DON’T TRASH TALK THIS CATCH
MONROE COUNTY YIELDS STATE-RECORD SPOTTED GAR, AN ODD-LOOKING FISH THAT DOESN’T GET MUCH RESPECT
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. ✶
Austin White caught his Illinois-record spotted gar on Aug. 13 in Monroe County.