The alligator gar has all the main characteristics of a trophy game fish. They eat a variety of baits and lures, they shoot like crazy, and most importantly, they’re giants. The species now has its own cult following in the angling community, with more and more people wanting to catch and release the 8-foot-long, 300-pound dinosaur. There is also a growing contingent of bow anglers who are eager to shoot these fish. But the species has not always been so popular.
Until recently, the alligator gar was reviled by most sport fishers. In some circles, they were even worse than a trash fish: a toothy, armored nuisance that ate bass, crappie, and other more desirable species. These negative perceptions have led to overexploitation in much of their native range.
Along with the advent of dam construction and flood control, which blocked their migration routes into the Mississippi and removed their ability to spawn, the overharvesting of gar had a severe impact on their populations. As their range diminished—from central Mississippi north to Ohio to the lower Mississippi and Gulf Coast watersheds—this overexploitation continued. At times in the last century, some state agencies even got involved in efforts to eradicate them.
This was certainly the case in Texas, which was (and still is) home to the healthiest alligator gar populations in the country. The complete lack of regulations on harvesting led to a hunt for guys that lasted until 2009, when the Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife established a statewide bag limit on a fish a day and implemented a mandatory harvest reporting program. (There are a few exceptions to this rule, but more on that later.)
Since then, biologists have finally taken the time to study this massive, ancient fish species that has long been misunderstood, and there is now a growing effort to conserve the alligator gar in the Lone Star State.
Collecting data and debunking misconceptions
“Before the last 12 years or so, very little was known about the alligator gar,” says Dan Daugherty, a fisheries research biologist at TPWD’s Heart of the Hills Fisheries Science Center. “They weren’t exactly considered a ‘prize fish’ until recently, so we’ve had a lot of catching up to do over the last decade.”
The state agency began studying the alligator gar around the same time it implemented the first-ever regulations for the species in 2009. By this time, TPWD had begun to see gar populations. crashing into neighboring states like Louisiana and Mississippi, and the agency didn’t want to lose the state’s largest and most enduring freshwater fish species.
As Daugherty explains, they are still gathering basic data on the species.
“You’re talking about a fish that lives 50 to 100 years, so you need a long history of data,” he says. But research in Texas has already revealed a lot about the species. More importantly, it helped debunk previous misconceptions about fish.
For starters, researchers now have a better understanding of the alligator gar’s long lifespan. They learned that fish grow rapidly, but only spawn when seasonal floods push water into floodplains, which is why flood control efforts and subsequent channeling of rivers have been so detrimental to the species.
They got better at aging alligator gar by examining a fish’s otolith and validating their estimates in the lab using more advanced techniques. The oldest fish ever caught by researchers in Texas was 63 years old, Daugherty says. But in 2011, TPWD received the otolith from an 8-and-a-half-foot gar captured in Mississippi, and biologists estimated his age at around 95 years old.
“Another thing we’ve learned that’s hypercritical is that virtually all of the large fish in these populations are females,” Dougherty says. “The males don’t live as long or get as big. And while everyone wants that big 7 or 8 foot alligator gar, we’ve learned how important those bigger, older females are.
Still, he says some of the most important research from a management perspective has been related to the eating habits of the alligator gar.
“Historically, alligator gar was thought to be bad for the more desirable species like crappie and bass. People just assumed that’s what they ate,” Daugherty says. actually opportunistic eaters. They mostly eat what’s most available, and in most systems that’s species like carp, suckers, and buffaloes, things like that. You occasionally find a largemouth bass or other sport fish [in one of their stomachs], but they are by no means a main part of their diet. No study has ever suggested this.
He goes on to explain that if you are making a list of the best bass fishing lakes in Texas, you will need to include Toledo Bend Reservoir, Choke Canyon Reservoir, Falcon Reservoir, and Lake Amistad. These man-made lakes are some of the most well-known stops on the Bassmaster tour, and they have been home to large populations of alligator gar since their formation.
“When you think about it this way,” Daugherty says, “the alligator gar can’t be bad for the big mouth. Most diehard bass anglers still have a loathing for them, but they’ve had great bass fishing on these lakes for years, and there’s always been alligator gar there.
