UPDATE: This post was originally published in April of 2022 after hearing the use of rope flies promoted on two popular fly fishing podcasts. Far from a fan of this practice, I wrote this post in hopes of promoting alternative tactics for those looking to target gar on the the fly.
At the time, I highlighted the tactics that generally worked for me. Since then, however, I’ve been lucky enough to find a handful of like-minded anglers and wanted to update this post to share a few of there tips, tricks and patterns. Those additions are denoted in italics below.
Fly Fishing tactics for Gar (Lepisosteus sp. & Atractosteus sp.)
Since the inception of this blog, I’ve titled a handful of posts “…on the Fly.” In most cases, these have been brief field reports or summaries of a recent species hunt. Today’s “Gar on the Fly” post is a bit different. Instead of stemming from a recent outing, it was born of a number of recent discussions (and podcast commentaries) on what I see as a misconception regarding the best tactics for targeting the titular species.
Specifically, I’d like to challenge the notion that rope flies are the best/only way to target Gar. While certainly effective, this method just doesn’t feel like true fly fishing to me. And as far as I’m concerned a predator of the gar’s stature deserves better than a knotted, hookless mess at the end of your leader.
Gar on the Fly: The What and Why of Rope Flies
To begin, let’s cover the basics. First, What is a rope fly?
In essence, it is exactly what the name implies. These “flies,” many of which do not include an actual hook, consist of little more than a few inches of unbraided nylon rope. Flash and feathers may be added to justify the affixed designation of “fly,” but in reality such adornments are the fishing equivalent of putting lipstick on a pig. Even to a strong proponent of the motto “ugly flies catch fish,” these abominations take things a little too far for me.
And what about the “Why” of rope flies? Well…this part comes down to the gar’s anatomy. That long, bony maw for which gar are renowned is fairly hard to penetrate with a hook. As a result, the odds of (1) hooking a gar and (2) keeping it hooked can be extremely low. If you’re less than concerned about actually hooking the fish, however, allowing the gar’s teeth to become entwined in the mass of nylon fibers that is a rope fly will certainly result in significantly more “hook ups.”
Now, I can see how this practice may appeal to some, but then again so does flossing sockeye salmon. From my perspective, I just don’t see the sport in either and would rather seek out other methods if intent on targeting the species. Besides the less than sporting feel to it, there are also the potential ramifications for any gar that breaks your line. Where an embedded hook may cause irritation until it can be dislodged, that nylon binding the gar’s jaws could take 40 years to biodegrade. That fish is effectively dead the moment that rope fly breaks off in it’s jaws. It cannot feed and will undoubtedly starve. Rough fish or not, that is certainly not the end any fish deserves.
So Now What?
For those of you still reading after the soap box rant above, thanks for hanging in there. At this point, I’ve laid out my argument against rope flies, but you may be asking where that leaves us as anglers looking to target gar? Well…it leaves us heading back to the drawing board.
Let’s start with the Gar and what we know about their diet. First off, the obvious…these are large (2-4+ ft), ambush predators and a significant portion of their diet consists of other fish. In fact studies have shown, other fish make up 60-98% of a gar’s diet depending on the species. Even less surprising, these studies indicate a trend towards selection of larger prey species by larger individuals.
Gar are also opportunistic , however, and even larger gar will take advantage of small, abundant forage species. Such is evident as studies have noted that beetles, crayfish and a variety of other invertebrates featuring prominently in the diet of gar. Even in the case of the highly piscivorous Longnose gar, this seems to hold true. While invertebrates only account for a small fraction of the Longnose’s diet, one study noted that the minute Mississippi Silverside (a small fish averaging ~3″ in length) accounted for 54% of adult gars’ diets.
In this angler’s experience, it is this overlooked opportunistic behavior that provides the greatest chance of success when targeting gar.
A Case for Eating Light
As counterintuitive as it may seem, the recommendation I have been building to is this:
If you want to hook and land gar with more consistency, take advantage of the gar’s innate behavior and downsize your flies!
