Fishing for alligator gar is big game hunting in every sense of the word.
By Mark Morrison
MY BOWFISHING PARTNER and first time gar hunter Steve "Lone Star" Beidscheid, and I were spending our first day in southeastern Texas quietly sneaking my boat through an expansive Sabine River backwater, searching for longnose and alligator gar. Minutes after entering the flooded timber, we eased upon a large school of the longnose variety, and soon we'd landed a pair of hefty 30 pounders!
After depositing our fish into the "catch" barrel, my attention switched to the not so discreet sound of an alligator gar rolling (which sounds like a concrete block hitting the water from a great height!) near the mouth of our backwater. We immediately forewent the school of longnoses, and every few minutes we would glimpse the huge gar (always out of bow range!) rising and disturbing the water with its considerable girth. "We're going to prowl this backwater until we get a crack at that behemoth," I declared. For nearly 2 hours we zigzagged slowly across the murky water, hoping to cross paths with the big gator gar. When I heard Steve nervously stammer, "Uh-oh, Mark!" I swiveled my head and saw him release a solid shot into a 7-foot gator gar rising no more than 10 feet off our port bow.
Luckily, the monstrous fish hightailed it for the main river and not into the tangled brush of the backwater. Steve's 400-pound test bowfishing line sizzled off his reel until it pulled free from the reel and jerked a large float into the water. We followed the float attached to the giant fish for 3 miles downriver, where Steve donned thick leather gloves, caught his float, and cautiously pressured the fish to the surface where I sank a second arrow into it.
|Gator Gar on the Table|
Never mind the alligator gar's rough looking exterior. Underneath the steely hide you'll find long, boneless sections of tasty white meat on either side of the backbone.
To remove these firm fillets, use heavy-duty tin snips to cut lengthwise down the centerline of the gar's back. Then, make cuts along the gill plates down to the belly and likewise in front of the anal fins. Use a fillet knife to separate the hide from the meat, and then run your knife along the backbone to peel off the fillets.
Once the fillets are freed, rinse them and, if you wish, marinate them in your favorite seasoning. Then prepare the meat as you would any other fish. Baked, grilled, fried, or broiled, alligator gar meat is delicious!
Here is one of my favorite recipes:
Gator Gar Cakes
- 4 lb. gar meat, chopped or ground
- 5 potatoes, boiled and mashed
- 6 green onions, chopped
- 1 large onion, chopped
- ? Green pepper, diced
- 2 eggs, beaten
- 1 Tsp. hot sauce
- 1 Tbls. salt
- 1 tsp. ground black pepper
- 1-cup flour
- 1 Cup canola oil
Thoroughly mix ingredients and pat into cakes 3 inches wide and 1/2 inch thick. Dredge cakes in flour, then pan fry in hot oil until golden brown. Feeds 8-10 hungry bowfishers!
The twice stricken gar bolted wildly upstream, quickly emptying my reel and jerking my float onto the water. Again we caught up with the floats, but as we held onto them the mammoth fish continued its course, towing our entire rig a half-mile up river! Eventually, Steve brought the gar close again, and I sent a pair of Muzzy fish arrows into its vitals to end the arduous fight.
Later that evening we removed the extra-large boneless fillets from our prize and weighed the dismantled fish in sections (my scale reads only to 100 pounds). Our first gator gar of the week weighed an astonishing 150 pounds. Even if we failed to harvest another alligator gar, our trip was a success.
HUNTABLE POPULATIONS OF Lepisosteus spatula, or alligator gar, exist in the rivers, estuaries, and reservoirs of the gulf coast states and upstream to Arkansas and Oklahoma. In extreme cases, alligator gar can exceed 8 feet in length and 300 pounds! Their elongated, cylindrical bodies are covered with super hard, overlapping scales of bone up to 1/8 inch thick! They often appear black in the water but are really gray and green. Their alligator-like snouts (hence the name alligator gar) are filled with wicked, needle sharp teeth ideally suited for latching onto prey. Gator gar feed most heavily at night on shad, buffalo, and carp.
In early spring when water warms, alligator gar move into shallows to spawn. Depending on location, this can occur from mid-March to late April. Like the other gar species, gator gar can thrive in oxygen-depleted waters because they have an "air bladder" that allows them to surface (commonly called rolling) and gulp air.
Bowfishermen looking to bag a trophy alligator gar in Texas can hunt many waterways across the state. Rivers draining to the Gulf of Mexico like the Brazos, Neches, Sabine, and Trinity hold substantial numbers of gator gar. However, these rivers can be difficult to navigate and tough on gear (like outboard lower units and boat hulls) during springtime flooding and low water drought periods. My advice is to take it slow and get to know a section of river before running wide open ("rooster doggin," as they say in Texas). On the positive side, if you're like me and enjoy challenge, wildness, and solitude, then bowfishing one of these rivers may suit you. Reservoirs like Choke Creek Canyon, Amistad, and Falcon on the Rio Grande, as well as Sam Rayburn and Toledo Bend in East Texas are all bona fide gator gar waters.
TIMING CAN BE CRITICAL in gar hunting. Some bowfishermen prefer to chase gator gar in early spring when the fish move to shallow water to spawn. This can be an excellent period if you time your hunt correctly. Unfortunately, like other fish, alligator gar can be "blown off" their spawning activities by unexpected water level changes and cold fronts. If you're inclined to embark on an early spring hunt, I suggest you monitor the weather and water conditions and keep your travel dates flexible so you can arrive under optimum conditions.
To hunt spawning alligator gar in the spring means prowling shallow water. On rivers, day or night, search out tranquil backwaters both large and small, and check them thoroughly. Even the tiniest backwater hole can hold several nice fish. On reser
voirs, look in the backs of shallow coves and creek arms. Don't skip shallow flats surrounding points of land; in my experience, these are dynamite, especially at night. Springtime gar also frequent freshly flooded brush and grass flats.
