August 16, 2019
A few years ago I had the extreme privilege to join my buddies on an Alligator Gar fishing trip in Ponce De Leon, Florida. I wasn’t sure what to expect, as we don’t have access to Alligator Gar where I’m from (a small town on the coast of North Carolina). So I was excited for a new-to-me species and looked forward to the adventure. What I didn’t realize then was that fishing for Alligator Gar is unlike any other species of fish! These freshwater predators dominate their habitat and make for a truly monster catch. If you ever get the chance, tag along or book a professional guide for a wild fishing expedition, and get yourself an Alligator Gar in Florida’s Panhandle!
First let’s talk about the name, “Alligator Gar” – appropriately named as it has the head of an alligator and the body of a gar. They can grow long and massive – more than six feet long and over 100 pounds. Alligator Gars are mostly found in freshwater habitats, but can make their way to brackish waters. They are predators who feast on smaller fish, water fowl, and small mammals that unfortunately find their way to the gar’s habitat. With those chompers it’s clear they are at the top of the food chain in their fisheries.
While Alligator Gar are more common in Texas, you can find them throughout the Southeast United States – including Alabama and Mississippi. My trip happened to be in Florida, but you’ll need to stick to the northwest side of the state, as they aren’t typically found east of the Panhandle. Our group was fishing the Choctawhatchee River; Alligator Gars tend to like wide, slow moving rivers. The Choctawhatchee River serves as a breeding and migratory area; perfect for our group looking to reel in a few!
Before setting out for your Alligator Gar fishing trip, make sure you know the rules and regulations. The previous overfishing of the species have the FWC creating regulations to help the species thrive. No one may take or harvest Alligator Gar in Florida waters without a special research permit. So it’s catch-and-release only for Florida anglers.
Because it’s catch-and-release only, bowhunting for Alligator Gars is not an option in Florida. I understand this to be a very popular (and preferred) technique in other areas, but we were left with rod and reel to tangle with these beasts. Due to the ferocious teeth on these predators, heavy tackle is best to help get the giants to the boat.
Cut bait works well for the ‘Gator Gar, as do jigs, live minnows, or spoons. We were using live bait with a section of steel leader, and reeled in three of varying sizes throughout the trip. My buddy almost got his personal best with the nearly six foot adult gar he reeled in! I was using lighter tackle, and had a surprisingly lengthy fight with one that ended up being just over three feet – a growing juvenile successfully and safely released.
The Alligator Gar can put up quite a fight with their massive bodies and sharp teeth. Though they are not the fastest fish, their sheer strength can still be enough for a decent run on properly matched tackle. Getting the hook out can be quite an ordeal depending on how large the fish is. Even after a fight they can still be pretty energetic, and tend to thrash about aggressively at boatside. Be sure to bring long pliers – again, their mouth looks like an alligator’s!
For my next Alligator Gar trip, I’m making my way over to Corpus Christi, Texas. Landing my 3ft juvenile on light tackle was quite the thrill, now I want to try my hand at bowfishing. Corpus Christi has an abundance of freshwater lakes with a healthy population of adult Alligator Gar and there are multiple bowfishing guides in the area. These trips mainly take place at night, and the guides have their boats equipped with a variety of spotlights. The spotlights provide visibility into the shallow, murky water near the shoreline where the Alligator Gar can often be found cruising. Their long, slender frame makes for a difficult shot, but I’ve never shied away from a challenge! No matter which technique you use, or where your next Alligator Gar trip takes you, you’re in for an incredible experience. These prehistoric predators will put up a fight you won’t soon forget, and your buddies back home won’t believe the pictures you bring back!
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