A Southwest Georgia

Gar Roundup

 

A Let him have it! Let him carry it! Wait > til he gets it to the back of his mouth!@ said Steve, laughing as I opened the bail and watched my cork skip steadily away from the boat across the caramel surface of the Flint River.

We were having fun, cutting up. August in Southwest Georgia is too hot for largemouths. We were gar fishing - - a sport I have come to enjoy on those hot weather days, when the bass have lockjaw and you have started chunking plugs you found in your granddaddy= s attic.

I was fishing with a treble hook, a leader-wire noose and a white cork the size of a cueball.

A Hit him now! Don= t snatch it! Get that noose on him, partner!@ my fishing companion coaxed.

Bracing my feet against the gunwale, I closed the bail. Bending forward until the slack was out of my monofilament line and my elbows were nearly touching my toes, I pulled hard in a long, slow arc that bent my rod double. The fish responded, making the drag on my reel sing out like a scalded cat.

A He= s snagged!@ hollered Steve. A Hang on!@

Pound for pound the gar doesn= t scrap like the more highly strung game fish, but it= s a big fish and it can last. The one I was attached to was a nice long nose about five feet in length, but if you go after alligator gar, you could get mixed up with one as long as your Jonboat. My fish turned, cutting to the side. The white float sprayed a roostertail then disappeared as the fish torpedoed into deeper water, and I hung on while Steve slapped his thigh with his hat, hooting like a cowboy.

A Cut the line!@ he shouted. A You= ve snagged a dadburned submarine! Whooweee!@

I had my hands full. I was connected to a man-sized fish that could splinter my rod and burn up my reel. Although I= ve got better sense than to go after gar with my best tackle, I was using a serviceable saltwater outfit that I wasn= t ready to junk just yet. Cutting the line didn= t seem like such a bad idea to me. The line in question was now stretched tight as a banjo string, vibrating waterbeads into the afternoon sunlight.

Suddenly my rod straightened with a whiplash that almost sent me backwards into the water.

A Take up the slack; he= s coming toward the boat!@

The bobber popped to the surface and started our way as I reeled like crazy.

A It= s Jaaaws,@ drawled Steve with mock theatrics. A The hunter becomes the hunted. He means to sink us, Brody! We need a bigger boat!@

I saw the gar and the gar saw the boat just after I caught up with the slack. He flashed golden in the tea-colored water. Then he stopped, lying in the water, his head aimed toward the boat, sizing us up. He was big enough for me to have second thoughts about wanting him in the boat with us, even though Steve stood ready to dispatch him with the hatchet I keep on board for just such an occasion. After considering the boat, the fish turned and dove, unravelling the knot I had twisted in the wire noose and leaving me with a limp line and ambiguous feelings.

A Your turn,@ I said.

We take turns garfishing, since it= s a two-man job to get a big one in the boat and subdue it without getting a nasty bite from the beak full of razor sharp teeth or a resounding bone-threatening slap from an angry tail. Instead of a hatchet, a sharp gaff would work equally well in boating one.

A Naw. Let= s go home. We= ve got supper and then some,@ Steve replied.

We had been garfishing for about a half hour. We had lost several and boated two that averaged about four feet apiece.

As Steve motored back to the bank, I looked at the strange stork-billed, cigar-shaped creatures that appear just as prehistoric as they are. They are the latter day descendants of a group of fish (Holostei) that thrived during the Mesozoic era some 70 to 220 million years ago. Gar, or something very like them, kept the dinosaurs company.

Garfish have been around all these millennia for several reasons, one good one being that the female lays eggs that are poisonous to other predators. That, combined with the fact that they bristle with razor sharp teeth and are armored with boney plates and diamond shaped ganoid scales as hard as the enamel on your teeth, makes the family of gar a clan of tough customers indeed. These scales do not overlap, but are closely set and linked like polished tile, so durable that Indians fashioned the hide into shields. Pioneer farmers also used them to cover wooden plowshares. The hard, glossy scales have been used for such diverse items as jewelry and arrowheads. One savvy woman from Leesburg told me that the Creek Indians also saved the needle-toothed beaks, which they used to punish recalcitrant children.

Gar are easy to find, especially in the hot summer months when the tepid water does not carry much oxygen and they must rise more frequently for surface air. When other fish are on summer vacation from their usual feeding habits, garfish are quick to bite almost anything, live or artificial. Many bass fishermen complain about having trouble keeping them away. Ouch.

Though easy to entice, their bony, sharply-toothed beaks make them hard to hook. I use a wire leader noose with a small treble hook threaded on the bottom of the hoop and baited with shiners, either live or frozen. I keep the noose open either with an elbow bent in the top of the loop or with a paper clip. A large float lets me know when the fish takes the bait and is moving in the best direction to be lassoed. The noose works for me, but a friend of mine from the Mississippi Delta says they catch alligator gar, the whooping rascal that gets 10-feet-long and weights up to 300 pounds, with a A skirt@ made from a short section of unravelled nylon rope. The gar hits the lure and tangles his formidable and abundant incisors in the skirt. In gar fishing, hooks are optional.

Whatever your method, be careful. Garfish are strong, they have a nasty bite, and they can live for hours out of water by gulping air into their enormous and efficient swim bladder. Unique among fish, they also have a ball-in-socket type vertebra similar to that found in amphibians and reptiles, making a flexible joint structure which enables nodding movements of the head.

Be sure your gar is dead, or better yet, beheaded, before you attempt to clean it. They are, by the way, worth cleaning and delicious to eat if taken in uncontaminated water. A missionary who had lived with the Seminoles in the Everglades recommended them to me, and I haven= t thrown one back since. I eat them regularly, and keep a few in reserve stacked in my freezer like cordwood.

Gar are considered A rough@ fish, and many areas sanction taking them with bows or crossbows. They earned a poor culinary reputation, no doubt, from their ability to supplement oxygen intake with air from the surface, which allows them to frolic in shamefully polluted waterways, where other aquatic life forms have long surrendered to the toxicity.

Forget scaling or skinning a garfish. The degree of difficulty would fall in somewhere among the Herculean labors. Just lop off his head with an ax, scissor him open with a good pair of sheet metal shears; remove the visera; stuff with onions, pepper, or anything handy (optional); and throw the whole gar on the campfire coals. The hide will hold the fish together and protect the surprisingly tasty meat from burning. You can easily break into the armor after it has cooked. Then just scoop out the delicious meat and pretend you are eating a 4-foot lobster. If you can find some way to split the gar vertically (perhaps with a hydraulic logsplitter), you can spread it on the grill hide-side-down and serve it on the half shell, but I don= t think you could fillet a garfish with a chainsaw.

Now I= m not naive enough to think that you are going to sacrifice a perfect spring day of gamefishing to go out after gar. But you might add a plug of nylon rope or a strand of piano wire to your tacklebox for those times when your buddy starts talking about going in early to mow the lawn or clean out the garage. Then you might consider garfishing.

(end)

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