Flying Gar Feeding Frenzy

(This report is a version of the one I posted at http://moxostoma.com/garfrenzy, which also includes some images and animations that were too big to use here.)

500 miles. 24 hours. Infinite fish.

 

On the last day of the 2017 NANFA convention in Missouri, I drove several hours to fish some waters in the southeast corner of the state, led by Tyler Goodale, who most of us know by now is one of the fishiest people in MO. My mission was to cast what Tyler suggested where he suggested.


Tyler

 

In the creeks and ponds Tyler took me to I managed to catch several species for the June species contest and add three species to my lifelist: Redspotted Sunfish, Dollar Sunfish, and Chain Pickerel. (I aslo caught longear, green, warmouth and bluegill sunfishes, largemouth bass, and zero creek chubsuckers because they're jerks.)

 


Dollar Sunfish 

 


Redspotted Sunfish

 


Chain Pickerel 

 

The river I really wanted to fish, where Tyler knows every rock by heart and is on a first name basis with many of the fish and a few mink, and where he's caught many species, including giant Longnose Gar and numerous Blue Suckers, was blown out, running too high and fast to even bother getting out of the car, so after some tasty pulled pork at a barbecue joint in the woods I headed back toward Illinois.

I didn’t cross the Mississippi until after 10. Exhausted from a day in the sun and having driven at least 300 miles in the last 12 hours, with a couple hundred to go, I didn't pay attention to my gas tank. In the middle of southern Illinois nowhere, AC blasting, music cranked up to keep me more or less awake, I (luckily) noticed the low gas warning light. I think maybe sunglasses or something were blocking it, but it’s possible I was just so out of it that even a bright orange glow in an otherwise orange-free darkness failed to register.

Exits were few and far between. In northeastern Illinois, even when you’re out in the country, it is never far to a town. On this stretch of Interstate 57, there were, other than the road itself, few signs of human civilization—no town lights, no gas station signs or fast food beacons.

Some number of tense miles later, with the AC off to conserve a little fuel, when I did finally reach an exit with a gas symbol on the sign, I knew I was dangerously low. Exited. Crossed under the highway. Saw the station. Was halfway up the steeply inclined driveway to the pumps when the car sputtered and died. A few more yards was all I needed. The station itself had closed four minutes earlier, but the pumps were still on. I had no gas can, but I had a knife and a pop can, so I bought gas in 1 cup increments (charging each 37-cent cup separately) and poured it through an improvised funnel into my tank. It took about 10 to get enough in the tank for the car to start. At one point a state trooper pulled in to gas up. He didn't have a gas can either, but offered to push my car from behind with his cruiser. I declined.

 


Almost made it.

 

After that, my memory is hazy. I somehow managed to stay awake for 2 more hours until I reached a dam on the Big Muddy River. It had been one of those 20 hours awake, 12 hours of fishing, 500 miles of driving kind of days. I was completely exhausted when—around 1, I think—I arrived at the parking lot by the dam, but the combination of bright streetlights, occasional cars creeping slowly by, and residual adrenaline and caffeine meant that I dozed, off and on, for maybe four hours total.

I woke at sunrise to birds singing and walked to the edge of the parking lot to see the boiling whitewater below the dam erupting with airborne Silver Carp. A few people were fishing. I'd fished here once before (in 2014), and found it difficult to avoid snagging Asian carp below the dam.

 


Silver carp in flight (2014)

 


Heron watching my gear (2014) The parking lot where I slept in 2017 is behind the streetlight visible in the upper left. 

 

Not wanting to deal with Asian carp or other people, I drove to a secluded parking lot downstream and walked to the river to see if any gar were present. What I saw was mindblowing: hundreds of gar in a shore-to-shore feeding frenzy. Spotted and Shortnose gar shot past the rocks I stood on, hunting in 6 inches of water. All the way across the river, upstream and down, there were gar (also including Longnose) visible, many breaking the surface. A surprising number of them completely left the water, usually with a bill full of breakfast. It was literally impossible to look at the river and not see gar: flying gar, gar backs and fins, gar snouts, and gar splashes. (Unfortunately, there were also many dead gar in the rocks and floating, many with obvious arrow wounds. There were a lot of flies and, later, crows.)

Schools of Gizzard Shad passed me as well, pursued—often successfully—by gar.

It was not a good day to be a shad, but it was going to be a great day to be me.

 


Live and dead gar at my feet 

 


Gar at feet (there are at least 3, but it's hard to see them in the GIF. Note the double-bubble burp right before it takes off.

 

I jogged up the hill to the car, grabbed my gar rod and a box of lures, and returned to the water. My best guess is that I was rigged up and catching fish by 6:30 and that I was too tired and shredded to fish any longer by 8. I landed at least 2 dozen Shortnose and half a dozen Spotted gar (and lost dozens more), plus one very unfriendly Bowfin and a few Largemouth Bass. I hooked or (since there was no part of the water without a gar in it) snagged a gar on nearly every cast. Both spinners and crankbaits were hit the instant they entered the water, unless they landed on a fish and snagged it.

