All The Fish
All About Alligator Gar
Q&A with Dr. Solomon David — Part 2
In part 1, we learned about gar biology. Now we’re going fishing and will learn about the culinary traditions in gar country.
We’ve never gone fishing for alligator gar in Louisiana before. Where should we go? We’re blank slates and need some advice.
It says on the license plate Sportsman’s Paradise, so there are plenty of places to go fishing. You can get alligator gars in the bayous, lakes, and also along the coast. Say you’re flying into New Orleans. There are even places around the outskirts of the city where you can catch alligator gar like Lake Pontchartrain.
If you head north you’re going to be in oxbow lakes off the Mississippi River and some of the larger tributaries there. Along the coast, alligator gars move into saltwater. You could be fishing for redfish/red drum (arguably the most popular fish around here) and catch alligator gar.
What are some ways to fish for alligator gar?
One of the most poplar ways around here is jug lines. They’ve been shown to reduce bycatch of other species. You can use hook and line. There’s also something called a rope lure. You bend a nylon rope in half and you fray one end of it. The gars go after it and get their teeth caught in it. It’s a little trickier to land them that way because there’s no hook involved, but it works with longnose gars, spotted gars, and smaller alligator gars. When we went fishing in Texas we used drones to bait our hooks — we flew a giant chunk of carp on a line out about 300 feet from our boat to fish for alligator gars.
What about fishing river bends?
I think holes in the bends of those rivers are where the alligator gars are hanging out. When we’re sampling them in parts of Mississippi and northern Louisiana, we’re in inundated floodplains and reservoirs. On a floodplain, there are only so many places gars can go depending how expansive it is. Within a river, you can target those holes and use a fish finder. For research, you usually use a fish finder to locate gars then set block nets across entire sections of river.
How do you unhook a gar? How do you keep yourself safe as well as the gar?
If it’s a big fish, follow what professionals do. Usually they’ll put a rope around the fish. It might take multiple people to bring them up onto a boat. We like to cover their face with a wet towel so they stay calmer. But alligator gar are usually pretty chill once you get them out of the water. Especially if you cover the eyes. And we like to keep them wet. Luckily they’re air breathers so they don’t get as stressed as some of the more conventionally-respiring fish. Stay away from the mouth — They’re not going to actively come after you, but you don’t want to get bit.
Gars are harmless to people. If anything it’s really the tails and the fins. That’s what’s gotten me over the years. They’ve got these really reinforced fin rays with bony ridges on them. You just want to realize you’re dealing with a large animal. And with any fish, try and get them back in the water as fast as you can. They may not require as much rehabbing into the water. Usually just getting them back into the water as soon as you can is going to be most beneficial. They’re resilient fish, really tough.
“As long as you respect the animal you’ll be safe and they’ll be safe as well.”
Their skulls are so bony that you’re not going to hook them like a bluegill or a walleye. I think if you can hook them and you get them on a treble hook and can remove that hook, that’s great. But if they swallow it, that’s going to be more problematic. It really depends on the fishing technique you’re using.
In terms of the biology and in this case harvesting vs catch-and-release, are there any things to think about? Like when they reach maturity or their age?
I think we’re still learning a lot about alligator gars (and gars in general). We’re finding that our previous age estimates in many cases are off — sometimes by a decade or more.
“Our current estimates suggest that alligator gar can live for over a hundred years.”
We’re even finding that some of the smaller species can live for 20, 30, maybe even 40 years. In most situations, alligator gars don’t reach sexual maturity until they’re ~10–11 years old. So a relatively long period of time before they can reproduce. I think some states are doing a great job limiting harvest, especially to protect them while they’re spawning — certain harvest techniques really target the large fish.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about bow fishing. That’s usually going to be targeting and removing the larger individuals. And those are likely our big old females that contribute most to a given population. Removing them can impact a population negatively. And we just don’t know enough about a lot of these populations to know when we hit that tipping point where you remove so many individuals that you’re starting to have an impact. I think closing off those spawning areas is a good strategy. Texas and Arkansas and even Oklahoma now are really making some progressive efforts in regulating harvest of alligator gars and gars in general.
