Art Lander’s Outdoors: Kentucky’s Alligator Gar Restoration Program Celebrates 13th Year


Alligator Gar (Image by KDFWR)

Now in its 13th year, the Kentucky Alligator Gar (Atractosteus spathula) Restoration Program continues its long-term goal of restoring self-sustaining populations of this ancient fish to suitable habitat in the state.

In Fishes of Kentucky (1975), author William M. Clay wrote that the Alligator Gar is “rare, but evidently still present in the Ohio River and some of its tributaries”. He cited personal communications with fisheries biologists and historical records of naturalists, noting confirmed sightings in the Ohio River basin in Kentucky as far upstream as Bracken County.

But indiscriminate harvesting, persecution with guns and nets, and a loss of wetland habitat have brought this native species to the brink of extinction in Kentucky. The Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR) reported on its website that sightings were sporadic between 1925 and 1977.

Art Lander Jr. is outdoor editor for the Northern Kentucky Tribune. He is a native Kentuckian, a graduate of Western Kentucky University, and a hunter, fisherman, gardener, and nature enthusiast. He has worked as a newspaper columnist, magazine reporter, and author and is a former editor of Kentucky Afield Magazine, editor of the annual Kentucky Hunting & Trapping Guide and Kentucky Spring Hunting Guide, and co-editor of the Kentucky Newspaper Column. Afield Outdoors.

Confirmed sightings during this period included: 1) the Cumberland River, three miles below Dycusburg, County Crittenden (1925); 2) Ohio River at Shawnee Steam Plant, McCracken County (1975); 3) mouth of the Ohio River, on the Ballard/Carlisle County line (1966); 4) mouth of Bayou de Chien, Fulton County (1974); and 5) Kentucky Lake in Cypress Creek Bay, Calloway County (1976).

The Alligator Gar’s range once extended across West Florida on the Gulf Coastal Plain to Veracruz, Mexico and throughout the Mississippi Basin as far north as the rivers Lower Ohio, Cumberland and Tennessee into Kentucky. The fish’s preferred habitat includes large, slow-moving rivers, reservoirs, oxbow lakes, and bayous.

Recent studies suggest that populations are well below historic levels and may be declining in some states. Due to Kentucky’s population decline over the past century, and its near total absence in recent decades, the Alligator Gar has been listed as a “species in greatest need of conservation” in the United States Plan. action for KDFWR wildlife.

In 2009, a long-term restoration program was launched in partnership with the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS).

Wild-caught adult fish from southern waters populations are spawned at the private John Allen National Hatchery in Tupelo, Mississippi. Then their fry are shipped to Pfeiffer Fish Hatchery and Minor Clark Fish Hatchery in Kentucky, where they are raised to storage size, before being released into western waters. Kentucky where suitable habitat remains. In recent years, Alligator Gar has been stored in McCracken, Ballard, Livingston, Crittenden, Union, Carlisle, Fulton, and Hickman counties.

In addition, stored Alligator Gar are tagged so that it can be determined in the future whether the captured fish were stocked or were the result of natural breeding.

Since the Alligator Gar is a long-lived and slow-maturing species, restoration and research will likely continue for decades. It takes 11 years for a female Alligator Gar to reach sexual maturity, six years for a male.

Watch a video of radio tagging Alligator Gar set to be released into Kentucky waters at

living fossil

The gar is a “living fossil,” one of Kentucky’s remarkable ancient fish. Scientists can trace the Alligator Gar 100 million years back in the fossil record.

The gar family, Lepisostidae, dates back to the Cretaceous geological period, which began about 145 million years ago.

Alligator Gar (Photo by US Fish and Wildlife Service)

It was a time when Earth had a relatively warm climate and high sea levels resulted in many shallow inland seas populated by now-extinct marine reptiles.
This family of ancient fish includes seven living species found in cool, brackish, and sometimes marine environments.

Gars are elongated and their slender bodies are armored with diamond-shaped scales (ganoids). Their beak-like jaws are filled with long, sharp teeth.

They are ambush predators and their elongated shape allows rapid movements to catch prey. While guys are generally avoided by commercial and sport anglers, they play an important role as a predator of rough fish species – carp, buffalo and suckers. Gar has a mild flavor and its flesh is firm and white, but gar eggs are poisonous to humans.

In Kentucky, gar is considered a rough fish, so there is no trap limit or minimum size limit.

The exception is the Alligator Gar, which cannot be harvested by any means, either by bowfishers or hook and line.

If caught by hook and line, they should be released immediately. If you see an Alligator Gar or catch one, report the capture or sighting to KDFWR Ichthyologist Matt Thomas at 502-892-4463.

The gar is a bimodal breather, meaning it has the ability to breathe both dissolved oxygen in water and atmospheric oxygen. This survival mechanism allows gar to thrive in unfavorable conditions, low dissolved oxygen waters that would be lethal to other fish species. The gar’s swim bladder functions like lungs as it rises to the surface to swallow air.

Gar was prominent in Native American religion and culture throughout the Southeast. The Creek and Chickasaw peoples had “ritual garfish dances”.

Alligator Gar one of four Kentucky species

An Alligator Gar captured at St. Catherine Creek Refuge in Mississippi (Photo by US Fish and Wildlife Service)

There are four species of gar in Kentucky.

The Alligator Gar is the largest of the living gar species and one of the largest freshwater fish in North America.

In 1975 Clay wrote that “the largest female on record, a female taken at Belle Island Lake, Vermilion Parish, Louisiana, measured nine feet, 8 1/2 inches long and weighed 302 pounds”.

The Alligator Gar is distinguished from other guys by its short, broad muzzle and heavy body. The coloring is olive above, becoming paler below, with dark spots on its fins.

The other three Kentucky gar species are:

• The long-nosed gar (Lepisosteus osseus) is easily distinguished from other guys by its extremely long and narrow snout.

The coloration is brown to olive green, becoming paler on the sides and whitish to pale yellowish below.

The Longnose Gar is the most abundant of Kentucky’s four species, common statewide in streams, rivers, and reservoirs, capable of reaching a length of six feet and weighing up to 50 pounds.

• Spotted Gar (Lepisosteus oculatus) has a unique pattern of large spots on the top of the head and body.

The coloration is brown to olive green, becoming paler on the sides and whitish to pale yellowish below.

• The shortnose gar (Lepisosteus platostomus) resembles spotted gar but lacks spots on head and body.

The coloring is olive green above, becoming yellowish to whitish on the sides and below, with spots on the caudal and dorsal fins. Both species are rather small, usually less than three feet long and weighing five to 10 pounds.

The loss of a single native fish species, especially a predator, can have a profound impact on the ecology of fish populations.

It may take decades to determine if this ancient fish, whose ancestors lived in inland seas millions of years ago when dinosaurs ruled the Earth, will swim, hunt and breed again in rivers, swamps and Kentucky cypress swamps.


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