Did you ever wonder if a Gar or a Pike are the same species? Looking at them, they both have long, slender bodies, sharp teeth, and voracious appetites. But don’t let their looks fool you. They’re very different fish, with different origins, habitats, and fishing methods.
I’ve worked in Ontario’s fishing industry for nearly two decades, and have learned a lot about these amazing creatures. Let me share some of my insights with you!
History and Evolution of Pike and Gar
To understand how these fish are so different, we need to go back in time and look at their origins and adaptations.
Longnose Gar (Lepisosteus osseus), commonly known as “Garpike” or “Billy Gar”, is a ray-finned fish in the family Lepisosteidae. A family which contains 7 other surviving species of gars that have existed for over 240 million years. Little has changed for the species since the Jurassic period as they are some of the oldest living vertebrates native to North America.
Longnose Gars are also the most abundant and widely distributed member of the Gar Family. Longnose Gar ranges from the Mississippi River system northwest to Montana, through the Great Lakes (except Lake Superior), to the St. Lawrence watershed of Quebec. They can also be located in northern Mexico.
Meanwhile, Northern Pike (Esox lucius) are a species of Esocidae that evolved from the herring-salmon order of fishes during the mid-to-late Cretaceous period that emerged from modern-day Alberta, Canada roughly 80 million years ago before spreading to other parts of the Northern Hemisphere. They developed longer-narrower jaws making it difficult for other prey fish to view the Pike head-on and judge their distance.
Physical Differences Between Northern Pike and Longnose Gar?
Northern Pike and Longnose Gar have some similarities and differences in their physical features. These are the five main physical differences between them:
- Snout: Pike have a relatively short and broad snout, while longnose gar have a very long and narrow snout that is 18-20 times as long as it is wide from its narrowest point.
- Teeth: Northern pike have large, sharp teeth arranged in rows on their jaws and palatine bones. Longnose Gars have small, conical or cone-shaped teeth that are aligned in a single row on each side of their upper jaw.
- Scales: Pike have cycloid scales, which are thin and smooth to the touch. Longnose Gars have ganoid scales, which are thick and hard, that create a protective armour on their body.
- Spots: Northern Pike have light-white bean-shaped spots that run in a pattern like a chain link fence on their light greenish body. Longnose gar have dark spots on their dark green or olive-brown body, and the spots extend to their fins.
- Size: Northern Pike tend to grow larger and heavier up to 60 inches in length and weigh up to 55 lbs (25 kgs). The largest Longnose Gar recorded is 53.62 in (a little over 136 cm) and they can weigh up to 19.08 lbs (8.65 kg).
Behaviour and Ecology of Pike and Gar
Differences between the two species vary greatly with their unique adaptations to their environments. The 4 key differences between the Northern Pike and Longnose Gar are their hunting strategies and physical adaptations to the strategies as listed below.
Northern Pike are a sight predator. They prefer clear, shallow, vegetated waters, where they can ambush their prey. They can tolerate a wide range of temperatures and salinities. Pike can be found in freshwater lakes, rivers, streams, and brackish coastal areas.
Whereas, Longnose Gar inhabit slow-moving or stagnant waters like backwaters, swamps, bays, and lagoons. They are also highly adaptable and can tolerate a wide range of temperatures and salinities. Gars are less reliant on their sight compared to Pike, allowing them to withstand more turbid conditions and prefer warmer waters than them.
Pike breathes only through their gills, which are well-adapted to extract oxygen from the water.
Gars, however, are unique to many other freshwater fish since they have adapted to shallower warmer waters that become less oxygenated over the warm summer months. Gars developed an ability to breathe through their gills and their swim bladder like a lung; gulping the air at the water’s surface when needed.
Pike are voracious predators that feed on a variety of fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals. Because of their unique adaptation, they act like snakes and coil into an “S” before firing like a torpedo after their prey. Few fish species adopted this hunting style outside the Esox family with the Barracuda being one of the few exceptions. Regardless, Pike uses their sharp teeth and powerful jaws to seize and swallow their prey whole. They are usually active during the day, hunting by sight and smell.
