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THE Lake of the Ozarks Fishing GuideExpert Articles by John Neporadny Jr. - July 2008

Tricking Lake of the Ozarks Gar

by John Neporadny Jr.

Lake of the Ozarks anglers can experience the same thrills Northern fishermen get when they watch a big musky follow their lures this summer.

While muskies are a rarity here, the Lake of the Ozarks has its own version of this hard-fighting fish in the gar. Considered a trash fish by many, gar offer the same "big-game" angling experience as muskies. Gar match muskies in fighting ability and display the same characteristic of chasing a lure all the way to the boat. Some species of gar even grow larger than the Northern trophy fish.

A transplanted Michigan angler accidentally discovered the gar's hard-fighting qualities several years ago when he moved to Missouri's Lake of the Ozarks. While fishing for bass one day, Mark Dahl, a former guide and owner of Dahl's Mini-Mart bait-and-tackle/convenience store in Gravois Mills, Mo., had gar attacking his floating minnow lure. "After catching the second one, my arms were tired," Dahl says.

Dahl had so much fun catching big gar on bass tackle that he went back for more each summer and eventually included this form of fishing in his guide service. When the action got slow for game fish during the summer, Dahl offered his clients the alternative of fishing for monster gar with topwater bass lures. He has caught both the longnose and shortnose species of gar using bass baits on his home lake, but he prefers pursuing the longnose since it grows larger.

Summertime offers the best action for gar, since the fish tend to surface more as they gulp air into their swim bladder. The fish are most active during mid-day when they move into the shallows. "Sometimes they come in to the shallows to feed but the majority of the time it looks like they are just cruising around," Dahl says. He prefers hunting for gar on calm, sunny days because these conditions make it easier to detect surfacing fish.

If boat traffic is light, Dahl finds gar surfacing along main lake points. During heavy boat traffic, he locates them in the backs of coves. Like gamefish, gar favor deep water, so Dahl finds most of his fish in shallow areas adjacent to deep-water structure such as a channel drop. The local angler prefers fishing clear water where he can see gar cruising, but he notes his technique has produced on the main channel in dirty water.

His favorite bass lure to throw at cruising gar is a Smithwick Rattlin' Rogue. Any bright-color Rogue works, but those with chrome or gold sides radiate the most flash resulting in more strikes. Some of his clients have also caught the fish on Rapala Floaters as well. "If you are accurate and quick with your casting, a Zara Spook works super," Dahl says. "We've caught them on a lot of different topwaters, including a Rattlin' Chug Bug." You have to cast close to the gar though, because this toothy predator won't chase a surface lure very far. Gar have chased Dahl's buzz bait before, but the lure apparently moves too quickly because the fish never take a swipe at it.

Some fish spook if you cast too close to them. "Sometimes you can throw right on their nose and they will take it," Dahl says. Other times he has to cast ahead of the fish and jerk the lure down to the same depth of the cruising gar. "You have to keep your lure in front of them and above them because if you look at their eyes, you'll notice they're up on the top of their heads, so they are always looking up, not down," Dahl says. He has tried the Suspended Rattlin' Pro Rogue or a sinking model without success since these lures tend to dive out of the gar's sight. To slow the ascent of these floating lures, Dahl attaches a 3/8-ounce split shot to the front hook. This allows him to work the lure slowly in front of a cruising gar.

An erratic retrieve that simulates the action of a wounded baitfish draws a gar's attention. "Steady retrieves don't seem to be near as effective as stop-and-go retrieves, because you get an awful lot of hits when the lure just stops," Dahl says. If the fish ignores a lure sitting in front of its nose, give the lure a slight twitch to further tempt the gar into biting.

Gar will pursue a floating minnow lure all the way to the boat. When a gar nears the boat, Dahl tries the same techniques Northern anglers use when muskies follow a lure. "Most of the time they see you or they see the boat and veer off," he says. "I've tried figure-eighting (twirling the lure around in a figure-eight pattern) beside the boat and I might catch one out of 30 that way. The problem is they hit so hard and they run so fast that it's kind of like fishing for a musky. You're drag has to be loose and you have to be real attentive or you will end up with a piece of the rod in your hand or they will just yank it out of your hands altogether."

The best tackle for hooking and landing big gar is braided line and a heavy action rod. "Ultra- lights are out of the question," Dahl quips. Trying to set the hook in the bony mouth of a gar requires a stout rod. With too limber of a rod, you will have a gar on for a couple of seconds after setting the hook, but the fish will usually spit out the lure when it turns toward you.

Using sharp hooks and setting the hook three or four more times after the initial hook-up helps keep the fish on your line for awhile. Once, hooked these unpredictable fish either take off in a series of aerial acrobatics or run off in a powerful surge for open water. Straightened or broken treble hooks are the norm when giant gar turn up the thrust. You should keep your drag loose when fighting a big fish to prevent it from breaking hooks or even snapping your rod. "If you horse them too much, you'll also straighten the hooks out, " Dahl warns.

After wearing the fish down, Dahl brings the gar along the side of the boat to release it. "Unless somebody wants to measure or take a picture of the fish I really never take it out of the water," he says. A giant gar thrashing around in the bottom of your boat can wreak havoc with your tackle. To protect his hands from the gar's teeth and the treble hooks, Dahl wears a NorMark K-Steel Fillet Glove. He lifts the gar by its snout with his gloved hand and then removes the treble hook from the gar's bony jaw with a pair of stainless steel pliers.

Since it's too difficult to weigh a giant gar, Dahl estimates the length of his catches instead. The longest gar he's ever caught was approximately 6 1/2-feet long. He has also experienced some hot action during the dog days of summer. When he found gar surfacing in a cove one day, he landed six fish in 20 minutes. "I could have caught more but my arms got tired," he admits.

If the bass stop biting on a hot summer afternoon at Lake of the Ozarks, scan the surface for gar and get ready for some action that would make many musky fishermen jealous.

For information on lodging and other facilities at the Lake of the Ozarks or to receive a free 152-page vacation guide, call the Lake of the Ozarks Convention & Visitors Bureau at 1-800-FUN-LAKE or visit the Lake of the Ozarks Convention and Visitors Bureau web site at funlake.com.

Copies of John Neporadny's book, "THE Lake of the Ozarks Fishing Guide" are available by calling 573/365-4296 or visiting the web site www.jnoutdoors.com.

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