Throwback Fish Gives Memorable Impression

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
3 July 2011
By Bob Frye

A northern pike, maybe. That's what Wayne Yancec initially thought he had on the end of his line.

The New Eagle man was fishing the Monongahela River earlier this year near the mouth of Ten Mile Creek with his wife, Nancy, tossing a white tube jig. On one cast toward the bank, he felt a bite, set the hook, and found himself attached to something very angry.

"I've caught sharks out of the ocean the same size and they never fought anything like that," he said. "I really had to hang on."

But to what? Even when he got the fish into the boat, he wasn't sure what it was.

It was obviously strong. It was gorgeous, with great, thick, diamond-shaped scales. And it had a long snout so full of teeth "I thought I was going to have to get a dentist to get the hook out," Yancec said.

It turns out, he had a longnose gar.

They're a species that, according to scientists, has been around for 100 million years.

"They were swimming underneath the feet of the T-Rex," said Bill Meyer of Morris, Ill., founder of the Gar Anglers' Sporting Society. "And they're still swimming around, they're still here."

There was a time when they weren't very abundant locally, though. Native to the Ohio and Erie watersheds, they were a state-listed "candidate" species — two steps below endangered — as recently as 2008

But the return of clean water to the rivers has brought populations back, in some cases substantially, said Rick

Lorson, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission's area 8 fisheries manager based in Somerset.

"In my tenure here, we've kind of watched the numbers increase," he said.

The Allegheny River has the most, he said, followed by the Ohio and Monongahela. Anglers have reported them in

the Yough and Conemaugh rivers, too, though Lorson said they have not been officially documented there.

It's the difficulty in catching gar that keeps some anglers from realizing they're around.

They eat other fish and can be aggressive feeders, said Bob Lorantas, warmwater unit leader for the commission.

But their bony, needle-like beak is so hard that it's tough to hook them.

"I've seen a lot of them in our assessment surveys, and I've probably had my bait stolen by them many times when fishing a minnow under a bobber," Lorantas said. "But I don't think I've ever gotten one on a hook and line in my lifetime."

John McKean of Glenshaw has, and he said the trick is to fish without using a hook. He uses what's called a "rope lure," which is six inches of nylon rope that's been combed out. He ties it to 5-pound braided line with a sinker attached and fishes it like a jig.

When a gar hits the lure, the key is to wait until the fish "chomps on it long enough to get his teeth tangled in the rope," he said.

Then, you hang on.

"They're like a freshwater tarpon," McKean said. "They're so much fun that, a couple of years ago, I swore they were going to be the only thing I'd fish for."

There's not much competition, as fishermen targeting gar are almost unheard of here, as in most places. Meyer says they don't know what they're missing.

"They are just a riot," he said. "Imagine a four-foot fish, which is not out of the ordinary. You set the hook and these fish shoot skyward, come crashing down, then take to the air again and again. It's just a blast."

Yancec is a believer. He's got pictures of his gar on his wall at home.

"I've talked to a lot of my friends who have been fishing the river for years and they've never heard of one being caught," he said. "And it was such a beautiful fish, just gorgeous."

Bob Frye can be reached at or 724-838-5148.