Fishing for Gar on the Fly with Michael Bishop
This week I have the joy of stepping aside for a guest post about a topic gaining attention online pretty rapidly. There a fewer fish species more despised than the Gar. They are one of the most resilient creatures on earth, with fossils dating back to the Jurassic period onward. So love them or hate them, they will likely be in rivers or lakes near you for many years to come. Their physiology, specifically their swim bladder, allows them to stay out of water longer, inhabit waters with minimal oxygen, and even pollution yet they still thrive. Michael Bishop is into a lot of things including an upcoming blog at Flyoholics.com but another interest he has is Gar on the Fly, a Facebook page full of fun pics, giveaways, and other good stuff. I invited Michael to share more about his experience and provide some tips to both fly fishing novice and veteran get started with gar fishing on the fly.
When I tell my friends I went fly fishing for gar; their response is a ‘mixed reaction.’ Some of them look at me like I’m an alien that was dropped off by a UFO passing by planet earth. Others will get a big smile on their face, nod at me, and then begin to think of a way to call in sick to work. Most folks I know who fish for gar in this neck of the woods do so with the traditional method of live bait. When I tell my fishing friends I love fly fishing for the gar, they’ll say to me in utter disbelief ‘I can’t even begin to imagine what that’s like.’ I have to say, there’s a lot of truth to that statement. There are no words to describe what it’s like to catch a big, hungry, trophy gar on a fly rod.
My first encounter with Gar on the Fly was a complete accident. To be honest with you, fly fishing for Gar was the last thing on my mind. I was fishing for bass on a metropolitan lake, and I noticed quite a bit of commotion at the surface of the water. At first glance, it looked as if largemouths had moved into the shallows to feed on the spawning sunfish. With my inflatable boat in position, I quietly dropped the anchor down. The suspense of targeting these shallow-water largemouths was starting to eat away at me, or so I thought it was largemouth bass. The size of fish I saw made my jaw drop! Those weren’t largemouths attacking the schools of sunfish; they were Longnose Gar. And I do mean lots of Longnose Gar—some of them were absolute giants.
My family and I were new to the Ozarks, and I heard a great deal about Longnose Gar. However, this was the first time to see Gar. Knowing nothing to the contrary, I cast my bass-size streamers at the Gar. My frustration mounted as I hooked many gar, only to have them come off the hook and lose them.
I went home that night and searched for as much information as possible on fly fishing for Gar. The articles I found had one element in common: The writers spoke about using rope flies for Longnose Gar. Using rope flies, with no hooks, really sounded strange to me. But I decided to take the plunge and give the recommended rope fly a try.
Armed with my rope flies, I went back to the lake in search of the Gar. In 3 hours of fishing, I hooked over 15 longnose gar! The largest Gar maxed out at 40 inches long, and I missed some gar that was over 50 inches. The power and stamina of these gars were unbelievable! To say I became addicted to Gar on the Fly is an understatement, and the experience set me on the path to ‘Garmania’ and becoming the ‘Garoholic’ that I am today.
WHY FLY FISH FOR GAR?
Humans have persecuted few species of fish with such brutality to the extent that Gar has endured. During the 1800s, people used to blow Gar up with dynamite. They believed Gar would destroy the resident populations of game fish. Sadly, the myths and misinformation of the past have led some anglers to think the Gar is nothing more than a nuisance species.
Why do I I fly fish for Gar? To me, the mystique of fly fishing for Gar is very appealing. The Gar is a beautiful fish! Traditionally, anglers who fish for Gar use the conventional method of live bait and lures. Anglers who pursue Gar with regularity are a minority, and there are even fewer anglers who fly fish for Gar. Fly fishers who pursue Gar are a rare breed! There’s very little information published on fly fishing for Gar, and misinformation from the past may influence the writings that are available. Fly fishing for Gar is starting to become very popular with adventurous anglers who have a taste for different things. In fact, there’s even a new Facebook group ‘Gar on the Fly.’
Gar is the perfect fish for the beginning fly fisherman. Introduce someone who’s new to fly fishing for Gar, and I can almost guarantee you they’ll be fly fishermen for the rest of their lives. For the novice fly fisherman, the thrill of catching panfish is great fun. However, the experience of seeing a 40-inch fish strike your fly with the power of a freight train will etch itself into the memory of an ANY angler for years to come!
Fly fishers dream of taking exotic trips in search of the fish of a lifetime. Fly fishing for Gar offers one of the best opportunities for the angler to land your dream fish, right in your backyard. When I say Gar can provide you with the chance to land a real trophy fish, I mean that in a genuine way. I have access to 5 bodies of water where I regularly pursue Gar, all of which are close to home. Some of these fisheries hold outstanding numbers of enormous Gar. I’ve lost Gar on the fly rod that 55 inches long, and I’ve spotted some fish that were over 60-inches in length!
