Most anglers who spend any time fishing in fresh water are familiar with gar. It’s pretty common to see these fish floating just under the surface, looking for all the world like a chunk of wood — until they make a quick sideways snap or start slowly sinking.
While it’s by no means rare to sight a gar, they’re not frequently caught. Gar are slow-swimming opportunistic feeders, spending most of their time drifting up and down in the water column. Their long, bony snouts bristle with hundreds of needle-pointed teeth, ideal for holding onto a slippery fish.
They don’t chase down a meal; instead, they wait for one to come close enough to catch. The only time they move quickly is when they’re actually feeding, and then it’s only for a second — just long enough to lash out and grab it. They’ll usually grab a fish sideways and hold onto it for a moment before turning it headfirst to swallow it.
Although gar are technically a freshwater fish, they have no problem surviving in salty water at least for a while. These fish live mostly near the surface, and fresh water weighs less than salt water. That means when the rivers are flowing strongly, there’s a freshwater layer (called a lens) on top of the Harbor over the saltier water underneath. Gar are not strong swimmers, so they sometimes are at the mercy of the tide, which flushes them out of the passes with regularity during the summer rainy season.
Because they’re such poor swimmers, they’re also not the best fighters. Catching a 5-foot gar is like catching a 30-pound black drum — it’s a big fish that you’ll probably think is a lot smaller until you actually see the thing. But there’s a big difference: Most black drum that are hooked end up landed, but most gar fall off the hook long before they’re actually caught. Their anatomy makes it difficult to get a solid hookset, so the overwhelming majority of gar that take a bait don’t make it to the boat.
Targeting gar is tricky. You can use live shiners if you’re on the river or in fresh water, or just about any live bait you can catch in salt water. Use a float to keep the bait within a foot or two of the surface. Chunks of cut mullet or ladyfish will also work, or even whole dead pinfish or other small fish.
A bit of steel is important to keep from getting cut off, so use 20 inches or so of wire leader. Sometimes sharks will be your bycatch, so stay legal by using inline circle hooks.
Because of how gar feed, it’s important to let the fish run with the bait until it starts to swallow it. As with other fish that need to be allowed to run, a conventional reel that can be left in freespool or a dual-drag spinning reel is very helpful here. Gar will often play with a bait for quite some time before actually eating it, and sometimes they’ll kill it without making any attempt at all to eat it.
The whole thing can be quite exasperating — maddening, even, as you get run after run with no hookups. But that’s also part of the sport of it.
Catching gar on artificials is even more of an exercise in frustration. They’ll often follow a topwater plug or swimbait, but getting one to actually strike is a whole other thing. The challenge is getting enough action to spark their attention while also keeping the lure going slowly enough for them to catch it.
One lure that can work is a spinnerbait with big blades and a light-colored rubber skirt. If you are sight-casting the fish, ideally you want it facing away from you. Cast the lure past the fish and reel it back as close to it as you can without putting the line across it — since they catch their food with a sideways snap, this will put the lure right in the attack zone.
When everything lines up right and you actually catch a gar, you’ve got a whole other issue: Now how do you handle this thing? It’s got all those teeth and row after row of sharp, keeled scales. There’s no question that a gar can hurt you. I don’t recommend a landing net, since the fish will likely destroy it.
If you’re planning to harvest your gar — and yes, they’re edible, though you may need a Sawzall to get through the armor plating — you want to be sure the fish is tired before you try landing it. Grab it around the back of the head near the gills (a pair of gloves will help) and get your other hand under the belly. Lift it into the boat, and preferably straight into the fishbox. If you’re releasing the fish, it’s easier: Just bring him alongside the boat and clip the line as close to the hook as you can.
Gar are strange prehistoric creatures, and they’ve been swimming in the shallows of North America for 100 million years. They’re definitely unlike anything else you’re going to catch, so why not give them a try? Doing something different just because you can — it’s not a bad thing.
Robert Lugiewicz is the manager of Fishin’ Frank’s Bait & Tackle, located at 4425-D Tamiami Trail in Charlotte Harbor. Call 941-625-3888 for more information about the shop or for local fishing info, or visit them online at FishinFranks.com.