Alligator Gar, sometimes referred to as “gator gar”, are found in deep river bends, lakes, bayous and backwaters of Mississippi, Florida, Texas, Arkansas, and Oklahoma. The best methods for catching Alligator Gar include bottom fishing, bowfishing, bait casting, juglines, limblines and trotlines. Alligator Gar bait includes common carp, smallmouth buffalo, gizzard shad, and mullet and shiners using a size 3/0 or 4/0 j-hook, treble hook or circle hook.
Habitat: Bays, Lakes, Rivers
How to identify an Alligator Gar
The alligator gar is a prehistoric-looking fish easily distinguished from other gars by its broad long snout, two rows of upper teeth, and large size. Most gars have only one row of upper teeth. In most other aspects, the alligator gar is similar in appearance to other gars. Alligator gars have a long body, long snout, and toothy smile.
The alligator gar’s anal fins are positioned on the underside of its body, evenly spaced from one another. Its body is similar in appearance to species of pike, including the northern pike, muskellunge, and pickerel. Both alligator gar and pike have very similar body shape and fin placement; however, where pike have a forked tail, the tail of the alligator gar is rounded. Alligator gar also have a much longer snout than pike species.
An adult alligator gar can reach over 8 feet and weigh 300 pounds. Average gator gars reach about 6 feet long and weigh in around 100 lbs.
Where to catch Alligator Gar
Alligator gar live in a variety of freshwater and saltwater habitats and are often found in low-oxygen environments uninhabitable by other fish. Alligator gar are commonly found in bays, lakes, rivers, ponds, bayous and coastal waters.
Their range extends from the western Florida panhandle along the Gulf of Veracruz, Mexico, and north to the Mississippi River. Alligator gar can also be found as far north as the Ohio and Missouri rivers. A few sightings of alligator gar have been reported in Lake Nicaragua and the Sapoa River. The best fishing for alligator gar occurs in Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Florida, and Mississippi.
The alligator gar spawns in the spring in brackish waters; however, the best time to catch them is during the hot, dry late summer months. They tend to stick to deep river bends located near shallow pools of water.
The alligator gar has a unique adaptation called a labyrinth organ that allows it to breathe air from the surface. This is what allows the gar to thrive in low oxygen environments where other fish can’t survive—and where most angler wouldn’t expect to find such a giant. Don’t be surprised to find an alligator gar in a completely stagnant lake or pond.
Because gar can breathe air, they’ll often come to the surface to gulp or troll the top of the water column in search of a meal. This makes them an ideal freshwater fish for sight fishing methods such as bowhunting and fly fishing when water clarity is good.
The following are habitats where you can commonly find alligator gar.
- Gradual Shores
- Lake and Pond Fishing Holes
- Inlets and Outlets
- Open Water
- Points and Break Lines
- Shoreline Shallows
- Springs Holes
- Walkways and Bridges
Best time to fish Gator Gar
You can fish alligator gar mid-spring through late fall all the way into November in some warmer regions. The best time of year to fish alligator gar is during the summer months between June and August when water temperatures are warmest. When water temperatures rise above 70°F, gar tend to move to the upper water column to feed. This is also when they’re most active.
During the summer months when gar hold near the surface sight fishing techniques using flies, topwater lures or bowfishing can be effective.
How to catch Alligator Gar
The immense size and strength of the alligator make this game fish a popular target of anglers. However, its size and strength also make it a challenging fish to hook and catch—even for experienced anglers.
There are variety of methods for catching alligator gar. The most common include bait casting with a rod and reel, bowfishing, and using passive techniques, such as trotlines and juglines. While bait casting with a rod and reel setup is a common approach for catching these freshwater monsters, the bony upper jaw and mouth of the gar makes getting a solid hookset challenging.
Alligator gar are typically caught using chunks of cut bait on a 3/0 or 4/0 j-hook, treble hook or circle hook. Using a treble hook increases the likelihood of a solid hookset and tends to improve catch rate. Given its resistance to hook penetration in its mouth, many anglers will allow the alligator gar to ingest the baited hook before attempting a hookset.
After taking a bait in its mouth, an Alligator gar will often travel a distance before fully ingesting the bait. One technique is to provide the gar enough time to swallow the hook before attempting a hookset. Once you’re confident the gar has ingested the hook give the line a swift tug to set the hook in the soft tissue of the throat.
When using a circle hook, you’re looking for a hookset in the mouth. The circle hook is designed to hook the fish in the corner of the mouth as the fish moves away. Once the fish has taken the bait, allow about 15-20 seconds before setting the hook. Some anglers argue that a j-hook is more effective than a circle hook for catching alligator gar, but I’ve seen both work.
