The fly guys… we’ve all seen them – standing somewhere at the water’s edge waving a stick around in the air. The core level optics of the pastime may seem so rudimentary, but to the seasoned angler there is no more poetic approach to such a timeless pursuit.
Some anglers just have a thirst for problem solving – the learning from experiences, trials and errors found at the end of a fly line that a chunk of bloody fish carcass just can’t satisfy…
There is now a growing interest in the pursuit of the mighty alligator gar by fly. The slow warm current of east Texas rivers linger and drag… the stagnant air is moist and humid – capturing and amplifying the smells of nearby cow pastures and mud. A far cry from the swift, cool push of a mountain trout stream. Here, an angler might find one of the global titans of freshwater rising from the depths… a formidable prehistoric beast hovering untampered and undisturbed – but capable of absolute chaos, their presence is lost after a seconds-long gulp of oxygen before sinking below the surface again. A dream encounter for an ambitious man or woman with a rod in hand.
Meet Ryan King
Ryan King (@professor_rivers) is a biology professor and educator keen on conservation. He is also a talented fly angler, tyer, and part time guide. He has been living in Texas for the last two decades, but it was the encounter with an alligator gar on the lower Trinity River that piqued his interest in the species. Inspired by his success with several ‘smaller’ alligator gar, he recognized the massive potential these fish possess and set out to target them more in-depth with fly gear.
I tried conventional fishing on my own using cut carp and caught a 90″ alligator gar on a very muddy central Texas river. The moment I landed that fish was transformative. Simply to be in the presence of such a massive, primitive fish was one of the great fishing moments of my life. I was already a gar enthusiast, especially big longnose, but that was the point that tipped me over into almost exclusively targeting gar on flies. Since then, I’ve been working on refining flies, hookset techniques, and finding new locations where alligator gar are sufficiently abundant and in water with sufficient clarity to target with flies. – King
Fly Fishing Pursuit
If challenge is a key contributor to your interest in this pursuit, understand that the alligator gar checks all the boxes, and then some… filling categorical challenges no other freshwater fish can claim.
Ryan King, who is no stranger to various fly fishing pursuits of species like: redfish, trout, white bass, carp, salmon, muskies and more; cites the undeniable sporting characteristics of the alligator gar.
“These fish are not easy to catch on the fly, so temper expectations. Think about them much like you would if you were seeking musky, tarpon, or permit on the fly, especially the first time. My mantra is “any alligator gar on the fly is a good one”. Even the “little” ones. – King
There’s no other freshwater fish in North America that can be readily targeted via sight fishing with flies where a 50-pound specimen could be called ‘small’ relative to the species.
Where To Target Them?
Because gar are ‘air breathers,’ they spend much of their time at or near the top of the water column. Their tendency to remain in areas where few other anglers venture affords great prospects to fly fishermen who enjoy sight fishing in seclusion. But it has also led them to become one of the most targeted species by bowfishermen.
Ryan King surveys the large rivers and coastal bayous of East Texas for Alligator Gar.
- Large Rivers – Look for deep pools with shallow flats near by. This can be the perfect refuge while also presenting opportunities for fish to be drawn out of the depths to cruise for prey like smallmouth buffalo. The transition zone will often yield a shot at a visible gar.
- Coastal bayous – Bayous or lowland rivers with moderate clarity generally host some alligator gar. Alligator gar can tolerate salinity levels up to full sea water and are even frequently seen cruising coastal flats right alongside redfish! From time to time alligator gar are even caught from the surf.
When To Target Them?
Water temperature and clarity are the two main factors governing availability of alligator gar to fly anglers. Typically, water needs to be above 70F to get gar moving either into shallow water or gulping air. In Texas, that can be as early as February/March near the coast and April/May farther inland. Fish become much more active when water temperatures exceed 80F and remain active even up to 95F!
For fly angling, dry seasons can be more advantageous because of lower and clearer water. High flows can ruin clarity – and affords gar more opportunity to spread out and become sparse. During especially high water, gar can be found in flooded fields and other floodplains and while they may be available to target, these fish are generally focused on spawning during these conditions. A more conservation-minded angler should opt to leave spawners alone.
What Kind Of Flies?
The Alligator Gar is a predator of opportunity. While they may grow up to 8-9 feet in length, they are seldom going to travel more than their own body length to pursue a prey item. Rather, they lash out with a bill constructed of solid bone and lined with sharp teeth to snatch anything within a few feet of their face with unbelievable speed. In the case of the alligator gar, the key may be more in the hook itself than the color or pattern of the fly.
