Fishing: Return of the gar

Ancient predator has rebounded and may no longer need protection


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Anglers may have a new game fish to target next year, if longnose gar lose protected status on western Pennsylvania rivers and Presque Isle Bay.

The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission is expected to "de-list" the ancient species with the armor-like scales and needle-like rostrum because its numbers have rebounded in recent years. The commission also plans to remove river redhorse and smallmouth buffalos -- both suckers -- as well as longhead and channel darters from the protected species list because their populations are robust.

"A lot of anglers fail to appreciate longnose gar," said commission biologist Rick Lorson, "but they're an unusual native species and their resurgence is an indication of how clean our rivers have become."

Although intolerant of pollution, gar have survived since dinosaur days. They use their rostrums like swords to wound prey, and have tough, diamond-shaped scales. What's most unique, though, is that they can come to the surface of the water to breath when water conditions are low and warm. The gar's swim bladder -- used to keep fish buoyant -- is joined to the throat by an open tube that lets it take in air.

Long considered a candidate for "threatened" status, gar -- which can grow to 3 feet -- have enjoyed protection from harvest while the commission studied their numbers and distribution.

It is legal to catch a candidate species, but anglers are urged to release them. Pending the commission's de-listing decision, in January gar could fall under a 50-a-day creel limit with no restrictions on seasons or size.

John McKean of Shaler, one of a niche group of local anglers who legally targets and releases the species, doesn't expect to see a surge in interest.

"We're few and far between," he said. "Gar are exciting to catch. They'll even tail walk and jump. When you get this mean-looking creature up into the air, it's a thrilling thing. But it's definitely not for everybody."

In some southern states, alligator gar -- the longnose's big cousin -- is hunted with bow and arrow, and a few fly anglers target gar with streamer-like rope flies designed to tangle in the gar's toothy rostrum. McKean fashions frayed nylon rope into a hook-less jig that ensnares the gar's teeth.

"I make a loop out of it and tie it to a jig head, then clip off the hook so the rope becomes both the attractor and the hook," he said. "When you feel the gar chewing on the rope -- it's an odd sensation -- you tug on it. It takes some getting used to because there's no setting the hook."

Releasing gar requires picking every piece of rope from the fish's formidable teeth, he said.

"You can't just cut the cord to release the fish or its beak will remain tied shut and it will starve to death."

Some anglers wouldn't care, according to Sam Stellitano of Memories Tackle in Sharpsburg.

"A lot of guys don't like gar because they [allegedly] steal bait," he said. "You'll hear stories of guys breaking their beaks or throwing them up onto banks. They're a nuisance species."

Lorson said nothing could be further from the truth, and advises anglers that mutilating or "wanton wasting" of any species is unlawful.

"Gar are no more predatory than any other game fish and have a definite place in the ecosystem," he said. "Let's hope that de-listing them will be an opportunity to educate anglers."

The spotted gar, although related, remains endangered and not part of the de-listing proposal, which the commission is expected to vote on at its Oct. 6-7 board meeting. Until then, anglers are invited to make public comment on the proposal. For more, visit www.fishandboat.com.



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