THE BORDER LIFE
 
The Gar Fish
Riverdave's Journal
This essay appeared in the Durham Herald-Sun on 8/3/1997

Shrieks rang out from children wading in the river at West Point on the Eno Park as they hurried to the shore. "Sharks!'' was the alarm call, so I scampered down the hill to see what all the fuss was about. It was a gorgeous spring day in May, and I had never expected to see a frenzied exodus from this otherwise peaceful river scene.

There, in shallow water little more than a foot deep, were three fish, the longest of which was almost 5 feet long. I immediately recognized them as longnose gar. Their immense size and long snouts, inlaid with rows of needle-sharp teeth, were quite enough to arouse the fears of children who normally chase tiny minnows with little green aquarium nets.

I happened to be conducting a class on fish identification and quickly tossed a cast net over one of the gar that appeared to be about 3 feet long. I called for a large plastic tub, and we were able to transport this river monster up to my office aquarium for further admiration and study. Up close, the large diamond-shaped protective scales and big oval spots made for a strikingly beautiful creature.

Indeed, the longnose gar is the "big fish'' of the Eno River. While wafting on the mill pond above the dam, I have seen gar as long as 6 feet break the surface like a shark. While not having the mass of a shark, the long and cylindrical gar certainly can conjure up a mighty big fish story for a small river like the Eno.

The three gar that came up to West Point this spring were most likely looking for a place to spawn in shallow water. The large one was probably the female, accompanied by two males. This is common, as spawning females may be pursued by many males and spawn simultaneously with two to six males at different intervals.

A female ready to spawn will lead accompanying males in a large circle delineating the spawning area. The fish convulse with the release of eggs by the female and their fertilization by the males. A common springtime observance is to see the mating gar thrashing and splashing about on the surface of the water.

Once laid, the gar's small green eggs attach themselves to weeds and other objects and hatch within a week. An average female will lay 30,000 eggs in a season. The eggs are abandoned by the parents, but being highly toxic, are left alone by most predators. Upon hatching, the fry once again adhere to submerged objects, and for another week feed on their attached yolk sack. They then become predators themselves, first on plankton and insect larvae, but later exclusively on other fish. After the first weeks of life, humans are the gar's only serious predator.
 
But why the elongated body that is 20 times that of its width and those rows of shark like teeth? The gar has evolved to feed at night near the surface, mainly on shiny schooling fish known as gizzard shad. The gar drifts slowly and silently like a log, then suddenly whips its long teeth-laden snout through a school of unsuspecting fish. The captured prey is maneuvered backward through flips and thrusts and finally swallowed. And of course, the longnose gar never behaves aggressively toward a human swimmer as certain species of sharks occasionally do.

Besides its long snout, another interesting feature of this fish is an air bladder that serves as an extra respiratory organ or primitive lung. The gar often can be seen rising to the surface to gulp air. This conspicuous behavior causes the gar to appear more common than it really is.

The longnose gar is the most abundant and widely occurring of the seven species of fish in the ancient gar family. Gars are an exclusively New World family of fish, inhabiting weedy backwaters and pools of rivers and lakes from southeastern Canada to Central America and Cuba. One southern species, known as the alligator gar, can reach a length of 11 feet and a weight of 300 pounds in Florida.

In North Carolina, the longnose gar is most abundant in the coastal plain, occasionally pushing its way up into the Piedmont in the Yadkin, Tar and Neuse river basins and then finally into the Eno. There are few other animals in our area that can compare with the gar's size, unique form and beauty. This is a truly venerable resident of Durham County whose habitat must be protected.
 
Photo by Ann Althouse: longnose gar