Toothy, ancient gar fish get new protections in Minnesota

A longnose gar from the Mississippi River
The shortnose gar, along with its longer-nosed relative, is subject to new fishing regulations starting March 1. Spearers, anglers and bowfishers will be allowed to keep up to 10 gar. The fish is native to Minnesota waters, and is one of several native species classified as “rough fish" that previously weren't subject to regulations.
Courtesy of Solomon David

An odd-looking native Minnesota fish is getting new protections. 

The gar is a prehistoric species that dates back to the age of dinosaurs, with a long, thin body covered with hard scales and a pointy mouth full of sharp teeth. 

In Minnesota, gar are classified as “rough” fish as opposed to game fish. Until now, there were no limits on how many anglers could keep.

But in 2021, the Minnesota Legislature required the Department of Natural Resources to set a possession limit for longnose and shortnose gar.  Under the new limits effective March 1 or shortly after, anglers, spearers and bowfishers will be allowed to keep up to 10 gar.

Create a More Connected Minnesota

MPR News is your trusted resource for the news you need. With your support, MPR News brings accessible, courageous journalism and authentic conversation to everyone - free of paywalls and barriers. Your gift makes a difference.

Solomon David, a professor of biological sciences at Nicholls State University in Louisiana who has spent 20 years studying gar, called the harvest limits a “very positive move.”

“I think it's important to look at these non-game native species as important components of native biodiversity,” he said. “Minnesota is actually very progressive in doing that. I think they're one of the first states to really offer protections in the form of these harvest limits.”

State lawmakers’ action to protect gar was spurred by a viral YouTube video, since removed, of people spearing more than 80 gar on the Minnesota River and tossing them onto the ice. Many people expressed outrage at the legal but wasteful killing.

A longnose gar from the Mississippi River
A shortnose gar, caught in the Mississippi River. The changes in gar regulations are part of a larger effort by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to sustainably manage native rough fish, including buffalo, sucker, freshwater drum and bowfin.
Courtesy of Solomon David

“These sorts of efforts, where there's a mass harvest and the resource isn’t utilized, can pose threats to those populations, especially when we don't know a lot about the health of those populations,” David said.

The regulation changes are part of a larger effort to sustainably manage gar and other native rough fish, said Shannon Fisher, manager of fisheries populations monitoring and regulations for the DNR.

"We are seeing, anecdotally at least, increasing numbers of people that are out angling for these fish,” he said. “We've definitely seen an increase in the number of people bow fishing. And some of these species are of interest to our commercial fishing community as well.”

Other native Minnesota species designated as rough fish include buffalo, suckers, freshwater drum, bowfin, goldeye and mooneye. They play important roles in lake and river ecosystems, providing biological diversity and competing with invasive species. 

Fisher cited historical misconceptions about the large, river-dwelling gar, including that they compete with popular game fish such as walleye.

“There's the perception out there that by eliminating gar, you're actually doing good things for the (eco)system, and that's not necessarily the case,” he said. “They're not out there necessarily competing with walleyes and bass for forage. In fact, they're probably improving the overall system by simply being present there.”

The DNR is forming a work group to look at whether other native rough fish need conservation measures. 

Fisher said there isn’t a lot of biological data about gar, so the agency is working on tracking their populations. The research findings should be available next year.

A longnose gar from the Mississippi River
A longnose gar from the Mississippi River. The toothy, prehistoric fish is native to Minnesota waters, but has long been the subject of misconceptions. The DNR says many people thought gar were predators that competed with popular game fish such as walleye.
Courtesy of Solomon David

The 10-gar limit is considered temporary until there’s more population information available, Fisher said. It was set after getting input through a survey and talking with angling groups, bowfishing guides and tribal organizations, he said.

“We had some groups that said it should be 50. We had other groups that said, no, it should be two or three,” Fisher said. “When we kind of balanced everything out, 10 is where we landed.”

David said much of the research on fisheries is invested in a relatively small group of game fish, while non-game native species such as the gar have been largely ignored.

He said setting a conservative limit is a good start and can be adjusted based on the findings of population research.

“Anything's better than unlimited take,” David said. “When you think about a natural resource, and you've got unlimited harvest of that natural resource, we're treading on sort of unsteady ground.”