Shortnose Gar Bonanza! (includes underwater video)

 Shortnose Gar

The Spot

There’s this spot. It’s on a river. Tough to get to: a long hike in wet grass, a rocky downhill, slipping in mud and stumbling and rolling on loose stones. Poison ivy everywhere. Trail barely visible unless you know where to look. Then you get to the river, where you slip and trip some more, and lots more poison ivy.

Most of that is not exaggerated much. You won’t like it, even if I tell you how to get there (and you’ll hate the climb back up at the end of the day).

Unless you look at the water, because at any given moment several shortnose gar are surfacing exactly where you’re looking, no matter where you’re looking. They like to bite. Especially spinners. A guy I know caught over 50 of them the other day. (I only caught 30.)

You might see Smallmouth Buffalo and Grass Carp, too. Less visible but catchable are Bowfin, Freshwater Drum, Channel Catfish, Flathead Catfish, Walleye, Sauger, Smallmouth Bass, Largemouth Bass, Mooneye and Goldeye. And the White Bass: as aggressive and tenacious as the Shortnoses, and everywhere. I know a guy who caught over 50 of them in 5 hours the other day. I only caught about 20.

Unfortunately, Silver Carp and Bighead Carp have moved in over the last few years, and sometimes they’re everywhere. In my experience, when the carp are numerous, the gar are not easy to find and catch. Partly it’s the fact that every cast hits and bounces off multiple carp on the retrieve, often spooking an entire school to jump out of the water (you’ve seen the Silver Carp footage, right?) making it difficult to maintain a winning presentation, but it does seem like the Shortnose population (or at least the number seen and willing to bite) decreases when the carp are there in force.

But the Other Day

The other day, though, I fished for 5 hours and didn’t see a single carp of any kind. This guy I know said he saw a few Grass Carp, but I didn’t. The gar (and White Bass) were biting like crazy. Getting hits on 5 or more consecutive casts wasn’t even notable. Hooking and landing fish several casts in a row was common. I take a photo of every fish I land so I can get an accurate count at the end of the day, and as I scanned through them later I noticed several series of shots separated by only a minute or two.

White Bass

White Bass

I had blisters on my hand from setting the hook (or trying), my pants were coated in gar slime and as inflexible as armor when it dried. Hooks that started the day extremely sharp were dull by the end of the day thanks to gar bone and rocks.

Two guys fishing, well over 150 fish caught. At least twice that many bites missed or fish lost during the fight. I realized too late that I was using too light a rod, so next time I’ll use something less flexible in order to more immediately communicate my hookset to the hook itself.

Video

Since I had the GoPro with me, but not the extension pole or underwater weighted mount, I clamped it to a submerged root and weighted it down with a rock. The water was late-summer dirty and visibility was poor, but I managed to steer a few gar close enough to the camera to be visible.

Hey Jerky

Several gar came home with me to be cleaned, cured with salt and spices, then smoked long and low. The intent was to make jerky, but the result is excellent, spicy smoked fish, crisp on the outside and smooth inside. Some say that gar meat gets rubbery when cooked, but that must be due to cooking methods as both times I’ve eaten it the result has been delicious.

Shortnose Gar. Tin snips are necessary for getting through the armor.

Shortnose Gar. Tin snips are necessary for getting through the armor.

Each gar has 2 long fillets down its back. No need to mess with bones or internal organs.

Each gar has 2 long fillets down its back. No need to mess with bones or internal organs.

Gar fillets on bed of spices, before being covered by more spices and further layers of meat.

Gar fillets on bed of spices, before being covered by more spices and further layers of meat.

Improvised gar rub: salt, crushed peppercorns, crushed mustard seed, salt, various red pepper powders, garlic and onion powders, etc.

Improvised gar rub: salt, crushed peppercorns, crushed mustard seed, salt, various red pepper powders, garlic and onion powders, smoked paprika, etc.

Fully spice-covered gar fillets before 36 hours curing in the fridge.

Fully spice-covered gar fillets before 36 hours curing in the fridge.

Spicy smoked Shortnose Gar "jerky"

Spicy smoked Shortnose Gar “jerky”

Shortnose Gar "jerky" after several hours in the smoker. Spice rub and smoke made a great crust.