A few of the Shortnoses would probably have been new state records, but out of concern for the delicate feelings of the current record holder (let’s call him “Garman”) and because I was having too much fun, I let them all go.

 


I usually take a picture of every fish I catch so I can get an accurate count for my fishing log, but the fishing action was so relentlessly intense that I only took a couple of photos, and this was my only shot of a Spotted Gar.

 

In addition to scratches and punctures inflicted by gars’ teeth and scales, with all the hook-setting and fighting the reel foot had raised and torn open a blister on the web between the middle and ring fingers of my rod hand and the reel's handle had rubbed the skin raw on the index finger of my other hand.

At one point a very large gar threw (or, if it was snagged, shrugged off) the spinner, which flew directly at me. Two of the treble hook’s points pierced my shirt and skin. It didn't get to the barbs, but did draw blood. It looked like a snakebite (or the mark of a vampire with a weak grasp on anatomy).

Sweaty, tired, sore, slimy, bloody, and fully satisfied before 8 in the morning: the Big Muddy had given me all the excitement of a really good day’s gar fishing, compressed into a little over an hour.

I returned to the car, guzzled all the water I had, swapped fishing gear for camera gear, and spent an hour trying to get photos of fully airborne gar. I ended up with hundreds of photos of splashes where gar had been milliseconds earlier, but also managed a few keepers. I used the GoPro for underwater video, but the water was very dirty and the results are not as impressive as I'd imagined. Still pretty cool, though.

 


Shortnose Gar with Gizzard Shad. This photo was taken at a great distance, and this image is massively cropped.

 


Shortnose (or Spotted) Gar with Gizzard Shad. Many of my photos showed only the splashes of gar landings.

 


Shortnose Gar with breakfast. I did what I could to bring a little clarity to a shot that was, unfortunately, out of focus.

 


Gar fins were visible above the water all around me. It’s impossible to identify which species of gar this is.

 


Shortnose (or Spotted) Gar hydroplaning.

 


Gar scales at the surface

 


Note the long form above the water in the background: a fully airborne gar with a shining shad in its mouth.

 


Gar with Gizzard shad (detail from previous photo).

 


Distant airborne gar. Note the shining shad at the top and the orange of gar fins near the water. (Detail from previous photo.)

 


Bow wave of a gar.

 


The eye of a captured Gizzard Shad is visible through the water. The gar’s eye seems to also be visible further to the right.

 


I think the clearly visible eye belongs to a Gizzard Shad held in the jaws of a gar, and that the gar’s eye is visible further to the right.

 

In the 8 or so years I’ve pursued them, I have seen large populations of gar feeding aggressively many times, I've watched them launch from the water while trying to throw a hook or rope lure, and I've seen innumerable gar surfacing and splashing while breathing or attacking prey or lures, but I had never seen a gar launch itself completely out of the water with prey in its mouth, like a miniature Great White Shark flying into the air with jaws full of harbor seal. My photos of this behavior all seem to show Shortnoses doing it. I don’t know if the Spotteds and/or Longnoses were doing it as well.

So far, none of the gar-people I've shared the photos with have seen this exact behavior either. If I were a gentleman-scientist in the 1800s, I'd write a half page notice titled "Observation of a Potentially New Behavior in Garpikes in Illinois" and have no problem getting it published in a reputable journal.

Please comment if you've got info or have witnessed this. I plan to edit the post on my site to include people’s ideas, information or experiences that help clarify what was going on. I’ll send me a PM to anyone I want to quote or paraphrase. If you don’t want me to include your thoughts, just say so.

What was going on here?

As to why they were flying, I don't know for certain. I have a few ideas that make sense to me.

This location, the downstream end of a narrow stretch of rapids 100-200 yards below the dam, is unlike any other spot nearby. The volume of water moving through this chute is high, and the amount of dissolved oxygen must be close to the maximum possible. Closer to the dam there are lots of airborne Silver Carp, along with less flight-prone Bighead Carp, but I observed none of them here. Below these rapids the river more than doubles in width and the water calms. The majority of the flying gar action was in the zone where the river transitions from rapids to flat water, and from narrow to wide. As can be seen in the photos and video, it is a chaotic mass of eddies, with currents flowing in all directions. I imagine the change in flow (speed, direction, volume) concentrates prey, though I’d want to know more about how Gizzard Shad handle and react to fast or swirling currents before taking this idea very far. If at least partly accurate, this would explain the sheer numbers of both gars and shad at this spot.

