Like a machine gun repelling an enemy attack, the clicker screamed as line sizzled from the big Penn reel. After running about 100 yards the fish eventually slowed and was now swimming in quick spurts. Feeling the leviathan on the other end, I set the hook hard. The prehistoric monster vaulted into the air, easily clearing the surface with its full seven-foot length before hitting the water and ripping another 50 yards from the reel.
After an exhausting 30-minute battle punctuated by an amazing aerial display, the toothy creature made one final determined leap, thoroughly drenching me as it impacted the water once again. Finally, I pulled the heavily armored beast to the surface for a good look before its massive jaws lined with razor-sharp teeth sliced through the line. The fish casually rolled before disappearing into the stained water it has called home for decades.
Native Americans used gar hides as shields and the diamond-shaped scales were used to make saws, arrowheads and jewelry.
This battle did not take place over a vast ocean trench, but on the shoreline of a bayou barely five feet deep. “Alligator garfish are native to northern Florida, but the population is small,” said John R. Knight, a fisheries biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute.
“Historically, they were distributed through the Perdido, Escambia, Blackwater, Yellow and Choctawhatchee River systems. They may have been in the Apalachicola River, but we currently have no record of alligator gar in the Apalachicola,” added Knight.
Living up to its name, an alligator gar looks like a legless alligator encased in interlocking armor. Blunt snouts resembling alligator heads contain hundreds of needle-like teeth that can inflict serious damage to flesh, although larger fish act more like scavengers than predators. Native Americans used gar hides as shields and the diamond-shaped scales were used to make saws, arrowheads and jewelry. Among the largest freshwater fish in North America, these river monsters may grow longer than 10 feet and exceed an astonishing 360 pounds! The official rod and reel world record, a fish caught in Texas, weighed 279 pounds. Zackary Phillips set the Florida record with a 123-pounder he pulled from the Choctawhatchee River.
Alligator Gar have witnessed the creation and extinction of dinosaurs, yet they survived unchanged for millions of years and are believed to have a lifespan greater than 50 years. Highly adaptable creatures, gar prefer sluggish rivers, bayous and backwaters, but enter brackish estuaries and marine habitats. In poorly oxygenated waters, they can often be seen gulping air and can live several hours completely out of water.
While Florida law prohibits the harvest of these amazing creatures and discourages anglers from specifically targeting giant alligator gar, other armored subspecies of gar outfitted with sharp teeth provide exciting sport in the Sunshine State. “Many people mistakenly assume that all garfish are alligator gar,” said John R. Knight.
“The fundamental difference, other than size, is that alligator gar have shorter snouts and two rows of teeth. Other gar species have one row of teeth. Any garfish in Florida over 45 pounds is almost certainly an alligator gar,” added Knight.
The most widespread and abundant gar in Florida—longnose gar—inhabit most waters from Lake Okeechobee north. Longnose gar overlap territory with alligator gar, but its distinctive elongated snout nearly twice as long as its head provides positive identification. The state record longnose, landed by Evan Merritt, weighed 41 pounds and came from Lake Panasoffkee.
Found from the Ochlockonee River south throughout the peninsula, Florida gar have irregular round, black spots all over their bodies. With shorter snouts than other gars, they somewhat resemble juvenile alligator gar, but rarely exceed 30 inches. Patrick McDaniel pulled the state record, a 9.44-pound fish, from Lake Lawne in Orange County. Also on the diminutive end of the scale, spotted gar rarely exceed a few pounds. Generally darker and splotchy, they range west of the Ochlockonee River and east of the Apalachicola drainage system.
For decades, many anglers considered gar nothing more than finny vermin destined for eradication. Many were killed, but still they survive, albeit, fewer of them. Knight and his associates at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute hope to learn more about this ancient, yet little understood creature. Using gillnets with very large mesh openings they captured 17 alligator gar ranging in size from 19- to 132-pounds. Once captured, the gar were outfitted with acoustic and radio telemetry systems to track their movements.
“Our goal is to return alligator gar to a sustainable fishery in Florida,” Knight explained. “Some fish we’ve tagged regularly move back and forth between the Yellow and Escambia systems. Adults sometimes make long migrations after spawning in the spring. One fish tagged in the lower Escambia River moved into the Conecuh system in Alabama. Then, it moved back down to the middle part of the Escambia.”
Where still legal, fishing for alligator gar can offer sportsmen extraordinary opportunities to catch giant fish close to home. Sometimes, boaters spot these armored torpedoes cruising just beneath the surface or rolling to gulp air, while others use advanced electronics to probe deep river holes.
“To find big gar, I look for them on the graph,” advised Cliff Mundinger Jr., with Lake Talquin Trophy Guide Service (newsouthoutdoors.com) who has fished for gar in several states. “In rivers, look for them where the channel turns and creates a calm pocket. After we find fish, we throw out a dying or cut fish and drift. In a place with a lot of gar the bait won’t sink very far before something attacks it.”
Gar will eat almost anything they can swallow. In estuaries, shrimp, mullet, shad, catfish and blue crabs make excellent temptations. Although large gar tend to scavenge, juvenile gar regularly hit bass lures and flies. Catfish and crappie anglers sometimes catch them by accident as well.
“Gar feed on the same things that bass eat,” Mundinger said. “Gar love eating shad and bream and typically prowl in areas that hold generous amounts of either. I’ve caught a lot of gar all over Florida by simply fishing a ¾ oz. Rat-L-Trap.”
Catching a big gar requires not only stout tackle, but also considerable patience. They don’t eat prey immediately. Sometimes, a fish may run 100 yards with your bait before stopping to swallow it. Many people chum for gar by tossing oily fish pieces into the water. Then, they dangle a live shad or cut fish from a float. Others free-line bait on heavy tackle with braided line.
“The key to catching a big gar is to let it take the bait for a long time,” advised Bubba Bedre, who specializes in catching and releasing monster gar in Texas (garfishingguide.com). “If they feel or suspect anything unusual in their mouths, they’ll drop the bait. Sometimes, I pull up the anchor and follow the fish several hundred yards down river. When it’s finally ready, the fish will stop and chomp on the bait.”
With many alligator gar exceeding 100 pounds to his credit, Bedre releases all the big gar he catches and to increase the odds of a healthy survival he stresses the use of small hooks.
“Many people think they need to use large hooks for such big fish, but big hooks kill big fish,” Bedre advised. “I like to use a 4/0 treble hook. Others wrap bait in pantyhose or make lures out of frayed nylon rope ends to entangle the teeth. Gar seldom chase bait, but frequently snatch anything crossing their nose.”
Whether required by law or not, and regardless if you caught the fish intentionally or not, release all big gar whenever possible. It takes decades for a fish to reach gargantuan proportions and a species that holds such a unique place in the overall ecology of our precious aquatic ecosystem should be treated with the utmost respect.