Gar fishes are living fossils

ALLIGATOR GAR, Atractosteus spatula, is a big fish when adult. It can grow to lengths of over nine feet and weigh up to 350 pounds. All that on diet of other fishes. Alligator gar are an apex predator species. More common sizes of this finny critter with interlocking rhombic, or diamond shaped scales, are caught by anglers when it is only 4 to 6 feet long. Anyway you look at it, this fish with a mouthful of teeth will make you think twice about getting too close. If you are any species of fish smaller than this predator, consider yourself on the menu. They are fierce predators that are the most vicious of fishes, attacking anything in its path. Please note that “vicious” is the human term applied to what this fish was designed to do for its own survival.

Back in Iowa, this scribe has seen the long nosed gar in the backwaters of the Mississippi River while on a canoe foray with friends many years ago. It was silently and stealthily holding steady just under the water’s surface like a miniature submarine. It long slender body would have been a tough target to hit with this scribe’s bowfishing arrow. However, that canoe trip was not about bowfishing, just enjoying the smooth water of the Yellow River. The long nose gar is dark olive green above and white to silvery below. Large round black dots adorn its fins. Like its big cousin, its entire body is covered with rhombic scales. The snout is long and narrow and filled with fish catching teeth. Gar spawn in the spring in quiet backwaters. Eggs are deposited on submerged vegetation. Someone must have tried to eat those eggs once, and quickly determined that they are poisonous. After hatching, a young long nose gar will grow to 8 inches in its first year. As adults, a three foot long fish is common although it can grow to four or five feet. If a gar should ever take a lure or live bait presented by an angler, a royal battle will ensue.

Alligator gar do not have the needle-like snout of the long nose. Two rows of teeth, one inside the mouth and the other appearing slightly on the outside, give this fish the look of an alligator. Current known populations are within the lower Mississippi valley from Oklahoma to the west, Arkansas to the north, Texas and portions of Mexico to the south, and east to Florida. Louisiana and Texas have a significant sport fishery for this species. As for this scribe, I’ll just be content to watch this critter through the thick glass at the Bass Pro Shop.

Recent spring rains are soaking the landscape. April showers bring May flowers, it is said. April showers also help refill stream flows and thus in time, an increase flow within the Iowa River. The river is predicted to crest in a few days at about 15 feet on the local Corps of Engineers gauging station. We may see some of the lowest of bottomland fields become temporary sheet water shallow lakes. While our Iowa River has a modest slope of about 2.25 feet per mile, not the same can be said for our northern friends along the Red River at Fargo and Grand Forks, ND. Here the river flows north along a course that eventually leads to Lake Winnipeg, Canada. Since the Red River is the last remnant of the once huge and shallow glacial Lake Agassiz, the slope of this river is only inches per mile. Thus it is slow to drain. Combine that with a heavy snow packs in the Dakotas, whose melt water has to go somewhere, and severe flooding on this stream is very likely. It will be interesting to see how the Missouri River responds this year. Stay tuned. Mother Nature holds all the trump cards. All we humans can do is adapt, improvise and overcome.

WATER QUALITY MONITORING is a task that volunteers can take on. Locally you can assist in this project. The Marshall County Conservation Board will hold a instructional workshop on April 27 from 9 a.m. until noon. Pre-register by April 24 by calling 752-5490. The program is called IOWATER, a process of taking snapshots in time of water quality. Simple chemical tests and observations are taught. Since 2002, this water sampling activity helps document watershed events, good and bad, to help understand components of watershed use, management and solutions.

Another aquatic hitch hiker deserves close scrutiny. It is the ZEBRA MUSSEL. It is a small clam, an invasive species, that can cling to anything in the water. More importantly, its populations can grow so fast and so thick that city water intake pipes along rivers or some lakes can become clogged or even plugged. It has serious implications. Inadvertent transportation of this clam on boat trailers and within boat bilge water is common. That is why all boat ramp sites have signs posted to inform and warm boaters and anglers of this serious threat to area waters.

Iowa DNR fisheries staff are implementing changes to their walleye collection and sampling efforts due to zebra mussels. They want to reduce the potential spread of this invasive species. The zebra mussel is well established in the Mississippi River system. Keeping it our of Iowa natural lakes is hard to do. Clear Lake has found the zebra mussel in its waters. And it is the larval stage of this clam, a very tiny organism called the veliger, that is very hard to detect or eliminate. It has been found in the water of Lake Rathbun, a source of water for walleye hatchery efforts. When netted walleye at Rathbun are processed, a series of filters, or pre-filtered water to do their tasks. Dry stripping is also being employed whereby eggs are collected from one lake where zebra mussels are present, then transported without water to mussel free locations for fertilization and incubation. Incubation sites have been established at Storm Lake and Guttenberg to hatch walleye eggs since these sites are known mussel free. Guttenberg will use well water for their processing. Dry stripping has been used with varying degrees of success in Kansan and Ohio. Attempting it is an exercise on the side of caution says Joe Larscheid, chief of the Iowa DNR Fisheries Bureau. Walleye stocking requests in Iowa are for 125 million fry, 640,000 two inch fingerlings and 300,000 five to eight inch advanced fingerlings.

Beside the invasive species concerns of zebra mussels, there are other aquatic species on the wanted dead list. They include Asian carp, Eurasian watermilfoil, brittle naiad or other exotic species that crowd out native species. The threat is real. Public education of what they can do to prevent the spread of these plants or animals is important. Do your part and learn more about them. Then act responsibly to prevent them from gaining advantage.

EARTH DAY activities take place across the country on April 20, today. Between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. today at the Conservation Center, go on a scavenger hunt, listen to a noon program about Florida Wetland by Karen King, or help plant trees beginning at 1 p.m. Free hot dogs to eat will be provided. Being a good steward of the land we live on requires diligence and dedication. Careful and practical applications of those economical and common sense actions to keep water clean, air clean and soil in place for all of its life sustaining needs is an ongoing earth day action every day. The earth can be described as “delicate” by some with regard to human abilities to change landscapes and ecosystems. The earth can also be described as “resilient” for if it was not, its long geological history of surviving earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, asteroid impacts, plate tectonic movements and natural cycles of climate fluctuations would not be possible.

What do you call a boomerang that does not come back? A stick!

Garry Brandenburg is a graduate of Iowa State University with BS degree in Fish & Wildlife Biology. He is the retired director of the Marshall County Conservation Board. Contact him at PO Box 96, Albion, IA 50005.