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“Season of the Gar”

The University of Arkansas Press released a book earlier this year titled “Season of the Gar.”

I had written in an Arkansas Democrat-Gazette column last summer about my fascination with alligator gar. That fascination dates back to long summer days spent at my grandparents’ home in Des Arc on the White River. I enjoyed walking a block from their house on Erwin Street to the fish market on Main Street to watch the commercial fishermen bring in the day’s catch.

When I was a boy, commercial fishing seemed like an exciting, exotic occupation. I didn’t comprehend just how hard these men worked for very little money.

While hanging out in the fish market, I would become almost mesmerized by the black-and-white photos on the wall of the alligator gar that had been pulled out of the White River through the years.

“Season of the Gar” was written by Mark Spitzer, who teaches writing at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway and is the managing editor of the Exquisite Corpse Annual, one of two award-winning literary publications (the other being the Oxford American) housed on the UCA campus.

“They are a true mystery fish, whose histories have been confused by sloppy scholarship, unchecked science, prejudicial journalism and generations of fishermen who think they know the facts,” Spitzer writes in his preface to the book. “Another message in this book is that gar aren’t as destructive to other fish as they’ve been made out to be, and that they serve a valuable function in providing ecological balance. Plus, contrary to popular belief, gar do not destroy gamefish populations or eat their own weight (or twice their own weight) in other fish per day. As studies have shown, gar cut down on populations of carp, shad, drum, buffalo and other fish that can be destructive to nesting habitats, therefore leaving the smaller members of the minnow family for bass, pike, catfish, trout, crappie, etc.”

The book contains some wonderful old photographs. The first is of a White River gar that weighed 230 pounds and was 7 feet, 8 inches in length. The photo by Johnnie Gray appeared on postcards in the late 1950s, and it began Spitzer’s own lifelong fascination with the fish.

“It was those pictures in fish books I saw as a kid,” he writes. “Particularly that one of two guys in Arkansas, posing beside a ferocious, steely alligator gar longer than themselves. According to Maynard Reece’s “Fish and Fishing” (1963), their hook was rigged to a piano string; but according to my imagination, what they used for bait was a whole chicken. So that’s why I wanted to get a gar.”

Other vintage alligator gar photos include one taken in Little Rock in 1928 and one taken on Moon Lake in Mississippi (just across the river from Helena) in 1910. It’s pointed out in the caption to the 1910 photo that some experts challenge the legitimacy of the 10-foot Moon Lake gar because the stomach seems more slack than usual and the fins and tail are unnaturally flared.

At any rate, the photo made me anxious to do something I’ve long enjoyed on my trips to the Delta — make an afternoon drive along Moon Lake followed by one of those superb seafood dinners at Uncle Henry’s Place in the old Moon Lake Club (a place Tennessee Williams included in some of his work).

Spitzer addresses the rod-and-reel style of fishing for alligator gar that was popular in Arkansas in the 1940s and 1950s.

“Back then, various publications touted the state as a gator gar mecca, where anglers from around the world could use deep-sea tackle to catch furious, leaping goliath-fish weighing well over 100 pounds,” he writes. “Such publicity was effective, especially on the lower White, Cache, Mississippi, Arkansas, Red, L’Anguille, Ouachita and St. Francis rivers, where word-of-mouth as well as newspaper and magazine articles brought steady business to local guides.

“Most of these alligator gar were caught on piano wires and finished off with bullets, shotgun slugs and arrows through the skull. The big ones were plentiful for a while, and landing seven-footers was much more common than it is today.”

I’m also fascinated by several other fish that can be found in Arkansas waters.

I had mentioned in an earlier post paddlefish (often called spoonbill catfish by Arkansans), and how the eggs of this fish are harvested for freshwater caviar. I can remember taking a photographer into George’s Fish Market at Marvell one day to watch the eggs being removed from paddlefish.

“Get yourself a plastic spoon and have some,” one man said.

I thus sampled the freshwater caviar from a huge spoonbill that had been swimming in an Arkansas river only hours before. It was wonderful.

According to the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission’s guide to Arkansas fish, paddlefish belong to the Polyodontidae family. Amazingly, the other other living member of this family is the Chinese sturgeon of the Yangtze River in eastern Asia.

Yet another native Arkansas fish that fascinates me is the chain pickerel. That’s because chain pickerel would scare me to death when they would hit our topwater lures on a tupelo-gum slough in the Ouachita River bottoms where my father and I often fished. That slough also held a sizable alligator population.

My father would always return the pickerel (which he called “pike”) to the slough. According to him, they weren’t good to eat. The bass and crappie we caught were for the table. But those pickerel sure were fun to catch.

According the Game and Fish Commission guide, “Only one other pike, the grass pickerel, is native to Arkansas. Muskellunge and northern pike (and tiger muskies, a hybrid of the two), have been introduced.”

A visit yesterday to the remote White County community of Georgetown on the White River (there’s one way in and one way out as Arkansas Highway 36 comes to an end there) had me thinking about Arkansas fish such as alligator gar, paddlefish and chain pickerel. Just the drive to Georgetown was like a step back in time.

At the boat ramp on the White River, there were a number of trucks and trailers. People were out there fishing on a perfect spring day. I wished I could join them.

What a wild, wonderful state we call home.

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