In Defense Of The Antediluvian Gar

April 2020

I have a special affinity for the underdog, the persecuted, and the little guy versus the big boys.  In the angling world, this has led me to take up the cudgel for outcasts like the Gafftopsail Catfish.  It’s the Rodney Dangerfield of saltwater fish, oft-maligned and ridiculed by my accomplished Florida fishing buddies.  Last year I made a strong case to elevate its stature—it’s a fish that readily takes lures, it’s a great fighter akin to Redfish, and it’s excellent table fare (besting delicious speckled sea trout in a recent informal taste by yours truly and assorted angling bon vivants).  We won’t dwell on the gooey, gelatinous snot it coats ones line with in the process of landing.  No one or no fish is perfect.  See my article from June 2018 for details:  “This Cat Gets No Respect:  Saltwater Angling For Gafftopsail Catfish.”

Recently I have been hearing the same libelous trash-talking about another fish—the antediluvian Long-Nose Gar.  It’s a freshwater fixture throughout the State of Florida and much of the South, and is also comfortable in brackish water here in the Everglades. 

The Ubiquitous Long-Nose Gar

I had a chance meeting with a passel of the finny creatures recently in a freshwater lake not too far from my place near Everglades City.  Contrary tides and banshee winds had driven me from my usual saltwater pursuit of Snook, Tarpon, and Redfish to hunt for Largemouth Bass in more pleasant conditions.  I was on the water early in my kayak casting for bass with mixed results. I rounded a point in the small lake I was exploring for the first time, and spied fish feeding in a small cove. 

Bass Lake At Dawn

Big bass I thought.  I pedaled my kayak quietly into position and threw a surface lure into the frenzy.  No sooner did the plug land than something exploded on it, something strong.  I was congratulating myself for my angling perspicacity when the fish skyrocketed into the air a few feet from my boat.  My smile turned sour when I saw it was a long, slender fish with a big snout—definitely not the trophy bass I was already bragging about in my mind.  I knew it was a Long-Nose Gar.  Fortunately on the second jump the lure came flying back at me, a timely long-distance release!

Despite all the commotion the fight caused, the bedlam in the cove continued unabated.  I pedaled closer and could see literally hundreds of Gar cruising just below the surface. 

Gar Love Nest

I cast again and immediately a three-foot Gar slashed over and nailed it….and again after a brief tussle he slipped off.  After another half-dozen similar repeat performances, I pedaled away in defeat, muttering about those damn Gar. 

But when I got home and was cleaning up and stowing my gear, I started thinking maybe I should learn more about this odd-duck of a fish and even figure out how to catch them.  After all, they seemed to be plentiful and eager to cooperate. 

My research revealed an incredibly interesting creature, one that has been around for 100 million years, coexisting with and ultimately surviving the dinosaurs.  The average Long-Nose Gar is two-three feet long and very muscular as I would soon find out when trying to handle the first one I brought to the boat.  With a long snout, hundreds of razor sharp teeth, and bony armor-like scales, it’s hard to mistake.  It’s all packaged in a quite handsome brownish-bronze color with marbled fins. 

Gar prefer shallow lakes, backwaters, and canals without much current.  Because of their narrow mouths that don’t open very wide, their favorite food is small fish that they usually pursue on the surface and in shallow water.  Female Gar are bigger than the boys, and man can they reproduce—over 30,000 eggs at a laying that are protected from marauding animals and other predators by a toxic coating.  They have swim bladders that allow they to breathe air directly as well as through their gills, have big scales armored with a touch mineralized coating, and live 17-20 years.  No wonder they have survived for millions of years.  Their only real enemy in Florida is supposedly alligators.

So why does practically every angler diss Gar??  I think the Number One explanation is quite simple—they are very easy to hook, but nearly impossible to catch.  Fisherman just can’t take that!  Their bony, narrow mouths filled with rows of small needle-like teeth make it extraordinarily difficult to sink a hook into.  Add this to the fact that if you do get them to the net you must remove the hook from those nasty teeth of a certified truculent finny creature that will definitely try to bite you. 

