Garfish are on the larger side of freshwater species, and are challenging fish to reel in. You can blame it on the long, dart-shaped snouts lined with teeth, as well as their oblong shape and particular feeding style. If you like a challenge out on the water, this is an excellent species to feed the adventure bug in you. Furthermore, they are also quite delicious.
What is a Garfish?
The Garfish—often called a gar, garpike, and sea needle interchangeably—is a long and slender freshwater fish, known for its horizontally compressed body and elongated, sword-like jaw. There are seven known species of gar, five of which are spotted in the United States: Florida gar, Cuban gar, spotted gar, shortnose gar, tropical gar, longnose gar, and alligator gar. Of the seven, the longnose gar are the most prevalent, with abundant populations from Canada to northern Mexico.
The average size of a matured garfish is about 20 to 30 inches, but size varies from species to species. The shortnose gar, for example, may max out at 2 feet, while the Alligator gar have been known to reach nearly 10 feet in length and over 100 lbs. The largest Alligator gar ever caught was 8 and a half feet and over 300 lbs.
There are common traits found in most garfish species. The mouth of a gar resembles long-beaked birds like the limpkin or heron, and is lined with tiny rows of needle-sharp teeth. The heterocercal tail is where the pectoral, anal, and dorsal fins reside, allowing for increased flexibility in its movements.
Garfish are slow-moving, until it is time to eat. They count on their shape to fool prey; they are often mistaken for floating sticks or logs. The speed at which they move increases when smaller fish — such as sprats, herring, squid — or crabs, appear. Gar are formidable predators, a quick side-swipe motion all that’s necessary to catch prey in those puncturing teeth.
Where to Find a Garfish
Garfish appear most during the summer months, opting to float close to the surface of their habitats. They are pretty easy to spot, especially if you look for them at dawn, dusk, or at night. They must surface due to having lung-like swim bladders, gulping air to assist their gill function. This happens more often when the water is warm and its oxygen levels are low; this means that the breathing method they use—through the gills or through the swim bladder — is temperature controlled. This adaptation makes the gar an exceptionally robust fish in comparison to other species in the same environmental conditions. In addition, this makes it almost a certainty that you find and catch gar when its hot out.
Gar are found in shallow waters and grassy parts of lakes, rivers, creeks, and impoundments. Where water flows — tailwaters, channel abuttals, on the outskirts of stream bends, secluded backwater pools, and tributary mouths — you will find your gar. On a lake, the fish travel in small groups and can be spotted along the edge of shorelines. They travel with mackerel and sandeels, the former of which is also a dietary staple.
Most species can be found across North America’s eastern waters, the vast majority sticking to freshwater locations. However, some species are known to travel to brackish waters, and a few others even enter seawaters for a time. Globally, they are prevalent in and around the Atlantic coastlines of France and Spain, the British Isles, the Mediterranean, Black, and Baltic Seas, as well as in Icelandic waters.
How to Catch a Garfish
You’ve waited all summer for the water temperatures to rise, and now you are ready to catch some surfacing garfish. The difficulty in gar fishing comes from their bills. They are long, bony, and often resist most hooks no matter how sharp they are. You are more likely to snare a gar in the gullet, so much of the job is waiting for the fish to swallow or attempt to swallow the bait provided. How you proceed will depend on the bait you use.
Entanglement Bait Method
The value of entanglement bait comes from taking advantage of the difficult-to-pierce gar snout. Entanglement bait, also known as a rope snare, is created when you take about 5 inches of nylon rope and untwist it until it becomes a frayed filament lure. A gar doesn’t have the best eyesight, so floating this rope lure in front of its nose, allowing it to slowly react to it, is best. The gar will pivot and bite, and its mouth will snag into the lure, the strands knotting themselves around the teeth. All you have to do then is reel them in.
Live Bait Method
Where the first method did not require a hook, this one is meant to get the hook past the grisly maw and reach the gar’s gullet. Using herron, shiners, or other small fish, just hook it as you normally hook live bait, attached to a bobber (this also works with topwater imitation baitfish). It’s recommended you use a sharp treble hook, perfect for penetrating the live bait, as well as the hard bill of a gar.
