Alligator Gar (Lepisosteus spatula)

Alligator Gar (Lepisosteus spatula)

The alligator gar is the largest member of the gar family, Lepisosteidae, and one of North America’s largest inland fish. It is a primitive species, dating from the Mesozoic era, 65 to 230 million years ago. Fossil remains of gar are often found in limestone quarries throughout the southern United States. The tough, armorlike scales of this species were once used by Indians as arrowheads, and pioneer farmers covered their wooden plowshares with gar hides.

The gar is a resilient fish with an adaptable specialized air bladder that enables it to take in air at the surface, allowing it to survive in the poorest water conditions. Holding a strong resemblance to its namesake, the alligator gar is strong and voracious, and a tough fighter when hooked. It is capable of jumping spectacularly.

The alligator gar has been under siege for most of the twentieth century, eagerly sought and killed. Efforts to eradicate them existed in many of their natural habitats under the ill-advised notion of ridding the waters of gamefish-killing monsters. Many huge fish, including specimens from 100 pounds to more than 300 pounds, were removed by commercial netters, anglers using big-game tackle, and others using steel-tipped arrows while bowfishing.


Although their numbers are drastically reduced today, alligator gar are not classified as gamefish by most state fisheries agencies and are not regulated as to size or manner of fishing. There is virtually no concerted sportfishing for this species today.

Identification

The alligator gar’s body is long and cylindrical, covered with heavy, ganoid (diamond-shaped) scales. The snout is short and broad like an alligator’s, and there are two rows of teeth on either side of the upper jaw (other gar have only one).

It has a single dorsal fin that is far back on the body above the anal fin and just before the tail. The tail is rounded, and the pectoral, ventral, and anal fins are evenly spaced on the lower half of the body. Its coloring is olive or greenish brown above and lighter below. The sides are mottled with large black spots.

These and other gar are often mistaken for floating logs. The alligator gar can be distinguished from all other gar by the two rows of teeth in the upper jaw, its broader snout, and its large size when fully grown. The alligator gar most closely resembles members of the pike family in body shape and fin placement, although the tail of this fish is forked, not rounded.

Size

The alligator gar is the giant of the gar family. It still attains weights in excess of 100 pounds, although such fish are not common; larger fish are occasionally captured in commercial fishing nets. The maximum size of alligator gar is not certain, although the figure evidently exceeds 300 pounds, and they can reach more than 10 feet in length. The all-tackle rod-and-reel record is a 279-pound fish captured in the Rio Grande River in Texas in 1951. There are reports, however, of larger fish. A 190-pounder caught in a net in Arkansas in 1997 was 7 feet, 11 inches long.

Spawning behavior

Spawning occurs in the spring and the early summer in shallow bays and sloughs. The female lays dark green eggs that stick to vegetation and rocks until they hatch in 6 to 8 days. The female is capable of producing as many as 77,000 eggs at once. The young are solitary and float at the surface like sticks.

Food

Although the alligator gar is infamous for eating almost anything, from dead animals to ducks and popular gamefish, studies have revealed that most of its diet consists of gizzard shad, threadfin shad, golden shiners, and rough or coarse fish species.

Other Names

garpike; French: garpique alligator; Spanish: gaspar baba.

Distribution

The range of the alligator gar extends from the Mississippi River basin of southwestern Ohio and southern Illinois south to the Gulf of Mexico, and from the Enconfina River of the western Florida Panhandle west to Veracruz, Mexico. It has reportedly been taken from Lake Nicaragua, but this catch could have been confused with a large relative, L. tristoechius, taken from Cuban, Central American, and Mexican waters—a fish that rivals the alligator gar in size.

Habitat

Large lakes, bays, backwaters, bayous, and coastal delta waters along large southern rivers are the preferred habitat of the alligator gar, although this fish is seldom found in brackish or marine waters. It favors shallow, weedy environs and the sluggish pools and backwaters of large rivers and can survive in hot and stagnant waters. Alligator gar are often seen floating at the surface. They occasionally come to the surface layer to expel gases and to take air into their swim bladders.
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