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Gitting Myself a Garfish

"It lies sometimes asleep or motionless on the surface of the water and may be mistaken for a log or snag. It is impossible to take it in any other way than with the seine or a very strong hook; the prongs of the gig cannot pierce the scales, which are as hard as flint… They strike fire with steel and are ball-proof!"
  —Louisiana Department of Conservation, 1933.

"Fishermen from the area of Lake Charles, Louisiana [say] that alligator gars and American alligators sometimes fight, with the alligators usually the victors over their namesakes."
  —Edward R. Ricciuti.

"It has a bad reputation, and there is a difference of opinion concerning its value."
  —Edward C. Migdalski.


I'd always wanted to git me a garfish. I'd seen pictures in books of guys down in Florida with Hawaiian shirts on, posing with gaffs next to ferocious silver garfish longer than themselves, that they'd caught off chickens hooked to piano strings. I even found a dead one as a kid in Minnesota, all limp and pale and beached on a logjam off a Mississippi tributary—when they're usually found no further north than St. Louis.

Decades later, I moved to Louisiana, the garfish capital of the world, where people still fish and bowhunt gar, and eat them—that is, if they don't despise them for belonging to that scavenger class of ichthyological undesirables known as trashfish (the enemies of gamefish).

One reason I wanted to git myself a garfish was to take another look at le poisson armé (the armored fish), as the French explorers called it in the 1700s. I wanted to check out its prehistoric alligator head, its razor-sharp canines, and its serpentine body dating back to the Tertiary days of the Miocene, making it (along with the bowfin, sturgeon, paddlefish and coelacanth) one of the oldest fish on the planet. But the main reason I wanted to git myself a garfish was to be like those guys with the Hawaiian shirts.

So I asked a guy in Lafayette—who was repairing my tire—where I could git myself a "Cajun baracuda" (as they're sometimes called in Acadiana), and he told me to go out to Henderson, find Old Henderson Road, and drive it to where it dead ends at a rotting old bridge. The gar swam so thick there, he told me, that I could pick out the biggest one and drop some bait in front of it. He also advised me to take a jack handle along for calming them down once I got them to shore.

It didn't take long to find the bridge. I went out on it, looked down, and sure enough, there was a skinny snaky garfish swimming on the surface, snapping sideways at bugs because of its peripheral vision. It was the first live gar I'd ever seen, and it was hungry. So I dropped my worm in front of it, steel leader and everything. The gar bit, I fought it, it got away. And though I went back to that spot at least twenty times, I never saw a garfish there again.

But I did get familiar with the Atchafalaya Basin, driving around on the levees, going to bars with six-foot gars mounted on walls (like the 200-pounder at McGee's), and fishing in the cypress swamps, on land and in canoe. I heard plenty of stories from retired old guys who fed catfish from their docks at night and hated gar for raiding their chum. I also talked to fishermen who told me not to use a hook—but rather, to use thread instead, or a piece of nylon wrapped around the bait, so the gar would entangle their teeth.

But all I ever caught were catfish.


The size of gar has been greatly exaggerated. For some reason, the mythical figure of twenty feet has attached itself to the alligator gar, the largest creature of its species. In the Angler's Guide to the Fresh Water Sport Fishes of America (1962), for example, Edward C. Migdalski writes, "Many huge sizes have been recorded by word of mouth; even statements of '20 feet long' or '400 pounds in weight' have been published in past years by reputable scientists." Similarly, Fishes and Fishing in Louisiana, published by the Louisiana Department of Conservation in 1933, notes that the "Mississippi Alligator Gar" attains "a length of as much as twenty feet." J.R. Norman, in A History of Fishes (1948), then repeats this misinformation, noting that "the Alligator Gar Pike" can reach "a length of twenty feet or more."

Fossil records indicate that milleniums ago garfish used to get close to fifteen feet long. According to Migdalski, though, such behemoths existed on this continent within the last few centuries: "Twelve and 14-foot monsters may have lived many years ago in areas such as lower Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana where little or no fishing took place. Undoubtedly, many huge gars were captured and not recorded or shot and allowed to sink; but it didn't take long before the real big fellows disappeared from the scene."

