Trash Fish Tuesday: Gar

Trash Fish Tuesday
Trash Fish Tuesday: Gar

Why do we consider some fish iconic and others aquatic refuse? In this series, we focus on American fishes not officially designated as “game fish.” These species, though native, get lumped into a category of “trash fish,” a distinction that’s more than just semantic. Game fish are managed differently by state and federal agencies. They get protection, research, money, and love. Trash fish don’t. We think that’s wrong.

Trash Fish Tuesday investigates and celebrates fish that are just as American as bass and walleye but suffer from a long-standing PR problem.

Even as a young kid I was fascinated by weird fish—the misfits and oddballs. While most children go through a dinosaur phase, I obsessed over the deep water monsters found in the pages of our family’s dusty Encyclopedia Britannica collection. That disposition has stuck with me.

The gar family of fishes caught my attention early on. But, as I would soon learn, we live in a world where most people would just as soon shoot gar as look at them.

Superficially, I understand the uneasiness around these creatures—gar look strange, prehistoric. Their mouths are filled with rows of needle-like teeth, and they often irritate anglers by biting off flies, lures, and baits meant for other, more reputable gamefish. But the same could be said for musky, and anglers have come to love them. So why do gar remain so maligned?

A Closer Look
Gars belong to the Lepisosteidae family, and have existed for upwards of 157 million years. They’ve been around since the late Jurassic period, sharing the Earth with living dinosaurs. But, unlike the “terrible lizards” of a bygone era, gar stood the test of time.

Fossilized gars have been found throughout Europe, India, South and North America, but today gar are only found in the Western Hemisphere. From Central America and Cuba to the southeastern United States, through the Midwest and up into some portions of southern Canada, gar still swim. Seven gar species live today, including alligator, Cuban, Florida, longnose, shortnose, spotted, and tropical gar. Each species varies in size, color, snout length, and shape.

Most of us, however, are only familiar with the longnose gar, which has one of the largest ranges of all gar, and the alligator gar, which is the largest scaled freshwater fish in North America (only sturgeon get bigger).

Across much of North America, gar are considered a rough or “trash” fish, meaning we give little thought to the longevity or health of their populations. That lens may be shifting, as alligator gar have recently received some state-level protections. These conservation measures are linked to a growing recognition among anglers for these fish’s big game, trophy potential. The all-tackle world record 279-pound gar has stood since 1951, but a 327-pound, 8-and-a-half-foot monster got tangled in a commercial fisherman’s net in 2011.

I’ve heard people call gar slimy and stinky. Others claim they destroy fisheries; breath air; don’t fight hard; that they’re fishy, unpalatable, even poisonous. Much of that is based off myths and old, hand-me-down bullshit. But what, if any of that, is actually true?

Let’s separate fact from fiction.

Gar are Slimy and Stinky – Mostly True
Gar—like trout, bonefish, and virtually every other fish on the planet—have a mucus or “slime” layer that helps protect them from environmental hazards and bacterial infection. It also helps them be more hydrodynamic and avoid capture by predators from above and below.

On gars, that slime is particularly noticeable and especially pungent.  The smell varies from species to species and can change according to their environment and diet. I’ve caught many gar that smelled no worse than a bass, carp, or any other warmwater fish, but I’ve also caught some that stunk so bad my wife quarantined and threatened to burn the clothes I’d been wearing that day. By and large, it’s not a big deal and doesn’t affect the flesh.

Gar Destroy Fisheries – False
Like most apex predators, gar are an important, balancing factor in an ecosystem. Bluegills are a perfect example of a species that gar target in a way that benefits a fishery. An over-abundant bluegill population is bad for an ecosystem. Bluegill will suck up the eggs and young of bass and other gamefish, and reproducing at an alarming rate. A single bluegill can produce up to 250,000 eggs per year. For context, a female longnose gar can only lay about 30,000. Baitfish produce more young than bigger fish and, without sufficient predation, fisheries will fall out of balance. There’s a reason why bass, bluegill, and virtually every other gamefish was able to evolve and populate waterways where gar were already established.

