Gar Ain’t No Garbage Fish!

Donnie Hinkle shows you how to catch hard-fighting gar at West Point.

Drew Hall | June 22, 2007

Donnie Hinkle catches gar with a nylon rope lure. The hard-fighting fish can get quite big and are a handful to land.

Donnie Hinkle was bass fishing on West Point Lake in October of 2003 when he witnessed something he’d never seen before; a school of gar began surfacing all around him. Donnie said he could hear their beaks slapping on the water’s surface and knew he had to catch one. He threw cast after cast with spinnerbaits at the school of gar but was unable to hook one because of their bony mouths which frequently cut fishing lines and which hooks rarely pierce.

Donnie, who is from LaGrange, eventually stopped trying to catch a gar that day, but he wouldn’t give up forever. He returned home to spend the winter months researching gar fishing on the internet. A gar fishing episode of O’Neill Williams just happened to be on television one night and stroked his interest even more. Donnie returned to the lake the following summer to begin his assault of West Point Lake’s prehistoric fish. Four years and countless gar later, Donnie and step-son Timmy Monteith have honed their gar-fishing skills to abilities that any angler should envy.

As we traveled to the boat ramp a little before 8 a.m. it was blatantly obvious to Donnie and Timmy that I was a gar-fishing amateur.

“So you just pull the rope lure through the water like a Texas-rigged worm and set the hook hard when you feel a tug?” I asked.

The smirk on Donnie’s face in the driver seat gave it away before he even spoke. I realized I was completely wrong and about to get my first lesson in gar fishing.

“No hooks,” said Donnie as Timmy laughed at my lack of gar experience.

“And you don’t ever want to set the hook. You should do the complete opposite and just let the fish take as much line as it wants,” said Donnie, still smiling as I learned what the bass anglers turned gar grabbers had learned through many trial-and-error experiences.

The lures don’t have hooks because they don’t need them. The gar’s pointed teeth become stuck in the frayed rope when they bite the lure. A gar rarely escapes entanglement after striking a rope-lure.
Donnie said one of the main reasons he likes gar fishing is because so few people actually do it.

“I just like to see the look on people’s faces when I tell them we are gar fishing. The looks always get better when I show them the pictures,” he said.

Long-nosed gar have been around for more than 100,000 years, and their armor-like scales and long snout mouths have changed little over time. Gar also have the ability to “breathe” by gulping air into their swim bladders at the surface. Donnie called this surface-breathing “porpoising” as he explained what I would soon witness on our trip. This breathing ability also allows them to survive out of the water for long periods of time. Donnie said this ability certainly allows gar not to lose any of their spunk when you get them out of the water. They generally never calm down.

After launching the boat we took a short ride to our first stop to begin the fun. We all tied on the exact same lure, which Donnie and Timmy have learned to make through research. It’s a simple lure that anyone can make which consists of a 16-inch long piece of 1/2-inch nylon rope folded in two with a zip-tie in the middle. The rope needs to have a good silky texture so it will shine and flow well in the water. Donnie likes Tractor Supply’s brand best. The zip-tie holds a split-ring to the rope for a place to attach the fishing line. The frayed rope works similarly to a spinnerbait skirt when in the water, minus the hooks. Bullet weights were placed above the lure on the line. Weight size varied with location depth. Our reels were spooled with 50-lb. braided Spiderwire Stealth line and we used regular Trilene knots to attach the lures to the line. Donnie said even though the line was tough, he had still seen it cut a couple of times when the gar’s teeth hit it at just the right spot.

Our rod-and-reel combos were Abu Garcia Ambassadeur 6000 series on 7-foot medium-action rods. Donnie said they sometimes use large spinning rods and reels as well, but experience had proven the chosen combo was best.

He offered a few tips on locating gar habitat. Look for island peninsulas with long shallow points. The best scenarios are shallow points (1 to 6 feet deep) with deeper water close by. The gar like to move in and out of the deep and shallow areas looking for baitfish.

Donnie said during July the gar will most likely move to the deeper water (15 to 20 feet deep) and porpoise more often than while we fished in June because of warming water temperatures. The sun starts to heat up the water causing the oxygen content in the water to lessen. This causes the gar to porpoise for air and then suspend several feet below the surface. High numbers of gar can be caught during this time using a method of sight fishing. Donnie said a good pair of polarized sunglasses is a must to see the gar after they’ve porpoised.

“You cast past and ahead of the fish so the lure will swim directly in front of it,” said Donnie. “It’s basically target practice; you have to try to get the lure right in front of them as they descend.”

Donnie said sight-fishing is much easier in clear water conditions than in dingy or muddy water. If the water is not clear it’s as much a guessing game to guess which direction the fish went as it is target practice.

The water was stained pretty heavily due to high winds the day of our trip. We mostly blind-casted to areas that had held gar for Donnie and Timmy before. Donnie said this isn’t the easiest way to catch gar, but it produced fish for us.

We fished multiple areas catching no fish during the first few hours of our weekday trip to West Point. We went on a weekday to avoid boat traffic hoping the surface would be calmer. The fishing was slow, but Donnie and Timmy assured me when the sun came from behind the clouds it would get a whole lot more exciting. A little after 9 a.m. a small gar (5 or 6 pounds) followed Donnie’s lure to the boat but wouldn’t bite.

We fished several more locations before returning to our first location, a shallow island peninsula which Donnie deemed “Old Faithful” because it continually produces gar. During our boat ride back to Old Faithful the weather completely flip-flopped from the overcast morning. The sun was rapidly growing hotter as constant winds blew the cloud cover away from the sun. At 10:15 a.m. Donnie gave the “there she is” as line spooled off his reel like it was attached to another boat. Suddenly the line stopped, and I thought the fish was gone. Donnie said they stop after a short burst to chew their prey and it’s about this time when they realize they’ve been had and start their fight for freedom. Then the reel started to spool faster than before, only this time the reel had been locked, the gar was ripping out drag as it swam deeper into the water. The line ripped through the water as the gar circled farther and farther from the boat.

