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Out There: Rod and reel gar

9/28/2004

The gentleman who started G.A.S.S. — the Gar Angler's Sportsman's Society — is, like me, a gar-fishing aficionado.

He's been pleasantly surprised by all the traffic to his Web site. Apparently there are lots of gar anglers out there checking the site clandestinely for new gar fishing tips and hoping their fishing buddies don't find out they have gar-fishing fever.

I can hear the talk around the office now.

"You hear about Catfish? His wife caught him looking at some gar-fishing site on the Internet. Can you imagine that? Gar? The poor guy's sick."

When it comes to gar fishing, I truly am afflicted. And I remember with clarity the night I first caught the gar-fishing bug.

Lewis Peeler and I were catfishing. The cats, however, were uncooperative. We returned to the shantyboat that was our weekend home.

When we arrived, our host, Bill Peace, was gazing into the water.

"Come here and look at this," he beckoned. In the moonlight, I could barely make out a creek tumbling into the river across the way. But nothing else was apparent.

"What is it, Bill?" I asked.

"Just watch," he said. "You'll see them."

As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I began to recognize the elongated forms of several longnose gar swimming just beneath the surface.

"Can you see them, yet?" Peace asked.

"Yes," I answered.

"Keep watching," he said.

In Peace's hand was a six-inch shiner. He tossed it into the water.

Picture, if you can, 100 long, toothy fish turning in unison and converging on a single baitfish. Picture the water erupting like Old Faithful as scores of yard-long predators make a frenzied, lunging charge. Picture the look of astonishment on the faces of Peeler and Sutton.

"Now, Catfish," Peace said, grinning, "I'll give you $20 if you'll stick your hand in the water and wiggle your fingers."

I decided instead to put a shiner on a hook and cast it into the water. Peeler prepared to do likewise, but, before he tossed his bait, something big slammed into mine.

I reared back on the bass rod, and the dark water opened with a roar to let out a fish that seemed as long and thick as a Civil War cannon. The huge thing flipped clear over, turning uppermost its white belly, and fell back into the water with a tremendous crash.

The run that ensued was as magnificent as the strike. The hook and line held firm, and after a brief but violent struggle I turned the big gar toward the boat.

But no, the fish was off on another run, and, this time, it put an end to our battle. Snap! My rod whipped straight and a remnant of limp line trailed on the water.

"That was a big gar!" I exclaimed. "I couldn't do anything with him."

"You set the hook too soon," Peace said. "You hooked him in the beak, and his teeth cut your line.

"Let the fish run until you can't stand it any more, then let him run some more. When he stops, he's swallowing the bait. When he does, he'll start moving off again. That'swhen you set the hook."

By now, Peeler had made his cast, and line was peeling off his reel with an ominous "zizzzzz."

"Not yet," Peace coached. "Let him run."

The monofilament continued feeding out. I wondered if Peeler would have enough to play the fish when he struck. But, suddenly, the clicker on his reel fell silent.

"He's stopped," Peace whispered. "Steady now. Don't do anything till he runs again."

All was quiet for a minute or so, then it started again. Click. Click. Click. Clickclickclick. Zizzzzzzzz.

"Now!" Peace shouted.

Peeler set the hook hard, and, when the barb was buried, the gar went airborne. Rarely have I seen a fish leap so high and fight with such ferocity.

It flew clear of the water, then whipped itself into a C, its head bending around to touch its tail. Again and again it jumped.

In the end, Peeler triumphed. The 40-inch-long gar, big around as my calf, made a blind lunge that brought it near the shantyboat. Peeler yanked it up on the deck. Three grown men were beaten silly before it finally was subdued.

"Can you believe it?" Peace said, laughing. "Nobody fishes for these things. Tell someone you're going gar fishing, and they'll look at you like you're a martian. If they only knew."

Despite their stupendous fighting ability, gars have earned little respect from anglers. Venomous snakes and rabid skunks probably get more respect than gars; most fishermen despise them.

Why? The creature's menacing appearance provides one reason. The long, snake-like body is covered with a wicked-looking armor of thick interlocked scales.

The gar has an incessant smirk accentuated by rows of sinister, needle-sharp teeth studding its jaws. Look into the eye of this reptilian outcast, and you get the distinct impression that, given the chance, it would chew your legs off, and perhaps a few other appendages, as well.

Some folks contend gars aren't fit to eat, while others curse them as gluttonous scourges of sportfish. Still others dislike the gar's uncanny knack for stealing bait and mangling artificial lures.

No one can deny, however, that the gar is a noteworthy opponent on rod and reel. These powerful fish race and jump like tail-hooked tarpon. Landing a true heavyweight is one of freshwater fishing's most exciting challenges.

Several species can be targeted — the spotted gar, shortnose gar, Florida gar and the increasingly rare, but sometimes huge, alligator gar.

The one I target most often, however, is the common and widespread longnose gar, Lepisosteus osseus, which is found throughout most of the eastern United States. Specimens weighing 10 to 20 pounds are abundant in many large streams and reservoirs.

The all-tackle world record from Texas' Trinity River in 1954 weighed 50 pounds, 5 ounces. It was this species Peeler and I caught that night on the White River, and this species we have battled many times since.

"This ain't no sport for sissies," Peeler said at the end of that first night. "Every time you throw a bait out, it's like casting into a castle moat full of alligators.

"You know that whatever hits will be big and mean and have one wicked set of teeth. You don't really feel safe unless you've got a .38 strapped on your leg."

Of course, what Peace said was true, too: When you tell folks you've been gar fishing, they're gonna look at you like you're some kind of alien.

If they do, just smile and act nonchalant. Remember, the folks pointing fingers and laughing won't be crowding your favorite gar holes. Us gar fishermen would just as soon keep it that way.

To contact Keith Sutton, email him at catfishdude@sbcglobal.net.