In Florida, the largest member of the gar family is only known to inhabit coastal rivers in the Panhandle from Gulf County to Escambia County.
Alligator gar (Atractosteus spatula). Artwork by Duane Raver.
Alligator gar are long, slender fish with bony, diamond-shaped scales. They are distinguished from other gar by a heavier body and a relatively shorter, broader snout filled with two rows of canine-like teeth. Alligator gar generally have a dark, olive green body that fades into a white belly, and their fins are often a reddish-pink.
Alligator gar once inhabited waters throughout the Mississippi River Valley, occurring as far north as Iowa and west to Kansas. They have a modified swim bladder that allows them to obtain oxygen from both water and air. This ability, along with the highest salt tolerance of any gar species, allows the alligator gar to survive in almost any water condition. However, habitat loss has limited its populations to the Gulf Coast states. In Florida, alligator gar are only known to inhabit coastal rivers in the Panhandle from Gulf County to Escambia County.
Alligator gar spawn from April to June, when water temperatures reach 77 degrees Fahrenheit, which typically coincides with seasonal flooding of bottomland swamps. Females release eggs that attach to the flooded vegetation and one or more males fertilize the eggs. Hatching occurs within two to three days, and larval fish stay attached to vegetation for several days. Juveniles grow quickly and typically reach 12 inches within their first year.
The largest recorded alligator gar in Florida is a 132-pound fish captured in the Yellow River in 2011 by researchers with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the FWC. No state angling record exists because only those with a scientific collector’s permit can possess and harvest this species in Florida.
In 2011, a commercial fisherman accidentally caught the largest alligator gar on record in Mississippi’s Lake Chotard. The gar was 8.5 feet long, weighed 327 pounds and was believed to be 94 years old.