Fishing in Florida: Alligator Gar

Ashley Hunter
ECB Publishing, Inc.

The torpedo-shaped body and dual row of large, sharp teeth are some of most the distinctive features of one of Florida's freshwater fish species.
Perhaps unsurprising, due to their name, alligator gar are predators that will also ambush and eat smaller fish, as well as unlucky water fowl and small mammals that venture into the gar's hunting grounds.
An alligator gar's preferred method of hunting is to float a few feet below the surface of the water and wait for unsuspecting prey to swim within reach.
Diet studies have shown alligator gar to be opportunistic piscivores and occasional scavengers, depending on the accessibility of their preferred food sources.
Occasionally, alligator gar will hunt sport fish, but stomach content studies of alligator gar suggest they feed predominately and prefer on forage fishes, such as gizzard shad and invertebrates, with the occasional water fowl.
Diet studies on alligator gar have also revealed fishing tackle and boat-engine parts in their stomachs.
Due to habitat destruction, unrestricted harvests and indiscriminate culling (as gar were considered “nuisance fish” for nearly half a century), many of the gar's historic habitats has been eliminated.
Despite those trials, alligator gar made a surprising comeback and have been identified as a euryhaline species that can adapt to a range of varying water salinities, such as freshwater lakes, swamps, and even brackish marshes and estuaries.
Numbers for alligator gar are dwindling due to habitat loss and over-fishing, and in many areas, local ordinances and rulings are being made to protect Alligator Gar from further loss.
While it's believed that the habitats of alligator gar once stretched further northward, alligator gar are usually found throughout several southern states, including Mississippi, Alabama, Florida and Georgia.
This cunning and predatory fish is not an easy catch; experienced anglers will have to fight against the gar's huge size and great strength.
While not every alligator gar is a giant, this species can grow to weigh over 300 pounds and up to 10 feet in length.
In addition to being a river monster, the alligator gar resists even experienced anglers by cutting through most fishing lines easily with it's sharp teeth.
Those sharp teeth can also provide a nasty bite to incautious fishermen, though there is no recorded incident where an alligator gar went out of its way to attack or harm swimmers.
A particularly interesting ability of the alligator gar is their ability to breathe air when out of the water. This also adds to the fight that fishermen must prepare for when setting lures for the gar, as the fish is not immediately subdued even while it appears to be 'resting' in the bottom of the boat; the gar can put up a second fight. With renewed energy, even after being captured.
The best lures to use when fishing for alligator gar is a cut bait, jigs, live minnows, or spoons.
Experts recommend using bait casting, drift fishing or still fishing methods when trying to secure an alligator gar on your fishing line.
While the alligator gar can be found in a wide variety of fresh and brackish waters, and slow moving rivers are the ideal environments for these tough, hardy fish.
Alligator gar can also be found in spring holes, around sunken or submerged objects, in open water, near gradual shores, under walkaways and bridges, inside turns and coves, in outlets and inlets, shoreline shallows, and around points and break lines.
Little is known about the life history of alligator gar. These slow-growing fish can live up to 50 years old and the adult gar have very few natural predators (aside from humans).
It is believed that alligator gar spawn in late spring, between April and June.
Alligator gar have a long history alongside fishermen; Native Americans in the south, and Caribbean peoples used the alligator gar's thick, armor-like scales for arrow heads and breastplates.
Early settlers tanned the skins to make a strong, durable leather to cover their wooden plows, and make purses and various other items.
These prehistoric river giants have long lived alongside the people of the south, but with modern flooding preventatives (alligator gar's preferred habitat is flood plains), as well as the fact that the fish is rigorously hunted due to it's trophy size and tarnished reputation as a “trash fish”, the alligator gar might be facing troubling times in the future.
In the state of Florida, it is illegal to possess alligator gar without a permit; these fish must be released immediately.
Through only taking what is needed and observing catch-and-release tactics for snared gar, fishing for alligator gar can be an exciting thrill for generations of fishermen to come.