Wednesday, December 15, 2010

GASS BAG- the Primitive Post

Well, yes, sometimes that is exactly what I am (especially after certain meals).... but what I am referring to are the Gar Anglers Sporting Society and the Bowfin Anglers Group. Yes, it is true that there are indeed websites catering to those of us who have an unnatural inclination toward the primitive fishes swimming in our local waters! Lake Champlain is the easternmost natural distribution for both the longnose gar (Lepisosteus osseus) and the bowfin (Amia calva) and has impressive populations of both species. 
A nice gar during the spawn
The longnose gar is a fun fish to target. They get big, are easy to see in the water, and will readily take a well presented fly. I fish for them from May until September using rope flies on 8 to 10 wt outfits. A few years back Lawrence Pyne asked me to take him out to fish gar and film it for Vermont Public Television. We got a few nice fish in some tough conditions and the show was a hit (and I will put up a link as soon as VPT has the show back on their website). I don't want to give away all my gar secrets, but it does take some practice to be successful. A gar fly is semi-hookless (here in VT there has to be a hook point so I use size 20 dry fly hooks in the body of the fly) and if you set the hook, you lose the fish! 
Close up of the gar's mouth
The longnose gar is a Mississippi drainage fish that likely entered Lake Champlain via the Great Lakes then the St. Lawrence after the last glacial period. The environs of Champlain were very conducive to this primitive fish- providing many shallow, weedy backwater bays and slow moving rivers that these fish love. The gar was well known to the Abnaki who used its scales as arrowheads. Samuel de Champlain definitely saw them and wrote in his journal (this has been taken as early evidence of "Champ"):
"... there is one [fish] called by the natives 'Chaousarou', which is of various lengths; but the largest of them, as these tribes have told me, are from eight to ten feet long. I have seen some five feet long, which were as big as my thigh, and had a head as large as my two fists, with a snout two feet and a half long, and a double row of very sharp, dangerous teeth. Its body has a good deal the shape of the pike; but it is protected by scales of a silvery gray colour and so strong that a dagger could not pierce them."Just awesome fish. 
Master Class bowfin on Lake Champlain
The bowfin is the last of its kind. The family Amiiade  is well represented in the fossil record from all around the world from as early as the Jurassic Period. Just think, at one point there was a bowfin species that reached 8 feet long. If there were a fish like that in Champlain, I don't think I would be fishing out of a canoe let alone wet wade! Eastern North America is the last holdout for this primitive family of fishes. Characterized by a gular plate (throat plate), slightly heterocercal tail (similar to a shark, but less pronounced), and its namesake long dorsal fin. These predators love shallow weedy wetlands and feed on pretty much anything that gets in its way, although they seem to have a preference for aquatic crustaceans.
Look at the teeth on that puppy!
Angling for the bowfin on Lake Champlain is a relatively simple afair. They take a variety of flies, are easily sight fished, and put up a great fight. The weedy environment that they live in often requires a fairly heavy tippet on an 8 wt rod. There are times however that a 6 wt rod and lighter tippet can make this angling a whole lot more fun. It is not too difficult to get a take, but getting a good hookset in their bony mouth can be tough. A really good hook makes all the difference in this regard. I put many anglers on Master Class bowfin this year. As a matter of fact the bowfin is the most numerous fish species in the Master Angler Program largely because of me.

Great fish on a 6wt!

To my knowledge I am the only successful fly fising gar guide in Vermont. (another guide service does advertize gar as a target but no one in that guide service has yet to catch one- truth in advertizing???). Along with the gar, I brought guiding for bowfin on the fly on Lake Champlain to Vermont. I know I am not the only guide who does this, but in all honesty I taught most of the other guides how to do it. I will have gar and bowfin flies for sale on my website shortly for those of you who might be interested and I will definitely be guiding for them in this upcoming season. Please get in touch with me if you are interested- I would love to help you chase down some primitive fish!


  1. I'd hire you, but I'm broke. That skull is evil ...

  2. "...inclination toward the primitive fishes swimming..." That just means you're targeting a more highly evolved, sophisticated species :)

    Great post man, can't wait to target some of these this spring!

  3. great post as always Drew. top job and very informative!!!!

  4. Nice and informative blog. And very nice fish! I was definitely born on the wrong continent, we don’t have all those great predators over here in Europe.

  5. I love the skull. That is not something you see every day. Way cool!

    The Average Joe Fisherman

  6. im so looking forward to getting into those when im over mate what a blast that will be awsome post and very informative

  7. I bet we could trade the secrets of the bowfin fishing. :) Maybe we can get them back in the LCI All Season Derby. I have been begging! Bowfin get such a bad rep. Its a shame. I take them over any fish any day.

  8. how come theres no recent posts or photos