For the first time in my life, I felt confident enough to claim that things were looking up for gar due to the fact that they’d made the mainstream. In Mississippi, a commercial fisherman on Lake Chotard had hauled in a world record alligator gar tangled in his net. It was eight feet, five inches long, forty-eight inches in girth, and weighed 327 pounds – the images had instantly gone viral. Also, a federal jury in Texas had just convicted a fisherman in an international gator gar sting, and the news had spread like an Internet meme. The guy caught four four-footers on the Trinity River and transported them to Florida where he kept them in a swimming pool. This gar-monger then sent them off to a corporation in Japan, and a federal jury convicted him for illegally transporting fish across state lines. Plus, millions of viewers of “Hillbilly Handfishin’” had recently witnessed a gar in Oklahoma attack a city slicker’s shiny pendant, flashing like a minnow. The show then cut to some stock footage of an aquarium gar to let us get a gander at one. The fish they showed, however, was a saltwater Atlantic gar, which is totally different from the freshwater species in the American South.
What all this attention said to me was that our communal interest in the granddaddy of this species was increasing in direct proportion to our efforts to build their numbers up. Of course, there was no way I could verify this, but I knew there was a correlation between sustaining alligator gar populations in order to provide sacrificial goats to spotlight in the media and the fact that we actually had some big ones to spare.
In a way, gator gar had become a phenomenon a lot like noodling. Here’s what I mean by that: Ten to twenty years ago, it was common to hear stories about guys mucking into streams, where they went “hogging” for big old catfish with nothing but their bare hands. For the most part, these tales were just unconfirmed rumors in the consciousness of pop culture. But after the documentary Okie Noodling came out in 2001, there was an explosion of cable shows that shattered the idea of noodling as a myth and established it as something real. In a parallel sense, these shows brought gar out of the closet and made them much more tangible to the American couch potato.
But for Team Gar, behind the scenes, we still had a lot of work to do. Fortunately, it was work we loved so much that we’d be willing to pay to do it. We didn’t have to, though, because it was all about getting up at 5:00 a.m., then staying out ’til after sunset, gillnetting gar.
Like usual, we met at the USFW parking lot: our leader Lindsey Lewis; ichthyologist Reid Adams; reformed gator gar-slayer J.P. Atkinson; gar-students Chris Nau, Loren Stearnman, Casey Cox; and me. It was a cold, dark January morning, and we were heading out to the Garhole, which had become an annual pilgrimage. Our mission was to net ’em, tag ’em, collect data, and let ’em go.
Still, I didn’t have much faith that we were going to get any. Two weeks before, I’d gone out there with my wife when the water was an unusually high fifteen feet at the measuring point upstream. For the last two years, the average reading had been five feet, even though the depth in the Garhole can be as much as fifty. I’d suspected that because of the recent rains, the gar would sense a change in flow and return to their traditional wintering hole. I was right.
They were rolling all around us, sometimes five or six at a time, slapping the surface in all directions. I recognized the longnose no problem, but as for gator gar, I could never get a good glimpse. Still, there were a lot of four- and five-footers porpoising all over the place, sometimes thumping against the hull, those spatulate, spotted tails waving goodbye as they shot back down.
It was an extremely warm day, and this flurry of activity was definitely irregular for the winter. Usually, they just hunker on the bottom, semi-dormant and hardly ever rising for air. My own pet gars do this as well, their metabolism slowing for the season. But those Garhole gars, they were burning calories like crazy.
Robin was shooting video of the splashing action, which picked up every time a cloud eclipsed the sun. I’d been observing this type of behavior for years and had yet to see any other species get so riled up when a front pushes through. Thus, my conviction that gar are highly sensitive to barometric pressure.
Anyway, my two years of coming out here and not seeing much were now paying off. When you’re in the middle of a thrashing garfield, it’s a visceral rush, one I was glad to share with Robin. She had come out here with me half the time, so the spectacle surrounding us was finally paying off for her too.