Gar is a great ‘stepping stone’ for the novice fly fisherman. Fly fishing for largemouth bass, pike and muskies require casting large flies tied on 3/0 to 6/0 saltwater hooks. New anglers can’t cast these larger patterns. The majority of flies we use for Longnose Gar are constructed from nylon rope, and they don’t require the use of hooks. The novice angler can get comfortable with casting larger flies without the fear of dealing with larger hooks, and this can help them to make the transition to casting large streamers gradually. Let’s get one thing straight: Casting 50 feet of fly line, in the wind, with a 6-to-12 inch long fly that tied at the end of your leader/tippet is not something to take lightly.
People who refer to the Gar as a ‘trash fish’ have never taken the time to study the facts. The great news is that anglers & fisheries managers both have seen the need to change this way of thinking. On a variety of lakes and river in our state, I’ve seen signs our Game and Fish Department have posted which show anglers how to tell the difference between the various species of gar. Here in my home state, fishers who are desirous to fish for alligator gar are required to have a special permit, and report catches of alligator gar to the Department of Game and Fish.
When it comes to fly fishing for gar, you need to think in terms of the gar’s preference for warmer
water. The months of July and August can be some of the best months to fly fish for gar, and we heartily encourage you to take advantage of this peak season. Fly fishing for Gar during the ‘dog days’ of summer is a bonus to the fishing season. Many of the game fish we love to catch will often be in a neutral/negative mood during the hot, daytime hours.
The angler who understands how gar responds to seasonal changes can pursue Gar throughout the calendar year. To this day, I hooked-and-lost my biggest longnose gar, ever, while fly fishing for walleyes in a local river during November. I spotted the gar sitting stationary at the bottom of a pool in the crystal-clear water. I cast the fly ahead of the gar, retrieved it, and let it sink down towards the gar’s mouth. The large female moved a few inches, inhaled the fly, and the battle was on. I left all of my gar flies/equipment at home because gar was the last fish on my mind in November. After a 15 min fight, I brought the gar close to my boat and had taken a section of rope from my anchor that I could use to land the fish. The hook fell out of the gar’s mouth, and I watched it swim off before I had a chance to bring it in for a picture. This longnose gar was easily over 55-inches long. It was a very painful lesson!
We’ve all heard the old saying “90% of the fish hold in 10% of the water”. This statement certainly holds true for gar. In fact, gar are the very personification of the general rule! So before you plan a day’s outing in search of gar in a new body of water, spend some time exploring the waters that you intend to fish for gar. Not all watersheds are created equal, meaning that some rivers/lakes will naturally hold higher numbers of gar than other bodies of water do. A call to your local Game & Fish Dept, local bait shops, research on google/google earth, etc.. can all be excellent starting points to put you in the right direction. From my own experience, local Game and Fish officials love to hear from anglers who are wanting to pursue gar–especially when you tell them that you’re fly fishing for gar. After you’ve done some research and have located some perspective gar waters, you can then start exploring those waters.
While you’ll find the occasional gar swimming & surfacing throughout the water, the largest Gar will reside in areas of river/lake that meet their needs for food, shelter, and safety from the current. One of the most common patterns I have found in fly fishing for gar is a pattern of seeing a staggering number of gar found together in ‘wolf packs.’ Prime locations for aggregated gar are river bends, long pools & deep holes that hold schools of threadfin shad. Some of these holes are home to not only incredible numbers of gar, but will also hold some absolute giants. I’ve seen longnose gar in these prime areas that were easily over 60 inches long.
When you find these prime areas, take note of where those areas are located and mark them on your map. You can be sure that gar will be there from 1 season to the next season. And be alert as to what’s going on around you. Don’t make the mistake I’ve made on numerous occasions of paddling down the river and admiring the plant/animal life along the river bank–only to turn around and see that a 48-inch Gar was swimming alongside my boat. In August of 2017, I was startled by a 50+ inch longnose gar that was swimming alongside my boat. The Gar drifted back into the river depths before I had the chance to cast my fly out to it. It’s enough to drive you to mental insanity!
GEARING UP FOR GAR
When it comes to tying flies for gar, I’ll use downsized patterns early in the year. Other times to use smaller flies is when casting to gar that is in an inactive-to-neutral mood. A perfect example of this is the experience I mentioned earlier of missing my largest-ever longnose gar in cold water that was holding tight to the bottom of the pool. I will also use downsized flies when I see a longnose gar that is swimming about by itself. I’ll cast the fly slightly in front of the gar and let it pause, which will get the gar’s attention. They’ll move closer to inspect the fly. Once the gar is close to the fly, I’ll strip in about 1 inch of fly line to twitch the fly just a little bit, which often results with the gar inhaling the fly and the fight is on!
