Return To Sand Creek Lakes: Revenge Of The Skunked!

Early July 2020

My first trip to the beautiful remote Sand Creek Lakes high above the Wet Mountain Valley in Colorado was in 2017, a year of the big runoff. The Arkansas and local streams around my home base of Salida were blown out and muddy well into July. As a consequence, by mid-June I was going a bit stir crazy and had contracted fishing fever. I needed to chase some trout in the worst way, so I turned my attention to the high alpine lakes nearby. One in particular—Upper Sand Creek Lake in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains near Westcliffe—caught my eye. I had heard tales of giant cutthroats there, which were confirmed by my high country lake bible, Tom Parkes’ excellent Central Colorado Alpine Lakes Fishing Guide. He wrote “The lake has large cutthroats (approaching two pounds)…” What sane angler could resist??

My next step was to research the trail over Music Pass to the lake in more detail.  Even for a youthful septuagenarian like me, it looked to be a challenge—an up and down and up almost four mile one-way hike to nearly 12,000 feet with a good possibility of running into snow banks along the trail and around the lake.  But the lure of cruising leviathans won out. 

It was all worthwhile humping over the pass and crunching through snow banks on the trail when I got that first glimpse of the lake and immediately spotted the behemoths finning along the shoreline within casting distance.  Parkes had not been exaggerating.  That was around noon.   By 5:30 p.m. when I had to hightail it back to my SUV to beat the dark, I was skunked!  I had thrown every fly in my mountain fly box at them, had post holed through snow to reach the west side of the lake that was supposed to be productive, and had even broken out my ultralight spin outfit and thrown spinners like the normally reliable purple Vibrex at them.  The cutts studiously ignored all offerings, the boys being much more interested in chasing the girls.  Amore was in the air along with the distinct odor of skunk, something that had not happened to me in years! As I scrambled and grumbled back over Music Pass to the trailhead I vowed, like General MacArthur, I shall return.

Now three years later I am on the road from my cabin at 6 a.m. to make the Music Pass trailhead by 8. While the waters in my neck of the wood are lower and more fishable this year, the wind has been howling every day for practically two weeks making fly fishing nearly impossible.  Today it is supposed to lay down substantially.   I am resolute to avenge that ignominious skunk while celebrating my oldest son Ben’s birth on this very date, July 1, 35 years ago. 

It’s an easy drive through the little hamlet of Westcliffe until I reach the Grape Creek trailhead, but beyond that the gravel road deteriorates quickly into a bone-jarring rough track suitable only for real off-road ready 4WD vehicles with an experienced driver behind the wheel.  It takes me almost 30 minutes to cover the last three miles. 

Since my trip in 2017 I’ve turned 70 and my knees aren’t what they used to be even a few short years ago.  Could I make the long hike to Upper Sand Creek Lake again? I decide it may be wiser to head for the lower lake that requires about a mile shorter hike in, but is still up and down.  Also, the fish are also supposedly smaller.  I consult with my knees and get the green light only for the lower lake.  Sanity thus prevails. 

When I get to the Music Pass trailhead I am surprised to find six vehicles already there, reminding me the 4th of July weekend is coming up and many people are already out taking advantage of the holiday falling on a Saturday.  Fortunately most will turn out to be hikers, not anglers.  I quickly begin gearing up, stuffing my daypack with food, drink, and fishing paraphernalia.  As I get ready to hit the trail, another vehicle pulls up and two gents about my age emerge.  They begin loading up their big backpacks—at least 60 pounds—including packing fly rods.  I strike up a conversation with the two amiable chaps, Roland and George, and learn they are setting out for a week-long stay in the Sand Creek Valley to fish both lakes.  My daypack, although loaded to the gills, weighs probably a measly 30 pounds.  So that does it, I can do it if they can.

Graciously, the duo allow me to play like a wily race car driver and slipstream behind them, saving some energy. 

View Of The Wet Mountain Valley From Music Pass Trail

Still after a rugged 1.25 mile climb over a nasty trail to Music Pass, with an elevation gain of almost 1,000 feet, I am wheezing and barely keeping up with the hearty pair.

Roland And George–Intrepid Anglers!

We sign in dutifully at the wilderness boundary and decide to take a little rest.

The boys look worried when at the pass I do my imitation of Red Foxx’s heart attack skit—“It’s the big one!!  I’m coming to you honey!!”  Gallows humor I’m thinking. 

