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Return of the Gar

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The alligator gar belongs to a family of fish that has remained fundamentally unchanged since the Cretaceous, over 100 million years ago. Its intimidating size and plethora of teeth have made it demonized throughout its range in North America, resulting in needless killing. Massive oil spills in its breeding range have not helped its population either. Interspersing science, folklore, history, and action-packed fishing narratives, Spitzer's empathy for and fascination with this air-breathing, armored fish provides for an entertaining odyssey that examines management efforts to preserve and propagate the alligator gar in the United States.

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Introduction: The Gar Returns

ePub

The number one question I get asked about gar is why I'm so interested in them. My primary answer is that they're the coolest fish I've ever seen. I mean, just look at these things: They're from a tubular, fossil-fish family that's been around for over a hundred million years, they have an arsenal of deadly fangs, they have armored scales, and they can breathe air with lung-like organs. My secondary response, however, has to do with the mythology of this fish, which has historically been labeled a monster. Having always been intrigued by our fascination with creatures we attribute “supernatural” qualities to, I couldn't help actively investigating this symbolically rich, dragon-headed fish.

Along the way, I studied the science, the history, and the folklore of gar. I fished for them, wrote and published “garticles,” and explored their eco-issues. My research got picked up by the fishing celebrity Jeremy Wade of River Monsters fame, I caught gator gar with him and appeared on his show, and I also consulted for the Zeb Hogan Monster Fish episode on alligator gar produced by National Geographic. Around the same time, I hooked up with the international gar community, comprised mostly of biologists and fishery specialists. Then, in 2010, my first gar book, Season of the Gar: Adventures in Pursuit of America's Most Misunderstood Fish, came out from the University of Arkansas Press.

 

Chapter 1: The Spawn and Beyond

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A Metaphor for Sustaining Biodiversity as the Deepwater Horizon Spews into the Sea

When I pulled up to the flooded field, there was already a line of pickups parked on the edge of it. I could see a bunch of people standing in the shin-deep water where the river had consumed the gravel road. Lindsey Lewis, gar specialist from US Fish & Wildlife, was out there with three bowfishermen, and I could also see Ed Kluender, a graduate student in biology at my university who specializes in tracking movement patterns of gator gar in Arkansas. Ed had called me the night before and told me that the spawn was on. I told him I'd meet him at 8:00 a.m., so that's why I was there—with my canoe.

I passed a couple of the bowhunters’ wives, also standing in the water, and waded out to Lindsey and Ed. They were focused on the ditch alongside the upstream side of the road, as were the bowhunters, whose bows were lowered. But before I could even say a word, a mammoth back breached like a submarine. I could see its spotted tail and dorsal fin, and enough of that greenish-black checkered pattern on its gun-metal-gray armor to know it was a six-footer, at least.

 

Chapter 2: Gar vs. Sewage

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A Tragedy of Waste

“Now, gods, stand up for bastards!”

Lear, I. ii.

It started with a flimsy cardboard sign, impaled in a frosty, windblown field. The sign said that the local utility company, Conway Corporation, had applied for a permit for construction in the area known as Lollie Bottoms. There were no notices in the paper or on the news; just that lonely sign in that stark field informing 52,000-plus citizens that a public meeting had been scheduled to discuss any questions or concerns.

I was alerted to this sign by a home owner who lived along the Arkansas River, a mile beneath the Toad Suck Dam. She had read about my water quality work with the Lake Conway Advisory Group in the local paper, and for some strange recurring reason, she singled me out as an eco-professor who knew how to assume a leadership role when developers rumble in with bulldozers—which was a far cry from the truth.

What I did know how to do was create controversy by calling attention to an issue and writing letters to the editor. Whereas she was concerned about her human neighbors, however, I was concerned about the gar.

 

Chapter 3: Finding Judas

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The True Meaning of “Fishing Support”

After an entire year of getting skunked (except for a few cats), the Fishing Support Group was more than discouraged. Still, “FSG,” as we also called ourselves, was not that discouraged at being discouraged, since we'd designed our joke of a group as an excuse to drink beer on the river while our wives participated in some sort of writing club. Whereas the wives denied that they were workshopping each other for therapy, us guys embraced the idea that we were going out once a week for the express purpose of providing each other support for angling angst that the ladies couldn't empathize with.