“We call that skiing when they rip the line through the water,” said Timmy.

Donnie played the fish to the boat, and I thought the fight was over. I tried to get in a good position to take pictures when the fish came back to life and ripped out another 40 yards of line. He said they generally have one good run in them when they get to the boat, and very few will admit defeat. The gar’s second trip to the boat’s side, after a more than five-minute fight, found it successfully inside of the boat with the help of Timmy and his gloves. The gloves protect Timmy and Donnie’s hands from the razor-sharp teeth and scales of the gar.

“The real fun starts when you get them inside the boat,” said Donnie.

Timmy gripped the gar around its snout and in front of its tail as Donnie cut the line, and they laid the gar across the back of the boat. It’s certainly a two-man job to control one of these massive fish. They use a piece of PVC pipe cut at an angle to open the gar’s mouth. Once the mouth is open the pipe stays between the jaws to hold its snout open for easier removal of the lure. The nylon threads get wrapped well, and it takes a good bit of cutting and pulling with pliers to get it all out of their teeth. A hard-bristled hair brush is used to brush out the remaining threads of nylon from the gar’s mouth before it is released. Donnie and Timmy release all of the fish they catch. The first fish for the day was a 44-inch-long, 9-lb. gar. The gar had a unique round-shaped head which gave it an almost dolphin-like appearance.

It seemed like only minutes went by before Donnie had another gar taking line from his reel at 11:15 a.m. The fish didn’t have as much fight as the first but looked the same size as it neared the boat. As the fish came closer Donnie realized the line had wrapped under the fish’s belly dampering its swimming abilities. He reached his rod under the fish to untangle the line, and the gar thought it was free. It made another line-peeling run before being once again fought to the boat-side by Donnie.

As Donnie and Timmy were weighing the fish, hanging it by the nylon lure to the scale, the nylon broke and the fish fell to the boat floor. It was quickly apparent why gloves were worn and why Timmy “didn’t wear flip-flops gar fishing anymore.” The fish slapped about in the floor of the boat and managed to slap Timmy a few good times in the leg before put in a submission hold with the gloves. The saucy gar hadn’t won the battle but had certainly landed a few blows. Timmy’s legs were scratched from gar’s scales as he and Donnie readied the gar for release. This 8-lb., 9-oz. gar was 46-inches-long and the second fish of the day.

“Now we gotta catch a big one,” said Donnie as he tied another lure on his line.

I was dumfounded thinking 9 pounds was a pretty big fish in my book. Only 10 minutes passed before Donnie had another fish on, and Timmy and I were reeling in our lines, trying to stay out of Donnie’s way as the gar circled the boat. The fish ripped out more line than both previous fish combined. It made several long runs and jumps as it shook its head trying to free itself from the lure. The fish looked more like a submarine as Timmy pulled it in the boat by its snout. The 12-lb., 8-oz. gar was the third and largest fish of the day. Timmy and I began casting even before Donnie was through with the fish hoping to have one on before Donnie’s good luck returned to the water. We all fished until a little after noon when we returned to the boat ramp to drop off Timmy who had to go to work.

Donnie and I enjoyed some fresh ham-and-cheese sandwiches as we discussed the ominous black clouds swiftly approaching the lake. We decided we were close enough to the boat ramp to leave the water quickly if weather threatened and returned to Old Faithful in search of more gar. The weather was gradually worsening, and the water was becoming more stained as the wind pushed us down the shoreline. Donnie caught two more gar in the 5- to- 6-lb. range that were still longer than 3 feet in length. The smaller fish didn’t lack in fight what they did in weight. They both fought hard and ripped out drag much like the larger fish of earlier in the day.

After several close lightning strikes Donnie and I returned to the safety of the truck just in time as high winds and heavy rain began. The weather radio warned of a thunderstorm capable of producing pea-sized hail just as the hail began to bounce off the windshield. The hail ceased, but the rain continued until a little before 3 p.m. when we were able to get back on the water.

Donnie said he’d caught one of his largest gar right after a rain storm, giving us hope for catching even bigger fish. We fished a close honey-hole with no luck and then returned to Old Faithful. The sun came back out and got real hot, real quick. The water surface was getting hot and the gar began to porpoise close-by in deeper water like Donnie had described earlier. We both tied on larger weights to be able to sight-cast farther and also to get the lure in front of the fish quickly descending into deep water.

The sight-casting was short-lived as the sun returned to its previous location behind the clouds, and the wind picked up again. The gar ceased porpoising when the sun left just as Donnie had said. We both retied lesser weights and went back to blind-casting the Old Faithful location. We fished until around 4 p.m. when another storm threatened, and we called it quits for the day. It was a good day. Five hard-fighting fish had been caught in less than favorable conditions allowing another angler to admire the strength of this prehistoric fish.

As we left the lake Donnie told me he just thought gar deserved more credit and less negativity from other fishermen.

“I think a fish that has survived more than 100,000 years deserves a little respect,” said Donnie.
He said most anglers considered them a trash fish, and it just isn’t so. Donnie defined a sport fish as “a fish that puts up a sporting fight,” and he said gar deserved the title as much as the more popular largemouth, hybrid and striped bass. He certainly convinced me in only one afternoon that long-nosed gar are definitely unappreciated as a game fish.

Donnie is confident he’ll break the state longnose gar record of 28-lbs., 6-ozs., and he plans to do so fishing as many days as he gets off work a week. His heaviest gar to date is 19-lbs., 4-oz. At Donnie’s Web site he records all of his catches and other information.

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