Gar caught in the Conemaugh
Inside the Outdoors, August 21, 2009

Before I wrote this column, I decided to interview residents as what exactly a gar was and if they had not only heard of them, but knew of where they could be found. Most were dumb-founded. I then disclosed the fact that a number of them have been caught out on the Conemaugh River, and that raised some eyebrows.

So, as usual, I wrote to the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission representatives. This is what I learned.

Gars, also call garpikes, get their name from the Anglo-Saxon word for spear. They are long and tubular with an oversized, generally elongated snout, although the alligator gar has a short, wide, shovel-shaped bill. Their skin is covered in a coat of hard, diamond-shaped scales that create protective armor.

In Pennsylvania, there are three different species – the spotted, the longnose, and the ci-gars. Little joke there. Actually two. I will definitely not talk about the latter.

From a family perspective, gars are primitive, ancient bony fish. Their ancestors date back more than 100 million years, as found in fossil records. The alligator gar is not found in our state.

According to Michael Depew, PFBC fisheries biologist I, “The spotted gar is an endangered species in the state and is mainly found in Lake Erie. It is illegal to harvest.” It is olive-green on its back and silvery-white on the belly. There are large, roundish dark spots on the top and sides of the head, and on the upper part of the body. The fins have dark spots and may display orange tints.

“Longnose gar,” he continued, “are also found in Lake Erie as well as the Allegheny, Ohio, and Monongahela Rivers and their major tributaries. They are not particularly abundant on the three rivers, but have been encountered more frequently in recent years.” These are grayish to olive-green on the back and white on the belly. The fins may show yellow or orange tints.

“And how long do these fish get?” a common question. Depew told me they reach a length of around 50 inches. “Specimens in the 20 to 30 inch range are more common in our waters,” he explained.

These fish are flesh-eating mammals. It just so happens that if by chance anglers are plugging for another species of freshwater inhabitants, one just may find these very toothy critters attached to one’s line, for they will attack imitations of fish.

By the way, the biologist disclosed that the flesh of the gar is allegedly quite tasty. “However,” he pointed out, “cleaning the fish can present a challenge as gars are covered by hard ‘armored’ scales.” But he stressed, don’t eat the eggs of the longnose gar, for they are poisonous to humans and most other animals and should not be eaten. Depew went on to add, “Handling gar should be done with caution. The teeth are razor sharp and can inflict a nasty bite. In addition, the back edge of the operculum (gill covering) is also very sharp.” He suggested, “Use a glove similar to what many pike and musky anglers use when handling gar.”

After hearing that these fish are being caught as close as the Conemaugh spillway, one angler contacted me and asked, “Paul, just how does one hook those fish? My son and I are having a dickens of time catching them.”

Jack Barnett revealed one way on his website,

“Rig a four to six-inch shiner minnow through the lips or eyes on a premium, sharp #4 hook. Attach a #4 treble stinger back toward the tail. Add split shots if necessary. Cast and gently stop-and-go retrieve this bait with your rod tip held high. When a gar takes the shiner, drop your rod tip to give slack, then open the bail to let the gar run. Allow the longnose to run for at least a minute. Often they will run, then stop to swallow the bait, then run again. On the second run, close your bail, reel in the slack line then slam those hooks home! Yee-haw! Enjoy the fight, take pictures, and release the gar to fight again.”

By the way, Depew said the daily limit is 50 in our state. Just thought you’d like to know that.

- Paul J. Volkmann
You can contact me by email