DON’T TRASH TALK THIS CATCH

MON­ROE COUNTY YIELDS STATE-RECORD SPOT­TED GAR, AN ODD-LOOK­ING FISH THAT DOESN’T GET MUCH RE­SPECT

Chicago Sun-Times - - OUTDOORS - DALE BOW­MAN dbow­man@sun­times.com @Bow­manout­side

Not only did Austin White catch the Illi­nois-record spot­ted gar on Aug. 13, but he might be the first tar­get­ing bowfin who hooked an Illi­nois record. That’s right­eous, pre­his­toric bowfin and gar in the same sen­tence on mod­ern fishing.

White was fishing, as he does two or three times a week, with buddy Mike Lamp­kins. They were at Kidd Lake Canal, an agri­cul­tural drainage in Mon­roe County.

“I like to fish it be­cause it is full of fish,” White said. “You can’t name all the fish in that body of wa­ter. Bowfin is one of my fa­vorite species. Most peo­ple think they are trash fish, but they are big, toothy, pow­er­ful crit­ters.”

White was us­ing a Strike-King 1/2-ounce li­p­less crankbait.

“Oth­er­wise [for bowfin], I like to use bass spin­ner baits or cut bait,’’ he said.

He was do­ing a “good re­trieve, not really burn­ing it, but a good steady re­trieve,” with a 9-foot medium-ac­tion salt­wa­ter rod with 40-pound braided line, a surf-cast­ing set-up he was test­ing for a La­bor Day trip to Gulf Shores.

“I set the hook into a bowfin very good,” White said. “They have hard mouths.”

That hard hook-set paid off this time for the gar, who have no­to­ri­ously tough mouths.

“It came to the sur­face,” White said. “My buddy net­ted it, and it al­most went through the net. With­out him, I prob­a­bly would not have got it.

“I thought, ‘Oh, shoot, a gar’ at first, but I like catch­ing ev­ery­thing. I was get­ting ready to [send] it back into the wa­ter and said to my buddy, ‘This is the big­gest one I caught in my life. I should weigh it.’ ”

When it topped 8 pounds, White said, “I put it on a stringer and kept it alive. If it wasn’t go­ing to be a record, I was go­ing to put it back.”

They con­tacted con­ser­va­tion po­lice of­fi­cer Don Schachner. Like a lot of CPOs, he answers his phone 24/7. He took the call at about 8:30 p.m., then looked up the gar records.

“I told him ei­ther way, short­nose or spot­ted, he still had the record,” Schachner said.

Illi­nois has four na­tive gar: spot­ted, short­nose, long­nose and al­li­ga­tor. The first three are es­tab­lished. Al­li­ga­tor gar, Illi­nois’ largest na­tive fish, were de­clared ex­tinct in the 1990s. In 2010, the Illi­nois Depart­ment of Nat­u­ral Re­sources be­gan a rein­tro­duc­tion pro­gram in cen­tral and south­ern Illi­nois.

“I thought it was par­tic­u­larly neat that he was specif­i­cally fishing for bowfin; that’s some­thing more of a nat­u­ral­ist out­doors­man does,” Schachner said. “It is un­usual to find some­body specif­i­cally fishing for bowfin.

“Hear peo­ple talk about trash fish, but I don’t see it that way at all.”

He didn’t have a cer­ti­fied scale, so he had White for­ward pho­tos and told him to get the fish on ice, so it would not lose any weight.

“I put it on ice wa­ter overnight,” White said.

Schachner for­warded the pho­tos to Eric Rat­cliff, fish­eries bi­ol­o­gist for Mon­roe County, but he was not avail­able the next morn­ing. So nearby bi­ol­o­gist Fred Cronin was texted.

The next morn­ing, White met Cronin at Horse­shoe Lake State Park.

“I had to call off work,’’ said White, a welder for a med­i­cal equip­ment man­u­fac­turer. “Of all the ex­cuses they heard, that was a first. I don’t know how thrilled they were.”

“It can be tricky to tell spot­ted gar from short­nose gar, es­pe­cially when they lose their col­ors from sit­ting in ice wa­ter,” Cronin said. “The eas­i­est char­ac­ter­is­tic is the spot­ted gar will have dis­tinct spots on the top of their head, and a spot­ted is usu­ally much darker col­ored than a short­nose.”

While Cronin weighed it on his cer­ti­fied scale at 8.4 pounds, White re­called, “Ten­sion in the area was so thick, you could have cut it with a knife. Then he said, ‘Yep, yep, you got it.’ I am still thrilled.”

Danny Peters caught the pre­vi­ous record spot­ted gar (7 pounds, 13.44 ounces) on July 10, 2004, from Horse­shoe Lake in Alexan­der County.

Cronin’s last cer­ti­fi­ca­tion, co­in­ci­den­tally, was Illi­nois’ short­nose gar record (6-15.2), caught May 27, 2018, from Horse­shoe Lake, in Madi­son County, by Don Lawrence, right­eous in his own way with gar art­work.

Keith Kinzel, who does deer taxi­dermy for White, “steered him” to Dan Hellmer for the fish taxi­dermy.

I thought with his­toric in­creased fishing ef­fort dur­ing the pan­demic that Illi­nois might see a slew of fish records in 2020, but not so far.

“Yeah, I thought maybe we would cer­tify a few more records this year with the in­creased fishing,” Cronin said.

White’s record goes gar as a start. ✶

PRO­VIDED

Austin White caught his Illi­nois-record spot­ted gar on Aug. 13 in Mon­roe County.

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