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Protection OK'd for alligator gar stocked and growing in area

By Steve Vantreese

The reason for a recent regulation against taking alligator gar in Kentucky is that nowadays you might just catch one, a fish planted as part of a comeback effort.

Kentucky has always had gar â “ long-nosed, spotted and short-nosed gar. But the alligator gar, largest growing of the gar species, is a native of western Kentucky waters that faded away back in the 1970s, biologists say.

Now, a few years into a program to re-establish alligator gars in appropriate western Kentucky habitats, stocked fish create real chances to catch them. The Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources has released more than 25,000 juvenile gar, fish ranging from 8-14 inches in length, in tributaries of the lower Ohio and Mississippi rivers.

The seeding of young alligator gar has been ongoing since 2009, so fish from the earlier stockings already are pretty substantial in size and could lend themselves to being caught.

To protect 'gator gar that have been released as seed in a hoped-for species recovery, the state's fish and wildlife commission recently approved a regulation that would prohibit the taking of any of the fish by a sports angler or the shooting of them by a bowfisher. Pending passage by the state's General Assembly, it will become the law of the land, March 1 of 2015.

Technically, it's not illegal to take an alligator gar in Kentucky until then. If you should catch one before it's prohibited, however, you would be right in releasing it unharmed. Almost certainly, it's a "stocker," part of the program to re-establish the species there. The plan is for the stocked fish to reproduce, but female alligator gar don't mature sexually until about age 11, while males mature at age 6 â “ so biologists hope they survive a long while to restart natural spawning hereabouts.

Alligator gar fry, obtained from Mississippi and nurtured to release size in a Kentucky hatchery, were seeded in a number of habitats in the western big rivers area. KDFWR fisheries biologist Ryan Oster said young gar have been released so they can repopulate streams and rivers that feed into the Mississippi and lower Ohio.

The alligator gar eventually will spread from waters such as the lower Tennessee River and Clarks River to occupy sloughs and oxbows where they find natural spawning territory, Oster said.

Fish stocked as early as 2009 already could be a handful, Oster said. The species grows fast, and early stockers have reached lengths of 40-45 inches, the largest of them already pushing 30 pounds in weight, he said.

Western Kentucky is the northernmost original home range of alligator gar, and the growth season here is shorter than that of, say, the bayous of the southern Gulf Coast region. These gar probably won't grow as large as those of the deep South. Nonetheless, local alligator gar could eventually become relative monsters.

"They are long-lived fish," Oster said. "A big fish here, one that gets to live long enough, could be in the 100- to 140-pound class."

Oster said critical habitat still exists in the region, and alligator gar also can make a plus out of the accidental population of Asian carp that are now present in local rivers. The big gar won't control the exotic carp population, but their predation on the invasive species could only help, Oster said.

Anglers or bowfishers should use discretion to avoid the harvest or killing of alligator gar. While they are similar to other gar species, the alligator gar have a shorter, broader snout in relation to body size than their cousin species.

Oster said any gar over three feet in length likely is an alligator gar if it has a relatively short and wider nose. Among other local species, the long-nosed gar has its namesake longer snout, and the short-nosed gar will tend to be smaller â “ both shorter and not as heavy in body as the alligator gar.

n Another fisheries regulation that will come into effect for Kentucky March 1, 2015, is that catfish tournaments on the Ohio River will become a tool of fisheries biologists. That is, tournaments with more than 25 boats of anglers participating will be asked to provide data about catches.

Fisheries managers want operators of major tournaments to record and share information about the lengths and weights of catfish caught as well as total numbers of fish, total weight, and winning weights of catches.

Biologists want to track trends of catfish on the Ohio for indications on how to manage the river's whiskered fishes. They are particularly interested in the ongoing status of larger, trophy-caliber catfish.

n Trout fishing will become a no-cull pursuit statewide in Kentucky. A regulation will prohibit holding a caught trout in a livewell, on a stringer or otherwise, then releasing it as in the practice of culling, often when a smaller fish within a creel limit is replaced with a larger one.

Fisheries managers say culled trout, fish held for a time before being released, most often do not survive. Therefore, culling kills fish and ultimately wastes stocked trout.

The trout culling ban also will kick in March 1, 2015.

n Kentucky Lake has given up some hefty bass in the early stages of this new tournament fishing season.

Last Saturday, the Music City Division of the Walmart Bass Fishing League took to the reservoir out of Camden, Tenn., the division's season opener that was rescheduled from earlier because of ice cover in late February. Noel Smith of Ashland City, Tenn., was the winner in the Pro Division with a tidy five-bass limit weighing 20 pounds even â “ a 4-pound fish average.

Somewhat surprisingly, Blake Whittaker of Monterey, Tenn., took first place in the back-of-the-boat competitors' Co-angler Division with a heavier weight. Whittaker led all co-anglers â “ and pros, too â “ with a limit weighing an even 21 pounds.

The top weights were better the previous week when the league's LBL Division held its own season opener out of Kentucky Dam Village State Park at Gilbertsville. Brent Anderson of Kingston Springs, Tenn., made a long run south to the New Johnsonville (Tenn.) area â “ and wore them out for a win in the Pro Division.

Anderson caught more than 30 "keepers" pulling Strike King KVD HC Flat Side s over bars in 6-8 feet of water. His best five added up to a limit weighing 26 pounds, 7 ounces, well more than a 5-pound average.

Ed Daniel of West Frankfort, Ill., won the co-angler's top prize with a limit of five bass weighing 21-11 â “ another weighty back-deck catch.

In both Kentucky Lake tournaments, several top catches were limits falling to the range of 18-19 pounds, making for a good showing of bass.

Steve Vantreese is a freelance outdoors writer. E-mail outdoors news items to outdoors@paducahsun.com.

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