When fisherman Butch Smith pulled his last line up from the Neosho River in Kansas one day last month, he wasn’t quite sure what he was looking at.
As a 4½-foot, nearly 40-pound fish thrashed around in his boat, Smith called up a buddy and said, “I’ve got something weird here.” Smith sent him a photo, and the friend called back with an answer: That’s an alligator gar.
“I’ve seen gar, but I ain’t never seen a gar with a head shaped like this,” Smith said in an interview, explaining that he first thought his catch may have been a flathead catfish.
That’s because the alligator gar had never before been documented in the state. Smith got in touch with the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks, and the fisheries division confirmed it was an alligator gar, a type of fish whose fossil records it says trace back nearly 100 million years. It gets its name from its wide head and broad snouts that resemble an American alligator.
Smith said that when he called the department, officials there were “just as shocked and surprised and stunned as I was.” His rare catch has set off a scramble to understand the origins of the fish and how it wound up in this water system.
Three gar species are native to Kansas, the longnose, shortnose and spotted gar.
Before the alligator gar was confirmed, Smith posted a photo on a Facebook page for “whisker seekers,” a catfishing group.
“A lot of people thought it was a spotted gar, or a shortnose. Some said alligator, but then people said they ain’t here,” Smith said. “And I said, ‘Well, there’s one here because it’s in the bottom of my boat.’ “
Doug Nygren, director of the fisheries division, said that in addition to its teeth — alligator gar have two rows of teeth — its size gave it away. While the longnose gar can get up to five feet or more, Nygren noted that “most of our native species are more slender.” The 39.5 pound fish that Smith caught weighed eight pounds more than the state record for a longnose gar, which, according to the department’s website, was caught in 1974.
“My first reaction was: How did it get here?” Nygren said.
The alligator gar is not native to Kansas and are instead found from southwestern Ohio and southeastern Missouri and Illinois south to the Gulf of Mexico, according to the Kansas Wildlife and Parks Department.
Nygren said there are three ways his team is trying to determine its origin. If the fish had been from a nearby state, perhaps one with a program meant to restore native alligator gar populations, it would have been tagged.
But no such tag was identified, he said, “so that took that option off the table.”
The next step will be to send DNA samples and tissue from the fish to a genetic lab to “give us a clue as to what part of the country this fish may have come from.” The results may also help determine whether the fish came from an existing population in another state, according to the department.
The third option is to utilize microchemistry. Bones from the head of the fish can help give the fisheries team a clue about how long it has been in the Neosho River by comparing the concentration of elements in the bone to the concentration in the water.
“It’s going to be a while before we get all this information compiled,” Nygren said.
Sean Lynott, a regional fisheries supervisor with the department, said the lack of a tag suggests “this fish was moved by man.”
Nygren said the fish may have been introduced illegally into the river system, perhaps by someone who caught it in another state, or kept the fish as a pet and released it into the river when it got too big. According to the department, alligator gar can weigh more than 300 pounds and measure more than eight feet long.
According to the department, it’s illegal to transport and release fish or other species in public waters, whether they are native or nonnative.
“It may seem simple enough, ‘Oh, we’re just moving this fish from one river to another,'” Lynott said. “But you don’t know what you’re bringing in. We’re worried about disease that can be transported with the fish, we’re worried about aquatic nuisance species like zebra mussels that could be in the water with the fish. It’s just not a good idea to move fish around.”
Nygren said the department does not consider the alligator gar an invasive species at this point, “but in general it’s not wise often to introduce nonnative species because of the unknown of what the impact could be on native species.”
He said the department wants to learn as much as it can when a new species is recorded.
“Sometimes it will help us craft a message on how to prevent it from happening again,” he said.
Smith, who said he is a lifelong fisherman, said he hopes to catch something even bigger someday.
“You spend enough time in the water, anything can happen,” he said.