Getting a hookset in the mouth is a little harder than in the gut or throat. The success rate for mouth hooksets is only about 50% (source: Texas Parks & Wildlife, but sometimes attempting a mouth hookset makes sense. To increase your hookset rate in the mouth, attach a slip-float to your line so you can see which way the fish is heads after taking the bait. Set the hook as the gar is facing away from you to improve your hookset rate.
Alligator gar have tough sharp teeth that can sever even the toughest line. When gar fishing use a steel leader line about 3 feet long to ensure a solid hookset and ensure your main line doesn’t end up in the fish’s mouth. I know some anglers use an abrasion resistant braid for their leader, and it will work, but I find a steel leader the only way to go when fishing large gar.
If you’re doing catch and release, use a smaller non-stainless steel hook and leader line. When you reel in your catch simply cut the steel leader and release the gar with hook intact. The smaller hook will do less damage to the gar. With time the hook and leader will degrade and dissolve. A bronze hook will corrode even faster. The catch and release method that provides the highest rate of survival is mouth hookset and removal.
Bait Casting With Rod and Reel
Using a rod and reel is a common method for catching alligator gar, but reeling in gator car requires a lot of effort and some sturdy gear—especially if you happen to land a monster-size fish.
If you plan on targeting larger gar, you’ll want to use a high-quality conventional or spinning reel with a 7ft+ medium-heavy or heavy action catfish or surf rod. A medium to medium-heavy action rod is sufficient if you plan on pursuing a gut hook. If your strategy is to go for a traditional hookset, you’ll need a heavy action rod to penetrate the gar’s bony mouth.
As far as reel size goes, anything 6000 or larger will work. For mainline a 80- to 100-pound test abrasion resistant braid is ideal with a 30″+ steel or cut-resistant leader. Your go-to hook sizes for fishing alligator gar are 3/0 or 4/0, although a slightly larger hook works if you’re targeting big gar.
Attach a 3 to 4-inch cut bait (carp, shad, mullet or smallmouth buffalo) to your hook and cast away. Using a natural bait that is present in the area your fishing is most effective. Work your bait along the bottom slowly. You can also fish your bait under a float.
For bottom fishing alligator gar, a traditional Carolina rig with a slip sinker is a effective setup. This rig works well for casting from the bank and getting the bait to stay on the bottom. Alternatively, you can just used a heavy piece of carp that will remain on the bottom as it is fished. A float rig works best when you’re fishing from a boat and want to stay on top of the gar, but the Carolina tends to get bait to stick to the bottom better.
Jug line Fishing
Jug line fishing, or “jugging” is a simple, low effort, yet effective method for catching big alligator gar in lakes and slow moving rivers. It uses a line with a hook and a weight suspended under a floating jug.
Jugging is a traditional a technique for catching catfish but also works well for targeting alligator gar. The two biggest benefits of jugging are (1) once the jug line is employed you can sit back and relax and (2) you can set multiple jug lines to improve your odds of catching a gar.
Years ago jug fishing was known as “blocking” because instead of using a jug as the float a wooden block was used. Today, most jug lines are set up using a milk or soda jug for the float—but a block of wood or other bouyant object will also work.
Jug fishing works best in slow moving lakes, rivers and waterways where there is little current. If you’re jug fishing in a body of water with substantial current, you’re going to need to add additional weight to your line to secure the rig in place. In some instances you may want to secure your line to the bottom using heavy lead weight or block.
There are two jug line setups I recommend for gar fishing. The first is a drift rig. The second is an anchored rig. As it’s name suggests, the drift rig allows the jug to drift freely. The anchored rig maintains the float, line, and bait in place. The anchored rig is used when you want to fish a specific location, or keep your jug line from floating away. Another advantage of the anchor setup is you’re able to better control where your bait rests in the water in relation to the bottom.
I recommended using either a large treble hook or circle hook for jugging. A circle hook sets in the corner of the mouth after the alligator gar ingests the baits and swims away. The circle hook will hold fast and do minimal damage to the gar.
A troutline can have anywhere from 10 to 20 hooks which are suspended from a main line on leaders called trots. Trotlines maximize your ability to get your bait in front of alligator gar.
To set your trotline, tie one end to a tree or bush on the bank and the other end to your jug (float). To secure your float and keep your trotline in position, anchor the jug to a cinder block—or other heavy weight—on the bottom. Add another weight in the middle to hold bait and line near the bottom.
As a passive fishing method, once you’ve baited and set your trotlines you can sit back, relax, and wait for the gar to come to you.
Trotlines, as well as jug lines, are prohibited in may states for targeting gamefish. They are, however, legal to used for targeting non-gamefish species such as gars—but certain requirements and restrictions must be adhered to. Check local regulations before using either of these methods for fishing alligator gar.
Bowfishing combines the sport of archery with fishing—and is possibly the funnest way to target monster gator gar. I’ve heard many anglers say once they started bow fishing gar there was no going back. Bowfishing gar requires good hand eye coordination but anyone can do it with a little practice.
