Archive for May, 2007

Jurassic gar

Our bass boat entered another bay that looked like bass heaven, but after a few unanswered casts, I began loosing confidence again. My guide and long-time fishing partner, Glen Hales, and I had spent all morning launching juicy bass-poppers into the mid-summer wind, stripping in between mazes of lilly pads, looking for the trophy-size largemouth that were once so bountiful. This year, however, they all seemed to have vanished. Every time conditions are perfect, and fishing is lousy, I enter what psychologists would call the denial fish-phase, when an angler begins ranting and formulating new hypotheses about why he is not catching fish. “It must be the fault of all those bass tournaments they organize on the Bay… that kind of over-fishing has to bring down the population…” But before I could babble on about water temperature or barometer, Glen yelled: “gar”! A four-foot shadow glided through the weeds along the sandy shoreline, before spooking off at the sight of our boat. The wind had died down and the muddy, windswept shore ahead of us was churning with activity. “Carp ahead”, I muttered; but as we approached, we did not see the typical raised tails of feeding carp. Instead, we were surprised to see schools of shiners breaking the surface, trying to escape the jaws of the gar that hunted them. Glen immediately lunged for his tackle box and had a gar fly on before I could snip off my popper. After his first cast, it had begun…

glengar.jpgGar are among the most primitive of fishes. In North America, fossil records reveal the species has remained relatively unchanged for the past 50 million years, making it much older than species such as salmon or trout. Though the gar family is perhaps best known for the giant alligator gar down South which can reach into the hundreds of pounds (the IGFA record is 130 lbs.), the longnose gar is the second largest (the IGFA record is 80 pounds) and is very common up North, including Lake Ontario. The Great Lakes are a spectacular watershed. Only a few hundred years ago, Lake Ontario, from the mighty Niagara Falls to the St-Lawrence River was a landlocked Atlantic salmon paradise. Giant twenty to forty pound salmon, or Ouananiche, as the native Indians called them, returned every year to spawn in the lake’s numerous tributaries. Across both borders, from the Salmon river in Pulaski, NY, to the Moira, Credit, and Ganaraska rivers on the Canadian side, the early 19th century angler could expect endless adventure with rod and reel. Unfortunately, as the shadow of human population continued to expand, milldams were constructed on every spawning river and creek. Farmers also needed fertilizer for their fields, so wild landlocked Atlantic salmon were also pitch-forked by the thousands on their spawning beds. A half-century later, another unique strain of salmon was completely extinct.

Then came other man-assisted invasions. The building of the St-Lawrence Sea Way allowed the sea lamprey to reach all the Great Lakes and feast on the healthy population of lake trout. Today, it’s the zebra mussel. In only a few years, nutrient-rich waters have been so filtered or de-eutrified by the infestation of mussels that the ecosystem has been irreversibly unbalanced.

garathon.jpg But perhaps even more dramatic is the introduction of so many foreign fish species to the watershed. The first species to be introduced was carp, then many strains of Pacific salmon, steelhead, and brown trout. The charter boat sport-fishing industry has grown so rapidly that some biologists even attempted triploidity experiments on chinook salmon, shocking their eggs to prevent sex organs (gonads) from growing so that these adult ‘eunuchs’ would grow even bigger, and create more hype for the dozens of fish derbies held annually. No wonder during fall salmon season, I have noticed in tributaries around nuclear power plants especially, that some fish (and certain combat fisherman that chase them) seem to have a Frankenstein-like aura to them…

I was thirteen years old when I caught my first coho salmon. It was a warm X-mas eve. In the mist, heavy wet flakes of snow danced through the air as a distant church organ continually broadcast through mega-speakers the haunting instrumental chime of every X-mas Carol. I landed a 15 pounder to the sound of ‘Little Drummer Boy’. Lake Ontario had hooked me for life… In the following years, much to the chagrin of our abandoned family members and loved ones (repeatedly during Thanksgiving, or Easter, or a birthday) my friends and I would huddle all night in a bus, or a train, and later, a car, soaring across the highways along the lake, filled with the anticipation of angling adventure. We would wait for rain and spend countless nights, drenched, cold, tired, watching migratory salmon and trout leaping rapids. There was a time when nothing on earth would stir us more than the sight of a male hook-jawed brown trout at sunrise adorned with explosive spawning coloration, or the be-jeweled pink band flanking a winter steelhead…

