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The Gar Wars

It was not only the hottest day of the summer but the highest on record in the last twenty years, the mercury at a blistering 108F with the humidex close to ninety percent and severe storm warnings in effect, further proof that global warming  was a reality.The entire week Environment Canada issued warnings broadcast on the radio advising both the elderly and infirm as well as the very young to remain indoors and drink plenty of fluids during the heat wave. The heat was infernal and while most sane people sought to find some respite in their air-conditioned homes or swimming pools, we revelled in the torrid heat that was a harbinger for the massive numbers of gar that congregated during summer in the Bay of Quinte. This heat signalled the prime time for gar and we waited impatiently near the marina in downtown Belleville for my friend and guide extraordinaire Glen Hales to show up with his boat and take us out for a few days on the Bay of Quinte. The Gar Wars were about to begin and the force was with us.

Once the area of an ancient Indian settlement, it is a town founded over two centuries ago by the United Empire Loyalists and which lies at the halfway point on highway 401 between the cosmopolitan cities of Montreal and Toronto. It is a small town, a mix of both historic and modern, or tradition and novelty, the perfect breeding ground for quiet revolution in fly fishing that was taking place on the gar flats of the Bay of Quinte. It was the first time we had fished there and the sheer numbers of fish we encountered as we drifted into the first bay was incredible. There were hundreds of fish milling around the shallow water, terrorizing huge schools of shiner minnows, and dotting the surface with their long snouts as they rose to gulp air. The water was slighly stained and cabbage and pondweed covered portions of the sprawling bay.

Glen was the first to hook up, a three-footer that jumped twice and landed square in the bow of the boat and then bounced back into the water. It fought close to the boat and a few seconds later we had it in front of a camera lens as we admired its impressive dentition and beautifully patterned, armor-like skin, once used by the native Indians for arrowheads and chest armor plating. Like all members of its genus (Lepisosteiformes) the spotted longnose gar is basically a contemporary of dinosaurs, a holdover of the jurassic period. They are evolutionary models of perfection, with an ability to breath air outside water, and whose eggs are toxic to all mammals and other fish which ensures successful spawning rates. Other than man they have no real predators. Nobody wants to mess with them. They are fearsome in appearance, nasty in temperament, and can grow to over six feet long – the stuff of horror flicks and nightmares. Expect to shed some blood if you go fishing for these guys.

The flies we were using had been both conceived and tied by Glen who operates Castaway Fishing Guides and is a master tyer of all types of flies, particularly those mean greenies such as gar, pike, and muskies. His gar flies are unique in that he uses very specific materials and design - mostly icelandic sheep wool – for his minnow imitations and an improvised stinger hook tied with eighty pound spectra. One of three things would invariably happen with these flies. The gar would either get his teeth caught in the wool, get hooked in the narrow mandible with the tiny stinger treble, or their narrow and long snout would simply get lassoed and locked in by the gaps in thetrailing stinger. It was quite an effective system and the hookup and land ratio stood around fifty percent with these flies, an extremely acceptable average given the nature of the beast.

Our next fish was a bit larger and as we snapped a few quick shots it thrashed out of my hands and nicked my friend on the upper forehead near his hairline, causing an immediate laceration that poured blood over his face. It looked worse than it really was and within a few minutes the bleeding stopped. It seems this was an occupational hazard as this was not his first gar scar and he showed me several other lacerations on his legs and arms, some requiring stitches, that he called the badges of honour of a gar fishing guide.  This is not fishing, this is war.

The sun got hotter still, more pods of fish appeared, fish at ten o’clock, fish at eight,our fly lines suddenly swishing through the air like light sabres as we tried to reach the fish. More fish on the boat which was now covered in slime and reeked of gar, a smell so foul and rancid that the words to do it justice do not yet exist in the prolific lexicon of the English language. But we couldn’t care less as we were catching fish. More blood, more slime, more gar. We were surrounded by hundreds of prehistoric fish on a giant flat that we had all to ourselves. We hopped out of the boat and cooled off by wading the flats, catching several more fish before checking out another shallow back bay where some large fish had been spotted a few days earlier. Big on the Bay of Quinte here is real big each year there are credible sightings of six footers roaming the bay and the upper stretches of the Moira River whch runs through the center of town.

We motored past a rock island with a solitary tree covered with hundreds of raucous crows that perched ominously from the drooping branches like christmas ornaments from a Tim Burton movie. In the Autumn the duck-hunting was excellent here and several hunters would set up their blinds on the rocks and wait for the inevitable arrival of the migratory birds. On the other side of the island a large bay extended far beyond our vision and we pointed the nose of the boat directly towards the middle. A few moments later we cut the engine and lazily drifted into another endless shallow flat, scattering a few gar that shot away from the boat like arrows released from an underwater bowstring. It was a good sign and the further in we drift the concentrations of fish became thicker and the competition for our flies was fierce. A big fish gulped audibly somewhere out to the starboard side of the boat and suddenly rods are loaded and two lines are shooting out simultaneously to intersect its path. It takes a look at my fly, slashes once, missing its target and then dissappeared under the boat. Glen blindly released a short backcast, stripped twice and the fish exploded into the air a few feet from the boat. One quick run, two more jumps and it is boatside but still not very happy. As we attempt to unhook it with the pliers it slashes me in the arm as it convulsed angrily on the deck. More blood. Glen is laughing at me, his earlier scar having coagulated the hair to his forehead, making him look like an extra in a cheesy b-rated horror movie. Return of the apocalypse zombie gar guide. The heat, the gar, the blood – all are conspiring to make us fish crazy. Gar fever has set in. The war has begun and the fresh blood goes on my fly in a ritual that seals my brotherhood with the fish. We are no longer blind casting, now we are on the hunt for the big fish, focused on finding the enigmatic six footer that he saw earlier in the year, the one that can send us to the hospital. War has been declared.

It is late in the afternoon and both of us are now suffering from mild sun stroke and heat exhaustion, despite the gallons of fluids we have been consuming to keep us hydrated.  But there is no turning back and time has fallen of the clock.  We have blood on our hands and reek of gar. At the end of the bay we spot a large solitary fish sunning in a few inches of water. My first cast falls just ahead of it, strip once and - as if performing on cue  – the fish slashes at it and takes to the air like an Inter Continental Ballistic missile with a serious trajectory problem . It is big and takes a few stubborn runs before it can finally be subdued near the boat. It is almost four feet long and almost half of it is a mouth lined with hundreds of razor-sharp teeth. While not the fish we were looking for it was nevertheless worthy of being called a Jurassic gar. We snapped some quick photos, released the fish back into the water, and made a decision to call it a day. As we headed back to the marina at full tilt it felt like we were like the warriors of antiquity, returning from a year long war campaign, tired and broken yet victorious. We are brothers in arms, bonded in sweat and blood and gar slime.

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