The truth is that gar are physically capable of reaching lengths of ten feet if allowed to grow for over sixty years. Reports of such gar, however, come from unverified sightings and legend. An 1818 description of garfish (written by Rafinesque, who the short-nosed gar was named for) claims that its "length is from 4 to 10 feet." This figure agrees with the brunt of scientific data, as in "Species Summary for Atractosteus spatula," published on a biology-based museum website, which indicates that the maximum size for gar is "304.8 cm." Still, modern gar hardly ever exceed seven feet, but eight-foot garfish have been verified in Louisiana, Texas, and Oklahoma, during the last century.

Still, there seems to be a dispute about the length of the world record garfish. According to Migdalski's figures from the 60s, it was nine-foot-nine, but according to the Earthwave Society's 2001 Garsite, it was seven and a half feet long. This same lunker gar is referred to in "Division of Fisheries Facts about Fish in the Southwest," an article posted on a website of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, where it's reported that the "largest known individual was 10 feet long."

The only thing consistent about what we know of this specific gar is its weight; according to most of our sources, it was 302 pounds. Nevertheless, there have been reports of heavier gar. According to John James Audubon, a gar "was caught which weighed 400 pounds." Other sources echo this figure, but the facts remain a bit fishy, with hearsay and rumor carrying more weight than official statistics.


The best indications of garfish monstrosity are photographs. Like the one in Killers of the Seas, by Edward R. Ricciuti, showing a bunch of Depression Era men in overalls and hats, smoking cigs on a cobblestoned Little Rock, Arkansas street. Beneath the glow of an old time street light, a seven-foot gar is strapped to the bumper of a rickety truck. This fish appears to be at least 250 pounds.

Or in the magazine In-Fisherman, in a recent article entitled "Save the Alligator Gar," there's a photo from the 30s of a safari-hatted Dr. Drennen cranking back on his rod, while his buddy pulls back on a bow, arrowhead poised and ready for release, pointing straight toward the head of a surface-bursting gar. The head of this fish is twice the size of the doctor's.

Next to that picture, an "8-foot 2-inch 210-pound gator gar caught in Red Lake, Hempstead County, Arkansas, 1921" hangs from a tree behind two grim men dressed in black, with expressions on their faces like the fish deserved it. This lynched gar, with an actual noose around its neck, is gagging at the sky, its mouth gaping open.

Then there's a picture of Barbara Roy and her "unofficial state record garfish" (caught on 20-pound test) hanging beside her. She "caught [this] monster Garfish on her new Zebco 888 rod & reel," according to Cajun Charlie, who sent the picture to Louisiana Fishing Magazine. This gar is two heads higher than Barbara Roy, and she's no midget.

My favorite picture, however, will always be the one in Fish and Fishing by Maynard Reece from 1963. This gar weighs well over 200 pounds, and is as fat around as a trashcan. It lies in the sand while the fishermen raise its primitive head, showing off its nostrils and fangs. These are the Hawaiian-shirted guys who first made me ask, "What the hell kind of fish is that?"


Trying to git myself a gar, I saw a lot, but haven't caught squat. On a bayou by Breaux Bridge, a four-foot gar was hooked on a line someone had strung from an overhanging branch. It was flopping all around, just twenty yards away on the opposite bank. I could've swam across, and risked being caught by whoever set that line (an unforgivable offense in Cajun country), but I didn't feel like braving the water-moccasined current. So I just sat there and watched it splash.

Another time, I was out on Alligator Bayou east of Baton Rouge, drinking beer with my friend Kris Hansen. The water was low and the gar were rolling in the weeds, as they do throughout the summer. Kris had a ridiculous oversized lure. It was red and white and looked like a beer can, and every time he cast it out, a gar would hit it. He couldn't set the hook, though, because their beaks were too bony for the barbs to catch flesh.

After that, below Plaquemine, one followed my girlfriend's bobber in. We could see it on the surface, its long skinny body tinted gold by the copper water. If I would've had a gun at the time, I would've had myself a garfish.

And over by Lake Fardoche, I once saw one leap completely from the water, twist in the sky, then slap down on its side. That gar was longer than most men.

On the levee below Henderson, though, on rutted roads going off into the brush, that's where I'd find the best dead gar, their bellies slit open, meat scraped out, heads cooked clean by the sun. These were the spoils of professional garfishermen, who dumped dead gar by the truckload. The garpiles were usually three to five feet deep.

On one of these roads, I discovered some decapitated garheads set off to the side. The first one was the hugest I had ever seen, taken off a gar at least six feet. The second one was even bigger. But the third one was the biggest bastard of them all! At first I thought it was an alligator skull.

