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Chasing Chainmail: Targeting Gar with Rope Flies

Longnose gars are among the oldest freshwater fish—it's about time you caught one with fly tackle.

Chasing Chainmail: Targeting Gar with Rope Flies

Genna Ibsen with a 55-inch+ Alabama longnose gar caught using a hookless rope fly. (Trevor Ibsen photo)

It was Genna’s first time fishing for longnose gars and it turned out to be a memorable one. She spent her first fly-fishing year targeting trout in Montana and Colorado, and some bonefish in Belize, but the long winter had her longing for some warmer weather and new challenges. After flying from Colorado to Alabama, her goal—with me as her guide—was to catch some Alabama spotted bass, freshwater drum, and then target some of the river’s toothier inhabitants, notably longnose gars.

We had already checked off the other species when we turned the Gheenoe upriver and headed for a large back eddy off the main channel. This deep-water pocket is the perfect location for large striped bass in the spring—and longnose gar throughout the remainder of the year. I had landed many quality fish from this very spot on previous occasions, but today turned out to be one of those special days etched into our minds forever.

The combination of a 10-weight rod, heavy sinking tip, and 8-inch rope fly made casting a little challenging, but Genna made it work. The final challenge was learning how to “set” and maintain contact with the fish using a hookless rope fly.

Within about ten minutes of arriving at the pool, she hooked into her first gar. This scrappy little dude gave her the practice she needed for what was to come next. She fed him the fly for several seconds before coming tight, and she was able to strip him in without too much fanfare. After a couple minutes she hoisted the 27" gar overhead in triumph. Then her focus shifted back to the pool to practice more of the skills she just learned, but we had no idea what we were in for.

It started with a hard tap, after which she fed line to the fish for the next 8 to 10 seconds as she kept only slight tension on the line to stay in contact as the gar chewed on the fly. Then she came tight to the fly, and the line flew through her fingers as the fish made a deep, powerful run downstream.

“Not too much pressure,” I reminded her as I looked at the bend in the rod and saw the long, powerful body flash under the surface before heading back down to the depths. Three more runs and 12 minutes later I was finally able to lift the 55½" giant from the water.

After taking several photos and untangling the rope from his teeth, we lowered the gar back into the water and watched it disappear into the algal green abyss. Genna’s trip to escape the cold spring weather in the Rockies ended with the fish of a lifetime and a longing for the next time she can tangle with these archaic fish.

Primitive Fish

Longnose gars have been swimming in North American waters for around 100 million years. They retain some primitive ichthyologic characteristics, which leads many to consider them one of the oldest bony fishes. Their most distinctive feature is—go figure—a long nose. This thin snout is about three times the length of their head and is lined with cone-shaped teeth on both the upper and lower jaws, making life extremely hazardous for careless baitfish in these waters.

A man standing in a boat holding a longnose gar below a dam.
Longnose gars range across the eastern half of the United States and are especially prolific in the Mississippi River drainage and throughout the Carolinas. They thrive in both fresh and brackish water up to 90 degrees F. because they can gulp air from the surface. (Trevor Ibsen photo)

Longnose gars have a long, cylindrical bodies designed for acceleration and speed. Their overall color is brownish green but their individual scales contain iridescent blues, greens, and browns belying their overall muted nature. Most longnose gars are between 28 and 48 inches, but specimens up to 6 feet long have been documented. These fish are known as facilitative air breathers, meaning that they depend on their gills for oxygen at lower water

temperatures, but when water temperatures are higher and dissolved oxygen content is lower, they switch to a modified “lung” for the majority of their oxygen uptake. This is why gars can often be seen snapping, or gulping at the surface in many of the water bodies they inhabit. This adaptation has allowed them to successfully colonize many watersheds throughout the eastern United States, making them readily available as a gamefish almost anywhere outside of trout country.

