IT WASN’T THAT LONG AGO that alligator gars were considered by many to be the ugly ducklings of the Texas freshwater scene—trash fish, so to speak.
They weren’t of much use to anyone other than a bow fisherman looking for a challenging target on a sultry summer night.
But that’s hardly the case anymore. The toothy critters are getting lots of love and attention these days. In fact, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s inland fisheries scientists have invested a considerable amount of time and resources in recent years. They are learning all they can about Texas alligator gar populations and what makes the prehistoric-looking fish tick.
The research was spurred by earlier studies conducted by the Southern Division of the American Fisheries Society. Those studies indicate the species is declining or has disappeared in many areas of the southeastern United States. Habitat alteration and overexploitation by commercial fishing are believed to be among the primary causes for the downswing.
Luckily, however, that hasn’t been the case in Texas. ‘gator gars, which can live beyond 50 years and grow upwards of 300 pounds and longer than eight feet, are holding their own on many lakes and river systems across the state.
Once considered a “rough fish” not good for much, the fierce-looking fish is rapidly gaining popularity as a target species with sport fishermen worldwide. Many of them visit well-known hotspots like the Trinity and Sabine rivers as well as major reservoirs like Lake Falcon, Sam Rayburn, Livingston and Toledo Bend to go after the toothy fish with rod and reel or specialized bow fishing gear.
In 2009, TPWD implemented restrictive catch limits on alligator gars statewide. The rule limits anglers to one alligator gar per day, and encourages the catch and release of large fish. The only exception is Lake Falcon, where anglers can take up to five per day.
Last April, TPWD took another big step in alligator gar management when it launched a new website (tpwd.texas.gov/texasgar). The site aims at educating more people about the fish well as updating findings on TPWD gar studies. The studies are constant work in progress.
“There is a lot of misinformation floating around about alligator gars regarding their impact on other fish, where they are located throughout the state and population sizes of the gar that live in our reservoirs and rivers,” said TPWD research biologist Dave Buckmeier. “This website will provide Texans with a one-stop shop to find science-based facts and information about alligator gars and clear up some of the confusion surrounding this misunderstood fish.”
One of TPWD’s most recent studies on alligator gars occurred in 2014 on Falcon Lake on the Texas/Mexico border. The purpose of the study was to learn more about what the fish were eating. It also was to determine whether or not the lake’s robust alligator gar population might be having a negative impact on the lake’s valuable largemouth bass fishery.
Scientists examined the stomach contents of nearly 400 alligator gars they collected using nets, jug lines and other means. A March 2015 report in TPW Magazine stated that the study showed that “game fish made up 20 percent of what the gar had consumed, with largemouth bass accounting for only eight percent. Studies at six other Texas reservoirs, dating back to 1970, showed even smaller percentages of bass in the gars’ diet, and there’s no evidence that the big fish are having a significant impact on bass populations.”
While scientists have learned a lot about alligator gar lifespans, growth rates and spawning habits in recent times, they still don’t know much about the anglers that chase them. Last June, they launched a voluntary survey on the gar website in hopes of learning more on the topic. The survey, which was available through July 31, targeted anglers and non-anglers in order gain as much information as possible.
The survey touched on a variety of topics, including preferred means and methods for taking alligator gars and whether more restrictive regulations should be imposed in the future on certain waters. “The goal (of the survey) is to gain a better understanding of who our constituents are, how our anglers like to fish, their harvest practices, and how they would like to see alligator gars managed in the future,” said Warren Schlechte, TPWD research biologist.
• There are four species of gar in Texas waters—spotted, short nose, longnose and alligator.
• The alligator gar is the largest of the four species and ranks among the largest freshwater fish in North America.
• The unrestricted state record for alligator gar is 302 pounds. The fish was caught on a trotline in 1953 from the Nueces River. The rod and reel state record was caught in 1951 from the Rio Grande River. It weighed 279 pounds. The state record bow kill of 290 pounds was recorded in 2001 on the Trinity River.
• This fierce-looking fish has rows of sharp teeth, but they have never been known to attack humans. The greatest threat the fish pose to people comes when handling them, because of their needlepoint teeth and sharp scales.
Email Matt Williams at [email protected]