The other white meat!
As a child, any river, stream, pond or ditch was of great interest to me because I lived to fish. In fact when not fishing, I was often reading about fishing in "Outdoor Life" or "Field and Stream" magazines. I captured bass, sunfish and other popular game species, but I was not particular about what species I caught. The thrill was in adrenaline rush I felt when any fish pulled on my line. As a matter of fact, I kind of liked carp, suckers and bowfin species considered by most to be detestable. My favorite fish has always been considered one of the least desirable of all local fish...the longnose gar.
On a particularly memorable fishing trip with my father, I got a pretty good idea just how much local fishermen hate these primitive fish. As we fished on the bank of a local river, I noticed that the older man sitting nearby had hooked something. The tip of his rod danced furiously and his frantic movements indicated that it was a "big one" After fighting the fish for a moment or two, he was able to lift his catch out of the water. The animal that emerged was obviously not what he anticipated. As a three-foot gar dangled on the end of his line, he calmly reached for his sidearm and blasted the fish off the hook with two deft shots. When the smoke cleared and the smell of gunpowder drifted down river, my dad and I got up from the ground, dusted ourselves off and resumed fishing.
Adverse attitudes about gar may stem from the erroneous perception that they ruin fishing. The longnose gar is a notorious bait-stealer and thought to be a rogue to local anglers. In the past sportsmen were encouraged to kill any gar that they caught by slitting the belly before returning it to the water. Another common practice was to don gloves and break off the fish's snout before releasing it. Regardless of how people feel about gar and other "rough fish" there is certainly no reason to torture or kill them. Research suggests that gar are not a serious problem to game fish populations....in fact in some areas they may improve fishing. Gar can provide excellent quarry for bow fishermen and they may also be taken on hook and line in fresh or saltwater. Their sharp teeth and feisty disposition make gloves and needle nose pliers standard equipment for gar fishing. Although the roe is poisonous, gar meat is white and flaky and delicious when smoked.
Gar get very large and occasionally reach over five feet in length. Their long toothy snouts and bony bodies give them a fabulous prehistoric appearance. The body is usually olive to green with a series of oval spots running the length of the body and fins. The elongated mouth and needle-sharp teeth are excellent for snapping up smaller fish and flipping them into swallowing position.
Gar are amazingly adaptable, living in fresh and salt water. They can often be seen swimming just below the surface, often rising to the surface to gulp air into their swim bladder. This primitive lung, allows the gar to exist in less oxygenated habitats by literally breathing air when conditions require it. Huge numbers of adults often congregate in shallow weedy areas of large streams and rivers to spawn. A single female may be courted by ten or more males.
The eggs hatch in about a week into predator fry. After a short period of absorbing embryonic reserves, they are capable of catching and eating prey half their size. These fish may live 20 years or more but it may take them several years to reach adult size.
So, the next time you take a walk down to the front docks on Spring Island, peer into the water and look for a gar hovering in the current. Our longnose gar are not the prettiest fish, but they are remarkable creatures and worthy of our respect and interest.