All gars are fish eaters to be sure, but let’s look at the type and size of fish that most gar prefer. While all gar will eat juvenile gamefish like smallmouth bass or trout given the chance, they mostly eat opportunistically, and—despite the length and size of their snouts—most gar physically can’t devour larger fish. Small gar species eat bream, shad, and other schooling baitfish, as they are the easiest to target. Larger alligator gar and some mature longnose gar will inflict their toothy ire on whatever they can find. In the end, however, gar are no more devastating to an ecosystem than big brown trout, muskellunge, or any other predator fish. The issue is perception. Anglers accept brown trout as a desirable gamefish, so we excuse their voracious appetites. It’s time we gave gar a break, too.

Gar Breath Air – True, Kind of
Gar do gulp air as a secondary source of oxygen, but it doesn’t mean that they have lungs or that they can survive out of the water for long periods of time.

One of the big reasons that gar have survived since the late Jurassic period is because of their penchant for facultative, or secondary, breathing, which allows them to survive in water with lower levels of dissolved oxygen. Though they usually obtain oxygen through their gills like most fish, they also have a direct connection between their stomach and their swim bladder. They gulp and swallow air from the surface and absorb it through the swim bladder, which supplies their bloodstream with oxygen.

When gar rise to gulp air, they provide anglers like myself with a way to see where they’re holding. On my local section of the Tennessee River, I decide where to start fishing based on where I see rises—just like with trout.

Gar Don’t Fight Hard – False
Anyone who’s ever hooked a large gar knows this statement is way off base. Gar run, tailwalk, and headshake until they have nothing left. Some big gar bulldog as deep as possible and make you fight for every inch. This is especially true of alligator gar, better known for brute force than agility.

Gar of any size, whether tooth-tangled on a rope fly or hooked, give it their all. As with any fish, anglers should use a rod that matches the quarry. I carry a fiberglass 7-weight fly rod for longnose gar. It has enough meat to fight the big girls, but it’s still supple enough to enjoy the little guys too. A lighter rod is preferable for dealing with small gar. Tip: lift their nose out of the water and enjoy the acrobatics.

Gar Don’t Taste Good – False, Very False
This is probably the single biggest myth regarding gar. I’ll just come right out and say it: gar are delicious. They aren’t soft and savory in a fresh salmon sort of way, but have a firm, meaty, alligator-like texture.

Recently, after harvesting a longnose gar from my local river, I got out the tin snips (pretty much necessary for cutting their armor-like skin) and broke down the fish into two, long, boneless backstraps. A quick rinse later, and I had a heaping dinner plate of firm, odorless, white meat. My wife even remarked that it didn’t smell like fish as I chopped the straps into nugget-sized portions, then battered and fried them to golden perfection.

Despite how they look and smell on the outside, gar meat is surprisingly delicious. Stay posted for a gar butchering video from MeatEater contributor Jesse Griffiths.

Gar are Poisonous – Kind of True
While the meat is both non-toxic and tasty, gar eggs, often found in large females during the spring or summer spawn, are poisonous. Gar eggs contain a substance called ichthyotoxin, which make them extremely toxic to small mammals, some fishes, and humans. Luckily, these toxins are totally avoidable, as you can harvest meat from the topside of a gar without entering the body cavity.

Final Thoughts
Here in my home waters of eastern Tennessee, like most of the country, these prehistoric predators often draw contempt that sometimes results in lethal blows. I see bodies with puncture wounds in their sides floating downstream or discarded and rotting near boat ramps—a grim and undeserved ending for a native fish, not to mention a waste of good meat.

I regularly get questioned while casting at gar. When I tell people that I’m targeting gar on purpose, the conversation usually dies. Few are interested, and most just brag about shooting a bunch of them with a bow. While I have no problem with people harvesting fish, the act of killing native species just for sport is a tough pill to swallow—especially when their reasoning is built on a bed of misinformation and hyperbole.

It’s time to put aside the myths and false notions and see these fish for what they really are: a highly evolved predator that puts up a helluva fight and goes great on the dinner table. They deserve as much reverence as any other fish. When the summer heat sends more popular game fishes running for deep water, gar can often be found rising to the surface. Why not throw them a line?

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