I took it home and threw it up on the roof so the sun would dry it out. Meanwhile, I compared the size of this head to the one at Prejean's, a restaurant in Lafayette. Their trophy gar was six-foot-something, and 200-something pounds. My garhead was almost twice the size of theirs, making it a gar of unspeakably proportions.

I eventually wrapped that garhead up, drove it out to New Mexico, and gave it to my father for Christmas. He thought it was pretty cool too, so put it on a stump outside the kitchen window. It didn't take long for the coyotes to find it and run off into the foothills with it. Now, somewhere up in the arroyos of the Sangre de Cristos—the land of delicate trout—there's a an incredible garhead bleached by the sun, its wolf-like fangs grinning at the sky.


Gitting a garfish hasn't been easy. I've been down in the swamps for four years now, and have pretty much given into the idea that it takes someone raised on dirty rice and jambalaya to hook a garfish. There are flaws to this argument, of course, since people from all over come to these parts and catch garfish on purpose as well as by accident. Like Japanese tourists going for redfish in the Gulf and hooking pesky gar (because gar can live in saltwater too, like the two mammoth gar swimming with the sharks at the New Orleans Aquarium).

My point is this: Midwestern fishermen can't catch gar. For one thing, it's a different kind of fishing than sitting on the shore at sunset with a bobber. Garfishing involves trot lines, traps, and special equipment (when they're not caught on crankbaits meant for bass).

It also involves a tolerance to the heat which Sven and Ollie will never develop, but which Boudreaux and Thibodeaux are used to. Gar are most active in the heat of the day, and in the two hottest months of the summer. At times like these, Northerners need air conditioning. Southerners, however, have developed a genetic disposition which makes operating in the heat conducive to catching garfish. When people from the North go out for gar on a 115-degree afternoon in August in the deep Deep South, they get dizzy from the blazing rays, and after a couple hours, turn into jerky from dehydration. Southerners, however, can wear long pants and a couple shirts, not even feeling the heat.

This theory, of course, is not grounded in scientific research; it is founded on fishing frustration, the vast general statement, and the convenience of making stereotypes. I am convinced that the only people who really know gar are those who catch them on a regular basis. And the rest of the world doesn't know jack.


The fishbooks seem to agree on our lack of information, noting that for the amount of time this fish has been around, we should have way more information than we do—especially considering their vast demographics. Garfish used to cover an area from Canada down to South America, and only a century ago, they covered half the continent. So it boggles the mind that they weren't observed more, and studied more, as well as dissected in basic high school science. But garfish, as a species, have always been valued less than the common lab rat.

To the unappreciative eye—that doesn't wonder at the ganoid structure of their diamond-shaped armor, their fossilific jaws and needle-sharp incisors—the garfish is not a beautiful creature. I once served some gar-steaks to the poet/commentator Andrei Codrescu, but he refused to eat them, using the excuse "That fish is just too ugly, man."

This reinforced what I saw as the popular attitude toward garfish, which has made for its stigma in the animal kingdom. Basically, nobody loves a garfish. Therefore, nobody cares—which has affected our knowledge of the species.

As Craig Springer notes in his article "Gearing Up for Alligator Gar," "It's just ironic…Here we have the second largest freshwater fish in the US, and yet we know so little about it…The body of knowledge on alligator gar is indeed very limited. Life history studies are lacking. To date, studies on alligator gar have been confined to diet, with some cursory inquiries on the fish's distribution in a few of the states."

Similarly, Migdalski's Angler's Guide argues that our lack of knowledge regarding gar is reflected in their ambiguous taxonomy: "Authors of technical works on fresh water fishes state, 'there are fewer than ten species' or 'the gar family contains about ten species.' This indecisiveness about a basic fact indicates how little we know about this family."

Within the last three decades, though, biologists and conservationists, along with government agencies, have been making efforts to study garfish. The reason they've been doing this is because gar have pretty much ceased to exist above the Bible Belt, when half a century earlier they used to range as far north as the Great Lakes. Garfish have also disappeared from the West, where water is less plentiful now.

The majority of garfish authorities are united in their befuddlement over the great decline in gar populations, frequently citing "overfishing" as the most likely reason for their diminishing numbers, while bemoaning the fact that there's no support for such a hypothesis. "Sportfishing" has also been suggested, since interest in this has increased over the last couple decades (mostly due to the fact that gar are becoming more and more of a rarity, and therefore, a novelty), but there doesn't seem to be a convincing consensus that garfishing contributes to extinction.