It’s The Big One!!

After the hijinks, we are soon scooting downhill to the point where the trail forks—to the left leads over Sand Creek then up to the lower lake in a bit over one mile. To the right at 1.7 miles is the upper lake.

Down From Music Pass And Into The Wilds

Along the way, we bump into a couple of young backpackers who tell us they had good luck in the lower lakes for cutthroat.  I’m beaming!  Also along the way, we get a sobering wake-up call as Roland, an agile 74, suddenly takes a nasty tumble on a scree-like section of the trail.  Fortunately although he comes down hard on his back side and left wrist, he avoids serious injury.  He shows his true angling colors by immediately remarking that thankfully he didn’t land on his casting wrist! It does remind me why I carry a Garmin InReach emergency satellite phone on these backcountry trips.

As we near the fork we say our good byes as they split off to set up camp in a meadow nearby.  I continue on to the crossing over Sand Creek where I take a breather, resisting the urge to break out my fly rod and sample the scenic little water.  On earlier trips Roland and George reported they had fun catching the smaller trout I can see finning in several pools. 

Alluring Sand Creek

As I cool off in the shade, I reflect on the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, which has a fascinating history including Native Americans, Spanish conquistadors, and American explorers like Zebulon Pike and John Fremont.  First designated as a national monument in 1932 as a result of lobbying by local citizens worried about gold mining in Medano Creek, the Great Sands Dunes were elevated to a national park and preserve in 2004.  The core national park covers about 168 square miles, mainly the towering sand dunes, and the preserve another 233 square miles that encompasses the surrounding range of high mountain peaks and lakes, including Upper and Lower Sand Creek Lakes.  Some activities such as hunting that are prohibited in the national park are permitted in the preserve.

After a brief respite to recharge my batteries, I ford Sand Creek by tiptoeing across the top of a log jam. My smile fades soon thereafter as I encounter the first in a series of steep switchbacks that no one seemed to have mentioned in their on-line posts about the trail. I have been back from my winter hideout in Florida for almost a month, but am still quickly wheezing as I pass the 11,000-foot elevation mark. It takes me almost an hour to navigate the final mile, but fortunately am distracted by a couple of curious deer and beautiful wildflowers between frequent breathers.

Curious Mule Deer On Trail

But all doubts fade quickly when I see the beautiful lake water and the magnificent Tijares Peak towering directly above at 13,612 feet. Tijares is Spanish for scissors, an apt name for the rugged, sharp-edged, serrated mountain and line of peaks that dominate the skyline. And better yet, no one is around!!

Jagged Tijeras Peak Towers Over Lower Sand Creek Lake

As I approach the lake shore, the wind kicks up unexpectedly strong from the north, not what the weatherman predicted. But then again anyone who has fished alpine lakes knows that the winds are completely unpredictable and are likely to change directions and wax and wane throughout the day. But if I’m going to fly fish, I need to find a sheltered shoreline. Then I remember that in his mountain lakes guidebook, Tom Parkes mentions a hidden cove on the south end of the lake that just might be the ticket. Sure enough, as I trek along the south shoreline, I see the curve of the cove, its entry having been obscured by a peninsula of land that juts out into the lake.

Gimme Shelter–Hidden Cove At South End Of Lake

I hike over the peninsula ridge and immediately the wind abates…and better yet, I see trout dimpling the calm, clear lake water, and they don’t appear to be small as some posts reported.

I quickly stow my pack and start to rig my fly rod, soaking in the sun’s warming rays.  But then it dawns on me it’s going to be a challenge casting along the shoreline here crowded with spruce and pine trees.  And wading isn’t an option at this point because the bank drops off sharply into deep water.  So I also pull out my ultralight spinning pack rod and rig it with an old reliable alpine lake combination of two nymphs—a zug bug and zebra midge trailing a clear bubble.  As I approach the water to scope things out, I spy a good-sized cutthroat feeding over deep water.  He’s too far out to reach with the fly rod, so I grab the spinning rod and throw a cast 15-feet in front of the cruising fish.  As soon as the flies hit the water he jets forward at light speed and nails the zug bug without hesitation before it sinks even a foot!  As I tussle with the cutt, I think I have the ticket to success.  Surprisingly, it will be the only fish I take all day on the spin outfit or on a nymph.  Such are the vicissitudes of alpine lake fishing.