Shortnose Gar “jerky” after several hours in the smoker. Spice rub and smoke made a great crust.

 

State Record Shorthead Redhorse Caviar

Shorthead Redhorse (female) ready to spawn

I have asked myself many times what I would do if I happened to catch a record-sized fish. I suspect most of us who fish obsessively have thought about this. There are really only two choices. You either kill it, take it to a certified scale, fill out paperwork and get the record, or you photograph the hell out of it, measure it every way you can think of, then release it and bask in the satisfaction of knowing you caught the record, even if you can’t prove it. (There are, of course, other options. The Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame and Museum tracks catch-and-release world records, and many states have some sort of catch-and-release record system, plus it is possible to get a portable scale certified.)

I am mostly a catch-and-release fisherman, and always have been. It is partly a conservation-minded thing: I don’t want to kill animals that would (in my opinion) be better left to grow and reproduce. It’s not that I’m opposed to killing the fish, exactly, but that I usually see no reason to do so and lots of reasons not to, such as the fact that I’d rather spend my time catching more fish, not carrying them around, cleaning them, and cooking them. No one else in my home eats fish anyway.

That said, I’ve eaten many fish I’ve caught. Shortnose gar is a fantastic food fish: the meat is pure white, firm, boneless, and utterly without any of the “fishy” smell or flavor that repels some people from eating fish. It is, apparently, more like alligator meat than fish (having never eaten gator, I can’t confirm this). Cleaning gar is simple, though completely unlike cleaning any other fish. If I catch them in a river with a healthy population (and clean water), I sometimes keep a few. Mostly, though, in order to get back to fishing as quickly as possible, I release them (or they flip themselves out of my hand before I can decide).

I eat (usually smoked) any salmon and trout (except Lake Trout) I catch in the Great Lakes. Chinook Salmon, Coho Salmon, Brown Trout and Steelhead (Rainbow) Trout are not native to this region, are stocked (at great expense) by state agencies solely to be caught, and are (with a few exceptions) unable to reproduce naturally, so I feel absolutely no guilt in enjoying them.

The record fish question is another thing entirely. Is killing a healthy (and perhaps genetically important) fish to claim a record anything at all beyond satisfying the ego? Seriously: what other purpose could there be? It doesn’t really add anything beyond a few data points to scientific knowledge. It might encourage a few people to take another look at an under-appreciated species, but probably not many. The only rewards for catching a state record (assuming it’s not also a new world record Largemouth Bass or Muskellunge, which would probably lead to substantial financial gain) are certificates and patches, a mention in the state’s fishing regulations booklet, perhaps a picture in the local paper, and a story to tell until, inevitably, someone breaks the record. (I think a world record would probably be a lot simpler to decide.)

Until recently, the whole question has been nothing but a thought experiment, a distraction while waiting for a bite. Though I could easily have said, having not been faced with the decision, that I would choose to release the fish, I’ve honestly never been sure what I would do.

April 21, 2015: Kendall County, IL

Fishing my favorite Illinois creek on a rainy April afternoon, I caught the fattest Shorthead Redhorse (Moxostoma macrolepidotum) I have ever seen. It was so much bigger than the Shortheads I usually catch there that even as I netted it I thought it might be a Greater Redhorse (M. valenciennesi), another red-tailed species that is rare but not unknown in the creek. As soon as the splashing stopped, though, I could see that it was an obvious Shorthead (short head, tiny mouth, concave dorsal fin, red tail). I could also see that it was a potential state record. The current Illinois state record Shorthead was caught in the Fox River on April 24, 2008. (Read more about it here.) It weighed in at 3.74 lbs. The weight of my fish, according to the scale built into my Lucid Fishing Grip (I get no compensation for mentioning them, but I have been very satisfied with the product and have used it for many different species of fish —including a hammerhead shark—in both fresh and salt water), was exactly 4 lbs. Though I could not remember whether I’d ever checked the scale’s accuracy with known weights, it seemed unlikely that it would be off by a quarter of a pound. That meant I had just caught the new state record and had a decision to make.

Biggest shorthead I've caught

The biggest shorthead I’ve caught.

Weighing a big shorthead

Weighing the big shorthead with Lucid grips.