Longnose gars inhabit a variety of freshwater and brackish environments in the East, ranging from small streams to immense flowing rivers, and from small ponds to massive manmade impoundments. If you’re in Missouri, you can even find them in the small, clear, high-

gradient streams of the Ozarks. However, most often longnose gars will be in slower moving backwaters and pools off the main current. Larger fish inhabit deeper pools where they are constantly on the search for food, while smaller fish tend to remain closer to structure as it provides protection from the larger predators in the system. The biggest things these water types have in common are the abundance of prey and relatively high water temperatures. Longnose gars become most active in water temperatures from around 70 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit.

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You can find longnose gars sunning themselves in the shallow water near deeper drop-offs waiting for unsuspecting meals to venture by. I have encountered them adjacent to downed trees and even skulking in streamside reeds. But larger concentrations, and larger fish, tend to hang out in deeper pools. They only come to the surface to chase bait or grab a breath of air in their low-oxygen environments. These two actions are what typically betrays their presence.

Lines & Tackle

The best rods for flinging flies at gars are 8 to 10 weights due to the large, wind-resistant nature of the flies you’ll be using. They’re also better for casting the heavy sinking tips used to target deeper fish. Fast-action rods provide the heft needed to get the fly to the target and they provide the right combination of backbone and touch you need to play these beasts using nothing but rope.

Most gars do not stress your reel too much, but you’ll be glad you have a decent drag system when you hook into a trophy. Select a reel to match the rod weight to ensure it has adequate capacity for the fly line. Large-arbor reels are always useful to take up slack quickly when the fish makes a run toward you, and the additional weight helps balance out the heavier rods and lines you’ll be throwing.

Fly lines with moderate to aggressively tapered heads help punch the large, wind-resistant flies to their intended targets at longer ranges in a variety of conditions. These aggressive tapers are extremely helpful when using sinking tips to get the fly down to gars cruising the deeper pools and drop-offs.

Leaders for gars are pretty straightforward as these fish are not leader shy—they know they’re the top predators in many ecosystems. A short, 5- to 6-foot section of stiff 15- to 20-pound-test monofilament is all you need for longnose gars. I like saltwater monofilament because of its extra stiffness. This type of leader gives you the abrasion resistance you need to withstand the gar’s pick-like teeth. Stiffer leader material also aids in the turnover and final delivery of the fly. A nonslip monofilament loop knot is the best connection because it allows the fly to flutter in the current with less interference from the stiff leader.

I have thrown both hooks and rope flies for longnose gars, and you can catch them both ways. However, it is far more effective to target them with rope flies. I tie my flies to an overall length of about 8 inches, which provides adequate purchase around the gar’s teeth. They also provide a large profile for the fish to target, minimizing the number of short strikes you often encounter with smaller flies.

Unweighted flies paired with sinking or floating lines are more effective in longer, slower pools, but sometimes a heavily weighted fly is necessary to get the fly into the strike zone when you are targeting fish holding deep in slack water behind midstream boulders. Regardless of which fly you use, be ready to modify your casting style appropriately.

Presenting the Fly

After locating suitable habitat, it won’t take long before you see the first snout break the surface or your eyes identify a wayward “log” along the shore. There are two primary techniques I use when presenting the rope fly—one for shallow water sight fishing and one for deep-water prospecting.

Two large rope flies with feathers and flash.
Rope flies for gars should be about 6 to 8 inches long and tied with a combed-out piece of white nylon rope. You can add flash and a colorful collar to help entice aggressive strikes. (Trevor Ibsen photo)

Shallow-water fish are typically in ambush mode. They lie along or near downed trees or submerged vegetation waiting to waylay unsuspecting passersby. In these instances, cast to the side of the fish and swim the fly into its field of view and in a way that the fly is also moving away from the fish—mimicking potential prey. As with any streamer tactic, it’s important to remember that prey items don’t swim toward larger fish. A small fish that is fleeing triggers a predatory response.

Anything moving toward the gar is cause for alarm. Matching the mannerisms of natural prey items is the key to eliciting a strike and not scaring the predator.

