Gars may have a unique look, but their reputation with most anglers has been anything but special down through the years. Consider this description:
“It (the gar) is a wholly worthless and destructive nuisance in relation to mankind. It has, in fact, all the vices and none of the virtues of a predaceous fish.”
These words were written by Stephen Alfred Forbes and Robert Earl Richardson, two prominent ichthyologists of the early 1900s. To repeat, these words came from ichthyologists — people who are interested in fish. A fish has pretty much reached the bottom of the appreciation scale when even ichthyologists have no kind words for it.
For generations, many people considered these long-nosed, toothy fish to be little more than “trash fish” that prey on desirable sportfish species. Studies have shown this characterization of the fish is a bit undeserved and biologists are working to change this fish’s negative image.
Visitors to this year’s Ozark Empire Fair can see Missouri’s largest gar — the alligator gar — on display at the Missouri Department of Conservation building. The building will be open until 9 p.m. on each day of the Fair.
The alligator gar, which can get up to 10 feet in length and reach a weight of 350 pounds, was historically found in eastern Missouri in the Mississippi River and in the past 10 years been re-introduced at select sites in southeast Missouri. The intention of the alligator gar re-introductions at select sites was to help the balance required to maintain a healthy aquatic ecosystem. More on the gar’s role in this in a bit.
The alligator gar is one of seven species of gar found in North America, four of which occur in Missouri. There are no alligator gar in southwest Missouri. Here, the most common type is the longnose gar (Lepiosteus osseus). Longnose gar commonly reach lengths of three feet or more and weights of more than 5 pounds. Sometimes their size is much greater — the state record (by alternative method, which in this case, was archery) for longnose gar is a catch that weighed more than 35 pounds, 9 ounces.
Fossils of gars have been found from the Permian Period (290 million to 248 million years ago), a period that predates the “Age of Dinosaurs.” The fish’s most obvious characteristics are its elongated snout (“gar” is an Old English word for spear) and its needle-like teeth. Its heavy, plate-like scales have occasionally been used for jewelry and were also fashioned into small arrowheads on occasion by Native Americans.
Longnose gars typically inhabit reservoirs and the sluggish pools, back-waters and oxbows of large, moderately clear streams. Gars have the curious habit of rising to the water’s surface, opening and closing their jaws with a loud snap, then sinking again. This behavior, termed “breaking,” allows the fish to renew the supply of air to its swim bladder.
Some anglers bowfish for gars, which are classified as non-game fish in Missouri’s Wildlife Code. Most of the rest of the fishing world classifies gar as a “non-essential” fish, but that’s not true.
Gars are effective predators and therein lay the source of the widely-heard criticism — and lesser-known praise — for this creature. While it’s true gars will snap their jaws around any fish they can catch — including bass, crappie and other species of sportfish — studies have shown that, here in Missouri, the bulk of a gar’s diet consists of gizzard shad. For those who love fishing; that’s a good thing.
Gizzard shad are one of the most numerous and widely distributed fish species in the state. Shad abundance sometimes reaches the point where they compete with other fish species for food and space. The reason for this abundance is that, in addition to being seldom caught by anglers, adult shad aren’t hunted by many other fish. Young gizzard shad are a prime food source for bass, crappie and other types of sportfish, but mature shad are too big to be a food item for most species.
Most, but not all. Because of their large mouths, gars are one of the few fish species in Missouri waters that are equipped to prey on adult shad. It’s probably due to the sheer abundance of shad that gar take this species with a greater frequency than they do other types of fish but, whatever the reason, it’s this predation that help keep shad populations under control. This, in turn, helps make fishing good for Missourians.
More information about gars and other species of fish that reside in the state can be found at mdc.mo.gov.
Francis Skalicky is the media specialist for the Missouri Department of Conservation’s Southwest Region. For information about conservation issues, call 895-6880.