Indecision Time

I have a well-documented addiction to fishing. It’s extremely difficult for me to stop. I’ve been late for a lot of dinners and I’ve been lost in unfamiliar forests after sunset. More often than not when I ignore the (at least) half of my rational mind telling me it is time to stop, I don’t catch much. Maybe it’s that I rush, knowing I should get going, and my presentation isn’t good. Maybe adrenaline causes minute muscle tremors that are transmitted through rod and line. Maybe my aura gets stormy and scares the fish. I don’t know. Still, despite knowing I’m probably not wise to keep trying, I often keep fishing.

The problem in this case is that fish seem to lose weight after being caught. I have seen several explanations, though no scientific investigations. If the fish is dead, then loss of water would be an obvious cause of weight loss. Even if kept alive, however, a stressed fish may regurgitate stomach contents and/or excrete fluid and solid wastes. In a livewell or net the fish is also not taking in any food. Maybe their ability to regulate the body’s water content is compromised by stress, causing water loss. Guess what I did. I kept fishing. For several hours. The redhorse remained alive in my landing net in the creek, but it couldn’t move around much. I transferred it to a plastic tub full of creek water for the drive home, and it was still alive when, maybe 5 hours later, I finally found a store that was open on Sunday afternoon and had a certified scale. The official weight: 3.73 lbs. That’s right: .01 pounds under the current record. I later tested my scale and found it to be very accurate, so unless I read it wrong at the creek, my fish had been a record and had lost a substantial amount of weight.

Waste Not

My ego led me to kill a fish, so I had to make sure that it was not totally in vain (and vanity). I cleaned the fish, getting a decent amount of clean, firm meat and a ton of ultra-tiny eggs. I chopped the meat (not wanting to get out the grinder for such a small job), mixed in simple seasonings, cracker crumbs and egg, coated with panko crumbs, and fried. It was delicious, and the hot oil melted any small bones that remained. Fried Redhorse balls
Redhorse fish cake

I fried one skein of eggs in basically the same way, but the tiny eggs got hard and it was a lot like eating deep-fried sand. The rest of the eggs I made into caviar. Their size meant that there was no satisfying pop possible (as you’d get with regular caviar), but the fishy, salty taste was quite good. Shorthead Redhorse eggs
Shorthead Redhorse eggsFried Redhorse eggs
Redhorse Caviar

One note on homemade caviar: if you make some and then forget it’s in the fridge for a few months, and if when you open it to share with a friend he says something like “I didn’t expect that sort of sweet, fruity taste,” then you should probably put in more salt next time AND eat it sooner.

Next Time

What will I do the next time I catch a record fish?

To be honest, I don’t know. Stay tuned.

1917’s Sweet Smell of Spring in Minnesota: 2 Million Pounds of Dead Buffalo & Carp

Fins, Feathers and Fun, June 1917

Fins, Feathers and Fun, June 1917

Dead Fish, Buffalo Lake, Martin County, MN, Spring of 1917

Dead Fish, Buffalo Lake, Martin County, MN, Spring of 1917

DEAD FISH, BUFFALO LAKE, MARTIN COUNTY, SPRING OF 1917.
Estimated 175,000 pounds smothered in this lake alone last winter. Game Warden Altenberg of Fairmount made a careful survey of the lakes of Martin county and found loss of fish in twenty lakes, the following, Martin, Charlotte, Cedar, Buffalo, Fish, North Silver, Iowa, Tuttle, Susan and East Chain, suffering most heavily. Mr. Altenbergy estimated the total loss from smothering of fish in Martin county last winter, chiefly carp and buffalo, at nearly two million pounds. There were caught and sold from the lakes of this county last season about 770,000 pounds of carp and buffalo, but several lakes were not opened for fishing by the county commissioners. The loss of fish in Martin county last winter illustrates the folly of closing shallow lakes to “rough” fishing.

The obvious question here: what do you do with 2 million pounds of dead fish? Luckily, the same issue provides some options:

Fish Recipes (from Fins, Feathers and Fur, June 1917, published by the Minnesota Game and Fish Dept.)

Fish Recipes (from Fins, Feathers and Fur, June 1917, published by the Minnesota Game and Fish Dept.)