Over the years, Glen and I shared a love of angling and photography that continued to grow. In addition to being a consummate fly-fisherman, Glen’s fly-tying prowess has led him to tackle many alternative species in Lake Ontario’s Bay of Quinte. Aside from catching carp, suckers, walleye, fresh-water drum, musky, pike, bass, channel catfish and even eels on a fly, Glen has invented the ‘Belleville Stinger’, a streamer tied with a small metal leader ending with a tiny treble that is deadly for gar. The fish is hard to hook under any circumstance, due mainly to its needle teeth and extended, bony jaws — allowing virtually no room for a hook to set. When hunting the shallows, gar tend to corner and slash at a baitfish with their teeth, then they run with it for a while before turning and swallowing it head first. Thus, normal flies are dropped almost instantly. A good gar fly has mesh or material that attempts to entangle itself in the fish’s teeth, but the small treble stinger seems to hold longest, especially since gar are also famous for leaping out of the water when hooked and swirling around the line. Using wire tippet such as Surflon is also recommended. Gar have also developed the strange tactic of ambushing their pray by swimming sideways, imitating a floating branch. Their diamond-shaped scales are covered with an enamel-like substance called ganon with gives them armor-like skin, and makes it easy for anglers to handle them for release.

The Bay of Quinte is the largest shallow water section of the lake, fed by five main rivers. It makes for an ideal spawning ground for many species. Recently, Glen had caught the Ontario record carp, a 40 pounder on a small caddis nymph. “It’s only a matter of time,” he would say, before we get the record gar… Although extremely numerous in the Bay, the Ontario record, taken from the Moira, one of the lake’s tributaries, is just under fifteen pounds. Seeing fish over twenty pounds are not uncommon, but hooking and landing them is another story. As we grew older, we noticed that the quality and quality of our fishing days were progressively decreasing around the lake. We watched our favorite fishing spots become more crowded, and the number and size of fish seemed to dwindle with every passing year, suggesting that our best days were behind us. Today was a significant day though. Glen was getting married in a few months, and since I was to be best man, this was our last ‘bachelor fishing party’ before the big event…

The gar erupted from the surface and immediately shook the fly. “They’re everywhere!” Glen shouted. Next to the boat, I watched a 10-pound gar rise to the surface and release a bubble of air. The gar’s swim bladder is connected to its oesophagus, operating as a primitive lung and allowing it to breathe atmospheric air, very useful in low-oxygen conditions. As I stared at the ring of ripples expanding towards the boat, the gar swallowed another air bubble and sank slowly below… That’s when I realised I had lost track of my surroundings. The other boats that were trolling close by were gone. In the maze of back-bays, I no longer knew or cared in which direction was the boat ramp. The wind had become a soft steady drift, which pushed the boat parallel to shore within perfect casting distance. All was silent. Even the periodic howl of the distant train had faded. Three large fish followed my twitching streamer before a small one nailed it at the boat. “Let’s go back for those big ones”, I proposed as Glen pulled a 10 pounder into the boat. “No, there’s more ahead” he answered, then tossed the fish in the live-well for future picture taking. We had fished for gar many times before but never, never had seen this… As far as the eye could see, long shadows and shapes emerged as we floated by. On every cast we got a strike or a follow: it was gar heaven.

