"It's a gar!" I told 14 year old Mya Smith, as I netted the fish fighting at the end of her line. Mya was one of my fishing partners for the morning on the St. Croix river which forms the Wisconsin/Minnesota border just east of Minneapolis. Mya seemed pleased with her catch, but not overly excited.
"I've never seen anyone catch a gar before," I explained. “I’ve never caught a gar, either.” Her eyes got bigger as she looked at the two-foot plus long fish nestled in the bottom of the net.
Bro Brosdahl, Frabill sponsored walleye tournament professional and full time guide who was our guide for the morning, a man who fishes year `round in Minnesota and the upper Midwest chimed in, "That's the first gar ever caught on a boat I owned." That made my eyes widen, as well. I imagined someone with the thousands of hours Bro has logged would have seen it all by now. Perhaps now he has.
The first live gar I ever saw was in Lake Maxinkuckee near Culver, IN. I was slowly motoring along one bright morning and was staring into the nearly crystal clear waters of the lake. Just a few feet under the water and off to the side of my boat was a gar just swimming along side. For what? I don't know, but it spooked me. Gar are top of the food chain, very toothy predators.
There are seven kinds of gar - fish in North America, the Florida gar is confined mostly to Florida and a few locations in other Southeast states. The largest is the alligator gar which can be almost as big as an alligator and lives in alligator territory mostly in Texas and Louisiana. The spotted gar occurs through out much of the central USA from the Northern states to the Gulf states, though it's much more common as you go south in it's range. The longnose gar is very widespread. It is found along the east coast of North and Central America in freshwater lakes and as far west as Kansas and Texas and southern New Mexico. Though widespread, it's population is never heavy in any one area.
The one Mya caught was a shortnose gar. It occupies much the same range but is much more common, mostly in big rivers with slow current and lakes and reservoirs. I was fishing below the dam at Barkley Lake in Kentucky one morning and spotted dozens of gars swimming near the surface all morning long. Gar have the ability to gulp air into their air bladder and basically, use them as lungs allowing them to exist in waters with low amounts of dissolved oxygen.
Gar are fish eaters. Their bodies are long and slender similar to northern pike and even the shortnose gar has a long mouth filled with sharp teeth. One would think a predator like this would be easy to catch or at least caught often enough to not surprise a pair of veteran anglers like Bro and myself when Mya winched her trophy to the net.
Perhaps Bro and I have "nearly" caught gars dozens of times while fishing for bass, walleye or other species. There's no soft tissue in a gar's mouth for a hook to penetrate. Sharp teeth protrude from an inner mouth as hard as bone. Those tooth marks on a minnow we reel in after losing what we thought was a nice game fish may well have been made by gar teeth and the hook on our line just failed to penetrate deep enough to stick.
A friend of mine hired a guide to take him fishing for alligator gar in Texas and caught several of these giants on purpose. Down there, some anglers fish for them with hookless lures made of shredded nylon rope. The lure is jerked through the water and when the gar bites, the nylon fibers grip its teeth like Velcro.
Gar are commonly sought by bowfishers, not so commonly by rod and reel anglers and surprisingly, those that do target them deem them as a very tasty species of fish. Mya released hers, but if I ever catch one, it may just go into the skillet!