Angling for Oddball Fish
The canoe slips quietly through the water toward the river bend where the two friends had found luck on previous outings. The mist hangs heavy on the water. It’s just light enough to see where to cast. Once at their destination, spinner baits are tossed to likely looking spots along the bank and retrieved just under the surface. The angler in the bow gets his lure about 3 feet from the boat and is already scanning the bank, planning his next cast. That’s when the explosion happens. A vicious strike and brief hard battle, followed by a limp line. It’s a common story on this river — fish on, fish gone (oh yeah, spinner bait’s gone, too).
This sounds like a scene from a big bass honeyhole, but the fish that caused all the commotion was a bowfin, an ancient relic that has changed little for millions of years.
Missouri is home to a number of fish species that, for one reason or another, never have attained the popularity fish such as bass and crappie have with anglers. With very few anglers seeking out these off-the-wall species, many waters contain large, untapped populations. Two of these fish, the bowfin and gar, will seldom, if ever, grace the cover of a major fishing magazine. But in reality, their ferocious strikes and subsequent battle on the end of your line will put most game fish to shame.
The earliest ancestors of bowfin date to the early Jurassic period, approximately 180 million years ago. Gar date back to the Permian period, nearly 300 million years ago! They saw the dinosaurs evolve, flourish and go extinct, so they must be doing something right. Their no-nonsense approach to capturing prey might be responsible for their success. In addition, they can rise to the surface and gulp air into an air bladder — which functions as a primitive lung. This allows them to survive in waters containing insufficient oxygen to support most species of fish.
The bowfin is native to the Mississippi River drainage and the Bootheel region of Missouri. Bowfin are most abundant in relatively clear waters with little to no current. Many of the ditches in southeast Missouri and the area surrounding Mingo National Wildlife Refuge support populations of bowfin. They are known by many colorful local names including cypress trout, grinnel, dogfish, scaled ling and swamp muskie.
Bowfin tend to seek shelter in areas containing woody cover or vegetation. These are prime areas to fish, even during bright sunny days. They will take a number of artificial baits including spinner baits, crankbaits and plastic worms. Natural baits such as night crawlers, minnows and bluegill (heads) fished on the bottom or under a bobber will often get the attention of a bowfin when they are ignoring artificial lures.
Although they will sometimes gently pick up a natural bait, the strike of a bowfin on an artificial lure can be only described as “vicious.” Unlike bass or crappie, you are never left wondering if you are getting a bite or not. They also have a habit of following a lure nearly to the boat before striking. Regardless of what type of tackle you are using, there is not much you can do with 3 feet of line between you and 6 or more pounds of angry fish except hang on. Bowfin have a hard mouth which makes it difficult to get a good hook set. Once hooked, they fight wildly and typically head for the nearest thick cover. Getting a bowfin to bite is generally not a problem. Getting it in the landing net can be.
Although few people eat bowfin, the fried fillets are quite tasty provided a simple rule is followed: Bowfin must be kept alive until cleaned or the meat will turn to the consistency of mashed potatoes. To clean the fish, fillet it in the same manner you would a bass or crappie, with one exception: As the flesh is being separated from the skin, cut it away into finger-sized steaks and wash immediately in cold water. Unlike some fish like white bass or blue catfish, bowfin do not have a “mudline,” so all of the flesh can be eaten. These steaks can be prepared for the table immediately or frozen in water where they will remain in excellent condition for several months. Speaking from experience, cold bowfin fillets are awfully good eatin’ while sitting on a bank waiting for another bowfin to bite!
Gar are found in most of the medium-to-large streams and reservoirs throughout Missouri. Of the four species of gar in the state, the longnose gar is the most widespread, being found statewide. With the exception of the alligator gar, it is also the largest, commonly reaching weights of 12 to 15 pounds. The current state record longnose gar is a whopping 34 pounds, 7 ounces. The shortnose gar is found primarily in large rivers and ditches in the Bootheel. The spotted gar is most common in the Bootheel region. The alligator gar, Missouri’s largest fish, is known from only a handful of sightings in the Bootheel and lower Mississippi River. An alligator gar caught in Dunklin County in 1956 was 7.5 feet long and weighed 220 pounds! The alligator gar population in the state has declined drastically over the past century due to habitat loss and overharvest. In an effort to reestablish the species, the Conservation Department started a reintroduction program at Mingo National Wildlife Refuge in 2007.
