Species Profile: Alligator Gar

Facts About the Life and Behavior of Alligator Gar

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Art by Duane Raver, courtesy USFWS

The alligator gar, Atractosteus spatula, is the biggest member of the primitive gar family and one of North America’s largest inland fish. A resilient species, it has an adaptable specialized air bladder that enables it to take in air at the surface, allowing it to survive in the poorest water conditions.

The tough, armor-like scales of this species were once used by Indians as arrowheads, and pioneer farmers covered their wooden plowshares with gar hides.

Alligator gar have been sought by commercial netters, fishermen using big game tackle, and others using steel-tipped arrows while bow fishing in ill-advised efforts to eradicate them from their natural habitats. 

ID. The alligator gar’s body is long and cylindrical, covered with heavy, ganoid scales. The snout is short and broad like an alligator, and there are two rows of teeth on either side of the upper jaw (other gar have only one). It has a single dorsal fin that is far back on the body above the anal fin and just before the tail. The tail is rounded and the pectoral, ventral, and anal fins are evenly spaced on the lower half of the body. Coloring is olive or greenish brown above and lighter below. The sides are mottled with large black spots. 

These and other gars are often mistaken for floating logs. The alligator gar can be distinguished from all other gars by the two rows of teeth in the upper jaw, its broader snout, and its large size when fully grown.

The alligator gar most closely resembles members of the pike family in body shape and fin placement, although the tail of these fishes is forked, not rounded.

Size. The giant of the gar family, the alligator gar still attains weights in excess of 100 pounds, though such fish are not common. Larger specimens are occasionally captured in commercial fishing nets.

The maximum size of alligator gar is not certain, although it is evidently over 300 pounds and more than 10 feet in length. The all-tackle world record is a 279-pound fish captured in the Rio Grande River in Texas in 1951. A 190-pounder caught in a net in Arkansas in 1997 was 7 feet 11 inches long.

Distribution. The range of the alligator gar extends from the Mississippi River basin of southwestern Ohio and southern Illinois south to the Gulf of Mexico, and from the Enconfina River of the western Panhandle of Florida west to Veracruz, Mexico.

Habitat. Large lakes, bays, backwaters, bayous, and coastal delta waters along large southern rivers are the preferred habitat of the alligator gar, although this fish is seldom found in brackish or marine waters. It prefers shallow, weedy environs and the sluggish pools and backwaters of large rivers, and can survive in hot and stagnant waters. Alligator gar are often seen floating at the surface. They occasionally come to the surface layer to expel gases and take air into their swim bladder.

Spawning. Spawning occurs in spring and early summer in shallow bays and sloughs. The female lays dark green eggs that stick to vegetation and rocks until they hatch in six to eight days.

The female is capable of producing as many as 77,000 eggs at once. The young are solitary and float at the surface like sticks.

Food. Although the alligator gar is infamous for eating almost anything from dead animals to ducks and popular gamefish, studies have revealed that the vast majority of its diet is comprised of gizzard shad, threadfin shad, golden shiners, and rough or coarse fish species.

Angling Summary. Though their numbers are drastically reduced today, alligator gar are not classified as gamefish by most state fisheries agencies, and are not regulated as to size or manner of fishing. There is virtually no concerted sportfishing for this species. Though they are strong, and sometimes spectacular, fighters on rod and reel, they have a very low following among anglers. These and other gars are occasionally caught incidentally on lures or on bait while using bottom-fishing rigs for catfish.

Focused angling efforts usually require the use of a wire leader to counter the needle-like teeth of these fish. They are pursued by a limited number of bow-and-arrow hunters.

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