King utilizes extremely sharp, tandem hooks made of relatively light wire. The light wire will help to penetrate the bony mouth of the gar.
“The light wire might come as a surprise but keep in mind you’re trying to penetrate solid bone. There is virtually no soft tissue so heavy wire creates more resistance to penetration. It’s difficult to set any hook in a gar’s mouth, which is why most gar guides fish with bait and allow the fish to swallow the hook before setting. Whether this practice is harmful to the fish is a different discussion with the point being that guides wouldn’t be doing that if hooking them in the mouth was easy!” – King
King draws inspiration from musky patterns, tying larger profile flies 6-8″ in length that are easy to cast and push a good bit of water.
Patterns and Presentation
Because alligator gar are generally sitting relatively idle waiting on their meals to haplessly come to them, sight casting may be the most productive approach.
“I sight cast 95% of the time. There are situations when I know gar are holding in a pool but staying deep when I’ll blind cast, but I have much more success by targeting fish that are cruising or suspended close enough to the surface that I can see at least a faint outline of a fish.” – King
Look for areas that are between 3-5 feet deep if clarity is sufficient. If fish haven’t been actively targeted by bowfishers, they may be more inclined to rise slowly to the surface for a gulp of air. This affords the opportunity to drop a fly on their nose before they drop out of sight. King has observed that fish under more public pressure – particularly from bowfishers – are up and down much faster than those in more remote waters.
Much like tarpon fishing, you generally have a narrow window of time and a small target area to hit for a chance at success. A fly placed within 1 to 3 feet of the head of a gar will usually get their attention.
“If the cast is accurate, alligator gar can be incredibly aggressive! Takes can be violent and will spike your adrenaline to levels that may cause you to lose composure. I certainly have lost mine and have many memories of fish that “could have been” if I’d kept it together” – King
Driving It Home
The major challenge that stymies most fly anglers is the hookset. The angle of the fish relative to the angler, along with the direction of its movement, will require different hooksets. For a forward facing (oncoming) fish, King suggests letting the fish hold the fly and apply only a small amount of pressure without setting – this will often cause the fish to turn away at least 90 degrees. As the fish holds onto the fly and begins to make the turn, hold the rod perpendicular to the fish and apply increasing pressure until it causes the fish to bolt away. Once the fish moves with a real purpose, make repeated strip sets – as many as 15 or 20 could be applied to set the hook properly. Even then, there’s a 50/50 chance the fish will jump and shake the fly.
Fish that are close to the boat can be hooked by setting hard in an upward motion while also stripping the line followed by repeated hard strip sets. This will (hopefully) drive the hook into the upper jaw. Most fish landed are hooked in the back half of the upper jaw.
A 10 to 12 weight rod is recommended for alligator gar. A 9-foot 12 weight fast action rod is ideal for turning over big flies and has good lifting power. While a big alligator gar is not going to burn off a bunch of line like a tarpon, there is plenty of sustained power behind their massive shoulders and they are fully capable of taking you to your backing. A large arbor reel with 200 yds. of backing and a good drag system is prudent.
A fly line designed to perform in hot weather and turn over big flies is a must. Many of the tropical saltwater lines will perform well. Floating lines work well but Ryan King prefers an intermediate tip such as RIOs Tropical Outbound Short line. This allows you to get down a few feet to fish while also allowing shots at surfacing fish. Leaders should be stout and relatively short with a 6- to 12-foot section of heavy shock/bite tippet. “I don’t use wire; I like 80-100 lb. hard mono for my shock tippets.” – King
Line management here is critical, do not allow the line to become wrapped around your fingers or you could really get hurt!
The Alligator Gar is North America’s heavyweight king. It is THE largest freshwater predator on the continent, and on a short list of the largest freshwater fish on planet earth. A creature of unparalleled character – it possesses unique challenges to conventional and fly anglers alike rivaled by no other fish. We are truly fortunate such creatures still roam the earth, affording an opportunity to marvel at something truly spectacular right here in our own backyard. Fly anglers need not look beyond the alligator gar for a first-rate battle with a world class monster fish that has been kicking ass and taking names since the late Jurassic Period!
A special thanks to my buddy Ryan King for shedding light on this awesome species, and how to fly fish for them! Ryan can be found on Instagram @Professor_Rivers
This article is originally hosted at www.boundless-pursuit.com
About the author
David Graham is a multi-species angler and blogger based in southwest Florida. He owns www.boundless-pursuit.com, which highlights his exploits and passions for various species of fresh and saltwater fish through written articles, podcast, and other media.