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Brookfield man lands first alligator gar in Illinois since 1966

Olaf Nelson’s 28-inch alligator gar first caught Illinois nearly 50 years shows double set teeth key identifier. | For Sun-Times

Olaf Nelson’s 28-inch alligator gar, the first caught in Illinois in nearly 50 years, shows a double set of teeth, a key identifier. | For Sun-Times Media from

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Northern Illinois
Hunting and Fishing Days

What: Free celebration of
traditional outdoor pursuits.

Where: Silver Springs State Fish and Wildlife Area, Yorkville.

When: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

Kids: BB-gun range, archery,
fishing, casting, canoe rides,
fly-tying, fishing simulator.


Updated: September 24, 2013 9:18PM

For an alligator gar, 28 inches is tiny.

But for Olaf Nelson of Brookfield, finding and catching the first alligator gar in Illinois since 1966 was huge.

Nelson, along with Bill ‘‘Garman’’ Meyer, the south suburban man of notoriety, and Ben Cantrell, a native fish enthusiast from the Peoria area, went searching for alligator gar at an Illinois River backwater Aug. 31.

‘‘We knew they were there,’’ Nelson said. ‘‘That was our only goal.’’

Alligator gar were declared extinct in Illinois in 1994. In The Fishes of Illinois, Philip W. Smith says they were ‘‘apparently always rare in Illinois.’’ The last known catch by hook and line in Illinois was in 1966.

‘‘Return of the Giants,’’ a paper by biologists Trent Thomas and Rob Hilsabeck about the reintroduction of alligator gar to Illinois, puts that 1966 alligator gar at 7 feet long and 130 pounds. It was caught from the Cache-Mississippi Diversion Channel, about 2.5 miles northwest of Klondike, in Alexander County.

Reintroduction of alligator gar in Illinois began in 2010 at several Downstate sites. One reason for it was the hope they might combat silver and
bighead carp.

Back to fishing on a blazing-hot day for what might become the biggest fish in Illinois.

Without success, Meyer and Cantrell went off to pursue other species. But Nelson stuck with it, using a bluegill on treble hooks with no weight and no float.

As Meyer drove off, Nelson described on the website what followed when he checked his line again:

‘‘I reeled up a pile of slack line and felt solid, unmoving resistance. A snag. I pulled and felt it dislodge. Then it pulled back! The fight was not particularly epic, but there was a fair amount of buzzing drag as the fish took line and I resisted the urge to tighten up and crank it in. Given the stakes, I was nervous as hell. If I had a gator on the end of my line, this was no time to rush. If I somehow lost it, it might be months before I could stop beating myself up. Still, I assumed I had a catfish or shortnose gar until I got it to the shore and saw the wide, short snout. Adrenaline kicked in. Heart rate doubled.’’

He landed the alligator gar (distinguished by its double row of teeth on the upper jaw and gatorlike snout) and a double piece of history. It was the first alligator gar caught in Illinois since 1966 and the one caught farthest north. The Shedd Aquarium’s Solomon David, whose graduate work includes gar and bowfin, tweeted that the previous northernmost catch was believed to have come from Meredosia.

Meyer returned and caught another alligator gar 25 yards north of Nelson’s soon after, so he holds the northernmost record — for now. But more and bigger ones are coming.

‘‘It’s just a baby as alligator gar go, but it’s fine for now,’’ Nelson concluded.

In memory

Paul Wells, a pioneer of bank and carp fishing in Chicago, died this week. Viewing is from 3 to 7 p.m. Friday at Angelus Memorial Chapel Home of Christian Bros., 8243 S.
Ashland Ave.

Hunting note

The Nature Conservancy’s Emiquon Preserve will offer public waterfowl hunting this fall. Details are at

Stray cast

Bears games begin to feel like a boat ride through Hurricane Alley on the Calumet.

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