A more convincing argument is that of mass extermination, which was encouraged by anti-garfish propaganda from the 30s. For example, government publications like Fishes and Fishing in Louisiana manifested the gar's reputation as a no-good "roughfish" by publishing statements such as this: "The Gars, so familiar an element in our Louisiana fish fauna, are of unusual interest for many reasons. Numbered among our most objectionable fishes, they are a pest to the commercial fisherman and to the angler alike, for their voracity is responsible for the destruction of great numbers of useful and valuable fishes." Or, as In-Fisherman points out, "Historical records verify a persistent campaign to eradicate alligator gar. As early as 1933, writers called for their destruction…they are a menace to modern animal life and will wreak vast destruction unless they themselves are destroyed by game lovers and sportsmen alike." A History of Fishes repeats this sentiment, noting that "The Alligator Gar Pike…is very destructive to food fishes, and causes a great deal of damage to the nets of fishermen, who kill it without mercy. It is not even good eating itself, the flesh being rank and tough, and unfit even for dogs."

This overall attitude towards garfish, along with other unstudied accusations and rumors of plague (like the "parasitic mussel scare," in which gar were falsely demonized as carriers), eventually led to their classification as trashfish in close to half the states in America by the middle of the twentieth century. Up until the 1990s, most states had no set limit on the taking of garfish. Individual states either made it illegal to return live gar to the water or they called for fishermen to destroy them immediately after capture.

A quarter century of research, however, has revealed that garfish pose little threat to gamefish populations (i.e., bass, pike, walleye, trout, sunfish, and catfish). For instance, it used to be believed that garfish destroy the nesting grounds of other species to propagate their own. This misinformation has now been refuted due to studies that explain how gar spawn in warm, shallow backwaters which higher-status fish try to avoid.

Also, as a 1971 study (entitled Food Study of the Bowfin and Gars in Eastern Texas, published by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department) discovered, the diet of garfish consists mainly of forage fish, which are defined as shad, bowfin, bullheads, shiners, buffalo, suckers, chubs, carp, "gou" (aka, freshwater drum), gar (yep, they eat their own kind), and other types of trashfish that are generally considered abundant and disposable. This study was conducted at various points from 1963 to 1966, and relied on data extracted from the bellies of bowfin and gar, which share the same diet. Here are some findings collected from February 1, 1964 to January 31, 1965:

Out of 240 specimens collected, 165 had food in their stomachs. No bugs were discovered, but 23 crustaceans (mostly crawfish) were, along with 302 forage fish. There were 63 unidentified remains, 0 amphibians, 3 instances of detritus (vegetation, sticks, small grains and artificial lures), 4 instances of "unidentified" (meaning completely unknown food items, due to high degrees of digestion), and 13 gamefish.

This means that only 5% of all gar examined had ingested gamefish. No doubt, most of these were sunfish, which are even more common in the diet of gamefish.

Such statistics were found to be consistent with other studies conducted throughout the South in the 70s and 80s, which made it official that the amount of gamefish being devoured by gar was minimal. Hence, the foundation for the argument that garfish destroy gamefish populations was proven to be false. And not only that, but because such studies revealed that gar eradicate "pests" like themselves, it was concluded that garfish play a vital role in controlling roughfish populations.

As individual states like Arkansas looked at their endangered species lists in light of this new information, they began to pass laws protecting garfish. Throughout the 90s, southern states began to incorporate new limits (sometimes as low as two gar per day), while repealing laws mandating their destruction. Oklahoma began tagging gar in order to track them and understand their habits, while using hatcheries to bring their numbers up. The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency even enacted legislation against "garfish harvesting," in the interest of developing "constructive management plans that do not regard alligator gar as nuisances to be destroyed, but as beneficial predators that contribute positively to ecosystem stability, the balance among predators and prey, and…exciting angling."

Nevertheless, experts agree that something beyond overfishing, sportfishing, and encouraging eradication has been a factor in diminishing garfish populations; but they don't know what it is. When garfish researchers come to me, however, I will tell them the obvious three-part answer:

1) Dams: Like salmon, like squawfish, like half the freshwater fish on the planet, garfish can't swim as far upstream as they used to. And since dams control flooding, and since there is now less flooding than there used to be, and since garfish migrate upstream to spawn in flooded areas, there are now fewer places for gar to spawn.

