Where legal, fishing for alligator garfish can offer sportsmen extraordinary
opportunities to catch giant fish close to home on a budget.
True to its name, an alligator garfish looks like a legless alligator
encased in interlocking armor. Blunt snouts resembling alligator heads contain
hundreds of needle-like teeth that can inflict serious damage to flesh,
although larger fish act more like scavengers than predators.
Garfish witnessed the creation and extinction of the dinosaurs, yet they
survived unchanged for millions of years and may live more than 50 years.
Highly adaptable creatures, garfish prefer sluggish rivers, bayous and
backwaters, but enter brackish estuaries and even marine environments. In
poorly oxygenated waters, they often swallow air and may even live several hours out
For decades, many people considered gars nothing more than finny vermin
destined for eradication. People netted, shot and arrowed them or killed any
they caught by accident. Still they survive, albeit, fewer of them. Healthy
populations remain in parts of Texas, Louisiana, Alabama,
and a few other places. Sometimes, boaters spot these armored torpedoes cruising
just beneath the surface or "rolling" to gulp air.
Among the largest freshwater fish in North America,
these river monsters may grow longer than 10 feet and exceed 365 pounds! The
official rod and reel world record, a fish caught in Texas, weighed 279 pounds!
"To find big garfish, I look for them on the graph," advised Cliff "JR" Mundinger, Jr., with Lake Talquin
Trophy Guide Service in Tallahassee,
/850-524-4059), who fished for gar in several states. "In rivers, look for them
where the channel turns and creates a calm pocket. After we find fish, we throw
out a dying or cut fish and drift. In a place with a lot of garfish, the bait
won't sink very far before something attacks it."
Gars eat almost any meat they can swallow. In estuaries, shrimp, mullet,
shad, hardhead catfish, and blue crabs make excellent temptations. Although
larger gars tend to scavenge food, smaller gars may hit bass lures or flies.
Many people chum for gars by tossing oily fish pieces into the water. Then,
they dangle live shad or cut fish from bobbers and float them through the hole.
Others free-line baits on heavy deep-sea tackle with strong braided line.
Catching a big garfish requires not only stout tackle, but also considerable
patience. They don't eat prey immediately. Sometimes, a fish may run 100 yards
with a bait before stopping to swallow it.
"The key to successfully catching a big garfish is to let it take the bait
for a long time," advised Bubba Bedre with Garzilla Guide Service in Elkhart, Texas.
903-724-6888). "If they feel anything in their mouths, they'll drop the bait.
Sometimes, I pull up the anchor and go with the fish several hundred yards down
the river. When it's ready to eat it, the fish will stop and chomp on it."
With many fish exceeding 100 pounds to his credit, Bedre
releases all the big garfish he catches. To increase the odds of releasing
large fish healthy enough to fight again, he stresses using smaller hooks.
"Many people think they need to use large hooks for such big fish, but big
hooks can kill big fish," Bedre advised. "I like to
use a 4/0 treble hook. Also, when planning to release a big garfish, don't take
it out of the water. Its body weight stresses the fish. Whenever I release a
big gar, I put it back in deep water and use pressure to force water into its
mouth to get the air it gulped out of its stomach."
Instead of driving a hook into a gar's hard mouth, Mundinger
attaches Velcro to a bait. Others wrap fish in pantyhose or make lures out of
frayed nylon rope ends to entangle the teeth. Sight-cast rope lures toward fish
near the surface. Opportunistic feeders, gars seldom chase baits, but
frequently snatch anything crossing their noses.
"Getting a gar to bite is easy, but hooking one is another story," Mundinger explained. "I wrap the fuzzy side of Velcro
around a pinfish or other baitfish. Using fishing line for thread, run a needle
through the Velcro and through the fish to keep the Velcro on the bait. Once
that mouthful of teeth sinks into that Velcro, they get tangled and can't let
Whether required by law or not, release all big gars whenever possible. It
takes decades for a fish to reach gigantic proportions and decades to replace a
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