“Holy sh_t!!! Did you see THAT???”
I would venture a guess that these words, or words just like them, are uttered by everyone who dares to take gar on the fly. Why? Well, like so many things in life, it has to be experienced to be understood.
Consider the fact that very few people target them, and even fewer with fly gear and you’ll soon realize that there is no large pool of information to draw from. Couple that with the fact that those who have found them (and know they’re onto something REALLY special) can be as tight-lipped as any brook trout fisherman I’ve ever met! This year, I hung up my trout gear even earlier than normal to focus my attention on these amazing fish. My goal was to get a better perspective on where these fish can be found, and how to consistently connect with them. The positive effects of seeing your backing for the first time since you loaded up your fly reel….not a bad goal either!
Where to find them ~
Living in Southern Ontario, there are several good spots within a 3 hour radius of where I live. I just gave myself a 15 minute window of time online to see if I could find “my” spots~success on 2 of them. Fishing lodges, the Ministry of Natural Resources, fishing reports in web forums~all great sources of information…..now that I think of it, even the fly shop I visit often has one hanging on the wall! From there, read up on some of the preferred habitat of these fish, and then (hint) start searching for sheltered bays, slow-moving mouths of rivers etc. Ask around at marina’s, tackle shops, boat rental places…you’ll connect with them. Unfortunately for gar, people will share this info. readily. (now, ask these same people about their top picks for walleye)
Hot, hazy, humid. Dreadful words that often signal the end of trout fishing in my favorite small trout streams….but just the words the gar angler should be looking for. Unlike trout fishing, the best gar fishing is when its LEAST comfortable for the angler. The good news ~ gar are often found in shallow water, allowing you to wet wade.
I’ve seen these fish behave in so many different ways that I can’t say I know what “normal” behavior for them is. Instead, I’ll tell you what I’ve experienced; Basking in the sun~many non-anglers will report seeing these “weird-looking fish sitting like logs”, totally motionless. True, gar will often be found behaving in just this way, often in packs of 2-3 fish. I consider these to be “happy fish” and are very much worth casting to. Wade close enough to them to make an accurate cast, and try to get your fly swimming across the gar’s line of site. Obviously, if there are several in the pack, cast to the one nearest you ~ you may get the opportunity to cast to the others later! If you find there is a very large one among them, try for it first. The biggest gar tend to be a bit skittish and will probably bolt with the commotion made by a “smaller” fish getting hooked.
Cruising gar ~
I read an interesting blurb about gar recently that probably explains the behavior of some of the gar I witnessed this summer; “A unique characteristic of gar is their ability to breathe atmospheric air. The gar swim bladder is connected to the esophagus and operates as a primitive lung, and the inner lining of the swim bladder is cellular and somewhat roughened, thereby facilitating gas-absorption.
Gar Pike have been observed to rise to the water surface where they release a bubble of air before swallowing another air bubble, then sink slowly below the surface. This ability to breathe air at the surface allows gar to live in low-oxygen conditions frequently found in shallow, freshwater habitats associated with coastal wetlands.” Rises. Yes, just like a trout….except for all of those nasty teeth! These fish appeared to a be constantly moving, and porpoising in what might be best described as a rise. In the stained water I was fishing in, this revealed not only the location of the fish, but the direction and speed as well. A cast that would “lead” the fish would often result in a violent strike. If you see a good number of fish behaving this way in one general area, you may find that simply blind casting over it to be the best way to find fish. The gar seem to find certain spots (often rocky shoals) that they’ll stick to, fish them until the action stops.
If/when you decide to pursue these amazing fish, you’ll no doubt come across stories/articles about lure and flies designed to get tangled up in a gar’s teeth. Having been at the receiving end of a gar’s teeth on more than one occasion (they are very small, very plentiful, and very sharp) I can certainly imagine that those types of artificials would be effective. NOT NECESSARY! Gar can be hooked the way fly anglers like to hook their fish~FAIR AND SQUARE! I can offer a few pointers that might put the odds in your favor. First off, a little anatomy…as I see it!
Gar have long, almost needle-like mouths that are nothing but bone and rows of teeth. There is some soft tissue on the bottom, close to the head, but is almost never where the fly ends up. Chances are, your fly will connect with…bone. In order for the hook to get some purchase into this part of the fish, a few factors have to be in place.1.A sharp hook. Sharp as in it will break your skin with even the slightest pressure. Most commercially made streamer hooks require sharpening before the first cast, some of the betters ones will simply need touching up after each fish. I carry a hook file, and a fine grit hook sharpening stone. You can take a pass on this if you want to, I consider them necessary gar equipment. Trust me, if all else is going well and you simply can’t get a hook-up, you’ll wish you had these $3-$4 items with you. Remember, pinch the barbs. So, you have the streamer on hand, a gar spotted…the cast… What happens next?
A fish may take a couple of swipes at your fly and, even if you don’t hook it, will still stick around. Make another cast. Once the fish has figured out something is wrong, it will leave. Making additional casts to a fish in flight will not weaken their resolve…they’re gone! As described earlier, the hits can be violent. If you see the fish start to chase the fly, don’t change the speed of it. Something about it’s speed caused the gar to take chase, don’t alter it. When you FEEL the hit, set up as hard, and as fast as you possibly can. If you can master the “strip strike” (setting hard with the rod, stripping/hauling the line back with the other to generate greater line speed) you will connect with more fish. Once you have it hooked ~ clear the decks! Make sure that your fly line can go through the guides easily. Generally speaking, its good practice to make your cast and quickly inspect your slack line. If its wrapped around anything, that ANYTHING might end up trying to go through your guides! On about half of my hook-ups, I feel the fish start to run and then the line goes limp. Even if everything worked the way it should, your hook set was hard/fast, sometimes evolution gets the upper hand and the hook fails to penetrate. When it does though, a great fight often follows! Gar can be sulky, and simply pull for a while before coming to hand, others will jump numerous times, tail walk, generally put on a good show. One thing is for sure, they will take line most of the time and often be unpredictable when you finally land them.