Longnose Gar are also predators that feed mainly on fish, insects, and crustaceans. They use their long snout and needle-like teeth to impale and hold their prey, which they then toss and turn to swallow headfirst. They are active mostly at night and hunt by sight. Also, they sense movement and sound through their black lateral-line that runs the length of the body.
Northern pike spawn in early spring, when the water temperature reaches 4.5°C – 7.8°C (40°F – 46°F). They migrate to shallow, vegetated areas, where the females release eggs and the males fertilize them externally. The eggs are adhesive and stick to the plants, where they hatch in 14 – 21 days with water temperatures between 7.2°C – 18.9°C (45°F and 66°F). Male Pike will stay with the nest for up to a month but will not provide parental care, and may even eat their own offspring.
Longnose Gar spawn in late spring or early summer when the water temperature reaches about 20°C (68°F). They form spawning aggregations in shallow, weedy areas, where the males and females engage in a nuptial dance. The female is courted in shallow water by several males in a circling ritual with splashing and convulsive movements.
Female Gars release their eggs and the males fertilize them externally. These green eggs are toxic and coated with a sticky substance that attaches them to the plants, where they hatch in 3 – 9 days. The parents do not provide any parental care, and may also eat their offspring. Interestingly, the Longnose Gar larvae have an adhesive bridge on their snout and attach themselves to plants and other stable structures. They remain here mostly inactive for the next 10 – 11 days until they absorb their yolk sac and continue rapidly growing for the first year; reaching up to 22 inches in the season.
Where to Catch Northern Pike and Gar in Ontario?
As stated earlier in the article, Northern Pike are very common fish throughout the Northern Hemisphere. In essence, most bodies of water in Ontario are their home with some of the exceptions in Central Ontario. Yet, they are slowly expanding into that region according to the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry.
Meanwhile, Longnose Gars in Ontario largely exist in ancient bodies of water. They can be found South of the line from Sault Ste. Marie to Lake Temiskaming. Lake Nipissing is the most Northern range Longnose Gar inhabit in Ontario.
How To Catch Northern Pike
Northern Pike like Muskies inhabit similar areas of thick vegetation, drop-offs, and structures they can ambush from. Pike are aggressive and will strike about anything that flashes in front of them including:
- Rattle Traps
- Twitch Baits
There are many other types not listed, but they are dependent on the situation. Should water be more turbid, like the French River, some situations may call for baits that are noisier during the retrieve. Regardless, as long as something has a metallic flash to the bait it will mimic baitfish and excite the Northern Pike.
Another option is to use live bait like minnows as some anglers do during spring and fall fishing. Whatever you choose, make sure to use a steel leader as Pike and Muskie gills can cut fishing line.
How To Catch Longnose Gar
As stated earlier, Longnose Gars love dense weed beds and shallow water. Like Largemouth, backwater bays and swampy areas are prime locations for these fish. Yet, anglers rarely fish for Longnose Gar but the fish is known to be a wild fighter.
The most common way avid Gar anglers fish for them is to use unbraided nylon rope. While it’s unorthodox compared to other fishing methods the reason for this is the difficulty to hook the fish with standard hooks. Their jaws are tougher than most other freshwater gamefish, leaving anglers with normal hooks to catch them in the corners of their mouth through their cheeks. When the Gar bites the unbraided rope the loose fibers tangle around their needle-like teeth making it difficult for them to escape.
Other methods for Ontario Longnose Gar fishing include:
- Live Bait
Northern Pike and Longnose Gar may share similarities to each other. From sharing the same waters in Ontario, having hunting territories that can overlap, or even their long slender appearances and toothy grins. Yet, they are vastly different in their hunting strategies, evolutionary lineage, and even spawning methods.
As discussed, Pike adapted to dart through the waters like a torpedo hitting their mark. Meanwhile, Longnose Gars are living fossils stealthily hunting through thick vegetation; utilizing their long and hard snouts to feel for their prey before clamping down like a vice-grip.
Regardless of who you fish for, both are equally challenging and allow many Ontario’s anglers unique fishing experiences and memories to reel in.
Article by Joe Barefoot, M.B., Outdoor Writer of Canada and Nationally Published Author & Photographer