Gar will hit most lures that anglers would typically use to catch bass. However, because of the way they feed and their bony, beak-like jaws, few are hooked and landed. Unlike bass that ambush and engulf their prey, gar tend to slowly glide up next to a potential meal, usually a small fish, and grab it with a sideways swipe of the head. Impaled on rows of needle sharp teeth, the prey eventually stops struggling. The gar then turns the prey so that it can be swallowed headfirst. The problem with using a lure such as a crankbait to catch gar is that there is next to nothing in a gar’s beak to set a hook into. Any pressure on the line and the gar will usually release the bait.
A novel approach to catching gar, longnose gar in particular, is to use a rope lure. You won’t find these at your local tackle store, but they are easy and inexpensive to make. The best type of rope to use is the twisted nylon variety that frays out into very fine strands. Take a length of rope that is 20 to 24 inches long and the thickness of a pencil and fray it out. Run this group of fibers through one side of a barrel swivel and tie it in the middle with an overhand knot so that 10 to 12 inches of fiber sticks out on each side. To keep the knot from coming undone, put a few drops of super glue on the knot. When tying this lure to your rod, put a slip sinker above the lure as if you were rigging up a plastic worm. For added flash, you can add several plastic beads above the sinker and top it off with an in-line spinner on a clevis. Two feet of 3/4-inch diameter rope will make about 10 lures. You may be thinking, “Where does the hook go?” Well, there is no hook. When a gar grabs the lure, the nylon filaments tangle in the teeth and around the jaws of the fish. Once this happens, they can’t let go of the lure.
Gar tend to congregate in large schools in reservoirs and in deep pools in rivers. From mid-summer through early fall, gar can be seen breaking the surface, or “porpoising,” indicating the presence of a school. To fish the rope lure, cast it out and retrieve with a pumping action 3 or 4 feet below the surface. If a gar surfaces within casting distance, putting the lure 8 to 10 feet in front of the fish will often yield results.
As a fighter, I’d put gar up against any game fish out there. They pull and dig for the bottom like a big catfish and can jump like a smallmouth bass. The sight of a 4-foot gar clearing the water next to the boat is a spectacular and somewhat intimidating sight.
An essential item to have along on a gar fishing trip is a pair of heavy gloves. In addition to their sharp teeth, their scales are razor sharp. A small sharp knife or pair of scissors is also necessary to cut the rope away from the jaws if you intend to release the fish. Why would you want to keep a gar anyway, they’re no good to eat … wrong!
Gar fillets are delicious fried and even better marinated in Italian dressing and grilled or smoked. As with the bowfin, it is best to keep the gar alive right up until the time you clean it. To clean a gar, cut off the head and remove the tail in front of the anal fin. Split the belly open using a pair of heavy shears (by heavy, I mean sheet metal shears). Have someone hold the belly open and separate the meat from the armor-like scales using a sharp fillet knife. Once the scales are off, remove the fillets from the backbone and ribs as you would any other fish. Don’t let the blue-gray color of the fillets turn you off. This is a thin layer of connective tissue that can be easily shaved off after soaking the fillets in salt water overnight in the fridge. The resulting fillets are white and firm.
The next time you’re out on the water and the “fishing magazine” species won’t cooperate, give these oddball species a try. You won’t be sorry.
Bowfin are similar in appearance to the notorious northern snakehead, which has been introduced into several states, including Arkansas. Snakeheads are a top predator in Asian waters where they are native. If introduced to Missouri waters, they could have negative impacts on native fish populations such as bass and crappie. A key difference between the snakehead and the bowfin is that the latter has a short anal fin while the anal fin of the snakehead is long and similar in size to its dorsal fin.
Snakeheads are a prohibited species. Neither live snakeheads nor their viable eggs may be imported, exported, transported, sold, purchased or possessed in Missouri.
If you find a snakehead, please contact Tim Banek, the Missouri Department of Conservation invasive species coordinator at (573) 522-4115, ext. 3371, or by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Know the Code
Before you head out on your next fishing adventure, familiarize yourself with the regulations for the species and area you will be fishing. Gar and bowfin are classified as nongame fish, and those regulations are summarized on Page 10 of the 2009 Summary of Fishing Regulations. Pick up A Summary of Missouri Fishing Regulations at your local permit vendor or download a PDF from the link listed below.
Don’t Dump Bait
It’s illegal to dump bait in Missouri waters. Throw unused bait in the trash. Unwanted animals and plants can invade local water, damage habitat and ruin your fishing. To learn more about protecting Missouri’s streams, rivers and lakes from invasive species, visit the link listed below.