OPINION | TOM DILLARD: Primordial 'monsters' of the rivers

Arkansas is home to what an excited reporter once described as "sharks of the inland waters," a fish that generations have known as the gar. These ancient fish look their age, with long snouts bearing rows of sharp teeth, giving gars a scary primordial aspect.

All major waterways in the state were home to multiple species of gar. Fanciful stories of gigantic gars--sometimes called monsters--were told through the years and became a part of Arkansas folklore.

Happily, after centuries of eradication efforts by commercial fishermen as well as governmental authorities, the gar has found new defenders in recent years, and efforts are being made in Arkansas and other states to preserve this 100 million-year-old species.

While seven gar species survive, the best known is the largest: the alligator gar [Atractosteus spatula]. Its size and gray coloring caused people to mistake it for an alligator. Their elongated bodies can stretch over 10 feet in length and weigh more than 300 pounds.

According to professors Henry Robison and Thomas Buchanan in the recently-published second edition of their encyclopedic book "Fishes of Arkansas" (UA Press, 2020), the "most recent record" was set in 2004 when an eight-foot two-inch gar weighing 240 pounds was taken in a hoop net by a commercial fisherman on the lower White River at St. Charles.

The historical record contains many accounts of huge gars being taken from state rivers. One undocumented account claims that the largest gar ever caught in Arkansas weighed 350 pounds; I could not document any of that weight. Commercial fisherman and guide Dewey Dunivant of Mississippi County came close when he caught a nine-foot gar weighing 236 pounds in February 1940.

In December 1907, two young men "harpooned and captured" an alligator gar on the Arkansas River near Fort Smith that weighed 179 pounds and measured six feet nine inches long.

Alligator gars were known for breaching: hurling themselves completely out of the water. In the autumn of 1912, Richard Chambers was floating down the White River on a raft of logs when "he saw a huge alligator gar jump out of the water and alight on the raft." Chambers grabbed an ax and killed the seven-foot fish.

A breaching gar caused the deaths of two men on the St. Francis River near Madison. A 1909 report from Forrest City told the story: "A monster alligator gar caused the death, by drowning, of two Negro men ..." The men "were crossing the river in a batteau when the great gar rose to the surface at the bow of the boat, causing it to overturn."

Many authorities believe that large breaching gars were the reality behind the White River monster myth. In 1937, when three people reported seeing "a gray hulk rise last week to the surface of the stream, lash about and then disappear," a representative of the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries said: "Unless I'm badly fooled ... this 20th-century demon is just an overgrown alligator gar enjoying a summer bender."

A local effort that same summer to capture the monster was widely promoted by the Newport Chamber of Commerce, which convinced a Memphis radio station to broadcast the "capture" live from the river bank.

An Associated Press story in July 1937 reported that "all available rope" had been gathered and a net 40 feet long and 15 feet wide was under construction. A number of motorboats were used to drag the heavy net through "a 60-foot deep eddy in the river six miles south of here [Newport]."

The monster evaded capture, but provided a temporary bump in the local economy.

Gars were periodically accused of attacking humans, but documentation is slim. In the spring of 1884, a young boy was injured by a gar, but the newspaper account of the incident indicates it was probably a feeding accident:

"While a boy named Perry was fishing in Shoal Creek, Logan County, a gar fish caught the right leg, which was hanging over the side of the boat in the water, and pulled him overboard. His companions rescued him, but not before the leg was terribly lacerated."

I can well imagine the laceration, given that alligator gars have two rows of sharp teeth. When I was a kid growing up on a small farm near the Ouachita River, it was not unusual to find gar jawbones. Often a foot in length, these bones had to be handled with care, because the teeth were like needles.

With two sets of these teeth on each side of its mouth, the gar is a formidable predator. But fish, not humans, make up its diet, though they also feed on small crustaceans and tadpoles. They eat a lot of fish--enough to put the gar on a collision course with human competitors.

Arkansas anglers had been destroying gars well before the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission declared war on them in the 1940s. The Commission allowed unlimited fishing of gars throughout the state.

Beginning in the early 1930s, sports fishermen using bows and arrows discovered the alligator gar to be a worthy opponent. Among them was Thomas Mull of Holly Grove in Monroe County, who in 1930 organized "an army of 100 archers" to wage a "Robin Hood War on gars." Mull caught 1,264 gars in that war, saving what he believed were "three million fair game for sportsmen's lines."

The end result of the gar wars was a rapid decline in their numbers in Arkansas and elsewhere. This decline was made much worse by the damming of numerous rivers. In recent years a number of gar defenders have been pleading the case for preserving a genus of animals already old when the dinosaurs died out.

No one has done more to raise concern than a professor of writing at the University of Central Arkansas, Mark Spitzer. UCA has become a center of research on gars; Spitzer has produced two highly readable books on gars and their interaction with humans.

His efforts have resulted in state efforts to protect the gar. Last year the Legislature designated the gar as the state's official primitive fish.

Spitzer's affinity for the gar extends to eating its flesh. Traditionally, the gar has been considered low quality, although it was eaten on occasion. Spitzer's book "Season of the Gar" (UA Press, 2010) includes a number of recipes, including one for Garfish Spitzviche--gar meat cooked only by the lime juices in which it marinates.

Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living near Glen Rose in rural Hot Spring County. Email him at Arktopia.td@gmail.com.

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