Many bowfishermen prefer to hunt in summer. At this time, gar rarely cruise the shallows during daylight. Instead, they loaf in deepwater haunts until nightfall when they move onto shallow flats to forage. These gar are best hunted at night on flats with a good population of food fish (buffalo and shad), and in close proximity to a deepwater sanctuary. (Author's Note: For night bowfishing tips, see "Dusk to Dawn," in Bowhunter June/July '01.)
To hunt during the day in summer, look for gator gar surfacing and rolling in schools. On rivers, the most active areas will be below dams in the oxygen and food rich tail waters. These schooling gar can be tricky to locate. To gather information, talk not only with other bowfishermen but local hook-and-line anglers as well. These folks spend a lot of time on the water and usually know the regular gar hangouts.
SPECIALIZED TACKLE is a must. If you don't want your favorite bow dragged overboard by an ornery gar, use a reel that works in conjunction with a float. You have two choices: an old-style hand-wrap reel that anchors the line to a float, or (preferably) a modern AMS "slotted" Retriever reel. The slotted Retriever works like the standard model for shooting average size fish, but it gives you the option of pulling your line through a slot and deploying a float once you hit a monster fish. For bow draw weight I suggest a minimum of 55 pounds. With lighter tackle, you might not get adequate penetration through the interlocking, armored scales of a big gar.
When they bolt through brushy or timbered habitats, gar can snap off standard fiberglass arrows. Composite aluminum/fiberglass shafts like Muzzy's Penetrator and Big Game arrows not only hold up under this abuse, but their added physical weight significantly aids penetration. Whichever arrows you choose, for safety's sake rig them with a cable or slide (if they aren't pre-rigged this way). This will keep your line out in front of the bow, which prevents dangerous hang-ups that can occur when the line is tied to the nock end of an arrow. For gar hunting, I personally believe a cable system proves most reliable because, even if your arrow breaks, your line will remain connected to the cable and, more importantly, to your trophy.
On the cutting end of your fishing arrows you'll want durable, razor-sharp heads to smash through a trophy gar's bony armor. I've found the Muzzy Quick Release Gar Point to be excellent. Shure-Shot and Warhead points are also popular choices.
Although not unique to gator gar fishing, polarized sunglasses help greatly in spotting fish by cutting surface glare. Bring three pairs. Eventually, something will go overboard during an exciting battle, and it's usually the glasses. Also, keep a long-handled saltwater gaff handy to bring arrowed gar aboard, along with a heavy aluminum baseball bat for stilling gar that might otherwise wreak havoc in your boat!
THE MOST COMMON and effective technique for getting within range of alligator gar is to quietly stalk fish with a bow-mounted electric trolling motor. If you find yourself in the middle of a school of rolling gar, anchoring your boat and waiting for a pointblank shot is an ideal method.
Boating a gator gar when hunting solo is possible, but seasoned gar getters agree that a partner greatly increases your odds of boating an arrowed fish. When you (and your partner) are lucky enough to find yourselves mere yards (or feet) from an alligator gar, then what? First, don't consider taking a head-on shot because it will harmlessly ricochet off the gar's enameled hide. Instead, position your boat for a broadside or quartering-away shot so your arrow can slide between the gar's tightly layered scales.
Picking a spot on a fast rolling gar is tough, but if the fish gives you time, try to place your arrow half way up its body, 8 to 10 inches behind the gill plate. A softball-sized air bladder is located here, and a solid shot into the air bladder will take much of the fight out of even the largest gar. Then, if the gar hasn't yanked your float free and rocketed out of range, have your partner arrow the fish again.
After a gar is played and finally worn down, finish it by carefully placing an arrow (or arrows) into the vital air bladder. Some bowfishermen use broadhead tipped arrows for this. A few even employ small-caliber handguns to finish off gar but in my opinion, a gar riddled with bullet holes can hardly be considered a bow kill.
FOUR DAYS AFTER Steve had bagged his trophy gar, I found myself closing in on an immense gator gar we spotted hiding in a stand of flooded willow trees. At 5 yards I killed the trolling motor and released a near perfect shot into the gar's side. Although mortally hit, the massive gar sailed backward, clearing the water by 4 feet! When it crashed back into the water, it lay still, belly up. Steve and I were dumb-founded but not fooled by the seemingly dead gar. I immediately picked up my spare bow and launched another Muzzy tipped arrow. The fish went berserk, battling us boat side until Steve took the fight out of it with a third arrow.
Steve gaffed my prize, and together we hauled the beast aboard, ending an action packed week of bowfishing, during which we bagged many bragging size longnose gar and a pair or magnificent alligator gar.
We had opportunities to take more alligator gar but we chose not to. We (and all of my bowfishing friends) strongly feel that too little is known about these worthy fish to risk possibly over-harvesting them. It takes many years for an alligator gar to attain trophy proportions, so we limit ourselves to one trophy apiece, then switch gears and target more numerous species like longnose gar, buffalo, and white amur.
Alligator gar may be classified as nongame fish, but after you've experienced the thrill of hunting them
, I guarantee you'll classify these freshwater monarchs as bona fide big game trophies!
My personal gator gar tackle consists of a 63-pound Martin Mamba recurve, Slotted Retriever reel with 400-pound test Fast-Flight line and Muzzy Big-Game float. My arrows are Muzzy Penetrators tipped with Quick-Release Gar Points. All this equipment and more is available from Muzzy Products, 110 Beasley Road, Cartersville, GA 30120; (770) 387-9300; www.badtothebone.com. Or from Sully's Bowfishing Stuff, 125 Westgate Drive, Monticello, AR 71665; (800) 447-2759; www.sullysbowfishing.com.