Fat Cutthroat–First Fish Of The Day

After 15 minutes of fruitlessly flailing the water with the nymph combo, I decide to walk back from the point of the peninsula further into the cove where I see the water is much shallower. As I approach, I spy some big cutthroats cruising in the clear water, nonchalantly picking small bugs off the surface. I see one working his way towards me only a few feet from the shoreline and hastily tie a #16 foam beetle on my fly line, a morsel that has successfully tempted many alpine lake trout. The bank is lined with trees, so I have to execute a tricky cast parallel to the shoreline, leaning out of the water to give me room to execute. My efforts are rewarded as he sidles up to the fly, opens his mouth and …..darts away at the last second.

After several more casts with the beetle and no takers, I switch to a smaller #18 black ant. Soon, a nice colorful 16-inch cutt casually sucks in the fly. Now I think I’m onto the right pattern, but again a succession of fish scrutinize the ant but shy away at the last moment. Frustrated, I get down on my belly and lean out over the water to get a better look at what the timid trout are feeding on—some very, very small little midges. So I tie on a #20 black midge emerger, but still only get brief looks and no hits. I step down further to a #22 black midge dry with a white foam top that enables me to see the microscopic offering on the water.

I lay a gentle cast a few feet in front of another big cruiser and success!  He sucks in the fly without hesitation, and the fight is on.  He’s strong, but with my trusty old Sage 9-foot, 5# fly rod, the cutthroat finally succumbs, agrees to a quick photo, and is back on his way.  From then on for the rest of the day, it’s a movable feast! 

For the next hour in the cove, I hide behind the trees and wait, letting the trout come to me, often in pairs.  I target the larger ones, and net a beauty that goes 17-inches! 

Big Colorful 17″ Cutt

The only glitch is a short period where several trout come up to the midge, examine it closely, then refuse to take. I finally conduct a close examination of the fly and discover a small wind knot in the leader an inch in front of the fly. In the clear water apparently the fish can see this tiny glitch. I retie, and the fish again cooperate. By noon I have caught a dozen more beautiful cutthroats of several varieties. Some look like natives and other the more colorful Yellowstone Cutthroat that have been stocked here. Who am I to quibble?

After lunch I decide to work around to the south end of the cove where two creeks feed in. 

Hidden Cove Looking North

On the way I continue sight fishing for cruising fish in the shallow flats, having a blast trying to lay the fly in their path, close but not too close to spook them. Luckily there are no trees crowding the shoreline so the casting is easy.

Sight Fishing For Cruising Cutthroats

I’m successful about one out of four tries.  When I get to the creeks, I find smaller fish already spawning there, but the big girls and boys are cruising and feeding just off-shore, often within casting range in two-three feet of water.  By 3:30 p.m. I have caught another dozen, including a showy 16-incher. 

It’s been one of the best days I have had in years on an alpine lake, where the fish can often be extremely finicky.  It’s certainly been the most fun—sight fishing for big trout and getting to watch them take in the crystal clear water!  And the odor of skunk has definitely dissipated in the clean mountain air. 

Now it’s time to head home. Last trip it took me two hours to hike out, but now it will be closer to three. As I start trekking back down towards the fork on the steep switchbacks, my knees immediately start complaining—going down is often tougher than hiking up. So I slow down and take a little time to reflect on the 72 years I have had on this beautiful planet. Thirty-five years ago at noon in the Fredericksburg, Virginia, hospital I first held my oldest son Benjamin in my arms. Back then fathers were not allowed in the delivery room but had to wait in a little waiting room for nervous dads just down the hall. I suddenly heard a baby cry, and then a nurse appeared with small bundle. Ben squinted up at me, his expression seeming to say, “Who’s that!” Now 35 years later he’s grown into a fine young man who excelled academically at Colorado College and then studying for his master’s degree in history from Texas A&M—who would have thought I would have ever raised an Aggie!! Now he works for a law enforcement agency using his smarts to track down the bad guys. I reflect on how lucky I am to have two good boys—his younger brother Matthew is a wonderful, doting father to my #1 sweetheart and fishing buddy Aly.