I returned the next week with my friend Minnow Bucket, and the roiling I’d witnessed with Robin was gone. At that point, the depth was down to seven feet, and the only fish we saw were the two blue cats we picked up on our jugs while motoring back to the launch.
But now, driving through the dawn with Team Gar (two big trucks towing two big boats), the water was back to five feet deep. Lindsey was certain that they were still in there, and he was certain that they were hanging out together as gar tend to do in the winter, despite the fact that in the past two years the big ones had spread themselves throughout the system.
I was resigned to getting skunked, but I was also along for the ride. Especially since I had this idea for another garbook, a sequel to Season of the Gar, to be entitled Return of the Gar. That’s right, I had the name already picked out, even though I still wasn’t sure what I could say that I hadn’t already said. What I was sure of was that Team Gar always talks gar, so I knew I’d get some new information on the ugly fish we all love.
By ten o’clock we were on the river, and by 10:30 we were at the far end of the Garhole, laying the downstream block-net in the bigger boat. The “running boat” was upstream laying the other block-net, so any gar in between would basically be trapped.
We’d done this a year ago but only managed to catch one six-foot longnose that weighed thirty-five pounds. It was a hell of a fish and could’ve been the state record if caught on rod and reel. Lindsey then took out an ultrasound machine, which was capable of detecting eggs in gar. If he found eggs, that meant the fish was a female. And in that particular longnose, Lindsey detected a bunch of eggs. So now we had a harmless way of sexing fish in the field, which was a revolutionary improvement over the old method of cutting them open to see if they had gonads. Not only did this mean that we could gather basic data more humanely, but it also meant we were debunking the popular hearsay about all large gator gar being female.
The year before we caught that longnose, we’d caught fifteen alligator gars in this spot ranging from five to seven feet long. But this year, nothing was rising, not even any pipsqueaks. Like I told Lindsey earlier, we missed our window.
Nevertheless, we spread some nets between the block-nets, then went tearing around to stir them up. Nothing happened, so we broke out our sandwiches. Everyone except Reid, that is, who brought his traditional Vienna sausages – which, being from Alabama, he pronounced “vye-enna.”
Then we saw a float bounce. Something was caught in one of the nets, and then we saw a shark fin rise. But it wasn’t a shark fin; it was the tail of a paddlefish, which we soon untangled. It was five feet long from head to tail and upwards of thirty pounds – a cartoony looking creature with a big old shovelnose. We took pictures of it, but as I found out later, my old fashioned .35 mm had bit the dust.
Releasing the fish and finishing lunch, it looked like we’d be shutting down by noon. Gar surface about every forty minutes, so if there were gar in this hole, they would’ve risen by now.
Lindsey, meanwhile, took off upstream in the running boat. He had a fish finder on that craft and was adamant that they were in there somewhere.
Twenty minutes later, the running boat came screaming back. “They’re right around the corner,” Lindsey told us. “Hundreds of gar!”
As it turns out, Lindsey’s fish finder was capable of taking pictures under water, and he sent me some JPEGs later. In one image there were ten silhouettes that were clearly longnose, but then there was this ghostly figure slightly defined by a frosty shadow. It was an alligator gar so wide and blunt you could see the shape of its primeval head and pectoral fins. It was twice as long as the longnoses, and as we later determined, most of those fish were four feet long.
Since Lindsey had laid a new upstream block-net, we collected the rest of the nets, then cruised up and spread them in an area where two small creeks were spilling into the primary stream. We figured that this influx was attracting the shad and that the shad were attracting gar.
No sooner had the nets been set than the floats started bopping. We pulled out a longnose that was five-foot-three and thirty-five pounds, then another that was four feet long. Then one that was almost four feet, then one that was four-eleven. Reid was recording the lengths in centimeters, and I was converting to inches. Most of these fish were thirty pounds plus.
I stated earlier that the thirty-five-pound longnose we captured the year before would’ve been a state record if caught on rod and reel. At that time, the record for any kind of tackle was a thirty-four-pounder shot by an arrow. A couple of months ago, though, the guy who held that record for twenty years went out and shot a fifty-four-pounder in the Ouachita River, thereby setting a new record.
