No. 126 Alligator Gar

No. 126 Alligator Gar

Matt Klara | Sunday, 21 October 2018

It’s been quite a while since I did one of these “new species profiles”. My original quest to land 100 species of fish on flies ended in February 2015 and was immediately upgraded to a quest to land 200 species. A dream trip to Australia added a bunch of species to the total, but since then additions to my life list have been more rare. To be honest, I’ve not been focused much on new species recently, but a trip down to Louisiana to hang out, eat amazing food, and fish with my friend Capt. Greg Moon put me back on track.

Truth be told, the alligator gar was not really even a species that I had in my mind going into the trip, but in terms of surprises, this was a pleasant one.

The day had been going really well for us.  Getting on the water was a treat in itself, as we were originally concerned about some ugly weather in the form of massive thunderstorm cells keeping us on land.  Some clever research by Greg, combined with his knowledge of the vast fishery, got us on the water and onto some fish right away.  We started out looking for some bruiser sized redfish, but the weather change and tides had apparently triggered their spawning instincts and sent them off shore for a spell.  Undeterred, we shifted gears and began searching some different types of water where the smaller, “slot” sized redfish regularly hang out.  It didn’t take long to find a few that were ready to play. 

Along the way, we also came across a number of gar floating lazily in the marsh.  I cast at everything I see when I’m fishing, but after about 10 shots at these gar, I was feeling a bit defeated.  Each time I put my fly close the fish would just sink down and slowly disappear. 

The gar is a short range ambush predator.  Greg explained that the times that he had seem them eat a fly, it was when the fly was presented just in front of their nose and bumped or stalled.  I was trying to do that, but I think my redfish fly was designed with a sink rate that was simply too fast to entice these floating gar to eat.

Our day went on, and redfish after redfish ate the fly, while gar after gar ignored it.  I had resigned myself to the fact that catching a gar might have to wait for another day.  I’d never seen so many in one outing though, which made the experience very cool, but also frustrating.

Towards the end of our day, we entered an area of very shallow, but also extremely murky water.  Millions of baitfish had stirred up the silt, making the visibility rather miserable.  Greg poled on, scanning the distance for signs of redfish, and I concentrated on a tiny area a short distance from the bow of the skiff, hoping to spot something that told me to cast. 

A dark shadow appeared through the murky water; really just a smudge of color 10 feet away, about the size of what I thought was a nice redfish.  With nothing to lose, I plopped the fly down in front of the smudge as it moved ever so slightly to the right, paused for a moment to let the fly sink, and then gave it a small strip.  The take was fast and strong.  It surprised me, but I guess instinct kicked in and I tightened up, meeting with some good resistance.  The real surprise came when the fish exploded on the surface in the shallow pond, revealing that what we both thought was a nice redfish was actually a long alligator gar.  The fly was easy to see, lodged in there clearly among the gars needle like teeth!  This was, as far as I know, the only gar we came across that day which was down at the bottom rather than hovering near the surface, so a fly hopped along on the mud was at the perfect level for an ambush.  Either that, or I just got lucky.

We shouted some excited profanities at the discovery, and then settled into the battle.  I was surprised by the first run the fish took, to be honest.  Long and fast.  With the line finally regained, we were left figuring out how to land the thing without getting chomped!  A slight comedy routine ensued, but finally, with some teamwork, we managed to get the gar into the skiff and shoot a few photos to preserve a great memory. 

It all happened so fast, but I will never forget three things about that fish.  One, it was really difficult to hold because of its shape and because its scales were like plates of armor, making the fish absolutely rock hard everywhere but on its belly. Two, it didn’t seem to care at all about being out of the water for a minute, perhaps because gar can not only take in oxygen from the water via their gills, but also by gulping air into their swim bladder, which is highly vascular and acts a bit like a primitive lung.  And three, those teeth!

“My” gar swam away quickly, disappearing into the murky water as fast as it had emerged.  High fives were shared, as Greg and I both smiled big grins and shook our heads in mild disbelief.  The overall encounter was short, but opened my eyes to a very cool species of fish.  Oddly beautiful and horrific at the same time, the experience brought on more questions for me than it answered.  Back on land, I felt compelled to learn more about these creatures. 

Those armor like scales turned out to be something called ganoid scales, which are totally unlike normal, flexible fish scales that you find on trout, redfish, and most other species.  According to the writeup on Wikipedia, the scales are “composed of a tough inner layer of bone and hard outer layer of ganoin which is essentially homologous to tooth enamel, making them nearly impenetrable”.  Native Americans actually used them to tip arrows! 

Greg and I both wondered how old the fish I caught might be, expecting that it might be very old.  It turns out that a 4-plus foot alligator gar is really still a juvenile.  According to Texas Parks & Wildlife, a 4-foot-long gar is only about 5 years old, while a 7-footer could be 40 years old.  Slow to mature, alligator gar don’t typically spawn until they have lived for a decade!

As I already mentioned, these fish are adapted to obtain oxygen in two ways, which allows them to inhabit waters which become oxygen deprived during periods of drought or extreme heat.  They are also able to survive in both fresh and saline conditions.

Sadly, these fish have been eliminated from a large portion of their historic range due to overharvest and destruction of habitat by humans.  For a fish that has been around for over one hundred million years, that fact alone is a sobering one.  I look forward to someday seeing another one up close.

Take Care and Fish On,

Matt