As previously mentioned, flies made out of nylon rope are prevalent for longnose gar fishing. Not only do these types of flies have great hooking percentages, but nylon rope also takes pen markings very well. Casting large flies for gar is very safe because gar flies do not require the use of hooks, which is advantageous for the angler that is new to fly fishing. In contrast to materials like zonker strips or rabbit strip hides, nylon rope flies don’t get water-logged. Even large gar flies can be relatively easy to cast with a balanced rod/reel. The peak summer months usually calls for fishing with larger patterns, or when dealing with hungry, aggressive gar. Fishing for gar in murky or stained water will also require the use of larger flies. It’s rare that I’ll fish with anything smaller than 7 inches long during the peak of the gar season.
Ideal rods for casting larger gar flies are in the 7- to 9 wt range. I carry two fly rods with me in the boat. Both of my rods have fighting butts on them; which helps provide some extra leverage when dealing with large gar. One of my reels contains a weight forward floating bass bug tapered fly line. The large taper of these fly lines does a great job to help you to cast larger gar flies.
My 2nd rod & reel is spooled with a wet-tip fly line that I can use when I need to get the fly down deeper. Fishing topwater gar flies with a wet-tip fly line results in a suspended or ‘jerk bait’ style of presentation, which has proven to be a very effective technique. You can add a little bit of weight to the hook shank to slow down the rate at which the fly will rise back to the surface. Slow-rising ‘jerk bait’ style of gar flies seems to trigger gar to strike more often than flies with a faster rate of descent do. Believe me when I tell you this: seeing a gar attack a diver/jerk bait style of fly that is slowly rising back to the surface is an incredible experience.
My topwater gar flies will often consist of nothing but nylon rope and diving heads made out of foam or cork. For both surface and subsurface fishing, I prefer to attach my flies to the leader with the traditional non-slip mono loop. I have not found wire leaders to be necessary for gar. The gar will eat the nylon rope fly, which results with a tangled fly in the gar’s teeth. It’s essential to carry a good pair of sharp scissors with you, which makes the job of cutting the fly from the gar’s mouth an easy task to do.
Various types of retrieves work well on gar, which is dictated by the mood and behavior of the fish. Most giant gar seems to prefer big, bulky flies that are stripped slowly at various depths. There are many times when the strike from a large gar is very subtle. These subtle takes will feel like mere bumps or taps. Anytime you think a fish is biting at the end of our lines; our natural reaction is to set the hook. Trying to hook the fish when you feel those bumps and taps will result in the fly pulled out of the gar’s mouth. When you get these little ‘bumps’ of a strike (and it’s very often a big fish on the end of your line that’s striking very subtly), let the fish go with the fly for about 10-to-15 feet. Don’t make the mistake I’ve made of immediately setting the hook in these moments. Let the gar take some line so that your nylon rope fly has a chance to get tangled up in the gar’s teeth. When this happens, you’ll often feel some ‘head shakes’ from the gar….that’s the time to set the hook. When you set the hook on them, tighten up on the fly line with your hand vs. setting the hook with the rod, and hold on! Once hooked, a big gar will make wild runs and leaps like few other fish do.
SAFETY IS VERY IMPORTANT
Be very careful when you do get the Gar close to the boat. Wild, thrashing, leaping gar have been known to jump right into your boat. Trust me when I tell you: an angry 40-inch fish won’t do be doing your legs any favors. Even their scales can cut your legs. Because of this, I always prefer fishing in my chest waders. I also love drifting and getting out of the boat to fish in the river as I’ll also be in search of smallmouths, largemouths, and panfish.
I’m personally in favor of wearing the gar down a little bit before trying to bring it in the boat with me. Gar will often be calmer and more manageable to catch-and-release. Leaving the gar in the water, I’ll tie a slip knot with some extra rope that I keep with me to put over the gar’s mouth. Just tighten the slip knot up and then bring the gar into the boat. Take along with you a sharp pair of scissors to help you cut the nylon rope from the gar’s teeth. A stiff brush should then be used to help you remove any remaining nylon rope fibers that may still be lingering on the gar’s teeth. A yardstick is a great help in holding the gar’s mouth open. Fish handling gloves, such as Lindy’s fish handling gloves, can go a long way in helping to protect your hands while removing your rope fly from the gar’s mouth. Keep a firm grip on the back of the gar’s head while extracting your rope fly. Be cautious as you remove the fly, as gar can explode on you when you least it.
Of all of the fish I love to pursue with a fly rod, gar is unquestionably near the top of the list. Prejudice and misgivings have kept many anglers from intentionally pursuing gar. However, I can assure you the first time you experience hand-to-hand combat with a trophy longnose gar; you will be suitably impressed.
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Patrick Ritter is the founder of River King Fishing, LLC. Raised near the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, the outdoors, especially fishing, has always been a passion.