Fisheries biologists from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (DNR) spent last week searching for Asian carp in Chicago waterways, but instead found an ancient fish that has never been seen in the area before. DNR biologist Frank Jakubicek has seen walleye, crappie, tilapia, and numerous other fish come in through the North Shore Channel, but he said that catching a spotted gar was an unexpected treat.

“It was a lucky catch and we were able to get it in the boat,’’ Jakubicek told the Chicago Sun-Times.

While the discovery of the species in the channel is interesting in itself, the biologist said it is also a sign of the changing water quality in the area. Spotted gar thrive in clear water and prefer quiet pools and streams with lots of aquatic vegetation as opposed to brackish waters. The appearance of one of these fish in Chicago waterways could mean that the area’s water is becoming cleaner.

“It seems like many of these urban rivers, they have been cleaning up, and we’re seeing species move in we haven’t seen before,” DNR stream specialist Steve Pescitelli told the Chicago Tribune.

However, spotted gar were once widespread in Illinois. Although the species never quite made it into Chicago itself, spotted gar were common in the Illinois River and Green River as well as the swampy marshes of Union County. According to experts, the fish left when water quality declined and contamination by waste or chemical drainage increased. Although one fish is hardly indicative of an entire waterway’s health, biologists say that the waters in the Chicago area have been clearing. This is especially fortuitous for the growing number of urban anglers fishing there. The DNR offers a host of educational programs for urban fishermen throughout the year and more than 500 fishing clinics throughout the state. Every year the state stocks 30,000 pounds of channel catfish and 60,000 pounds of hybrid sunfish specifically for those fishing in Chicago and other major cities.

“Fishing is a great way for families to spend time together outdoors, and our urban fishing clinics give thousands of children each summer a chance to experience the fun of fishing,” said DNR Director Marc Miller.

Could more Chicago anglers soon be catching spotted gar? Biologists said they have no idea how many of these primitive fish exist in the area, and that the one caught last week during routine sweep of Asian carp may be the only one. The gar, which was later released, may have come up from Lake Michigan or from the Mazonia Fish and Wildlife Area near Braidwood.

File image from Brian Gratwicke on the Wikimedia Commons

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