The key here is patience once your bait is submerged. Do not move your bait around too much. Instead, let it stay still except for the occasional twitch. The garfish won’t swallow right away, preferring to nibble and travel with it first. Wait a minute or two before setting your hook. When you get a bite, be prepared to fight a bit with the thrashing gar, especially if it’s on the heavy side. It is strongly suggested you use wire lines, but if you must use monofilament (in this case as the line, not the bait), make sure the weight strength is 50 pounds or higher.
Another method gar fishers use is the noose or lasso technique. You stick a two-feet piece of strong, thin wire and loop it around until you have a noose with your bait held at its center. The loop closes when the gar’s long snout tugs at the main line of your lasso. All you will have to do is give it a small yank and the fish and you will have successfully snared it by the bill. Just hang on for the bumpy ride as the garfish battles you tooth and nail.
Find more of the best methods to catch Garfish at Game and Fish Mag.
Best Bait for Garfish
As mentioned, small fish and crustaceans are the main food source of gar. Small fish include mackerel, shad, herron, and similar species. They will also eat small squid, and certain species will eat insects found near the surface at prime feeding time. Live bait or cut bait of these and similar animals will get your gar to bite.
Artificial bait works as well, hookless rope lures being the most effective and hassle-free. They will go after plastic bait fish as well, especially if it resembles their usual prey.
While not bait per se, an excellent way to attract gatherings of gar to your bait is to drop a berley mixture into the vicinity of your fishing waters. Berley is made from small, crumbled fish scraps mixed with all manner of things that could attract your gar. Some anglers combine fish oils, meal, cat food, pellets, and more to create the berley mixture. The key is making sure the pieces are small enough to fit in a gar’s bill. Only spread near your boat or shore location, and be careful of how much you submerge, since you could attract unwanted birds that could scare garfish away.
Best Lures & Tackle for Garfish
On a question of tackle, the best lure in user-friendliness would be the hookless baits or rope flies made from frayed nylon rope—used in the entanglement bait method. While not impossible to catch with hooks, as we’ve mentioned, rope lures such as these allow you to use the anatomy of the gar to your advantage.
General notes about tackle: Gar are large fish, depending on the species you are targeting. We assume you want the average to larger sized gar (longnose and alligator, respectively). You will need a line that can handle 20 to 80 pounds of fish. You will also want a rod that is stout and a solid reel with reliable drag.
Regarding rigs, for topwater fishing near shore or in a boat, you will want to use a light float rig. A narrow float (also called a sliding float) combined with weighted beads will keep the bait just below the surface of the water. You can adjust this rig based on where the gar will congregate, and the state of the tide at your chosen fishing waters. Another great rig is called the sliding float rig. To create this, you need to use a narrow float again, but this time add a stop knot to the main line at the place you want the float to stop. You can modify this rig as needed for the same reasons you would a light float rig.
The Value of Garfish
Are you fishing for garfish for more than just the excitement of the sport? Well, rest assured, acquiring this fish—especially the larger, surlier species, the alligator gar—you will be happy to find that they are very delicious. You will have to take the slender shape of your gar into account, so expect better quality fillets from larger catches.
The armored skin can be removed, and the flesh deboned, with a well-sharpened knife and steady hands. Novices mistake the gar’s green-tinged bones as a bad sign, when in fact the fish is still edible. The only portions to avoid are the eggs; Garfish eggs are extremely toxic to humans.
Garfish can be fried, grilled, smoked, boiled and baked. In Central America, for example, the gar is cooked and eaten in a similar vein to salmon. (Tropical gars are splendid when cooked whole.) The flesh is white in color, delicate to the touch, and has a sweet flavor once cooked. Gar is said to have a flavor that lacks the familiar “fishiness”. Moreover, the cooked texture of garfish is unlike other fish you may be used to, because it is not flaky. Instead it is denser, like chicken.
Garfish are not the easiest prey for fishermen, but this is why they are so sought after. The challenge is part of the fun! They are large, very aggressive, and when it’s all over, very tasty. Get out there and angle some feisty garfish, today!
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