Thursday, July 11, 2019

Season of the Gar, by Mark Spitzer. Book Review by Don Orth

Mark Spitzer is a professor, angler, explorer, and writer.  His recent books about fishing include Return of the Gar (2015), Beautifully Grotesque Fish of the American West (2017), and In Search of Monster Fish: Angling for a More Sustainable Planet (2019).  In his first book about fishing, Season of the Gar,  Spitzer chronicles his adventures in catching and releasing the monster gator gar, or Alligator Gar Atractosteus spatula. Since he was a child, Mark Spitzer dreamed of catching a monster gator gar or le poisson armé (the armored fish), as the French explorers referred to it.  
Season of the Gar book cover.  (c) University of Arkansas Press.
The book is written for a general audience interested in a romp through the world of gar and his pursuit of the monster gator gar. There are fishing stories, photos, and more. His personal quest weaves through stories that reflect on ongoing change in human perspectives on the gar. Catching an Alligator Gar is not so easy. They are not abundant today and occur in large floodplain rivers of the delta region of Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Texas.  We learn just how hard those toothy jaws can be when Mark attempts to impale them with a barbed hook.  

Most gar are caught by accident by commercial fisheries or targeted by bowhunters. Unfortunately, those who learn to catch gator gar with bowfishing, trot lines and heavy-duty equipment often leave them dumped by the truckload or turned into fertilizer.  I was, of course, intrigued by his quest and enjoyed his writing which gave me a surreptitious view of gator gar fishing.  He does not capture a gar until chapter 5, "The Existential Fish-Life Crisis."  When he hooked his second monster gar it was just as Jack Harper described in Outdoor Life (1950) “They call him gar.  His mother is a hurricane and his father is a ring-tailed tornado, and when he’s mad he’s one fish wave of destruction.” But this gar was not landed. 
Alligator Gar. Illustration by Duane Raver  Public Domain Source
In addition to sharing in Spitzer’s many quests to catch a gator gar, we learn the many sad stories of misinformation about the Alligator Gar, gar attacks, and much more.  Alligator Gar are second only to the Lake Sturgeon as true freshwater leviathans.  During the twentieth century, gars were viewed as harmful by most anglers and even fisheries managers.  Richardson (1914, p 407) in a paper on breeding habits of fishes in the Illinois River warned that "Certainly if our commercial fisheries are to be properly conserved, stringent measures will have to be taken against these 'weeds' and 'wolves' among fishes."   This sentiment was based only on visual observations of adult Shortnose Gar Lepisosteus platostomus and -- not based on any scientific evidence of harm.  Fish and Fishing in Louisiana labeled the gars as voracious pests that “are responsible for the destruction of great numbers of useful and valuable fishes.” Yet this warning went unchallenged for nearly a century and numerous populations of Alligator Gar were depleted.  Mark Spitzer reveals the many instances of directed efforts to exterminate gars, including a description of the Electrical Gar Destroyer deployed by the Texas Game Fish and Oyster Commission.  Up until recently most states had no limits on harvesting gars.  Scarnecchia (1992) reported that even by late 1980s it was not even legal to release gar alive in Iowa. Section 109.114 stated that "It shall be unlawful for any person to place any gar pike in any waters of the state, and such fish when taken shall be destroyed."  Tarzwell (1945) explored the possibility of commercial fishing for rough fish in TVA reservoirs. Too often the gars were simply thought of as a rough fish problem to be solved and not a resource to protect and conserve. Spitzer writes of fish markets in Arkansas that cannot supply the demand for gar meat which fetches a prices higher than catfish fillets.  Researchers investigating feeding habits of gar support the view that consumption of game fishes is minimal.   Texas is now the leader in implementing management plans for the Alligator Gar and other states are following.     

In Spitzer’s chapter on “Gar and Loathing in Texahoma” we first meet Capt Kirk, the Alligator Gar catch-and-release guide (he hates stupid bow hunters who dump their kill). Capt Kirk eventually assisted with Spitzer’s first landing of a monster gar, six feet and five inches.    In "When Gars Attack," we learn about questionable stories about gar attacks. In "Messy Nessy Gar Myths" we learn of reports all across North America, but especially in the South where gar are most plentiful, of long, serpentine, land-locked leviathans often posted on Chamber of Commerce websites. Spitzer even explores the evolutionary relation with the fossil fishapod Tiktaalik roseae and the gar.  The reader will also learn a bit about policy -- the Lacey Act, care and feeding of young gar in "Frankengar," Jeremy Wade and Bubba the bowhunter guide from Garzilla in "Gar in the Balance," "Gar Wrangling in Arkansas," and Arkansas’ difficult history with the Alligator Gar.   Alligator Gar is now officially the State Primitive Fish of Arkansas. And Illinois passed a resolution to protect gars in Illinois.  
Alligator Gar caught from Moon Lake, Mississippi, in 1910. Spitzer notes that experts challenge the legitimacy of this photograph because the stomach seems to be more slack than usual (for its size) and the fins and tail are unnaturally flared. Photo by D. Franklin. Courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History, image # 117075.
If you like books about unusual fishing, you’ll love this book. You’ll learn many gar facts and appreciate how long it takes to change human perceptions about rough fish.   You’ll appreciate the message of the ecological importance of gars as apex predators -- watch this short video.   You too will want to pursue a monster gator gar and realize why a guide helps.  You’ll learn how large Alligator Gar really get in modern times and that the biggest gar are always female fish.  Finally, you’ll learn how to clean and prepare a gar with one of Spitzer’s favorite recipes.  
Solomon David, in the #GarLab, Nicholls State University, is one of the gar's biggest advocates.  Here pictured with Alligator Gar skull that measures over 25 inches long and 11 inches wide.  
Mark Spitzer writes “Gar still don’t register on the mainstem radar as a creature worth preserving.”  Unfortunately, that is true. We’ve come a long way from describing Alligator Gar as ugly, mean, and loathsome and long-needing scientific findings are emerging. Reading the final chapter "Long Live the Gar" reinforced my belief that Alligator Gar need protection so that future generations can marvel at this fascinating ancient fish.  A special issue of Transactions of the American Fisheries Society was devoted to studies of these and other ancient fishes last year.   When you finish reading Season of the Gar, you will find the latest scientific findings there.   Or perhaps you'll come back for more of Mark Spitzer's adventures in Return of the Gar.


Buckmeier, D.L. 2008. Life history and status of the Alligator Gar Atractosteus spatula, with recommendations for management.  Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.  Accessed 10 July, 2019 from
Richardson, R. E. 1914. Observations on the breeding habits of fishes at Havana, Illinois, 1910 and 1911. Bulletin of the Illinois State Laboratory of Natural History Article 8, Urbana.   Accessed 10 July, 2019 from
Scarnecchia, D.L. 1992.  A reappraisal of gars and bowfins in fisheries management.  Fisheries 17(5):6-12.
Spitzer, M. 2010.   Season of the Gar: Adventures in Pursuit of America's Most Misunderstood Fish. The University of Arkansas Press, Fayetteville.  167 pp.  
Tarzwell, C. 1945. The possibilities of a commercial fishery in the TVA impoundments and its value in solving the sport and rough fish problems.  Transactions of the American Fisheries Society 73:137-157.  

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