For many years, the alligator garfish has had a reputation as a possibly dangerous fish that occasionally would take a bite out of humans. It supposedly ate its weight in game fish every day, particularly largemouth bass.
An article written by garfish expert Keith Sutton notes that the May 7, 1884 edition of the Arkansas Gazette, states, “While a boy named Perry was fishing in Shoal Creek, Logan County, a gar fish caught his right leg, which was hanging over the side of the boat in the water, and pulled him overboard. His companions rescued him, but not before the leg was terribly lacerated.”
A few years ago, I found a reference to a 1922 article in the New Orleans Times Picayune that said garfish are, “more dangerous to humans than sharks.”
During that period, it was common to throw table scraps out around boat docks, and gars became conditioned to this. Any so-called “attacks” were probably related to someone soaking their feet among the food and not the result of human bloodlust on the gar’s part. In fact, there are no verified human attacks by garfish in recent times.
The reputation of the gar as a game fish population destroyer is almost as unfounded rumors of human attacks. In 1987, Texas Parks & Wildlife Department (TPWD) TPWD biologist Paul Seidensticker conducted a study called Food Selection of Alligator Gar and Longnose Gar in a Texas Reservoir on Sam Rayburn. From September through October, using jug lines and gillnets, he and his team captured 209 alligator gars 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 fishhooks, an artificial lure and a plastic bag.
“Gars really are outcasts that are misunderstood. They have unlimited potential as sportfish, but have unfortunately suffered in the court of public opinion,” said Craig Springer with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
In the past gar tournaments were held to help rid the 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 said. Crabtree would utilize jug lines baited with live carp in the two to five pound range to catch gars sometimes in excess of 200 pounds.
Today the most pressure on garfish comes from commercial fishing and bowfishing. Choke Canyon Reservoir near George West used to be widely known for its tremendous alligator gar population, but when the lake was impounded, the harvest of gars was promoted and the result has been a major decline in gar numbers there.
TPWD’s own profile of the lake said, “The number of large alligator gars in the reservoir is presently low due to commercial harvest.”
While the official status of alligator gars 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 in decline.
With increased channelization and reservoir construction has come an overall decline of alligator gar numbers recognized at even the federal level.
The garfish regulations put in place have gone a long way in helping conserve this amazing fishing resource. Texas is the last state in the nation with a viable trophy alligator gar fishery. By making sure we don’t overharvest what we have left we can keep it that way.
I fondly remember the grand adventure of pursuing “Big John” the massive alligator garfish that lived in a nearby gully. When I was in elementary school, some high school boys came up with the idea of tying a nylon rope to the end of a truck, baiting it with a whole chicken attached to a shark hook and floating it out under a jug.
When the jug went under, they would crank up the truck and pull the behemoth ashore. All of the elementary school boys thought that was the greatest idea anyone had ever concocted.
The only problem was they were going to do it at the big pond on the high school agriculture department’s property where only Ag students could tread without getting in serious trouble.
We would have to watch from the road and hope they could fit the creature in the bed of their truck so we could get a glimpse. Half a dozen or so of gathered at the gully that day to do some fishing and of course see which of these legendary fish was going to take the bait. We just did not see how they could resist a whole chicken.
We could see that the small crowd of Ag students that gathered to see the capture of Big John were scattering like ants. They were running all over the place.
Were our fabled fishes so humongous they would run from it? Did it attack one of the bystanders?
Our imaginations ran wild.
It turned out they had pulled in a nine-foot long alligator that was not very happy at being hooked and pulled behind a truck.
It’s that kind of intrigue that keeps the alligator garfish interesting. Now thanks to enhanced conservation, they will continue to inspire for generations to come.
—story by Chester Moore