The truth about one of North America’s oldest and oddest fish.
[By Seth Fields]
I SQUINT THROUGH SWEAT-STUNG EYES AND QUESTION whether I’m in over my head. I wonder, Can I even land this thing? I dig deep into the cork and pull up, fumbling for the reel handle through the slime and blood. The blood is mine—a reminder of my hubris and the consequences of trying to land this fish too soon. But it’s tiring now, and most of my glove is intact.
Minutes later, I lean over and grab its snout and hold it through a few hard headshakes that threaten to open up new wounds. I boat it and pick out the fibers from its snout. Nylon isn’t biodegradable, and this old girl deserves a clean break.
Once I’m done, I look at it for the first time: the pearlescent armor, the spots stretched from end to end, and a tail and nose that hang well over the sides of my four-foot marker. I set it back in the water and watch its bright-orange tail fade from view. I can’t help but wonder about the term trash fish and all the high-praised game fish out there that have given me less sport than this.
I’m fishing on the edge of Chattanooga, Tennessee, a postindustrial boomtown with a growing reputation as an outdoor adventure hub. And if you hadn’t guessed, I’m casting for gars.
Decades before being dubbed “The Best Town Ever” by Outside magazine, a 1969 report by the EPA labeled Chattanooga as “the dirtiest city in America.” The report focused on air quality, but it’s not hard to imagine how bad the rivers were at a time when people supposedly drove with their headlights on during the day. That label rebooted the city’s DNA. Air-quality standards and policies changed, and soon the air—and the water—began to clear.
So the city went from the dirtiest to one of the greenest, and the adventure junkies are piling in. Despite its growing reputation and new blood, Chattanooga has an outdoors scene dominated mostly by hang gliders, rock climbers, and white-water rafters. Fly fishing still isn’t on most people’s radars, but there is a budding fly culture in town.
Conversations at the local fly shop usually revolve around muskie waters to the north, trout fishing in the Smokies, and floats on nearby tailwaters. All the while, the city’s most visible and historic waterway, the Tennessee River, flows quietly by, unnoticed and largely untouched by the fly crowd.
The Tennessee is not exactly known for its incredible fishing, but it does have a decent population of bass and catfish, as well as a small, seasonal spring push of freshwater stripers running upstream from nearby Nickajack Lake.
Aside from the game fish, there are also freshwater drum, various carp and shad species . . . and gars. In fact, this river is absolutely jam-packed with longnose gars.
The Tennessee is the largest tributary of the Ohio River, and has nine top-end release dams, which were built to improve navigation, impede flooding, and create power and recreational areas for inhabitants of the Tennessee River Valley. This system, which breaks up the river into a few notable river sections and lakes, also impedes fish passage. The fish that thrive here do so between dams and in warm flows that often reach temperatures of 85 degrees F.
The Chattanooga section is shallow and provides idyllic conditions for gars and other hearty non-game fish to thrive—the current world-record drum was caught here in 1972. Gars thrive because they have a highly vascularized swim bladder, which allows them to gulp air when oxygen levels are low. It also provides anglers like myself with a way to observe where gars are concentrated. They often stack up in large groups around springs, creek mouths, and structure, and can be seen gulping air
throughout the day, which allows anglers to sight-fish for them.
Most people regard gars as a nuisance species, but Dr. Jay Shelton, a fisheries biologist at the University of Georgia, says gars keep a waterway’s ecosystem in balance.
“Gar is an important predator of species that have high reproductive capacity and the potential to over-populate a lake or river,” he said. “These would include sunfishes, but also common carp and shad. Studies have shown that gar do not pose any threat to larger game fish.”
Keeping certain species such as bluegills in check is no easy task. The common bluegill reaches sexual maturity as early as two years old and can lay up to 60,000 eggs, while it can take female gars up to six years to mature, and they lay only about 20,000 eggs. They have to eat a lot of bluegills to balance the equation. The only factor in the gars’ favor is that gars are long lived—up to 22 years.
Despite the gar’s size, most anglers still give this fish the cold shoulder—it requires specialized tackle and care to catch and handle, and most people believe it is inedible, which is simply not true. “In my opinion,” Dr. Shelton said, “this is a serious misunderstanding. The Angler’s Guide to Tennessee (available online) states that ‘Gar are edible, but are not considered a food fish.’ I would disagree. I grew up in south Louisiana, where the Cajuns used to hunt for giant alligator gar with harpoons. Because of its firm texture, [the] gar is an ideal base for fish sausage and fish cakes.”
While gar eggs are poisonous to humans, people who eat gar know that they are tasty and produce two long, odorless backstraps that are boneless and often compared to alligator meat or even chicken. It appears, for the most part, that people just don’t know much about gar.
In Tennessee, as in most of the country, these primordial predators are usually met with contempt and lethal blows from locals. Bodies can often be seen floating downstream or discarded and rotting near public access points, with puncture wounds in their sides—a grim and undeserved ending for a seriously under-appreciated fish.
While there’s nothing wrong with people harvesting fish, the act of killing or wantonly wasting native fish is a tough pill to swallow.
I try to educate people when I can, but it’s an uphill battle. Many people remain skeptical or indignant. But, I’ve had a few come up to me—after witnessing a long battle with a gar on the end of my line—and ask me to show them how to catch gars. I even toss the hopeful ones a rope fly or two.
There is hope. Chattanooga is a city on the rise with a fish that has nowhere to go but up. Revolutions—even in fishing—have to start somewhere. Why not here, I wonder.
Seth Fields is the digital content manager for American Angler and the editor of The Angling Report. Follow him on Instagram at @flyway_media