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Gar love & learning, alligator gar: A morning tagging at Jake Wolf

A young alligator gar about to have a PIT tag fitted at Jake Wolf Memorial Fish Hatchery.
Credit: Dale Bowman

TOPEKA, Ill. — Gar love grows. Illinois embraces some of it.

The difference between the 5-month-old alligator gar swimming Monday at Jake Wolf Memorial Fish Hatchery and the adults of YouTube fame is gigantic.

Alligator gar can grow to several hundred pounds in the United States. We know that about the prehistoric freaks.

There’s more to learn. District fisheries biologist Rob Hilsabeck showed that as he explained the plan to 15 of us clustered around before tagging 1,000 young alligator gar. He said an experiment by hatchery manager Steve Krueger showed no difference between sedated and unsedated gar in tagging. Even something that basic must be learned.

I curbed my desire to burst into the Ramones’ ‘‘I Wanna Be Sedated.’’

‘‘It will be interesting to see what happens to them,’’ assistant hatchery manager Scott Shasteen said.

That might be the most important thing to learn.

The insertion of a PIT tag in a young alligator gar at Jake Wolf Memorial Fish Hatchery.
Credit: Dale Bowman

Hilsabeck and Illinois River biologist Nerissa McClelland demonstrated how to insert the passive integrated transponder tags. Then Hilsabeck paired graduate students from Western Illinois with biologists for some hands-on learning.

Wayne Herndon, 72, a retired fisheries biologist, said to insert the PIT tag into the muscle behind the dorsal fin.

‘‘Then we know where to scan,’’ he said.

PIT tags are recorded, then the fish can be identified and tracked when one is scanned.

Tagging pairs were divided among two tables next to a tank. Brett Meyer hustled around, netting gar out of holding tanks, then pouring them into nets for the taggers.

‘‘Like dinosaurs, their scales interlock like armor, and they just get big,’’ he said.

Nathan Grider, the aquaculture program specialist, did the premier academic study for his master’s on the gar reintroduced at Merwin Preserve (Spunky Bottoms).

The biggest he has handled was a 55-pounder at Powerton Lake, where a 60-pounder was surveyed this year. They grow that fast.

‘‘For me, they’re almost like, well, pets in a way,’’ he said.

Herndon paired with graduate student Sabina Berry to measure and weigh 100 of the young gar to set an average. From quick math on their sheets, I estimated the young gar averaged less than 8 inches and 2 ounces.

Wayne Herndon and Sabina Berry measuring and weighing young alligator gar at Jake Wolf Memorial Fish Hatchery.
Credit: Dale Bowman

The gar were hatched in May at Private John Allen National Fish Hatchery in Tupelo, Mississippi.

Until the reintroduction started in 2010, the last Illinois alligator gar was caught in 1966 in Alexander County. Historically, their range included southern Illinois.

After hatching, these young gar were sent express to Jake Wolf. After two months, they were moved to the hatchery at Quad Cities Nuclear Station, where Jeremiah Haas, the principal aquatic biologist, had room for them to grow. They were brought back to Jake Wolf for a few days for tagging and distribution.

On Tuesday, half were trucked to two spots on the Kaskaskia River. The other half went near the mouth of the Big Muddy River.

It took just more than an hour for the pairings, with Haas loading PIT tags to 12-gauge syringes and needles, to finish tagging 1,000 gar. The 44 leftovers were to ‘‘play with’’ at the hatchery.

I asked Herndon what that meant. He said hatchery staff would learn much from playing with the 44 in terms of food, temperatures and general information they would use in the future.

More learning to love gar.

Follow me on Twitter @BowmanOutside.

Nerissa McClelland scanning a young alligator gar held by Rob Hilsabeck at Jake Wolf Memorial Fish Hatchery.
Credit: Dale Bowman