Forget bass, forget catfish, forget bream and trout; I’ve started fishing for dinosaurs! Specifically lepisosteus oculatus or, as it’s commonly known, the spotted gar. This ancient creature, dating back to the Crustaceous period, hasn’t evolved for millions of years, it hasn’t had to. It is an armored predator with hard thick scales and tough skin that forms almost a shell, this killer has a bony mouth filled with rows of sharp teeth and a sleek muscular body. In addition to gills, gar have uniquely adapted, vascular swim bladders which allow them to breathe air and when they are breaking the surface of the water, this is typically what they are doing. Gar also have few natural predators and few people fish for them.
My first experience with gar was as a child of about 9 or 10. My mom, my dad and I were all in this little aluminum boat in the middle of Lake Norfork in Mountain Home, Arkansas when we spotted a milk jug making its way across the lake, an indication that a pretty big fish has managed to break someone’s trot line set up. Deciding this presented a hazard to other boaters and curious as to what was on the hook, my dad swung the little bateau around to intercept the run float. Lifting the jug out of the water and pulling in the attached line, my dad hoisted up the biggest fish I had yet seen in my decade or so of experience. “Dad!”, I exclaimed, “You caught a sword fish!”. “No, it’s a gar.” “Are we keeping it?” “No, son, it’s a trash fish.” He quickly cut the fish free and tossed the jug and line in the boat. And so, for many years, gar were throw away fish.
When we moved into our new home in the foothills of the Appalachians, we were excited to find a large stream with a beautiful waterfall very nearby. The bass fishing was good, but we were disappointed to find the river also infested with what my wife called “those stupid long nose fish”. And it was she who nearly caught the first one, but he threw the hook as she got him on shore.
Months had passed before my brother-in-law and I saw several spoted gar swimming in the stream, now much lower due to weeks of drought. I became curious about them and he and I decided to try to catch, and possibly cook, these unusual fish.
Many share the opinion that gar are garbage because of how difficult they are to clean so I had few resources beside the internet when I set out to catch one. Thankfully several web sites and YouTube videos told me what I needed to know. After some amount of experimentation with almost no success, I found a secret weapon lure that was irresistible to my toothy quarry, and nearly impossible for them to spit out. On the end of my 30lb test braid I tied a 1 foot stainless leader with a 1/8 oz split shot, clipped a treble hook on the leader and as I had read, I tied a piece of nylon rope on the hook and unraveled the strings. My addition to this set up was to then soak this bit of rope in bream gore (blood and guts). This lure is fished a like a swim bait. For a couple casts, I used a bobber because it was on my line and I thought “why not?” and the rest of the time I didn’t. Once the gar bit, I let her “shake” the bait and I pulled the line taught, the string tangled in her teeth and she was caught. And what a fight! Even with the drag heavy on my old Ambassadeur, reeling them in was a challenge. These prehistoric predators fight more like saltwater fish than freshwater. The third one I caught that day even “walked” on the water for me! We used a net to land them and a .22 pistol to quickly dispatch them because of their very tough skin and scales, I have read that a hammer and nail do the trick, but the little pistol was fast and easy. We put three in the ice chest along with half a dozen bream. Adding this to some red snapper I caught and froze over the summer, and we had dinner for four plus leftovers!
But now the tough part, cleaning this mini monster. I followed the directions I saw on YouTube and cut off the head and down the spine with tin snips and then down either side near the tail. A lot of pulling, prying and swearing and we peeled off the skin and scales to reveal a firm, white meat similar to alligator. Each gar has 2 very nice backstraps but don’t bother with the rib meat, it’s full of bones and leather tough connective tissue. I put the back meat immediately into several ice water baths until the water poured off clear and then let it rest in some ice water with lemon juice until it was time to bread and fry.
Let me say this, clean this fish outside and have a hose handy. We had more blood on the table and ground than a crime scene, our mess looked more like a horror film than a cooking show. The first fish made me want to never clean a damn gar again and took what seemed like half an hour. The second sucked less, but by the third, I had it figured out and finished her off in 10 minutes or so. We hosed everything down and battered up the meat.
I made a basic fish breading out out 1 cup flour, 1 cup white corn meal, 1 tablespoon Morton’s Season All and about a teaspoon of lemon pepper. I cut the meat into cubes, dipped it in a milk and egg wash and then in the breading and fried it in a vegetable oil blend at 350′ f until it floated and turned golden brown.
You know how everyone says everything tastes like chicken? Well this didn’t. Gar tastes nearly identical to catfish with that wonderful earthy quality that’s absent in most predator fish. Everyone who tried it liked it and agreed they would eat it again. Good thing, I may even swear off bass fishing.
(photo credits: my beautiful wife and me)