I heard the fish, but didn’t see it. My guide recognized the sound immediately.
“That’s a gar gulping air: Look for the bubbles or the rings of water,” said Mark Beason, who was standing on the bow of the boat and quickly reeling in his line. “That was close by.”
I spotted some nervous water, which is how I refer to disturbed surface that is evidence of fish movement. It was about 20 feet behind the boat and within easy casting distance with an underhand flip of the 7-foot rod.
My lure settled about 5 feet past the rings and bubbles, and I let it fall beneath the surface for a three-count — one Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi — before starting a steady retrieve.
Another three counts later, my 10-pound braided line twitched.
“He’s got it!” I hollered at Beason.
“Let him have it,” he said, “and whatever you do don’t set the hook. Remember: There ain’t one.”
I quit reeling and felt the line go tight, and then I noticed it making looping movements, like it would when a spinnerbait gets fouled in the line.
“That’s it; he’s rolling with it,” Beason called. “He’s caught.”
With that, I pulled up on the long rod and it arched against the heavy weight of a good-sized adversary.
The fight was on.
The fish took about 30 feet of drag on its first run, and then it settled into a slow, circling battle. I let it go, gaining line only when it allowed me to, and otherwise holding steady pressure.
The fish made three circles around the boat before finally passing close enough for a view.
“That’s a big one, about 20 pounds,” Beason said. “It’s not done.”
The fish ripped another 30 feet of line off the reel with a sudden burst, as if it had heard Beason.
“Plenty of power,” I told Beason. “Reminds me of a redfish.”
After 10 minutes, the fish gave up and I reeled it alongside the boat.
Beason grabbed an aluminum baseball bat he had brought for just such moments, and he planted it squarely on the flat part of the gar’s head.
“Maybe one more, just to be sure,” I encouraged, knowing I didn’t want those teeth near me or any of my gear as long as the gar could work its jaws.
Beason obliged, and the big gar rolled over. It had expired, but not before gaining my respect as a sporting fish.
It might not have been hooked, but I was.
Gar fishing is fun.
An unsightly target
Gars are ugly fish, as evil-looking as critters can be with their tooth-filled snouts. But it’s those very teeth — the fishes’ greatest weapon — that are their demise when it comes to getting caught by fishermen.
Using unraveled nylon rope for lures, anglers catch gar when the fish bite and get the frayed strands of nylon entangled in the hundreds of razor-sharp teeth.
No hook is needed, and the lure’s size keeps fragile fishing line safe.
“The more they fight, the worse they get tangled — and they fight like mad,” said Beason, a former outdoor writer and avid Mississippi sportsman. “People turn their nose up at gar fishing — until they try it.
“Then, most of them really like it and want to go again.”
The sport of gar fishing is not new, nor is the method we employed. Beason’s research indicates the use of rope as lures began in the 1920s or ’30s, and gar fishing is big in other parts of the country where there are tournaments and guide trips.
It’s an easy sport to get into, both literally and figuratively.
“It takes a minimal investment to get started for anyone who already has basic fishing gear,” the Clinton angler said. “For $6 worth of 3/8-inch nylon rope, a wire brush and some big barrel swivels, you can make a lifetime supply of gar baits.”
Beason cuts off a 12-inch piece of rope, and then unravels the strands. Each 12-inch strand becomes a 6-inch lure.
He runs a strand of rope through one end of a swivel, and then he uses a piece of monofilament wrapped around the rope to form a neck, and dabs on super glue to hold it.
“Then you just use the wire brush to unravel the strands into hundreds of smaller strands,” Beason said. “That’s it. And the great thing is that with every gar you catch, the lure just gets more effective.”
Once a gar has its teeth entangled, it can’t get loose.
Mississippi has four species of gar. Rope is used on only three: longnose, shortnose and spotted.
The fourth is the alligator gar, and it as a different tooth structure, with two rows of teeth. A rope could catch one, but they are reluctant to hit artificial lures.
Of the three species caught on rope, the longnose is the most prized. It gets bigger, has great strength and produces a white, flaky flesh that is considered good to eat.
The longnose gar can grow up to 6 feet and 50 pounds, and they are most plentiful in the 10- to 20-pound range.
A unique feature of their anatomy is a rudimentary lung that supports the function of their gills and spurs them to roll on the surface to obtain — by gulping — big breaths of air.
It helps fishermen locate the fish.
Beason’s favorite gar hole is the lower lake at Sardis Lake, a 250-acre body of water below the main lake’s spillway.
“They are plentiful there, but they are native to so many river-connected waters and oxbows in Mississippi,” he said. “What we do at Sardis should work anywhere.
“The lower lake at Sardis is ideal because it concentrates gar in a smaller body of water that has plenty of forage and the water is steady flowing from the spillway gates, even in the summer.”
Summer is peak time, with August right in the middle of the best action.
The hotter the weather, the better the action.
“That’s when they are most active,” Beason said. “They are a hardy fish and can take that 90-degree surface water more than other fish.
“You can sight-fish them, watching them roll on the surface. Then you go to them.”
During my educational trip, the day ended with a symbolic rush: Beason found a school of gar in a small area roped off like an old swimming zone.
He spotted three surfacing gar gulping air, and we headed over to investigate.
For the next hour, we caught longnose gar one after another that weighed 8 to 22 pounds.
“It’s not every day that you find this many big ones concentrated in one area, and when it does it’s a bonus,” Beason said. “The key is to keep one on the line at all times to keep them interested.
“That’s a problem because it takes a long time to get one untangled from the lure.”
Wasn’t a problem for me: I simply reeled one in, sedated it properly, and then picked up another loaded rod and fired a rope lure back into the fray.
The next hookup was instantaneous.
After the third one, I stopped and started peeling rope out of teeth and was done for the day: Three gar between 15 and 20 pounds, caught on consecutive casts in 100-degee heat was quite enough.
Beason just kept throwing, finally quitting after catching the day’s biggest gar.
The 22-pounder was a leaper, almost clearing the bow of the boat.
“Perfect one to quit on,” my guide said, after his two-step escape move on the front of the boat. “I’ve had enough.”