Imagine you’re standing on the bow of a boat, fly in hand with your line stripped off. As you scan the water for shadows or movement, you’re ready to make a cast, and a fish can appears out of nothingness. Now you’ve got a lock on what you think might be the fish you’ve been looking for all morning. It is indeed a fish only 35 feet away, and pointed right at you! A couple quick false casts later and your fly lands perfectly in his line of sight. The fish sees the fly and surges on it. Hook set and fish on!
Heart stopping stuff, am I right? You may be thinking I’ve set the scene for a flats fishing scenario, where bonefish, tarpon or permit are the target species. But the series of events described above can be a common occurrence much closer to home.
Longnose gar. That’s right, another trash fish glorified in a fly fishing blog. These fish can provide anglers with a great thrill, especially when they’re the fish you are targeting. Longnose gar can be found throughout the eastern seaboard and as far west as the Mississippi drainage area. They inhabit slow moving rivers, reservoirs, and estuaries. Longnose gar are basically dinosaurs that have found no need to evolve. With an elongated snout outfitted with hundreds of thumbtack-like teeth and distinct spots lining their sides, the aesthetics of these fish alone are a compelling reason to chase them on a fly rod. Gar also have the ability to breathe air. Often you see them doing so on warm days throughout the summer.
Gar fishing is true sight fishing. The ‘flats fishing’ situation I described earlier is exactly what we’re looking for. Gar that are looking to feed are typically in the upper areas of the water column, making them easier to see. When they take in a breath of air they are a dead giveaway, like when tarpon roll. They often inhabit slower eddies, downstream of larger rocks or downed trees. Gar give anglers a fight that is rare in freshwater fishing. They will jump, thrash, and roll as they try to get you disconnected.
As far as tackle goes, we like using 6-8wt rods and reels with smooth drags, spooled up with warmwater floating line. Since gar have teeth and can nick up your leader with a couple of headshakes, it’s not a bad idea to run a 9foot 20lb fluorocarbon leader. These fish really seem to key in on white streamers with a lot of movement. I have pictured a few flies that I’ve had a decent amount of success on. Top two flies are articulated baitfish flies, both of which have a ton of movement and extremely sharp stinger hooks, which have a better shot at penetrating the gar’s boney mouth parts. The fly on the bottom is little more than unbraided nylon rope tied to a hook. The idea here is that the nylon gets wrapped up in the hundreds of tiny teeth, almost like Velcro.
Gar frequently pop up when you least expect it. If there doesn’t seem to be enough time to switch rods or flies, I’d say throw what you’ve got on there. We’ve seen these fish landed on anything from clawdads to poppers. If you’re looking to try something new this summer, find out what waters around you have gar (or other species you don’t normally chase). You might even find your new favorite species to chase on the fly.
—Cole Columbus is a fly fishing guide with the Albemarle Angler in Charlottesville, Virginia