ENID LAKE – There are prehistoric giants lurking in the waters of the North Mississippi Fish Hatchery.
“It’s one of the largest freshwater fish in North America,” Hatchery Man-ager Justin Wilkens said of the alligator gar currently being raised at the facility.
“They can grow to over nine feet and 300 pounds. There are not many other fish that live in fresh water that can do that.”
Jeremy Wade, host of the Animal Planet TV show “River Monsters,” called the alligator gar “a river monster with a fearsome reputation” after a small one drew blood when he tried to remove a hook.
This species of gar gets its name from the two rows of sharp upper teeth in its long snout, which makes it look like an alligator. Once common from Illinois to the Gulf of Mexico, the monstrous fish is now concentrated only in the Southeastern United States.
Contrary to popular belief, they aren’t common to Enid Lake. Anglers often mistake the longnose gar, the shortnose gar, and the spotted gar for the alligator gar.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is tagging alligator gar with acoustic transmitters to determine their preferred habitat. The fish were hatched at the Private John Allen National Fish Hatchery in Tupelo and shipped to the NMFH when they were about eight to ten days old.
“We have limited data on alligator gar and need research to identify their baseline habitat,” said Ricky Campbell, manager of the Tupelo hatchery.
Although the alligator gar at the NMFH were only inches long when they arrived, they proved their ferocity the first few days when they started feeding on each other.
“We’re using the space here that Tupelo doesn’t have to grow these fish. They need a lot of space because these fish can be highly cannibalistic,” said Wilkens. “When one gets a little bit bigger than another they like to chomp on each other.”
According to Jessie Gurner, Director of the Hatchery’s Education Center, visitors can view the alligator gar for the next few weeks. “Seeing these young alligator gar it is difficult to believe how large they will be eventually. At this age they grow very quickly,” she said.
“Visitors who see and feed them one week are amazed at how much bigger they are when they come back to see them again the following week.”
At the end of their stay at the NMFH, the fish will be picked up by the Tupelo hatchery and tagged before going to their stocking destination.
“None are going to be released here in Mississippi this year because we currently have no alligator gar management plan,” Wilkens emphasized. “We are trying to create a plan and eventually we’ll be stocking these fish back into the Mississippi river basin.”
Wilkens believes that if alligator gar were more abundant people would come from all over the country to fish for them. “Texas has got guided alligator gar fishing trips that are pretty popular. People fly to Minnesota to go catch 42 inch muskie. They’ll come down here to catch an eight foot gar.”
For anyone brave enough to try cooking any of the gar species, there are recipes available in “Catching Receipes,” a freshwater fish cookbook produced by the staff of the Visitor Education Center at the NMFH.
Some of the delicacies include gar balls, gar boulets, gar cakes, gar stew, Mississippi gar, stir-fry gar, and Cajun gar.
“Some say the meat is pretty good to eat,” Wilkens added.” There is some calling down in Louisiana for them.”
(The cookbook “Catching Receipes” is available at the NMFH at Enid Lake or by mail order. The price is $12 plus $4.95 for shipping and handling per book. To order send a check or money order for $16.95 per book to:
North Mississippi Fish Hatchery
Attn: Jessie Gurner
PO Box 100
ENID MS 38927
Be sure to print your name and return address clearly.)