Normally on the Bay, finding groups of a few fish are common. Gar love the heat. In mid-summer, when it’s too hot to fish for much else, we wade the weedy shallows searching for bait fish or the give-away sign of a gar breaking the surface, exposing it’s beak. In June or July, Bay of Quinte gar also head up stream to spawn in rivers where it is possible to catch them in rapids and shallow rock beds, great fun on light line. We thought we had seen it all… We were dead wrong. By the time we had our fourth or fifth double-header, we had spotted several hundred fish. “There must be thousands! No one will believe us!” I added, reaching for the camera. Since the live-well was full, I suggested we take some shots and release the fish. “Oh my God!” Glen murmured. Ignoring me, he made a frantic false-cast before tossing a badly mauled fly in between two patches of weed. The fly was smashed immediately and the 8-weight heaved in protest. The creature bolted forward with one thrash of its tail. “It’s huge!” I yelled, placing my camera on the seat. The thick back of the fresh-water dinosaur headed under the boat. Since many fish are lost when tangled in weeds, we tend to use the ‘little or no drag, heave and pray’ method. Glen plunged his rod tip into the water allowing the fly line to narrowly escape entanglement with the electric motor shaft. The fish made another run and the reel squealed off some line, almost pulling Glen over-board in the process. “The Ontario record?” I wondered out loud as I positioned myself on one knee ready to grab at the fish. “Yup”, Glen answered dryly as the monstrous gar surfaced next to my hands. The fly was barely hooked in its jaws. Without thinking twice, I grabbed the beast with both hands at the shoulders and heaved it on deck as the fly immediately dislodged from its jaw.

The fish was obviously close to 20 pounds and unquestionably a record. But what follows is one of those blurry moments, fit for the reel of America’s most funny angling videos. So sure was I that the fish was secure, I released one hand from around it’s flank and grabbed Glen by the shoulder in congratulations. At that moment, the fish went ballistic, wrenched itself from by hand and bounced off the deck of the bass-boat platform. The fish landed on the edge of the boat balancing perfectly still – half in the boat, half out. Of course I immediately lunged after it and of course… It was too late. The fish gave one last heave and torpedoed perfectly back into the water. Glen was speechless. I attempted to babble a pointless excuse, then offered “Still want me as your best man? I promise not to lose the ring…” Glen didn’t answer. He made a half-hearted cast towards a pod of gar but got snagged in some weeds. We decided to count that as a sign and end the day early. Even though fish still loomed about, we had caught more than our fair share. Glen returned the following weekend, but the summer heat wave had ended, fall was around the corner, and only a few fish remained along the shoreline. He caught enough gar though, to make him forget about my dumb maneuver and allowed me to be best man at his wedding… And no, I didn’t lose the ring.

In Search of King-Size Salmon

giant75lbking.jpg…Two boats spiraling into the eye of a maelstrom; one of them is being toed to the sea by a Skeena river king determined to ignore the minor discomfort of a heavy rod, reel, and hundreds of yards of 40 pound test… Just another day at the office for veteran guide Noel Gyger of Terrace, British Columbia. We had been anchored side by side with his nephew’s boat when they hooked into the `screamer’ that nearly stripped them before the anchor buoy could be tossed. Not wanting to miss any of the action, Noel and I decided to join in the chase.The Skeena’s glacial current is swift and unforgiving. Our boats finally drifted towards a sharp river bend where the flow intensified into a whirlpool. Of course, of all the miles of river to rest, the salmon decided to choose the whirlpool! In between the sudden bursts of engine acceleration, Noel managed to meet my gaze and whisper: “it’s a big one.” So there we were, under a snow-peaked horizon, circling the whirlpool… and somewhere deep below in the dark green water, the king lay resting… waiting…

In the last century, the pursuit of trophy salmon has fuelled the hearts of countless anglers. Yet, as we enter a new millennium, the realm of the trophy salmon hunter has changed considerably. What can today’s angler expect in terms of size on the West Coast and in the Great-Lakes? Has overpopulation killed the golden age of trophy king fishing, or is there still much to look forward to?

The Great-Lakes

a28.jpgIn the Great-Lakes region, the introduction of pacific species has caused the sportfishing industry to boom. These stocked salmon, however, do not reach the size as some of their Pacific Coast cousins. Although some rare forty pounders have been landed, fish over twenty five pounds are considered trophies. To compensate for such shortcomings, researchers such as Dr. Don Garling and Dr. Howard Tanner of Michigan State, are conducting triploidity research to produce monster-size Chinook in the Great-Lakes. By heat-shocking salmon eggs, sterility is caused in the majority of adults, and it is believed that this negation of the reproductive urge in salmon will enable them to live longer and grow larger.

This preoccupation of engineering a salmon paradise, however, is not going unchallenged. Great-Lakes biologists are confronted with the delicate task of monitoring how stocked fish affect the fragile baitfish/predator balance within the ecosystem.