Gar Facts Often Garbled
ATHENS—Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) Inland Fisheries biologist Michael Baird of Waco sometimes thinks he’s heard it all—until the next fish story reaches his ears.
“Through hundreds of conversations with anglers and outdoor recreationists, a fisheries biologist hears just about every kind of fish story there is,” he said. “Folks will mis-identify a fish, mis-speak about a fishery issue or exaggerate the size of the one that got away. But I have never heard more mis-information than when talking about fishes from the gar family. I hope what follows will clear up much of the confusion and allow more folks to return to the waters of Central Texas with a better understanding of the importance of gar in the ecosystem.”
There are actually four different species of gar in Texas: spotted, shortnose, longnose and alligator. Spotted gar are the smallest of the four species, obtaining a maximum size of four feet in length and 15 pounds. They range from the Red River south to the Rio Grande basin and are extremely common. As their name suggests, the head, body and fins of this species are typically covered with dark spots, although there can be variations depending on water chemistry.
Shortnose gar grow to a similar size yet lack dark spots on the head. Their range in Texas is limited to the Red River basin below Lake Texoma.
Longnose gar can be distinguished from spotted and shortnose gar by, you guessed it, a much longer snout. Longnose gar can grow to nearly six and a half feet in length and attain weights of up to 80 pounds.
Alligator gar differ from the other three gar species in several ways. The most obvious is their large adult size; short, blunt snout and the fact that they have two rows of teeth on both sides of the upper jaw instead of a single row. The alligator gar is the largest of the gar species and is one of the largest freshwater fishes in North America.
The current world record is eight feet, five and one-eighth inches in length, 47 inches in girth and 327 pounds. The current rod-and-reel and bow-fishing records for Texas are 279 and 290 pounds respectively. Research suggests alligator gar are also among the longest-lived freshwater fishes in North America, and individual ages of up to 50 years have been estimated. Think about that for a second: There are alligator gar swimming around out there that have been alive since the 1960s!
The large size of alligator gar, along with their sharp teeth and scales, has given the entire gar family a bad reputation. A hundred years ago most people thought gar fishes were responsible for declines in sport fish populations, and many fishery professionals at the time encouraged the removal of these fish. Since that time however, fisheries biologists have learned much about the eating habits of gar, and this research suggests gar are opportunistic feeders, feeding on a variety of different fish species. So, although gar will inevitably eat an occasional sportfish, they also eat freshwater drum, suckers, shad and common carp. Some researchers believe gar contribute to healthy aquatic ecosystems by helping to balance predator-prey populations through selection of over-abundant species as a food source.
Bow and more recently rod-and-reel anglers have been enjoying the gar family’s sporting traits for quite some time. Alligator gar in particular are prized by bow fishers for their large size, while rod-and-reel anglers seek the stubborn determination and raw power all gar species can bring to the end of their lines. Currently the daily bag limit for alligator gar in Texas is one fish per day, while other gar species can be caught in any number. The Texas alligator gar regulation is meant to help conserve the population while additional research is conducted.
Texas has alligator gar populations in a number of inland reservoirs including Lakes Texoma, Sam Rayburn, Choke Canyon, Falcon and Livingston and in most coastal tributaries and bay systems. These populations are thought to be some of the best remaining in the world, and several research studies are under way by TPWD to better understand and manage them. Conservation and management of alligator gar will require additional information on population demographics, spawning ecology, and habitat needs throughout all life stages.
For a guide to identifying the different species of gar in Texas, go to http://www.tpwd.state.tx.us/huntwild/wild/species/#fish.
For additional information or to share your own gar story, please call TPWD’s Inland Fisheries Division office in Waco at (254) 666-5190.