The sunny weather and warm temps over the last week or two has turned my thoughts towards summer fishing, sunlight glaring off water, peering through polarized glasses for the swirls and bubbles of tailing carp, and the long, thin silhouettes of gar, hanging below the surface.
Stalking backwaters and below-dam pools for carp and bass in the heat of summer can put you into close contact with the longnose gar (Lepisosteus osseus). Looked down on by many anglers as a “trash” fish, this prehistoric throwback is a hard fighter and more than
willing to take a fly. As with many other predatory species, form follows function, and their long beak-like jaws lined with teeth are offset by their leopard spots, opalescent scales and brightly-colored tails.
The biggest difference in flyfishing for gar revolves around those bony, toothy jaws. There’s almost no flesh on gar jaws, and the sharpest hooks will not penetrate bone deep enough to hold a thrashing gar. The few longnose gar that I’ve landed while fishing for carp haven’t really been hooked. Instead, their wild head-shaking entangled my leader in their teeth and jaws. This held them long enough for me to land them and see what a mess I had on my hands. Most times, clipping the leader and pulling it loose proved faster (and safer) than trying to sort out the tangle, woven as it was around the beak and through the teeth of my catch.
The solution to the bony jaw issue is the rope fly. This is a fly made of rope, a few strands of flash, with no hook. Unbraided nylon rope, with its multiple fibers and unmatched tensile strength, can easily ensnare a gar at the strike (if you can resist the urge to
strike back). Gar flies are easy to tie and decorate, and there’s never a hook to
rust or go dull. Simply cut a length of braided nylon rope, pull out the center core (cotton) and unbraid the individual strands. Tie the fly on a steel split ring (same as those on spoons and plugs) with one section of rope (doubled over) per fly. If you feel like you need an extra
hand, clamp the split ring into your vice. Thread the nylon (twice the length of the finished fly) through the ring and add a few strands of krystal flash. Wrap a head with heavy tying thread.
The thread wraps should form a head between 1/2-3/4″ long. If you want to add a
little weight, wrapping lead wire around the front of the fly (prior to wrapping the head) will do the trick. Once the head is wrapped, you can apply eyes (tape or paint) and epoxy. The nylon will take color from permanent markers if you want to get fancy (see pictures).
Flies 6-9″ long are a little heavy to cast with lighter rod weights, but give a good “hooking” percentage. Cutting them shorter lightens the fly, but also drops your potential hook-up ratio. Depending on your casting acumen, a 7 to 9wt rod/line set-up should be sufficient to cast these rope flies when wet.
No bite leaders are necessary for gar but a heavy leader is good insurance against the messy tangles and potential for nicking on jagged teeth. A standard bass leader ending in a 15# tippet can handle most gar encountered in Michigan waters. A foot or so of 30# fluorocarbon will suffice for bite protection if you insist on that.
Gar stalking tactics – Ninety percent of gar fishing is done by sight. Longnose gar spend most of their time on or near the surface. Using a good pair of polarized glasses, you should be able to spot the fish before casting. Shallow, murky backwaters that hold carp are also great spots to look for gar.
Gar can be seen “skimming” or porpoising along the surface. This may or may not indicate a willingness to feed. During humid summer weather, the fish hang motionless on or near the surface – this can be a resting pose, or an act of camoflage and ambush. The gar will hang
like this, looking like a floating stick, then flash into action when an unsuspecting baitfish nears. In most cases, the gar will ease up, snout parallel to the prey. Then, with a sudden sideways strike, she’ll nail the bait. This swiping strike, with the middle of the jaws rather than a frontal attack, is probably to incapacitate the prey before swallowing it.
Tactics for getting the gar to strike your fly vary. A good starting point is a slow, erratic stripping of the fly. Try to lead the fish in such a way that the fly will intersect the gars’ path without swimming at him. A fast retrieve can trigger a strike, but the slower technique is less likely to spook your quarry.
The slow strip method offers another advantage. In spite of those jaws packed with teeth, the strike can be very subtle. It may be that, with all those chompers, only a light bite is needed to secure prety. Her bite isn’t intended to kill, but rather to injure or incapacitate the prey. With a fast strip, it is quite easy to pull the fly right out of the gar’s mouth (before the nylon tangles). If you don’t see the take, it may feel like nothing more than a very light tap or bump. Giving slack immediately at the strike is crucial. With no tension, the fly has a much better chance of getting entangled in the teeth. Let the fish move off ten or 20 feet, hopefully feeling several head shakes in the process. Only then should you tighten up on the line. Be sure you just strip or reel line until it comes up tight – DO NOT give a hard hookset.
Landing & Releasing The Gar
After the fly gets taken and you tighten up, the fight begins. Gar are strong fish capable of fast, hard runs and tail-walking jumps. Some fish give up after one good run, then explode again right at the boat. Others will test your fish-fighting skills, first making a long run then slugging it out in close by running under the boat, threatening your line or rod tip with destruction. As with other toothy predators (pike and musky), caution should be the operative word during landing manuevers – they can jump or flop into your boat. An angry four-foot fish with a mouth full of teeth won’t do your hands, feet or gear any good.
Unhooking your catch might be the hardest part of this entire operation. Gar scales are rough and sharp, so a glove or a wet towel can help you hold the fish. Some anglers use a home-made wooden jig or wire gag to hold the mouth open, but these need to be used with care, as they can cause jaw dislocation and a slow death from starvation. Regardless, maintain a firm hold on the fish throughout the “unhooking”. Some gar will “play possum” and then explode when you least expect it. You can use a pair of hemostats to pick the rope strands from the gar’s beak.
Once the fish is released, your rope fly will likely be “rat-nested” (i.e. a tangled mess). No worries, a quick working over with a flat plastic comb will be back in business. Check your leader for any nicks (from teeth, gillplates and sharp scales) and get back on the stalk for your next gar.
While they don’t provide much in terms of table fare (deep-fried gar balls are popular in the deep South, where people have access to the much-larger alligator gar), longnose gar are built to perform at the end of a flyline. Easy to find, eager to take the fly and powerful enough to give an angler a great fight, gar are another species to target around Southeast Michigan. Tight lines!
Longnose gar rope flies
These flies are tied specifically for gar fishing, The bodies are nylon rope (unwoven) looped through a split ring, with a head wrapped with thread and head cement or epoxy. Eye spots and contrasting colors can add visual appeal.
Longnose gar rope flies
These flies are tied specifically for gar fishing, The bodies are nylon rope (unwoven) looped through a split ring, with a head wrapped with thread and head cement or epoxy. Eye spots and contrasting colors (permanent marker) can add visual appeal.
Longnose gar rope flies
A close-up look at the business end of a longnose gar, after it’s been caught on a rope fly. The nylon fibers get entangled in the long, numerous teeth of the beak, and there’s no hook necessary to get into a fight with one of these bruisers.
Longnose gar rope flies
An example of the skeletal structure with the beak and teeth of a longnose gar. The longer teeth are interspersed with smaller teeth that help grip prey, whether it’s big or small.