It was like watching kids turned loose on the last day of the school year. As soon as the juvenile alligator gar being released by Fisheries Biologist Randy Sauer hit the muddy backwaters of the lower Kaskaskia yesterday afternoon they were off like a shot. They popped and rolled in typical gar fashion, the little fish raced around darting in and out of the shadows of the buck brush and downed tree limbs and stumps, already displaying typical gar behavior.
It was a beautiful sight to see and I was filled with hope thinking that while maybe not in my lifetime, but certainly in that of our youngsters; full grown alligator gar might one day again be seen during spawn rolling through the shallows of the lower Kaskaskia sloughs and backwaters.
The juvenile alligator gar, still sporting their juvenile spots looked much like small spotted gar as they explored their new home. After having spent their entire life up to this point confined to fish hatchery rearing ponds and raceways it almost seemed the little fish were happy as they explored what once was home water and habitat for these ancient fishes.
IDNR Site Superintendent Mic Middleton and Fisheries Biologist Randy Sauer prepare the transport tank in the boat before adding the fish
The first step during the sticking process was to prepare the holding tank in the IDNR boat. THere wasn’t a lot of high tech science geek type stuff to this - a large rubber tank like those used for stock water tanks was filled with water from the river old fashion bucket brigade style. The water temperature was checked to prevent any temperature shock when transferring the fish from the large transport truck. A little salt was added to aid in osmosis, and oxygen from a large tank was provided via a length of plastic hose.
Sauer checks water temps in the holding tank
Transferring the fish one net full at a time from the transport vehicle to the boat tank
In they Go!
After all fish were transferred the boat, aerial maps of the area were reviewed and two potential stocking locations were determined. Sauer was looking for just the right areas to release his cargo. He explained that the type of habitat that would be best for the juveniles survival was shallow, somewhat brackish backwater and sloughs with lots of cover and anticipated accompanying populations of forage fish for the little alligator to feed on and seek cover in. While the alligator gar do indeed eat invasive carp - that’s not the primary reason for the stocking efforts.
We discussed river levels, silt conditions, and headed off to the first stocking site. Once we arrived at the slough determined to be a “good looking spot” for the youngsters, Sauer and Middleton worked as team - again one net at time. One net would be taken form the holding tank, and the fish were released by hand by Sauer as Middleton counted each fish.
Sauer and Middleton examine the first batch to be released
Removing the first few for release
Great care is taken during the process to not stress the fish in anyway. When handling the fish during the release, gloves are worn to prevent disturbance of the slime coat, and everyone moves quickly to limit the amount of handling and time out of the water. The fish had been tagged, weighed, measured, and had data collected prior to arrival.
The key to identifying an alligator gar - the second row of teeth in the upper jaw. Other IL gar species (long nose, short nose, and spotted do not have the second row of teeth)
After releasing 175 in the first spot we headed off to the second location to release the remaining fish. A total of 351 were released on the lower Kaskaskia. An additional approximately 350 were released earlier in the day at Horseshoe Lake in Madison County.
In 2010, the IDNR’s Division of Fisheries began an alligator gar reintroduction program. During that time, alligator gar were stocked in a few waterways, including the lower Kaskaskia River.
“We only stocked a few thousand in total at those sites and many of those were small, so survivability was questionable,” said Dan Stephenson, the IDNR’s Chief of Fisheries.
The program had a brief hiatus in 2014 – 2015, but times are changing, and this program is once again becoming active with more research backing up this stocking initiative to help ensure success of survivability.
Many Heartland readers will recall my initial encounter with a Kaskaskia River alligator gar from this post Alligator Gar in the Kaskaskia
Earlier this year a local boating group hosted a a public meeting with IDNR to address their concerns that reintroduction of the native fish could have a negative impact on recreational use of the lower Kaskaskia. IDNR officials and biologists quickly dispelled many rumors and myths that so often surround these toothy fish. There are no documented cases of an alligator gar ever attacking a swimmer, or a person period. People simply don’t look like a prey fish to an alligator gar. They are mostly secretive and docile fish who spend their days hiding in the brackish shallow backwaters.
Instead it is hoped that a breeding population will result from this reintroduction effort that will actually benefit local economies as anglers both pole and line and bowfishers visit the area specifically for an opportunity to harvest an alligator gar.
It’s important to understand that fish stocked were mostly in the 12-14 inch range and while they do grow somewhat quickly in the early years, it takes at least 11 years for a female to reach maturity and start reproducing. For the alligator gar to truly reach trophy fish size it’s long term process - there aren’t going to be trophy gator gar in the Kaskaskia for many years to come.
According Fisheries Chief Dan Stephenson, ” According to Stephenson:
“We now raise the fish to at least 12 inches before stocking so that their survival is vastly improved.” However, he cautions, more research still needs to be done to evaluate the survivability of this species and what needs to be done for successful reestablishment, which he predicts will be a challenge and take some time to net results. For instance, we know that female gar do not become sexually mature until the age of 11, and even then they may not necessarily spawn every year.
The reasons for reintroducing the alligator gar are twofold: Bringing back an extirpated species to Illinois waters is one of the goals. In addition, the alligator gar is becoming a popular trophy quarry for sportsmen in the southern part of their range, Louisiana and Texas. Bowfishing enthusiasts in particular enjoy pursuing the huge fish.
For those of you worried that alligator gar would be detrimental to popular sportfish species, biologists say the alligator gar is an opportunistic predator that mostly targets shad and rough fish, such as carp. However, IDNR biologists warn that controlling Asian carp is not the reason for this reintroduction. Though alligator gar are an apex predator that will take Asian carp, nothing can control the their population right now. In the long-term, creating commercial markets for Asian carp will be the best hope of reducing their numbers.
To answer another note of concern to some, there is no documented evidence suggesting that Alligator Gar will bite a swimmer. That has been a concern posed to the Department. Swimmers simply don’t look like a prey species to an Alligator Gar.”
Currently there are four types of Gar found in Illinois: Spotted, Shortnose, Longnose and now the alligator gar. Alligator gar were not traditionally found in large numbers in Illinois, and though they do grow quickly, it remains to be seen how successful the program will ultimately be as females mature and reproduce in 11+ years. IDNR in cooperaton with USFWS and INHS will monitor this program closely and will implement creel and size limits if necessary as this population becomes established.
Until then we can read old accounts of huge gator gar rolling through the flooded trees and fields near the confluence of the Kaskaskia and Mississippi, and hope that this program is successful and one day the giant toothy primitive fish will once roam the lower Kaskaskia.
To effectively manage these prehistoric fish, the IDNR is working closely with University of Illinois researchers to study how Alligator Gar, in addition to the three other Gar species, grow, mature, reproduce and migrate to make certain these species continue to troll Illinois’ waterways.