Proud Dad With Ben (on right) and Matthew

I suppose most fathers ask at some point as they age what they would have done differently, how they could have done better for their children. I tried to give my boys a world view and to stoke their curiosity by taking them on trips to Africa, Great Britain, Greece, the Boundary Canoe Waters of Minnesota, and other interesting places. I was happy to pass on my love of tennis to them—both played varsity for East High, a big public school in Denver, and could handle me on the courts by the time they were seniors. Matthew even won the Denver Public Schools doubles championship. We had great fun along the way peeling around Denver in that old 1987 Corvette and lots of fun camping and fishing in the streams of lakes of Colorado and exotic places like the Boundary Waters for northern pike and smallmouth bass and the backcountry of Alaska for salmon and grayling. I hope they will always stay curious and also remember that if you follow all the rules you’ll miss all the fun.

I probably traveled too much on business in the 1990s when I was starting my land use consulting firm, having been fired with just three days notice from my job as an agency head in Denver by a new mayor. But fortunately they had a wonderful mother who filled the gaps I left and gave them much more. I think many guys in my generation were that way, putting business and work ahead of family at times, but there’s nothing like being unemployed with two kids at home to focus your attention. If I had to do it over again, I would draw brighter lines between work and the rest of my life.

My musings are abruptly interrupted as I start the steep climb up from the trail fork to the top of Music Pass.

What Comes Down Must Go Back Up! Whew!!

I finally make it with the assistance of numerous short stops in the shady spots along the route,  pausing to admire the wonderful views and wildflowers.

Shooting Stars

Plentiful Lupines

But the worst is yet to come.  The mile-long plus trail from Music Pass to the trailhead is in terrible shape—eroded and strewn with loose rocks, a sad commentary on how this wealthy nation has short-changed its agencies that take care of our public lands. 

Music Pass Trail Back To SUV—No Picnic For Old Codgers!

I nearly lose it twice, my legs slipping out from under me as the rocks break loose under my feet, saved only by my hiking pole slowing my abrupt descent.

I realize, sadly, that this will probably be the last time I will hike to the Sand Creek Lakes. My knees are just not up to it, the penalty for playing too much tennis and basketball in my earlier years. Not that I regret that, but just end up now paying the price. Indeed I will be hobbling around for a couple of weeks after this hike. I know, happily, there are still lots of remote places with fish to explore that will not require what one of my fishing buddies wryly calls a DDM—Duerksen Death March. I’m already planning that for that one in a couple of weeks, a secret little creek I stumbled on last summer with relatively easy access and just loaded with wild trout! More on that one in my next article!!

P.S.—If you want to sample the fabulous cutthroat fishing on either of the Sand Creek Lakes, do it soon.  The National Park and U.S. Forest Services have plans to restore the Sand Creek drainage, including both lakes, with native, rare Rio Grande Cutthroats.  That will mean poisoning all existing fish in the lakes and creek.  Check the status of these plans on-line before you go.

Nomenclature Nag: A Big Beautiful Trout Is NOT A Toad, Slab, or Pig/Hog

July 2020

One of the real satisfactions and enjoyment I get from my Facebook fishing groups is reading posts from young 20- and 30-something anglers like my son as they hone their fly fishing skills while catching (and releasing) some beautiful muscular trout here in Colorado. But I have to admit to an urge to scream and gnash my teeth when these young bloods refer to their trophies as Toads, Slabs, and Pigs/Hogs. I think some of this jargon may have been imported from booyah southern bass fishermen, but whatever the case it seems sacrilegious to use four words in the English language that conjure up ugliness to describe something so rare and stunning or to introduce those terms into the gentle and civilized sport of fly fishing! So in the spirit of imparting some tips on nomenclature from an irascible septuagenarian who has been chasing trout for over 50 years, I offer the following guidance on acceptable terminology for describing your trophy.

First, a short primer on what is NOT allowed:

TOAD—this is what a toad looks like:

SLAB—this is what a slab looks like:

PIG/HOG—this is what a pig/hog looks like:

Now that those pejorative descriptive terms have been banished from your youthful vocabularies, here are some suggestions for more appropriate adjectives to describe your outsized catch:  Monster, Huge, Gigantic, Gargantuan, Colossal, Titanic, Whopper.   And for those of you who want to project a more erudite, cultured aura, please consider Leviathan or Brobdingnagian. 

Thank you, dudes, for considering this rant from an increasingly curmudgeonly old codger. Please resume fishing at your earliest opportunity.