Still, the ones coming out of this stretch were just as long and about as big as longnose get. We caught them all afternoon, all the way up to five-foot-four. The largest was probably forty pounds, but it got to the point that we stopped weighing them because they became a nuisance, getting in the way of the alligator gar we were really after.
The first gator gar we caught was five-foot-two, and when we ran a detecting mechanism over its tail, we found it had a PIT tag in it. A passive interactive transponder is an extremely small tag that gets injected under the scales with a syringe-looking tool. Over the last few years, Team Gar had shot up forty-seven members of this population and had incorporated a “mark-recapture” formula that can be used to estimate the population based on how many fish get re-caught.
We also had a new and improved method for hauling these suckers in. Whereas we used to position an awkward stretcher beneath them (which sometimes resulted in losing a big fish or two), we now used the gillnet a fish was tangled in to wrap it up even more, then hoist it into the bow bound up like a Christmas ham.
On this particular sixty-eight pound alligator gar we attached a floating radio transmitter, which was different than the cigar-shaped kind we usually affix beneath the dorsal fin. Lindsey showed us two models for the new “floaters.” One was from Australia, where they’re commonly used for tracking sharks, and it looked like an ice cream cone topped with a single scoop. The bulbous part was composed of foam and the tapering end had a cable on it that could be attached directly beneath a dorsal. The “hillbilly model,” however, was Lindsey’s own invention. Fundamentally, it was the same design, but the bulbous part looked more like a cave rock from “The Flintstones.” It wasn’t pretty, but it would do the trick.
The logic of the floating transmitter is threefold. First, it’s easier to recover if it comes off the fish. Secondly, since it trails behind the fish, there’s less possibility for rubbing to cause an irritation or infection. And thirdly, since it floats, the antenna stays above the water when the gar is on the surface, so it can send out its signal better.
Chris attached that transmitter, and we took “Hillbilly” downstream with a load of longnose, where we let them go below the block-net so they wouldn’t get re-caught. Then zooming back, we caught even more longnose: five-two, four-ten, three-eleven, four-three. They just kept coming: beautiful fish, healthy fish, one of the biggest old-growth populations in the state, nothing under three-foot-eight (according to our data). Essentially, this area was ruled by the big boys – and big girls. Not because it was forbidden for the youngsters to tag along, but because, apparently, there hadn’t been a successful spawn in decades to supplement the populations of both alligator and longnose gar.
This analysis proved to be incorrect, though, because suddenly Lindsey and his crew came back from upstream reporting they’d bagged two gator gar. When they pulled up, there were two squat humps sticking up from the onboard tub.
Stumpy and Shorty were true to their names. Shorty was three-foot-eight and twenty-four pounds, and Stumpy (who looked like a blimp with fins) was four feet long and thirty-six pounds. They were the first adolescent alligator gar we’d ever caught in these waters.
Genetically speaking, the gar were back. A new generation was in the mix, which was something we never expected but always dreamed of. And because of this revelation, we were stunned – but not so stunned we couldn’t wrangle in more gator gar!
This time we handled them differently than we had two years ago. After measuring and weighing them, we immediately placed a wet towel over their eyes to keep them from stressing out. Also, since we were now adept at tagging them and releasing them in a much more timely fashion, we didn’t need sedatives or a holding pen. All we needed was to inject a PIT tag if they didn’t have one and then attach a Floy tag, which is an orange plastic-coated wire with a number like FWS118 on it and a phone number to report the fish if caught.
We also took fin clips. Each tissue sample was preserved in a vial of alcohol with a penciled number on a scrap of paper. We recorded where each gator gar was caught, the size of the mesh, and the depth. The water and air temperature had already been logged in.
Another thing I’d learned while trying to untangle these gar is that there’s a simple way to get them to open their mouths, so as to work the mesh free from their teeth. I’ve seen people bust gar teeth by prying jaws open with rebar, but now there’d be no more of that. As J.P. explained, all you have to do is tap where the jaws come together, and they’ll open up with a big fangy grin. And they did.
