Alligator Gar, considered a primitive species, is one of the largest freshwater fishes in North America. Fish have been reported over nine feet and 350 pound. Gars in the four to six feed range and well over 100 pounds are regularly captured. Alligator’s are sometimes confused with other gar species due to their similarity of appearance. However, this species is easily distinguishable with experience, training, and upon visual comparison. Gar are passive, solitary fish inhabit sluggish pools and backwaters or large rivers, bayous, and lakes in the southeastern U.S., primarily the Lower Mississippi River Valley and Gulf Coast states.
This gar is unique in that it possesses a dual row of large teeth in the upper jaw. Alligator gars are distinct from other gars by having a heavier and broader body, a short broad snout, and numerous large gator-like teeth. Colors are typically dark olive green along the back, fading to grayish shades along the sides, with a whitish belly. Their large bony scales along the mid-line have varying shades that help camouflage the fish. Historically, the scales have been used for jewelry. Fins often are black spotted and often have a reddish-pink hue. Colors vary widely depending on water turbidity. The fish is also known for its ability to survive outside the water.
When water temperatures reach the low 70’s, Alligator gar spawn in shallow, calm waters over flooded vegetation. They often congregate in high densities. Females are accompanied by one or more males. After fertilization the sticky egg masses adhere to vegetative matter, where they hatch in two to three days. Fry remain attached to the vegetation for several days until the egg yolk sac is fully absorbed. Young gar feed on plankton, invertebrates, amphibians, and fish, ultimately transitioning to a diet of primarily fish captured primarily by ambuse. It should be noted that the eggs are toxic to most vertebrates and crustaceans, so they should not be eaten or handled.
Bow fishing accounts for most of the sport fishing harvest, with some caught by conventional tackle. Many states where they were once unregulated now have or are considering regulations for management, conservation, and recovery of the species, as this species has experience large declines from historical numbers.
Alligator Gar in Texas
Gars are easily distinguished from other freshwater species by their long, slender, cylindrical bodies, their long snouts, and the fact that they are equipped with diamond-shaped interlocking (ganoid) scales. Additionally, the dorsal and anal fins are placed well back on the body, and nearly opposite each other. The tail fin is rounded. Alligator gar may be distinguished from other gars by the presence of two rows of large teeth on either side of the upper jaw in large young and adults. Coloration is generally brown or olive above, and lighter underneath. The species name spatula is Latin for "spoon", referring to the creature's broad snout.
Little is known about the biology of this huge fish. Alligator gar are usually found in slow sluggish waters, although running water seems to be necessary for spawning. They appear to spawn in the spring beginning sometime in May. Eggs are deposited in shallow water. Young fish may consume insects. Adults feed primarily on fish, but will also take waterfowl. This species is able to tolerate greater salinities that other gar species and feeds heavily on marine catfish when they are available.
Gar have traditionally been considered rough fish by the majority of anglers. However, for a relatively few mavericks gar fishing may be quite an exciting and enjoyable sport. In Texas, alligator gar up to 279 pounds have been captured by rod and reel anglers, and over 300 pounds by trotliners. In the Southeastern part of the state, gar are commonly accepted as a fine food fish. Alligator gar are often taken by by bowfishers or by anglers using nylon threads, rather than hooks, to entangle the fish's many sharp teeth.