Saturday, January 28th, 2023
Saturday, January 28th, 2023

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Chasing New York’s dinosaurs

By Joel Spring

Contributing Writer

Two of New York’s most ancient fish don’t get the respect they deserve. Longnose gar and bowfin frequently get blacklisted by some game fishermen as being trash fish. One acquaintance, when shown the photo of my first gar coined the term, “putting the gar in garbage fish.” It was a good line, but chasing bowfin and gar is on par with any other type of fishing serious fishermen enjoy. 

In the last five years, I’ve focused heavily on chasing these dinosaurs of New York. A longtime fan of bowfin, I was in the middle of some research about where to catch gar when a friend mentioned to me that gar are widely available in the Oak Orchard River watershed, as well as in the Lower Niagara River, both near my home. There are gar in many areas of New York, especially in the larger Lake Ontario tributaries, The 1000 Islands, and Lake Champlain. 

Since that initial research five years ago, I’ve found gar in many places they aren’t officially listed as existing. Bowfin are even more numerous, but are mostly overlooked or considered incidental catches by people fishing for other species.

Though distinctly different species, the longnose gar and bowfin share many traits making them attractive game fish. They possess a modified swim bladder that allows them to breathe air, if necessary. They can not only exist, but thrive, in poorly oxygenated water. They both possess bony mouths and very sharp teeth. Both species tend to bask near the surface, making them compelling targets for sight-fishing, even in the heat of summer. Bowfin are loners, for the most part, while longnose gar tend to congregate in pods of anywhere from 20 to 100 fish. A large pod of gar is an incredible sight that will make your heart pound. Sight-fishing for these ancient predators is fast, unpredictable and very often successful. 

Let’s look at bowfin first. Bowfin habitat is not unlike largemouth bass cover. For this reason, many bass fishermen have recoiled in disgust while wrangling an aggressive, destructive bowfin onto the deck of their boat. Conversely, when I’m bowfin fishing, I very often connect with some very big bass. Oversized spinnerbaits (pike and muskie-sized) often attract large bowfin and very large bass. Almost anything that will catch a bass will catch a bowfin and vice-versa. For this reason alone, it’s sometimes difficult to catch a bowfin. If you can spot one basking or set up in ambush, often near sunken timber or steep banks, there’s a good bet you can hook that fish. They are not shy. Whatever your lure or bait of choice, make sure you have good, line and strong, sharp hooks. Their bony mouths make a stiff hook-set necessary. I’m a believer in 16- or 18-pound monofilament and a stout, medium-heavy rod. I like the hook-setting capability of the heavy rod, and the flex mono gives during a hard fight. Bowfin don’t generally make long runs, preferring to duke it out near the boat. One of their tricks that you likely haven’t seen is their ability to swim backwards. Adding to the overall chaos of hooking a bowfin, they are quite capable of snapping your line simply by backing up. Adjusting your drag on the fly is a good method to help ensure the bowfin ends up in the boat. Once in the boat, I suggest you unhook the fish quickly. Let’s just say they do not appreciate being handled. A quick unhooking is one of the main reason that I mostly use spinnerbaits. The single hook allows me to keep my hands away from those chomping teeth. 

Longnose gar are a bit different. Their long-bony, toothy beaks don’t lend themselves well to standard lures. Unlike their dino-cousins, the bowfin, gar take a certain amount of pre-planning to connect. When doing my initial research on gars several years ago, there was little information on fishing for them in the northeast. Most of the information regarded night fishing with bait and usually resulted in the death of the fish. Further into my research, I discovered the concept of the rope-fly. Made from core of a nylon rope (and it must be nylon), the rope fly is typically 6- to 8-inches long. While I’ve bought and made some flies with trailer hooks, spinners, and integrated weights, the accessories are unnecessary. The concept is simple; the rope tangles in the gar’s plentiful teeth. A length of nylon rope-core tied to a swivel and weighted at the front with a light worm-weight and you’re ready to catch gars. 

While I’ve caught many fish working the bottom, gar fishing is most enjoyable when they are visible on the surface. Sight-fishing makes it easier to target the largest fish, as well. Shallow backwaters near deep pools are prime territory. Casting to within a few feet of them, drag the rope fly parallel to that long beak. Gar slash sideways when hunting and their hit is explosive. They may look lethargic but, in the heat of the day especially, they strike like lightning. The trick in tangling the rope fly is in not setting the “hook.” Longnose gar will typically shake their head from side to side two or three times after a strike. It’s imperative you give them slack until the fly is firmly tangled. It takes some practice and, even after five years of experience, I still sometimes pull the fly out of their teeth. The reflex of not raising the rod tip when you just saw a 40-inch fish take your bait is tough to overcome. I find a soft, medium light rod perfect to allow a fish to properly mouth the bait. Twelve- to 16- pound mono is my go-to line for longnose gar. 

Large gar can put up a good fight, often tail-walking and making impressive jumps. Other times, like pike, they will come easily to the boat, waiting to unleash their terror until you lift them out of the water. I fish mainly from a kayak and was warned repeatedly against trying to handle a gar in a small boat by well-meaning fishermen. I’ve landed 45-inch fish with very few issues. It can be done! I learned after my first year (and many dropped gar) that, much like lipping a bass, gar can be subdued by firmly gripping their long-bony snout as you lift their head from the water. Fishing gloves are a necessity. Those teeth are sharp. Many have commented to me that gloves are not good for the longnose gar’s delicate slime layer but the thick slime layer on a gar is anything but delicate. 

The most difficult part of releasing gar is untangling the fly from their teeth. It takes some time, depending on the severity with which the fly is tangled. There is no short cut. It must be picked out, and all loose strands of rope removed to prevent their jaws from becoming bound shut, resulting in eventual starvation. With their ability to breathe air, no harm comes to the fish if this takes a few extra moments. 

Don’t be afraid to give New York dino-fishing a try. You might even like it. 

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