All afternoon, we kept catching gar. The longnose became so common that Team Gar started throwing them around with abandon. We were tossing them from boat to boat, measuring them and releasing them as fast as possible. It made me cringe whenever someone dropped a fish and it banged around on the bottom of the boat, but gar are tough. And as we’ve found out, they can take our abuse.
The next alligator gar was five-foot-three. It weighed seventy-five pounds, and we called him Big Boy. Then we got two young pups: three-foot-one and three-foot-three, twenty-two and eighteen pounds, respectively. For every full-grown gator gar we caught, we were catching a juvenile as well – which Lindsey kept saying were from “Tommy’s generation.” Wildlife agent Tommy Inebnit had tagged ninety-two six-inchers back in 2007, when he’d been a graduate student.
In 2008, Team Gar re-caught one of Tommy’s generation, which was verified from its PIT tag. In a year, that fish had grown twelve inches. Four years later, those gar were between three and four feet. Hence, we were getting a better idea of growth rates for this specific population. It was looking like they were growing about a foot per year. At around five feet long, they started growing wider.
We kept on fishing and got another “recapture,” which was five-foot-four and seventy-five pounds. Then, when I was pulling up a net, I saw a thick gray form emerge from the murk. It was a ninety-pounder, so I had to get some help hauling it in. Another “recap.” That one measured five-ten.
It certainly seemed that the big ones were hanging out together: the old school alligator gar and the behemoth longnose. It also appeared that the largest known population of gator gar in Arkansas was running with the oldest known population of longnose in the state. There were literally hundreds in there – it was Garmageddon!
At one point, we approached a bobbing float, and I saw something hung up in the mesh. It was Lindsey’s homemade floating transmitter.
“Hey,” I yelled. “It’s Hillbilly!”
Reaching down, I worked the transmitter out. It was a delicate procedure, and I was afraid the fish might make a run for it and rip itself up. But for some reason, Hillbilly just hovered there and let me work it free before sinking straight down and vanishing from sight.
What we learned from this was that the gar we were releasing were sneaking back under the block-nets because they wanted to be part of the gang. This observation was reconfirmed every time we saw a gator gar hovering under a log or branch. We could see their backs sticking up. Having returned to their pals, somewhat exhausted from being hoisted and restrained and stuck full of tags, they were using brush for balance as they regained their composure.
This made me think of a gator gar named Judas that Lindsey and some students had caught in the fall. I asked Lindsey what had happened to that fish.
“Aww, crap,” Lindsey sighed, then told me how after they released Judas, they saw him pinging right by the Toad Suck Dam a few days later. In fact, it was right under the dam on the upstream side. For the next few days, that’s where the signal kept coming from, which was not very encouraging. Lindsey feared that Judas had been dazed from being worked on, so he’d let down his guard and gotten caught in some sort of suction. Having recently netted a longnose with a broken back and chewed up tail caught in an eddy beneath the dam, I knew those gates could really mess a gar up.
When the Army Corp of Engineers released water, the signal had disappeared. Lindsey said he went all the way down Pool 7 and all the way up Pool 8 with headphones on, listening for Judas’s signal, but he couldn’t find him anywhere.
Most likely, Judas had become a casualty. Which, in turn, made me revise my idea about gars being tough enough to take our abuse. Because really, they’re just as tough as us. That is, they’re strong when they’re strong, but sometimes they’re extra sensitive. So if you release a gar, try to do it in a place where it can find some brush for stability. Or better yet, do what Jeremy Wade does: Support it until it’s strong enough to swim off on its own. There’s no better way to bond with a fish.
Meanwhile, the sun was starting to go down, and we were still hauling the longnose in, one right after another: four feet, five feet, twenty pounds, thirty pounds – they just kept coming. And I kept recording data – up to the thirty-second longnose. That’s when I finally gave up on writing down information.
