BAYOU DULARGE, LOUISIANA-- Louisiana isn't called the sportsman's paradise for nothing. It is a wondrous Bayou State of intriguing creatures and one-of-a-kind culture. It is also home to one of the last healthy populations of alligator gar.
Not long ago, alligator gar were thought of as "trash fish" by state and federal authorities. The result was electrocution fishing that not only killed the gar but other species as well. Half a century later, gar are protected and can grow upwards of eight feet long, with some as big as 15 feet. They get just as big as their toothy namesake.
Abby Haag is an aquarist at the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas and says, there are lot of species of gar but they all "have a lot of sharp tiny pointy teeth that they don't use to chew. They grab their food, reposition it and then swallow it whole. We feed them fish and squid."
Alligator gar have been around for over a hundred million years ago and seem to have the secret to sticking around. They are what are considered "living fossils" and have outlived the dinosaurs and fish eating dinosaurs.
Their eggs are poisonous, in low oxygen marsh water they can gulp air and their ganoid scales are covered in enamel-like coating, similar to what covers your teeth.
"The southeastern Indian people would use the scales as arrow points for bow and arrow hunting and also as jewelry back in those days. It has a rich history," says Janie Luster a women of Houma Native American Descent and a local artisan.
For 30 years Janie Luster has made art with alligator gar scales, a tradition that her mom started in the 1940. Every year she sells her gar scale artwork at Jazz Fest. But for her, gar fish have always been front and center of Houma Indian culture and she remembers all of the delectable recipes that her people would bring the dinner table and eat. One of the most intriguing food, was alligator gar gumbo.
"The fish provided so much for us. It nourished us. It was food that we ate. It's so important to carry that tradition on. My mom made jewelry, I make them and now I have my daughter and my grandchildren making them."
To see some gar, you can head to Audubon's Aquarium of the Americas. Their 400-thousand-gallon Gulf of Mexico exhibit has quite a few gar swimming around, with turtles, sharks and other denizens of the deep. It's a great way to spend a day and wonder at the creatures that we share our water with and reflect on how important it is that we continue to share our world with other species.