January 14, 2016
Standing on the riprap above, I watched for signs of life in a channel separating a large backwater from the Illinois River. With midday sunlight directly overhead, viewing conditions were good to a couple of feet down, considering the turbid water. I caught a sizable flash in my periphery. Then more flashes—figures appearing in a split second and disappearing just as fast. It was like missing the spot in the sky while trying to catch a bursting meteor during a Leonid shower.
Concentrating on one spot and hoping for an encore was my best chance at a good look. Soon I realized they were longnose gar displaying group behavior common to this species. I couldn't tell how many there were, seeing about 5 to 10 fish at a time. Probably 30 or more in the pod. I'd heard of longnose groups approaching 100-plus fish.
These were good-sized specimens, most about 21â'„2 to 3 feet long. Their quick porpoising rolls indicated to me that they were feeding, perhaps on small juvenile fish. A few gar broke the surface, most likely to gulp air, but mostly it looked like they were snatching prey from the water column.
Unfortunately I didn't have my fishing gear along; I was scouting the area to study the importance of backwaters to riverine fishes back when I was doing fisheries research. Even if I had my gear, I probably wouldn't have the best tackle to catch longnose, recalling that hookless entanglement lures were most effective on their long toothy snouts. But if I worked at it and my hook found flesh and not bone, I could probably catch one on a smaller in-line spinner or minnowbait, or on a live minnow presented under a float. They'd tangle in the right fly, for sure.
I watched intently until the activity slowed. How great it would be to hit it at the right place and time with the proper gear. Even so, it was an impressive display. I stepped back in time wondering if these fish, which haven't changed much in 50 million years, were behaving no differently from their ancestors that swam in rivers during the Cretaceous Period, when duckbilled dinosaurs roamed the banks.
Scouting for Gar
Five of the seven gar species (family Lepisosteidae) existing worldwide are in U.S. waters. Second in size to the alligator gar—the largest gar—is the longnose, which is widely distributed from the Mississippi basin eastward, from Quebec to the southern Atlantic and Gulf Coast basins in the U.S. The world record longnose is a 50.5-pounder caught from the Trinity River in Texas. Five state records top 40 pounds.
Longnose inhabit lakes, reservoirs, and rivers over a wide distribution but few anglers target them. John Gaulke, who guides for multiple species on New York's Finger Lakes and Lake Ontario, is a longnose gar addict. "Gar are one of the best kept secrets in angling. They're criminally underfished, so anglers in search of large numbers of big fish can easily find it gar fishing. They hammer lures with a primal aggressiveness only matched by a few species. They're common—typically running from 30 to 37 inches long—in the northern portions of Cayuga Lake and in Lake Ontario bays and larger tributaries. Cross Lake and Sodus Bay are both capable of producing 45-inch fish," he says.
Gaulke finds July and August top months for gar fishing. "The best days are hot, clear, and sunny. I mostly sight-fish for them, and these conditions are good for spotting gar, which often are surface-oriented. Gar seem to see lures better in sunlight; momentary cloud cover can noticeably slow down or even turn off a bite.
"They're generally easy to locate," he says, "assuming you're on a waterway that has a good population. In rivers, they're often found just below dams and around weedy bends and backwaters. In lakes, large weedy flats bordering deep water are good spots, as are mainlake points and isolated weedy bays and creekmouths. If the fish aren't near deeper water, they're usually in or near heavy cover. In the late spring and early summer, look for areas that warm up quickly. Power plants that discharge warm water are often gar hotspots," he says.
Farther south, Terry Smith of Gadsden, Alabama, got hooked on gar fishing years ago and guides for them on the Coosa River chain in Alabama. "When the water temperature reaches the 70°F range in spring, gar feed more actively," he says. "The action typically starts in late May, heats up in summer, and generally lasts into September, sometimes into October and early November, depending on the year. When water temperatures reach the 80s to low 90s, there's a lot of surface activity. Some schools are so thick I'd swear I could walk on them—3-, 4-, 5-foot-long fish."