2) Delicate Reproduction: Since garfish spawning is pretty much relegated to the marshes and swamps of the South now (thanks to the above), areas are required where water levels do not fluctuate, so that gar eggs can remain under water for three to nine days in order to hatch. The jettisoning of eggs is a sensitive process, depending on specific plantlife for the fry to attach to after they are born. The fry then need nine undisturbed days to live off their egg sacks before they can leave the spawning grounds. Increased farming and development have been hampering this process.

3) Insecticides, Fertilizers, and Other Poisons: As studies on ospreys in New England have proven, DDT, which contains DDE, gets into animal fat and is reproduced for generations, softening the outer layers of eggs, causing sterility and lowering the immune system of various species, particularly those at the top of the foodchain. There has been a nationwide ban on DDT for decades now, thanks to conservationist consternation concerning the osprey. Since these bans, infected animal populations have been making a comeback across the country. Tests on gar roe would no doubt yield traces of DDT and other poisons, but alas, the lowly garfish is hardly as noble as the esteemed and venerated osprey.


Still, it's frustrating not to git a garfish. Something there is in me that's just gotta git one. My bruised fishing ego is at stake.

That's why I found myself taking my friend Kevin to the levee again. The day before, we were out there catching minnows to feed my pet catfish when we stumbled across a gar spawning spot. The water was high, and they were rolling in the grass in the afternoon heat. I had to git me one!

So I waded out with my minnow net and began stalking garfish. They let me get pretty close and I could see them pretty clearly: they were a couple feet long with oblong black spots, swimming in pairs. Must've been fifty or sixty of them.

I'd get as close as I could, but then they'd shoot off. I'd plunge in my net, and miss every time. Until I snuck up on a stump, where I could see a couple on the other side, rolling in the weeds. The smart one saw me and shot off, but the dumb one stayed behind. That garfish was a sitting duck.

I positioned the net right above its head. I went for it. SPLASH! The garfish shot straight into the mesh. I pulled the net up on the stump and the gar came with it, splashing like crazy. I had it. It was mine. Finally, a garfish!

But then it flopped out of the net and started slapping around on the stump. I dove for it, slipped, and fell into the bayou just as the garfish flopped back in itself, leaving me covered with muck.

So that's why we were heading back. This time, though, I was armed with a brand new net from Walmart which I had reinforced and extended with a mop handle.

"Lepisosteus spatula," I told Kevin as I drove, "is known by many other names: gar pike, gator gar, diamond-fish, devil-fish, jackfish, garjack, bony pike, billy gar, etcetera."

Kevin didn't seem to be too impressed with my bevy of gar-knowledge. He lit up a cig while I continued expounding:

"Garfish have lung-like organs which breathe air. This option allows them to lie in dry bayous for days and wait for water levels to rise, or gulp air on the surface of low-oxygen ponds."

I was an encyclopedia of fascinating gar-facts.

"The roe of garfish is toxic to humans. Indians once made arrowheads from their scales. There's a saying in the Carolinas which goes 'as common as gar-broth.'"

"What do they eat?" Kevin asked, blowing out a plume of smoke.

"Nutria rats," I told him, "ducks, bugs, herons, fish. Reportedly, some have even eaten soap. Not to mention giant turkeys, small dogs, and decoys."

"What about humans?"

"There's never been a verified account," I answered, totally prepared for this question, "but there have been reports of gar maulings. The most famous account is from 1932, in Mandeville, Louisiana, at the height of American gar-paranoia. A certain Dr. Paine reported that he had patched up a nine-year-old girl who'd been sitting on the edge of Lake Pontchartrain dangling her feet in the water. Apparently, her toes must've looked like teeny weenies, because the next thing she knew a seven-foot gar was dragging her in. She screamed and her thirteen-year-old brother ran to the rescue. He pulled her away and her leg was just a bloody stump."

Suddenly, we were at the spot, ready to git ourselves a garfish. The water, however, was down, leaving yesterday's eggs exposed to the sun, and the gar out deeper, rippling on the surface. So I snuck out with my net, just in time to see a gartail rise. It slapped the water and they all shot off.

A fat lotta good all that book-learning did me!

We ended up chasing a bunch of retarded ducks on the shore, trying to get them with my special gar-net. They waddled and quacked while we stumbled after. Kevin went for a duck and conked it on the head, causing us both to flush with guilt.