Gar Feature A Nasty Array Of Teeth With A Penchant To Bite

Indeed even trying to subdue a Gar so you can begin to remove the hook is an Olympic wrestling match in and of itself with their muscular, bony-plated body writhing to escape.  To make matters worse, even though reputed to be respectable dinner fare, cleaning Gar is an odious exercise that begins with having to cut off that shielding tough armor even before you can get down to the challenging task of filleting the meat from their bony body.  (There are some good tutorials online for rookie Gar filleters.) Thus it comes as no real surprise that few anglers in Florida will admit to targeting Gar and have zilch knowledge about how to catch them despite their reputation as eager biters and admirable fighters once on the hook.

This left me no choice but to do some on-line research to learn the tricks of successful Gar fishing.  I discovered the Gar aficionados and intelligentsia are mainly good-ole boys from Texas where they fish for giant Alligator Gar that grow up to seven-feet long!  They almost uniformly recommend an unusual artificial bait called a “rope lure” that is made by unbraiding a four-to-six inch length of 3/8” nylon rope, adding a little weight for casting, and using it without a hook.  The idea is that the Gar’s teeth will become entangled in the nylon fibers, allowing the angler to haul it in.  The nearly unanimous color-of-choice is white.

Standard Gar Lures From The King of Gar Anglers, Jack Barnett

The experts also offer some tips on presentation and fishing technique.  Gar feed mainly close to the surface so there is rarely any need to fish deep holes.  Indeed, their surface predilection means sight fishing is an exciting possibility.  They furthermore suggest casting behind Gar and bringing the lure up slowly to their sides, letting it rest, then twitching it slightly to trigger a strike.  According to the pros, once  you get a Gar to bite, you should not jerk hard as you would normally to set the hook, but rather put light pressure on the fish and let her tug and pull and writhe to further become entangled in the rope strands. 

Putting The Advice To Work On The Water

I spent an afternoon last week driving up and down the Tamiami Trail between Everglades City and Naples, jumping out at bridges to scope out the Gar potential in the canal that parallels the road.  I discovered  a couple of spots where I could see Gar swimming insouciantly about, then  struck gold at a bridge near  the East River Park and close-by picnic area, about five miles from the Tamiami Trail/Highway 29 intersection at Carnestown near Everglades City. 

Gar Hot Spot

There I could see literally hundreds of Gar porpoising as they chased bait in the water.  That night I tied up some fresh new rope lures imitating the ones I had seen online and then set my the alarm clock with antediluvian Long-Nose Gar tail-walking through my somewhat addled brain.

The next morning I’m up at 5 a.m. and on the water at sunrise.  As I launch my kayak down the slope into the canal, I see Gar scattering every which way. 

I pedal out in the canal and with great confidence cast my new creation to a rising fish.  As soon as it hits the water a big Gar munches down on it…and just as quickly comes off.  I make 10 more casts and had ten more hard hits—honest! 

Cruising For Gar

A few stay on for a couple of seconds, but that’s about it.  Now my confidence is in tatters. 

I decide to take a mental health break and switch to a small marabou jig to target some of the Mayan Cichlids (AKA Chicklettes) I see lurking along the shorelines.  I catch a couple right off the bat, but soon my thoughts are back on Gar as I hear some feeding back up the canal.  I turn around and pedal back to the bridge and the pool to the west that dead-ends at an overgrown mangrove tunnel.  Gar are surfacing everywhere!  I soon have one on the line and just as quickly he is off, then again, and again.  The last remaining locks on my follically challenged head threaten to fall out.  Why aren’t these sure-fire lures working??

I decide to try the lake on the other side of the bridge that I can’t see, but Google Maps promises is there. 

After sliding under the bridge, I have to navigate through a narrow channel in the sawgrass. 

Sawgrass Alley

When I finally emerge, I coast by a big mangrove tree under the baleful eye of a turkey vulture then a black vulture.

Turkey Vulture Eyes Potential Snack
Peckish-Looking Black Vulture

I’m wondering if they know something about my future that I don’t!  But I finally break into the lake and see Gar rising everywhere.  Maybe my luck will change.  But in the next hour as I cruise the shoreline and explore the upper reaches of the lake, I have at least 50 strikes.  I get one close to the boat, but of course have forgotten my net and as I try to subdue the frisky fish he manages to extricate himself from the sure-fire rope lure and skedaddle. 

