by Justin Hill
I have been inundated with phone calls, emails, and telegraphs for more science. Apparently my last blog “Merritt’s Mill Pong a Sleeper Hit” was not enough for the unruly masses. You can put down the torches and pitch forks, the science has returned. This week we will venture into the back waters of the Panhandle and explore the tooth, the whole tooth, and nothing but the tooth of alligator gar.
Alligator gar are one of the largest freshwater fish in North America and are the largest native freshwater fish in Florida. The largest recorded alligator gar was 8.5 feet long and weighed 327 lbs. The 94 year old gar was caught accidentally by a commercial fisherman in Mississippi. Alligator gar numbers are declining nationally, leaving only half of the 14 states they once inhabited with surviving populations. This decline has mostly been due to habitat loss in the rivers they call home, usually caused by dams and other impoundments. Now is when I would tell you roughly how many we have in Florida, but the truth is their numbers are difficult to estimate and we’re not going to suddenly find millions of them.
So, I ask you this question. Would you want to continue an all you can eat bacon breakfast buffet if you knew half of the states were completely out of bacon and you had no idea how much was left in yours? I think not; you would want to make sure there was enough of that greasy gold to last for the long term. Same goes for alligator gar. With several states recognizing alligator gar as a sport fish, FWC biologists were concerned the gar could be over-fished very quickly in Florida. In 2006 FWC closed harvest of alligator gar, and its Fish and Wildlife Research Institute (FWRI) initiated research projects to determine the population size. Radio telemetry is now being used to track gar and determine their range and habitat.
We often hear from anglers that they have seen alligator gar at their local fishing holes. Odds are this is a case of mistaken identity. There are several gar species in Florida and each is far more abundant than the alligator gar. Here is a quick rundown of the other native gars with some key characteristics for identification.
- Longnose gar: The longnose gar may be the easiest to ID once you have seen a few. They are common throughout Florida and are long and skinny with a very long and skinny nose. I know all gar are long and skinny and they didn’t name it because it has a short fat nose. This fish looks like someone stretched it out on the ends a little too far. If you find yourself saying, “Man, that’s a skinny alligator gar,” it’s a longnose.
- Spotted gar:These gar are smaller than the longnose and alligator gar. They have a broad, shorter snout and—you guessed it—spots. These spots cover the fish including the top of the head. In Florida, they only live in the Panhandle, west of the Apalachicola River.
- Florida gar (or fish gar): Florida gar are a feisty fish occurring east of the Apalachicola River and are common throughout
peninsular Florida. This gar, and the similar spotted gar, are distinguished by the distance between the front of the eye and the back of the gill cover. If the distance is more than two-thirds the length of the snout, it is a spotted gar. If the distance is less than two-thirds the length of the snout, it is a Florida gar.
- Alligator gar: Alligator gar are larger than all the other gars. They have a heavy body and the infamous short broad head like an alligator. Juveniles have spots along the side but none on the top of the head like the spotted gar. Adult alligator gar have very few spots and are usually a dark green color. If you are still not sure if you have an alligator gar and are feeling fairly brave, check its teeth. They have two rows of teeth while the other gars have only one row. And if you are still not sure after all that, check your map. Alligator gar only occur in rivers west of the Apalachicola River.
FWRI biologists will continue to monitor the population of alligator gar in our state. The more we can learn through research the more we can do for conservation. For more information about all of our research projects, from panthers to minnows, remember to like us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/FWCResearch.
NOTE: Although harvest of alligator gar is illegal, the other gar species listed here are eligible for FWC’s Big Catch program, which rewards anglers with frame-able certificates for notable catches. See www.MyFWC.com/BigCatch for more information.