It's a pathetic sight when grown men fail to git a garfish.


Colonel J.G. Burr of Texas was the Adolph Hitler of garfish. He was the Director of Research of the Game Fish and Oyster Commission in Austin in the 30s, where he tried his damnedest to destroy gar through electrocution. He ended up sending thousands to the Chair.

Col. Burr's preferred method was stringing a power line across the bottom of a body of water, then dragging buoys across the surface connected to ground wires. He'd send 400 volts through the power line, and all fish within range would float to the surface either knocked out or dead.

This shocking behavior on the part of the Colonel was encouraged by various bureaus of research and conservation which publicly called for inventors "to devise methods for Gar control, since it is clear that this species is a real menace to many forms of fish and other wild life."

Col. Burr went on to construct a special boat meant for the massacre of gars: The Electrical Gar Destroyer. It was an 8 x 16 foot "barge" rigged with a 200-volt generator and an electric net that zapped the fish then scooped them up. There was a bright red floodlight hooked up to the bow to blind the garfish if they weren't quite dead, and lessen their struggle. The environmentally minded Colonel did this (so we're told) to protect goslings in a neighborhood pond.

On the maiden voyage of the Electrical Gar Destroyer, the gar-maddened Colonel succeeded in wiping out 75 alligator gar and 1000 turtles. After that, he went up and down bayous and canals ridding Texas of garfish (and whatever else happened to be there), even making excursions into saltwater to get the gar which had fled the threat of his all mighty net.

Mr. J.G. McGee of New Mexico then took a hint from the Colonel and rigged up something similar in the Pecos River in Roswell. He went to dams where gar had gathered and shocked them all to death. Others followed suit. Garfish floated belly up across the desert Southwest.

Meanwhile, Col. Burr was compiling all sorts of data on killing gar at various depths with various voltages in different degrees of salinity during different months of the summer. He exterminated millions, making a great dent in the American garfish population.

Following a massive gar-kill in Lake Caddo, this is what the great sportsman Col. Burr had to say: "I saw one immense Gar, which seemed to be 7 feet long, spring entirely out of the water 30 feet away. His jump was at an angle of 45 degrees and I am sure he felt the current. This jumping of the Gars, whether they went into the net or not, produced a thrill which can not be found in any other kind of fishing."


Contrary to claims that garflesh ain't fit for a dog, there doesn't seem to be a shortage of garmeat being sold in the South. I've seen steaks and filets at rinky-dink stores and gas stations all over the state. And as piles of skinned gar in the swamps attest, there is a market for garfish.

In Fishing Gear Online, there's an article entitled "Gar in the Pan." The author, Keith Sutton, writes: "Actually, gars are rather tasty, a fact that becomes obvious when you learn of the hundreds of thousands of pounds of gar meat being sold each year at Mom-and-Pop fish markets throughout the country. On a recent visit to a south Arkansas fish market, I watched as the proprietor sold hundreds of pounds of gar meat in three hours, at $3 a pound. Catfish fillets, selling for $2.50 per pound, were hardly touched by the customers…'I can't get enough gars to meet the demand," the proprietor told me. 'Once folks try it and find out how good it really is, they come back wanting more. The fish are difficult to dress, but the meat cooks up white and flaky, and tastes as good as any fish you ever put in your mouth.'"

Sutton goes on to tell us how he ate a freshly cut steak from a 190-pound gar, and how he was impressed it. He compares the taste to crappie, before offering up this poem:

My pan at home it has been greased
For gar he is a tasty beast
I shall invite the local priest
To join me in this garish feast.

Whether the second to the last word in the poem is missing an "f," I can't say. But I can say what follows in the article—step by step instructions on how to prepare garfish:

First, cut off the head and tail with an axe, leaving a big long tube of food. Secondly, use tin snips to split the bony hide open, right down the belly. Thirdly, peel the meat back from the armor using gloves to protect your fingers. After that, filet the meat along the backbone, then cut the loins into smaller pieces.

Sutton goes on to list a multitude of recipes, including gar-stew, gar-cakes, stir-fried gar, gar boulettes and garfish Mississippi. So far, this article is the best resource I've found on how to cook gar. It's available on-line at


So I took off for the Gaspergou Bayou Oil and Gas Fields, where it's said that the largest old gar in the state still live—some of them close to a century old. I was armed with a canoe full of milkjugs with guitar strings strung to treble hooks meant for Puget Sound lingcod, a bucket of turkey necks, two gas cans full of liquified chum, some cans of dogfood, and my father's 9mm Luger captured off a Nazi soldier.

