Updated: Oct 28, 2022
By David Graham: 5/16/2022
For the passionate angler, there is nothing more rewarding than the realization of one's successful preparation. I can't think of a more fulfilling moment than when there is a successful catch at the end of all the research, course plotting, and gear prep.
In my opinion, the Alligator Gar represents the pinnacle of freshwater predatory fish in North America. This was a target I set sites on very early on when I learned of the species as a young teen. I find value in the unique challenge each individual species presents, and to the best of my abilities I've always wanted to tackle those challenges head on.
Unfortunately, the Alligator Gar is scarcely promoted as a sport fish - and was even less so back when I began my journey towards them. Tips and techniques for the species seem to be pretty generic and it seems widely accepted that finding an experienced guide for the species is the best option... and it may be. But, having made numerous successful trips by my own means, I want to highlight some of the information I think others may find handy if they intend to pursue the species on their own.
Where Do I Find Them?
The first thing to consider before setting course for a DIY Alligator Gar trip is knowing where you're going. While the Alligator Gar is found along the Gulf Coast regions of Texas, Louisiana, all the way over to the panhandle of Florida - there is no doubt that for sheer numbers and size, Texas is King.
Most river systems in East Texas will hold at least some Alligator Gar - Smaller coastal rivers like the Nueces, Guadalupe, San Bernard and San Jacinto rivers between Corpus Christi and Houston offer decent access for small watercraft and each have Alligator Gar. Larger river systems like the the Brazos and Trinity are especially well known for their wide range and particularly large Alligator Gar. Without exception though, the Trinity River is the absolute best option for numbers and quality sized Alligator Gar.
When Should I Go?
Spring and Summer months will offer the most productive gar bites. Alligator Gar become very lethargic during colder months - and will opt to remain mostly stationary in deeper bends and holes where their slow metabolism allows them to go without eating for extended periods of time.
Anglers seeking to travel to Central and East Texas regions for Alligator Gar should be aware that there is a flash flood season between April and September. A constant monitor of weather patterns should be done in preparation for a trip. East Texas river systems can become downright dangerous outside of being virtually unfishable when they hit flood stage. There are many sources of information for current and historical river level trends to review that breakdown water levels at specific stretches of river. USGS water data maps are available at the click of a button.
What Gear You Should Bring
Typically a DIY Alligator Gar trip will be more of a prolonged expedition or adventure. While the actual nature of the fishing at its core level is as simple as putting a chunk of cut bait on bottom.. getting to the point of actually having lines in the water is often times a lot of work. Traveling anglers need to be aware of the environment they will be in.
Prime Alligator Gar season is generally hot, like... REALY hot. Adequate heat resistant attire is a must. Anglers should come prepared to wear UV resistant clothing that will protect their skin from over exposure to intense sunlight. Clothing should be breathable material. Aside from the heat though is the almost inescapable mud. In areas like the Trinity, Brazos, or even the Red River further north along the Texas/Oklahoma border - the soil and sediment is like clay. A very fine granule soil that will find its way into and on top of almost everything - and sticks like glue. It is likely you will be changing clothes A LOT, and you should be warned that the stains from these soils may last for years, or never come out at all.
Appropriate footwear is a must as well. The terrain in most prime gar waters is generally muddy, or jagged rocks, thorny vines, and slippery slopes. There is very little egress or easily trekked bank space along East Texas river systems. The constant seasonal flooding means the banks along the waters edge are more like muddy 'bluff's where high waters have ripped the land away carving deep gorges through the earth. Flipflops or sandals are a terrible choice outside of the campsite. A good pair of weatherproof, all-terrain boots or hiking shoes would be a best fit.
I cannot stress enough the importance of staying weather ready. The most productive Alligator Gar water's are often the most remote. You may be miles from the nearest town to stock up on food or water, or hours from the nearest hospital in the event of an injury. Staying hydrated will be an around the clock task. Bring ample water, and water containers. When you think you have brought enough water storage, bring more!