So that's who we were: Minnow Bucket, T-Bone, Ty-Stick, and Hollywood (the latter being me, since I'd been on TV defending gar). Those were our fishing nicknames. Suffice it to say, we were three professors and a payroll specialist—but not on Thursday nights.

Fishing Support Group was mostly active in the summer. We'd go out when the day cooled down, bring minnows, worms, sometimes livers, our fishing poles, and a bunch of jug lines (mostly plastic vodka bottles strung with circle hooks and railroad ties as weights). We'd take my 1959 Whitehouse Runabout (a.k.a. the Lümpabout) that I salvaged from a lake in Missouri, and we'd launch on the Arkansas, usually below the Toad Suck Dam.

 

Chapter 4: Enter the Next Generation

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For the first time in my life, I felt confident enough to claim that things were looking up for gar, due to the fact that they'd made the mainstream. In Mississippi, a commercial fisherman on Lake Chotard had hauled in a world record alligator gar tangled in his net. It was eight-feet five-inches long, forty-eight inches in girth, weighed 327 pounds, and the images had instantly gone viral. Also, a federal jury in Texas had just convicted a fisherman in an international gator gar sting, and the news had spread like wildfire. The guy caught four four-footers on the Trinity River and transported them to Florida where he kept them in a swimming pool. This gar-monger then sent them off to a corporation in Japan and ended up busted for illegally transporting fish across state lines. Plus, millions of viewers of Hillbilly Handfishin’ had recently witnessed a gar in Oklahoma attack a city slicker's shiny pendant, flashing like a minnow. The show then cut to some stock footage of an aquarium gar, to let us get a gander at one. The fish they showed, however, was a saltwater Atlantic gar (a.k.a. needlefish), which is totally different from freshwater gar in the US.

 

Chapter 5: Gar Rodeo in the Cajun Swamp

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Judge Not, Lest Y’all Be Judged Yourself!

“You ain't a activist, are ya?” the manager asked me on the phone. “Because we don't need no PETA getting all up in our grille.”

“No, no, no,” I replied. “I'm just a gar-writer trying to learn as much as I can. I want to come down and check out your gar-fest, meet the people, see the fish.”

He was worried that I might judge their event harshly and get the animal rights folks all up in a lather. For the twenty-sixth year in a row, the Blind River Bar was holding its annual “gar rodeo,” a jugfishing tournament in which self-professed coon-asses from all corners of the Cajun swamp converge on the Diversion Canal of Lake Maurepas, Louisiana, for a weekend of good old fashioned redneck revelry and gar-fishing action. Last year, sixty-five boats entered the competition, they brought in thousands of pounds of alligator gar, then had a major gar-feast.

When I was researching gar rodeos (which is what gar-fishing contests are usually called), the Blind River Bar's website stuck out from the rest. They were definitely the most popular one going on in the Deep South or anywhere, and the fact that the bar was only accessible by boat made the prospect even more intriguing. Their gallery of photos featuring buxom barmaids based on the Hooters prototype and their Coyote-Ugly-spring-break atmosphere designed for hot young binge-drinkers provided for the promise of a colorful adventure. Since gator gar were at the center of the festivities, I knew I had to investigate.

 

Chapter 6: Bromancing the Gar

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In Pursuit of Trinity River Seven-Footers

When I lit off for Texas in October, I had no idea what the story was supposed to be. To get the research travel grant from my university, I explained that my investigation on “the changing gar-scape on the Trinity River” would examine the effects of the new state laws for alligator gar. Meaning I intended to evaluate the management plans on this fishery now that commercial fishing and bowhunting had been reduced. But as I told my pal Minnow Bucket—who was just as psyched to catch a big gator gar—my real goal was a seven-footer.

We were in my 1999 Jeep Laredo towing my bat-finned runabout. Everything that could've gone wrong already had. That's why we were winding through a rutted farm road in the middle of roadkill-nowhere, detoured by construction and poorly marked roads. The sun was going down, we still needed to buy fishing licenses and groceries, but worst of all, we were in a dry county.

