By Zach Matthews
My most questionable sporting moment came about 15 years back, when I participated in an overnight longnose gar gigging expedition.
Standing on the prow of a 12-foot-long johnboat, wielding a trident and a waterproof car headlight (both on long poles), I helped to systematically slaughter 127 fish, a couple of which approached the state record in size and age. This was all perfectly legal, but I still feel a kind of post-mayhem remorse.
Historically, sportsmen have viewed gar with an almost genocidal ire, holding a deep belief that these toothy, ferocious-looking fish are taxing on more desirable gamefish, like largemouth bass.
But not Kent Edmonds. A native of South Carolina who attended Clemson University in the late ’60s (“where I majored in the Chattooga River,” Edmonds says), he is best known today as a Georgia-based striper and shoal bass guide who also holds an appreciation for gar.
“Gar have saved a lot of slow days of guiding for me,” Edmonds said. “The trick is, you’ve got to make anglers want to fish for [gar]. I like to pull the boat up on a deep stretch of water, where I know the gar will be rolling, and get the anglers to throw searching casts for stripers. Before too long they’ll ask, ‘Hey, what about those fish down there?’ ‘Oh, those are gar,’ I’ll say. It never fails.”
Few anglers can resist an actively working fish, especially one that will eat a fly, and invariably the clients ask Edmonds to sight-cast to the gar, fish that can measure more than four feet long.
The longnose gar is a native fish and can be found across the entire Southeast and Midwest; they even stretch into southeast Canada. Usually classed as a “primitive” fish, gar fossils have been found dating back 100 million years, almost without change. Think about that: 100 million years. The ancestors of the longnose gar we can catch today definitely swam amongst, and likely fed, the dinosaurs. Like a tarpon, these fish have a primitive lung that allows them to survive out of the water for several minutes at a time. They are the apex native predator throughout much of their range, a fact that, as Edmonds notes, “means they aren’t afraid of much.” He adds, “They will hang out right by the boat, pretending to be a log.”
Longnose gar jaws have not evolved for pursuit of gamefish from behind (like, say, a barracuda, or their cousins the alligator gar). Instead, the longnose gar almost always strikes from the side. They prefer to lay up, frequently near the surface, and wait for baitfish to swim into striking range. Then the gar lunges, covering a surprising distance, clamping an unsuspecting bait broadside in its jaws. To tempt gar, anglers should make an angled cast past the fish, then slowly work the fly along the length of the fish. While a quick retrieve occasionally triggers strikes, “More often than not, they prefer a slow and even pace—the barest movement,” Edmonds said. “A lot of time, when they are laid up like that, they’re not very active. I’ve found that if you make it too much work for them, they’ll often break off pursuit.”
Although gar will hit an ordinary streamer, these often fail to stay attached due to the gar’s very bony mouth. Consequently, Edmonds ties a rope fly. To make a rope fly, start with a length of quarter-inch braided nylon rope (white is best, as it takes color from a permanent marker), and cut off about a foot. Pull the center core out of the rope and discard, then pass the hollowed-out nylon braid through a small stainless ring (available from many fly shops in the tying section). Clamp the ring in your vise or just hold it in your hands, and wrap the “head” of the fly tightly in strong, size A tying thread. Whip-finish the thread, apply stick-on flexible eyes, and coat the “head” in epoxy or UV glue. If you want the fly to sink or jig, you can place a layer of flat lead tape over the thread wraps before you apply the eyes. Use your bodkin or a nail to tease out the fibers near the back of the rope fly; eventually these tangle into a gnarly mass, which is perfect for holding gar teeth. You can color the fly with permanent markers (many anglers favor a red section to indicate a wounded fish), but in all honesty gar will hit a plain rope with no decoration whatsoever.
Gar are accessible for most of the warm months, but they tend to spend their winters down deep near the bottom of rivers and lakes. In summertime, the best tactic is to slowly float a river, or motor over a lake or pond, looking for the telltale long, dark shape of a three- to five-foot gar laid up near the surface. Once you’ve landed one, handle a gar, literally, with gloves: they are covered in a slick, protective layer of slime, and can destroy tackle if not quickly subdued.
The best way to retrieve a rope fly for a clean catch-and-release is with a very long-jawed pair of needle-nose pliers. Spread the mouth with the pliers first, then carefully tease out the fly. Once freed, this interesting fish should be returned to the water to swim on—not tossed on the bank as so many anglers used to do.
PHOTOGRAPH by ERIC ENGBRETSON/ENGBRETSON UNDERWATER PHOTOGRAPHY