I also had one bearded Bulgarian with me, Plamen Arnoudov. Last time I took him fishing, he hooked an endangered paddlefish and conked it on the head with a hammer. We ate paddlefish for days, which of course is illegal.

But then again, so is fishing without a license. Which we intended to do—as almost every single Cajun does. And nobody tells Cajuns not to eat what they catch—that's what they've been doing since the 1700s, hunting and trapping and living off the land. So why should we be any different? Just because their ancestors got abducted from Canada and dumped in a swamp, and Longfellow wrote a poem about some tree—does that give them more right to fish here than us? I don't think so.

It didn't really matter, though, since the place we were going was posted "OFF LIMITS" to everyone. Gaspergou Bayou is owned by Texaco, who ran a big old petrochemical plant out on a platform until just a few years ago when the state shut them down. Supposedly, they'd been dumping something out there that couldn't be mentioned in the papers. Now, however, the platform is abandoned, and this is where the big ones lurk.

So we snuck through the cypress forest. For miles and miles, great horned owls stared down at us from blasted old growth while egrets and ibises nested all around. There were alligators lying on logs and copperheads winding through the duckweed. Eventually, we got to the platform, where there were vultures perched on giant pipes overgrown with ivies.

From a hundred yards away, we could see the surface rippling. So we stayed where we were and baited up our floats. The wind was with us, blowing toward the platform. Our bait started moving across the swamp. Soon, twenty jugs were making their way toward the gar-swirls, each of them dangling a big hunk of meat. Then we broke out the chum.

I'd bought a case of slicker (which is freshwater mullet) at a place called Breaux's in Henderson. One box, one dollar. Then I ground them up in the food-processor until it became an oily purée, which I put outside for three days in the sun. When the neighbors started complaining about the stench, that's when I poured it into a couple empty gas cans.

So Plamen and I, we put on our spigots and poured the soup into the swamp. A reeking red puddle followed the jugs, and that's when I saw a long armored back rise from the water, then disappear just as quickly. I couldn't believe the size of it—it was half the size of my canoe. The sun, I figured, was making me hallucinate.

After that, we pounded holes in the Alpo cans, making bait-bombs. We then hurled these into the garfield, where they began to release dogfoody fluids, getting the gar all excited.

We waited. Suddenly a milkjug went under, then reappeared ten feet later. Then another went down. Then another. The garfish were going nuts over there. We waited until all twenty were bobbing and bopping around. Then we paddled over.

The first one we pulled up had a five-foot gar hooked on it. It started splashing around in a frenzy. There was no way we were gonna get it in the boat without tipping over, so I leveled the Luger between its eyes and blasted a hole through its head. It convulsed, thrashed, smacked into the hull.

And then we saw something incredible. Its pals began attacking it, swarming it, right beneath my canoe. We could see garfish eight feet long, sometimes longer. They were ripping their fallen comrade apart, and slapping at the surface, which was roiling red with blood.

We gripped the canoe and tried to hold on. The buzzards above were laughing at us, mocking us, screeching like the damned. A couple times, the boat almost flipped—and we knew what would happen if we went into the drink. But then the ruckus ceased.

Turning toward the platform, we saw nineteen milkjugs on the run. Something had spooked them. That's when we heard a tremendous splash. We swiveled to see a gar so huge that I'd lose all credibility as a garfish aficionado if I tried to describe the size of it. I will only say that some of those books weren't so far off, and that its entire chromy backside was cutting across the swamp, coming our way.

The next thing we knew, we were kicking up a rooster tail, making for the cypress trees. And as we paddled like lunatics, I no longer felt that urge anymore—to git myself a garfish.

Printed in the Spring/Summer 2002 issue of CLR

Mark Spitzer

Mark Spitzer is the Assistant Editor of Exquisite Corpse (, and has published books like Chum (Zoland Books), Bottom Feeder (Creative Arts), and The Collected Poems of Georges Bataille (Dufour Editions).

He is still trying to git himself a garfish.

You can find Mark Spitzer on the web at:
—  Mark Spitzer
—  PopMatters Book Review
—  Exquisite Corpse
—  Barnes and Noble
—  Powell's Books

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