Like Gaulke, Smith sight-fishes, often looking for surfacing gar. Smith: "Good spots are shoals along the river's edge and shallow flats that drop into deeper water. When water's really moving down from the dam, longnose tend to hang on edges of drop-offs where there's turbulence —spots where they likely feed on concentrating shad during high flows."
Gaulke searches for fish by using his trolling motor to patrol likely areas, and says that he too finds more fish breaking the surface when water temperatures rise into the 70s. Gar can gulp air to breathe, since their gas bladder is directly connected to their throat, giving them the ability to live in waters with low dissolved oxygen. "They break the surface with an oval- or elliptical-shaped splash," he says. "Polarized glasses are a must when sight-fishing. They often spook when I'm spotting for them, but they don't take long to recover.
"While fishing for other species I've run across gar and taken a couple of casts at them, and usually I wouldn't get any response, especially if I cast to a bunch of breaking fish," he notes. "You wonder whether these fish hit or not. I started to realize that they have intense feeding or activity periods. The bite usually starts slowly in the morning, with few fish showing any interest in chasing a lure. As the sun gets higher, more fish turn on until the feeding reaches a peak, generally holding up for a few hours, after which the bite slows. Peak summer feeding is usually between 1 and 4 p.m. in the waters I fish.
"Since longnose are so surface-oriented you see them when they're active and inactive," Gaulke says. "This adds to the notion some people have that they don't aggressively attack lures. When breaking gar don't respond to my presentation, I move to another area or fish for something else and return later. When I return, usually I find they've settled into feeding mode. They often stay in the same general area for days if not weeks or months, and they tend to use the same areas year after year."
"Gar are notorious for being difficult to hook conventionally because their beak is all hard bone and teeth," Gaulke says. "If you can hook one in the small fleshy area in the back corner of the mouth, you have a good shot at landing it. If it's hooked elsewhere along the bill, keep the line tight as you fight the fish. I don't recommend trying to catch longnose with hooks, though. It's terribly ineffective."
Most gar anglers use specialized lures, hookless baits designed to entangle in the gar's teeth. Often called rope flies, they're generally easy to make from readily available materials and can be modified to match different fishing situations.
"I make mine by tying rope strands to a jig or hook, cutting the hook at the bend," Gaulke says. "A rubber core sinker or split-shot can be pinched to the shank of the hook for castability with spinning gear. Lead wire (available at fly-shops) can also be wrapped around the hook shank before the rope is tied on. Besides improving castability, weighting the fly gives better up-and-down action, making it tremendously effective. The trick is to find a balance between castability and fishability, depending on what depth you're working."
Smith developed the GarGetter lure after years of fishing for longnose on the Coosa. He no longer sells the GarGetter but says that rope lures are easy to make. His is made of a bundle of thin nylon fibers, the middle of which is bound to a split ring with a zip-tie. He recommends making your own from a section of twisted rather than braided nylon rope, as it's easier to comb out.
Smith fishes the GarGetter lure weightless or adds a bullet sinker from 1/4 to 1/2 ounce, depending on how deep he's fishing. He finds different retrieves work depending on the aggressiveness of the fish. Sometimes they like a lure worked quickly across the surface; other times a slow, steady pumping action is best. When gar are sluggish or on bottom, he fishes a weighted lure like a bass angler works a plastic worm.
Jack Barnett, Gainesville, Georgia, has been guiding for longnose on Georgia's Lake Lanier for about 8 years. He makes and sells a line of gar lures including topwater, trolling, fly-fishing, and weighted (1/4- to 3/4-ounce) versions. He also sells a line of weightless economy lures. Lures come with pre-tied leaders of 30-pound monofilament. Barnett says that he often goes to weighted lures for casting distance, allowing him to stay farther from fish to prevent spooking them.