Throw out your assumption that large, toothy predators can only be caught on large flies and consider the opportunistic nature of fish in general. If a 24″ rainbow trout will eagerly sip midges, then why wouldn’t a 24-36″ gar to take advantage of the similar abundance of aquatic invertebrates and other small organisms that inhabit their waters? Both fish are capable of capturing larger prey, but why would either turn down the smaller, readily available options that often swim or drift right by their nose? More over, how would only selecting towards larger prey even benefit gar considering their ability to reside in relatively anoxic environments? Such environments will be largely devoid of other fish. If not for the availability of crayfish, amphibians and terrestrial insects, gar in such situations would likely starve.
While I’ll be highlighting a few basic patterns below, keep in mind that both the species of gar and habitat should play key roles in fly selection. For example, the spotted gar I target in weedy ponds are unlikely to be feeding on the same prey as the spotted gar I find in sandy rivers. Nor are shortnose gar with their diet containing 40% crayfish per one study likely to respond to the same fly as longnose gar with their preference for fish.
With that in mind, here are a few flies I believe should be in every gar box:
1. Clouser’s Swimming Nymph – A staple of every carp box, this pattern is responsible for the majority of gar I land. Tied in olive or orange with a little extra flash in the tail, this pattern is an absolute gar slayer. The slow sink rate is ideal for keeping it in the gar’s strike zone longer, and the erratic swimming motion produced by slow strips can mimic any number of aquatic invertebrates that you may encounter.
2. Damsel Fly Nymph – Ideal for weedy ponds, a damsel nymph will quickly draw the attention of any gar lying in wait along a weed line. The extended body version linked will do the trick, but so will any damsel of your choice.
3. Woolly Bugger – Full disclosure, this one seems a little obvious as there’s not a damn fish a woolly bugger can’t catch. Still, it’s worth noting here as a weightless version provides similar benefits to both above mentioned patterns. As an added benefit, it can easily double as a small baitfish as well with the right amount of flash.
4. Crazy Charlie – Credit where it’s due, this recommendation is 100% based off of a fellow angler’s experience with a unique longnose encountered along the Florida coast in 2021. Given the Charlie was originally designed to imitate juvenile anchovy on bonefish flats, however, it should be easy to see its value when targeting piscivorous longnose.
5. Terrestrials – While this may seem a bit surprising, gar do ingest a fair number of terrestrial insects with beetles (coleopetra) in particular being referenced in the spotted gar article cited above. And though I’ve yet to try beetles, I’ve had gar rise to grasshopper patterns as well as the deer hair bumblebee shown on the right.
6. Articulated Streamers – While this post places an emphasis on the use of smaller patterns when sight fishing for gar, I was remiss in excluding large streamers from the gar angler’s arsenal. Thankfully, fellow RSFF member, Ken Holmes, was kind enough to open my eyes to this option during the summer of 2022. I’ll cover Ken’s preferred tactics below, but just know there’s a place Large Articulated Streamers (Ken prefers the Fluegenzombie) in your fly box.
A Note on Hook Selection
Before we jump into actually targeting gar, I wanted to include a quick note on hook selection. While any appropriately sized hook will do, I’ve become particularly fond of Gamakatsu SL45 Bonefish hooks when targeting gar. Small, sharp and extremely strong, they’ve proven highly effective at piercing the bony mouths of the gar I encounter. As the strength and matte black finish also come in handy when targeting carp, these hooks have become quite common in my rough fish fly boxes.
Picking your Shots
“You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”
While there’s an absolute truth to Wayne Gretzky’s (or perhaps, Michael Scott’s) famed quote above, keep in mind that a poorly planned or executed shot has similar odds of success. That bony beak doesn’t leave much room for error, so be sure to consider your fly placement before making that first cast. Failure to do so will almost certainly result in a strike, a missed hook set and a spooked fish.
So how then do I recommend you proceed?
First, simply take a moment and observe. You do so when faced with a rising trout, a feeding carp or a cruising redfish. It should be no different when targeting a gar.
Is the gar lying stationary on the bottom? This fish is likely inactive, but still worth a shot. Tie on a smaller imitation and slowly strip the pattern past the gar’s field of vision. If this fails to elicit a strike after half a dozen casts, repeat the process once more. This time though, cease your retrieve and allow the fly to settle to the substrate within the gar’s line of sight. Don’t be surprised if the gar responds by rolling onto it’s side and plucking your fly off the bottom.
Are multiple gar congregating in the shallows and regularly breaching? Then it’s probably best to move on and save your gar fishing efforts for another day. These fish have spawning on the mind and are unlikely to pay any attention to your flies.
