Party On, Gar
Secrets for Responsible Alligator Gar Fishing
By Mark Spitzer
Thanks to recovery efforts by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, along with a few years of heavy flooding, Arkansas alligator gar populations are more stable than they’ve been in the last 60 years.
As this fishery has improved, the primitive behemoth is definitely worthy of its new classification of “sport fish.” Even the little ones can weigh 40 pounds and there are few rushes on this planet like hauling in a gnashing, thrashing, gator-headed throwback to the Jurassic period.
The best time for gar fishing is either between dawn and noon or at and after dusk. Find a sandy beach with no obstructions where gars can be seen rolling. When the sun goes down, all four species of gar (alligator, longnose, shortnose and spotted) will follow baitfish into shallower waters. We’ve had a lot of luck with shad, which you can catch in cast nets or buy frozen at bait stores. It helps to rebait every 20 minutes.
Baitrunner reels work best because you can cast a long way and they don’t get fouled like baitcasting reels. We flip the big switch so the gar can run and we use Carolina rigs, which allow them to take line out easily. Put a 1-ounce egg weight on your line and attach a swivel or a steel leader beneath that. If you use a swivel, attach 2-3 feet of 50- to 80-pound braided line for a leader. Make sure whatever line your reel is spooled with is strong enough to haul in a 100-pounder.
A word about hooks: The more metal there is, the greater the odds the gar will get a taste of it and drop the bait. We’ve had our best luck with circle hooks between the size of a nickel to a quarter.
There’s a changing attitude about setting the hook. The prevailing strategy used to be to let the gar run downstream for five to 10 minutes and after they stop to swallow the bait, set the hook when they run again. This only works, on average, about 10 percent of the time, to say nothing of what swallowed hooks can do to a gar from the inside.
A better tactic: Bait with a small hunk of cut shad and when you hear the line peeling out, lock the bale and reel in fast. If the hook doesn’t pop out of its mouth – which happens about half the time – it’s likely to lodge itself between the jaws.
Once landed, work fast to get your hook out and take some measurements – even though gar can breathe air, when they start getting red in the fins, they’re weakening and need to be set free. Don’t ever try to pry a gar’s mouth open with a tool, because this can break its teeth. If you can’t get a hook out, just leave it be and it will corrode away. Snap a picture and turn it loose.
As the proliferation of silver and bighead carp attest, Arkansas’s fisheries need large predator fish to preserve the natural balance, something that can only be achieved by allowing more alligator gar to reach the 8- and 9-foot category. Responsible anglers hold the key to this and returning the species to its rightful place in our waterways.
Rules for gar anglers
- A special Arkansas permit is required, free at www.agfc.com. Alligator gar are off-limits during the official spawning season of May and June.
- There’s a harvest limit of one alligator gar per year, measuring under 36 inches. Anything over 3 feet must be released immediately except by special trophy harvest permit awarded through a lottery system.
- Anglers catching an alligator gar are required to report it to the state within 24 hours. This helps in tracking movements and collecting data to aid in conservation. The AGFC will want to know its length and where you caught it, too.
- The fish are extremely vulnerable in the reproductive department, so treat them humanely and let them go quickly.
- Weighing a fish through conventional means can stress out a gar. A quicker and remarkably accurate hack for determining weight is to take the fish’s length in inches, multiply that by the girth at its fattest, multiply that total by the girth again, divide by 800 and add 15.