Occasionally I hit a gar just right, always with interesting results. One night I ran up on a whopper so close I was able to plunge the steel deep into him without having to throw the rig. Before I could jerk the shaft free, the gar charged under the boat, pitching me overboard as the shaft whacked against the side and snapped off.
So tough is the plate of a gar that the Indians made arrowheads from individual scales which, when dry, resemble ivory. In the coastal country of the Gulf of Mexico, home of the alligator gar, this came in handy, since there is no flint in that area for arrowhead making. Coastal Indians actually preferred it to flint since it wouldn't shatter on hitting a tree.
There are four kinds of gars, three small and one big. The small ones, which average around two pounds but may work up to 30, are the longnose, shortnose and spotted. They all look a lot alike, having the typical cigar shape of the gar family. They spend most of their time loafing at the surface.
The alligator gar reaches huge proportions. The largest authenticated specimen I know about weighed 320 pounds and was just under 10 feet long. Gars over 100 pounds are fairly common in good gar waters, such as the Mississippi and its tributaries. The range of the alligator gar is the coastal plain of the Gulf of Mexico and a small range farther inland. The other gars are found as far north as Canada.
Alligator gars prefer sluggish, even stagnant waters. They are free spawners, getting together in some favored pool and staging a sort of Roman holiday, the females dropping eggs any old place, the males fertilizing any old eggs.
For the fisherman who wants to catch an alligator gar, the best bet is to reverse most of the procedure followed in bass fishing, even to selecting the water. In Texas most people who deliberately fish for gar use live bait, which means bait that was once alive or part of something that was alive. Dedicated gar fishermen claim a dead bird is the best bait of all, but dead birds aren't easy to come by, the laws being what they are. Anything that stinks works well—though fresh fillets of fish are used in Arkansas, and along the Gulf Coast mullet are best of all.
The man with a bass-casting rig can catch gars, and if he will go to the right waters the big ones may stage a show for him. I went to such a place not long ago with Joe Lagow, who helps run a big ranch that is swampy and crisscrossed with drainage ditches.
The prize fishing spot we visited was about 20 feet across and perhaps four feet deep, and you wouldn't have watered a brindle steer in the soupy stuff. Leading from the slough was a still narrower drain ditch. A little water was trickling into the slough through a gate in the drainage system, and an assembly of huge gars was waiting to see what came through the gate.
I was using fairly sturdy bass-casting tackle, with a short steel leader. A light tarpon-casting rig, with a 30-pound test line, is much better but it's too unwieldy in most fresh-water fishing. The bass rig serves, as a fellow Texan demonstrated recently in landing a 130-pounder. I had "rigged" my lures by filing off the barbs, then honing the hooks to a needle point. The big job in hanging a gar is to drive a hook into his bony mouth. A barb works just fine in keeping you from doing that.
I cast to the far side of the mudhole and brought the lure toward me, retrieving it fairly fast even though the water was muddy. A big one clamped his jaws shut on the plug. The barbless hooks skimmed into him. He began flying apart.