Landing Gar ~
strength in numbers! Though not ALWAYS necessary, having another person handy to help you unhook gar is a real advantage. If you managed to land it, you probably hooked solid bone. Even with a pinched barb, they hook can be pretty stubborn. If hooked near the end of it’s snout, I simply use the line to lift it’s head out of the water, or enough of it to get my heaviest hemostats onto the fly. A strong, fast pull back is usually all it takes. If the hook is back farther into the gar’s jaw (and fouled or tangled around it) a second pair of hands and hemostats will make short work of getting gar on it’s way! Use one pair of fine-tipped hemostats as jaw spreaders, the other to get control of the fly..and watch those teeth! If the fish starts that slow, nervous tail wagging….look out! A jump is likely it’s next move. If its facing you and your hemostats, guess which way its going to go? As mentioned earlier, gar have some ability to breathe air giving you a small window of time to get it unhooked. Be prepared to revive the fish, though they seldom seem to need it.
Tackle, leaders, flies~
Gar are ideal fish to pursue with fly tackle as they will usually allow you to get within easy casting range. I’ve talked to anglers who believe that this might be due to their intellect (or lack of it)…I prefer the idea that they’re at the top of the food chain in the waters they inhabit~what is there to fear? Whatever the case, it works out well for anglers prepared to wade quietly.
Gear For Gar Pike~
I’ve caught gar on a few different rod weights and believe that a 7wt.-8wt., fast-action rod is ideal. While distance is seldom the issue, wind/fly size/fish size pretty much demand the heavier kit. A WF, floating line mated with a 8′-9′ heavy, abrasion-resistant leader will do the trick. I prefer a 10lb. Maxima, level mono leader over more standard metal/pike shock leaders, but the choice is yours. Check the condition of the leader after every fish and retie as necessary.
Gar Pike Flies ~
now for the fun stuff! Gar are usually not too fussy, but I have found that they are more likely to hit some colors than others. It seems as though certain colors sort of… irritate them. Generally speaking, flies in contrasting colors will usually draw strikes. Look at the lures (crank baits, spinner baits, spoons) that spin-fishing pike anglers use, and borrow the color schemes~chances are you’ll have the selection you need when you hit the water. If you find yourself on the water before the sun is high, you may find the fish to be a bit more wary. Fish smaller, more realistic bait fish imitations to get the fish interested.
Bunny Fly Pattern for Gar Pike
The following pattern is a variation of a Double Bunny streamer, tied to sort of look the same from all sides. Gar have a tendency to really mess up the flies so this design helps to keep them sort of symmetrical~fish after fish. As gar are usually found close to the surface, I tie these sorts of flies with and without weight, with and without eyes etc. At times, its helpful to have some weight when the fish are on the move. It gets the fly to the spot, and in the gar’s line of sight quickly. For that reason, I suggest you tie both versions. One advantage to using black in the pattern is that you’re more likely to catch whatever bass are brave enough to hang out with the gar. It is rare, but it happens. A note on hooks; I can’t stress this enough~use the best hooks you can get your hands on, and keep them sharp. If the gape of the hook is too wide, I find that the hook is less likely to connect. Gar usually attack their prey from the side, so I envision the streamer starting to slide out with the hook set. If the gape of the hooks is fairly narrow, it’ll stop on the jaw bone. If its too wide, it’ll almost wrap around it. My theory, but the percentage of fish I actually land using small gape/fine wire hooks far outweighs the number that I land on bigger, more durable saltwater weight hooks. The addition of a small, short, fine wire streamer hook as a stinger can sometimes increase the number of hook-ups too. Feel free to experiment.
Hook:Tiemco #300 size 2-4
Thread:3/0 black, 3/0 Red
Weight:Medium lead wire (optional)
Tail:BLACK magnum bunny strips
Body:BLACK cross-cut rabbit fur, hot orange cross-cut rabbit fur
Head:Red rabbit fur
Wrap a small section of lead wire (if you want your fly weighted) as shown. Cut two short lengths of magnum bunny strip for your tail, and measure one against the hook shank. Trim the front end as shown to allow for a less bulky, tie-in point. Cut a small hole in the hide where the hook shank ends~as shown.
Taper the front end of the top part of the tail, and tie in.
Using your bodkin or a toothpick, spread the adhesive on the skin side of both pieces, being careful not to get any on the fur. Allow about 2 minutes for the adhesive to dry.
Tie in the black, cross-cut rabbit so that the fur is pointing back, and begin to wrap it forward. Note:The body fur is tied-off when you’ve covered about 3/4 of the shank. (see the position of the thread) Make 2-3 half hitches, and cut the black thread. Switch to the red!
Tie in the hot orange, cross-cut rabbit so that it too is facing back. Make 2-3 wraps of it, tie-off.
If you’re using dumbbell eyes, tie them onto the underside of the fly. (so that the hook point rides up) Add a few drops of head cement to secure the tie-in point.
Dub a spiky head (I use a dubbing loop) up to the eyes, make a few figure-8 wraps around them stroking the longest fibers back as you go. Make a small thread head, several tight finishing knots…a drop of head cement…you’re done!
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