Tuesday, April 19, 2011

A Short and Interesting History of Alligator Gar Fishing

A Short and Interesting History of Alligator Gar Fishing

The Alligator Gar has been getting a lot of press in the past years, from lengthy articles in The Wall Street Journal to being featured on the always entertaining TV show River Monsters. I thought it might interest some people to find that this fish has captured the American imagination since the earliest days of sporting literature.

The first true sporting magazine in America was the American Turf Register, which wrote (albeit infrequently) on fishing. In 1834, they published a full length article entitled "The Alligator Pike" in which the author, H.O.L., declared:

The gar, or as this species is called, the Alligator gar, of our rivers answers to the shark of the ocean, and indeed, they are very like the shark in their habits, which, to say the least of them, are very bad. He is as formidable as the shark; armed with triple rows of teeth, he preys indiscriminately on the whole finny tribe. And indeed, every thing of a fleshy nature that is dropped in the river, finds its way into his jaws…I instantly resolved on his destruction' and accordingly returned home, provided myself with three large hooks, the wire of which was about the size of an ordinary goose-quill; these I attached to the end of a small bed cord or clothes line…he yielded himself a willing sacrifice, and I drew him on shore without further difficulty. He measured just eight feet two inches in length, and weighed one hundred and fourteen pounds.

If the Turf author had a modicum of respect for the Gar, the noted outdoor writer Frank Forrester, (a.k.a. W.H. Herbert), dismissed this massive fish in his 1849 book Fish and Fishing. In his introduction, he wrote:

It is true that no sportsman captures that, which, captured, is worthless; and that to be game, whether bird, beast, or fish, is to be eatable. Therefore it is eatable fish alone that I propose to treat. Hence my non-mention of that very curious ifs, the Garpike or Alligator Gar…he is no more game than the Shark or Dog-Fish, both of which men catch for fun.

His omission caused one of his major reviewers in The Literary World (October 6, 1849) to scold him for it. The reviewer declared "Little attention has been paid to the fish, and none to the fishing of the extreme south. The omission of one variety we were much surprised at, the "Alligator Gar, which has lately attracted much attention, and is, we understand, pronounced by M. Agassiz to be the only connecting link between the antediluvian and the present era of fish."

The greatest American angling writer of his day, Thaddeus Norris, made no such mistake in his classic American Angler's Book (1864). Norris wrote:

In the waters along the Gulf of Mexico, Gars are frequently an annoyance to the fisherman; they appear sometimes in numbers, scaring away other fish, taking off one's bait, and often cutting the line with their sharp teeth, while there is hardly a possibility of hooking them in their hard bony jaws. I have tried frequently to secure one, but was never successful. A friend has since told me of a way of taking them…A noose is made by passing a string through a fish of suitable size, say of seven or eight inches, lengthwise, which can be done with a long baling-needle, and then through a loop at the other end of the string, where it is tied to the tip of a long pole or stout reed. The fish is adjusted so as to form the base of a triangle, the slip-knot being at the upper angle, nearest the pole. This triangular snare is then displayed on the surface of the water, and dabbled up and down to attract the notice of the Gar, which soon appears, and as it seizes the fish crosswise (which is its custom) it runs its long upper jaw or rather its bill into the noose, when the string is tightened by lifting the pole, and the Gar drawn ashore. I have heard it said that the Alligator Gar has been token as long as eight feet.

The Gar received a surprising amount of coverage in national magazines. Bailey's Magazine was but one of many who wrote of the Alligator Gar. Major Arthur Griffiths declared in its pages in October 1869:

If an alligator gar appears, you must go to fresh streams and waters new, for he too is fishing. In appearance he is a cross between a pike and a huge eft, and is most unsportsmanlike in his conduct; for he will hide till you catch a fish, and then grab it for himself right under the landing net. I have known him to seize a man's hand as he drew a croaker from the water. He has a habit of running off with your bait (pretending to be a red-fish) for some fifty yards, and then spitting it out. You hook him, he bites the line off close to the hook, so that only that is lost, and you have a good riddance of him.

The Gar was often brought in for humorous reasons, and often described through the eyes of African-American or Creole characters. George Shields, author of Rustlings in the Rockies (1883), used the Alligator Gar as just such an interlude. He wrote:

We had as a fellow passenger the Reverend Dr. Spalding, of Atlanta, Ga., who is an enthusiastic fisherman. He gave us a most humorous account of an experience he had while fishing in Mobile Bay last summer. He and a friend were fishing for sea trout with excellent success but were greatly annoyed by a large fish that kept breaking their hooks. They procured larger hooks and he broke those. They got the largest the tackle dealer had and he broke those with equal facility. Then they went to a blacksmith, and had him make some hooks of quarter-inch steel wire. These were too much for him, but he now got away by cutting the line. Then they put on copper wires for leaders and used a small-sized clothes line for the main line, baiting with a large-sized mullet cut in two. This time the Doctor said he fastened him sure and no mistake. He was afraid to risk his strength to hold Mr. Fish so he took a hitch around a convenient pile to let him play. When slightly tamed the Doctor and his friend doubled on the line and hauled in their prize, hand over hand. When landed he proved to be an alligator gar six feet long, and weighing a hundred and sixty pounds. The Doctor said that thereafter whenever he lost a hook he at once baited his iron-clad tackle with a large mullet, and brought the intruder to speedy justice.

As the twentieth century dawned, the Gar continued to serve as a foil for angling writers. Writing in Forest & Stream, Peter Holte noted in the September 17, 1910 issue that:

Sometimes a fish is an inconvenient occupant of a boat. A large alligator gar gave me an uncomfortable quarter-hour at one time. With a companion I was paddling and pushing a canoe up a short, rough rapid when I touched the gar with the paddle as he lay among some weeds. He jumped out of water and landed in the canoe, and in thrashing about entangled his teeth in the string of the only pouch of tobacco we possessed. To stop just then was out of the question, and until the head of the rapid was gained I was in a predicament. The gar's spines had already lacerated my right arm slightly as he came aboard; in jumping about he pricked my bare feet and ankles, and if he had jumped overboard with the tobacco, our loss would have been severe, as we were away back in the woods. To subdue him was not an easy matter. The precious smoke material was saved eventually, but every spine-prick was swollen and painful for days afterward.

Interestingly, the nadir of the Alligator Gar seems to have been the last third of the twentieth century. Now, however, it appears to have had a Renaissance, so the next time you read about the Alligator Gar on the internet or in a magazine, remember that America has a had a long an interesting love affair with this fish.

-- Dr. Todd

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