The alligator gar, Texas’ largest freshwater fish, may not be as tough as it looks.
By Chester Moore Jr.
It rose out of the tea-colored bayou water like something from a 1950s science-fiction movie.
A bright yellow, spotted tail gave way to a drab green, cylindrical body longer than a man and built like some sort of alligator/dinosaur hybrid. Its head was particularly sinister, with rows of sharp teeth and reptilian looking eyes the size of 50-cent pieces.
This “it” was a monstrous alligator garfish my father, Chester Moore Sr., battled in Orange County’s Cow Bayou back in 1978. For 30 minutes, I watched in fascination as he fought this huge fish, but when it came time for him to land it, I climbed onto the truck for safety and began to pray the gar would not hurt Dad. I had just seen the movie Moby Dick on television and fittingly named the gar after the iconic white whale.
“Moby” weighed 196 pounds and measured 7 feet, 2 inches in length. Getting an up-close and personal look at this huge fish at such a young age spawned a fascination with garfish that I still carry. For a kid whose favorite movies were Star Wars, The Creature from the Black Lagoon and anything involving Godzilla, gar were a natural for me.
Life history and biology
Garfish are truly ancient fish that existed alongside the dinosaurs when Earth’s environment was very different. Scientists believe they have changed very little since then. The reason for their survival is largely due to their rugged nature and some interesting adaptations.
Take breathing, for example. Gar breathe through both a set of gills and surface air. In fact, when water temperatures are above 70 degrees, gars get most of their oxygen by “rolling” toward the surface and taking a gulp of air. This allows them to be able to survive in pollution-laden waters with very little or no dissolved oxygen.
Back when Hurricane Rita spawned major fish kills, there were lots of bass, catfish, carp and gaspergou floating around the waters of Southeast Texas but very few gar. Their unique breathing apparatus was likely their saving grace.
This rolling action also creates an impressive sight.
“Watching a big gar roll is a neat thing to see. We see some pretty big ones down the Sabine River. The first time someone sees one, it always seems to shock them that something that big is out there in the water,” says Kenny Pigg, who owns land along Adams Bayou, a well-known gar haunt.
Another gar trait contributing to its long-term survival is the toxicity of its roe. Their eggs are poisonous; some scientists believe this is an adaptation to fight against small fish devouring the eggs.
A study conducted by Kenneth Ostrand of Sam Houston State University in 1995 shows a different take on this issue. The study involved feeding gar roe to green sunfish and channel catfish at a rate of two eggs per gram of body weight for 14 days, which is a rate shown to kill crawfish and small mammals. The result was that no fish died.
“Consumption of gar roe by potential natural predators establishes the basis for the argument that gar roe toxicity has not been evolutionarily selected as a protective mechanism. Gar roe may simply be toxic to small mammals and crayfish by chance,” Ostrand concluded.
The alligator gar is the largest of four subspecies of gar found in Texas. Besides size, the chief factor distinguishing alligator gar from their cousins is that they possess a double row of large teeth in the upper jaw, which gives them a very alligator-like profile. Their scales are as hard as bone, and Native American tribes such as the Chitimacha and Coushatta used them as both arrowheads and armor.
Alligator gar prefer slow-moving waters like the bayous that run through the eastern southern parts of the state but are present statewide. Alligator gar dwell in places like the Sabinal River near Hondo as well as under the shadow of skyscrapers in Houston’s Buffalo Bayou. The species also does well in brackish and saltwater and is occasionally caught on beaches on the Upper Coast.
These fish are the second-largest freshwater fish in North America, next to the white sturgeon. And, as if there were any doubt, the largest ones live right here in Texas. The world record for rod and reel was caught by angler Bill Valverde in the Rio Grande in 1951. It weighed a whopping 279 pounds. The all-tackle record came from the Nueces River in 1953 and was taken by angler T.C. Pierce, Jr. This leviathan weighed 302 pounds and was seven and a half feet long.
More recently, a state bowfishing record came from the Trinity River when archer Marty McLellan arrowed a 290-pounder that measured a full eight feet in length.
It takes many years for gar to reach those impressive sizes, as proven in a study conducted by the Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries. During a four-year catching survey, they found that the oldest fish caught was 50 years old; overall, the fish mature at around 14 years of age. In comparison, largemouth bass mature within a couple of years. Additionally, the fish grow slowly, with an average growth rate of 4.1 inches and 3.2 pounds per year. For a fish to reach the weight of McClellan’s, it could be more than 90 years of age.
Alligator gar are not popular among rod-and-reel anglers in most of the state, although they do have a strong cult following in the Beaumont/Port Arthur/Orange area, where they are a well-liked food fish. They are, however, popular among bow fishermen because of their tendency to move on the surface and spawn in shallow water in the spring. In parts of Texas, there is a thriving commercial fishery for gar, which is sold to the public in some specialty markets but is more frequently used for fish sticks and other frozen fish dinners.
For many years, the alligator garfish has been considered a possibly dangerous fish that occasionally would take a bite out of humans and that ate its weight in game fish every day, particularly largemouth bass. The reputation of gar as a game-fish population destroyer is almost as unfounded as rumors of human attacks. In 1987, TPWD biologist Paul Seidensticker conducted a study called “Food Selection of Alligator Gar and Longnose Gar in a Texas Reservoir” on Lake Sam Rayburn. By using juglines and gillnets, from September through October he and his team captured 209 alligator gar weighing from 18 to 156 pounds. Most of their stomachs were empty.
Of those that did have food in their bellies, gizzard shad made up 26.4 percent of their diet; channel catfish, 14.9; freshwater drum, 12.6; bluegill, 7.9; spotted sucker, 6.8; white bass, 4.5; largemouth bass, 3.4; spotted gar, 3.4; crappie, 2.2; lake chubsucker, 2.2; and carp, 1.1. Other items included two coots, 11 fish hooks, an artificial lure and a plastic bag.
“Gar really are outcasts that are misunderstood. They have unlimited potential as sport fish but have unfortunately suffered in the court of public opinion,” says Craig Springer with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Gar tournaments were once common as a means of ridding waterways of them, to “save” game-fish populations from their predatory wrath. Author Smokey Crabtree used to win many of these tournaments by fishing in the Sulphur River bottoms in Arkansas.
“We would catch them six and seven feet long and have them all stacked like cordwood. It was a sight to behold,” he says.
Crabtree utilized juglines baited with live carp in the 2- to 5-pound range to catch gar sometimes in excess of 200 pounds.
While the official status of alligator gar in Texas is unknown, those of us who grew up fishing for them have seen tremendous declines in catches in some areas and found some waters that were formerly loaded with gar to be almost barren. My father, who is still a dedicated rod-and-reel gar fisherman, believes there may be trouble in what used to be gar paradise. Perhaps more troubling is that little is known about the habitat needs for gar. The effects of increased channelization and reservoir construction remain unclear.
Hope for the future
A few hatcheries are raising alligator gar in captivity to begin stocking programs. In Texas, the Uvalde National Fish Hatchery has been involved in the effort, but the Tishoming Hatchery in Oklahoma and the Private John Allen Hatchery in Mississippi are leading the way. They have successfully spawned gar several times and released the offspring in the Obion River in Tennessee.
In preparation for this article, I took a drive down to the spot on Cow Bayou where Dad caught “Moby.” It is now home to a thriving bait camp and boat ramp. Concrete covers the marsh grass and reeds we used to cut to fish there. I sat for a good hour watching for garfish, looking for the telltale “roll.” Though I had hoped to spot one of Moby’s super-sized offspring, I finally left disappointed, without seeing a single alligator gar of any size.