But the gator gar refused to give up. We caught one that was five-foot-two, who I figured could’ve been Junior, a fish we caught two years ago. We didn’t have the exact info with us on the fish we’d tagged that season, but judging from the recap number, we could see that this gar was tagged during that run. Junior had been the smallest of that bunch, only measuring five feet long. The thing about Junior is that we’d left him for dead. He was struggling to stay upright –had an air bubble in him that we couldn’t work out and he couldn’t shake.
Whatever the case, we caught another four-foot alligator gar, weighing in at thirty-eight pounds, who somebody named Newbie. Then we caught an eighteen pound gator gar, who was subsequently named Another Newbie. And as all this was going on, Reid dubbed this stretch “the Garburbs.”
Then we caught Biggy, who was the most mongo catch of the day. Biggy was six-foot-ten and one-hundred-sixty-six pounds. This surprised Reid, who thought we’d accounted for all the ancient gator gar in this population.
Then we got hit by another surprise, something we should’ve figured out years ago. Basically, the stretcher we were weighing these fish in became heavier after time. For the first fish, the stretcher was dry, but after getting wet and full of slime it took on a few more pounds. Unfortunately, we were now on a system that had been in place for years, so there was no going back and correcting the errors.
Meanwhile, the gator gars just kept coming in. We recorded another four-footer, then one a few inches longer, and then another a few inches shorter until finally the sun went down, and we tallied up a total of fourteen alligator gar, upwards of fifty longnose, and a goofy-looking paddlefish.
Chugging back in the dark, I couldn’t help considering Martin T. O’Connell’s 2007 study in Estuaries and Coasts (Vol. 30, No. 4), regarding long-term declines in apex predators in Southeastern Louisiana, where gator gar populations had plummeted ninety-nine percent in fifty years. O’Connell had focused on bull sharks and alligator gar and had stressed that “The removal of apex predators can lead to system effects that may cascade down through multiple trophic levels, fundamentally changing ecosystem structure.” O’Connell also stated that “Such alteration of trophic structure can be especially disastrous in highly productive ecosystems.” In other words, upsetting the nutritional food chain can result in a loss of species diversity. Half a century ago, this happened in Arkansas, when gator gar were removed from the system.
To play the devil’s advocate, it’s reasonable to assume that in the grand scope of things the overall health of the planet would only be a micron more stunted if alligator gar populations were to collapse in this region again. Still, millions of microns can add up to the point that they subtract from our “quality of life” – which seems to be the universal measurement for what we believe we’re entitled to in an increasingly urban environment that views Nature as a resource rather than a place to co-exist with other creatures.
These reflections, however, were cut short when one of the students took out a calculator and entered some numbers. I had no idea that we could calculate the population from data gathered that day, but the mark-recap equation was working for us, and what it revealed was that there were eighty-two alligator gar in this system. This was considerably less than the hundred I was hoping for.
Nevertheless, we were encouraged by all the new blood in our gar community. This was monumental news for us, for gar, and for fishing in the entire state. Something right was going on in this artery of the Arkansas – where alligator gar weed out the carp and drum, where the sweet blue cats are thriving and fat, where the crappie prosper due to all the large gar devouring the jumbo shad. As for the buffalo, they are mammoth in this stream. But the lack of development along these banks, the lack of traffic in this current, and the plant life in the spawning grounds also factor in. And then there’s the paddlefish, the sturgeon, the turtles, the birds, the everything that’s been cycling here for centuries – especially the top predator, alligator gar.
Meaning that since this is the way our waters used to be, this tributary can be viewed as a model for what can be reclaimed. Because ultimately, my concept of gar making a comeback isn’t just some idealistic fantasy providing a convenient excuse for a book; it’s something real, something actually taking place, something we are directly involved in.
And for me, personally, I’m left with the sense that the small part I play in all this is the most constructive thing I can do. Work like this makes me feel useful, responsible, invested in something larger than myself. And the results are more than just visible; they’re right there in front of our face and in the data we keep. And what this data demonstrates is that our actions in fishery management, research, outreach, and the creation of new regulations do make a difference in preservation and propagation – for the gator gar have returned!