Do you see any differences where gar have been intentionally or unintentionally extirpated compared to where they’re still thriving? What’s the ecological cost of losing a species like a gar?
That’s a great question. Alligator gars have been extirpated from Illinois since the 1960s. That was mainly due to habitat degradation, but also active efforts to eradicate the species. The thought was they were problematic to other game species so, you know, let’s wipe out the gars. Now, we’re making strides to bring them back there. Illinois Department of Natural Resources is restocking alligator gar in cooperation with one of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hatcheries down in Missouri and also Mississippi. They’re providing fingerlings to get those fish back in there.
Now to get to your question — places where they haven’t been extirpated — You’re looking at areas where those populations might be more robust. And down south more people eat gar. We eat bowfin as well. So I think it depends on where you are, and the associated culture. If you go to Mexico or Central America, they eat gar the same way we eat salmon in the Pacific Northwest.
“In some areas it’s been integrated with the culture and there’s definitely respect for the animals.”
In other areas we’ve decided we didn’t like them or liked other animals better and focused on that. And I think now fisheries is really trying to make an effort to come around and hopefully promote and improve biodiversity by returning those extirpated species where it makes ecological sense.
These fish are being sold and eaten by down there in Louisiana. How do you prepare and cook these fish?
I’ve definitely not been on the preparation side of the gar as much as I have been on the eating side of the gar. Which, given the choice, is the best side to be on!
On the pre-preparation side, you need something like tin snips and a hatchet and hammer to get through that hide depending on the size of the fish. For my Biology of Fishes class we dissect gars early in the semester because we use them for other research purposes. You really get to see what it takes to get through them. And it’s tin snips! It’s like you’re using wire cutters to get through the hide of the fish. But once you do, they don’t have many of those internal bones that you might see in northern pike or carp. You get these two strips of meat that come off of them. Don’t eat the eggs, though, they’re poisonous. No gar caviar for anyone.
No green eggs and ham? When you say the eggs are poisonous, are they going to kill you poisonous? Or just put you on the toilet poisonous?
I would say it’s the latter. Luckily we’re not looking at any incidences that I know of or that I’ve seen in any record of humans dying from gar toxicity. It’s supposed to be as they describe: “gastrointestinal distress” and uh, so…I’ve not experienced it myself. I’ve heeded the words!
What’s the flesh like?
It’s a white meat. It’s got somewhat of a distinct flavor — not as mild as tilapia, which, let’s face it, just tastes like whatever you’re cooking it in. Gar meat is relatively flaky. I think it’s delicious. You get these decent chunks of meat. Some people make them into gar balls, which is like a meatball that you can put into what we call a sauce picante. Or you just fry them up. In Mexico I’ve had them in empanadas, tamales. You can roast them on the fire.
In terms of eating an alligator gar, is it better to eat a younger gar? Is there a difference between the sexes?
I’ve heard those larger fish taste different, maybe not as good as some of the younger, medium-sized fish. Here in Louisiana and Texas, they’ll harvest large alligator gar and you can buy the fillets. Those are regularly available.
However, with any large, predatory fish you’ve got to take into consideration mercury accumulation, PCBs — that sort of thing. I think the general recommendation is to not eat those larger individuals. And I think something to consider is how important those larger individuals are to the population. They’re more fecund. We as humans can consume the smaller or medium-sized individuals, and 1) let the big ones do their thing, and 2) not risk the mercury and other potential contaminants. There are folks in Texas I know who are looking at mercury contamination in gars so hopefully we’ll learn more about that in the near future.
You’re talking about a fish that has persisted since the late Jurassic period. They’re valuable to ecosystems, but on top of that we can eat them too, so I think there’s a lot of applications there.
Compiled by Katrina Liebich, Digital Media Manager for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s External Affairs in Alaska. Thanks to Solomon David and Guy Eroh.
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