Welcome Back To Illinois, Alligator Gar

May 9, 2017

Credit IDNR

A huge fish that has been considered extinct in Illinois for over 50 years is being reintroduced into Illinois waterways.  The goal is to bring back a native species known as the alligator gar. 

The fish was native in the southern part of the state.  It is the largest gar species and second largest freshwater fish in North America, next to the white sturgeon. Illinois had some measured at more than 8 feet long and weighing more than 170 pounds.  But the last one caught was in the 1960’s.

Dan Stephenson is head of the IDNR Fisheries Division said loss of habitat was one reason for the decline, and then the disappearance.  

“Because they’re big and the teeth and everything, people didn’t like them. So there was a lot of you catch them and kill them,” he said.

Some have proposed the alligator gar as a way to combat the spread of Asian carp, the invasive species.  But Stephenson plays down that possibility.

Credit IDNR

“There’s never going to be enough (alligator gar) to have an impact on the Asian carp,” Stephenson said. “Also, if you look at the mouth, it can’t take very big prey. The Asian carp grows so quickly, within a few months they’re too big for even the biggest of alligator gar to take.”

Alligator gar tend to feed on shad.  He adds they aren’t considered a threat to humans or larger animals, like dogs. 

The fish are considered more of a trophy for sportsmen.  While they are edible, they aren’t usually caught for that purpose.

Illinois stocked only about 1600 alligator gar last year at Powerton Lake State Fish and Wildlife Area in Tazewell County, Sanganois State Fish and Wildlife Area in Cass County, Horseshoe Lake State Park in Madison County and Kaskaskia River State Fish and Wildlife Area in St. Clair County.  Stephenson would like to see about 5,000 stocked annually.

The Fish Species Management Plan for alligator gar in Illinois is available online.

“There are hundreds of miles of rivers and only a few thousand (gar) to stock every year,” he said. ”It is really a long term project.”