At least I had sponsorship, though. My friend the wildlife writer Catfish Sutton had set me up with Penn Rod and Reels, who had sent two brand new heavy-duty combos: a mongo 330GT bait-caster on a seven-foot Ugly Stik, and a golden 750SSm spinfisher on an equally tough Slammer pole designed for hauling deep-sea dino-fish up from the depths of hell. Both of these were equipped with 100-pound woven test. I also had support from Daiichi Hooks and Tackle, who had sent hundreds of bucks’ worth of gear, mostly gynormous circle hooks.

 

Chapter 7: After the Florida Gar

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Navigating the Glades of “Deep Connectivity”

On the flight to Miami I dug into the information I'd collected on Lepisosteus platyrhincus, or as it's commonly known, the Florida gar. Out of the five North American species, this is the only kind of gar I hadn't yet caught. If it wasn't the rarest of its kind (being endemic to Florida, Georgia, and a corner of South Carolina), it was generally considered an economy-sized gar that hardly ever exceeded three feet. The world record was a ten pounder, but most of them weigh just a few pounds. Fishing-worldrecords.com, however, lists a suspect twenty-one-pound Florida gar caught in Boca Raton in 1981, and a thirty-two-pounder caught in unknown waters by unknown methods in an unknown year. An exceptionally long four-foot-four Florida gar was also documented by various credible sources.

Still, from the lack of literature regarding this fish, it was pretty much evident that not a lot was known about it. Biologywise, there were only a few peer-reviewed studies, mostly having to do with movement patterns, immune systems, reproduction, and the amount of metals in tissue samples. Their closest relative was the spotted gar, which Florida gar differ from in respect to number of caudal rays. The Florida gar also lacks scales beneath the throat. Hybrids between Florida gar and spotted gar had been documented, but for the most part, their territories didn't overlap.

 

Chapter 8: First-World Problems in Third-World Countries

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Trolling for Tropical Gar

So I lit off for Nicaragua to investigate the most mysterious gar: Atractosteus tropicus, alias the tropical gar. Compared to other gars, there's just not much literal knowledge about this fish. For instance, the Gar Anglers Sporting Society (GASS) website notes, “The Truth is still murky…. Maximum size? Unknown. Clearly they get as big as their close cousins, our alligator gar. Alligator gar of over 300 pounds have been documented.” But according to our limited info, the heaviest known tropical gar on record is 6.4 pounds, and they rarely exceed 1.25 meters in the wild—so clearly, they don't get as big as gator gar.

Anyway, since my wife wasn't about to let me go off alone on such an exotic adventure, she was along for the ride—to the Rio San Juan, which marks Nicaragua's border with Costa Rica, as well as the southernmost known population of tropical gar in the country. The GASS website recommended the guide service San Carlos Sport Fishing, and since they were accredited with the International Game and Fish Association (IGFA), we had purchased an all-inclusive fishing trip based out of the Jungle River Lodge on Lake Nicaragua. This five-night six-day package included air-transportation from Managua, fishing licenses, guides, bait, boat, tackle, accommodations, three meals a day, and beer.

 

Chapter 9: Thailand's Lake-Monster Fisheries

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Investigating Gator Gar and Arapaima

My mission in Asia was three-fold: 1) to investigate the concept of “fishing parks” in Thailand, 2) to catch an alligator gar, and 3) to catch an arapaima, which is a massive, prehistoric, boneheaded fish from South America. That's why I had signed on with Siam Fishing Tours, whose website boasted gator gar and other top predators, such as mongo Mekong catfish, mega giant snakeheads, behemoth barramundi, cattle-sized carp, and the already mentioned monster-fish, arapaima. Such super-sized trophy fish had been put into man-made lakes surrounded by huts you can order food and drinks from while catching exotic species all day. These fisheries are becoming increasingly popular in Thailand, especially with Australians, Canadians, and European sport fishermen.

