A fish that wears a suit of armor

July 1, 1993

A fish that wears a suit of armor

By Robert A. Hedeen, Naturalist

One day last summer while fishing in the Rock River near the Sportscore, I noticed a pair of large fish breaking the surface of the water in sort of an animated roll. Though I had not seen such activity before in the Rock, Sugar, or Kishwaukee rivers, I had witnessed it previously in other rivers in other times in a variety of locations. I immediately recognized the fish as being long-nose garfish, or garpike as they are sometimes called. Several species of garfish range from southern Quebec through eastern North America to Cuba and Costa Rica.

I had previously not thought of these strange fish existing in the Rock River or its tributaries, and none of the many anglers I have talked to along the waterways in this area ever mentioned encountering one of these living fossils. However, Elizabeth Mayock Muller’s 1992 publication, “The Fishes of Winnebago County,” lists the long-nose gar as a denizen of the Rock River.

Garfish are relics from the Age of Fishes that occurred some 400 million years ago. Fossil evidence clearly shows the garfish is one of the few forms of higher life that has managed to transcend the eons of time, survive the powerful forces of natural selection and evolution, and remain relatively unchanged today.

One thing the garfish has going for it is the armor-like covering of the body that protects it from predators. The tough outer shield is made of so-called ganoid scales that are very hard, polished, rhombic plates that fit tightly together. Resourceful pioneers used the fish’s outer suit of armor for a variety of purposes. Gar epidermis could be fitted around the lower legs for protection against snakebites, and it was also used to cover the burrowing parts of wooden plows. Indians used the scales for arrow points, and certain tribes in the Caribbean are reported to have used the armor as breastplates during battles with their enemies.

Another advantageous anatomical adaptation of garfish is a swim bladder that is richly supplied with blood vessels. This organ thusly functions as a primitive lung and can acquire and utilize atmospheric oxygen when a gar finds itself in a body of water depleted of, or low on dissolved oxygen. Gars are frequently seen breaking the surface of the water to gulp in a bit of the ozone when the cells of their bodies demand more oxygen. This supplemental means of respiration enables the garfish to survive in situations that are lethal to most other fish species.

Many fishermen detest the garfish. The elongated jaws have many sharp, needlelike teeth, and the fish may reach an overall length of five or six feet. It is a fish-feeder and, when abundant, can be quite destructive to populations of more popular species. Gars seem to have been born hungry as one observer reports a one-inch long fingerling in an aquarium greedily devoured 16 small minnows over a period of one hour. In the hill country of Texas, some individuals call the gar “snakefish” as they firmly believe it is a hybrid between a rattlesnake and a carp. The gar’s scaly body and coloration superficially resembles that of a rattler.

As garfish readily strike artificial lures and wage a long and determined battle, they qualify to be classified as game fish. As they are very difficult to hook, only a few fishermen seek the thrill of battling one of these brutes. The mouth is lined with hard bone that even the sharpest hook usually fails to penetrate. Anglers wise in the ways of the gar have successfully used nooses made of fine piano wire and baited with a minnow to catch them. I have a split fiberglass rod in my basement that resulted from an encounter with a large gar in a river in Maryland, but I enjoyed splitting it.

Not many people will admit to have eaten gar, and some erroneously believe the flesh is poisonous. There is evidence that the eggs of garfish are toxic if eaten by humans and other animals, but I doubt there is a great demand for garfish caviar. In my native Texas, gar smoked over oak chips for a day or two is an epicure’s delight. An old friend of mine from the “Cajun Country” of Louisiana gave me the following recipe for “Gar Boulet,” which is considered a delicacy in that part of the south.

From personal experience, I can attest to the excellence of Gar Boulet and gar smoked Texas style.

As with many other things in the natural world, don’t knock it until you have tried it.

Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of Maryland’s eastern shore and resided in the Chicago area from 1960-1971. He is a retired professor emeritus of biological sciences in the University of Maryland system. He has published more than 30 scientific papers, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on the natural history of the Chesapeake Bay.

‘Gar Boulet’ recipe

Boil fish until tender; you may want to add garlic as the smell of the fish may be strong;

Add salt and pepper while boiling.

After fish is tender, pick the meat from the bones and remove the gristle. The flakes of meat should be small.

Add flour and mix well to make the fish flakes stick together.

Add onion, bell pepper, celery, and any seasoning you desire. Mix well and roll into balls; place in skillet and panfry until done to taste.

Make roux (flour and oil) into a thick gravy. Add gar balls and simmer for 1-2 hours (do stir). Serve over rice.

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