Searching For Fish And Solitude In South Park: The Likeable Lilliputians Of Lost Creek

June 2020

For my earlier articles about seeking fish and solitude in South Park, see my blog from October 2019 and May 2020: https://hooknfly.com/2020/06/07/on-the-road-to-riches-finding-fish-and-solitude-in-south-park/ and https://hooknfly.com/2019/10/07/mission-impossible-searching-for-fish-and-solitude-in-south-park/

Undaunted, I continue my quest for fish and solitude in South Park, Colorado, a vast National Heritage Area whose waters like the South Platte’s Dream Stream and Eleven Mile Canyon attract hordes of anglers like moths to the proverbial flame.  Now admittedly they do catch some trophies, but also find at times six-foot social distancing is a real challenge to achieve.  Not exactly my cup of tea. 

For over twenty years now I have traveled from my cabin near Salida to Denver and back for work and now more often to see my #1 sweetheart granddaughter Aly.  Every time I whizzed by a sign on U.S. Highway 285 near Kenosha Pass beckoning me to the Lost Creek Wilderness. 

Lost Creek Campground–Gateway To Lost Creek Fishing

The preserve, a vast 120,000-acre sanctuary, was created in 1980 in Pike National Forest by the 1980 Colorado Wilderness Act.  Parts of it had been set aside as early as 1963 as a protected scenic area.  It takes its name from the small stream that flows for miles in a wide valley then mysteriously disappears into a jumble of rocks and boulders, only to reappear miles downstream as Goose Creek.    This is not your typical Colorado high-mountain wilderness with jagged peaks covered with snow well into summer.  Instead the more gentle landscape, most of it below treeline, is marked with random knobs, domes, pinnacles, and arches. 

The Gentle Wilderness

There was never much mining or logging here, again in contrast to many other wilderness areas, just mostly grazing.  In the late 1800s there was a uniquely western half-baked reservoir scheme to dam Lost Creek underground where it intersects Reservoir Gulch.  Not surprisingly, the enterprise failed, a few remaining structures testifying to the folly.

Fortunately before it disappears, Lost Creek seems to offer the prospect of over five miles of fishing in a picture-perfect setting.  I figure it’s high time to explore the creek.  My on-line sleuthing finds a lot of information about hiking in the miles of trails in the wilderness, but very little about fishing the creek.  A couple of posts do mention eager brook trout, and that’s enough to tip the scales in favor of some additional on-the-water piscatorial research.

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On The Road To Riches: Finding Fish And Solitude In South Park

For other articles on finding fish and solitude in South Park see my blogs from October 2019: https://hooknfly.com/2019/10/07/mission-impossible-searching-for-fish-and-solitude-in-south-park/amp/ and June 2020: https://hooknfly.com/2020/06/25/searching-for-fish-and-solitude-in-south-park-the-likeable-lilliputians-of-lost-creek/

May 2020

With the Arkansas and Gunnison Rivers and other waters in my neck of the woods like Tomichi Creek blown out with runoff, I decided to resume my quixotic quest for solitude and fish in South Park.  The big broad valley that is Colorado’s South Park, home to the old mining town of Fairplay, is known mainly for two things—its eponymous TV cartoon show and great fishing on the South Platte River and its tributaries.  Problem is, just over an hour away looms the booming Denver metro area with its millions of residents, not to mention Colorado’s second largest city Colorado Springs.  That means the famous stretches of the South Platte in South Park like the Dream Stream and Eleven Mile Canyon are often wall-to-wall with anglers. 

Now my friends and readers know that crowds on the water are not my cup of tea, consequently I have been keeping my eyes and ears open for streams in South Park that the madding crowds have overlooked or forsaken in search of lunker fish in the aforementioned popular stretches of the South Platte.  The South Fork of the South Platte has become my haven with productive fishing with lots of elbow room, just off US Highway 285 south of Fairplay. 

Public Access Areas On South Fork Of The South Platte

Last fall I had a wonderful day on a stretch of public water a few miles above Antero Reservoir.  The weather man says it’s going to be a balmy 70 degrees this week—very warm for this time of year in the perennially frigid valley—and equally important, the winds won’t be howling across the wide-open prairie.  Let’s go!!

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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 critters 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. There 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 quickly catch a couple, 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 quick 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.

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.

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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