More interesting than their presence is their completely leaving the water in the act of grabbing prey. Though many were active at and on the surface there, few (if any) gar fully left the water in the rapids or the eddies directly below them. All of the full-aerial action was a little further downstream, where the water appears to be calmer and slower. Visibility underwater was very low, so one of my guesses is that it was easier for the gar to spot shad above them, either clearly or as silhouettes, and to aim upward at them. The turbidity of the water, and the fact that shad don't sit still much, would make it difficult to use the usual float-up-slowly-like-innocent-driftwood-and-strike-suddenly approach. Maybe the gar, coming from below, could not judge the distance to their targets against the very bright sunlight hitting the murky water, and overestimated necessary intercept speed to the point that they left the water completely. Maybe they were just excited by the arrival of another lovely day.

 


A gar greeting the day. This photo is cropped to an absurd degree, as this fish was quite far from my position. I like it anyway.

 

How analogous is a gar's vision to a GoPro's? No idea. But if the physics of light in dirty water applies to gar eyes in a similar way, they would not have been able to see prey more than a couple feet away. I wonder how accurate a guide their lateral line is in chaotic flow, and how well it allows them to distinguish a shad from other feeding gar without visual info.

 


The water was dirty. Any passing gar (or shad) more than a foot or two from the camera was at best a shadow. (There's lots more of this in the video.) 

 

The low angle of the early morning sun hitting the suspended matter in the water may have made visual targeting still more difficult. I think the number of air-gar decreased as time passed and the sun got higher. At the time I didn't think about this, assuming the shad were changing their behavior or moving deeper or to other areas, or even that the gar were getting full, but perhaps it got easier to hunt as the light changed.

Best fishing day of the year. By far.

After all the slime, sweat and blood, even more exhausted, I drove another 6 hours and made it home in time for dinner.

According to my odometer, I drove over 1300 miles in 4 days.

I can't wait to return, better prepared. I would like to try wading out into the frenzy—depth permitting—or anchoring in the midst of it in a kayak. Snorkeling through the action would be fun, but with bowfishers shooting gar.

 

Finally, the video: ( I don't know if the embedded video will work. If not, it's at https://youtu.be/ZiLlAAeEQXw). I let the camera run for about half an hour underwater and cut it down to the best few minutes.

 

Species List: 
Bass, Largemouth
Bowfin
Gar, Longnose
Gar, Shortnose
Gar, Spotted
Pickerel, Chain
Shad, Gizzard
Sunfish, Bluegill
Sunfish, Dollar
Sunfish, Green
Sunfish, Longear
Sunfish, Redspotted
Sunfish, Warmouth

Comments

Casey Shanaberger's picture

Woah. I'm in awe of the pictures of those jumping gar that you got. That is such a cool place to see gar going absolutely nuts like that. Seems like roughfishy heaven!

2017 Undisputed Iowa Small Drum and Creek Chub Champion

andy's picture

The photos are most excellent, unlike anything I've seen. Great story of your fishing as well, thanks for sharing!

Hengelaar's picture

Amazing stuff!!

Wow, that must have been otherworldly to witness!
Great story, and images.

Fishn sure is neat

Mike B's picture

Fantastic photos man. I've never seen anything like it. Great report too.

mike b

Gunnar's picture

Thanks guys. It was an amazing morning and I hope I get to repeat it.

I'm still waiting for the person who has seen this a million times and knows exactly why it happens.

Come on, whoever you are. Don't be shy!

 

Redhorse ID cheatsheets, gars, suckers: moxostoma.com


2018: 34 days, 39 species, 5 lifers. 2017: 49/52/14 2016: 48/33/5

FP4LifesDad's picture

Awesome report and amazing pics!  Thanks for sharing man!!

stick500's picture

That's the coolest post I've seen on this site yet. Must have been some incredible fishing action. As much as I love catching big and small gar, it's always a challenge to get them off the hook without hurting them or yourself- they are feisty buggers! I'm surprised you didn't see any hawks, pelicans, or eagles trying to take advantage of the easy pickings. 

"We don't fish for the fish. Ninety percent of what I like about this sport -- and it is a sport -- is sitting in the boat doing nothing. And the icing on the cake is when God smiles on you and you hook one." - Hank Hill

Gunnar's picture

Thanks, but that can't be right. You need to dig deeper. 

 

Redhorse ID cheatsheets, gars, suckers: moxostoma.com


2018: 34 days, 39 species, 5 lifers. 2017: 49/52/14 2016: 48/33/5

Gunnar's picture

I've never seen any bird taking gar. (In person--I've seen photos, especially of cormorants vs Florida gar.) 

There's not many birds on this continent that could've handled the weight of most of these overfed obese gar.

If you meant the shad, there were herons galore.

 

Redhorse ID cheatsheets, gars, suckers: moxostoma.com


2018: 34 days, 39 species, 5 lifers. 2017: 49/52/14 2016: 48/33/5