Author’s “Sure-Fire” Rope Lure Strikes Out

That’s the crowning blow, and I decide to call it a day.  It’s definitely back to the drawing boards with the rope lure.

**********

Fast forward a week , and I’m back at the canal armed with several newly designed rope lures.  My hunch is the standard version works well in Texas because the Alligator Gar have bigger mouths and teeth with which to more readily entangle in the nylon strands. I decide to experiment with several new designs.  I noticed last week that the nylon rope version soaked up a lot of water, causing the strands to become matted together, not offering much surface area to snag the Gars’ teeth, so make up several using crinkly polypro fly tying material for the skirt that absorbs less water.  On another I’ve added a couple of small barbless treble hooks to one of the normal designs, and on a third, tied on a trailing stinger treble hook.  Stinger hooks sometimes work well for fish that are short-striking, so figured it might work with the Gar.

The “Answer” Before And After Tangling With Gar

I push off from a new launch spot I discovered on the south side of the highway that avoids having to tote the yak across the road. I paddle back under the bridge to the canal on the north side of the highway and immediately notice a lack of any surface activity nor can I see any Gar cruising along just under the surface as on my earlier trip. 

Easier Kayak Launch On South Side Of Highway

I decide to start out with a redesigned hookless rope lure sporting the polypro skirt and throw a long cast down the middle of the canal.  Something immediately explodes on it and does an acrobatic leap.  To my complete amazement, it’s a big snook!  Of course since the lure has no hook, the fish is immediately off.  Fortunately no one is here to hear the epithets reverberating down the canal.  That will be it for the next half hour as I pedal east down the canal.  I see nary a Gar, and even the hordes of Mayan Cichlids along the shoreline show only mild interest when I switch to the usually reliable small white marabou jig.  I see the Chicklettes are spawning, and then it dawns on me why the Gar are AWOL, probably on their love nests somewhere else.  Feeling a skunk creeping up on me, I turn back west and pedal close to the shoreline, pitching the lure in front of me to the suddenly finicky Chicklettes.  Of course I immediately spook a giant Snook that was fraternizing with the little guys. 

Soon I’m back at the bridge, thinking maybe the Gar have migrated to spawn in the shallow lake to the south where they were frolicking a few days ago.  But before making that short jaunt through the sawgrass, I decide to pedal a few hundred yards west to where the canal narrows to an overgrown mangrove tunnel that shouts Snook hideout. On the way, I throw my friend Mr. Wiffle curlytail under some overhanging shoreline branches and sure enough, a small Snook nails the lure.  He’s frisky and manages to throw the hook, but at least I know I may be on the right track.  Next I loft a long cast to the shady spot at the mouth of the mangrove tunnel and start to crank the line back in.  Nothing doing…until I get the lure a few feet from the yak then a big Snook takes a swipe at it but misses.  I immediately recast, hoping she didn’t see me, but come up empty.  The air is redolent with the stench of a skunk.  I’ve missed my chances with some good Snook, the Chicklettes are uncooperative, and the Gar missing in action.  My last hope is finding the errant Long-Nose in the hidden lake.

I slide under the bridge, trying to avoid clipping my noggin on the mud dauber nests above.  Then I plow through some dead reeds clogging the narrow channel before emerging into the lake.  It’s blazing hot now, summer having descended early on the Glades.  Out comes my face buff.  I drench it from my water bottle then don it, now looking like an icthylogical terrorist.

Icthylogical Terrorist Girds For Battle

On the way I have spooked several Gar, an excellent sign.  And sure enough, as I round a bend in the channel see splashes all over the lake, Gar feeding freely. 

Gar Utopia Ahead

Under some mangrove branches at the entrance to the lake something is busting bait.  I have switched over to a rope lure with hooks in a last ditch attempt to salvage the day.  And it works.  A Gar immediately nails the lure.  I apply steady but light pressure with my rod as he jets out into the lake, porpoising as he goes.  So far, so good.  Then he executes a jump that would make a Snook proud.  Still on!  Finally I bring the modest-sized bronze torpedo to the net which sets off wild jubilation. 

SUCCESS!!

