We have a four-year-old son so dinosaurs are a really big deal in our house. Styracosaurus, Ankylosaurus and Parasaurolophus (and, yes, somehow he can pronounce those) are all of great interest to him right now.
But in my early 20s, dinosaurs were a big deal in my life too. The difference is that for me it was living dinosaurs, and I was fishing for them.
After graduating from UW-Stevens Point I accepted a graduate school position at the University of Illinois. But most of my time in grad school was not spent on campus in Urbana-Champaign. My main assignment was research, which was conducted at a handful of field stations scattered throughout the state. The station I spent the most time at was beautifully situated on the shores of Lake Shelbyville in central Illinois.
Lake Shelbyville has all kinds of things to fish for, including but not limited to, largemouth bass, crappie, bluegill, white bass, saugeye and even musky. But the species that captured my interest most completely were the ones that I had never had an opportunity to fish for — the gar.
There are seven species of gar in North America and all of them are worthy of the prehistoric label. Longnose gar and their close relatives are estimated to have been around for 100 million years, changing very little during that span of time. Gar bodies even look prehistoric, with large, hard interlocking scales, like they were armored-up for a period of natural history where the predators were a lot bigger and toothier than what we have around today.
Gar are predators themselves, with a diet that mostly consists of fish. And as anglers know, anything that will eat a minnow can be caught on rod and reel. So gar fishing became a passion project during my time in Illinois.
Conveniently, gar bite well at night, and there wasn’t a whole lot else going on after dark at the field station. On many a warm, humid night I would find myself down at the shoreline behind the lab’s main office along with some of the other grad students pursuing gar.
Gar fishing is weird. They will chase a bait once in a while, but they can be caught more reliably on stationary bait. We used dead gizzard shad, a species that was absurdly abundant. Gar often cruise high in the water column looking for wounded fish at the surface. As a result, we found a dead shad suspended about a foot below a bobber worked well.
Hooking gar is perhaps the hardest part about fishing for them. Bites were easy to come by, but reliable hookups only happened a fraction of the time. The long bony snout of a gar is very hard to sink a hook into. From my experience, they also seem to have a sensitive touch when it comes to hooks, often dropping the bait if they feel the three-dimensional bulk of a treble hook. Our most consistent method for good hookups was to use a small single hook. The next trick was to time the hookset. We would wait about 45 seconds from when the fish picked up the bait to when we set the hook. By that time, the gar would usually have the bait moved down from the bony end of their snout towards their actual mouth, where there was a little more to sink a hook into.
Gar fight well, with some of the same greyhounding runs that anglers in Wisconsin expect from pike and musky. They tend to whip and twist when you take them out of the water, leading to the miserable choice of getting them thoroughly tangled in a landing net or having a bony, tooth-encrusted snout jolting about if you hand land them or drag them to shore.
But for all the trouble involved in hooking and handling these fish, you sure can’t beat the size. Our average longnose was probably 36 inches long, with my biggest topping out at 46. Shortnose gar run smaller, with most in the low 20-inch range. Confusingly, the two species often hybridize, so in waters that have both you may not always know exactly what you have caught. This happened to us one night when we were temporarily convinced we had caught the state record shortnose gar, only to find upon closer examination that it was a hybrid.
There are other species of gar that are notable. Spotted gar have distinctive interesting patterning and are common throughout the south. Alligator gar are becoming more known to anglers as well. These true monsters can run over 200 lbs, but were extirpated from much of their range. The state of Illinois was in the midst of reintroducing alligator gar during my time there.
Gar fishing opportunities also exist in Wisconsin, including in some unexpected places. The Mississippi River is a hotbed for gar with major concentrations in certain backwaters. Lake Winnebago has them as well. But there are gar in the Northwoods too. The lakes within the Couderay drainage (LCO, Sissabagama, Grindstone, etc.) have gar, including some really large ones. And there are a scattering of other lakes in the Chippewa River drainage where they can be found.
Gar are not well known as table fare, in part because they are a lot of work to prepare. You cannot simply set a gar down on a board and go at it with your usual fillet knife. Those special interlocking scales have to be cut through with a tin-snips before you can even get at the meat. Anglers should also be aware the eggs of gar are toxic, so fillet carefully and wash your hands and the fillets well if you come in contact with eggs (which have a pasty gray appearance, very unlike eggs from most other Wisconsin fish species).
I appreciated gar for the novelty, and perhaps you can too if you find a chance to fish for them. Sometimes it’s nice to be reminded that at least a few dinosaurs are alive and well in this world.
Wolter is the Department of Natural Resources senior fisheries biologist in Sawyer County and a lifelong angler.