Step Back in Time: See the Alligator Gar
Q: I read with interest your paper’s story Saturday about the state Department of Natural Resources planning to introduce alligator gar this week into Horseshoe Lake near Granite City. What’s the difference between these fish and gar currently in the lake?
Robert Diller, of Granite City
A: I’m sure you’re aware of the popular joke that when an angler describes a recent catch, the same fish grows larger and feistier with each retelling.
Well, in a nutshell, a progression in size describes in real life the difference among the four species of gar that now will be found swimming in Illinois lakes and streams once the alligator variety is reintroduced this week.
“Mostly, that’s it,” said Fred Cronin, district fisheries biologist at Horseshoe Lake. “They’re similar species, but alligator gar get a lot bigger.”
So let’s take them from smallest to largest, starting with the two species currently found in Horseshoe Lake — the shortnose gar and the spotted gar.
As its name implies, the shortnose variety is the smallest of the four, growing up to 30 inches long and weighing up to 5 pounds at maturity, according to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. Shortnose gar have a shorter and broader snout and fewer spots than either longnose or spotted gar, and, unlike the alligator gar, they also lack an upper jaw.
In Illinois, the largest shortnose gar ever caught with rod and reel was a smidge over 5 pounds in 1999 in the Vermilion River in LaSalle County.
A trifle larger is the spotted gar, which can grow to 45 inches and 6 pounds or heavier. As you might guess from their name, the spotted gar have many spots over their entire body and fins, often making them look darker in color than other gar species. The largest spotted gar ever landed in Illinois was a 7-pound, 13.4-ounce beauty in 2004 at Horseshoe Lake in Alexander County.
Once you get to the longnose gar, you’re starting to talk about big fish. Sometimes tipping the scales at more than 6 feet and 50 pounds, longnose gar have a very long and narrow snoot with plenty of the species’ characteristic needlelike teeth. Their olive or brownish bodies with white belly are long and cylindrical, covered with diamond-shaped, hard, non-overlapping scales. In 2006, Nathan Merideth pulled a 22-pounder from the Ohio River in Massac County. It’s possible there might be a rogue longnose or two in Horseshoe Lake here, but Cronin doubts it.
Finally, there’s the granddaddy of them all — the alligator gar, which, as we’ve reported, can reach monstrous sizes of up to 10 feet and 300 pounds, easily making it one of the largest freshwater fish in North America.
“Typically, alligator gar are a more Southern fish, but at one time they were in this part of Illinois,” Cronin told me. “So this is kind of an experiment to see if we can get them going. It’s just a project I sort of volunteered Horseshoe Lake for because it is one of the closest places we could find to what their preferred habitat would be — kind of a shallow, fertile backwater lake near a river.”
If he’s successful, he can’t wait to see the smiles on the anglers who land one.
“They will make a very interesting and probably desired sport fish if we did get them going for bow fishermen and hook-and-line anglers as well,” Cronin said. “To catch such a big trophy fish will be kind of cool. We might get some backlash about the fact that they might eat some sport fish, but from everything we know, they’re going to be primarily feeding on the gizzard shad and other rough fish.”
While it’s a hot subject, what’s the origin of “gar” as the name of a fish?
Answer to Sunday’s trivia: On Sunday, I wrote about Vasili Arkhipov, the Soviet submarine commander who refused to approve the launch of a nuclear torpedo during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, likely preventing World War III. In 1983, Stanislav Petrov did much the same thing. Three weeks after the Soviets had shot down Korean Air Lines Flight 007, Petrov was on duty when the Soviets’ nuclear early-warning system reported that the United States had launched as many as seven missiles at the Soviet Union. Petrov, however, figured that if the U.S. were launching a surprise attack, it wouldn’t use just a handful of missiles. Besides, old-fashioned radar never corroborated the firings, so Petrov decided the new system was malfunctioning. He was later given several honors and was the subject of the 2014 award-winning documentary “The Man Who Saved the World” by Danish filmmaker Peter Anthony.