Is the gar on the move? If so, you’d better take your shot before the fish moves out of range. This fish may not be actively feeding, but it’s also unlikely to turn down an easy meal. If the fish is moving perpendicular to you, try to cast across the gar’s beak. When the fly is even with the gar’s eye, begin stripping. If the fish is interested, you’ll see the jaws snap as it’s head subtly jerks in the direction of your fly.
Is the gar suspended just below the surface near structure or vegetation? If yes, this is the fish you’re looking for. Gar are ambush predators, and it is these seemingly inactive fish that are actually on the hunt. Lying in wait, they readily snap up prey as it swims by. As a result, almost any fly placed in front of these fish will likely elicit a strike.
As mentioned above, placement is still the key. This gar should willingly attack any fly that passes through its line of sight, but you may only get one shot. So…with that in mind, take your time and take care in picking your shot.
- If the gar is facing your direction, cast parallel to the gar with the intent of placing the fly behind the gar’s line of sight. Let the fly settle to the desired depth and begin stripping. The strike should come right as the fly passes in front of the gar’s eye. This should place the fly in the soft corner of the gar’s mouth. Set the hook and hang on.
- If the gar is facing away from you, you can again cast parallel. Just take care to place the fly slightly in front of the gar’s eye (<6″). Place the fly too far forward, and you’re setting a hook into that bony beak. Too far back, and you may spook the gar as your fly splashes too close to the eye and startles the fish.
- If the gar is perpendicular to you, cast across the fish as mentioned above (Gar on the Move). Strip slowly and adjust the direction of your retrieve to ensure the fly passes that sweet spot just ahead of the eye.
Once you’ve accomplished the above, all that is left to do is hang on. The fish will leap, thrash and, if larger, possibly take you on a long run.
Big Streamers for Big Gar
While I still favor small flies and sharp hooks when sight fishing for gar, blind casting large articulated streamers for monster longnose and alligator gar can truly bring the gar fishing experience to another level. There are a few rules to keep in mind, however, when attempting this style of gar fishing.
- A Numbers Game: Blind casting heavy streamers for hours on end can be an arduous process; made far worse if nothing is biting. To improve your odds, take the time to learn your local waters and pin point areas where gar congregate throughout the year. Targeting a large flat or back bay with a significant number of rolling fish will likely result in a far more enjoyable outing than blind casting a shoreline at random.
- A Stout Rod: Big gar are not for the faint of heart. They are large, powerful predators, and require a rod that is capable of doing some heavy lifting. A 10wt is ideal as you never know whether the next strike will come from a 30″ longnose or a 30 lbs alligator gar. In Ken’s case, he’s hooked into fish that he was never able to turn; even on a 10wt.
- A Strong Strip Set: When it comes to catching gar on big streamers, a strong strip is a must. As Ken told me on our first outing, “Set the hook like you’re trying to break your tippet.” Penetrating that bony jaw is no easy task, so strip set with every once of strength you can muster if you want to land that fish.
- A Tight Line and a Running Start: Given how challenging gar are to hook, maintaining a tight line can be key to landing these fish. That constant tension keeps the hook point engaged and is often the difference between landing and losing a fish. My cousin, Jake, has proven the king of this tactic in recent years, landing the longnose that won us the 2022 TMP X 25ontheFly by doing just that. On a recent trip to Florida, however, I watched Jake take this tight line tactic a step farther. Targeting Florida gar in a small canal, Jake would simultaneously strip set and sprint backwards 10-15 feet. In doing so, he would not only ensure a stronger hook set, but also maintain a tight line while forcing the fish’s momentum in the direction of the shore. Comical to watch, it was also quite effective as this tactic produced a near 100% catch rate (unheard of in gar fishing).
Gar on the Fly: Closing Thoughts
Simply put, there are few warmwater experiences I’ve found that compare to catching gar on the fly. Powerful and prehistoric, these fish put on a show when hooked and deserve far better than the rope fly treatment. Still, changing minds on the subject may prove a bit of an uphill battle as even the biggest name in the sport promotes such tactics on their blog.
It has to start somewhere though. And to their credit, that “biggest name” was willing to share my thoughts on the subject as the opening to one of their podcasts earlier this year. With any luck, this post and that podcast will point a few more anglers in the right direction.