Robin and I were picked up in Bangkok at 6:00 a.m., then shuttled down to the southwest tendril of the country for one of the most unusual angling adventures we'd ever been on. We arrived at Jurassic Mountain in less than three hours, and before nine, we were on the lake, which was situated amongst rice paddies, dramatic straight-up-into-the-sky mountains rising through the mist around us, bejungled with vines and coconut trees. The five-meter-deep lake was only the size of two city blocks, but there were jumbo species everywhere. I saw one of the two six-foot gator gars roll, but that was nothing compared to the other creatures coming up in the lake. It was full of 200- to 300-pound arapaimas, some almost nine feet long, surfacing like submarines. They'd shove the water away with tsunami force, and then you'd see their backs rise. And continue to rise. And just when you thought it was all over, here'd come its dorsal fin, and then the tail. Some were an electric neon mauve, and others were an ominous black.

 

Chapter 10: Long Live the Pejelagarto!

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A Culture of Aquaculture Thriving in Mexico

From what I'd read about the role of the tropical gar in the state of Tabasco, I knew I had to investigate the pejelagarto (meaning “fish-lizard”). Since there were numerous fish farms in Mexico raising gar for research and food, plus a culinary culture based on this Mexican tropical gar, I hopped a plane to Villahermosa, got myself a rental car, and took off for Comalcalco to meet Gabriel Márquez Couturier. “Gabo” runs the state-of-the-art Otot-Ibam aquaculture facility for gar, he's a biology professor at the Universidad Juárez Autónoma de Tabasco, and he'd been working with pejelagartos for thirty years.

Part of my mission was to find out why gar-farming had become so popular in this part of the world, and part of the answer was that the environment there had been severely crippled by the oil industry. For example, there'd been sixty-three leaks in 1993, ninety-nine in 1994, and 135 in 1995. According to a document entitled “Human Rights and Environment in Tabasco,” written by an international human rights delegation in 1996, “The state of Tabasco on the Gulf Coast of Mexico is experiencing an ecological and political crisis stemming from more than two decades of intense and reckless exploitation of the state's petroleum reserves by Petroleos Mexicanos (PEMEX),” which sells 85 percent of its exports to the US. Among twenty types of damage to the ecosystem listed in this document are “hydrocarbon spillage” coming in at number one, and “toxic releases, hydrological disruption, and acid rain generated by petroleum extraction and processing…[which] has practically wiped out fish populations in many streams, rivers, and lagoons, effectively destroying the ancestral livelihoods of many Tabascans.”

 

Conclusion: Return of the Gar

ePub

Without any warning, the sixty-five-year-old Pegasus pipeline burst in Mayflower, Arkansas. It was a twenty-two-foot rupture in a twenty-inch-diameter hose originally designed to pump unrefined oil from the South to the North, where the refineries used to be. Now, however, it was pumping a rougher viscosity Canadian tar-sand “heavy crude” in the opposite direction. The result was, according to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration faction of the Department of Transportation: an estimated 3500 to 5000 barrels (or 200,000+ gallons) of toxic, noxious, fuming “bitumen” (as ExxonMobil calls it) burbling up from a suburban lawn.

It immediately filled the streets, flowed into rain gutters, found its way into a drainage creek, and flowed straight down the hill. Twenty homes had to be evacuated due to the poisonous air that sickened children in the school by the spill. But humans were the least of my concern. That crap was spilling straight into Lake Conway, on which I live.

 

Garpendix

ePub

The following schedule for the 2010 International Gar Conference is provided to show an overview of the cutting-edge gar research currently going on in the global gar community, and to credit some of the lead researchers in Lepisosteid research directly with their work. This information was taken from the URL www.nicholls.edu/bayousphere/workinggroup/Program.pdf. Stay tuned to this website for information on the next international gar conference. Printed with permission from the International Network for Lepisosteid Fish Research and Management.

PROGRAM AGENDA FOR THE JOINT MEETING OF THE INTERNATIONAL NETWORK FOR LEPISOSTEID FISH RESEARCH AND MANAGEMENT

AND THE SOUTHERN DIVISION OF THE AMERICAN FISHERIES SOCIETY ALLIGATOR GAR TECHNICAL COMMITTEE

MAY 25–28, 2010

NICHOLLS STATE UNIVERSITY
THIBODAUX, LOUISIANA

TUESDAY MAY 25, 2010: Room 201 Gouaux Hall, Nicholls State University (NSU)

10:00-4:00 Gar Aging Workshop (Lunch Provided; Pre-registration required)

 

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