The gar is a bimodal breather, which means it has the capacity to breathe both dissolved oxygen in the water and atmospheric oxygen. This survival mechanism enables the gar to thrive in adverse conditions, waters with low levels of dissolved oxygen that would be lethal to other fish species. The gar’s swim bladder functions as lungs as it rises to the surface to gulp air.

Gar were important in Native American religion and culture throughout the southeast. The Creek and Chickasaw people had ritual “garfish dances.”

Alligator Gar one of four species in Kentucky

An Alligator Gar caught at the St. Catherine Creek Refuge in Mississippi (Photo form U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

There are four species of gar in Kentucky.

The Alligator Gar is the largest of the living gar species and one of the largest freshwater fishes in North America.

In 1975 Clay wrote that “the largest one on record, a female taken from Belle Island Lake, Vermilion Parish, Louisiana, was nine feet, 8 1/2 inches long, and weighed 302 pounds.”

The Alligator Gar is distinguished from other gars by its short, broad snout, and heavy body. Coloration is olive above, becoming paler below, with dark spots on its fins.

The other three species of gar in Kentucky are:

• The Longnose Gar (Lepisosteus osseus) is easily distinguished from other gars by having an extremely long and narrow snout.

Coloration is brown to olive green, becoming paler on the sides and whitish to pale yellowish below.

The Longnose Gar is the most abundant of the four species in Kentucky, common statewide in streams, rivers, and reservoirs, capable of growing to six feet in length and weighing up to 50 pounds.

• The Spotted Gar (Lepisosteus oculatus) has a unique pattern of large spots on the top of the head and body.

Coloration is brown to olive green, becoming paler on the sides and whitish to pale yellowish below.

• The Shortnose Gar (Lepisosteus platostomus) is similar to spotted gar but lacks spots on the head and body.

Coloration is olive-green above, becoming yellowish to whitish on sides and below, with spots on the caudal and dorsal fins. Both species are on the small side, usually less than three feet in length and weighing five to 10 pounds.

The loss of a single native fish species, especially a predator, can have a profound impact on the ecology of fish populations.

It may take decades to determine if this ancient fish whose ancestors lived in inland seas millions of years ago when dinosaurs ruled the Earth, will once again swim, hunt and reproduce in Kentucky rivers, sloughs and cypress swamps.

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