I live in the northernmost reaches of the Longnose Gar’s range. Waters that these fish inhabit are precious few here, and large populations are almost unheard of. They are a species most often caught incidentally by anglers targeting other fish in our largest river systems. Very few anglers, if any, have developed patterns for catching Longnose Gar with any consistency up here in Minnesota. These fish have always intrigued me greatly. They are of ancient lineage, surviving the past 100 million years or so with their armor plating, snout full of teeth and almost reptilian resilience.
Over the past few summers I have worked toward developing some kind of pattern for catching the Longnose Gar of the North. My best area is an expansive sand flat located in the wide, slow lower section of a large river. This area floods the surrounding woods in the spring, and the water gradually recedes. By midsummer some beach is exposed, and sparse clumps of vegetation dot the gradually sloping sand flat. Various baitfishes, including Emerald Shiners and Gizzard Shad, inhabit the area. These minnows create an excellent food source for various predatory species.
The Gar move onto this sand flat after dark, and are looking to feed. It is extremely rare to see any Gar action before dark here. I have no explanation for the Longnose Gar’s nocturnal tendencies in this area, but it has been proven to me over the years. The Gar will be roaming this flat often only in a foot of water, feeding on the abundant baitfish. Fighting one of these incredible fish after dark is thrilling sport. Your whining baitrunner breaks the silence of the night, and then nervous anticipation precedes the hookset. After a connection is made, the great fish’s body can be heard crashing down in the thick blackness over the river. It all adds up to a very surreal experience. The following should get you headed in the right direction on your quest for a Northland Longnose.
I mentioned shallow sand flats as an area that Longnose Gar utilize after dark, and I should also include river oxbows and backwaters. Anywhere diminished current and sparse vegetation combine, Gar will use the area. These areas will also hold baitfish, and they will be your best bait option. Show up to your chosen spot early and catch some medium-sized baitfish with an ultralight or some type of net, then keep them in a flow-troll style minnow bucket. Large shiners are my preferred bait, followed by chubs. Suckers from 3 to 6 inches are also excellent bait for Longnose Gar.
You need to show up to your spot specifically prepared for tangling with Gar after dark. A Coleman lantern is an indispensable piece of equipment for the night fisherman, along with a good headlamp. Before dark, get yourself rigged up with a good set of forked sticks for each one of your rods. Two forked sticks will hold your rod horizontally to allow a fish to pull line from a baitrunner or clicker reel with ease. On the take, a Gar will run off a considerable amount of line before the hookset. These types of reels have an audible click when line is taken, and have an adjustable tension when in freespool mode. They are absolutely perfect for this type of fishing. Another option would be to employ some kind of electronic bite alarm.
A reel with high line capacity is a must for this style of Gar fishing. Due to the difficulty of getting a good hookset and keeping a Longnose Gar on, monofilament lines are a better choice than braids or superlines. The added stretch of mono gives you a helpful cushion during a Gar’s thrashing fight. Long rods with plenty of flex are also good choices for the same reason. These types of rods also cast live baits extremely well.
Your choice of terminal tackle is varied. Lighted float rigs and free-sliding bottom rigs both work quite well. For bottom fishing, simple setups using a sliding weight and swivel will work. Use a long leader when bottom-fishing, to allow your baitfish to swim around in the water column freely. A lighted float setup can be rigged in two ways. A vertical, drifting setup can be used in the regular fashion to suspend your bait, or when current and waves are an issue I know of a unique rigging option. Utilizing a 3-way swivel, tie a weight off a 6-36 inch line from the bottom ring of the swivel below the float. This can be a heavy weight. To the other ring, tie the leader which your bait will be on. Your bait swims freely, and a fish can take the bait and run without feeling the weight. Set the bobber stop a few feet more than the depth of the water, so the rig will sit in place and the weight will not pull the float under. When a Gar takes off with your bait, your float will shoot across the surface of the water. It’s quite a rig.
Now the question is whether to use a hook, some kind of noose or entanglement rig, or a combination of both. A Longnose Gar’s long, bony snout full of teeth is very hard to get a good hookset into. One option is to use the float and 3-way swivel rig, and put the baitfish on a noose. Thread your bait on a piece of monofilament with a baiting needle, then tie an improved clinch knot back onto the line to create a loop of 4-10 inches in diameter. When the fish runs with your bait, tighten the loop to cinch it around the Gar’s snout. Be sure to keep constant tension during the battle. This noose rig can also be used with a basic bottom-fishing setup. Another rig that works is to hook the baitfish on a small, sharp hook, and tie a few loops of line to the hook as well. I have also found that double hook rigs, with two small hooks connected by a loop of line and a bead above it all, work very well. A treble hook, where legal, may work well for hooking Gar but if swallowed by a Gar or incidental Sturgeon or Catfish, it may very well kill the fish. For this reason I believe that trebles should not be used with live baits unless the hook is set instantly. A single hook can be used with decent success, but the Gar must be allowed to take the bait completely into their mouth before setting the hook. A Gar will take the baitfish with its’ toothy bill and run, then stop and get it closer to its’ mouth, run again, then stop and situate the bait head-first, run again, then stop and begin to swallow the bait. The hook should be set with a long, sweeping motion after the 3rd stop.
Whichever method you use, noose or hook or both, your bite to fish landed ratio will be pretty low. Many times you will reel in baits that are mangled beyond recognition, often decapitated and disemboweled. Longnose Gar are an incredibly difficult fish to land as well. They leap clear of the water frequently and tail-walk, throwing their long snout around. A Longnose Gar battles differently than any other fish that swims. Do not net a Longnose Gar. Their teeth will tangle horribly in the mesh, and you will need a knife to extract them. A pair of gloves will keep your hands safe from their teeth and sharp scales.
Once you have a Longnose Gar in your hands, you will realize how truly unique these fish are. Their slender body is all muscle, and feels like an armor-plated python. Their scales interlock tightly and appear impenetrable. But, it is their eye that to me is the most intriguing. As the moon glints off the Gar’s primordial eye, it evokes an impression of ancience and timeless survival. The Longnose Gar were here well before us humans came around, and will probably outlive our race in time. Catching one of these great fish is always an accomplishment, and here in the North an even greater challenge. Get out there with the bats, mosquitos and other denizens of the night, and try your hand at catching a Longnose Gar.