Texas Moves to Protect Trophy Alligator Gar Fishery

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Both rod-and-reel and bow-fishing anglers prize 100-pound-plus alligator gar like this one from the Trinity River.ATHENS, Texas — The 82-inch, 140-pound alligator gar I pulled from the Trinity River in April 2008 will likely remain my fish of a lifetime.

Many other anglers can probably say the same-or would love to be able to.

That’s the goal of the new one-fish-per-day limit imposed on alligator gar harvest that goes into effect September 1, 2009.

Under the new regulation, only one alligator gar of any size per day may be taken by anglers or bow-fishers. Anglers may keep only one, and bow-fishers may shoot only one fish per day.

Proper management of the fishery is the key to providing the opportunity to land a trophy alligator gar for present and future generations of anglers. “A management strategy that ensures sustainability while allowing all types of anglers to continue to utilize the fishery is the goal,” said Dave Buckmeier, a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) fisheries biologist now studying alligator gar populations.

Buckmeier is leading several studies designed to provide information about key population characteristics, including population size, growth, recruitment and habitat needs.

Until those scientific studies are completed and management regulations crafted to fit each population, TPWD has opted to take a statewide approach to regulating alligator gar harvest-an approach being used in other states, Buckmeier said. “Texas is fortunate to have the best remaining trophy alligator gar fishery in the world, and we want to make sure it is available to future generations.”

While some people choose to fish for gar with rod and reel, as I did, many others prefer to bow-fish. Steve Barclay and Sam Lovell specialize in guiding bow-fishing trips for alligator gar on the Trinity River. “[The new regulation] is fine from our standpoint,” Barclay said. “We have always limited our clients to one fish a day. When rod and reel fishing you can catch and release, but when bow-fishing, if a client takes a fish, that’s it for the day. Nobody has a stronger interest in healthy gar populations in numbers and size than we do, because it’s our livelihood.”

Kirk Kirkland guides rod-and-reel anglers for alligator gar on the Trinity, and he has been assisting TPWD with data collection since 2007. “Kirkland has been doing a mark and recapture study from US 287 above Palestine down to Lake Livingston,” Buckmeier said. “Last year he tagged and noted recaptures from more than 350 alligator gar.”

What information is known about alligator gar suggests that protecting the large fish that anglers tend to target is a vital component of a successful management strategy. “Alligator gar mature between 10 to 14 years of age and are thought to spawn in flooded backwater areas,” Buckmeier said. “Because spawning is linked to seasonal flooding, successful spawns may be infrequent.” And because gar spawn in shallow water, they are vulnerable to overharvest during this crucial time in their life cycle.

In addition, human activities have significantly altered alligator gar habitat over the last century. Reservoir-building and the loss of wetlands have reduced the amount of spawning habitat available. Increased water demands by our growing population will further reduce spring-time flooding of riverine backwaters needed for spawning. Such conditions will reduce the frequency of successful spawns and increase the need to limit harvest to sustainable levels.

In the case of the Trinity River, a number of successful spawns in recent years is good news for the fishery. “Those fish will support the fishery 25 to 35 years from now if they survive,” Buckmeier points out.

His comment illustrates another key fact about the alligator gar fishery: managing it is a long-term process.

“With the aid of anglers, TPWD is working to get additional data that will improve our ability to manage alligator gar at a waterbody or population level,” Buckmeier said.

 “We are providing TPWD with otoliths [ear bones] from fish our clients harvest along with data on fish harvest that will help TPWD develop better aging techniques,” Barclay said. “Without a doubt, we can have a positive impact on gar populations through proper management. We support science-based management on a waterbody-by-waterbody basis.”

It’s the job of biologists like Buckmeier to provide that science, but in the meantime, TPWD wants to be sure there will be alligator gar to manage once the research is done. “In Texas, increased fishing pressure for alligator gar and future degradation of habitats potentially threaten existing alligator gar populations,” Buckmeier said. “The declines in other states and vulnerability to overfishing indicate a conservative approach is warranted until populations and potential threats can be fully assessed.”

Anglers play the key role in conserving the species they fish for. In 2009 TPWD biologists began collecting otoliths and tissue samples from alligator gar around the state with the help of local anglers. “It is vital for anglers and biologists to collaborate in order to better understand the species and this important fishery,” said TPWD biologist Dan Bennett. “This will improve resource managers’ ability to find the best solutions to ensure current and future generations have the opportunity to catch a trophy alligator gar.”

Anglers, taxidermy studios or bow-fishing tournaments wishing to provide samples to TPWD should contact Bennett at (903) 439-8331 or dan [dot] bennett [at] tpwd [dot] state [dot] tx [dot] us.