There are a lot of environmental risks... slips, falls, biting and stinging insects and animals. The Alligator Gar itself is a large, muscular animal with sharp teeth, scales, and gill covers. They are physically capable of inflicting injury. It is wise to have some form of first-aid response kit available. I always suggest bringing dry bags, weatherproof trunks, and other storage that will keep the unpredictable weather (and predictable mud) off of your gear as well.
The actual terminal tackle and approach to Alligator Gar fishing is relatively simple. I typically use a 7 foot heavy/med-heavy boat rod style spinning outfit. The approach here will be entirely up to the angler though who may have a specific approach he/she wishes to use (fly gear/lures etc.)
I run up to 4 rods at a time, most recently using Penn Live Liner 8500 spinning reels spooled with 150lb braided line. A live-line option on a reel will allow an angler to place rods unattended along shore line covering a greater distance... and allows the gar to carry the bait.
I suggest using balsa pole floats that will serve as a visual indicator to play in the line, and direction a gar is carrying a bait. Anglers should be aware that many of the larger rivers prone to flooding have a great deal of timber on the bottom - and it is important to be able to track a gar moving towards snags.
Because of the sharp teeth and hide of the Alligator Gar - a nylon coated steel leader may aid with abrasion resistance, but a heavy Dacron leader can be sufficient enough while also being softer to the bite and less likely to alarm the fish into a dropped bait.
Historically, a large 2/0 or 3/0 treble hook as been used to up the odds of successfully penetrating the bony mouth of an Alligator Gar. More conservation minded approaches though would suggest using barbless J hooks as small as a 4/0.
While it may not be necessary, I have used electronic bite alarms on bank sticks for over a decade. This will allow multiple lines to be placed at a greater distance. When line is pulled through the guides of the alarms, an audible tone can be heard from hundreds of yards away, or directly to a handheld receiver kept near the angler. Cheap options are available all over Amazon from less than 100 dollars.
Landing an Alligator Gar is fraught with challenge and danger. They are capable of extreme bursts of energy and speed... The Alligator Gar hardly fits in the typical landing net, and presents a major danger in being controlled or handled bare handed. In most cases, literally lassoing the fish is the best option. A sturdy rope fixed as a noose will be an invaluable tool for landing the gar. Properly lassoing the fish is critical to its health and safety, and the noose should be fixed BEHIND the gar's pectoral fin 'pits', NOT behind the gill covers. Heavy duty plyers or other hook removing tools are a must, and wire cutters if necessary.
One suggestion - having a watercraft of some sort will dramatically increase the odds of finding and successfully catching an Alligator Gar. There is very limited bank access along the best stretches of prime gar real-estate... either because its largely private ranch land, or the bank is just nearly impossible to walk along. A kayak, canoe, small boat, or actual powered boat will take you a very long way in accessing the gar. For a river like the Trinity, there are really only a handful of decent public boat ramps to use - be sure to map out their locations ahead of time if using a boat. A canoe or kayak can be launched from virtually anywhere... but if embarking on a multi-day journey, a larger canoe may be best option for toating gear.
Maybe the biggest obstacle of all for a DIY gar trip, is being prepared to harvest bait. Aside from some fresh fish markets closer to the coast that may have fresh mullet on ice - you must be prepared to capture your own bait, or atleast contact connections you may have that can supply you with some. Fresh bait is absolutely key to a successful trip. The most common or accessible bait are rough-fish species like carp, buffalo, freshwater drum, striped mullet, or large gizzard shad.