A Net Helps Land Obstreperous Gar

I’m thinking I have the right formula now.  I continue south, casting to my right to Gar hugging the shoreline and larger ones that are cruising in a three-foot deep channel that drops off a mud bar to my left.  I get strike after strike, but can’t keep the fish on.  This continues for another half hour until I reach the point where the lake starts to narrow into a feeder channel with a slow current that is too shallow to navigate.  Gar are stacked up there and after more hits, I finally land another fish, this one going almost three-feet!

Upper Gar Lake

By now it’s time for a lunch break, and I paddle across to the east shoreline for a shady spot under a stand of mangroves.  I have to use the paddle as the water is too shallow for the fins that extend a foot below the kayak when in use. 

Made In The Shade For Lunch

I’m enjoy the bucolic scene in front of me when I hear a tremendous splash a couple of hundred yards across the lake in back of me.  I turn around to see a big osprey on the water, his huge wings spread out in an arc over the water looking every bit like Count Dracula’s cape when he accosts an unfortunate victim.  The big bird stares directly at me, then lifts off the water with the powerful beat of his wings carrying a two-foot Gar in his talons!  So much for alligators being Gars only enemy!!  What a sight!!

After a leisurely lunch, I decide to pedal north back to the entrance to the lake where I can see lots of surface activity.  As I approach quietly, I toss my rope’n’hook variant into the melee and am immediately rewarded.  This one has hit much harder than the Gar did before lunch, and I can see the hook is imbedded in the corner of his mouth.  After a worthy battle, Gar #3 slides to the boat. 

Grappling With Gar

He’s a belligerent fellow, and it takes some doing to extract the hook with my long-nose pliers.  Be sure not to leave home without yours if you decide to pursue Gar.  The Gar is so round and muscular that it is nearly impossible to hold him firmly while extracting the hook.  When I try, he easily escapes my grasp and rockets back into the water.  In the end,  I have to elevate this one slightly out of the water holding the line, then work the hook out with the pliers.  It’s a bit of a nerve-wracking affair.  A long-neck hook remover used for shark and other toothy fish is another excellent option. 

Long Neck Hook Remover Highly Recommended

Whether it’s the fish being more aggressive or that I have finally mastered the fine art of playing a Gar, for the next half hour I circle around the feeding fish and rack up five or six more before the intense sun signals it’s time to head back to the SUV and celebrate with a cold non-alcoholic brew.  As I pedal back down the channel, I resist the temptation to throw the lure at Gar I see cruising in front of me.  And who knows, maybe that was a big snook that jetted away leaving a big wake.  Good excuse to come back and pursue this antediluvian wonder.

Homeward Bound

Fishing Through The Corona Crisis

March 2020

I’m an old coot who has been through my share of crises, national and otherwise, over my 70-plus years.  During my college days there were the marches and raucous demonstrations over the Vietnam War culminating in the horrific Kent State shootings that sent the nation reeling. 

Flower Power Ends Vietnam War

They were followed by the race riots where Chicago and other big cities burned.  I remember well sitting in long lines for gas during the 70’s Arab oil embargo with fights breaking out when guys tried to cut in line, then a few years later nervously watching news of the Iran hostage crisis. 

Arab Oil Embargo Gas Crisis

I kept right on fishing through it all, including fly fishing through my mid-life crisis in the 90s (tipping my hat to Howell Raines who chronicled this time for all of us angling boomers).  Then there was 9-11 when I got stuck on the runway at O’Hare Airport in Chicago for three hours only upon disembarking to watch incredulously on a TV in the terminal the terrorist-piloted jet crash into the second Twin Tower in New York City.  I was thoroughly shaken and stranded in Chicago for three days, but back on the water a week later.  Fast forward to the Great Recession.  That crisis too would pass.

But none of those crises compares in my mind with the Coronavirus calamity sweeping the nation and world.   It’s an existential threat when despite all the years under your belt, you have no established frame of reference for anything like it. The only thing remotely comparable in my life is the first time when I was in California and a big earthquake hit.  It’s almost impossible to regain your equilibrium when the basic rock-solid reference point of your being shifts ominously beneath your feet.  It generates a sense of dread that is hard to shake.