The key to bowfishing big gator gar is spotting them. Sometimes you’ll find these prehistoric beasts just below the surface or breaking the surface to gulp air. Your best chance of spotting alligator gar is when they’re in the shallows or gulping air. This occurs when water temperatures go above 70 degrees fehrenheit.
Yes, you can catch an alligator gar fly fishing—but it ain’t easy. Notwithstanding, this challenging method for targeting giant gar is growing in popularity among sportsman.
Fly fishing for gar in the backcountry waters of the deep south is much like fly fishing for tarpon or permit off Florida’s southern coast. First you have to find the fish, then you have to help the fish find your fly.
Fly fishing gator gars is a sight fishing method that is most effective when you have sufficient water clarity to be able to spot the fish when they’re near the surface. Once you spot the gar you want to get your fly with 1 to 3 feet of its head.
As with other methods of fishing alligator gar, getting a solid hookset when fly fishing is challenging. The key here is to let the fish take the bait and then turn with the bait in its mouth. As the gar turns and moves away, apply steady pressure on the line. This will cause the gar to pull. As the gar picks up momentum, holding the rod perpendicular to the fish, attempt repeated strip sets until you get a proper hookset.
Having a good rod will also help with hookset when fly fishing. For fishing gator gar, I recommend a 9-foot, 10-12 weight fast action rod with a large-arbor fly reel with a solid drag system with 200 yards of backing. You’ll also want to have a short leader with an 8 foot (give or take) heavy shock tippet. Your shock tippet does’t need to be steel.
To fly fish for gar you want to use a specialized rope fly streamer—which really isn’t that special at all. A rope fly streamer (or rope lure) consists of a 6 to 9 inch length of frayed 1/4″ nylon rope attached to small medal ring. No hook is need. The frayed nylon securely and inextricably tangles in the gars teeth.
Rope lures work great for catching smaller gar, but not as well for larger gar. The rope fibers just don’t tangle in the teeth of larger gar as well as they do in adolescents.
The following are methods and techniques for catching Alligator Gar:
Best Lures, Bait & Tackle to catch Alligator Gar
The alligator gar responds well to fresh cut baits such as smallmouth buffalo, common carp, mullet, shiners, and gizzard shad. Baits should be rigged on a 3/0 to 4/0 j-hook or 5/0 to 6/0 treble hook. Circle hooks will also work and are recommended for catch and release, and passive fishing methods.
Alligator gar also love live bait. When available, I will opt for live bait over cut bait. Live best is best fished on a steel leader and braided main line under a bobber. Alligator Gar are big fish so you’ll want to use big bait. The same baitfish you’d use for cut bait also work when fished live.
While gator gar prefer natural bait, they’ll also take certain lures. Baitfish imitation topwater lures and plugs can be effective if you can get them within a few feet of the head of the gar. When fishing a topwater lure, you’ll want to keep it relatively still until the gar draws near. Once the gar is within striking distance, give the lure a little tug to get attention of the gar and produce a strike.
When fly fishing for alligator gar you’ll want to use a rope fly streamer (aka “hookless rope lure”). This fly is nothing more than a frayed nylon rope that is about 6 to 9 inches in length attached to a small stainless steel ring. It can have a hook, but doesn’t need to. When the gar takes the fly the nylon becomes inextricably tangled in the fish’s teeth. No need to set a hook, just allow the gar to take your fly—then reel in your catch.
You can purchase a rope fly streamer online, or you can make one using a nylon rope. The following steps are for making a light weight barrel swivel rope fly using a #7 barrel swivel. A larger barrel swivel can be used for making a larger fly.
- Measure a 12″ to 18″ section of 1/4 inch nylon rope
- Cut the rope at the selected length
- Select the number of strands required to fillout the lure
- Thread the end of each strand through one end of the swivel to the half way point
- When all the strands are threaded, tighten a zip tie around the nylon strands at the base of the swivel
- Once the zip tie is in place, clip off the excess
- With a lighter, carefully melt the nylon in front of the zip tie onto the barrel swivel
You now have a light weight rope fly for topwater fly fishing alligator gar. To fly fish alligator gar subsurface within the lower water column a similar process can be used to create a rope fly streamers using a weighted jighead.
- Use a 1/4 inch nylon rope
- Unravel the rope into 3 strands
- Remove the core from the rope
- Measure each strand at 6″ to 9″
- Tie a knot at the measured length
- Cut the rope just in front of the knot
- Completely unravel the braid
- Pass the barb of the jighead through the back of the knot
- Use a lighter to melt the knot securely to the hook
The rope fly streamer with a weighted jighead works for targeting alligator gar in the lower water column. If you want to add a little pizzazz to your presentation you can affix a spinner to the jighead.
Most common baits and lures for fishing alligator gar.