Gaulke and Smith believe longnose don't have good vision, so they suggest casting a lure as close as a foot in front of their heads. "They either strike, or you spook them," Gaulke says. "Oftentimes, when lots of gar are around, one follows a lure until it gets close to another fish, then the first one stops chasing it and the second starts up.
"To set the hook with a rope fly is counter-productive," he says. "When a gar hits, wait for a second or two and let the fish turn. Then it's a matter of simply lifting the rod tip and the fish should be on. They're an odd fish in battle. Some of them jump, thrash, and run, while others appear unconcerned that they are attached to a line."
Gaulke fishes rope flies on a 7-foot medium-heavy spinning rod. He uses 14-pound-test mono or heavier braid and a 30-pound-test Tyger Wire leader, tied to the lure with a loop knot and a perfection loop to the mainline. Another leader option is heavier mono testing about 30 to 40 pounds. Barnett recommends attaching the mainline (he uses 12- to 14-pound braid) to the loop in his mono leaders with a snap swivel. Being able to quickly unsnap a thrashing gar from the mainline makes it easier to work with in the boat.
Fly-fishing with rope lures is highly effective. Barnett recommends a 9- to 10-weight flyrod matched with a weight-forward floating line. He ties on a 20-pound mono leader about 4 to 5 feet long. You might also tie on a light wire leader about a foot long. Working from platforms on his pontoon boat, he lays the fly past the gar's head, stripping it past the fish about 8 inches at a time with pauses in between.
Barnett also trolls Lake Lanier's shorelines, pulling his unweighted trolling lures on flyrods. He slowly moves along banks with his electric trolling motor, with lures set back about 100 feet on two outside rods and 75 feet back on an inside rod. The fly sinks, so he often attaches a small float about 8 to 10 feet up the line from the lure to keep it off bottom in shallower water.
These gar guides recommend fish-handling gloves for landing a big gar. Several companies, like Lindy Legendary Fishing Tackle, sell gloves designed for safely handling toothy fish. Just use the glove to grab around the gar's snout and your other hand to guide it into the boat. In a pinch, a towel works, too. Some gar anglers use a muskie cradle or a net, but often the gar ends up sliding through the net. A jaw spreader and a hook-removal tool like a Baker Hookout make the job easier.
Barnett developed the GarJack to help with lure removal. The fish is pulled up alongside the boat into the GarJack with its snout through the appropriate-sized notch. A wooden blade is placed across the base of the mouth to hold it in place while the fibers are untangled.
Smith says he's caught gar that had rope-lure fibers growing into their bills because some angler didn't take the time to completely untangle it before release. "Gar released with their mouth clamped shut with fibers likely die. Remove all the thread from the fish's mouth before releasing it," he says. "A big gar might be over 20 years old, so we want these fish to live to be caught again."
Gaulke: "Gar hit with primal aggressiveness." Smith: "They come out like torpedoes and make hard fast runs." Barnett: "They jump like tarpon." Sound convincing enough?
Gaulke's Rope Fly
1/16-inch three-strand twisted nylon rope
fly-tying or rod-wrapping thread (3/0 or 6/0)
jigheads or large hooks
Secure the jig or hook in a vise. Cut 5 or 6 strands of nylon rope into 5- to 6-inch lengths. Form a thread base on the hook shank and tie the ends of the rope strands onto the hook. Mix the epoxy and apply to the area where you tied on the rope—if you want to include eyes add them now, before the epoxy dries, then secure them with another coat of epoxy.
When the epoxy is dry, put on some eye protectors and clip off the hook just at the start of the bend. Separate the rope fibers with a comb. Use the unweighted fly for fly-fishing, or add weight to the hook shank to use as a lure with conventional tackle. If you used a jighead, the weight's already built in.
*John Gaulke, Trumansburg, New York, is a multispecies guide and fishing educator, 607/387-3098; fingerlakesanglingzone.com. Terry Smith: 256/492-2343. Jack Barnett: 770/536-8612.