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Florida Gar Fishing

By Ed Mashburn

Gar won't win any beauty contests, but on light tackle they just might earn your respect.

Gar, without their teeth filled snout, are plentiful in Florida lakes and rivers and surprise anglers with their tough battles.

There's a national anglers' association of dedicated, if light-hearted, gar fishermen. It's called GASS (Gar Anglers Sporting Society), and it provides a lot of helpful information for anglers who want to try this gar-fishing thing.

Chris Paxton of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission says gar species can be found in just about any and every pond, lake and river system in Florida.

“They are common,” he said, “except for alligator gar, which are very rare compared to the other three species we have: spotted, longnose and Florida gar. Remember, in the Apalachicola River and west of there we have spotted gar—not Florida gar. Florida gar are found in the Ochlocknee River and east and south in the peninsula.”

The state record for Florida gar is a little over nine pounds, and the much larger longnose gar record is over 40 pounds. Anglers are reminded that targeting alligator gar in Florida is not permitted, and any alligator gar caught by any means must be released immediately.

Where to find gar? Might be easier to ask, “Where can we not find gar in Florida?”

Gar range from the Everglades to the Georgia border and west to Alabama. However, for some fast and fun gar fishing, potential gar anglers might want to journey to the rivers of Panhandle Florida and look for gar as they come to the surface to take breaths of air. Gar use their air bladders as rudimentary lungs, and they can survive in warm, low-oxygen water that other kinds of fish can't. The Apalachicola, Ochlocknee, Blackwater, Yellow and Escambia rivers are all prime gar territory. Any place in a river or lake where gar are seen rolling repeatedly is a good place to start a gar hunt; conversely, bass fishermen might see those rolling gar as not only a potential nuisance, but a sign to look for more oxygenated waters.

Possibly the best and easiest specific place to find gar in Florida's lakes and rivers is to find a dock where anglers clean fish. Gar learn that when anglers clean their catches, a free banquet of fish heads and guts is presented.

Gar can be hooked on standard hooks. Longnose gar are harder to hook, but both spotted and Florida gar hook up fairly well on both single and treble hooks. My best gar fishing results come when I use kahle hooks—they grab into gar beaks and hold on.

You might also catch gar with no hooks at all. A short piece of cheap rope, about six inches long, can be melted at one end to make a solid wad of plastic and then frayed at the other. Use single-strand stainless wire and haywire twist it tightly to the melted head of the rope, and then a swivel for connecting to the fishing line. Cast and work the rig slowly back to the boat. When a gar hits, its teeth will entangle in the rope.

Bill Meyer, founder of GASS, says, “Longnose gar will make tremendous leaps clearing the water. They'll make a few hard runs, and when you think they're spent, they'll run again.”

Artificial lures will catch gar. In-line spinners such as Panther Martins, Mepps, and Rooster Tails in the largest sizes will work very well, but the Lambo Lure Spinner is a heavy-duty lure designed for strong, toothy fish like gar.

Gar will hit crankbaits and other plugs, but after a fight with a big gar, most plugs are not good for any more fishing.

Sometimes, gar will only take live bait. “Use a 4- to 5-inch shiner with a No. 4 treble hook in the nose and a No. 4 treble hook stinger rig,” suggests Meyer. “Make a slow, stop-and-go retrieve. When the gar strikes, open the bail or free-spool the reel and let the gar run. A minute is not too long to wait before setting the hook. Make a hard, firm hook set, and then hang on!”

A very necessary bit of gar fishing equipment is a pair of tough leather gloves. Keep a good grip on the fish with one hand and use strong pliers to remove the hook. FS

Alligator Gar

A mature alligator gar is among the most impressive freshwater fish in United States waters. At over six feet long and 200 pounds or more, in some regions, these fish are considered trophy catches. A broad, toothy beak and armor-like scales complete the picture of this monstrous fish.

However in Florida, since 2006, the FWC Commissioners have declared that no one can take or possess alligator gar in Florida.

These mega-fish are very slow-growing and very slow to mature. This means that they are very susceptible to overfishing. Since the big trophy fish are the primary spawners, the loss of even a few big alligator gar can severely impact the population of these top predators in Florida's rivers.

First published Florida Sportsman May 2015

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