Once you have enticed a gar into action, the biggest challenge is not to set the hook. You read that right, not to set the hook, as there is no hook.

A rope fly works by getting tangled in the gar’s teeth and it needs time to accomplish this task. To help that happen, when the gar strikes, you’ll need to keep a small amount of tension on the line but allow the gar to have the fly in its mouth for several seconds.

Longnose gars will slash at their prey to disable it and then maneuver it with their jaws to swallow it headfirst. This is why it is important not to set the fly when you see or feel the strike. Instead, give small amounts of slack line to the gar after you feel the initial tug. This mimics a wounded baitfish no longer struggling to get away and triggers the gar to begin repositioning the prey in its mouth. This action further entangles the gar’s teeth before the real fight begins.

Striking immediately does not allow the rope enough purchase on the fish’s teeth. Allowing the gar to swim with and chew on the fly for a couple of seconds gives time for their teeth to become trapped by the nylon rope. At this point you can lift the rod and begin the fight in earnest.

When prospecting in deep water, allow the fly to sink deep into the pool before retrieving the fly with long, slow strips. This allows the fly to flutter seductively in the current and it gives the gar plenty of opportunity to capitalize on what appears to be a slow-moving or injured fish.

“Feel” is extremely important when prospecting deeper water. You will feel a tap on the line and our instincts tell us all to set the hook, but that instinct is wrong. Allow the fish to chomp and chew on the fly for few seconds. Finally, lift the rod and you should feel the weight of the fish and it’s game on.

Regardless of how you targeted the gars, how you play them depends on their size. You can strip small fish to the boat relatively quickly. When they jump or run, the rope is extremely effective at maintaining its purchase in their tiny teeth. Larger fish have large, well-developed teeth and powerful bodies. This combination allows them to break through the nylon rope if you don’t play them carefully from the reel. Large fish often make several powerful runs and if you try to apply hard pressure to stop them, you will effectively tear the rope out of their mouths.

Once the fish is in the boat, the next challenge is untangling the rope. A thick leather glove is helpful because it allows you to hold the fish’s jaws open with the gloved hand and use pliers in the other hand to untangle the rope. This can be a relatively tedious process for small fish and can require the fish to be out of the water for quite some time.

However, as mentioned earlier, these fish can breathe air when necessary and as long as they remain wet, they can survive out of the water for extended periods of time. The best way to remove the fly is to lay the fish on its side and begin the extraction.

Despite the fact you are propping their mouths open to remove the fly, most fish are relatively docile when they are being supported on a solid surface like a boat deck. There are times, though, when the fly is so tangled that cutting the nylon is the only way to remove the fly. In these instances, ensure that once you cut the rope, the fish can open and close its mouth. After verifying the jaws can move freely, try to remove the remaining chunks of nylon rope before releasing the gar back in the water. Eventually, the smaller remaining nylon pieces will dislodge from the teeth as the fish swims around and feeds.

A woman standing on a paddleboard holding a longnose gar.
When a gar first grabs the fly, stay in contact with the fly but allow the fish to bite, chew, and then reposition the fly in its attempt to swallow it. This maneuvering is when the rope fly becomes entangled in the gar’s rows of teeth. (Trevor Ibsen photo)

Prehistoric Predators

Longnose gars are not the beauty queens of the piscatorial world, but they are nonetheless worthy of fly-fishing attention. The skills you need to target, “hook,” and play these prehistoric fish are like nothing you’ve experienced before. Regardless of which technique you choose to target longnose gars, you will be pleasantly surprised from the first tap on your line to the moment you hoist up your first dinosaur. It’s the moments in between that the longnose gar will test your patience, increase your feel, and challenge you in unconventional ways.


Trevor Ibsen graduated from the University of Montana with a degree in aquatic wildlife biology.  At the same time, he commissioned into the U.S. Army and has spent more than 20 years in the Army and Air Force chasing countless species throughout the world.




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