The Falcon Reservoir, located on the border and co-managed by Mexico, is a particularly interesting case study for this long-misunderstood fish species. In 2012, Bassmaster Magazine ranked Falcon as the number one bass lake in the country. But the reservoir also has one of the most abundant gar populations in the state.
“The Last Free Bastion of Gar-Killing Heaven”
Falcon Reservoir is the only body of water in Texas where the one-fish-a-day harvest regulation does not apply. TPWD allows anglers to kill up to five alligator billfish per day on Falcon, and there are no slots or length limits. It’s also the only place in the state where anglers don’t have to declare every gar they harvest.
Randy Weber, TPWD District Fisheries Biologist for Southwest Texas, explains that while trap surveys have consistently shown that largemouth bass make up a very small portion of the diet of most garfish, the bass fishing community still views top predators as a threat to their fishery. And he says that community feedback – which weighs heavily – is a big part of why catch limits have been liberalized on the lake.
There is also a cultural component to Falcon’s regulation, as alligator gar meat is popular in many Hispanic cultures along the border. And while Daugherty doesn’t recommend eating trophy-sized guys, mostly because they live so long that contaminants build up in their flesh, he realizes there are plenty of people who will continue to eat them anyway.
Even with those liberal bag limits, however, Weber says there’s still plenty of gar swimming at Falcon. There are so many, he says, that a local tackle store owner still hangs a sign in the store that reads:
So why don’t you go down to Falcon, the last free bastion of guardian heaven. Where the guys are as thick as the hairs on a dog’s back, and where you can kill five a day if you want. And you don’t have to tell Mom about it either.
The Future of Alligator Gar Management in Texas
At the other end of the Texas management spectrum is the Trinity River, which is arguably the best place in the world to target the trophy-sized alligator gar. It’s where Jeremy Wade came to film an episode of River Monsters in 2009, and it’s now subject to the state’s strictest harvesting regulations.
In addition to a daily bag limit of one fish per day, Trinity River anglers must obtain a permit to harvest an alligator gar over 48 inches. The state also closes certain areas of the river to fishing during the spawning season.
“Our concerns about Trinidad have more to do with the strength of this fishery,” Daugherty says. “The fact is that Trinidad supports a vibrant fishery for the trophy alligator gar and we want that to continue.”
As Daugherty learned more about gator gar in the major river systems of Texas, he also discovered that their population composition changes depending on where you are in the river. He says they generally find limited concentrations of female giant gar higher up in the rivers, while lower reaches and bays along the coast tend to have many more smaller fish.
“We really managed these rivers as a whole,” he explains, “but now we see opportunities for management at a more localized or regional scale. So you might have different regulations with more liberal harvesting rules on the coast. But if you’re further upstream, where there aren’t as many and they’re more confined, maybe we don’t allow that as much.
Bowfishing for Alligator Gar
Bow fishing for alligator gar has also become very popular. A bow fisherman recently shot a huge 7ft 8in alligator gar at Falcon, but was criticized for killing the fish when the catch was posted on social media.
“[There have been] lots of great comments [on the post] and a few bad ones,” the bow fisherman’s brother, Gerardo Benitez, wrote. “When you go bowhunting for gar… you have 1 or 2 seconds at most to shoot, and it’s hard to say how good [the fish] is. We don’t waste the meat; we share it with our friends and family. Nothing is lost. The gar was measured several times and several witnesses were present. The final measurement was 7 feet 8 inches.
Regarding how anglers target alligator gar in Texas, Daugherty acknowledges that some bow anglers are frowned upon because “once you drop an arrow, that fish is basically dead,” he says. . But he adds that TPWD has never taken a position on one type of angler over another, and he personally believes bowfishing has its place if it is practiced in a sustainable way, and as long as the regulations of fisheries are based on the best available scientific data.
“Really, the premise of what I’m saying is that the more data we get, the more opportunities we see for tailored management, which would help us meet the needs of a diverse fishing community.”