January–February 2023

Minnesota Profile

Longnose Gar (Lepisosteus osseus) and Shortnose Gar (Lepisosteus platostomus)

These two predator species have a prehistoric pedigree.

Roy Heilman

Appearance. Minnesota is home to two distinct, toothy predator species with a prehistoric pedigree. Longnose and shortnose gar are easily recognized by their lengthy jaws, elongated and cylindrical bodies, and rearward dorsal fin position. 

Shortnose gar may have spots on their posterior fins and sides; longnose gar are apt to exhibit more and darker spots across a greater proportion of their body. When viewed from above, the snout of the longnose is proportionally longer and narrower. Gar have been present for over 100 million years, and today’s descendants retain ancient physical traits. One such trait is a swim bladder capable of absorbing oxygen from air gulped at the water’s surface. Another is their famously hard and impenetrable ganoid scales.

Habitat and Range. Longnose and shortnose gar are native to much of the central and eastern United States. They primarily occur in southern Minnesota’s larger rivers—the Mississippi, the St. Croix, the Minnesota—and some of their tributaries. Gar often utilize backwaters, oxbows, and areas of less current and can tolerate warmer, oxygen-starved environments with the help of their swim bladders.

Natural History. Gar spawn in weedy shallows as water temperatures rise above 67 degrees. Their green-colored eggs are toxic to crayfish, humans, and other animals while many fish species consume them with no ill effects. After hatching, young gar begin life feeding on mosquito larvae and other tiny invertebrates. Adults are largely solitary predators; their diets are primarily composed of fish. They are known for feeding heavily on young carp. Gar are opportunists and will also eat insects like mayflies and cicadas when abundant. They serve as host fish to several species of mussels, including the yellow sandshell, which is listed as endangered by the state. Gar historically have been maligned as “trash fish,” accused of eating up more desirable game species, but they are increasingly valued for their roles in maintaining a healthy balance within aquatic ecosystems.

Status. Relatively little is known about the status of gar in Minnesota. In 2022 the DNR’s Fisheries Research Unit began a comprehensive study to build a knowledge base and inform future gar management.

Angling. Gar are not often encountered by Minnesota anglers, due in part to a limited geographical distribution. The narrow, bony mouths of gar make them notoriously difficult to hook with traditional tackle; catches are frequently unintentional. Those who target them often wait to set the hook, allowing the fish to maneuver the bait into fleshier parts of its mouth. Bowfishing, which has grown in popularity in recent years, is thought to account for most gar harvest. The state’s largest shortnose, caught in the Minnesota River in 2017, measured 31 inches long. The state-record longnose, from the St. Croix in 1982, was 53 inches. Longnose and shortnose gar are classified as “rough fish” in Minnesota, with no closed season or limit. However, the state Legislature recently directed the DNR to establish bag limits, which are being developed through an expedited process.