I had that moment in March as the Coronavirus infections began to spread like wildfire in Washington and New York then mushrooming in Florida where I spend the winter.  Being among the so-called “at risk” population, I hid away early in my little abode near Everglades City.  But after a few days of reading and watching Chicago P.D. reruns, I was going more than a little stir crazy.   I figured a fishing trip into the wilds of the Everglades out of my home base on Chokoloskee Island might be the answer, the mental salve that I needed.  I have found time and again solitude and fighting fish are the antidote for many ailments.  Fortunately I could get away in my kayak to close-by spots without having to fill-up with gas or cross paths with other anglers at boat ramps. But the weather and tides were conspiring against me.  The wind was blowing like a banshee, and the tides were super low during the prime fishing times.  That meant I couldn’t risk getting out on Chokoloskee Bay or probably wouldn’t have enough water to get into some of my favorite backcountry creeks.  And of course the authorities were issuing dire warnings as they belatedly closed beaches and restaurants in Florida.  What’s an angler to do??

As I plotted my next move, I also knew I had to respect the admonitions about social distancing and staying sheltered away from the madding crowds to protect others and myself.  To make things even more challenging, several of my favorite routes weren’t options as nearby state parks and many public boat ramps had wisely closed.   I needed a paradigm shift. 

Then if by magic, a friend who lives just outside Everglades City called and asked if I’d like to try fishing on a sheltered freshwater lake that his home borders on, one with public access.  Not an angler himself, he mentioned that he’d seen some big fish swimming and rising along the shoreline during one of his walks.  Probably bass, I thought.  He added he’d never seen a boat out on the lake.  No wind, no tides, big fish, and no people—sounded like the perfect Corona escape!  And it was!! 

Big Bass Hiding In Plain Sight

I rerigged my snook rod/reel outfits with lighter leaders and dug out my old bass fishing lures that I hadn’t used for years.  I tied on an old reliable baby bass-colored fluke on a 1/8 oz. jig head.  Bass are cannibals so it seemed like a good bet.  No one was on the lake when I shoved off in the early morning in my kayak.  Ten minutes later I had managed nary a strike when I hooked the bottom off a stand of sawgrass….or at least that’s what I thought until it moved.  Five minutes of chaos later, I landed one of my biggest bass ever—pushing seven pounds.

Lunker Largemouth Bass

The bonus was the wildlife that I crossed paths with as I paddled the beautiful clear spring-fed lake.

Fellow Angler
Gator Time

That outing started me on a quixotic quest to find more hidden freshwater bass lakes in my immediate neighborhood overlooked and ignored by saltwater anglers like myself pursuing snook and tarpon–ones I could get to and fish from my kayak without endangering anyone. It didn’t take long with a little sleuthing to find a hidden series of lakes just down the road from me. This one produced some exotics from South America–a beautiful big Peacock Bass and a colorful Mayan Cichlid, AKA Atomic Sunfish.

An Exotic Invader–A Peacock Bass

Atomic Sunfish

And the bonus in one was a surprise snook, a saltwater fish that can survive in freshwater, that went almost 30-inches. The mystery is how she got there miles from saltwater. But then whose to argue??

Surprise Snook!

I have even started chasing toothy gar in the canals along the Tamiami Trail a few minutes from my home.  Fortunately I have been able to enlist the help of a human pack mule to haul my kayak into more remote spots. He works for good red wine.

More about those bass, gar, and hidden lakes in the future…and believe me they are mental antidotes for the pandemic.

The whole experience reminded me that life goes on, offering new patterns and adventures along the way, often in your backyard. Mind you, I am not advocating straying miles from home like the knuckleheads from the Miami area who are evading the state and local stay-at-home orders and closed boat ramps there to descend on Everglades City and Chokoloskee Island with its populace overwhelmingly made up of vulnerable senior citizens. The nearest hospital is over an hour away. Stay close to home so you aren’t putting yourself and other people at risk. There’s so much about this virus that doctors and scientists are just discovering—like some people who are infected never exhibit any symptoms.

If you live in Florida, and especially in the Miami or another urban area, take another look at those nearby canals.  Monster Peacock Bass and big Mayan Cichlids are probably lurking and hungry.  Take the cue from anglers in Denver who are restricted from going out to the mountains to fish so they are catching carp AND big trout in the South Platte that runs through the heart of the city.  And whatever you do, just be careful out there.