Plans to reintroduce the alligator gar to Illinois now include a metro-east lake, and hundreds of the toothy fish will be released into its waters next week.
Biologists hope to release more than 300 of the fish — which can grow to more than 8 feet and 300 pounds — next week into Horseshoe Lake.
The state Department of Natural Resources had already planned to stock gar into the lower portion of the Kaskaskia River. But until now there has been no public discussion of also stocking them in Horseshoe Lake, which is near Granite City.
Illinois’ chief fisheries biologist, Dan Stephenson, said the number of alligator gar released at Horseshoe will depend on the final count of how many fingerlings have survived at the hatchery.
“But it will be somewhere around 350,” Stephenson said.
The baby gar have been growing at a hatchery in Southern Illinois, and are now about a foot long. Stephenson said gizzard shad at Horseshoe will provide a good forage base for the gar.
“Horseshoe Lake is located in the Mississippi River flood plain and connected to all the backwater areas during high-water events. So the thinking is, they will stay in the lake and grow quickly, feeding on the abundant gizzard shad population. But the next time we have a flood they will be able to move out into the Mississippi River bottoms, which is their typical native habitat,” Stephenson said.
He added, “We just hope the next flood isn’t soon. We’d like to give them a few years in the lake to get big, prior to being released into the flood-plain backwaters.”
The young alligator gar will be released into Horseshoe and the Kaskaskia on Thursday.
The prehistoric-looking alligator gar is the largest fish native to Illinois. It has not been seen in the state since the last documented alligator gar catch occurred in the Cache River cutoff channel in southern Illinois in 1966. It was officially declared extinct in Illinois in the 1990s.
The IDNR began an alligator gar reintroduction program in 2010, but it had been on hold for the past couple of years. Alligator gar were stocked at a few waterways, including the lower Kaskaskia River, during the couple of years that the reintroduction program was active. But wildlife officials say only a few, small fish were released during those stockings. They question whether many survived.
About 10,000 tiny alligator gar fry were shipped earlier this year from other states to the hatchery in Southern Illinois. Only a fraction of the fry were expected to survive. Stephenson has said he’d be happy if 2,000 grew big enough to be released.
Some recreational boaters on the Kaskaskia opposed the reintroduction plan. One of their arguments was that the big fish might scare or attack people.
DNR biologists have worked to allay those fears, and say there are no documented cases of alligator gar attacking people in the water. Humans simply aren’t on the gar’s menu, according to biologists.
One environmental group has suggested alligator gar could help control Asian carp, but Stephenson said it’s doubtful the gar could make a serious dent in the Asian carp population.
A female alligator gar isn’t sexually mature until it’s at least 11 years old. And they don’t necessarily reproduce every year. So biologists say it’s going to be a challenge for the newly-released gar to gain a foothold.
Stephenson has said the alligator gar is being stocked because the state has an opportunity to reintroduce a species that has been extirpated in Illinois, and it would provide a trophy quarry for fishermen.