You will need to come equipped with gear to catch carp/buffalo either in the form of a 6+ foot cast-net, rod and reel combos, or other means to harvest bait - and lay out a solid plan for where you're going to get it from. In East Texas, lakes and river systems that have a dam or spillway will often times have good concentrations of ideal bait species living in those tailwaters... because these areas often offer the most oxygenated food rich waters for miles - they are usually a magnet for bait species. Shallow rocky margins along spillways and dams are usually my first stop when searching for bait. If you're driving in from 'nearby' - it may be good to bring a supply of fresh bait on ice from any area near home you can confidently catch it! Coming in with a supply of bait will save a lot of time that could otherwise be used fishing for the gar. In the past, I would drive in from as far as Arkansas or Northeast Oklahoma with fresh carp/buffalo on ice.
Putting corn or 'range cubes' (cattle feed) out on bottom will generally get a bite out of carp and buffalo. If you can afford it, have enough corn or range cubes to pre-bait (chum) the area beforehand. You may be just as able to catch these forage species in the same waters you fish for the Alligator Gar. Something like rabbit feed will attract carp, buffalo, and big gizzard shad. In the past I have thrown it out near shore and then cast-netted on top of it later.
Keeping bait fresh is essential. Trophy sized gar do not like old stinky bait. Fresh bait is key, so having a cooler or cooler bag with ice is a must!
It's easy to just point at the Trinity River and say 'go!' but you need to know the areas on the river the fish favor. There are abundant alligator gar from Dallas all the way down to Houston and just about everywhere in-between on the Trinity. Your focus should be on finding access to deeper pools... whether you're in the Trinity, Brazos, Red River or anywhere else. Deeper holes that are more isolated, meaning between longer expansions of shallow water, will concentrate the gar - and their food sources into tighter areas. While the lack of water clarity in most East Texas river systems makes depths a bigger guessing game, a general rule of thumb is fishing near sharp bends. If you come during a period of high water, you're going to have a much more difficult time finding the fish.
Ideal locations to find good numbers of alligator gar is along isolated sharp bends. Don't necessarily find the areas of river that are twisting and turning all over the place, find longer stretches of river punctuated with an occasional sharp bend. Generally where there are sharp bends, the deeper water has been cut along the outside of the bend - the inside of the bend being a gentler sandy slope. I will typically lay my baits on the sloping shallower bank in about 5 feet of water. Sometimes putting baits as close as 10 feet from the shore. You do not need to launch your baits into the center of the river, even if that is where you see most of the fish rolling.
Below is an example of a great looking section of river. There is a very sharp U shaped bend. The shadowline of the outside of the horseshoe indicates a steep bluff and possible deep cut of water. The insides of the turns show exposed sandy bank indicative of sloping banks (circled in green). There is also a nearby feeder creek - usually the mouths of these small creeks hold a lot of baitfish, and are good potential zones to harvest bait or find Alligator Gar staged nearby. These estuary creeks are usually a washout point during higher water and will also generate a deeper pool where they blow out. Just south is a 90 degree turn in the river, another area to scope out.
Areas like this are where you'd want to pause... cut the engine and move in stealth. Observe the surface for 'rolling' gar where they may break the surface rolling for oxygen.
Just because gar are not rolling doesn't always mean they are not there. In especially deeper pools, they can lay on bottom for longer periods of time without rising.
Lake headwaters can be an ideal area to scout as well. Generally, there will be more access points at the headwaters of a larger lake... and this region affords Alligator Gar the opportunity to migrate into and out of the lake regularly. The example below is the headwater area of Lake Livingston. You can see numerous areas for riverfront lodging and campsites, roadside access, deep channels adjacent to shallower flats, and shark bends up river. A great starting point for an Alligator Gar expedition... but this is also the pressured area with higher boat traffic!
Whether it be by foot, canoe/kayak, or boat.... being willing to put in a little time and work makes the prospect of a DIY Alligator Gar expedition very realistic and can be done without breaking the bank. Remember to invest as much time in prospecting for bait as you will for targeting the actual gar. Bring appropriate clothing and stay hydrated!. Consider options for nearby lodging at campsites, hotels, Airbnb, or off grid camping. Setup to fish in areas in or near isolated pools of deeper water... and search for activity on the surface from rolling gar!